Teacher in a Strange Land

The following was written by vet­eran educator Nancy Flanagan, who takes a look at the issue of the “status quo.” This appeared on her Education Week Teacher blog, “Teacher in a Strange Land.” She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She is now an author and consultant.

By Nancy Flanagan

Take a look at this brief clip of Davis Guggenheim, speaking to what must have been one of hundreds of audiences about the heartbreaking failure of public schools, and oh, coincidentally, some film he’s flacking. A woman in his audience asks how we can get rid of teacher unions–a logical question, since the theoretical framework of “ Waiting for Superman ” is that Unions Protect Bad Teachers Who Ruin Children’s Lives.

Guggenheim hesitates–then says that not all unions are bad. His union, for example, the Directors Guild, protects his important creative rights and his compensation. Growing more enthusiastic, he declares that the reason that teachers’ unions are bad is because they “make policy.” End of clip.

Perfect. Unions that protect the creative rights of rich people (through contractual policy), justified. Unions that protect the due process rights of teachers and aim to improve working conditions in those failing schools–greedy and damaging. And who says so? That well-known expert on labor and education policy, Davis Guggenheim.

Earlier this month another well-known expert on education policy, Bill Gates, was interviewed by NPR (also one of hundreds of media audiences eager for his wisdom) on the subject of class size. The interviewer asks Gates about schools where classrooms are packed with 35 to 40 children–how can that be acceptable? Gates says 40 is too many. But putting 30+ kids in front of a “excellent teacher?” Well, that could be one way to save money and improve education at the same time. Problem solved!

What makes Bill Gates an expert on education policy? Money, evidently. Every nonprofit, university–and union–in the country that needs Gates Foundation money is now willing say that he’s an expert. What I would like to do here is raise my hand and offer Mr. Gates my own considerable and real expertise on the issue of class size. What makes me an expert?

Well, in addition to 30 years of classroom experience, two degrees, National Board Certification and an array of teaching awards, I am certainly the only Education Week Teacher blogger whose average class size hovered around 65 kids. Middle school kids, no less.

As an instrumental music teacher, I commonly handled 70+ students per hour, and one year (a year I do not remember fondly), had 93 students in my first hour Symphonic Band. That’s right, 93 8th graders, all holding noisemakers, at 7:25 a.m.. When it comes to class size, I am a credible, expert witness–the ultimate cost-effective teacher. And here’s what I’d like Mr. Gates to know:

• The size of individual classes matters far less than total student load. It is more “efficient” for a teacher to lecture to large groups of students. But good teachers lecture infrequently, because students actually absorb knowledge through action and interaction. Simply listening to content is wildly inefficient, unless the student is able to apply the new knowledge–through discussion, re-framing, deconstructing concepts, answering questions, receiving feedback, producing documents or performance assessments.

• Therefore, relationships matter a great deal in learning. If learning were as simple as pouring knowledge into someone’s head, like the infamous cartoon figure in “Waiting for Superman,” then class sizes could balloon with no ill effect. But learning a complex skill– like reading or equation-solving–hinges on small group interaction and guided practice.

Students must be willing to try and fail, repeatedly, before approaching competence and mastery. Which also involves trust. Considering these facts, it’s no wonder that the research overwhelmingly indicates that small classes are most critical for very young children, and students who lack adequate attention from caring, competent adults.

• Many people assume that small classes mean fewer discipline problems for teachers. This is patently untrue. Every veteran teacher has had a small class that drove them to distraction–usually due to the mix of kids–and classes where there was barely room to move, but produced a reliable, dynamic learning buzz. The problem is not raw numbers–it’s the energy needed to build the human relationships that lead to lasting growth.

• There is no magic around the number 30, or 18 or 40, when it comes to class size (although I found it interesting that Gates stuck to numbers commonly found in schools and union contracts). Bumping class size limits up from 25 to 30, or 30 to 35–even if every single teacher were “effective” or “excellent” or whatever Bill Gates is calling them, and given a bonus–may save money, but would have little impact on actual learning. Good teachers would re-think their instructional strategies, further subdivide their attention and energy–and decide, in increasing numbers, that no amount of extra money is worth eroding their beliefs and their practice.

• In fact, insistence on standardized numbers is at the heart of what’s wrong in the class size debate. Gates is correct when he says parents would rather have their child in a class of 30 with a terrific teacher than in a class of 18 with a bad teacher (or novice, I would add, given the unequivocal data about the efficacy of first-year teachers). When union contracts prescribe one-size-fits-all numbers, they’re not taking into account teacher experience, student needs, or pedagogical and subject discipline considerations. They’re building walls against putting teachers and students in untenable situations. We can do better.

The class-size solution Bill Gates proposed for improving education is all about cash flow rather than investment in human capital. It does not address the most pressing need of education reform–the dangerous gap between the appalling schools we now have for kids who have no resources and the good schools we have for other children.

Just one more expert viewpoint.

By Valerie Strauss  |  04:00 AM ET, 04/25/2011

“Does Israel have a right to exist?”

What is the legal basis for the State of Israel?

Some ask the question, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” That is not a proper question since Israel does exist, is recognized by the United Nations and many other countries, and is no more subject to being so questioned than is the United States, Japan, or any other country.

Anyone who persists with the question of Israel’s right to exist is one whose agenda is to eliminate Israel and its Jewish inhabitants.

But there is a legal background to the State of Israel. The Declaration of Israel’s Independence, issued at Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948, recites the legal history that led to the founding of Israel as an internationally recognized sovereign state:

  • The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.
  • In the year 1897 the First Zionist Congress, inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country.
  • This right was acknowledged by the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, and re-affirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations, which gave explicit international recognition to the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and their right to reconstitute their National Home.
  • On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution for the establishment of an independent Jewish State in Palestine, and called upon the inhabitants of the country to take such steps as may be necessary on their part to put the plan into effect. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their independent State may not be revoked. It is, moreover, the self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own sovereign State.
  • ACCORDINGLY, WE, the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish people in Palestine and the Zionist movement of the world, met together in solemn assembly today, the day of the termination of the British mandate for Palestine, by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish and of the Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, HEREBY PROCLAIM the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called ISRAEL.

At that point, the State of Israel came into existence. The United States recognized the provisional Jewish government as de facto authority of the Jewish state within minutes. The Soviet Union granted de jure recognition almost immediately in 1948 along with seven other states within the next five days (Guatemala, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia).

Since the League of Nations was formally terminated in April 1946, there was a specific UN resolution that preserved the rights of the Jewish people in Palestine (and in Jerusalem particularly). The United Nations, as the successor organization to the League of Nations, adopted Article 80 of the UN Charter, which negated efforts “to alter in any manner the rights whatsoever of any states or any peoples (emphasis added) or the terms of existing international instruments” at the time of the UN’s creation. This provision carried the British Mandate granted by the League of Nations, including all of its committments to a homeland for the Jewish people, into the framework of international law at the United Nations.

Israel’s success in defending its territory against the invading Arab armies in 1948 made the country an established reality. General elections were held on January 25, 1949: the provisional State Council was replaced by an elected Parliament (Knesset) and the Provisional Government by a regular parliamentary Government. De jure recognition by the United States was extended on January 31, 1949 after the permanent government was sworn in. On January 29, 1949, the former Mandatory Power, Britain, recognized the state of Israel, a step that also recognized the end of British efforts to affect the course of the region’s politics.

In the fall of 1948, Israel had applied for membership in the United Nations but failed to win the necessary majority in the Security Council. In February 1949, Israel renewed its application for membership in the United Nations. On March 4, 1949, the Security Council recommended to the General Assembly that it be admitted. On May 11, Israel was admitted, to become the 59th member. Between January 1, 1949 and May 11. 1949, Israel was recognised by 32 States, in addition to the 20 that had accorded it recognition prior to December 31, 1948. Today Israel has full diplomatic relations with most countries of the world, except portions of the Islamic/Arab block that continue to believe that Israel can somehow be eliminated.

Sources and additional reading on this topic: