Saturday, January 22, 2011

TARGETING ABUSES OF THE SECOND AMENDMENT

The Second Amendment matters little to me. I have a modest history with firearms. I fired rifles in the backyard to kill sparrows using birdhouses intended for other species, in camp competition, and in military training. I needed a handgun only once in Vietnam and have handled no firearm since. But I accept that firearms matter to others for a variety of purposes, some fine, some not so fine.

I believe that people have not only the same right to firearms as they have to automobiles, but also the same responsibilities for them: registration for ownership and restrictions on use. Loaded guns no more belong in crowded places than speeding cars belong on city streets. The amendment is not needed to protect peoples’ rights—no one wants either their firearms or their cars—and should not be used to pervert or preclude their responsibilities. It certainly does not justify firearms without restrictions, as two common arguments suggest.

One is personal or family safety. Crime statistics and media sensationalism suggest that we live in dangerous times. And America has more violence than other nations with advanced economies. But in the quotidian lives of over 300 million Americans, firearms do little to promote individual safety. Firearms kill more people in domestic accidents or violence than in criminal incursions into the family circle. Most of those who possess firearms for self-defense are, in a showdown, unable or unwilling to use them. But no one denies your right to arms for self-defense even if you are a greater threat to those in your home than to those invading it.

The other is political freedom. Despite inflammatory talk, America faces no risk of a government-led confiscation of firearms as part of an effort to suppress individual dissent. Despite anger at illegal immigrants or fear of foreign attacks, Americans face few, if any, dangers from identifiable threats which can be effectively addressed by armed citizens. If the government transfers terrorists to a super-max prison in Colorado or Michigan, neither their good citizens nor those of Maine, Florida, and Idaho are going to need arms to defend their families and themselves in their cabins, condos, or double-wides.

Let us face it: the Second Amendment is a linguistic nightmare and a historical anachronism. Here it is: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Some versions vary in punctuation and capitalization, but the variations do not much affect meaning. Still, I do not find this amendment as problematic as many find it.

Unlike the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment alone uses an absolute construction, a rare syntactic form which establishes conditions for what follows, like a sentence adverb (e.g., “hopefully”). The conditions are now historical anomalies in its references to a state, not a nation, and to a militia.

The amendment is a fossil. It does not assume the very nation and its federal government which the Constitution defined. Instead, it implicitly rejects both. It reflects a political compromise, with those who believed in a strong federal government allowing this after-thought to assuage ruralists who drafted an amendment assuming states to have powers not since either available or practical. Although state militias survive in law and fact, they are government troops acting under government orders for the public good of the state or nation. The national government, not the states, has primary, overriding responsibilities to defend the nation and to enforce the laws of the land. Only paranoid or political wingnuts—often one and the same—imagine armed American citizens fighting pitched battles against National Guard or regular troops, much less doing so successfully. And they would be a far cry from “well-regulated.”

The main clause is straightforward in stating a right like other rights in the Bill of Rights; like them, it is not absolute or unqualified. The right to free speech entitles no one to libel, slander, incitement, and the like; it is limited by the need to prevent harm to individuals and society. Likewise, the Second Amendment defines the right to “keep and bear Arms” but is likewise limited by a similar need. The absolute construction itself implies a specific political purpose which restricts the right: “the security of a free State.” So an individual bearing arms at a political rally or wearing them in a coffee shop is not “well regulated” and is not doing a thing for “the security of a free State.” He may not like government policies or the coffee at Starbucks, but carrying a weapon to a rally or a restaurant is a threat to constitutional democracy and a danger to law-abiding citizens.

Go hunting, shoot skeet, enter marksmanship competitions; otherwise, keep your firearms at home, unloaded and locked up. And stop using the Second Amendment to justify their misuse.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

ACCOUNTABILITY IN NEW MEXICO PUBLIC EDUCATION

For a quarter century, everyone has demanded accountability in public education because of declining student academic performance. Everyone wants teachers or schools to explain or justify themselves and officials to punish or reward them. I am not much for accountability, but, if it is the order of the day, why for teachers and schools only?

School board candidates or members invoke accountability. But I have rarely heard of principals holding teachers accountable; superintendents, principals; school boards, superintendents; or the public, school boards. So, for them, accountability is a charade. Too bad: I would love to hear Las Cruces and New Mexico officials explain or justify poor local and state educational performance, and to see the consequences of that accounting.

Most politicians and businesspeople also like the word accountability. They invoke it to seem sincere, sensible, and responsible about wanting to improve public education. They like a word reflecting inclinations for short cuts and quick fixes easily represented and rationalized by numbers. They use it to cover their lack of understanding of education and their reluctance to try to understand it. So, in a state with a long-term record of poor and deteriorating public education, they give 5 percent of their attention to 50 percent of the state budget. I would love it if they were held accountable.

Politicians and businesspeople have twisted accountability into a rationalization of a biased approach to assessments which, intended or not, stigmatize, intimidate, or punish teachers or schools. The approach combines two seemingly plausible procedures to give it a veneer of reasonableness. One procedure counts data like test scores and dropout or graduation rates; the other procedure scores the data; the results determine labels, threats, and interventions. They do not use results to suitable, constructive purposes: criticize to remediate and encourage to enhance—to improve.

As a result, politicians and businesspeople have achieved a record of consistent failure by enforcing a doctrine of accountability based on counting and scoring procedures. The longer they have dictated the use of these procedures and ignored curriculum content and instructional methods, the greater the deterioration of education. The more they have demanded that teachers or schools obey their dictates (or else), the greater the damage to, and deterioration of, educators’ ability to do their job. As imposed by politicians and promoted by businesspeople, accountability has sped the decline of public education and has let them scapegoat everyone else for it.

For nothing about this doctrine has anything to do with education. Under the spell of its underlying numerology, politicians and businesspeople believe that what their approach cannot count and score has no value and need not be taught. Accountability shrinks curriculum and straightjackets instruction. It constricts education to teaching from textbooks and teachers’ manuals to tests of skills in reading and computing; it thus stifles literature, history, and science; it strangles other valuable lessons which students learn from good teachers outside the work-by-the-rule fetters of accountability.

However, public education might benefit if politicians and businesspeople applied their doctrine of accountability to two deserving targets.

First, the Public Education Department, with no record of helping public education. PED’s curriculum guidelines and benchmarks are mindless, mind-numbing documents serving no good purpose. Worse, it requires districts to produce similar documents in greater mindless, mind-numbing detail serving no good purpose. It does not monitor classroom implementation, which is non-existent; it shuffles papers and requires others to shuffle papers. And its application form for teacher certification devotes much space to character and fitness, some to education, none to experience. Since politicians and businesspeople decry the decline in student academic performance and declare a desire for better teachers, perhaps they should ask why PED’s curriculum efforts have not improved public education, and whether its certification requirements have failed to ensure teacher competency but have succeeded in excluding talented people from teaching.

Second, the state’s colleges or schools of education, with no record of adequately training teachers. For example, NMSU’s COE requires prospective elementary school teachers to take upper-class courses in only one of the four core subjects which they will teach. Most opt for English, a few for social studies, and almost none for mathematics and science. Inevitably, many have trouble teaching mathematics and science. Ironically, despite several reading courses, many have trouble teaching reading. The results have been similar for a decade: only 50% of 4th-grade students demonstrate proficiency in arithmetic or reading. Perhaps politicians and businesspeople should ask the COE and its faculty why their graduates are ill-prepared to get students off to a good start, and hold this school and its teachers accountable for the performance of their students.

I am not much for accountability. But fair is fair. Those with power over local districts and those with authority to train teachers should be no less accountable than those whom they boss around or lord it over. Why are top state and school of education officials not accountable to the public which pays them?