Monday, August 13, 2012

Back to the Blog.  The annual MSBA and MDE/MASA conferences are a signal that summer is over in the educational lobbying biz.  I want to congratulate both organizations on putting together valuable programs again this summer.  Great speakers and presentations to kick off preparations for the 2012-2013 school year and the chance for me to see SEE superintendents and school board members in a relaxed environment.

One thing that stood out to me, especially at the MDE/MASA conference was all the talk about the Finnish education system.  Talk of the Finnish system has increased dramatically over the past couple of years, largely in reaction to what is being viewed as an American education system that has become too test intensive.  I don't have all the information on the Finnish system, but there's a lot of literature out there describing the differences in teacher preparation/qualifications and relative lack (almost absence) of testing that exist between Finland and the rest of the developed world.

Here is a link to the book Finnish Lessons:  What Can the World Learn from Education Change in Finland? by Pasi Salberg.  


I've also included a link to Diane Ravitch's review of Finnish Lessons from the March 8, 2012, edition of The New York Review of Books.  For those of you not familiar with Diane Ravitch, she is an influential education historian who broke with the group calling for greater accountability through testing and choice and has since become critical of those methods for improving American education.  Ravitch will be presenting at the Education Minnesota fall conference in October.


Noted education innovation author Tony Wagner gave a great presentation at the MDE/MASA conference, much of it springing from his latest book, Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World.  The only problem I see in this discussion (and it's a big problem) is that changing the system in the way advocated by Wagner is that it is going to cost considerably more--at least in my estimation--than what the system costs right now.  There may be ways to mitigate these financial challenges, but it will take other contributions from the community to do that.  From my perspective, greater investment--across all resources--is warranted if we are going to truly have the educational system we need to retain our station as the world's strongest economy and the works of Salberg and Wagner will help frame the discussion of what we need.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation.  I don't golf.  I don't fish.  My kids are grown. I'm too old to play the 100+ games of slow-pitch softball I did in my prime.  So, my summers now pretty much boil down to mowing the lawn and reading (and a little too much Netflix).  I'm going to use these early blog entries to provide a review or two of some of the things I've read this summer.

I'd like to start with a brief review of Robert Pierce Forbes' The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America.  This is a really great book at several different levels.  First and foremost, it is excellent history.  I've always found the antebellum era to be the most compelling period of American history.  The founders laid the groundwork for the American Experiment, but it was the following two generations that put into practice systems based on those founding principles.  We can argue whether or not those generations were true to the founders' vision (just like we can argue about how more recent generations are faring with this effort), but judging the results of those efforts are, in my estimation, central to understanding of our political culture, both then and now.

Forbes accomplishes several things mightily in his narrative.  First, he provides a very concise portrait of fifth president James Monroe and the juggling act Monroe performed during the discussion of the future of slavery in the early republic.  Monroe doesn't rise to the fore when the relative greatness of American presidents is gauged, but Forbes' portrait provides fodder for a reassessment of Monroe's standing.

Forbes also provides insight on the absolute centrality the discussion of slavery had in the early republic.  While pedestrian interpretations of American history often equate slavery with mere sectionalism, Forbes digs deeper to show how the slavery issue--and by extension, racial politics--was a debate that was not monolithic within the various regions of the nation.  In this discussion, Forbes ably lays out the role of early purveyors of "party spirit," particularly Martin van Buren.

The part of the book I found most interesting as someone who follows the legislative process is Forbes' description in the early chapters of the book regarding the process by which the two Missouri Compromises were passed in 1820 and 1821.  Issue-by-issue, vote-by-vote, personality-by-personality, Forbes dissects the debates surrounding both the first and second Missouri compromises and the passage of the legislation that brought these discussions into law.  What I found particularly interesting was the discussion of the fluidity of Congress in the early 19th century, with members sliding back and forth between the state and federal governments.  Forbes does a marvelous job describing "how a bill becomes a law--Antebellum Style."  It's not the version we watched on "Schoolhouse Rock."

Here's a link to the book.  If you're either a history of political science buff, it's well worth the time.


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