31 December 2009

Solving the Last Problem: Schools and the TSA

Soon, if you are flying in America, you will be walking through the security arch naked while your underwear is scanned alongside your shoes.

This may have some social benefits. Americans will be forced to be less uptight about "sexual imagery" in advertising, in movies, on TV, if we get to see it all simply by purchasing a round trip ticket to Indianapolis. We might also see more dating resulting from casual travel encounters. And certain politicians might choose to fully fund Amtrak as an airline alternative after a lifetime of opposition.

But surely, it will not make anyone any safer.

Nor will shutting off airliner seatback GPS maps, taking blankets away from sleeping babies, or limiting restroom use.

Just as the x-raying of a couple of billion shoes since the "shoe bomber" got caught has not made anyone safer.

But that is not simply to say that the Obama Administration often seems no smarter than the Bush II Regime. It is also to note that the bizarre decision-making which often wrecks our schools is something which runs deep in our society.
"Call them Jihad Jockeys. These are the explosives-packed underpants worn by Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab when he tried to bring down a flight over Detroit - and managed only to set his crotch on fire. The frighty whities came with a special pouch sewn by al Qaeda's finest seamstresses. In it was a condom packed with 80 grams of PETN, a compound that's a key ingredient in the plastic explosive Semtex. The suicide bomber tried to set it off by using a hypodermic needle to inject it with a powerful acid, while trying to hide his actions by putting a blanket on his lap. The photos of the undies, obtained by ABC News, show they were only singed in Abdulmutallab's failed efforts to send the Airbus 380 careering to the ground. It was not immediately clear what the underpants were made of." - New York Post
We operate reactively in our "planning" for almost all things. At our airports we are working really hard to stop the 9/11 Hijackers, Richard Reid, and now Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab. We are so caught up in preventing those past actions that we are completely incapable of preventing some future attack.

We see this because nine years after 9/11 we haven't bothered to link our intelligence systems together in ways which might have blocked
Adbulmutallab's US Visa rights, or created a quick check of cash-paying airline passengers. Of course we haven't done this, we've been searching the shoes of grandmas and babies - millions of grandmas and babies - and that is expensive, time consuming work. Work which blocks the ability to do other work. Real work.

MSU Professor Yong Zhao on solving last generation's problems

We do the same things in schools, of course. As Yong Zhao points out, our entire school curriculum push right now is designed to help our students "catch up" with the Japanese students of 1970 who were producing excellent Datsuns while we struggled to produce Vegas. We put endless energy into preventing students from "cheating" on tests so worthless that the ability to cheat on them is actually more educationally relevant than the test answers are themselves. We adopt "zero tolerance" policies to prevent the last crisis at some other school. We use research studies completed five years ago, in an entirely different technological world, to plan for how our schools will work five years from now.

In a few hours we will be in the second decade of the 21st Century, this seems to be an excellent moment to consider that no one successfully plans for a future by being bound entirely by past experience. Whether we are making air travel safe or schools relevant, we will only do things of value if we place the future at the center of our thinking.

Because once we've pushed "the terrorists" beyond the underwear bomb, we need creative thinking to meet the next challenge. The answers will simply not be, A, B, C, D, or even, E.

Happy New Year - Ira Socol

17 December 2009

The Carnegie Unit

"Thus, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching encouraged the adoption of what came to be known as the Carnegie unit, which equates seat-time with learning. Each unit represented about 130 instructional hours. The Carnegie Foundation defined a unit as a course that met for a period each school day for about 50 to 55 minutes. The Carnegie unit continues to influence much that is crucial to teaching and learning in high schools–the length of the class period, the school day and the school year, as well as the time expended to receive a diploma." - StateUniversity.com

Does "time in seat" equal learning? Few have ever been sure, and I need to say, those who spurred the development of Carnegie Units between 1885 and 1915 were not sure.

Sitting in a chair and staring straight ahead is learning. The more we do do that, the more we learn. If that seems to be the underlying theory in your school, it is neither an accident of history nor a natural development. Rather, it is the result of a deliberate set of decisions made by business and educational leaders beginning about 120 years ago.

Back at the turn of the last century The Carnegie Foundation took standardization seriously. America's education system was already an oddly configured one, funded and operated locally - usually very locally - in often tiny school districts operating according to the cultural norms of wildly disparate population groups: America never quite embracing "nation" status within (a "single people") no matter how much "America" looked like an "idea" from abroad. As vast the differences which might lie between educational aspirations in Cornwall, Newcastle, and London (in England - which remained America's cultural model), or Bonn, Konigsberg, and Berlin (in Prussia - which was perceived as the model of modernity and efficiency), they paled beside the differences separating Salt Lake, Montgomery, and Boston - much less the thousands of miniscule towns hosting one-room schoolhouses across the vast North American continent.

Schoolhouses in Lincoln County, Kansas circa 1900

So for more than half a century, since the 1840s, the US had wrestled with the problem: They wanted the Prussian model - an efficient, universal, education system which would both knit a diverse "empire" together (as in historically separate and religiously diverse "Germany") and properly prepare the lower classes for compliant citizenship and labor - but - they lacked the central control authorities of European nations.

If schools were to develop American citizens and workers and, in Jefferson's theories, discover who was deserving of publicly funded advanced training, could all decisions really be left to local school boards?

"A bill for the more general diffusion of learning... proposed to divide every county into wards of five or six miles square;... to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools, who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects, to be completed at an University where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts." - Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:399

The first attempts to create standardization were, naturally, through education. Educational journals appeared - almost always containing at least one monthly study of Prussian methods - to disseminate "best practices." "Normal Schools" were established to train teachers in those "common norms" of instruction, behavior management, and content knowledge. Some states went further: by the late 1860s New York State already had standardized exams for secondary knowledge based in European models, though in most places curriculum remained a purely local decision.

Thus, defeating Jefferson, universities were left to find the "genius" through very imperfect methods - or through wealth and birth. Post-secondary institutions devised their own admissions tests or strategies for those available spaces not given to the children of wealth and power. Who deserved the ultimate in education? In an age increasingly dominated by complex technologies, in which nations competed in inventiveness and creativeness (think Marconi, Tesla, Wright, etc.), how would genius be uncovered, trained, encouraged?

At Harvard the issues began to be raised to a new level. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's President for 40 years (1869-1909), didn't think much of his institution's oral comprehensive admissions examinations. He also thought that education, like manufacturing, would benefit from standardization. Why might Student A, studying with Professor X, read twice as much as Student B, studying with Professor Y? How could either the newly appearing post-graduate schools, or employers, judge that?

So Eliot pioneered both the "contact hour" and the idea of "credit distribution." The former was seen as a way of proving work - work in America (outside of agricultural labor and women's piecework) was now routinely judged in hourly terms rather than accomplishment. The latter meant that students would be exposed to both the "classics" (which had dominated universities) and the contemporary mechanics and sciences (which had risen in importance since the appearance of the Land Grant College).

Michigan Agricultural College's "Laboratory Row" in 1912

And then, as now, industry and big business joined in. For business, consumed with standardization, industrialization, efficiency, and preparation of future workers, creating an effective training structure - replicated across the nation as, say, time zones had been, was essential. So, into the fray came the Carnegie Foundation, funded by the biggest businessman of them all, Andrew Carnegie.

That is not to say that all the goals of the Carnegie Foundation were evil. As in most things, there was a mix of limited world view and good intentions. The people surrounding Carnegie were envisioning a meritocracy based firmly in the Protestant work ethic. They saw themselves as creating a Horatio Alger-esque path to success through doing well in school via "objective" standards. Exactly the same motivations which lie behind No Child Left Behind legislation and much of the American charter schools movement.

A student in western Nebraska would, under the Carnegie formula, have the same four years of high school with essentially the same seat time on various subjects as a student in New York's leafy suburbs. A student studying chemistry at a university in Iowa would have the same four years of study with essentially the same seat time as a student studying chemistry at Harvard. It was all democratic and scientific. We would measure what was measurable.

A key Carnegie Foundation key report of the time, written by publishing executive Morris L. Cooke, was titled Academic and Industrial Efficiency, if we needed further evidence of the point. Education would be structured by time card. Education would be standardized. Education would be national.


The Carnegie Unit lives with us today - truly, nothing structural has changed in US education since 1910. We still measure academics via seat time. We count our credits - both at the secondary and post-secondary level - by hours spent "in instruction" on specified subjects. Does it cripple us? Does it truly block reform? Does it prevent interdisciplinary instruction or open schooling?

"The unit affects the very way that knowledge is organized for instructional purposes, discouraging interdisciplinary teaching because of the difficult question of deciding how many units to attribute to each discipline. Those who would organize and convey knowledge differently inveigh against the "tyranny" of the Carnegie unit, asserting that seat-time is not a proxy for learning and that secondary schools must be flexible to engage students and to heighten learning." StateUniversity.com

The Carnegie Unit is a tyrant, but its tyranny is felt through attitude, not really through force of law. We see the power of the Carnegie divisions of knowledge because that is all most of us know. There are lots of ways around this.

My tenth grade "English class" and my tenth grade "Social Studies class" were one internship with the late night radio guy on WVOX-AM. Two nights a week I'd walk over to the "K" building in New Rochelle, NY and head down to the basement studios. There, I'd spend for 2 or 3 or 4 hours with the crazy overnight news guy. We'd ride around in the station's Vista Cruiser looking for news, or sit at the tape machines editing interviews, or grab stuff off the AP and UPI teletype machines. What did I learn? I learned editing (though not in print). I learned writing (though orally). I learned how news was constructed. I learned how radio actually worked. I learned how politicians spoke, and what news readers did not report from those conversations. I learned the structure of my "home town" in a whole new way. It was powerful stuff.

And in the end I signed off on my hours - more than enough, and claimed the two Carnegie Units. Yes, I had to take Regents Exams to complete the credits, but that simply involved a couple of weeks of nonsense fact cramming. I passed both - barely - but who cared? But if I hadn't, the problem would have been the standardized test, not the Carnegie Unit. Students in my high school picked up biology Carnegie Units working in the hospital or the city greenhouse, math Carnegie Units working with surveyors or architects, English Carnegie Units reading on their own or writing for the school newspaper - often two or even 3 to a year-long project or independent study. Even the courses we had challenged the Carnegie structure while operating within it.

In other words, Carnegie Units are a bad idea in practice, but they are not the real problem. Our problem is our lack of imagination - and our unwillingness to take real risks in changing a broken system.

Kill NCLB, kill the standardized test, kill the Carnegian/Bushian/Obamaesque belief in all children learning at the same rate, and you will break the essential chains holding back education.

But the Carnegie Unit - yes, it is an unfortunate remnant of good intentions run amok - but it is also a very easy roadblock to walk around.

- Ira Socol

01 December 2009

Mythic America v. What Our Students Need

In the Sierras last Friday night, climbing out of California, it began to snow. By the time we moved through Emigrant Gap it was a storm. At Donner Summit it felt blizzardy, wind-whipped flakes piling on the pavement. Truckers stopped to put on chains and clanked up the pass trailing the posse of plows clearing the way.

It was a short evening trip to get us started on the way home - we'd head east from Reno in the morning rather than starting back in Mountain View - but it turned into one of those 'white knuckle' journeys at the beginning of this old "Overland Route."

There is something about the name "Donner," of course, which focuses the mind on a winter night.

I can't help thinking about history as I drive Interstate 80 between San Francisco Bay and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is the ruggedest of the rugged pioneer trails across the American West. It crosses unbelievably steep mountains, vast deserts, unending grasslands, the Salt Flats. It is fiercely hot and unbearably cold. And people walked it alongside primitive wagons. And people - using hand tools - built a railroad across it in the second half of the 19th Century. Cheyenne, Fort Bridger, the Platte River, Reno, the Mormon Trail - these are places which define America's myth of tough independence, this is the wilderness Americans fought through, and the nation hewn from "nothing" with strong, free hands.

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner produced his Frontier Thesis, in which he saw that in this individualistic belief in the conquest of "the west" was the definer of the American character. And yet... though those quoting him later missed the point, Turner knew these individuals were never alone, were never doing it "on their own":
"Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist."
The Donner Party was not one man, but a thinking, challenging, risk-taking group that came face-to-face with disaster and used their collaborative skills to find a solution.

In our classrooms today - in our society - we prize individual achievement. We see in each student the "Mountain Man" crossing the plains of grammar, facing the deserts of math equations, climbing through the rugged gaps of reading decoding, all independently. We view individual work, and all proving their worth in all the same skill sets, as the heart of our practice.

Yes, we do work together, but our goals in working together are individual. We take tests individually, we get graded individually, we don't accept the answer from Student "A" very often if Student "B" answers for him. Groups and collaborative efforts are addenda to raising the individual who can (get ready for the Americanisms here), "stand on her own two feet," "make his way in the world," "pull himself up by his bootstraps."

Now, individuals are wonderful, and I am a huge proponent of individualized education. But the cult of "individualism" - that mainly American and Australian disease of making oneself believe that they are successful on their own - is a huge problem for me.

Because we take the wrong lessons from our pioneers. Nobody did it alone. Nobody did it all themselves. And every group had people of differing abilities contributing differing things in differing ways. And, one might note, those first pioneers were sent out exploring by "big governments" who financed their way.

Lewis and Clark did not assemble their team because they all passed the same high school proficiency exam. Some could navigate, some could cipher, some could climb, some could write and draw, some could lift huge amounts, some could translate. Those who came after them not only built on the knowledge of those who came before, they brought their own assortments of skills, from reading the stars to cooking whatever could be found, from repairing wagons to sensing weather shifts. Meriwether Lewis didn't get flunked because he wasn't good at building canoes. Nor were other team members "left back" because they could not write. But alone, none of those people would have made it out of what is now Missouri.

So, damage from myth number one: Everyone must do the same things in school because we'll all be on our own when we "grow up." When we create one required skill set - our graduation cum NCLB "standards" - we make most, if not everyone, into a failure of some sort. But we should not be making failures, we should be finding ways to leverage every human talent.

Every explorer and every pioneer depended and depends on the tools crafted by those who came before them. Columbus did not invent the kind of ship he sailed in or the quadrant. John Fremont had dozens of maps on which to base his "pathfinding." Those travelling to the California gold fields did not build or design their Conestoga Wagons, make their weapons, or found the US forts which offered shelter at the start of the path. What makes human history amazing is our ability to build on the previous invention of our predecessors, and rarely can this be seen more clearly than in the spread of Europeans across two distant continents: it is a kind of evolution run wild. Verrazano's maps lead to Dutch explorers, fur traders lead to the need for farming, and roads. Farming and roads lead to the need for wagons suited to those roads. Bad roads lead to canals, canals lead to a new kind of boat, which brings farmers to new kinds of land, which requires new kind of plows, which requires new kind of factories which make those plows, which... It is a stunning story - a story based in the rapid adoption of new technologies no matter what the investment in the old. I passed Pony Express stations on this trip. The Pony Express was a brilliant solution to an immediate problem. It lasted less than two years before a better technological solution was found (telegraph wires).

Damage from myth number two: Humans all need to "go back to basics." Students can not deal with the technologies of their own time until they master the technology of the past. The problem here is that "the basics" are always "where the last generation began." Nobody teaches quill cutting anymore or filling a fountain pen, but "handwriting still matters." It is our obligation to give our students the world they have inherited, so they can move forward. Not the world you inherited, because we hope you have already moved forward.

The Spanish Government sent Columbus. Jefferson's Administration sent Lewis and Clark. Dewitt Clinton's New York State Government built the Erie Canal. Abraham Lincoln - the first really "big government" president - financed the Trans-Continental Railway, created the Homestead Act, and the Land Grant Colleges Act. US Administration after US Administration sent soldiers out to protect settlers and travellers, and built roads and canals, while publishing maps. In other words, our accomplishments are not those of individuals, but those of a society working together - building, exploring, educating together from the first forays into North America to the Moon Landing. The thing that matters most is creating a place where individual creativity flourishes and nurtures group learning and group action. On the Oregon coast Lewis and Clark took a vote - a vote which included a Black Slave and an Indian Woman. The Donner Party made the horrific - but essential - group decision to suspend conventional morality, to adopt situational ethics, in order to survive. Western towns banded together and enforced gun prohibitions to build their communities. Learning is not individual, action is rarely individual, both are part of the social construction which makes us human.

Damage from myth number three: Children who attend school sitting and working only or primarily individually will be ill-prepared to function in our society. If only individual goals are measured, our students will not learn to function effectively in the world as it really exists. Our classrooms must be about group learning, group dynamics, and group decision-making. Collaboration, the ability to make those around you better, the ability to allow those around you to make you better, is the essential human skill. The ability to effectively lead and to effectively follow, is critical, as is the ability to form groups for study and action, as is the ability to move effectively into new environments and the ability to welcome newcomers from unfamiliar environments. When these are not the priority in our schools, when they are not taught and modelled in our schools, we have failed our students.

Meriwether Lewis was constantly surprised. So were many pioneers. They looked around and were astonished. Imagine a thousand mile tall grass prairie broken only by cottonwood edged flat rivers. Imagine mountain ranges which dwarf the Alps in every dimension. Imagine a three or four day hike across a surface of pure salt, white and so flat it literally curves with the earth. Imagine a million buffalo rushing across a plain. Imagine meeting people with nothing culturally in common with yourself. Now move in and settle down.

The adaptive skills of our pioneers were remarkable. No wood? Build houses of sod. Grow crops in a salt earth? Carry dirt from the mountains and dig irrigation channels to move the snow melt. Develop new engineering methods, new bridge types, new forms of social organization, new clothing, new professions. It is that art of adaptation, as Frederick Jackson Turner saw, which truly created the identity of the young United States.

Damage from myth number four: "We are a conservative nation." Well, not when we are good. When we believe we are a conservative nation we idolize a past rather than celebrating it. Only someone with no actual understanding of American history could argue for "strict construction" views of the national constitution, or think that something is a good method simply because it was done in the past. If those who built our history thought that we'd still be a tiny nation clustered around the Atlantic Coast and our open hearth stoves. And so our students need to be honored for their adaptive capabilities, for their invention, for their challenges to the system. When we honor compliance and storing of old knowledge we tell our students they have abdicated their position of global leadership.

By the time we sat down to dinner in Council Bluffs, Iowa, not so far from where Abraham Lincoln selected the start point of the great Union Pacific Railway, not far from where the Mormon Exodus outfitted its wagons, I knew the history of America's rise lay not in individualism, but in the wonder of creative, adaptive, flexible, forward-looking, future-accepting, dynamic groups.

If I looked into your classroom today, is that what I would see in progress?

- Ira Socol

27 November 2009

Crossing America: An Education

Michigan is firmly in the US Midwest, but, despite the feelings of both Midwesterners and Northeasterners, the Midwest is firmly in the "East." No, not the "Euro East" of the New York Megalopolis, but a land Europeans would recognize, did recognize, and did settle in their own self-images: Green and scaled to towns separated by a day's walk, a place in which the works of God and the works of humans are clearly differentiated in form and color.

When you leave Michigan and head west, first entering "The Prairie" in Illinois, the world begins to change, and thus, so do the ways in which people see, hear, think, and learn.

For a long, long time I have been aware of Europe's great divide (a split which has come to define the 1840s-designed US education system), that is the split between Protestant and Catholic cultures. And I have known and understood Europe's other "thought divides" - Colonized States v. Imperial States, Places once within the Holy Roman Empire and those without. Places once within the Soviet Empire and those without - but despite much previous North American travel this month's journey began to help me understand why mass education fails so often in the US in ways I had not deeply considered before.

Educational "reformers" and administrators rarely consider environment as a prime issue in learning, consigning the idea to "primitive thought," "pre-rational thought," and "pre-scientific thought." After all, Mike Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee will tell you, there's only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow."

And the inherent "truth" of that creates one of the great fallacies of our current educational debate. Yes, there is only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow," but there are hundreds or thousands of ways to perceive both "2+2" and "tomorrow," and as many different ways to learn about both.

The world looks different if you grow up observing a place with the subtle colors of a desert or a place where all houses are the same color, or where houses may not have square corners. Where you can step out of your back door and observe the curvature of the earth on dry land, where the "neighbor" is five miles away.

The world looks different and so your learning is inherently different. If you grow up with ocean outside your door you know one set of facts. If you grow up on the desert, you know another. If you grow up in a valley it is easier to perceive the world as flat - if you grow up on a seacoast the roundness of the planet is obvious. If you grow up attending Mass at your choice of times, punctuality means something different than if the whole community gathers for worship at the exact same stroke of the clock each Sunday morning, and thus, time means something different.

If you grow up watching things grow from the earth and watching animals being born and dying you will approach learning differently than if you grow up in a sanitized suburban neighborhood where Trader Joe's is your impression of "natural foods." It is not just that your knowledge base will differ in these two childhood locales, but your filtering systems will as well, as well as your interaction with media. The suburban child can not have the same sensory experiences. The rural child will likely not have the representational dependence.

These children will be fundamentally different in their learning styles long before they get to school, even without the endless individual differences which define humanity. The notion that we can educate them by some mass production script is ridiculous. And this is not just true if we compare the Northeastern and Southwestern United States, but within states - say, Boron and Palo Alto, California, or within cities, say Mott Haven and the Upper East Side [pdf download] in Mike Bloomberg's New York City.

This matters in school. It matters in all communication. A wonderful professor from my undergraduate experience once told me that Americans were completely dangerous in Central Europe because they could not understand the importance of the old eastern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. Americans were blindsided by the collapse of both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia because they didn't even know what to look for. Robert Putnam, a brilliant Harvard professor, could write Making Democracy Work and completely miss the cultural learning differences born of this ancient boundary through the center of the Italian peninsula. This lack of appreciation of cultural and physical environment on the process of education makes our teachers and our political leaders look like fools. And it results in diplomatic and schoolroom disaster.

We know that our tastes in food and even our food allergies are being determined from a a point a couple of months prior to our birth. We know that children are born able to hear all the sounds of all the world's global languages but lose most of this before they are two-years-old. Yet somehow we think that where a child "comes from" should have no impact at all on how our classrooms function. And that seems counter-factual to me.

So next time you recommend a "global" solution in education, in your nation or in your classroom, consider if your "globe" is the same one your students know. And if it is the same globe for this student, or that student, or that student...

- Ira Socol

05 November 2009

The Colonialism of Michelle Rhee or TFA v BoA

The conversation was challenging. In a Critical Studies conversation we had wandered to Michelle Rhee, the head of Washington DC's schools, TFA and Joel Klein/Mike Bloomberg graduate, Time Magazine's favorite educational leader.

I said, as I have before, that I believe her policies are racist and colonialist. That she is a "reductionist" regarding minority children, wanting (as Teach for America and KIPP do) to give them only the basics, to refuse to offer them the kinds of education offered to middle class white kids.

Rhee's own words: '"People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."'

As I've said before, when I see this stuff in Scarsdale, NY, Greenwich, CT, River Forest, IL, etc, I'll accept that it's a good educational strategy.

But Cleo Cherryholmes, an educator par excellence, as we say, challenged me with the opposite tack. Impoverished minority kids need to learn "to be white" as Rhee insists. They must learn how to speak the English, and behave in the way, that will get them hired by, as Cleo said, "Goldman Sachs." Cleo is a pragmatist, he wants actions which can prove the theory.

"Wait," I said, "still colonialism, still the powdered wigs for Nigerians and Indians so they could become Brits." And, I added, "there's a counter-narrative, an anti-colonial narrative."

Bank of America (then Bank of Italy) was founded in San Francisco so that immigrant businesspeople did not have to learn perfect English or climb the Anglo power structure.

I called this, "The Bank of America Narrative." I was going to say, "The Black Panther Narrative," but I'm working on getting better at this politics thing.

The "Bank of America Narrative" is the way the Irish and Italian immigrants "became white" in America. Italian immigrants built their communities and their economic well-being by deliberately not "being white." Whether through various "mob" enterprises or through the Bank of America - founded as a place where those speaking Italian and functioning in "non-American" ways could still do business and succeed, Italians went their own route until they could join the American economy as equals. They even followed the lead of their Irish precursors in keeping their children away from the white, Protestant public schools - sending them instead to Catholic schools where priests and nuns spoke the way the community did.

The immigrant Irish refused to send their children to "white" public schools, to learn "white" ways of speaking, acting, and praying. They organized their communities and took power on their own terms.

As the Irish had refused to become Protestant or give up their accents (see any NYPD officer circa 1945, 100 years after the great migration began), the Italians did the same. Unlike the Irish the Italians were more business oriented, while the Irish had seized control of big city politics and government jobs, Italians built a huge array of commercial enterprises, but the effect was the same. They were recognized as "white" when they could buy their way into the American society. They didn't want to be "hired by Goldman Sachs," rather they built Bank of America and became police commissioners and mayors across the nation.

This is the opposite of the African-American experience in the United States. African-Americans have always sent their children to white controlled schools. Integration just made that more so. A mass of Black children dropped into completely unchanging, non-adaptive, schools designed for and around white Protestant children - judged by white teachers and administrators, and almost always judged as inferior because they were not "white enough."

This is Gramsci's "Cultural Hegemony" at work. African-Americans can only succeed in education by becoming "as white" as possible. Of course this is also British Imperialism, Indians, Irish, Nigerians, South Africans, Malaysians trying desperately to be "white enough" for full British citizenship, but always, obviously, falling short in this impossible task. It is this very form of integration that the Irish and Italian immigrants to America refused to engage in. And, at least in one place, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, true, culturally connected African-American-controlled education has demonstrated its success as well.

Yet the prevailing wisdom today is that African-American and other troubled minorities can only climb the American success ladder by being second-class whites: by letting whites set the bar in all things - in speech, in literature, in governance-style, in social mores. Michelle Rhee believes it. Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg believe it. Paul Vallas believes it. Arne Duncan believes it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are black leaders who believe it as well. But, my Gramscian thought, is that you can only believe this if you believe that Black culture is inherently and historically inferior. And I don't believe that.

"The counter-narrative matters," I told Cleo, who smiled, as he does when he thinks we have argued well, because so many today insist there is only one way for minority groups to succeed. It is important because African-Americans, even African-American leaders, have forgotten the message of the Black Panthers, who insisted on self-help and self-defense, pride, belief in possibility, community organizing, and community intradependence.

This counter-narrative suggests that we need not force minority students to learn to march and chant (KIPP), we need not "just" give them white role models to copy (Teach for America), we need not deny them the creative education all children deserve (Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan). Rather, we can help them take control of their communities and their lives within the context of their own culture.

Which is what I had to say about why I call Michelle Rhee a racist.

And then we went back to discussing Pedagogical Pleasures, which was far more entertaining.

- Ira Socol

04 November 2009

Text-To-Speech to Build Literacy from the Start

At ATIA 2009 in Chicago I presented my argument for using Text-To-Speech systems from the start of literacy education.

Sure, the favorite (most tweeted) quote was, "if phonics worked it would be spelled differently," but the focus was on strategies which work - on using Text-To-Speech to help bridge the issues of differential home/parental literacy skills, and using TTS to offer access to content before decoding can take over, on using TTS to improve sight-word recognition and new vocabulary acquisition, and perhaps most importantly, using TTS to prove to kids that there is value in books, that there is value in reading, by giving them a chance to get to what's inside the books.

Because reading should not be a school skill. It should not be a task. Reading is learning to take in information and process it for our own use - something schools rarely show students.

Anyway, thanks to the folks from WYNN who helped out (and gave away a software package as a prize!), and thanks to Karen Janowski for coming to visit!

- Ira Socol

26 October 2009

Twitter as [Teacher] Liberation Technology

based on my recent presentation at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) 2009 Midwest Conference at Kent State University...

If, as Foucault says, power is “neither given, nor exchanged, nor recovered, but rather exercised, and that it only exists in action" (Kelly 1994), then the powerlessness of many teachers in relation to their own professional development may be seen as a consequence of inaction – or more specifically – of the lack of a conceptual space which allows them freedom to act.

Foucault saw that the important thing to watch were the moves people make in what I call the "transaction space" between them (with all due thanks to Fendler 2010 for getting me to see this). But I think Gramsci helps me by letting me see the forces which "shape" that space - creating the rules of the game.

Teachers, throughout the world, work in fairly to completely isolated circumstances. Distance between schools and between schools and teacher-training universities, the required time to connect with other teachers or mentors, the issue of getting needed support/scaffolding ‘as needed,’ all create major impediments to ongoing and effective teacher training. And these problems create issues of teacher persistence, retention, and improvement throughout developing nations (Leach, Ahmed, Makalima, and Power 2005), and, without a doubt, in many developed nations as well.

The isolated teacher, locked in his/her classroom, limited to peer interaction during ever briefer lunch periods in even the largest schools (limited by lack of other teachers in smaller schools), finds themselves unable to find support for their professional development. The structure of their time, and the structure of their culture and national education system, limits the information flow - and thus the confidence experience - needed to challenge and doubt the apparent rules.

Information and Communication

Across all of our societies systems of information and communication can either be coercive or liberating. In education, and in teacher education, the systems used have tended toward the coercive: taught degrees with grades based in specific forms for content and delivery; discourse controlled by class-time and semester time schedules as well as by instructor and peer pressure; an emphasis in teacher preparation on classroom management strategies; administratively designed on-going professional development often based in political narratives; nationally-determined standards distributed as directives. All of these structures coerce certain behaviors from teachers and limit their opportunities to control the pedagogy within their own classrooms.

Since I joined Twitter in 2007 I have been participating in and observing a global network of teachers on the “real time” social networking system Twitter. Twitter is referred to as “real time” because “Tweets” appear in a continuous timed stream, and it is obviously a “social networking” system in that it tends to bring together affinity groups on-line. But unlike systems such as Facebook it does not require mutual “friending” to establish contact. Unless a user locks down his or her account, anyone can follow what that user is saying. Unlike professional social sites like Linked-In, no “credentials” need be established. But Twitter does allow groups to form – both permanently through mutual “follows” and temporarily through “hash tags” which connect a specific conversation. There is clearly a powerful attraction system here, as those who stick with Twitter long enough to discover their affinity groups are drawn into an ever widening orbit of global contact.

What I have watched - in action - is teachers from many nations now given the ability to form their own liberated learning network, sharing resources, ideas, frustrations, problems, research, even lesson plans without official filters, without limits constructed by others. And thus what I have watched is teachers from around the world finding that they are able to change the rules, to make different "plays," within the transaction space which defines their teaching practice.

Meeting, observing, even psychologically supported by this new affinity group, they have broken free from a thousand imagined and understood constraints, and are now able to utilize their own power.

Gramsci, Foucault, and Power Theory

In Gramscian terms, the power of SMS-length social networking is allowing strengthened bonds in the resistance to the status quo, it is allowing power within the structure of education to be utilized and focused in new ways. I am building here on the research in teacher support in sub-Saharan Africa produced by the DEEP Project at the Open University (UK), and a long conversation with the OU's Tom Power in the dining hall at Trinity College at CAL'07. There project gave teachers social networking tools (through SMS) and saw dramatic improvements in teachers' self-perceptions -and in their persistence and retention, even in completely isolated environments such as Western Cape Province. Now, an even free-er form of social networking, Twitter, with its minimal entry requirements and phone-based capabilities, is offering teachers a path to individual power through global organizing which provides not just knowledge but emotional and tactical support in the pursuit of effective educational change (Gramsci 1971, Shirky 2008, Open University 2005).

Foucault, in Chapter 2 of The Order of Things, talked about the powerful differences in similarities. "Convenience" - the proximity similarity, is often what binds teachers together. They share a workplace or an employer. Of course, if all in a group share the same constraints on action, those constraints tend to become invisible - they come "naturalized." But another form of Foucauldian similarity is "emulation." In emulation the similarity builds because we recognize a reflection. On Twitter, I will argue, we are freed from convenience similarity, and free to search for reflections which appear - in some way - familiar. We are free to find emulations. Teachers, in this case, with similar frustrations with the game as it is played. And that leads us to the possibility of Foucault's other two similarities: Analogy, our ability to recognize similar functions even if the form differs (a steering wheel, a horse's reins), and sympathy, the connection based on how we are affected by actions.

These shifts bring us back to Gramsci. Gramsci was not a traditional Marxist who sees power as one-directional and history as inevitable. Gramsci understood that power exists, and we either exercise it or not. In Peter Høeg's novel of inclusive education Borderliners one character describes a fantasy of potential power made real. He imagines a whole classroom of primary pupils working the tiny blades out of their pencil sharpeners and ganging up to kill the teacher through a thousand small cuts. Gruesome, yes, but a perfect demonstration of the powers which typically lie dormant in schools.

As I have watched Twitter (you can see a few representative Tweets in the PowerPoint above), I have watched this shift from potential to exercised power as teachers connect and free themselves from the "rules of the game" in their personal educational transaction spaces. With newly available observations of actions which have not been experienced before, which have bypassed the systems in which they operate, they are liberated to see things in new ways, to understand things in broader ways, and, essentially, to act in ways previously unforeseen.

It is powerful stuff. And it may indeed portend some radical changes in how education occurs, and how it is controlled.

- Ira Socol

Fendler, L. (2010) Michel Foucault. Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Kelly, M. (ed) (1994). Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought). MIT Press.

Leach, J., Ahmed, A., Makalima, S., and Power, T. (2005). DEEP Impact: An Investigation of the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Teacher Education in the Global South. Open University.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin.

14 October 2009

Are You Dumber Than A First Grader?

Are you dumber than a first grader? This woman is

or, at least, she and her school board claim to be.

No, I'm sorry, after meeting Tuesday night the board and administration of Delaware's Christina School District decided that they were capable of considering the actions, motivations, and needs of five and six-year-old children - it is just anyone age seven-and-up that Dr. Marcia V. Lyles and crew can not figure out how to handle.

The Christina School District is the latest poster child for the need to wipe the entire idea of "Zero Tolerance" from our school vocabulary. They became this when they "zero tolerated" a first grader who had an awful lapse in judgment and brought an eating utensil to school to eat lunch with. Yes, zero tolerance policies make it easy on third-rate administrators like Lyles, and failed policy makers like the Christina board. They don't have to think, they don't have to consider, they don't have to make decisions or defend those decisions. Hell, with policies like this they don't even have to actually talk to children.

A Twitter friend wrote this morning, trying to consider why school board's adopt these kinds of policies, "We don't want to be discriminatory or irrational. Therefore, rules are enforced to promote equality." And while I understand the desire to not be discriminatory, or to be seen as discriminatory ("you only suspend black kids"), I struggle with the notion of promoting equality.

Does equal treatment really promote equality?

A few years ago, on TV-Land, I watched the pilot episode of The Andy Griffith Show. This was actually an episode of Danny Thomas's sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and in this "spinoff pilot" Danny and New York family are driving south to Florida when they are stopped for speeding in Mayberry (ah, life before interstates). Danny gets all huffy and doesn't want to pay the fine. He gets especially outraged when Andy fines him $100 after fining another motorist $5 for doing the same thing. "That's not fair!" Danny thunders.

And Andy tells him that $5 is a great deal of money to the man he fined $5. But $5 means nothing to Danny. And so it would not be fair if the fines were equal.

Just as today, one speeding ticket, with various state surcharges and the resulting rise in car insurance premiums can literally end up destroying a poor person's life (loss of ability to feed family that week, loss of ability to register car, thus loss of job), while the rich state legislators who determine these fines pay the charge without a care in the world.

Equal treatment resulting in gross inequality.

I'm sorry, if you can not see that. If you can not judge how best to apply the law - or the rules - you have no business being a police officer, a judge, a teacher, a principal/headmaster/headteacher, a school superintendent, or a school board member.

Consider "zero tolerance" in your world. Everyone who jaywalks is ticketed. You run into the street chasing your toddler - get a ticket. Everyone who ever exceeds the speed limit gets a ticket. You go 36 mph in a 35 mph zone on your way to the Emergency Room and you pay a $100 fine. Everyone who makes a mistake at work gets laid off for 45 days (the Christina Schools' policy re: students). Sorry you forgot to file that report correctly. You can't pay the mortgage this month. Never a mitigating circumstance. Never a consideration for humanity. Never room for an honest mistake. Seems like a very unpleasant world to live in.

But yes, it would make life easier for the likes of Dr. Lyles.

Well, I've been a police officer and I teach, and I have never had "zero tolerance" policies. Everyone you run across represents a different situation and a different set of human conditions. To treat all the same - in every situation - is both gross injustice and the height of inequality.

And we simply can not let people that lazy, or - to express my honest opinion - that stupid, be in charge of laws, school rules, school assignments, etc.

In my classes I will often get an email like this: "I'm sorry I didn't get the assignment in on time, I had a family emergency and had to drive to Ohio over the weekend and..." A "zero tolerance" person would give them an F for the assignment. I say instead, "I hope everything is all right. Please get it to me when you can." And then I add, because these students are now or will be teachers, "Please do the same for your own students."

Because we are humans. And humans are supposed to be tolerant.

- Ira Socol

09 October 2009

SpaceFish and the Primary Crowdsource

What place does social media have in the classroom?

What place does a teacher saying, "I don't know" have in the classroom?

What place does a teacher suggesting that we "ask the mob" to answer that unanswered question have in the classroom?

Welcome to "The SpaceFish Project"

Let's start here - with this Tweet from a class Twitter account at Colinton Primary School in Edinburgh, Scotland: "What would happen if you took a fish into space, would it float out of the water? Please help us with the answer because we don't know! (JG)6:53 AM Oct 8th from web" The teacher had allowed the children to crowdsource the issue. Put it "out there." See what they could discover.

It was quickly re-tweeted by someone in my network: "@tombarrett What would happen if you took a fish into space, would it float out of the water? Do you know of anyone that can help? (FB)7:12 AM Oct 8th from web in reply to tombarrett" and I and others attempted answers (mostly incorrect). But then I, intrigued, used a combination of my social networks to help find an answer.

I have an old friend who is a director at the New York Hall of Science. And we've worked on a few things together, and I've gotten to sort of know some of his staff - some of whom maintain the museum's public place on Twitter. So I re-sent this Tweet, linking it specifically to @nysci.

Very quickly we had answers, and links to the behavior of water (if not specifically fish) in zero gravity and in vacuums.

And soon we had the possibility of American scientists dropping - via web-video technology - into a tiny Scottish primary school to talk to the students about science and space.

Now, where would these students have been in the old days? Where would they have been if the teacher had dismissed this as "a silly question," or had attempted to answer it based on our typically limited knowledge of non-terrestrial sciences? Where would they have been if the teacher had been afraid to break through the walls of her classroom, and offer her students access to this century's knowledge web?

Well, they probably wouldn't be incredibly excited about science, space, or coming to school next week.

People ask me all the time if I'm "kidding" about wanting social networking tools in primary grades, and 1:1 computing, and mobile technologies. They simply can not imagine the value. In their primary classrooms the teachers talked, the kids listened, and this is what they know of education.

But at Colinton Primary School they have a better idea. And their kids are better off for it. What's going on in your kids' school?

- Ira Socol

08 October 2009

Side Effects

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010.

I'm not saying Duncan murdered anyone. I'm not Rush Limbaugh. But I am saying that Albert was a victim of the side effects of Renaissance 2010 and Duncan's theories of urban education reform, just as a person who dies during a clinical drug trial has been killed by that drug.

Derrion Albert went to school in an a violent, gang-ridden neighborhood. And Derrion Albert went to a school which had been merged with another school after his neighborhood school had been closed because it was "failing" and reconstructed as a "magnet academy." This was our current Secretary of Education's "cure" for Chicago's Public Schools when he was in charge there. Thus Derrion, like tens of thousands of Chicago students, had to cross neighborhood lines and gang turf areas to get to and from school each day. He also had to attend a school filled with these kinds of turf battles. And like far too many of Chicago's students (it is now a national issue), he died as a result.

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010.

The Schools Matter blog deals with all this in detail, and let's be clear that Duncan - just like a pharmaceutical corporation caught in the same situation - calls this charge "ridiculous," but facts are stubborn things, and educational leaders must stop their constant promotion of faux "gold standard" "medical model" school research unless they are willing to take on the attendant responsibility.

Social Science research rarely worries about side effects. And educational reforms never seem to come with those package warnings that drugs have, and this is why the entire research model hustled by the U.S. Department of Education and American Educational Research Association is dangerous, unethical, and nonsensical.

Oh sure, we understand that model - so sadly assembled in the book Scientific Research in Education - is fraudulent in every way. You can't mimic medical research without a double-blind procedure system - which is impossible in schools. But beyond that, you simply can not claim to be conducting scientific research on anything unless you are willing to consider the spectrum of results.

So, when Arne Duncan closed "failing" high schools in poor neighborhoods, he had an ethical responsibility - as a leader, as a researcher, as a human, to try to minimize the potential side-effect harm of his "cure." Merging neighborhood schools is tough everywhere, it is especially tough when you are crossing gang boundaries in a violent urban neighborhood. So, just as the maker of a new, say, flu vaccine, is ethically obligated to try to make sure he/she doesn't accidentally kill a bunch of people while saving others, so Arne Duncan was obligated to consider the risks, publish the risks, and mitigate the risks of his plan to "save" Chicago's high schools.

So, was this Duncan's Vioxx moment or his Tuskegee moment? Was he arrogant, careless, and pursuing personal gain at the expense of being cautious with children's lives or, was this a calculated opportunity to test his theories on the powerless?

"Community-based schools are what everybody strives for in the United States and they are disappearing, and that’s a sad thing," said someone in rural West Virginia in a New York Times article about school consolidation there. '"You have a trail of blood and tears ever since they launched (Renaissance 2010)," said Tio Hardiman, director of the anti-violence organization CeaseFire Illinois. "There's a history of violence associated with moving kids from one area to another,"' says the School Matters blog. In other words, the dangers are known, and a responsible person does not conduct a mass experiment like this without considering, publishing, and attempting to mitigate the risks/dangers.

Did he rush forward because of an arrogant belief in his own science? Or his desperation for personal political capital? Or did he simply think these poor Black kids were the ones to experiment on?

We probably won't ever know. I didn't hear Eric Holder suggest an investigation of his fellow cabinet member yesterday in Chicago.

But we do know that this is a constant disaster in educational research - and in educational practice. We "academize" kindergarten and first grade and kids can't do basic science any more. We devote extra hours to reading instruction and kids get fat. We tighten standards and more kids must be labeled disabled. We drill certain reading sub-skills and teach young kids to hate books. We insist on college prep curriculum and make a huge percentage of kids miserable. We adopt zero tolerance policies and throw the kids who need school the most out on the street.

So, if Arne Duncan's Renaissance 2010 was "gold standard" "medical model" research his plan would have been "pulled off the shelves" a year ago due to disastrous side effects. There'd be Congressional investigations and massive lawsuits. But it hasn't been. Which proves the point:

"Scientific Research in Education" is a lie. "Evidence-based Practice" is always based on insufficient evidence. And we need a new research paradigm to help us move forward and to protect our children.

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010. And we must insist that "reformers" find ways to do less damage in the future.

- Ira Socol

05 October 2009

The Bookburners

Last week was "Banned Books Week" - a celebration of the nonsense of censorship. But unfortunately it is Banned Books Year is most schools most of the time, as administrators, teachers, even some librarians seek to block access to information on a daily basis.

Last week a Twitter Pal told me, "You should have seen our district's librarians cheering because they got Wikipedia blocked." To which I responded, "You should have walked into each library, grabbed all those World Books and Britannicas, and set fire to them in the parking lot. Same thing."

Yes, it is the same thing.

Too many people thing book burning is about vandalism and destruction, as if what is important about a book is its physical form. But despite the emotional ties to the feel of paper and the smell of ink, that is not what books are about. Books are about the ideas, the words, the rhythms contained within. And book burning is about censoring those ideas, words, and rhythms. Hitler really didn't expect the books he burned to vanish from the earth, he wanted to make sure those under his control did not read them. This is why web filtering is book burning. The goal is to use your power to prevent those you control from accessing information.

Throughout history people have rationalised this kind of violence. Oppressors have often claimed to be "protecting" people from dangerous ideas and misinformation, or from "inappropriate" information (in 2000 the American Family Association objected to the Holland, MI public library allowing patrons to see the Catholic Information Center's website because it might "confuse" people). "Wrong" translations of The Bible have been banned or burned, so have books from Ulysses to The Origin Of Species. I'm quite sure there were more than a few British bureaucrats who'd have liked to burn Common Sense in 1775-1776.

Traveling with the Book People, a project inspired by Fahrenheit 451.

But ideas are stubborn things, and humans like to preserve our stories. Fahrenheit 451's Book People are a classic (fictional) example of this. We should not burn, nor should we filter. Our responsibility as educators - if we are educators and not enforcers - is to help frame difficult information, to present it within context, to discuss, to challenge. Censorship, book burning, filtering - this is the stuff of tyrants who cannot defend their own points of view if challenged.

So please - let's follow up "Banned Books Week" with "Banned Sites Year" - a commitment to replacing filtering with education and intelligent conversation. A year of committing to working with our students to help them figure out for themselves the value of the information in front of them.

Stop your book burning, and start teaching instead.

- Ira Socol

Teaching on Controversial Issues by Alan Shapiro
Teaching Critical Thinking by Alan Shapiro
Bud-the-Teacher's response to site blocking requests.

03 October 2009

Transactional Disability Part II - The Personal

Today was a busy day on the Michigan State University campus. The "biggest" event was a football game (the American padded variety of football, where the ball is in play 13 minutes total) between Michigan State - whose most famous moment on "the gridiron" remains a 10-10 draw in 1966 - and the University of Michigan - a team best known for its rule and contract-breaking head coach.

We can laugh, but it is important to note that in a state so bankrupt it cannot afford to keep state offices open, and in a state with the highest public university tuitions on the planet, these two teams have spent more than a billion dollars in facilities upgrades these past few years. A billion dollars, or, eight times the amount needed to save promised "Promise" scholarships for Michigan university students.

So we know where our priorities are.

The big event for me was something different. I had signed up for a one-day Continental Philosophy Workshop - Technology, Time, and the Political: Modernity and Memory from Heidegger to Stiegler. A workshop important to both my Critical Studies Reading Group and to my dissertation topic.

But today I was too disabled to attend the conference, though I drove 90 miles to campus for it (and, of course, 90 miles back).

Now, my physical condition has not changed since I was on campus on Thursday, but the "transaction space" had changed dramatically.

I arrived well in advance of the Conference's start time having been told, "Please use the Kellogg Center parking structure on Harrison and mention to the attendant that you attend the MSU philosophy workshop." But at the parking structure a hotel manager named Geoff Parkerson stopped me, telling me there was no space left for those attending the conference. He was letting cars in, but apparently a disabled grad student has no pull equal to guys wearing MSU football jerseys and driving Cadillac Escalades. Parking was in very short supply because MSU had turned over a large number of spaces to "tailgating" - drunk folks shouted down from their party tents as I sat there in my car, phoning both the Kellogg Center staff and the campus police, seeking a place that I could park and walk from.

Here's where this becomes a disability issue, and perhaps, an actual "federal case" (we'll see):

If I could walk "normally" I could have easily parked a bit more than a half mile away and walked. But because I cannot do that, MSU's arrangements for parking on this day prevented me from attending an important academic event. In other words, their parking arrangements and plans altered the "transaction space" in a way which crippled me - which prevented me from attending this conference in ways that other more "able-bodied" students could have.

Are there dozens of ways MSU could have easily solved this? Of course, from reserving spaces there to having remote spaces and shuttles - this is easy if the university cared at all. Could Mr. Parkerson have been polite and helpful instead of rude and clueless? No doubt. Might the university - one of the world's largest research institutions - have wanted to demonstrate that two events could happen on its campus on the same day? I would have thought so. But that's all besides the point.

The issue is that deliberately or through negligence, through ignorance or a lack of employee training, Michigan State University altered the way I interact with the campus in a way which turned my physical condition into a disability. The university altered the transaction in a way which prevented me from accessing my educational needs.

Schools do this all the time. Today was just very personal.

I drove the 90 miles back home. I'll write my letter to the university president, and perhaps my complaint to the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights before the weekend is out.

I have to complain, or next week they may do the same thing to someone else.

- Ira Socol