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High Popalorim

 

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Huey (The Kingfish) Long, a U.S. Senator who represented Louisiana in the 1930’s, raised the art of demagoguery to new heights.  He would relate to his friends how patent medicine men used to concoct a mixture of snake oil. The makers called it “high popalorum” or “low popahirum,” depending on how they manufactured it. They made the first by tearing the bark of a tree down, and the second by tearing the bark up. The Kingfish would later adopt these terms to describe two of his populist messages.
Before giving a stump speech, Long was frequently asked by his aide, “What will it be today Senator, “high populorum” or “low popahirum?” A high popalorum speech meant railing against the intrusion of the federal government into states’ rights, as well as harping on the states’ interference in local issues. A low popahirum speech appealed to the prejudices of the electorate, the majority of who were biased against anybody who appeared, spoke, acted or worshipped differently than themselves.

 

Politicians Are All Over the Map on Education Issues

 

"Once upon a time there was a chameleon.

Its owner, to keep it warm, placed it on a piece of Scotch plaid.

It died of exhaustion."

- Jean Cocteau

 

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High Popalorim

 

Seven Ways Politicians Are Dumb About Schools

By Jay Mathews

 

1. A good way to measure the quality of schools in each state is by average SAT score.

The Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, Jim Davis, used this again and again in a recent debate with his Republican opponent. Florida, he said, ranked 49th in average SAT scores. To him this proved that the state's Republican administration had done a bad job. But that is nonsense. States with large urban populations such as Florida, California, Texas and New York are always going to have low average SAT scores because they have unusually large portions of low-income students. Family background, not school quality, is what influences SAT scores the most. I know of no school system or state education department that has been able to change that, even with education policies that all experts consider brilliant. Even more irksome, states and schools systems that do the right thing and encourage more low-income students to take the SAT so that they can apply to college, are often going to see their average scores drop because of the increased portion of test-takers from poor families. If you hear any politician even mention the SAT, you can be sure she is trying to fool you.

2. It is bad to have programs that encourage educators to teach to a test.

Michael Steele, the Republican candidate for U.S. senator in Maryland, used this in a recent television commercial and on his Web site. He said in a press release that implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind law "is too often leaving the needs of students behind, as teachers spend large amounts of classroom instruction time focused on teaching a test, instead of the unique needs of individual students." Many educators agree with him that teaching to a test is wrong, but I think this is sloganeering, not argument. Most of the time when people criticize teaching to a test, they are actually criticizing teaching to a state educational standard. Steele does not explain how Maryland schools can figure out if students are reaching the state standards in reading, writing and math without giving them a test. He does not explain how they can prepare the students for that test without teaching them the material that will help them pass it. But "teaching a test" sounds bad, so he uses those buzz words, and he is not alone. Politicians often use education-related phrases because they sound good, or bad, to voters, even if neither the politicians nor the voters are sure what they mean.

3. Schools would be better if they stopped promoting low-achieving students to the next grade.

This is called social promotion. It is very common, and I don't like it either. But politicians who demand the end of social promotion rarely mention that the research shows that holding such students back usually does not raise achievement. The students must be given remedial help or keeping them in the same grade won't work. Timothy A. Hacsi, a University of Massachusetts-Boston historian who has studied the gap between campaign issues and reality, noted President Clinton's stirring 1996 statement that "the worst thing you can do is send people all the way though school with a diploma they can't read." That remains a popular campaign stance, but Hacsi said the research shows that schools often do not give the held-back students the help they need, so they remain far behind.

4. Lowering class size is always a good idea.

This view rests heavily on a landmark 1980s study in Tennessee of Project STAR, which cut class sizes for elementary school students to 17 or less and found a significant increase in test scores. The problem with this approach, never mentioned by the office seekers who advocate it, is that it is very expensive to make classes that small and if you do, you are unlikely to find enough good teachers to staff all the new, small classes. When California spent more than $1 billion in the late 1990s to reduce primary school class sizes to 20 students, the results were disappointing. Many inexperienced teachers were hired to fill the new jobs and achievement did not go up. If you discover oil underneath the school playground, then perhaps you can afford to get class sizes to 17 or below, hire the best instructors and get the full benefits. But in the real world it is not as effective a tool as the campaign ads make it seem.

5. It is education policy and not specific school successes that matter.

I am still waiting for a political candidate to release a detailed analysis of one of the several inner city schools that have shown great improvement through a smart choice of principal and teachers, focused teaching and longer school days and years. I think a smart candidate would say: "This is what I am talking about. I am going to do to create more schools like this." Instead we just get nice-sounding slogans and irrelevant statistics.

6. What schools need is more money.

Hacsi's chapter on this issue in his book "Children As Pawns" is the best summary of the research I have seen. He concludes that, despite doubts among some education scholars, more money does make a difference. But he also notes that how the money is used is critical. In the real world there are too many examples of ineffective use of new funds to put such confidence in political promises of more dollars. Unless the ad tells me exactly what the office seeker plans to do with this money, I do not put much faith in it.

7. Electing new leaders will help fix our schools.

We have yet to elect any president, senator or member of Congress who has had a marked positive (or negative) impact on student achievement. Candidates for those offices will say they plan to rescue the education system because their polls say voters think this is important, but their promises are meaningless. Governors, as well as school board members, do have the power to make schools better, but very few have ever done so. Usually the best work is done by aggressive teachers and principals who know what they want and work very hard to get it, without ever asking anyone to vote for them.

 

 

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