Sunday, October 18, 2015

Why Should New Hampshire Go First?

Hampton, NH 

Finally reached the point in "West Wing" where Jimmy Smits gets to New Hampshire, as he starts his campaign to be President. He is immediately confronted with an 8 year old quote, when he said what so many others have said: New Hampshire is about as unrepresentative of the rest of the country as any state can be; why should our elections, our choice of candidates emanate from here? The state is overwhelmingly white. It's biggest "city" is Manchester, little more than a recovering mill town. It is legal to walk on to  any property in the state, including private yards, as long as you have a gun and can claim to be hunting, unless the property has "no hunting" signs posted. You can shoot across any road in New Hampshire (save eight specifically named exception--including I-95) if you are shooting at a deer on the other side. There is no income tax and no sales tax and the biggest newspaper is the Manchester Union Leader, made famous by the reactionary William Loeb.

Of course, this creates good moments of dramatic tension, as the much offended New Hampshire voters react to this Hispanic from Texas telling them they are irrelevant and possibly anomalous. 

I have not yet seen how this plays out, how Aaron Sorkin resolves this, but that doesn't stop me from fantasizing about how I'd like to see it play out.

Smits complains he is wasting his time sitting in living rooms with these whitebread citizens, when all he wants to do is give speeches to big arenas about big ideas, like the idea the federal government should focus on and guide a restructuring of American education, beginning with lengthening the school year from 180 to 240 days (as Japan and Russia have done) and eliminating tenure and security for school teachers.

Ice Pond, NH

The first couple he meets resists both ideas: The man says he was educated well with the 180 day school year and his wife says her sister is a school teacher and she is underpaid but at least she doesn't have to meet a quarterly earnings report, so that keeps her in the profession.

Smits begins to answer the question but never says what I'd love to hear him say, which would address, in stages the two big questions here:
1/ What is the value of retail politics as opposed to wholesale politics?
2/ What about our educational system makes it a federal concern and a national priority?

Plaice Cove, Hampton, NH

The answer to the first is to show how the candidate, who thinks he knows the answers is changed when he has to defend his ideas one on one, as you might with your tutor at Oxford. In Washington, if "West Wing"  is correct, politicians engage in constant debates with their staff and with their colleagues about issues like education, but the direction and perspective is always "what will win?"  In New Hampshire, the voter does not care whether or not he is representative. He cares about how a new idea will work in his own life. 

If I were writing "WW," Smits would be told the expedient of counting the number of days in class may be an easy metric, but it is meaningless unless the time in class can be shown to be better, educationally, than the time in the hammock during the summer, when kids of a certain socioeconomic status actually learn a great deal, arguably more than they learn in class during the school year. 
Winnacunnet Street, Hampton

Personally, I read Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Little Women, A Stillness at Appomattox and many others, swinging in the hammock by Lake Winnipesaukee.  I didn't realize I was learning anything. It was pure pleasure, but for reasons I did not understand at the time, my parents never bothered me to do chores when they saw me immersed in these books.  My friends learned how to change a carburetor or to wire a room during summer breaks. A lot of learning went on, I would submit, outside the classroom. 

Of course, I imagine, some kids spent their summers selling drugs on street corners and dodging bullets and would have been better off in school. But some lucky rich kids accompanied their parents to Rome, London, Lisbon, Berlin. Some toured Auschwitz or the Louvre, or saw Ann Frank's house in Amsterdam. They were not wasting their time, educationally.

As for the idea of eliminating dead wood among the ranks of teachers, Smits reassured the wife that her sister would do better once tenure was eliminated because good teachers would be rewarded. Why protect all those dullards who seek teaching positions because they are secure, and then just bide time until retirement, protected from ever having to improve or to really challenge their students?

I certainly saw teachers in the distressed schools of Washington, D.C. and even in the affluent and blessed schools of Bethesda, Maryland who fit the description of "those who cannot do, teach." These were the adults teaching and judging our children and it was a testimony to the power and effectiveness of highly motivated families that these kids managed to learn and achieve despite their public school teachers, rather than because of them. 

President Obama's idea, that we can judge the effectiveness of teachers by the performance of their students on standardized exams is very likely wrong, especially in current practice. What the performance of the students reflects has less to do with the effectiveness of their teachers than it has to do with the drive of their parents. 

The Walt Whitman High school in Bethesda, Maryland has for 50 years sent 95% of it's graduates to college, 40 out of 500 graduates to Ivy League Schools, another 60 to Duke, Stanford, Swartmore and that ilk, with mean SAT scores above that of  the freshman classes at most Ivy League schools. Ruthless competition, tiger moms and dads, the place made the Bronx High School of Science look like Romper Room.  Faculties changed over this period and, from all reports, the faculties which passed through the school over that time had its stars, but, for the most part, was decidedly mediocre. Few of Whitman's teachers had degrees from schools as prestigious as the schools where their students were headed. (Not that the brand name on your diploma means that much, but when you are talking about academics, it may be relevant.)  

North Hampton, Along Rout 1A

But, in President Obama's scheme, the teachers at Whitman would have been highly rewarded for the success of their students, where the teachers across the District Line at Wilson High School would have been fired. And the fact is, Wilson HS had many very fine, dedicated, imaginative teachers, who had to deal with kids from broken families where just getting the kid out of the door in the morning was a success, and nobody did much homework when they got home. The teachers at Whitman could have gone on a three year sabbatical  and their students would have done just fine, scored high on their SAT's and aced every other standardized measure. Their parents were paying for Kaplan SAT prep courses and tutors. 

If all that could be thrown at the Jimmy Smits character, then the value of having his ideas challenged and the change it wrought in him would be fun to see.

And he might say that even though the New Hampshire voters lack diversity, they make up for that in engagement and thoughtfulness.  Better to have a white bread electorate who really care about politics and public policy, who talk about it at the hardware store, the Dunkin Donuts, and the dump than a diverse group of voters in Texas who care more about Friday night football and NASCAR.

New Hampshire voters understand that 180 days of school in 1965 might have been fine before the economy went global, but now it's a different world and economies which depend on factories may be left behind by economies which thrive on programming and innovation. 
Exeter, NH

In 1957 the world changed for American kids. The Russians stunned the world by putting a Sputnik satellite into space. Some Americans scoffed at this as a "stunt" of no practical significance. What good were satellites? The Russians still could not build automobiles or pave roads. 

Can you imagine our world today without Satellites and all that flowed from them:  GPS and the internet? 

Government policies in the United States changed on a dime, after Sputnik. The Soviets were pumping out more engineers and scientists every year than we were and science curriculum and faculties at universities doing scientific research were the beneficiaries.  That Sputnik was the best thing that had happened to American education that century. 
Beach Bungalows, North Hampton, NH

There is no such headline today, but politicians, as they tread through the snows of New Hampshire can make their case town hall by town hall and get the conversation started. Hard to do that in a diverse and more populous state like Maryland or Pennsylvania or Texas.  A state like New Hampshire can be the laboratory for national ideas.

Politicians cannot justify taking time off for a year at Oxford thinking critically about policy, but they can justify the Rhodes scholarship surrogate which is the experience of defending their ideas to the skeptical, admittedly homogeneous, rooted, irascible, polite, subversive, engaged citizens of New Hampshire. 

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