on Mom & Dad

“Live so that when your children think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you.” ~ H. Jackson Brown Jr. (b. 1940) author of the inspirational book, Life’s Little Instruction Book

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As I write this, the two week visit from my Mom and Dad is just winding down. They are here from Phoenix, testing out the waters for perhaps a permanent move. When they share this idea with the people they have met here, folks give them odd looks, as well as comments like “aren’t you moving in the wrong direction”? Don’t get me wrong, the desert is beautiful, especially in the wintertime, but they have grown weary of the fast pace of life, the traffic, and the desert heat. You know how we all escape indoors during the winter? Well, Arizona residents do the same in the summer. The only difference is, while we Iowans can easily pile on the layers to stay warm in the winter, during the Arizona summer one can only get so naked.

Visits from the parents are always a joy and a challenge. No matter how old you are, they still always see you as their child, and resist the eventual coming change in roles. They insist on taking care of you, and even get a bit grumpy when you remind them that not only can you take care of yourself, but should actually be taking care of them. I am constantly reminded that my independent streak did have a source, and patience and humility are qualities with which both sides now have to get more comfortable. The growing never stops, does it?

The Bible tells us to honor our father and mother, and I have been blessed to have parents worth honoring. It is as hard for me as it is for them to watch them age, and witness their bodies start to betray them. I still see them as the parents of my youth, and they still act like they are.  Time has stopped in our memories, but reality keeps barging in, forcing us to acknowledge it and adjust. Both sides are learning new skills, and making our way through them can sometimes be difficult. But I suppose that too is a part of the honoring process.

Mom and Dad have always enjoyed their visits here to Iowa. They comment on how friendly people are, how relaxing the pace of life is, and most importantly, for some odd reason, they sleep better here. Well, at least that last one is important to my Dad. Once they do finally decide on whether or not they are moving here, their next decision will be on whether to buy their own home, or just add on to ours. And I suppose that answer will depend on how well this trial run goes.

But that is an article for another day. In the meantime, I am treasuring my precious time with Mom and Dad until they board a plane for home.

“Parents are like shuttles on a loom. They join the threads of the past with threads of the future and leave their own bright patterns as they go”.  ~ Fred Rogers (1928-2003) American educator, Presbyterian minister, songwriter, author, and television host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

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on Whistleblowers

whis·tle·blow·er: One who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority (definition from www.thefreedictionary.com)

Human beings are not perfect. And if you have been watching the news lately, it appears that those in public office are even less so. Politics is the 2nd oldest profession, and according to former President Reagan, sometimes it appears to be more like the first. It is disappointing to watch those who swore an oath to take on the mantle of a servant to instead engage in the actions of a master, all to protect themselves and their power over others. It is hard to be the little guy when standing up against those with power over you and the ones you love, which is one reason why we have state and federal whistleblower laws. They are meant to protect us from the retaliation of those in power when their mistakes are exposed. I like to think of whistleblower legislation as a kind of “bully protection law”.

We here in Iowa also have whistleblower laws, which are set up to protect employees from retaliation when they report wrongdoing by their employer or the government. What is interesting however, is that these laws do not have provisions to protect students who report wrongdoing by their schools. Currently, there is nothing out there to protect children, or even parents, from retaliation from a school administration, school staff or even fellow students, if they report wrongdoing in their school district. I find this odd. Why would we give special protections to school government employees that we would not give to the taxpayers themselves? Does this not only encourage, but sanction, the bullying of those whom the district is not only tasked, but also took an oath, to serve?  Is it any wonder that parents feel that they cannot stand up for what is right in school districts, out of fear that it will be taken out on their children? Sure, they could always threaten a lawsuit. But not all parents have those kind or resources, and more than likely they will be cowed into silence for the sake of their child or their pocketbook.

We learned this truth last week, when an upstanding young man, a student and an Eagle scout, decided to stand up for what was right. He received an email from another student that contained personal private information that no teenager should be granted permission to access. He was punished along with the boy who sent it, even though he never saw it. When he realized later that the information was actually sitting in an old email account that only his Dad had access to, he advised him of the breach, and then his father went to a school board member out of concern regarding the level of access to private information that our IT Director was granting students. Andy then went to the school board President, requesting action be taken to secure the info and sanction the employee. Instead, it was the student whistleblower who got punished again, with his laptop being taken for 30 days. Yep, that’s right; a young boy went to his father to blow the whistle, his father went to a school board member, who then took this serious concern to school board President, and then the student, not the IT Director, was punished for this action.

What happened to this student was nothing more than simple retaliation. As I sat in that school board meeting, I witnessed the character and integrity of this fine young man, as well as that of his father (who is a respected elder in one of our local churches), absolutely besmirched by those who knew better. They seemed to be more fixated on finding which school policy he supposedly violated than about the fact that our school IT Director had given children access to private information. As someone else who also works in a secured IT environment, I know that if I ever need help to complete a task, I enlist other adults of the same security clearance or I engage management and advise them of my needs. I certainly do not enlist children to do my job, let alone grant them access to secure private company information, no matter how skilled they are. If our salaried school IT Director does not have enough time to complete his required duties such that he needs to enlist the help of our kids, then perhaps the district should not be allowing (or paying) him to take time out of his day to drive one of our school buses. Or even better, maybe we should just seek someone else for this position who has a greater and more efficient IT skill set than that of our students.

Whistleblowing laws exist because those in power often choose to circle the wagons instead of doing what is right. Last week we witnessed how our school administration attempted to punish a student whistleblower. It is time we ask our legislators to expand current whistleblower laws to now also include students. If we want to truly teach our children how to stand with integrity, then the laws need to not only protect them, but also their families, from being retaliated against when they actually choose to do so in our school districts.

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.” ~ Elvis Presley

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on Data Mining, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I provided a list of all the personal information the state of Iowa gathers on students, including those in some private and homeschooled environments. While many believe that such personal information on your child stays within the school district and the Iowa Department of Education, sadly that is not the case. There is a large and growing list of non-education entities that will have access to this information, with only tenuous connections to improving education. While not all entities have a need for every bit of student information gathered, they will have access to all of it, should our government ever determine that they have a “compelling interest”. Below is a list of the current entities that will have access to your child’s data:

  • Iowa Department of Education
  • Pearson
  • Department of Human Services
  • University of Minnesota
  • Tri Tran
  • University of Iowa
  • American Institutes of Research
  • Iowa College Student Aid Commission
  • eScholar
  • Iowa State University
  • SAS
  • Iowa Workforce Development

What we do not know, and the state could not tell me, is if any of these entities have corresponding agreements with the federal government to share data. Unfortunately, this is a very common practice, as the federal government uses it as a means to get around current education law that normally prohibits them from getting this information. In fact, two of the current private entities that are developing tests for the Common Core, SBAC & PARCC, already have agreements in place with the feds to do just that. So once Iowa chooses the one we will use, all our children’s personal data will be accessible by the federal government via these third parties.

While some folks may not have a problem with all this information being gathered on their children well beyond college and held indefinitely, we should have a problem with the fact that neither parents, nor the children once adults, can ever opt out. Without our permission, children’s information is to be captured, stored and accessed by whomever, and whenever, the government or these third parties wish. Given the recent news stories about government data security breaches, as well as federal employees using personal information across agencies to target political opponents, the government has proven itself quite untrustworthy. Every mistake your child ever made in school will be recorded, with no situational context. So too will be if they ever sought psychiatric help or attended school at a correctional facility. So too if they were ever a foster child or homeless. Interpretation of the data will be controlled by the government or third parties, not you. If such information ever got out, could it affect a child’s future potential to get or keep a job? Would it impact them socially or politically as adults? Once in a database for all to see, gone is a child’s ability for a clean slate. And once breached, no law can undo any knowledge it shares.

According to the grant application, the state of Iowa intends to expand this system beyond the current tenuous ties it has to children’s education data. It will eventually include data from entities such as correctional facilities, healthcare, and social services, to be shared with, well, anyone they choose. On pages e39-40 of the 2012 Iowa SLDS grant application, it states the following: “The goal of a longitudinal data system is to provide a generic infrastructure that can be linked across institutional silos so that a potentially unlimited number of questions could be answered with accurate data….Issues and analysis that may be unforeseen today can be queried by efficient data mining if the requisite data was collected in any one of our systems. A P-20W [preschool through work] SLDS also allows for the addition of other agencies and outcomes such as corrections, healthcare, and social services…to create a robust resource for educators, administrators, policy makers, employers and consumers.”

As taxpayers who pay for public education and public programs in the first place, parents should have the final say as to how information on their own children is handled, not the government. They don’t cede their rights to privacy just because they take advantage of the very entities they fund. This data mining will not improve education, and frankly, is none of anyone’s business. Isn’t it about time we kick the nosey neighbor of government out of our homes?

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on Teachers

Think back to when you were still in school. Do you remember your best teachers? What was it about them that made your school experience better? Your future life better? There are three teachers that come to mind for me when I look back on my childhood, and every one influenced who I am today.

The first one was Sister M.G., who was my second grade teacher after my parents moved to a new town in the middle of the school year. Not only did I have to deal with a new home in a strange town, but this shy little girl had to make new friends in a brand new school. Sister M.G., in her quiet, gentle voice, helped me navigate all the scary things, from new books, to new friends, to new building. I had a lot of catching up to do too, and she patiently took the extra time needed in order to make sure that I didn’t fall behind. Sister left an impression on me on how good teachers not only teach – they love.

The second one was Mr. K, my high school social studies teacher. Mr. K was crazy. Not the crazy in a weird, psycho kind of way, but the “I’m-so-passionate-about-how-exciting-history-is-that-I don’t-care-if-people-stare” kind of crazy. When I was in his class, history came alive, leaping from the dusty textbooks right into my imagination. As Mr. K jumped upon his desk, the people of the past became real as he acted out the battles between the Visigoths and the Romans, the anguish of the pilgrims as they left their families behind to sail to the New World, and the hushed secret meetings as American colonists planned a risky Revolution for freedom. Mr. K. left an impression on me on how learning consists of more than just reading words on a page – it is an embrace of life, both past and present, good and bad, in order apply wisdom to my own path.

The third one was Mrs. B, my AP English teacher, and I hated her guts. She was a former college professor, who wanted to return to a place where she felts kids were still obligated to learn: high school. She was tough, with high expectations, and did not put up with any shenanigans. If you didn’t follow instructions, your grade got docked. If you weren’t able to spell words correctly or used poor grammar, your grade got docked (and kids, back then the only spellchecker that existed was you and a thick Oxford Dictionary). And if any, and I mean ANY, of your work was not your own, you flunked. No retests. No do overs. Not even grading on a curve. You sank or swam on your own. In her mind she was preparing us for real life. By the end of the year 1/3 of our class had dropped out. Another 1/3 called her bad words behind her back. And the rest, like me, just tried our best to survive. I squeaked by with barely a “B-“, the lowest grade on my transcript for the year. I was devastated. At least I was until I took the required writing portion of my college entrance exam. Not only did I do well, but I tested completely out of their 6 credit hour English requirement to graduate.  It was at that moment that Mrs. B left her impression on me – I realized that her having high expectations for students wasn’t being mean, but just a different kind of love. Tough love.

Good teachers are the ones that turn learning a joy instead of a burden for students and parents. And like most professions, it is important that we celebrate and reward those that do their jobs well, because their success not only affects them, it affects our children. Likewise, we need to be able to remove those teachers who are not doing their job well, and for the very same reason, as it not only affects them, but it affects our children. Not everyone’s first job choice ends up being their best job choice you know, and this includes teaching. We do our children, families & all teachers (good and bad), a disservice if we do not ensure that only those with the real gift of teaching are the ones standing before our students. Failure to do this is not only unprofessional and demoralizing to those good teachers that we do have, it is demoralizing to our students and inhibits actual learning. Think back to when you had a bad teacher – isn’t that just how you felt when in his or her class?

The only dividends my past great teachers will ever receive are the success of their students, including me. The love for their craft, their desire to pour into the children in their care, their ability to get to that “ah ha” moment, were not skills learned from teacher in service days, mentors, or more training, but an ability that came from their very core. Great teachers don’t enter the profession for summers off, because great teachers understand that they never will actually get a summer off. They will always be searching for more ways on how to best build up their main investment: our kids.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) author of Fountains of Faith

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on Authority

“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth” ~ Albert Einstein (1879-1955) scientist

On February 1, 1933, two days after Adolph Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address which he had entitled “The Fuhrer Principle”. In this speech he chastised Germans and Hitler for setting up for themselves a leader, an “anointed one”, who was accountable to no one, not even God. He contended that without such acknowledgement of divine authority the Germans were creating for themselves nothing more than an idol, submitting blindly to its orders, no matter how evil. Before he could finish his speech, the radio address was cut off. Twelve years and millions of dead innocents later, Hitler would have him executed.

Bonhoeffer was a devout Christian who actively stood against the evil actions of the Third Reich, even while so many German Christians stood by and submitted to the authority of the Fuhrer. I always had trouble understanding that. How could they remain silent in the face of such evil perpetrated by their own government? What was it that prevented them from standing boldly against the injustice done to fellow citizens? It was then I realized that Hitler and many German Christian leaders were twisting the meaning of Romans 13 (submission to governing authorities) and Mark 12:17 (give to Caesar what is Caesar) in order to justify compliance. In their zeal to be faithful, Germans had forgotten to be righteous; in their zeal to give unto Caesar, they chose to ignore who Caesar truly was.

As a Christian I believe that our God is one of order, who appointed the mechanism of government to reduce chaos, punish evil and further justice. It is for this reason as Christians we are called to be submissive to it. However, we must not forget that earthly government is still made up of fallen, imperfect people, and still subject to the ultimate authority of God. To quote Bonhoeffer, the Christian’s “duty of obedience is binding on him until government directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claim”. We are not supposed to sit idly by and let government do the exact opposite of its calling. We are called to stand boldly and call it out, exhorting it to return to its divine mandate, not use Romans 13 as an excuse for allowing injustice to continue. When the righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of government conflict, it is government that must give way.

Which brings me to Caesar. Who is Caesar today? In biblical times Caesar was a conquering emperor. And as emperor, he ruled; he WAS government. All authority rested on him alone. His decisions were the ultimate law. But can we fairly view modern Western governments, specifically our American government, in the same manner? We don’t have an emperor. We have a representative government, whose delegated authority is shared amongst three branches: the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Unlike Caesar’s Rome, ours is a Constitutional Republic, where it is written into our founding documents that the ultimate sovereign authority rests with the people, not on those whom they elect. So dear friends, who really is Caesar for Americans? Caesar is us.

I have a growing concern that too many Americans are forgetting on whom our government’s authority truly rests. Too many of our elected leaders are seeing themselves as more like Caesar than as elected temporary servants. Too many Americans are treating our elected leaders as more like emperors to be obeyed than as fallen men subject to citizen authority. And too many Christians are blindly submitting to those who allow injustice, evil or chaos to reign in our country, when He whom we claim to serve represents the exact opposite. Like Bonhoeffer, we must understand what it takes to truly be follower of Jesus, boldly standing for and calling our leaders to righteousness, regardless of the personal cost. To do otherwise merely makes us a party to illegitimate authority, and proves us ashamed of the Gospel.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act….We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism

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