Friday, October 26, 2018

Dirty fingernails deserve respect

How we assign value to jobs and the people who do them is a theme of Sarah Smarsh’s book “Heartland.” I often talk about my experiences of summers on a Kansas farm in Bunker Hill, Kansas in romanticized fashion. Smarsh’s experiences as a farm kid were similar to ours, until the farm crisis of the 1980s took that life from her and thousands of other family farmers.

My mother’s parents also lived in Bunker Hill. My grandfather worked in the oil fields and my grandmother was a telephone operator in Russell. Though they lived in “town” they kept a garden, canned, made their own clothes and were seldom idle. Both sets of grandparents were what Smarsh might call “dirt under their fingernails folk.”

A vivid memory is one of being rushed to the Russell hospital during an anaphylactic reaction to a yellow jacket sting. Even though I wasn’t completely coherent, I recall my roughneck grandfather slamming his wallet on the receptionist’s desk and in his own special color of language, letting the woman at the counter know he would be able to pay the bill. My grandfather was not a particularly kind or gentle man, and was quick to anger, but this anger was different.

Reflecting on the incident in the context of Smarsh’s book and 50 years of living I see now the perceived slight was about dirty fingernails. I also recognize now why the Sunday morning ritual of our dad inspecting our fingernails before church takes on new meaning.

Smarsh has hit on a deeply meaningful metaphor. The jobs and skills my grandparents held with their maybe 8th-grade education are similar to jobs we want our students to consider. The difference is the new jobs require more refined and advanced skills. Many of those jobs pay well. Well enough to be able to slam your wallet on the counter and say, “I can pay the @#*% bill.” The obstacle is more about the respect we hold for those jobs and the people who hold them.

We are starting to break down the walls of those perceptions, but we have more work to do. A story I have heard often enough to be cliché is about an educator or business person saying, “We need to promote technical education,” followed by “but my kids are going to college.”

Smarsh points out that our culture favors folks with clean fingernails, and so therefore our social and political systems do to. Those systems change slowly, if at all.

Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To value a job is more than talking about it. It is to make people who hold all jobs feel valued.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Redesign: Its no bull...

Recently in the KASB offices we discussed what makes school redesign so difficult, and even scary. It can be a dangerous business and requires a delicate dance of agreeing upon a mission, establishing clear goals, planning strategies and tactics, teamwork, adaptability in working toward a common goal. As often is the case with trauma victims, it caused me to recall a moment from my younger days.  

In the early 1980’s, when my dad decided to become a gentleman farmer/rancher, the decision was made to make a dramatic change in breeds of cattle from the pet-like polled Herefords that were the family tradition, to a more, shall we say, challenging cross between a cow and a Tasmanian devil -- the Brangus Breed.  

For those of you who are unfamiliar with our bovine buddies, Brangus cattle are the result of taking a docile, pet-like Angus cow, and crossing her with a fire-breathing, snot-blowing rodeo bull. When you arrive at an offspring that can jump a five-wire fence flat footed and is mean enough to chase you into the bed and over the cab of your pickup, you have a Brangus.
A Brangus bull is a magnificent beast to look at and admire, but a menacing monster to both man and beast. On the Heim farm, we introduced a particularly fine specimen who was called “The General.” He couldn’t get along with the other bulls, tormenting them to the point of exhaustion, so the solution was to put a ring in his nose. Beyonce fans, don’t be confused -- putting a ring in it is way different from putting a ring on it. A bull’s nose is very sensitive, so the nose ring makes it uncomfortable to brawl with the other fellas.  

Eventually, reason won the day and the decision was made to sell The General, but the buyer had a caveat -- he wanted the ring removed. One might say this was our mission, to get this creature as far away from us as possible. I was not present for the insertion of the nose ring -- no doubt a banner day --  but I was there for the removal, and it was a day that will forever live in infamy on the little farm on the Smokey River. Three young men were assigned the task, my brother-in-law Brad, my brother, Woody, and me. Three goals readily came to mind: Don’t anger our father, remove the ring, and live through the process. We quickly arrived at strategy, tactics, and roles.  

Step one was to get The General into a squeeze chute. A chute that was at least 20 years old and not one of these fancy new ones, but a wood-slatted creaky thing that I remember trapping my brother in when were young. It was an ample design for trapping a 5-year-old boy, but not so much for a 5-year-old bull. We got him in and squeezed him down. Every time he inhaled it sounded like the slats would explode with his next breath. Every time he exhaled I swear you could see fire in his nostrils. Adaptability and teamwork came when we saw that flimsy chute trying to contain that big angry beast.  
My brother-in-law is a master with tools and metal, so he was assigned the screwdriver. My brother is quick-witted, so he was assigned the gate to the barn exit and encouragement duties.  

I have few skills at all, so my job was to stand at the barn door and if the other two came running out, roll the door shut before the bull made it to the opening. Roles were assigned, and teamwork ensued.  
The ring was brass and had a small brass screw holding it together. Brass is a soft metal, and an angry 2,000-pound monster is an unwilling accomplice, even in a squeeze chute. The screw head was quickly stripped. Again, time to adapt in the middle of the plan. As with any plan, one doesn’t always have the necessary resources at hand when handling a dangerous problem, and problem-solving skills are imperative.  

Bolt cutters would have been a great option, but what we had was a hack saw. The team roles were re-assessed and a round robin ensued. Saw as hard and fast as you can without nipping the beast’s nose, then hand the saw off, and rotate to the other two duties. My best and last recollection is that men and beast were covered in blood and snot when my brother-in-law mumbled something under his breath about how worthless his new brothers were, grabbed the saw a final time, and willed that saw through that ring in about three strokes. Mission accomplished, goals achieved, strategies, tactics, and roles a success!  

School redesign isn’t as dramatic, nor physically dangerous as what we went through. Making changes to schools is a harrowing business nonetheless. Instead of a large snarling beast, boards and superintendents work through a system that has evolved over 100 years to do a great job with a lot of students. To achieve the mission of all students learning, one must remove the parts that don’t work, while retaining the parts that do. It is not as clear cut as the bull and the ring, but the system can be just as angry about the process.  

Be deliberate in your process, bring the bull along gently, have the courage to make the changes needed, and everyone will be better off. But don’t be surprised if you get a little blood and snot on you along the way.  

(Disclaimer: My description of the Brangus Breed is an obvious exaggeration intended mostly to give my dad a hard time. Mostly.)  

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

It's Just Math, Boys!

Some friends convinced me to go to a casino recently, I think maybe the third time I have been in my 60 years.  The idea of giving someone my money for no reason just doesn’t appeal to me.  Although I didn’t put any money down, I’ll admit it was fun to watch people I know lose their money.  Spirit of competition and all that.

Two bright gentlemen showed off their “systems” at the roulette tables.  One system involved betting on pretty much every number.  That person was able to maintain a large pile of chips that took some time to dwindle to zero.  Another “system” involves establishing a “lucky number” and then betting both sides of it in a “wedge.”  It’s all very scientific.  

With both systems, it seemed very important to know the term, double down.  Winning? Double down. Losing? Double down! One lost his money very quickly, the other took longer, but he too lost his money.  Of course, this shouldn’t surprise anyone with a basic understanding of math.  A winning number pays 35-1 and the wheel shows numbers up to 36. Seems fair unless you note that there is a zero and double zero on the wheel too.  That means your chances of winning are 37-1, and a winner pays only 35-1.  A small, but important difference that means the House always wins in the end. 

The odds don’t matter though, because this was admittedly fun (at least when it wasn’t my money being lost.). There are bright lights, big crowds, cheap drinks, exciting sounds, and plenty of cheering “winners.” There are no clocks and no windows, and this must be the only place left in the country where you can smoke.  Anything goes! Who cares about statistics and facts and odds and math?

Who cares indeed, as this same casino mentality has entered our political environment.  Statistics are boring, facts aren’t facts, truth is what I feel; who needs math?  Say what you want, the more provocative the better, and hope no one does the math.  Math is boring, but wild statements and accusations are the bright lights, ringing bells and cheap drinks of politics.  These candidates count on people not stepping away from the table and critically considering what they are saying.  When a small confrontation broke out at the casino roulette table, I’ll paraphrase a non-gambling friend who said dryly, “it’s just math boys, nothing to get upset about.”

At KASB, we do math.  Ted Carter and Mark Tallman are not casino pit bosses with green eyeshades and sleeve garters, but they do spend some time hunkered down with spreadsheets.  When a casino candidate makes a dramatic claim with no basis in fact, then doubles down when it is revealed to be false, Ted and Mark don’t ring bells, buy drinks, or flash lights. They just do math.  Too many administrators in Kansas schools? Let’s do the math- Kansas is below the national average for the number of administrators in schools.  Schools also have fewer employees in management roles than business and industry. It’s just math boys, nothing to get upset about.

Seventy-five percent to the classroom? A specious argument with ill-defined terms.  Just like those bright lights and cheap drinks, it sounds good, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Shouldn’t we talk about how Kansas educators support student learning to achieve above average results at below average costs? It’s just math boys.

Someone else who does math is Dr. Lori Taylor, Professor of Economics at Texas A & M University.  Dr. Taylor is a well-known conservative academic who was paid $240,000 to study Kansas school finance.  Economist Taylor found that Kansas Schools are among the most efficient in America and need to spend more to properly educate students.  Dr. Taylor’s study was validated by another study for which the legislature paid $40,000.  Doing math can be profitable! 

Casinos are fun and entertaining.  Making up numbers makes for great sounds bites and media attention.  When it comes to my money, and our Kansas kids, I suggest we just do the math.