In Praise of the Clash of Cultures

By Carlos Fraenkel


About 12 years ago, while studying Arabic in Cairo, I became friends with some Egyptian students. As we got to know each other better we also became concerned about each other’s way of life. They wanted to save my soul from eternally burning in hell by converting me to Islam. I wanted to save them from wasting their real life for an illusory afterlife by converting them to the secular worldview I grew up with. In one of our discussions they asked me if I was sure that there is no proof for God’s existence. The question took me by surprise. Where I had been intellectually socialized it was taken for granted that there was none. I tried to remember Kant’s critique of the ontological proof for God. “Fine,” Muhammad said, “but what about this table, does its existence depend on a cause?” “Of course,” I answered. “And its cause depends on a further cause?” Muhammad was referring to the metaphysical proof for God’s existence, first formulated by the Muslim philosopher Avicenna in the

When we transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.

11th century: since an infinite regress of causes is impossible, Avicenna argues, things that depend on a cause for their existence must have something that exists through itself as their first cause. And this necessary existent is God. I had a counter-argument to that to which they in turn had a rejoinder. The discussion ended inconclusively.

I did not convert to Islam, nor did my Egyptian friends become atheists. But I learned an important lesson from our discussions: that I hadn’t properly thought through some of the most basic convictions underlying my way of life and worldview — from God’s existence to the human good. The challenge of my Egyptian friends forced me to think hard about these issues and defend views that had never been questioned in the European student milieu where I came from.

The other thing I realized was how contested my views were. I completed high school in a West German town in 1990 in the middle of Germany’s turbulent reunification (I ended my final exam in history describing the newest political developments I had heard on the radio that same morning). For a few years after the breakdown of the Soviet bloc many thought that everyone would be secular and live in a liberal democracy before long. The discussions with my Egyptian friends brought home that I better not hold my breath.

Since that time I have organized philosophy workshops at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem, at an Islamic university in Indonesia, with members of a Hasidic community in New York, withhigh school students in Salvador da Bahia (the center of Afro-Brazilian culture), and in a First Nations community in Canada. These workshops gave me first-hand insight into how deeply divided we are on fundamental moral, religious and philosophical questions. While many find these disagreements disheartening, I will argue that they can be a good thing — if we manage to make them fruitful for a culture debate.

Can we be sure that our beliefs about the world match how the world actually is and that our subjective preferences match what is objectively in our best interest? If the truth is important to us these are pressing questions.

We might value the truth for different reasons: because we want to live a life that is good and doesn’t just appear so; because we take knowing the truth to be an important component of the good life; because we consider living by the truth a moral obligation independent of any consequences; or because, like my Egyptian friends, we want to come closer to God who is the Truth (al-Haqq in Arabic, one of God’s names in Islam). Of course we wouldn’t hold our beliefs and values if we weren’t convinced that they are true. But that’s no evidence that they are. Weren’t my Egyptian friends just as convinced of their views as I was of mine? More generally: don’t we find a bewildering diversity of beliefs and values, all held with great conviction, across different times and cultures? If considerations such as these lead you to concede that your present convictions could be false, then you are a fallibilist. And if you are a fallibilist you can see why valuing the truth and valuing a culture of debate are related: because you will want to critically examine your beliefs and values, for which a culture of debate offers an excellent setting.

Of course we don’t need to travel all the way to Cairo to subject our beliefs and values to critical scrutiny; in theory we can also do so on our own. In practice, however, we seem to need some sort of unsettling experience that confronts us with our fallibility, or, as the great Muslim thinker al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111) puts it in his intellectual autobiography “The Deliverance from Error,” that breaks the “bonds of taqlîd” — the beliefs and values stemming from the contingent circumstances of our socialization rather than from rational deliberation.

In his own case, al-Ghazâlî writes, the bonds of taqlîd broke when he realized that he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he was a Muslim, had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He explains taqlîd as the authority of “parents and teachers,” which we can restate more generally as all things other than rational argument that influence what we think and do: from media, fashion and marketing to political rhetoric and religious ideology.

More From The Stone

The problem of taqlîd (or what social psychologists today call “conformism”) has a long history. Socrates explained the need for his gadfly mission by comparing Athenian citizens to a “sluggish” horse that “needed to be stirred up.” Note that philosophers, too, fall prey to taqlîd. Galen, the second century Alexandrian doctor and philosopher, complained that in his time Platonists, Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans simply “name themselves after the sect in which they were brought up” because they “form admirations” for the school founders, not because they choose the views supported by the best arguments.

If we take taqlîd to be a fact about human psychology and agree that it is an undesirable state to be in — at least when it comes to the core convictions that underlie our way of life and worldview — then we should particularly welcome debates across cultural boundaries. For if we engage someone who does not share the cultural narratives we were brought up in (historical, political, religious etc.), we cannot rely on their authority, but are compelled to argue for our views — as I had to in my discussions with Egyptian students in Cairo. Consider a theological debate in the multicultural world of medieval Islam, described by the historian al-Humaydi (d. 1095):

At the […] meeting there were present not only people of various [Islamic] sects but also unbelievers, Magians, materialists, atheists, Jews and Christians, in short unbelievers of all kinds. Each group had its own leader, whose task it was to defend its views […]. One of the unbelievers rose and said to the assembly: we are meeting here for a debate; its conditions are known to all. You, Muslims, are not allowed to argue from your books and prophetic traditions since we deny both. Everybody, therefore, has to limit himself to rational arguments [hujaj al-‘aql]. The whole assembly applauded these words.

We can consider ourselves lucky to live at a time in which societies are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and multicultural and globalization forces us to interact across national, cultural, religious and other boundaries; for all this is conducive to breaking the bonds of taqlîd.

Of course diversity and disagreement on their own are not sufficient to bring about a culture of debate (otherwise the Middle East, the Balkans and many other places would be philosophical debating clubs!). Instead they often generate frustration and resentment or, worse, erupt in violence. That’s why we need a culture of debate. In my view, the last years of high school are the best place to lay the groundwork for such a culture.

The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way. To provide the foundation for a culture of debate, the classes I have in mind would focus on two things: conveying techniques of debate — logical and semantic tools that allow students to clarify their views and to make and respond to arguments (a contemporary version of what Aristotelians called the Organon, the “toolkit” of the philosopher). And cultivating virtues of debate — loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent.

When we can transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace. I now live in Montréal, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. When a couple of years ago I had to see a doctor, the receptionist was from China, in the waiting room I sat between a Hasidic Jew and a secular Québécois couple, the doctor who attended me was from Iran, and the nurse from Haiti. This was an impressive example of how Canadians, despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical differences, can work together to provide the basic goods and services that we all need irrespective of our way of life and worldview.

But while I certainly didn’t want to get into a shouting match about God’s existence in the doctor’s office, or wait for treatment until everyone had agreed on how to live, I see no reason why we should ignore our differences altogether. Some advocates of multiculturalism ask us to celebrate, rather than just tolerate, diversity, as if our differences weren’t a reason for disagreement in the first place, but something good and beautiful — a multicultural “mosaic”! Others argue that our moral, religious, and philosophical convictions shouldn’t leave the private sphere. A good example is French laïcité: you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home. Both models try to remove our reasons for objecting to beliefs and values we don’t share — one tries to remove them altogether, the other tries at least to keep them out of sight. A culture of debate, on the other hand, allows us to engage our differences in a way that is serious, yet respectful and mutually beneficial.

Some object that a culture of debate is of no value to religious citizens. Don’t they take God’s wisdom to be infallible, claim to have access to it through revelation, and accept its contents on faith rather than arguments? Yet a brief look at the history of religions shows that plenty of arguing was going on about how to understand God’s wisdom — within a religious tradition, with members of other religious traditions and, more recently, with secular opponents. Al-Ghazâlî for one writes how, after the bonds of taqlîd were broken, he “scrutinized the creed of every sect” and “tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community” in order to “distinguish between true and false.”

The rich philosophical literatures we find in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as in the Eastern religious traditions offer plenty of resources for a culture of debate. The privatization of moral, religious, and philosophical views in liberal democracies and the cultural relativism that often underlies Western multicultural agendas are a much greater obstacle to a culture of debate than religion. My friends in Cairo at any rate, and the participants in the workshops I subsequently organized, all enjoyed arguing for their views and criticizing mine.

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Yes, I did it!

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The Future…..

the chances are very good that … you have never taken a course in futures
studies; never met a person who teaches it at the university level; teach or
study on a campus where futures studies is not offered; and probably
associate futures studies (if the term means anything to you at all) either with
astrology and charlatans or with Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt, or Faith
Popcorn … Your most fundamental images of the future are almost certainly
shaped primarily by films and videos you have seen….

Jim Dator (1998, p. 29Smilie: 8)

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One Thing I Would Change About Higher Education

Laura Apfelbeck | Senior Lecturer, University of Wisconsin, Manitowoc

One thing I’d change about higher education? I’d love to see instructors embrace change. We live on the cusp of an entirely new way of researching, thinking, and knowing. Where once we had to spend hours in the library combing through card catalogs, we can now find the most current materials online and chat with other professionals electronically and even face-to-face through Skype.

We no longer need to be the sage on the stage but can focus on guiding our students toward discovering the processes that will help them become lifelong learners—problem solving, critical thinking members of a local and a global community. That’s so exciting! Yet, as the old saw goes, no one likes change but a wet baby. And so, we see a great deal of resistance. If I could make a change in higher education, I’d like to change the way educators view change.

I’d love to talk with other educators about nontraditional and traditional students and the way they transition to success—similarities and differences.


Daniel Bakos | Professor, Western Georgia University

Firstly, I believe too many of the faculty at institutions of “higher learning” are not interested in doing their job, which I specifically believe to be in the vast majority of institutions, classroom instruction. It seems they all want to teach one or two classes and earn six figure salaries. Dedication doesn’t exist anymore.

Secondly, and furthermore, all the institutions want to kiss the gods of accreditation agencies at the expense of quality education. I believe the folks sitting around in those agencies have too much time on their hands and produce too much paperwork B.S. in the hope of improving education with the real result being a weakening of it.


Hunt Lambert | Associate Provost, Colorado State University

Get the federal government out of higher ed. Keep Pell Grants and financial aid as a public good incentive for people to get educated.

Keep the regional accreditation agencies for quality control but close the Department of Higher Education all together. They add limited value and drive costs up dramatically in K-12 and HE with a never ending stream of new regulations written by people who have never taught in or administered at a university.

Recently the state registration process added about $300,000 per year of cost to all providers of online and distance learning. $300,000 times about 2,000 of us is a $600,000,000 price tag. You can fix the private abuses by legislatively limiting their share of revenue from Title IV to 60% and then almost none of the other rules created to limit them, but mostly punishing the much smaller public providers, are needed.


Brad Herrick | Professor, University of Texas at Austin

I teach college freshman-level chemistry. What I see in the classroom are poorly prepared students, both academically (prerequisite materials and courses) and survival-wise (time management, study habits, etc)… and it is getting worse as the years pass on.

What would I change in higher education right now? I am a pretty strong believer that the lecture, if it is to be used, should be given at an application level. That is, it should be a series of higher-order thinking skills or problem-solving exercises or critical discussions and NOT teaching, per se.

The background material should be presented online in a “hold them accountable” format. By that I mean material is presented… then assessed. If they don’t pass the assessment, they can’t come to lecture. After all, what would be the point of them attending if they don’t have the requisite background material and exercises mastered?

Imagine a Literature professor assigning a chapter or chapters from a novel, followed by online assessment questions to shape the coming lecture’s discussions, and only allowing those in the discussion that read the material and passed the assessment? Can you imagine the quality of that discussion… knowing that all present were best-prepared for it?


Les Sasaki | Professor, Sheridan College

If I were to make one change to higher education at Sheridan, I would reduce class sizes.

I teach a couple of studio courses in Art Fundamentals. Our class limits are 30 and 32 but this term, for some reason, I have more than that. The large class sizes makes it difficult to give each student individual attention.

Also, even though one class may be 30 students, there seem to be several subset classes within that one, based on either a strong contrast in students’ motivation, academic level and competence. In such a situation the eager students don’t get your full attention, the poor students seem to be wasting their time the downright poor students steal time from everyone.

In such classes it is more difficult to get class unity in place. This hampers communication and students then feel its ok not to be part of this big class.


Karen Smith | Instructor, Sir Sanford Fleming College

One of the consistent problems I have observed here at Fleming College is the increasing number of part-time rather than full-time faculty. This leads to individuals only remaining with the college for a few years until they get a full-time position elsewhere leading to frequent turnovers and a lack of consistency for students.

I feel that the overall educational process suffers when faculty are not fully invested in what they are teaching and are forced to split their time between teaching and another job.


Frank Gouin | Professor Emeritus of Horticulture, University of Maryland

There is too much theory and not enough applied. There are too many professors teaching pie in the sky in place of actual facts. There is a need for more laboratory work, field work etc.

Philosophy is great but the greatest need is today’s problems, past solutions and the need to teach simplicity. The computer is great in looking at probability but students need hands-on experience.


Barbara Smith | School Improvement Director, Jalen Rose Leadership Academy

What I would change about higher education in the US is the “sameness” of admissions.

Students must line up at the SAT and SAT trough that somehow has been given elevated status in terms of being the ultimate determiner of who will best succeed at college. We have known for decades that males lag behind females intellectually until grade 11 or 12. How is it that US colleges pay attention to the GPA, a score that averages grade 9 and 10 scores into the final result? How unfair and limiting is that?

Canada (ranked 2-5 in the world in terms of PISA) looks at the students’ grades at the end of grade 11 and the start of grade 12 before making these extremely important admission decisions.

Perhaps a solution is to insist that admission staff have a minimum of an MEd degree, so they can understand the limitations of standardized tests and challenge the validity and reliability of the GPA computed over four years of high school. It is amazing to me that a country steeped in a reputation that challenges “sameness” would let this go on and on and on.

Admission teams can lead or follow. I’d like to hear about those who break out of the “sameness” mold.


Shauna Longmuir | Professor, Sir Sanford Fleming College

With the rapidly expanding role of technology in our classrooms I would like to see greater access to working technology for both the students and the instructors. If we are going to rely on technology it has to be accessible and functioning.

I would like to see technology that always works in the classroom. This means that a move to support redesigning of curriculum through technology and services is imperative. Oftentimes small changes that could enhance student utility are not possible. I would like to see more access to computers and computers that operate faster. I would like time to explore how technology could enhance the delivery of my curriculum. If we are going to make these shifts it’s important that they run smoothly and that they are user-friendly. I suppose I am looking more for technology that is user-friendly. The barrier should not be using the technology.


Ian Ridpath | Lecturer, Sheridan College

My biggest concern is the huge numbers of profs/lecturers who cannot speak English well enough to be understood. They think they are speaking correctly but the combination of words used, grammar and accent make it quite difficult to understand them.

They are usually ESL and I have sat in on classes and labs and even I have trouble understanding them—they are good and intelligent people but cannot speak English well enough to make themselves understood.

You can image how the students struggle—even when they may be of similar culture/language but are speaking and trying to teach in English.

There has to be an English Teaching Comprehension and Speaking Ability screening for all post-secondary instructors if they are to teach here in Canada.


Mila Johnston | Instructor, University of Alabama

I think higher ed needs less lecture and more problem-solving lessons for students. There needs to be more team project-based learning activities that mirror what the world of work requires.


Danne Johnson | Professor of Law, Oklahoma City University

The world is changing but education is not. We need to make higher education relevant, hands-on and solution oriented. We need discussion, exploration, and testing in the field. We need enhanced experiences with other humans. We need to front load the philosophy, process through experience, and then re-group and re-orient.


Neal Woodbury | Professor, Arizona State University

The answer to your question has two parts. Both are very simple and probably obvious:

  1. Even though there are nearly infinite informational resources available at our fingertips now, which makes lecturing in the sense of information transfer completely redundant, it has proven very difficult to move away from the information distribution format of professor/student interaction into something which is interactive and based on utilizing information effectively. Oddly, the greatest resistance to this change comes from the students who have been trained since they were young to receive information in this archaic way rather than to search for information needed to understand problems or applications. Beyond this, there is a logistical problem of engaging large numbers of students in such an experience, but this can be solved if we are willing to change the structure of the interaction and the interaction space (which, actually, I think the University is willing to do).
  2. The reward structure for faculty in universities is completely outdated. It is based on our role to create new fundamental information (research) and distribute it (teaching and publication), which at one level is OK, but it is focused on the individual’s lone achievement. If we are to solve (1) and if the university is to play the critical role of translating new discoveries into practical benefit for the communities that support them on a time-scale relevant to technology change in the world, we must learn to evaluate our individual contribution to this joint effort, rather than reward faculty entirely on what they, as individuals, accomplished in their narrow fields of endeavor. This is actually not logistically very hard to do, but it represents a fundamental value change within the university. That is very hard indeed.

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GTD for Academics

A Community Contribution by Aeon J. Skoble, PhD. (

I know that David Allen is interested in seeing how people in different sorts of professions use GTD, so I offered to share my experiences applying the methodology in a world that’s generally regarded as a different one: academia.  I have found that GTD is highly applicable to the academic profession.

I was actually managing adequately before I discovered GTD, but my productivity, while pretty good by institutional standards, was sub-optimal with respect to my own expectations.  I wasn’t well-organized, I often had “near misses” with deadlines, and I had a good deal of stress-producing clutter.  I literally had 6000+ messages in my Outlook inbox.  As the cover of the book hinted, I wanted not only to increase productivity, but to reduce stress.  GTD has indeed helped in both aspects: productivity is up, stress is down.Some of the most useful parts have been among the simpler ones, chiefly “capture everything rather than try to keep it in your head” and “don’t confuse your calendar with your to-do list.”  I used to drive myself crazy repeatedly by playing this game: I’d realize I hadn’t worked much lately on a particular essay I needed to write, so I’d put “work on that essay” on my calendar for Tuesday morning, then I’d spend Tuesday morning prepping for a class or putting out a fire, and then I’d feel anxious because I didn’t write the essay.  If nothing else, I have learned to distinguish calendar from to-do list, and projects from next-actions.  That’s as vital for academics as it is for any business executive.A college professor’s job has at least three distinct components, each of which in its own way can benefit from a GTD approach. First of all, there is teaching classes. This involves the actual instruction time, as well as time beforehand to prepare and time afterwards for grading.  The class time, along with office hours, are “hard landscape” calendar items which need to be done at a particular time, but the prep time and grading have a little more flexibility.  There are still deadlines, though: mid-term assignments must be graded in a timely fashion, and final grades must be submitted by a deadline also.  And the prep for any particular class must obviously be done before that class.  So these can be seen as non-calendar “next actions,” although for some people it works better to schedule time blocks devoted to these tasks.  The class itself can be seen as a project with a successful outcome: the students complete the course and have learned a lot; I’ve turned in final grades.

Second, there is research and other scholarship activities. At a bare minimum, we are expected to stay current in our fields, which requires reading time.  Is it at the library?  At home?  At the office?  In print, or on-line?  These can be context-sensitive next-actions.  But beyond that, there is the expectation of productivity.  “Productivity” in the academic sense can be a paper for publication, a conference presentation, participation in a symposium, editing a collection, refereeing for a peer-reviewed journal, data collection, experimentation, and so on.  Each of these can easily be seen as a “project” in the GTD sense – and that means that one can avoid being overwhelmed by them by breaking them down into next actions.  Before I encountered GTD, I used to have to-do lists with entries like “write book.”  Turns out that’s not very helpful!  David Allen’s observation that one can’t actually “do” a project is certainly applicable here: the only way to write a book is to break it down into bits, and then write and organize the bits.  It’s much more effective to think about what discrete steps are required to organize the book and formulate each section.   Next-action thinking therefore translates very well to scholarly writing.  Also, there are many other tasks involved in getting research done (and published) – paperwork as well as logistical – each of which needs to be identified and clarified.

Third, there is generally a service expectation: advising students, serving on departmental or college-wide committees, participating in various events. There are meetings, which need to be calendared, and the other work can easily been seen as projects (e.g., produce report) with next actions (e.g., call the dean’s office to request that file).   If one becomes department chair, as I am, then there are many more administrative responsibilities one acquires: working with a budget, producing the schedule for the year, hiring support staff and adjunct faculty, meetings with administrators and other chairs.  It’s easy to see why younger faculty can be overwhelmed and why senior faculty can suffer burn-out.  Many people outside academia don’t realize the amount of juggling that goes on, assuming that a “12-hour load” means a 12-hour work week.  It’s more like 50, believe me.  I don’t say that as a complaint; I love the job – but if it were really only 12 hours worth of work, I wouldn’t need GTD!

One thing that really resonated with me as I read the book was just how applicable it was to a non-business context.   Every example, even the business-specific, was one I could transfer to my world: identify goal, clarify successful outcome, figure out the next action.  I keep my inbox at or close to empty – both paper and email.  I mentioned that I used to be one of those people with 6000+ messages in my Outlook inbox.  Now it’s rarely got more than a dozen.  All emails fit into one of the workflow categories – some are trash, some are reference info to be filed, some are waiting-for trackers, and some are actionable.  So I have reduced stress and improved efficiency simply by learning to keep my email under control.   On a more mundane level, it’s also helped to get a label maker for file folders!  I am no longer the absent-minded professor of stereotype who can’t find anything in the messy office.  The fictional professors who live that way manage to produce ground-breaking scholarship, but in reality, living like that is an impediment to scholarly productivity or efficiency in teaching.  If you wouldn’t expect an executive to be productive under those conditions, there’s no reason to expect a scholar to be either.  Sadly, these caricatures are present even among academics.  I have been trying to “get the word out” to a number of my colleagues here and elsewhere.  As David noted in the book, if others become more efficient and productive, it helps everyone.  I have used GTD to make committee work go more smoothly, even if the other members of the committee don’t always realize that’s what is happening, but I also talk to colleagues about it, recommend the book (in some cases, I buy copies for people), explain the virtues of the methodology.  After attending one of David’s “Roadmap” seminars, I gave a presentation to my fellow chairs at a workshop, and I received a lot of positive feedback.  Just as David has expressed hopes that GTD would become “standard stuff” in the corporate world, I would love to see GTD more widely adopted in academia.  Our students would benefit, and we’d get a lot more research accomplished with less burn-out.


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Mentoring in Higher Education

GOOD BOOK: Mentoring in Higher Education: Best Practicesfocuses on models of effective mentoring that can be used for staff development and also what administrators and faculty can do to work effectively with diverse student populations in order to promote high levels of student academic success.

This book describes the significance of best mentoring practices in academic institutions and is designed as a resource for boards and presidents, chancellors, faculty, affirmative action officers, administrators of mentoring programs, academic affairs officers, student counselors, and participants in mentoring programs.

The textbook also proposes strategies for improving the effectiveness of existing and new programs in mentoring that were designed to increase retention and graduation rates of all students, with emphasis on “students of color.” 

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Mentoring In the Academy

Mentoring In the Academy

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Michelle Obama to address Virginia Tech grads

By Tonia Moxley

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., gave no indication Wednesday that he had been upstaged by the announcement that first lady Michelle Obama would join him in giving a commencement address at Virginia Tech on May 11.

“Tech gets a two-fer!” Warner joked.

This will be only the second time in Tech’s 140-year history that graduates will hear two speeches before turning their tassels. The last time was in 1958, when the speakers were Paul N. Garber, bishop of Virginia Methodist Conference, and J. Manning Potts, editor of The Upper Room, according to listings on Tech’s website.

Warner was magnanimous about sharing the spotlight with a fellow Democrat.

“I am so pleased to share the commencement duties with the first lady,” Warner said. “Since two of us will be addressing the graduates and their families, I promise we’ll follow Winston Churchill’s advice: ‘Be clear. Be brief. Be seated.'”

Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said the university was pleasantly surprised when the White House contacted Tech about the visit. Warner had already been chosen and announced as the keynote speaker, but was “very gracious” when told about the first lady’s choice, Hincker said.

According to a White House news release, Obama will speak at three college graduation ceremonies this spring, beginning with Tech and continuing with North Carolina A&T and Oregon State University.

Virginia and North Carolina are key swing states that President Barack Obama carried in 2008.

The first lady chose Tech because she was “inspired by the resilience of the student body and community coming together to support each other during difficult times,” the release stated.

Since 2007, Tech has suffered a string of high-profile tragedies, the worst of which was the mass shooting on April 16, 2007, that took the lives of 33 people and left more than a dozen others wounded.

A beheading at a campus cafe in 2009 and the December killing of Tech police officer Deriek Crouse by a Radford University student have also rocked the community.

In a statement issued by Tech, university President Charles Steger called Michelle Obama’s visit an honor.

“This is the first time a First Lady has addressed a Virginia Tech commencement,” Steger wrote. “So this is a unique opportunity to welcome two dynamic leaders who are outstanding role models for today’s young men and women.”

More than 5,000 undergraduates and their families normally attend the ceremony, and Obama’s visit is expected to boost those numbers significantly.

University officials are already planning for traffic congestion and the logistics, security issues and extra costs it will entail, Hincker said.

The visit comes just as Tech has revamped scheduling of its entire commencement program. Last year, lightning forced officials to clear Lane Stadium before the 7:30 p.m. undergraduate ceremony concluded. This year it will begin at noon.

Obama is not the first presidential visitor to the university.

President George W. Bush attended the memorial convocation in Cassell Coliseum on April 17, 2007, and former President Bill Clinton gave a stump speech at Tech in 2008 on behalf of his wife, Hillary Clinton, when she was running for president.

This will be the second time Warner has imparted wisdom to new Tech grads. Warner gave the commencement address in 2002 as the newly-elected Virginia governor.

In all, 21 sitting governors have addressed Hokie graduates, beginning in 1873 with Gov. Gilbert Walker.

Staff writer Michael Sluss contributed to this report.

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Young students get new grading scale By PAMELA GOULD

Parents of early elementary students in Spotsylvania County shouldn’t be shocked next year when their children don’t make excellent or satisfactory progress.

It’s not that the county school division predicts that years of staffing cuts will suddenly prompt a nose-dive in student learning.

It’s that Spotsylvania is implementing a new evaluation system for kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders that relies on numbers.

The School Board on Monday unanimously approved a new report card that is geared toward providing better communication to parents about how their early elementary children are doing in the classroom.

The new report cards will be put in place for the 2012–13 school year and will use a 4-point numeric scale to more precisely convey how a student is progressing academically.

The cards will still have space for teachers to make additional comments but will be standards-based, meaning students will be evaluated against a standard for all areas of academic proficiency, according to Carol Flenard, the division’s executive director of instruction.

The current report card uses three letters for feedback: “E” for excellent progress, “S” for satisfactory progress or “T” for time needed to develop.

A committee of parents, administrators and teachers came up with the new report card after a year of work that included researching tools in place at divisions across the country, Flenard said. The new card also reflects current research on instructional practices and the best means for communicating information to parents about how their children are doing in the classroom.

She did not know if other schools in the region may have already begun using a similar report card.

With Spotsylvania’s new report card’s numeral-based evaluation, a “1” means a student’s performance is below the standard and the child needs a lot of support from the teacher.

A “4” means the student’s performance exceeds the standard and the child consistently does outstanding work independently.

Board Chairwoman Linda Wieland, who retired from the division after a career as a second-grade teacher, said when the proposal was presented this month that she was glad to see an update to the report card for this age group.

She especially liked the idea of including the division’s mission and vision statements on the new report cards.

The vision is to provide a “premier education  in a positive, collaborative environment with high levels of community engagement.”

The mission is to “prepare all students to excel in a dynamic global society.”

A three-letter evaluation won’t be completely abolished with the new report card.

Work and social habits of students will be judged as meeting the standard most of the time (“M”),  some of the time (“S”) or not at this time (“N”).

Currently, teachers use a plus (+), minus (-) or check mark for those categories.

“Work habits” include things such as using time wisely, following directions and asking for help when appropriate.

“Social habits” include things such as demonstrating physical control, interacting well with others and accepting responsibility for actions.

Monday night, board member Bill Blaine said he likes the new report card but is concerned whether parents will understand what it seeks to explain.

School division spokeswoman Rene Daniels said Monday that the division will be investing efforts in educating parents about the change before it goes into effect.

In addition to better communicating progress, the new report cards have the advantages of being produced electronically and accessible to parents electronically through the division’s “PASS” system.

Board member Dawn Shelley, who was a Ni River Middle School teacher when she was elected to the board, said earlier this month that teachers will like that the new cards can be filled out from home.

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Oklahoma educators give new school grading system poor marks at state hearing

Advocates and education officials went to the state Education Department on Monday to comment about the proposed grading system that would give all Oklahoma public schools an A through F grade.

“Rural, urban and suburban schools are all different, yet you want to judge them all the same,” said Anna King, president of the Oklahoma PTA. “I’m concerned about this, and we are going to use a loud voice from this day forth. In the state of Oklahoma, our kids deserve the best. Is this the way to get it? No.”

Nearly 75 superintendents, teachers and parents asked questions and made comments to the state Education Department’s legal team at a hearing about the new school improvement and accountability system.

Superintendent Janet Barresi did not attend the hearing because she had a meeting about teacher workshops, a spokesman said.

A-F system replaces No Child Left Behind

The system would give each school and district a grade of A-F.

The A-F system replaces the federal requirements of No Child Left Behind, which Oklahoma no longer has to follow.

It was one of 10 states to receive a waiver from the federal act last month.

The board will vote on the rules at its meeting March 29.

If approved, the rules will need to be approved by the state Senate, House and governor.

About 4 percent of schools would earn an A and about 1 percent would receive an F this year, according state Department of Education calculations. The other 95 percent of schools would be graded B, C or D.

The system does not give very many schools a chance to earn an A, said Paul Hurst, superintendent of Putnam City Schools.

“Should an A not correspond more closely to what people think an A is?” he asked.

Would system hurt businesses?

The quality of schools affects quality of life and business development, said Chris Deal, president and CEO of the Duncan Chamber of Commerce. A town with one school district labeled with a D or F might deter companies looking to open shop.

“What affect will this have to our ability to attract business to Duncan and Oklahoma?” Deal asked.

“Workforce development is one of the building blocks of economic development, and education is the cornerstone.”

The new grading system should not affect business development because the information is already available to the public, said Damon Gardenhire, a spokesman for the state Education Department.

“All of this information about how a school’s performing is available now,” Gardenhire said.

“It’s just that the metrics are somewhat confusing for an average citizen or parent now. … Putting it into a clear-cut format doesn’t change the information. It just makes it more available.”

Will rules scare away teachers?

Labeling a school with a grade of D or F could drive away good teachers, said Alicia Priest, vice president of Oklahoma Educators Association.

The new system may continue the exodus of good teachers to other states in the region, said Carolyn Gray, director of personnel for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Gardenhire said the system would rally surrounding communities, not drive people away.

“Communities rally around schools to find ways of improving them,” Gardenhire said.

“If a school receives a somewhat lower grade, the pattern that we’ve heard about from other states is that parents and citizens step forward.”

The grading system holds school officials accountable for things that are out of their control, Dale Superintendent Charles Dickinson said.

For example, Dale Public Schools offers five Advanced Placement classes, but Dickinson said the district would have to double that number to earn an A rating.

Adding enough new staff members to do so isn’t financially possible, he said.

“We simply don’t have the financial capability of doing that,” Dickinson said.

“Therefore, through no fault of our own, we have no chance at success.”

Another factor is parent and community involvement.

This is unfair for schools in poor areas, where parents have no transportation or work multiple jobs, said Sue Kuntze, assistant superintendent of elementary education for Putnam City Schools.

The volunteering rule is vague at best, said Terry Fraley, executive director of federal programs for Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“How many parent volunteers do schools need to have before additional points are awarded?” Fraley asked.

Questions left unanswered

Several speakers said the rules were not detailed enough about how certain factors would be judged. One of the more hotly discussed issues was rewarding schools that encourage students to take courses above their grade levels.

“What constitutes an upper-level class for an elementary student? What constitutes an upper-level class for a middle school student? That still has not been defined,” said Kevin Burr, associate superintendent for secondary schools for Tulsa Public Schools.
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