Sunday, April 8, 2012

My op-ed titled "Teachers Offer Hope for Mississippi," in The Clarion Ledger, April 8, 2012, 1C-2C.

As always, visit my Web site at: and follow me on

I've got a scanned version of my piece here, and the text of it below in this blog  post. 

Thumbnail photo of the scan of my piece.
(You can click here for the scanned version.)


The following is the text for my piece, "Teachers Offer Hope for Mississippi," which came out in The Clarion Ledger, of Jackson, MS, on April 8th, 2012, pages 1C-2C.  I repost my articles here, since the pieces get archived after a week and I've been given permission to post them here to keep them available to the public.


Teachers offer hope

Teach for America, Teacher Corps draw top students, but not panaceas

Former Gov. Haley Barbour once called education Mississippi's No. 1 economic development issue. Former Gov. Winter often said that "The road out of poverty runs by the schoolhouse."

Two recent developments are reasons to be hopeful about education in Mississippi. For one, a number of extraordinary graduating college students in Mississippi have made it into Teach For America and the Mississippi Teacher Corps, both very selective programs.

The second story is that Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves call for budget increases for TFA and MTC, requesting increases of $12 million and $1 million, respectively. The programs address the need for more teachers in the state, thus increased support would make a difference.

These developments are good news, even if criticisms are raised when leaders depend too much on such programs. To appreciate both points of view, we can say that TFA and the MTC do great work, but they do represent temporary solutions to our long-term educational challenges. Overall, the best news is that many of our brightest students are looking to serve the state and the country in this vital area.

TFA and MTC are special programs that bring some of the brightest new college graduates to teach in impoverished areas. Both programs are attracting truly remarkable talent.

In 2011, TFA received 48,000 applications from around the country, according to Regional Communications Director Kaitlin Gastrock. Only 14 percent of applicants were accepted. MTC, a state program, received 380 applications last year and accepted only 10 percent of those. As a reference, TFA's acceptance rate is more selective than what you find in undergraduate admissions to Vanderbilt, Duke, and the University of Chicago.

TFA and MTC are drawing a great deal of interest and are selecting from very strong applicants.

This year, a number of University of Mississippi students were accepted into these competitive programs. Both categories include a number of Honors College students and one is a Phi Beta Kappa honoree. These are some of the strongest students at the University of Mississippi.

 MTC Program Manager Ben Guest has argued that teacher quality and availability are two of the most important areas of need for Mississippi's schools. He thinks that the state should significantly increase teacher salaries to draw strong career teachers.

At the same time, he advocates for MTC and TFA as temporary measures, until the public will is garnered to undertake bigger, needed investment.

Guest and others think that TFA throws underprepared teachers into some of the most challenging classrooms in the country. Professor Deborah Appleman of Carleton College argued in 2009 that teaching takes a great deal of preparation, and TFA provides only a very brief introduction to the practice.

On the issue of preparation, studies are inconclusive. Some, such as the 2004 Mathematica Policy Research study, are favorable about the outcomes from TFA taught students.

Other studies, such as Linda Darling-Hammond's 2005 study, show some results of TFA classrooms to be below average. Variations will always occur in teaching, of course, and more study is needed.
Nevertheless, Guest and Appleman argue for more robust teacher preparation processes, given long-term goals for public schools. Measures like MTC and TFA are valuable in the short-run, furthermore, but could be used as excuses not to make larger investments in increased teacher preparation and salaries to fill the need for career teachers.

The standard reply to calls for increased salaries is that "more funding is not the solution." Two points are worth considering here.

The first is that unless we are spending considerably more than other states with higher rates of educational attainment, the assumption is untested. According to a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau report, Mississippi spent $8,919 per pupil per year. By contrast, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Alaska each spent more than $15,000 per pupil, while yielding stronger graduation rates than Mississippi's, according to the New America Foundation.

The second point is that troubled and failing schools can require more money per pupil than successful schools, and beyond any present differences in funding. Bigger challenges normally come with higher price tags.

Modest increases in funding may not make much difference, as the key challenge suggests, but substantial investments very well could.

My favorite analogy is that hopping a curb in a car may not work with only small nudges on the gas. More substantial efforts, however, more gas, might get the desired result.

Guest recognizes that big changes are difficult to achieve, of course. He and others do what they can to address deep problems in our schools with programs like TFA and MTC, but not without recognition of the programs' limited goals and reach.

There is more value to both the teachers in TFA and MTC and their students than people commonly recognize. First, there are few settings as rich for professional development as classrooms. The classroom is one of the most extensive systems where the rubber meets the road every day in terms of public policy's connection to real-life challenges. Plus, in the mechanics of the classroom, teachers learn about people and communities that they were unfamiliar with before.

They gain public speaking skills, facilitation skills, as well as political acumen, as they navigate personalities and hierarchies within the schools.

A further benefit gained from TFA and MTC teachers goes beyond class material, in exposing kids to talented and caring young college graduates. Cultural obstacles often impede progress in addressing both poverty and educational attainment. For, if students are unable to imagine themselves successful in school, why try? TFA and MTC participants can help their students to imagine themselves as young college graduates.

Participants in TFA and MTC may go on teaching or may run for local or state office after their service. They certainly have substance to draw on for making policy recommendations about education in Mississippi once they finish.

Given the professional development that occurs in the classroom, prospective employers should be eager to hire alums of TFA and MTC. Consider what effect two years of maturation beyond college yield for those who go through the programs. Participants have demonstrated their interest in service and have refined their abilities as communicators, critical thinkers, and leaders. These programs benefit participants in ways that will last throughout their careers.

Even with these virtues, TFA and MTC are not panaceas. They offer a path for talented students to serve their state or country. The programs keep talented people in the state and draw talent from elsewhere. Praise for the programs should not discount the important considerations that Appleman and Guest raise, however: that TFA and MTC are not substitutes for adequately funded schools and competitive teacher salaries.

Nevertheless, we have reason to celebrate. A large group of brilliant college graduates are looking to serve the state and the nation. Plus, the calls for support from the governor and lieutenant governor inspire hope that increased support for education and the will to pursue lasting progress are growing.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of three books, including Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy (2011) and the forthcoming Democracy and Leadership.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My piece in Science Progress on Sex Ed in MS, published 2/14/12 (just in time for Valentine's day)

Again, as always, you can visit my Web site here: and follow me on Twitter here:

Click here to open a PDF of the article.
I put out a piece yesterday in Science Progress on the topic of sex education in Mississippi.  The editors timed it nicely to come out on Valentine's Day.  The piece spreads the word about a study that came out at the end of 2011 showing the strong acceptance of comprehensive sex education in the state.  Unfortunately, policy on this issue significantly lags behind the people's wishes for change.

See my piece on the Science Progress Web site here.

Repost of Continuum's Philosophy Blog

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Here's a post on Continuum's Philosophy Blog that came out today:

2011 Public Philosophy Op-Ed Contest

American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy is still accepting submissions for its 2011 Op-Ed Contest. This year they are giving out up to 5 awards for standout pieces that blend successfully philosophical argumentation with an Op-Ed writing style.
Eric Thomas Weber, Chair of the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy and author of our Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism(2010) and Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy (2011) describes the award as a way to call attention to a valuable practice at which philosophers often excel. He writes that “Philosophers frequently make important contributions to public discourse, yet these are rarely rewarded in the profession. Through competitions like this one, the committee offers professional recognition and encouragement for this underappreciated yet much needed form of philosophical activity.” You can visit Eric’s website here or follow him on Twitter here.
The deadline for submissions and nominations is April 20th, 2012. For more information about the contest and guidelines, download the full announcement flyer. To learn more about the APA’s Committee on Public Philosophy and their activities, visit their website.

Continuum's Philosophy blog is available here and the post I've shared with you here is available on their site here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Usefulness of Twitter: Formerly Perplexed to Newly Initiated

Problem: As a tech-savvy fellow, who manages half a dozen Web sites, uses three different computers, a smartphone, and an iPad, I nevertheless had the hardest time making any sense of Twitter.  Twitter is something people talk a lot about, but few explain.  Even as a Twitter account holder, I rarely used the thing and did not really understand its value.

I am now convinced.  Twitter is quite remarkable.  A number of my friends have been perplexed about Twitter also, so I am jotting a few words down to explain the usefulness I see in Twitter.  I am going to assume the reader's familiarity with Facebook, a service more wide-spread in use than Twitter, but with a different purpose.  Twitter is growing and is an impressive tool.

Twitter fills a niche.  On first glance, it looks like a place to post Facebook status updates, but that can be viewed by everyone.  In fact, you can make your Facebook page more public, but most people don't recommend that.  Why?  Because Facebook reveals quite a lot about your identity.  In an age of identity theft, that's not often a good idea to do.  Also, a common feature on Twitter is similarly available on Facebook: following a celebrity, opinion leader, newspaper, etc.  But, there are important differences.  Plus, one might think that 140 characters is not enough to say much.  That's true.  But just think about catchy news headlines.  they're usually far fewer characters.  Plus, you can link to things.  So, as in this case, one can post to Twitter with a link to one's blog or to a site that has more information.  Spreading the word with a blog, however, will only happen if you already have a lot of blog followers.  As I don't at this point, and as Twitter is powerful for spreading messages, it can be the way to drive readers to sites or blogs.

What is remarkable about Twitter is the power it has to spread messages and to allow you to follow discussions about topics.  I am a scholar of Philosophy, Public Policy, Leadership, and more, and each of these terms I can "follow" on Twitter.  The idea is that whenever a person writes about a topic, he or she places a "#" tag before the word ("hash-tag," I've learned to call it, not a "pound sign").  What immediately follows that symbol is then viewable to whomever follows that term.

So, imagine going to a big conference.  You want to keep up with what is going on there.  Using a designated #tag for the event can allow you to follow updates about the event while it is going on.  It is a bit like the big bulletin board chat spaces that used to only be available on desktop computers.  Now you can chat with people on your cell phone.  This could be incredibly useful.  Also, if you are a scholar/researcher, the #tag is akin to Web readers that send you alerts anytime your political candidate or research subject is mentioned in the newspaper.  The difference is that Twitter is a constant, ongoing conversation.  I should add that the "@" tag links to users in much the same way.  So, if you have something to say about Fareed Zakaria, his 100,000 follower list will see your post.

For anyone interested in research, therefore, which includes journalists, scholars, and many more, this is a very interesting and promising new tool.  Given all my friends on Facebook who are scholars, I regularly find interesting links to news articles or journal articles there that are worth reading for my field.  Imagine the same thing being an option with a far larger audience than my small list of (hundreds of) friends.  A message posted by one person can be retweeted, furthermore, which is akin to "sharing" on Facebook, but unlike Facebook, you can spread the word to people who learn about any particular #tag.  So, if there's an article anyone who studies philosophy should read, I can post a link to it on Twitter and add "#philosophy" to make sure that anyone following that tag sees it.

Beyond that, big names often direct their own twitter accounts.  I've seen Fareed Zakaria respond to people directly on Twitter, when he might not respond to emails.  You can understand why.  If someone's comment is short, it is much more likely to be read.  Although I've only put a few pieces in newspapers, I've gotten insanely long emails from people that I haven't had time to read.  If they'd kept their messages short, I'd have been much more likely to read them in their entirety.  And, keep in mind, I'm nobody.  In this same context, Zakaria has responded to people just today.  The accessibility of people, themes, and more is far more direct.

Now, one could reasonably argue that you can't say much in 140 characters.  That's right.  It's just like reading headlines when you visit CNN's page (their headlines are shorter than 140 characters, actually). The point is that you can glance through many headlines quickly, skipping over tons of stuff, and look only at those posts that catch your interest.  Given that they often link elsewhere, you can then go read more and do so selectively.  It's like Facebook in this regard, but with far more possible people to draw from, and with the added power to narrow what you read from them to only those things relevant to your own selected keywords.

Bottom line, why does this matter?  A. You can follow opinion leaders, celebs, politicians, organizations you care about, or sports teams more quickly, directly, and immediately; B. You can spread a message like nobody's business if you're aiming to ("@nytimes," for instance, will reach more than 4 million people), such as about a political candidate, a pressing news story, a fundraising effort, or a change of location for the event you've organized; C. Your messages might have something to contribute to a variety of audiences, and if so, you can mention a person or several (@tag), as well as a topic or several (#tag), the audiences of which will see your link and message when you post it.

I should finally add that as a reader who does not care to post much in a public space, a person could nonetheless really be impressed with Twitter.  The trick, I think, is to follow those newspapers, politicians, opinion leaders, etc., whom you find really interesting (Andrew Sullivan's DISH is very interesting, for example).  Rather than going to their Web sites and browsing, you can have tags keep you up to date on those topics of greatest interest to you, and have those messages sent to you directly via the Twitter conduit.  The possibilities for making use of this platform are remarkable.

Lots of people know this platform FAR better than I do.  Posting here, I've probably understated many things that could be expanded upon or clarified elsewhere.  For now, though, I thought it might be useful to share with others the reasons this new initiate (moi) has come to be highly impressed with a platform that sadly requires the use of the word "tweet" (I know, I know...).  That aside, the potential for a new way to filter news (which is sometimes overwhelming) and to contact people is so great that I thought a few words about it might be worthwhile.

By all means, please correct me in the comments below and consider following me on Twitter: