John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Tulsa Welding School Provides Practical Education

September 30th, 2009

College obviously isn’t for everyone. Sometimes, I’m not sure if its really for anyone other than the student loan lenders, professors, and other direct financial beneficiaries. Obviously education is important, but a lot of students get distracted by classes and course requirements that are explicitly related to the goals and skills the student actually wants to learn.

Of course history is important, but does everyone need 9 credits in order to write computer programs? Does a Journalism or Communications student need calculus or pre-calc in order to write up a public relations campaign?

There’s obviously a need for people to have well-balanced degrees and wide ranges of knowledge – but college isn’t always the best way to accomplish it. Especially these days, because employers are looking for very specific skills more than ever. Where a liberal arts degree may have been good enough to get in to a new career, employers these days want to know if you’re specialized in IT or management or whatever it may be…

Unfortunately, our high schools don’t prepare students well for any technical jobs. Even professors constantly complain that freshman aren’t ready for college level work – and employers realize that their new just-out-of-high-school workers have few specific skills or technical talents.

Anyway, my friend is about six months in to a seven month program at Tulsa Welding School. Talk about a lot of focused and specialized learning in a short period of time!

He’s always been interested in welding, but its tough to get a start these days. Apprentice-like jobs are hard to come by as the employment market breaks down, and managers on job sites just don’t have time to play teacher to new workers.

Yet after just a few months of studying at a focused and fast-paced school, he’s now in a position where local businesses are starting to take his applications seriously. Even without the certificate of completion, the same hiring managers are suddenly much more willing to consider.

Hopefully, more technical and vocational programs will be included in future high school curriculums. Not everyone is headed to college, and its silly to think they will if you deny them other marketable skills. We’ve got an employment mess and an education mess in this country at the same time – so its a perfect chance to fix them both at once.

What Happened to Education?

September 3rd, 2009

In a quest for accountability and the theoretical benefits of turning students into standardized data plots, the state of Florida has gone crazy trying to prepare classes for the test – at the cost of every thing else.  If any state has seen the effect of the Bush brothers on education, it would be us who kept Jeb around as a governor for most of the years George held the Oval Office.

As No Child Left Behind became a national policy, we were in the lead with our own standardized testing procedures.  Within a few years, FCAT went from a theoretical concept to the primary focus of our public school factories.  Despite a lack of evidence suggesting the focus on math and reading tests have improved scores in those fields, I’m starting to hear anecdotes from students and teachers about all of the things that have been left out.

Its long been to the point that you’d be hard pressed to find a full-time art, music, or drama classroom inside our 2,000 student enclosures, but things have been reduced even further in the last few years to the point where many students never see these creative classes on a regular basis.  Instead, artistic educators are treated as babysitters on those occasions when schedules conflict or otherwise have to be changed at the last minute.

But the erosion hasn’t stopped there.

Social sciences are now starting to fade from the agenda.  The effect is most notable with younger children who have only been in the school system for the last five or six years.  If you thought Americans were bad at Geography before, wait until you see the next generations come of age!  They may have Facebook friends across the world, but many of them won’t be able to find Mexico on a map.  Forget knowing the history of Mexico or even the United States – these things simply aren’t evaluated on the standardized tests because social sciences don’t have easily defined objective answers like 2 + 2 does…

And while I’ll be the first to admit that our schools have fallen behind in math and science, this is no reason to deprive young minds of the big picture presented by the social reality that makes our civilization possible in the first place.  In an increasingly globalized economy, students need some kind of look at the world around them.

Even in reading classes, spelling is never emphasized.  I don’t even know how you can teach people to read and write properly without a fundamental focus on how the freaking words are spelled!

Well, I wish I had a good conclusion for this rant but I’m left feeling cynical.  There is so much institutional momentum holding back the reforms we need that its practically impossible to even name the solution(s).  Looking at the balance sheet, its clear that our national priorities are with banking and war – not education and the real economy of people, ideas, and production.

“I don’t know what to write”

August 16th, 2009

I guess I’ve always enjoyed writing but I have to give credit to Mrs. Lotze, my fourth grade English teacher, for really teaching me to approach the written word as an exciting challenge.  Every Friday, we’d have a half hour of free writing time – and the only catch was, we had to write something.

“But Mrs. Lotze, I don’t know what to write!” some frustrated student would inevitably blurt out each Friday.

“Then write that.  Fill up your page with ‘I don’t know what to write about’ until you’re so sick of writing that that something more interesting comes up.”  She was serious – and it worked.

I was no more than six lines through the busy work when I gave the explanation a second thought.  Something more interesting… anything could be more interesting… and the breakthrough:  I can write about anything.

After that first day, the free writing period became my favorite time in school.  Around that time, I also started bringing free writing into my own personal time.  I started a few stories about zombies and made crude attempts at building characters and developing a plot.  People I knew or video game heros could all be inspiration for a written story, and I could explore the details of any subject that I wanted to know more about or explore my opinions of.

Plot and charcter turned into research, and the love of writing simply reinforced my love of reading.

Now I write every day, to the point where its become a drag.  I don’t always get to write about what I want about, because the business world doesn’t work that way.  When I do find time to write for fun, I often don’t know exactly what to write about.

But I should know better than to use that excuse – Mrs. Lotze taught us that well.

On Hedge Schools and Education Bans

July 1st, 2009

One of my favorite sights to see in an urban environment is the public mural – especially ones that broadcast political and cultural messages. For fans of such public art, the places to see are Barcelona, Belfast, and Derry in Ireland. I’m sure there are more, but these are the cities that made me fall in love with the medium of public art as protest, triumph, and civic engagement.

Why should one go about painting their opinions and histories on a wall?  Well… where else is everyone going to be able to see it?  Broadcast media of the 20th century has been a one-way street:  Those with politically-granted monopoly on airwaves run the televisions stations, and they broadcast daily reminders of what you’re supposed to think and believe.  Before the internet revolutionized the relationships between information production & consumption, public art was one of very few means that could put the power of media into the hands of modest means.

When education is outlawed...

And what could be a better reminder to the importance of information control than the Hedge School depicted here on a home in Belfast? In the 18th century, English laws would forbid Catholics from participating in education as teachers or students.  Every law was already written for the advantage of English settlers, but the crown still sought to solidify its control over the island by keeping its natives in a state of ignorance.  No law or army can forever protect tyrants from a well-educated populace…

Hedge schools started popping up in the 1600s, and they take their name from the rural or even outdoor environment classes were held in.  Despite a lack of school houses, despite legal bans, education went on under a tree or behind the bushes.  Knowledge would be passed on orally, even if the words had to be whispered.

Creating Opportunity with Knowledge

The imperial law was designed to keep wealth and power with one race of men over another.  Opportunity was rationed by who was allowed to eat what, or who was allowed to learn, or which church was allowed to say mass.  Every rule and regulation and job interview was designed to preserve this inherited imbalance of power, and yet education continued to create opportunity for those who were not “supposed” to have it.  Despite the crackdowns – or perhaps because of them – a new generation of rebels and civil rights agitators would rise up in the late 18th century armed with a knowledge of history and other basic academics.

No Less Valuable Today

While we may today take the freedom to pursue education for granted, it has not diminished in value.  To the contrary, modern technology has magnified and leveraged the value of knowledge and technical specialization.  The right skills can turn a $500 computer into a six-figure salary or a good bedside manner into a medical career that saves lives.

Resistance to Access

And America still has its own legacy of racially rationed education to cope with – and a contemporary crisis of class-based exclusion.  Although there are no laws forbidding racial or religious minorities, there are significant financial barriers to entry for those of a lower income lineage.  As education costs have risen faster than inflation, the effect has been to force more and more students into long term debt – a scenario that allows our current aristocrats to stake a future claim on all of the opportunity these young students create.

The resistance to education today is the same as it has always been – exclusion is a means of preserving social imbalance – and we’ve been heading in the wrong direction for far too long now.  The opportunity we gain from sharing information will always be greater than what the comfortable fear they will lose.

Education Cuts and Union Seniority

April 4th, 2009

Well, there’s a financial crisis and to many politicians the obvious solution is to slash education funding.  Holding those responsible accountable must sound absurd – let’s punish the kids instead and take a mortgage out against their future by reducing their access to the knowledge they need.

Here in Florida, our elected representatives seem intent on achieving the notorious status of “worst in the nation.”  Last time I checked, it was a pretty close race between us, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  A few years ago, the voters passed a constitutional amendment that promised to reduce the number of students in a classroom under a single teacher’s supervision, but the legislature managed to create a few dozen loopholes before they decided to completely throw out the voter’s demands.

And now of course, they’re ready to gut the school system even more.  All of these property tax cuts weren’t free, ya know!

Here in Jacksonville, it means virtually no art, music, drama, or physical education unless it is taught by a homeroom teacher that never specialized in the subject.  Don’t worry though, they don’t plan on taking much time out of the schedule for this mediocore substitute.

Yet it may not be the cuts themselves that are the worst of the situation.  The highest level of absurdity at play here is how the teachers will be selected to lose their jobs:  By union seniority.

After spending billions of dollars and years of classtime on tests designed to measure performance, none of that data will be incorporated into the decision of who stays and who goes.  Everyone under the age of 30 can just forget about a teaching job – regardless of what they put into the school or how much the students get out of their educational style.

Now I’m not saying that young teachers are good and more experienced ones are bad, but it is also very clear that some of the senior teachers are literally from “another generation” when it comes to certain things like race relations and the role of religion in public schools.  This is most definitely a southern problem…

So if you’re wondering why the next generation isn’t curing cancer and saving us from environmental destruction, just remember that it was nothing personal.  We have to protect those who have been around a while – because hey – isn’t this collapsing society proof that they’ve done a good job so far?

2.0 Education Bookmarking

June 11th, 2008

One of the great benefits of the server-side software revolution known as web 2.0 is that it allows users to contribute and collaborate in building websites and organizing information resources.

By now, most people are probably familiar with the blog format of combining news and content posts with open commenting system. Mainstream newspapers have incorporated a lot of blogging technology into their own websites, allowing a broader discussion and more interaction between the writers and readers.

Another 2.0 breakthrough that hasn’t quite yet matured is social bookmarking and news submission communities. Once users register, they can submit links to interesting websites based on a selection of categories relevant to the topic of the social bookmarking site. Once a new page is submitted, other users can view the links, vote, or comment on the quality of the site. The best sites will make it to the front page, and the process creates a democratic ranking system that helps filter the noise out of the internet without necessarily decreasing or compressing the total volume. The site provides its users with a constantly updated front page of the best of the internet – and great publishers can get great exposure if their articles are particularly interesting and entertaining.

One area it hasn’t caught on as much is in education-specific fields. The educational information on the internet is incredibly fragmented, and there is no real central hub where it can be accessed, discussed, and prioritized. This is where my 2.0 education bookmarking site Scholar Links comes into being. At the moment it isn’t much more than a beta site built on beta software, but as it grows it will be a place where the democracy of the internet can rate, promote, and discuss some of the literally millions of valuable educational links on the internet. If you find something of worth, you can share it here. If you publish your own education site, it could be a useful source of education niche backlinks.

Free Money for a College Education

February 26th, 2008

Sounds great right? Maybe too good to be true. Well, if I’ve learned anything in the last 18 months of working in the world of college scholarships and financial aid, its that free money for college is out there in large amounts.

History: was my first attempt at a WordPress website, my second site overall. As soon as it was set up, it had included many of the functions and features I had downloaded and installed for Joomla.

The idea came about because I wanted a place to keep track of all the information I was finding online that related to work. Many nights I would be up late researching scholarship or internship opportunities but I’d have a mess of links and half-written thoughts cluttering up an email that was sure to get lost to more important communications.

Since WordPress worked out so well, writing a web page was suddenly as easy as writing an email. With a few modifications, WordPress can be made into an extremely effective content management system optimized for author, reader, and search engine alike. If you like to write and you haven’t got a WordPress website yet, I suggest setting one up and learning some more about it. Its not too hard to educate ones self in this software, because its quite straightforward and the documentation at the homepage is excellent.

So far so good: Through the Free College Blog I’ve met several web publishers in the subject and traded some good conversations over contemporary educational issues. My site is starting to pick up in traffic, and most of the users end up finding it through search engine queries and from what I’ve seen I’m able to answer the questions they ask Google. Right now, I get a lot of questions about the Florida Bright Futures program, so if you have one, drop me a comment on the Free College website!

Scholarship Forums

February 26th, 2008

What can I say? I like school. I want to help other people get there. I’ve personally witnessed enough success stories, students who overcame great odds to graduate and get a degree and move onto a career they really appreciate. I probably won’t work in education financing forever, but I will always want to contribute in some way or another…

History: I wanted to set up discussion forums at but I was afraid that the software installation could damage the barely functioning Joomla that was already set up. The test solution was Scholarship Forums. This site has been up for a while but barely received any attention. I almost feel like internet forums are an aging technology and the users are moving toward newer technology like social news networking. As a result, its (way) low on style and it barely even ranks in the SERPs for its own domain name.

Purpose: Free college of course! Of course, that’s a good economic example of limited supply and unlimited wants, but the people who are going to get access to that limited supply of free tuition are the ones who: study the topic; ask questions about scholarships, FAFSA, and loans; and learn how to get an edge in the applications process. A few users have found it, but so far its not really helping anyone. If you have any scholarship questions, check it out! Send your kids, your students, your employees. In a day or two I’ll try my best to answer any specific questions.