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Thursday, May 31, 2007

MDL: Madison Music and Arts in Peril

The Madison Daily Leader is running a four-part series on "Changes Taking Place in Madison's Arts Programs." I've read Tuesday's and Wednesday's installments and eagerly await the remaining reports. (Sorry, web friends -- no links! MDL's only offering the text to paying customers, in print.) Special correspondent and well-known local arts advocate Gale Pifer swings the big stick, as he has before on the pages of the local press, seeking out quotes from numerous Madison HS band alums who express concern and disappointment at the apparent dwindling of support for music and the arts in general in the community.

I'll see how this massive series (two pages both nights so far) plays out in full before offering my commntary. For now, I will note one striking image and a couple comments from last night's installment: Pifer quotes local music teacher Ginny Ziebarth, who makes it clear that, contrary to the misperception that she is retiring after a long and respectable career with the Madison Central School District (she was a regular accompanist back when I sang in the glorious Nancy Edwards's MHS choir), her position has actually been eliminated by the school district and folded into the remaining positions. Last night's article also shows an unsmiling Ziebarth painting over an impressive mural, a giant musical score, in the middle school music room. The reason for the whitewashing? Ziebarth says she wants to give the new music teacher a fresh start. The words say one thing, but the image -- ouch.

No Child Left Behind: Don't Renew It -- Undo It!

USA Today offers point-counterpoint editorials on the No Child Left Behind law. The paper's editorial board argues that the law is flawed but fixable (not exactly a characterization parents like to hear about their kids at parent-teacher conferences). Education writer Alfie Kohn responds that the law is "is an appalling and unredeemable experiment that has done incalculable damage to our schools — particularly those serving poor, minority and limited-English-proficiency students" ["Opposing View: 'Too Destructive to Salvage,'" USA Today, posted online 2007.05.31]. Says Kohn,

Let's be clear: This law has nothing to do with improving learning. At best, it's about raising scores on multiple-choice exams. This law is not about discovering which schools need help; we already know. This law is not about narrowing the achievement gap; its main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills. Thus, even if the scores do rise, it's at the expense of a quality education. Affluent schools are better able to maintain good teaching — and retain good teachers — despite NCLB, so the gap widens.

Kohn cites a Teachers Network survey that finds that an unwhopping 3% of teachers believe NCLB helps them teach more effectively. An even less whopping 1% of teachers believe NCLB effectively assesses the quality of schools.

For once, this teacher finds himself among the majority. I have not seen NLCB improve anything other than testing company profits and income for curriculum and testing specialists. The Montrose School District actually hired a specialist not to teach or conduct professional development but just to collect and analyze the data required by NCLB. Other schools have done the same, spending money just to handle the NCLB paperwork, not to directly produce any educational benefits. Spending more money -- local, state, or federal -- on NCLB won't actually improve education; it may only help fund the extra bureaucracy created by this federal effort to turn education into a numbers game and a campaign slogan.

A few summers ago I called in to the midday Forum program on South Dakota Public Radio to ask Governor Rounds how he felt about NCLB. Specifically, I asked how he, as a Republican, rationalized his support for this intrusion of federal power into the fundamentally local issue of education. He put on his big smile (so shiny it gleams even on radio) and said we all ought to be interested in improving educational opportunities for our kids. That's right -- he avoided my question.

(I can't resist pointing out that Governor Rounds espouses support for the principle of local control of schools when it serves his purposes:

My first objection to Senate Bill 95 is that it creates a new and unnecessary layer of government. Senate Bill 95 irreversibly alters a governance system that currently operates well and the way it was intended, with local control. Adding a new bureaucracy simply drains additional state resources and provides no benefit to the technical institutes. I do not support creation of this unneeded layer of government. [veto message rejecting Legislature's effort to create a state-level board to govern South Dakota's vo-tech schools, 2007.03.20])

As recently as the 1990s (back when I was a Republican), the GOP agreed that education was a local issue and wanted to eliminate the federal Department of Education. ("...the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the work place. This is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools...." -- GOP platform, 1996.)

Since then, I've changed parties, but the GOP has changed philosophy, creating more big government with NCLB. I'll argue for more financial support for education from the state if that's where I have to go to get it, but education works better when it is funded and controlled at the local level. The teachers and parents in your school district can tell you how the kids are doing and what the school needs to improve on better than any standardized test or bureaucrat from Washington or Pierre can. NCLB doesn't offer any real assistance to education; it wastes money and man-hours. Let's kill it now and let our schools get back to teaching without Washington looking over their shoulders.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Green Schools: Academic Gains, Long-Term Savings

Various sources run an AP story [Dorie Turner, staff writer, "Schools Turning Eco-Friendly," 2007.05.28] about growing interest in "green schools," schools designed to meet the certification standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. The article mentions green building measures like solar panels, more natural lighting (less energy spent on electric lights), recycled building materials, and living roofs (dirt and plant cover insulate better than steel or shingles). One Colorado school makes ice during off-peak hours, stores it, then uses the ice during peak hours to reduce the work the AC units have to do (that took some thinking!).

These green efforts go beyond the building itself. Green-school measures can include restoring and preserving wetlands and wilderness areas around the schools, planting gardens, and removing invasive species (the Turner article cites a project at Clackamas HS in Oregon to "eradicate an acre of blackberries" -- which makes me think, "Wait! What's wrong with yummy blackberries?" to which the article and biologists would answer quite sensibly that blackberries "are not native to Oregon and choke out other vegetation").

Oh, but this must cost money, right? There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially not a green lunch. However, compared to the premiums the organic elites are willing to pay for their Fair Trade Coffee and all-organic tofu, green building practices are cheaper than one might presume. The Turner article says that green schools cost an average of 2% more to build. Turner then cites the "Washington High Performance School Buildings" study, a January 2005 report to the Washington State Legislature, which offers the following lower-end estimates of potential benefits to green schools:
  1. 5% increase in test scores
  2. 5% reduction in teacher turnover
  3. 15% reduction in absenteeism
  4. 25% reduction in energy use
  5. 38% reduction in potable water use
  6. 150% return on investment
  7. 38% reduction in wastewater production
  8. 22% reduction in construction waste to the landfill
  9. more than 1.5 million pounds reduction in CO2 emissions
I don't a tool to fight global warming (#9) to think this is a great idea. South Dakota's legislators should be able to look at just #1-3 and say, "Hey! Let's do this!" Green schools not only save energy and ultimately money but also improve educational outcomes.

These green results make sense from a common-sense perspective. At Madison High School, an artefact of 1960s cheap SD concrete, I taught in one of several interior classrooms with no windows. How depressing, for staff and students, to be cut off from sunshine and fresh air all day! At Montrose, when we moved to our new building in 2002, I gave up a rickety but character-filled old classroom with a wall of south-facing windows for a drab room with one window facing a brick wall. Again, ugh! Learning happens better in comfortable environments, and a little thing like natural light can make a big difference in student and teacher attitudes, not to mention eergy usage. Put another way, maximizing our use of solar energy can improve our use of soul-ar energy.

Madison and Montrose aren't the only schools that could use a facelift. Coaching and judging at speech tournaments around the state, I see lots of schools that are built fast and cheap, with lots of steel and concrete, and lots of pavement all around. A little more investment in windows, recycled materials, renewable energy, and more environmentally friendly landscaping could help our budgets and our environment while providing kids with even better educational opportunities.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Afraid of Gov't-Financed Health Care? We Already Have It

Memo to Zaniya Project Task Force:

As I talk to my friends about health care reform, I generally advocate universal, single-payer health care, like what Congressman and Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has been advocating for years. I often hear responses along the lines of, "Oh! We don't want to be like Canada!* When the government pays for health care, it messes everything up."

As the Zaniya Project entertains the question of the proper role of government in health care, they should consider that the United States already spends more public dollars per capita on health care than Canada, the UK, and a number of other countries that cover a lot more health care for their citizens:

Country: Public Dollars Per Capita Spent on Health Care (2004)
Austria: $2208.67
Canada: $2209.17
Germany: $2349.91
Netherlands: $1894.54
Sweden: $2398.43
Switzerland: $2380.97
United Kingdom: $2176.83
United States: $2727.59

[Source: OECD in Figures, 2006-2007, OECD Observer, pp. 8-9, 83. Online: http://www.oecdobserver.org/news/get_file.php3/id/25/file/OECDInFigures2006-2007.pdf]

This same report (pp. 10-11) also shows the familiar statistics on the US having lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than most OECD members. If our health care system is so great, why are we spending more and getting less? The Zaniya Project should look across the border and overseas and see what South Dakota could do to model these foreign models of efficient use of its citizens tax dollars.

*Funny -- when my Canadian friends talk about making changes to their health care system, they say, to a person, with great vigor and contempt, "Oh! We don't want to be like the United States!" [return to text]

Friday, May 25, 2007

SD Zaniya Project Online

The Zaniya Project, South Dakota's health care reform (reform? really? we can hope!) task force, has its own website: zaniya.sd.gov. For those of you interested in seeing the state do something to make health care more affordable (and, given annual per capita health care expenses of $5,560, that should be all of us), keep an eye on that website. The state is posting agendae and minutes of the monthly meetings (next one is June 14, Kings Inn, Pierre) as well as copies of the presentations given at each meeting. You can also find contact information for all 52 task force members (playing with a full deck? again, let's hope so).

The task force's final report is due September 30, and their findings and recommendations will surely make for some long days (and possibly significant investments of public dollars) in the 2008 legislative session. We should all thus keep an eye on the task force's progress and keep the conversation active outside the thickly insulated walls of government.

Note to Wiese: Plagiarism Is Lying, Cheating, and Stealing

I come home from the Cities to find plagiarism in the news. SD Watch broke the story of Dennis Wiese's plagiarism of a column on immigration, and the Argus followed up with confirmation yesterday.

I see plagiarism and hear excuses for it regularly in my classroom. Mr. Wiese's pseudo-apology and rationalization in yesterday's Argus sound literally sophomoric:

"If it's wrong, I'm sorry," Wiese said Wednesday. "It is not illegal - matter of fact, I don't find it to be unethical if you have asked the permission to utilize that." [Ben Shouse, "Wiese Column Not Original Work," Argus Leader, 2007.05.24 -- see how that's done, Mr. Wiese?]

If it's wrong? Oh, let my English students assure you, Mr. Wiese, it is wrong. Every school year, I spend the first day of every English class explaining that plagiarism is lying, cheating, and stealing. The plagiarist lies by claiming, "I created these words; they are mine" when someone else actually created and owns those words. The plagiarist cheats by gaining credit (in my kids' case, a grade; in the case of the Wiese column, public recognition for the content, style, and persuasive force of the essay) without doing the work that other honest writers do. The plagiarist steals by claiming ownership of intellectual property that is not his.

Plagiarism is lying, cheating, and stealing. Plagiarism in this case may not be prosecutable. Wiese's alleged permission to use the material may mean that he committed no crime against the original author(s). However, Wiese has still acted unethically against the public by making a blatantly false claim of authorship. South Dakotans have a right to know when they are reading the opinions of their neighbors and when they are reading the propaganda of some out-of-state organization that hides its agenda behind the voices of local mouthpieces. Sources matter. Readers have a right to know them. Writers have an obligation to cite them.

Wiese has also made my job just one more snudge tougher by setting a bad example for my students, who love to find examples of adults behaving badly and then citing that bad behavior as an excuse for their own unethical actions. If my kids are reading the blogs or the Argus, they'll come back in the fall and say, "That Wiese guy plagiarized, and what punishment did he get?" If Wiese were in my class, he'd get a zero for the paper. If Wiese were a student at SDSU, he'd get disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion [SDSU Student Conduct Code of the University Community 01:10:25:02]. If Wiese were a nationally recognized author, he'd lose his book contract. If Wiese were a news producer, he'd be fired.

Wiese and my students both need to understand that plagiarism is a violation of ethics, if not law. Instead of his self-justification, Wiese should come clean, offer a sincere apology, and accept whatever consequences may ensue.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Private Money Supports Athletics, Arts in Mitchell

Yesterday's Mitchell Daily Republic reports that the Earl Nordby family has donated $240,000 toward the construction of a 10-field soccer complex. That's over an eighth of the money needed to build what promoters hope to make the best soccer complex in the state. This donation comes after a 2005 donation from the Nordbys of $100,000 to help the Mitchell Area Community Theatre build its new facility. In return, the Nordbys, Pepsi bottling magnates, get the Pepsi name on both facilities.

I'm not terribly fond of corporate naming rights, but I've said elsewhere that selling such rights might be one of the quickest ways to draw a big tub of money toward projects like the new events center that was voted down in Madison in April. The majority of voters may have said they don't have the money for a project like that, but apparently there are private donors who have more than enough money to help float such a project and are just itching for the chance to dish that money out. All they ask in return is a word or two on a sign. Given a choice between giving some rich companies a little free advertising in a public venue and saddling taxpayers with a long-term debt burden, I'll take the former.

But this discussion may be all academic: the gym supporters haven't made any public statements since their drubbing at the polls. No one in a position to make it happen has breathed a word about any Plan B, except to maintain there isn't one. Come on, fellas -- does Bulldog Pride really give up that easily? The Nordbys are just one example of the money that's out there, if you know where to look.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Discover the Unexpected -- Lake County Bloggers!

Hear all sorts of voices from Lake Herman, Madison, and the whole county! Below are just a few blogs from my neighbors.
I welcome more submissions! If you blog from Lake County, South Dakota, submit your blog below in the comments section.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Polls Say Wow, Pollsters Stay Put

I've been meaning to get to this for a while...

Every now and then we hear some optimistic news story about how South Dakota is so great for business. Most recently, Pollina Corporate released its "Top 10 Pro-Business States" list for 2007, on which South Dakota ranked 7th. (Pollina ranked us 3rd in 2006, 3rd in 2005, 6th in 2004.) Polls like this usually cite South Dakota's pro-business tax structure -- i.e., no corporate or personal income tax -- and low wages as factors in our relatively high rankings.

So a question: If pollsters like Pollina are such experts on business, and if their research shows South Dakota to be such a business haven, why aren't those pollsters moving here? Pollina is based in Chicago, Illinois, which state ranks 40th on Pollina's own rankings, but I haven't heard any talk of Pollina moving its headquarters or even opening a branch research office in South Dakota. Could it be that underpaying and overtaxing our workers isn't really the magic formula for economic growth?

Christian School Plants Roots Outside of Town

The Madison Christian School dedicated its new (and rather muddy) site southwest of Madison this week. I'm all for more educational options. The new steel building should be ready to take in new students by August 1.

Now I'm all for more educational options. When citizens are so motivated to educate their kids that they'll pass on the free education their tax dollars already fund and spend extra time and money to create a school of their own, that's a good thing.

The only problem I have with the new Christian school is its site: a mile out of town, all by itself in the middle of a bare field. Schools should be at the heart of a community, figuratively and literally. Kids should always see their school in the context of their community. Practically speaking, to get to school, kids (and teachers!) should be able to walk or ride their bikes to down city streets, past neighbors' houses and shops. Plunk a school out in the country, and nearly everyone will have drive to school (or take the bus, if the Christian School can afford one). Metaphorically, traveling to a school out by itself conveys a message of isolation, an impression that school is disconnected from the rest of our lives.

Of course, the Madison Christian School tried for a while to operate in the heart of the community. They had a great location at "Heaven's Castle," a funky old house across the street from West Center Baptist Church just two blocks from Main Street, but the fire marshall kicked them out. (Tangential note: The fire marshall also requires me to not put any posters on my classroom door and restrict my overall use of posters in my classroom to 10% of my wall space. I just hope he never looks in my cupboards and sees all those flammable books.) They rented space this year in old Washington Elementary, another lovely central location. Quite logically, the Madison Christian School wants a permanent facility, but with limited funds, they can't afford prime real estate in town. Plus, to save money, they have chosen to build a steel building that the fire marshall might love but which city zoning ordinances frown upon. So, again quite logically, they've chosen a bare site outside city limits where they will have more freedom to build the most practical school they can with the resources they have.

The same pressures that pushed the Christian School out of town have affected the public schools here as well. Fifty years ago, every school was part of a neighborhood. Then in the 1960s, we built our high school on the northeast fringe of town. In the 1990s, we abandoned our downtown junior high to attach a middle school to the high school. This year we finally abandoned our last neighborhood elementary schools to warehouse our young-'uns in a big building on the northwest edge of town. Even West Center Baptist plans to abandon its central location for a sprawling compound on Highway 81 north of town.

Fortunately, neighborhoods have expanded around the public school sites in Madison, so our schools do not stand completely isolated. Perhaps the Christian School will draw a similar expansion of housing (and trees -- gotta have trees!) so it doesn't stand alone on the prairie but rather anchors a lively, welcoming neighborhod.

Rounds and Long Play Hardball with Schools

If you're going to file a lawsuit, you've got to be prepared to play by lawyers' rules, which means you've got to be ready to play mean. That's what the more than 70 South Dakota school districts suing the state for more funding are finding out, as Attorney General Larry Long has asked for and the Legislative Research Council's Executive Committee has approved audits of the litigating schools. AG Long is going fishing: he wants to look for any indication that schools participating in the lawsuit have slipped up and illegally used public funds to support their suit against the state.

Now the audit probably won't turn up much: school districts and their business managers generally have their financial poop in a group, at least legally speaking. Their budgets are tight enough it is, they can't afford some illegal misappropriation that could impact their budgets later. But mistakes do happen, and this audit is an easy way for the AG and the governor to say, "You want make life hard for us? We can make life hard for you."

Alas, AG Long has every right to conduct this audit. We expect him to ensure that all other laws are enforced; the proper spending of public funds deserves the same oversight. But the political motivation is clear. That's what happens when we step out of the legislative arena and into the judicial to solve our problems. In the legislature, there's at least a chance for collegial collaboration, public officials working together toward a common goal. Once we go to court, we switch to adversarial mode, and the gloves come off. Lawyers (including attorneys general) can get nasty in ways they wouldn't think of in normal discourse. In adversarial mode, the lawyers' primary obligation is no longer to the truth ("Does the legislature provide enough money to the public schools? Can we find other revenue sources?") but to their clients, and they fulfill that professional obligation by using all the tactics and tricks they can think of to advance their case.

Don't get me wrong: as a debate coach, I teach kids to use the adversarial system. I'm all about the dialectic process as a means for synthesizing ideas and arriving at a better grasp of truth. But the legal dialectic process is ugly, and it is clear that the Rounds administration intends to play hardball throughout. In the course of this lawsuit, we can't expect the state to put its constitutional obligation to educate first and go easy on the litigating schools. Let's hope the schools are ready to give as good as they get.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Graduation Weekend -- It's All About Tomorrow

I'm in the middle of making graduation rounds. I attended a Madison reception this afternoon (Madison HS graduates its seniors tomorrow afternoon), and in a few minutes I head down to the Montrose HS graduation ceremony and receptions following.

Straight to the point: kids, be careful. First off, I'm going to be on the road, and I still have a good 17 years of daddying to do, at least. I don't want to get run over by some wild driver.

But more importantly, you graduates all have lifetimes ahead of you. You don't need to live on the edge by driving like stuntmen (which you aren't) or drinking yourselves stupid (which you don't have to be) or both. You're already living on the edge... of your futures.

Graduation is all about the future. High school is done; the real world awaits with more excitement than you will ever find in a bottle or a fast car. Nothing you might have the opportunity to do tonight (short of maybe an offer from aliens to travel the galaxy) is worth sacrificing all that lies ahead. Be safe tonight, and live for all the fun and challenges that tomorrow will bring.

More Fun! Luce Pioneer Days Expanding

So big one day just isn't enough: Lake Herman State Park is expanding the traditional Luce Pioneer Days celebration from one day to a full three-day weekend of family fun. June 8-10, you can bring your family to the lake for pioneer games for kids, demonstrations of pioneer arts and crafts, pioneer cooking, even a harmonica concert! Wow -- all I need for a nice day at the lake is some time on the bike, in the kayak, or on the porch solving the South Dakota's problems. But if you need a bigger fun-fix than that, mark Luce Days on your calendar, June 8-10, Lake Herman State Park. You have to pay for admission to the park ($5 for a day pass, $23 for a year pass -- and that year pass gets you into any park in the state until next May, the best recreation buy around), but once you're in the park, all the Luce events are free.

Save the Future by Saving the Past

MDL publisher Jon Hunter editorializes in Monday's (5/14) edition on the need to protect historic buildings in Lake County. He expresses the greatest concern for Madison's historic downtown, which has a number of old buildings with plenty of character but not as much TLC, especially on the upper floors, as they deserve.

Hunter singles out the Masonic Temple as a vacant property whose "beauty and historical significance are worth preserving." It stands, as Hunter puts it, "on very valuable property."

That's an understatement. The Masons' building stands at the very heart of Madison, right on the corner of Main Street (Egan Avenue, formally) and Highway 34, the main drag through town. If you come to Madison, you go by this grand old building. And for years, at this prime corner lot, welcoming people to downtown Madison, we have had this quiet, empty property.

Our man Hunter is right: we need to preserve the Masonic Temple, not just for its historic significance, but for the positive impact it can have on Madison's image. We need Masons' at the gateway to our downtown to represent what downtown Madison really can and should be: vibrant, unique, and busy.

Some folks have tried. For a brief period, Masons' housed a restaurant that made a run at being the best in the county. Curves for Women tried hosting fitness classes there for a bit. A Minnesota developer held onto it for a few years, thinking maybe he could turn a profit selling the building, but the bank foreclosed on him before he could see that day. Now the building appears to be back in Madison hands, but Masons' still waits for that one great idea and the one mover and shaker who can create a lasting establishment there.

Mrs. Madville Times and I toured the Masons' building this past winter when it was up for sale. She loves the building, and it's easy to see why. It is beautiful. Having been left to sit untended for many years, it needs a lot of work: the floors have water damage, some upstairs rooms never got renovated, the brickwork is crumbling in places. But the building still impresses. Standing on the front steps between those grand pillars, walking into the big main hall, looking down from the balcony inside, or even sitting out back on the fire escape, one can imagine all sorts of possibilities for a fun business that could serve as a gathering place for the community, a center of commercial and civic pride, maybe the funkiest front porch in town, where we could sit out front and wave to all Madison's visitors with big prou smiles on our faces.

What will that anchor business be? Will it be? Our greatest fear is that the Masonic Temple will meet the bulldozer to make way for what too many people think makes a good downtown: parking. Mr. Hunter doesn't think that's a good option, and neither do we.

Mrs. Madville Times will have more to say on Masons' and on the importance of a healthy downtown core to a community's identity on her own pages. For now, suffice it to say we should all share Mr. Hunter's interest in preserving an impressive and historic downtown, a unique city center of which we can be proud. Bringing Masons' back to life is key to preserving our past and promoting our future.

Debate Pays Off for Local Students

Thursday's MDL puts Madison High School senior Michael Stunes on the front page -- and rightly so! -- to recognize his acceptance into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stunes's 4.11 GPA, 2100 SAT score, and excellent résumé have helped him earn enough financial aid to cover just about all of MIT's $33,400 annual tuition.

Among his many achievements in high school, Stunes was a standout debater for the Madison Bulldogs. In his speaking career, Stunes earned the National Forensic League "Triple Ruby" and 807 NFL career points by participating in 40 speech contests throughout high school.

Another Bulldog debater, Katye Abraham, has also distinguished herself academically, winning a prestigious Briggs Scholarship to South Dakota State University. Abraham, like her teammate Stunes, earned an NFL Triple Ruby, with 945 NFL points in some 45 speech contests.

Debaters seem to have an advantage when it comes to winning such post-high school honors. This writer has had the pleasure of coaching three debaters -- one from Madison, two from Montrose -- who have gone on to win the Briggs Scholarship. And Stunes is just one of many local debaters who have gone on to study at elite American universities, not to mention win the occasional Rhodes Scholarship. Oddly, I don't seem to recall our local sports stars achieving the same rate of success at qualifying to play Big-10 football. Hmm... so if you're a teenager looking for an activity that has proven results for helping students advance in their careers, which should you choose, basketball or debate?

On another issue, it is interesting to note the apparent divergence in the university choices these two Madison graduates have made. MIT vs. SDSU -- certainly there are significant differences between them, but having studied in both Cambridge (at a slightly older school just up the Charles River) and Brookings, this writer can say that both Stunes and Abraham will be able to find all the academic challenges they want. One's university experience is what one makes of it. That was true when this writer ultimately chose SDSU for his undergraduate education, and it is even truer in today's Internet world. Heck, even if Stunes decided he didn't want to go so far away from home and put up with Boston-area traffic (be careful of those tunnels, Mike!), he could still access MIT's entire curriculum online for free!

Students can get a world-class education anywhere, as long as they are willing to make the effort to read and research and seek out the best and brightest around them, among the faculty and their fellow students. The very research and communication skills necessary to optimize the university experience are exactly what Stunes and Abraham have spent their high school careers developing in debate. Congratulations, Mike and Katye. Now go get 'em!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tail Wags Dog

Proof the Regents Don't Read the New York Times:

Wednesday's Mitchell Daily Republic reports that "the South Dakota Board of Regents is considering converting all six of the state's public college campuses to 'laptop-tablet environments'" (Korrie Wenzel, "Regents Consider Laptop Plan for All Public College Campuses," Mitchell Daily Republic, online, May 9, 2007). Madison's Dakota State University, the state's flagship computer integration campus, went this route in 2004, requiring all students to lease a laptop and integrating their use into every class.

The main motivation for requiring students to purchase laptops system-wide seems to be the governor's push for integration of laptops into the K-12 system. As Regents executive director Tad Perry explains it, the Regents "stumbled across" (not the most inspiring language from our educational leaders) the problem of student teachers going through their pedagogical training without sufficient experience with laptops to work well with the technology they encounter in their field assignments.

That's all? One subset of our graduates with one specific technological need encountered at a minority of South Dakota schools, one educational tool that some schools nationwide are abandoning, and the Regents consider implementing a significant cost increase and technological requirement for every student in the state public college system? Evidently the Regents read neither the New York Times nor this blog.

I don't mind integrating computer technology into the classroom, if it's done for the right reasons. But with the Regents regularly increasing tuition and fees outpacing inflation (6.3% for AY 2007-2008, with the average SD public university student paying $346 more next year) and certainly outpacing the rate at which teacher salaries are increasing in the state (we're getting under 3% at Montrose), how are students supposed to keep up? Do we really want to price more kids out of university education by requiring them to spend another thousand dollars on technology? Granted, a lot of kids get nw computers as they head to college anyway, but I'd liek to leave that choice in the hands of the students. And even if they buy their own computers, why not let them decide how and when they want to use that machine on campus? Some people might not want to lug a computer around in their backpacks all day long. There are still many great classes where students will learn best just by listening to and interacting with their professors, not transcribing everything the teacher says on their keyboards and downloading multimedia presentations (not to mention sneaking peeks at their e-mails and their next Free Cell moves).

One side note on this issue: mandating laptops for students on every campus could rouse some political snarkiness between the Regents and DSU. The MDR article notes that systemwide laptop integration could cause DSU to lose its unique position as the laptop campus. Perry says, "That's an interesting point" -- again, as if he hadn't thought of this before? Ah, but check out these comments:

“I had that conversation (recently) at Dakota State during a campus visit. Their concern is that they will lose their distinctiveness,” Perry said.

But Perry said he thinks Dakota State will be fine because “it has to be on the front edge of technology. Its challenge will be to be the model of where we are. They will always be a step ahead, or they should be, if they’re doing their mission.”

Or they should be
...? Far be it from me to read too deeply, but do I detect just a whiff of accusation there? Is the executive director of the university system's governing body even permitting the contemplation of the suggestion that one of his schools is not carrying out its mission? If I'm the Board of Regents, I don't let even a hint of that idea sneak into my public statements. In response to a reporter's question, I say, "DSU will always be a step ahead -- period" with no ifs or other qualifiers. DSU could use just a little more love from the higher-ups.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Over the weekend I suggested that, the state DMV might have sufficient legal grounds for recalling Heather Morijah's "MPEACHW" license plate. Fortunately, the DMV and 8th Circuit case law have proved me wrong! Yesterday, the state offered a terse press release in which Secretary Paul Kinsman of the Department of Revenue and Regulation reversed the earlier order that Morijah (this new spelling appears in the state press release and Kevin Woster's update on Morijah's victory in the Rapid City Journal). Evidently someone in Pierre did some legal research over the weekend and found that the 8th Circuit Court ruled in Lewis v. Wilson that the state of Missouri had to reissue a recalled vanity plate that read "ARYAN-1".

Ugh. I'm not exactly happy to have Klan sympathizers setting the legal precedent that protects Morijah's free speech. But such is the nature of the fight for free speech. The First Amendment exists to protect speech of all stripes, liberal and conservative, red and redneck, racy and racist. We can offer our own retorts to those who express unpopular views, but we can't ask the state to strongarm into silence those who offend us.

[Read Lewis v Wilson, 253 F.3d 1077 (8th Cir. 2001) courtesy Findlaw. Read more on vanity plates and free speech at the First Amendment Center.]

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Computers, Classrooms, and the Art of Thinking

As 20 more SD high schools get ready to join the state's Classroom Connections program, putting laptops in the hands of every student, the New York Times notes that some schools around the country are abandoning the one-to-one computing concept [Winnie Hu, "Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops," NYTimes, 2007.05.04]. Why? There are the predictable shenanigans of kids hacking the school network and cheating on tests. Some teachers find they lose valuable lesson time to fixing computer glitches, while the schools themselves face increasing computer repair expenses. But the big reason is that for all the time and money spent on incorporating technology into the classroom, educators are hard pressed to find solid evidence that putting a computer in every student's hands increases academic achievement.

So should every South Dakota school trade in its computers for chalkboards and books? That's a question for each district to decide, based on its resources and goals. Computers may increase the opportunity for kids to hack into important files and cheat on tests, but kids were riffling through file cabinets and tucking crib notes in their socks long before the first Commodore Pet trundled into my elementary school library. Schools and teachers do have to be ready to spend some time and energy ensuring the security of their networks. They also will spend more time and money on tech support.

Schools with the resources to absorb those extra expenses may get a return on their investment in building technological skills among their students and in increasing their access to educational resources. However, if the budget is tight and a school is looking for an investment that will increase test scores or other measures of academic achievement, laptops for every student may not be the right choice.

Sometimes new technology opens new avenues of learning that Archimedes and Newton would have drooled over. Sometimes, we don't even need a blackboard to get the job done. Whatever tools we use to teach, we need keep our eyes on our goals. I'll leave you with the end of the NYTimes article:

Alice McCormick, who heads the math department [at Liverpool High School], said most math teachers preferred graphing calculators, which students can use on the Regents exams, to laptops, which often do not have mathematical symbols or allow students to show their work for credit. “Let’s face it, math is for the most part still a paper-and-pencil activity when you’re learning it,” she said.

In the school library, an 11th-grade history class was working on research papers. Many carried laptops in their hands or in backpacks even as their teacher, Tom McCarthy, encouraged them not to overlook books, newspapers and academic journals.

“The art of thinking is being lost,” he said. “Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.”

Expanding Highway 34 -- Plan B for Safety

According to local lore,* four decades ago, the federal government was trying to figure out where to put Interstate Highway 29. The feds were sure they wanted I-29 to connect Sioux Falls and Watertown; the only question was which way to go. The main options were to angle northwest toward Madison then straight north to Watertown or go straight north to Brookings then angle northwest to South Dakota's Rising Star. Madison's city fathers considered fighting to bring I-29 here, but then said no way, out of fear that fast, four-lane access to our neighbors would funnel Madison's shopping and sales tax dollars straight to Sioux Falls.

The result: I-29 as you see it today. While a claim of causation calls for much deeper study, a comparison of census data (neatly compiled at wikipedia) shows that since the construction of I-29, Brookings County has experienced population growth in every decade since 1960, with a total growth of 40.8%, (from 20,046 in 1960 to 28,220 in 2000). Over the same period, Lake County lost population in every decade but the 1990s, with a net decline of 4.0% (from 11,764 in 1960 to a low of 10,550 in 1990, recovering to 11,276 by 2000).

Now I recognize the complete lack of proof of causation there. I-29 was completed in the 1970s, and I include the 1960s population data to note that the population trends above might already have been well underway before the concrete was poured and cured. But I offer the hypothesis that access to a nice four-lane highway is a positive selling point for a community trying to draw tourists, residents, and businesses. Just imagine: had Madison drawn I-29 its way, might we have lured Twin City Fan in 1984, or the Lowe's store a couple years ago? Might DSU have had an easier time recruiting students following its mission change in the 1980s?

Coulda woulda shoulda—who has time for that? Not the new generation of Lake County's business leaders. Evidently 30 years of local folks going to Sioux Falls to shop even without I-29 right at our doorstep has convinced the local business community that it has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a better transportation link to Sioux Falls. With increased commuter and recreational traffic from development around the lakes, plus increased truck traffic from the Dakota Ethanol plant by Wentworth, there's a push to expand Highway 34 from two lanes to four east from Madison all the way to I-29 east of Colman. The "Four for the Future" committee has been lobbying the state Department of Transportation since last April to approve this project. The committee has numbers showing that Highway 34 from Wentworth to I-29 has more traffic than some stretches of South Dakota highways that have already been expanded to four lanes.

Alas, even after Lake County did Governor Rounds the favor of ousting District 8 Democratic legislator Gerry Lange last November in favor of the GOP's next big thing Russ Olson (who also helps lead Four for the Future), the governor told a deputation from the Madison Chamber last winter that the state just doesn't have the money for expanding Highway 34. Secretary of Transportation Judy Payne has been saying since last summer that South Dakota already has a backlog of $600 million worth of road projects. Without intervention more divine than our beatifically smiling governor is willing to offer, Madison won't see four lanes to Colman for 15 years, if not longer.

In the meantime, though, given the argument from Four for the Future that the number one reason for expanding Highway 34 is safety, maybe we need to think of some alternative solutions. If we can't get the governor or the federal government to shower funds upon us, what could we do short of a full four-lane highway to keep accidents from happening?

The simplest solution could be imposing speed limits in the highest traffic areas. Lower the speed limit to 55 or lower on the three-mile stretch of Highway 34 from 461st Avenue to 464th Avenue. That area includes the ethanol plant and the main turns to Chester, Wentworth, and The Lakes Golf Course. Speed limit signs would cost a few hundred dollars, and the speed zones would generate revenue that could be put toward the ultimate highway expansion project. (Our friends in Colman—speed limit 35—could attest to the money-making power of a couple speed limit signs.)

If we can get some highway dollars, maybe we can look at turning lanes at the key intersections. Widen the road a little, move the stripes a quarter mile on either side of the major intersections, and presto! We can move the big corn trucks and boat trailers in and out of traffic with significantly less disruption of traffic flow.

I know neither lower speed limits nor turning lanes are as good as four lanes of freewheeling fun. A four-lane highway would add another ace (or at least a jack) to our hand in the economic development game. But if we can't shake loose the funds for economic purposes, let's do what we can for safety first.
*For years I've heard this story about local isolationism in the 1960s. Unfortunately, I've never found any documentary confirmation of the story. The Madville Times welcomes submissions from anyone who was there or has old newspapers, meeting notes, or correspondence that would eithr confirm or deny this interesting tidbit of local history.
Update: Madison Daily Leader editor Jon Hunter provides exactly that documentary confirmation!

Free Speech and License Plates

O.K., Steve, I'll bite....

We English teachers have a keen interest in free speech—it's our job to teach kids how to use it and use it well. I thus note with interest the ruckus over the DMV's demand that Sierra Club organizer Heather Moriah surrender her vanity plate, which reads "MPEACHW". [Photo by Steve McEnroe, Rapid City Journal]

The original Rapid City Journal article is getting plenty of coverage elsewhere—Dakota War College, Dakota Voice, and about 90 other results on a general Google search on "Moriah" and "MPEACHW". The RCJ article itself has garnered about 400 comments, 26000+ words worth of comment since Thursday. Just a few notes from the lake:

First, much as this First-Amendment hawk hates to say it, DMV director Deb Hillmer may rightly protect herself with the letter of the law. The state is not obliged to let citizens express themselves on their license plates. Denying individuals the opportunity to express a message with seven letters on a license plate does not deny them the opportunity to express the same message in some other form in the same venue (e.g., bumper stickers or my preferred method—you tell me which works better).

Nonetheless, a vanity plate is a unique form of expression. At the very least, they say, "Hey! I'm serious enough about this message that I'm willing to spend an extra $25 on it!" Seeing that message in shiny red, white and blue where we usually expect a string of semi-random numbers and letters has an impact that a bumper sticker does not. Plus, the vanity-plate owner isn't asking taxpayers to subsidize a message they disagree with; each plate holder pays for her own plate and any message thereupon, thus absolving the state and the rest of us from responsibility for any message upon it. If Moriah wanted to take the DMV to court, she'd have some reasonable constitutional arguments and a lot of citizens willing to back her up.

The state does have the authority to reject requests for patently obscene or defamatory plates vanity plates. (I'd include plates that pose a clear and present danger to public safety, but I'm left scratching my head trying to think of seven-character sequences that could create national security risks or incite violent revolution.) However, even there, the state faces the classic challenge of determining what constitutes obscenity. Does one complaint nullify the First Amendment? Rapid City civil rights lawyer Patrick Duffy (fresh from the shower and negotiations over the next Dallas sequel), offers the following very important answer:

Rapid City lawyer Patrick Duffy said there’s plenty of reason to complain. Duffy, who has worked on key civil rights cases involving American Indian voting issues, said action by the state means that any personalized plate must be recalled because of a single complaint, no matter what the message.

“What this means is that every atheist can now wipe out anything that seems to refer to God,” Duffy said. “Will vanity plates for members of the armed forces suddenly be declared offensive if they offend a single pacifist? It’s absolutely preposterous.”

Even obscenity must be judged by the mores and standards of a community, not just one offended individual, Duffy said.

“Here, all we need is one lone citizen who is apparently invested with the complete authority to determine what is good taste and decency for all the rest of us,” he said. “It seems a little tyrannical to me.” [Kevin Woster, "State Looks to Pull Anti-Bush License Plate," Rapid City Journal online, May 3, 2007]

Catch that? One complaint does not obscenity make. And even if the DMV received 5000 complaints about the plate, in this case, we're talking a clearly political message, not vulgarity. Free speech always offends someone. That's why the First Amendment exists: to protect free expression against the tyranny of the state, the mob, or one grouchy crackpot with time to make trivial complaints.

Update 2007.05.07: DMV backs down! Morijah wins! See above!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Now That's Tough Algae

While Lake Herman remains relatively clear (coliform bacteria aren't green), Pelican Lake up by Watertown apparently has some really mean algae. KJAM reports on mysteriously calm water up north. Residents reported that even on a day with wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour, where whitecaps should have roiled across the water, there was very little wave action on Pelican Lake. State DENR specialist Ken Madison says a big diatom bloom, fed by high nitrate and phosphorous levels in the lake (that's usually farm fertilizer and waste run-off).

Now wind and water can move boulders and eat away shorelines on our lakes. Algae that can stave off 35-mph winds and keep the lake smooth is mighty tough algae. We joke about our summer algae blooms being so thick you can walk on them. If that Pelican Lake algae keeps up, we may not be joking.

Corn Power? Try Beer Power!

As we turn our cornfields into gas stations (and as gas prices still climb), the Australians offer a novel solution to clean energy: beer power. Scientists at the University of Queensland announced yesterday plans to install a microbial fuel cell at the Foster's brewery near Brisbane. Our friends the microbes will eat brewery wastewater containing sugar, starch, and alcohol (I know some locals who'd like that job) and turn it into clean water and two kilowatts of electricity.

Now the Madville Times proudly declares itself a secular adjunct to the Women's Christian Temperance Union ("Touch not the cup!"). However, in the usual Madville Times spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness, this writer acknowledges that some feel it's a darn shame to waste perfectly good alcohol on a car engine. Perhaps we could produce an even happier population by building some breweries next to our ethanol plants. Let the ethanol plants produce energy as their main product with distiller's grain for cattle feed as a by-product, but also promote some crop diversification by producing South Dakota cold barley soup and getting some clean electricity on the side. More jobs, more farm profits, more power, and, well, more beer. Sounds like real energy synergy to me!

Lake Herman -- Mom Always Told Me Not to Drink It...

The Madville Times is participating in a water-quality monitoring project administered by the East Dakota Water Development District. At least once a month through October I'll step away from the keyboard for an hour or two to venture upon the wild waters of Lake Herman to take water samples, which will be analyzed for coliform bacteria. I'm monitoring the west side of Lake Herman; other volunteers will take samples elsewhere on Herman as well as on Madison, Brandt, and Round, giving us a good spread of data about the entire local watershed.

Project coordinator Jeanne Fromm braved the waters with me in my trusty canoe on my first sampling adventure a couple weeks ago. Fromm reports the following readings for the samples we took:
  1. "field blank" (distilled water): NO coliform, including E. coli, bacteria. (That means nothing fishy in our kitchen or on my hands!)
  2. Lake Herman Sample #1 (from a small run-off inlet a hundred meters NW of the Game Fish & Parks boat ramp on Cottonwood Cove Trail): No coliform/E. coli bacteria.
  3. Lake Herman Sample #2 (from a larger, active run-off inlet just NW of Camp Lakodia): 300 colony forming units (CFU)/100 ml of E. coli and 500 CFU total coliform/100 ml.
The EPA recommended standard for E.coli is 126 CFU/100 ml (average) and 235 CFU/100 ml (single-sample max). Let's hope this single reading from our second sample site is an anomaly. For now, the Madville Times encourages folks to come enjoy the fishing, boating, and swimming here, but remember: fish, pelicans, and cows do poop in this water, so you take a swig of Herman at your own peril.