Tag Archives: reform

Keeping Hope Alive

As I wrap up my dissertation, essentially finishing twenty-one long years of formal education, I’m reflecting on the path I’ve taken and the road before me.  Thirteen years ago when I earned my bachelor’s degree I was elated, a bit nervous, and yet wonderfully excited to start life. Never mind that I’d been living plenty all along, but that lesson is one that often comes with age.

I can’t say I have quite the optimism I had at 21. Yes, in my innermost soul is still this hopeful belief that humanity and the world can be great– that we can stop bombing each other, hating each other, and fighting wars over god like toddlers who refuse to share a toy.

The recent events in Missouri, which in truth are simply a brush fire in a long sequence of policies which have led to militarized police, a disappearing middle class, and as much racial segregation now as when my mother rode the bus and blacks sat at the back.

I must admit, I spent many years of my youth trying to reconcile the patriotic history in the school books and the truth. When your third grade teacher tells you how police beat her when she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s hard to see anything positive in the fact this country was built on slavery. I think her name was Mrs. Horne, maybe, but I was in awe of her and all like her who had made the world a better place, or so my 8 year old self thought.

Oh and manifest destiny– can’t forget that gem. My school books made it sound so great, like this wonderful, grand achievement. Oh sure, we killed off as many Native Americans as we could, nearly drove a species (Bison) to extinction for spite, but let’s not look at that stuff too closely.

I grew up with the rhetoric that racism was a thing of the past. Sure there were crazy KKK folks, but no one takes them seriously anymore. I sadly realized it wasn’t. I’ve seen it at play all around me. It’s the folks that paint all minorities with broad strokes. It’s the hiring managers that offer a job to a less qualified white dude rather than anyone of color. It’s the average person that thinks nothing of the fact that when lunch break is announced on the job site, all the whites congregate, all the blacks, and all the Hispanics in separate groups. No one even tries to bridge the divide. It’s the insulting jokes made in front of kids, spreading the hate to another generation. It’s all that and more.

Folks say that a lot of problems need to be fixed internally (i.e. inside the minority communities), well, yes, but the whole system is corrupt, which makes fixing anything difficult. Our whole government needs an accounting, because they owe the people a whole hell of a lot. We have not sent brothers, fathers, cousins, sons, and friends off to bleed and die to have our country rip away our rights, steal our opportunities and jobs, and crush us under debts and fear.

As someone who did not come from money, and who has worked very hard to get where I am, I’m more aware than many how important education is. Education creates leaders and thinkers. Education gives us the tools to be more than our parents dreamed. It creates informed voters. It is what can make America truly great.

In key parts of my life, it was very often a teacher that made all the difference. My sister teaches middle school choir in a school populated by primarily low-income children. She’s one of those teachers, the one that doesn’t see a kid that statistics say won’t succeed, but rather a child. She challenges each one, demands nothing but the best, and also, when the time is right, nudges them to envision a future beyond the ghetto, barrio, slum, or whatever you wish to call it. The first step in trying is believing you can. No matter race or class, that type of mentor-ship is invaluable. It can change lives. Quality education then provides the means for children to grown into adults that have more than prison and welfare as a future.

We pay our teachers crap, give them so much paperwork they are lucky to get sleep, and yet we expect them to work miracles year after year with naught but blame heaped at their feet. Even at the higher level institutions we are seeing the results of decades of this. Good teachers are giving up. Good researchers are retiring. Their passion has been choked by red tape and red ledgers created by futile wars.

Just as hate is taught, so is hope. I say that it isn’t too late. Help a neighbor. Help a teacher. Help a child. DO something.




My Fifteen Seconds

Last week I wrote about the crazy line procedure that is a Memphis staple for getting your child into a passing school. I could be generous and say, “good school”, but after what we parents have to do, I think my kids deserve more than fake P.E. and teachers who think fish have eyelids. In most cases, it seems to have degenerated to the point that good means your kid will not likely be jumped by a gang member. Of course, seeing as how they write their own standards, I’m not really all that surprised. At least the district merger got rid of the phasing out grades program.

Test scores tell us that there are less kids reading below their grade level now versus ten years ago. Judging by the every increasing insanity of the Optional School process, it may not be so much that the schools are better, but rather that more and more parents are moving their kids from ineffectual schools to ones that at least are mediocre.

I have high expectations. An excellent school would have physical education more than once a week, and they would play sports rather than watch them on a screen. No, cup-stacking is not a sport and neither is the Wii. Kids would be able to run and play. There’s a place for fancy computers in the scheme of teaching, but there’d be a library overflowing with books of all kinds. It would be standard to teach a foreign, basic computer and typing skills, and the arts would be a core part of education. Teachers would understand that children should not have to be quiet both in class and in their free time. Lunch rooms and playgrounds are loud. Buy earplugs.

Granted, not even the schools I attended boasted all of that, but many had pieces of that mythical excellent school. Even when I was a kid, funding for the arts had dwindled to a trickle and I think some of my playgrounds were older than the teachers.

In reality, such a school is unlikely to rise from the ashes of the Memphis Public School system any time soon. Charter people are coming in and trying to overhaul schools, with mixed reception. I’ve looked at charter schools over the years, but none of them have impressed me. Putting fancy uniforms on students and making them into little tin soldiers that follow rules well may make for good PR pictures, but doesn’t teach the kid how to be anything more.

I had my share of teachers that were there to collect a paycheck and go home. I distinctly recall my seventh grade history teacher chatting with the teacher in the next room while we were supposed to be working. She hated teaching and was working to become a banker. She complained often and didn’t seem to care that kids might hear. I doubt I was the only nosy student. She left the following year. Still, despite the outliers, I received a good education and was well prepared when I went to college. In all honesty, much of the material I covered my freshman year was review, which made the transition from high school to college less daunting.

When I have to re-teach at home what a teacher supposedly taught at school, why are my kids in school? I don’t want a glorified baby-sitter. Some of the fault lies with the policy makers. Changing how a teacher presents a subject does no good if the teacher does understand what they are presenting. In one case of Miss Diva being confused on an assignment, I suspect the teacher had no idea why the lesson was there, let alone how it applied to multiplication.  I always ask, “Why?” It took me a minute, as algebra II was a good eighteen years ago, but that rusty little file cabinet in my brain squeaked open. “Matrices!” I could not for the life of me solve a matrix math problem now without the aid of Google, but just that little spark of memory helped me understand why the book presented it as such and explain it in a way Miss Diva understood. Maybe that teacher had not had that sort of math, or had not done it in so long that she forgot it entirely. The system should help teachers stay up to date, not just on the latest ways to teach to a test, but staying qualified to teach.

Maybe if the Shelby County School system supported the teachers better (less ipads and more training), got rid of the ones that are idiots (eyelids on fish…really?), and regularly expelled the kids that posed threats to the class and the teachers, parents wouldn’t have to jump through hoops just so their kid is safe, let alone educated. It would improve the entire city. Instead of a handful of neighborhoods being desirable, any neighborhood with a school could become a good place to live, because children and families are the cornerstones of a community.

Until then, we parents get to wake long before dawn to stand in frigid temperatures, in order to do nothing more than fill in a scant three or four lines of information. The rest is all online. One would think in this age of computing that the school district could find a way to make the entire process online, at least for those already in the district’s system. Of course, what else can we expect from a system that thinks parking a kid at a computer qualifies as tutoring or hires substitute teachers that tell kids, “God’s gonna get you!” when they misbehave?

I stood outside in freezing wind for an hour and forty-five minutes. The parents around me were all very nice. We huddled together and chatted. You know it’s cold when your smart phone does not respond because your finger is too cold. Also, thank you to the nursing student who loaned me the blanket!

A news anchor with the local Channel 5 news interviewed me. You can click here to watch my fifteen seconds of fame. After the interview, I realized I forgot the year I moved Mr. Smarty Pants from one middle school to another, so I’ve done the idiotic line-a-thon six times.


The cost of science

In the current economic state everything gets boiled down to the bottom line. How many discoveries are we missing? More importantly, how many young scientists, like myself, see the battles our professors wage and think, “Ah, hell no.”?

I was chatting with a visiting student who is doing research in our lab for several months. She, as well as the other graduate student in my lab all say the same thing. We have no desire to do what our professor does day in and day out.


Being a professor now entails a bit of teaching, a lot of inane meetings, and spending way more than a mere forty hours a week writing grants, re-writing grants and prepping reports if you are lucky enough to have received funding. The stress must be intense, because not only is a professor’s career on the line, the livelihoods of every technician, student, and research assistant depends on him or her.

A professor from my undergraduate university gave a talk here this week for graduate student day.

“Imagine, ” she said, “that Charles Darwin proposed a grant for traveling around for a decade or so just to observe and think about how different species of birds are related. That wouldn’t go over.”

The imaginative out-of-the-box thinking has to take place on our own time while we juggle all the things that pay the bills. Sounds rather like being a writer in many ways.  In fact, she emphasized that the best scientists had outside creative interests which kept that right-left brain balance in check.

My boss is one of those dreamer types. He’s always saying he needs to start a company because grants don’t pay enough, but he has no patience for business and would likely give away a drug if it cured something, rather than charge a hefty price like big pharma. He has endless ideas, many of which he might never get a chance to pursue.

The emphasis on the bottom line, having to work with very little resources, fewer and fewer trained personnel and still deliver high quality data is likely driving the next generation of scientists out of academia.

Why should we teach when the universities want you to water everything down? Why dedicate every ounce of our energy into running a lab when funding has become just as political as Washington?

As both a mother and scientist the state of our society worries me. The decline of the educational system combined with the fiscal squeeze in research are going to cost us much more in the long run than we save by any current spending cuts. I can only hope that we repair our system before it crashes and burns.

Occupy science?

Today’s seminar began in the usual boring manner. Truth be told, many of us graduate students peruse Facebook or play clickity games on smart phones while some student, faculty, or in a handful of cases, a guest speaker drones on about their research. The Pharmaceutical Sciences consists of two very different groups of people: those making drugs and those making new ways to formulate and deliver drugs. In any case, no matter who they invite or who is presenting, half the audience tunes out and bemoans either the interruption in work or the chance to go home before dark. One poor guy started snoring today. I sympathize. I’ve napped during seminar more than I care to admit.

So as I clickity-clicked, I listened to the guest speaker point out the flaws with nanotechnology. My initial response of “Interesting, but not my field” began to shift as he drove his point home. He pointed to over half a dozen entrepreneurs that affected dramatic change in society by their inventions or ideas, making the ironic observation that most were college drop-outs. They dared to pursue a passion rather than remain within the defined confines of academia and business. He dared us, not to drop out of course, but rather to change the direction of science, to think outside accepted scientific dogma.

To be expected, his criticism of the nanotechnology bandwagon sparked heated comments, since half or more of the audience work in the area of drug delivery and nanotechnology. He pointed out that while nanotechnology has improved the efficacy of drugs and allowed decreases in dosing to alleviate dangerous side effects, it has not advanced medicine in any sizable degree over the past ten years. Nanotechnology has made a difference, but only as an incremental improvement, another tool to add to our drug discovery and formulation toolbox. Harnessing electricity, discovery of penicillin, the invention of vaccines: these are discoveries which vastly changed the quality of life for all humanity.

In the nineties we thought the genome project would answer everything, but a decade later we learned that one gene can play many roles. Then came the era of proteonomics, and then nanotechnology. Combine the bandwagon trend (if you aren’t working on the “in” thing, good luck getting funded) with the slow shift away from basic science the statistics show stagnant drug discovery. Even the National Science Foundation warns that this disturbing evidence combined with the decrease in government funding is bad news for the country and progress.

As a graduate student, and a person who never fails to ask “But why? How?” it’s become increasingly clear to me that there’s still far more we don’t know, despite our advances. Yet, ask any professor in the department, and if he or she can’t somehow show a direct medical application, funding is just about non-existent. Even for solid applied research funds are sadly in short supply. The complaints I hear lend me to fear that the funding, which is primarily by the government, is as laden with cronies and politics as Washington D.C.

I echo the concerns of the speaker today, but wonder, in a money driven society, can change really and truly occur? Even now I see my department shrinking before my eyes as funding dwindles to a trickle. A multitude of factors contribute, lack of focus on science in public schools, the increased cost of secondary education, poor economy, etc. What happens when all but the wealthiest universities can afford research programs in the basic sciences? The divide of rich and poor will grow and the country as a nation will fall farther behind the rest of the world.

What’s to be done? Like many things in this country, change is needed. We can start by encouraging young people to study math and science. For those of us already in the field and facing financial and ideological obstacles, I can only repeat the sentiment the speaker shared: “Pursue your passion. Persevere. Never give up.”



Correct me if I’m wrong…

It appears I have been under the false impression that P.E., also known as Physical Education, involved you know, physical movement. It seems that it’s more of a theoretical study now. When I asked what my kids did in P.E. I expected something I recalled from my childhood: kick ball, nerf (or regular) dodge-ball, relay races, soft ball, volley ball, soccer, basket ball, four-square, hop scotch, dance games, tumbling, bowling, and of course, the dreaded exercises and yearly physical fitness test. My first grade PE teacher ambitiously attempted to teach first graders basic self-defense. I suspect his youth and ambition underestimated the brevity of six-year-old attention spans. In any case, no where do I recall cup stacking listed as an invigorating sport sure to teach cooperation, burn calories, and foster a healthy sense of good sportsmanship.

To be fair, after checking out “speed stacks” I admit that it is a good way to improve eye-hand coordination, but video games do the same thing and most people agree that sitting on your rear for long periods of time is not conducive to good health.

In case you have the false impression that I was one of those kids, the ones that could run fast, scored every game no matter the game, and was the picture of athletic ability, imagine the exact opposite of that and you have me. Gravity and I share a close adversarial relationship in which I frequently trip over my feet, the ground, or nothing at all. Keeping my eye on the ball never helped, seeing as how my eyes and brain disagreed on the three-dimensional location of the object flying in my direction. As a result, when it came to picking teams, the only people picked after me were those four times my weight. I didn’t totally suck. I loved a good game of dodge ball, even when the dang thing hit me square in the face, or four square, and I only sometimes fell on my butt when playing hopscotch.

I never claimed PE as my favorite subject, but over the course of twelve arduous years I learned about games, I stayed moderately active, I learned good sportsmanship, learned perseverance, and found activities at which I didn’t suck. The news goes on and on about the obesity epidemic, and yet we sit kids down and have the stack cups instead of walk or run a mile, or do jumping jacks. Walking or running doesn’t require special equipment. So, money can’t play a factor, and I happen to know that my children’s school does have equipment for most, if not all of the activities I’ve listed.

Add in the whittling away of recess time, and don’t get me started on the insane rules, such as no running, or touching each other because someone may get hurt, and the system is reinforcing a sedentary lifestyle. This compounds discipline and attention issues because the children aren’t expending any energy and as a result are fidgety and inattentive.

As a parent I’m incensed at the utter idiocy of the powers that be which replaced actual sports with something that at best will prepare our failing education system for careers as, say, dishwashers. When my children say that they move more in music class, which to me means they have an awesome music teacher, than in PE, it confirms in my mind that the system isn’t messed up, it’s broken.

If you really want me to rant, ask me about the absurdity of not giving letter or number grades in grade school, and potentially all the way through twelfth grade.

So, I ask you the public, is this an isolated occurrence? Perhaps they just have a bad teacher? Please, comment and share your stories.