Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday Reading

Teach Your Children Well — Jonathan Zimmerman in The Atlantic on the poor state of civics education in public schools.

Little hands. A bad tan. And blood coming from wherever.

If you’re put off by the crude tone of politics in the Age of Trump, you’re not alone. According to a recent poll by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans think that political incivility has reached “crisis” levels.

The poll also found that Americans avoid discussing controversial questions, out of fear they too will be perceived as uncivil. The findings speak to a flaw with civic education, especially in the main institution charged with delivering it: public schools. Put simply, schools in the United States don’t teach the country’s future citizens how to engage respectfully across their political differences. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they can’t, or that that they don’t.

Schools have sometimes been blamed for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump, whose legions of supporters allegedly lack the civic knowledge to see through his proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States or to kill family members of terrorists in the fight against ISIS. But it’s hardly clear that Trump supporters are less knowledgeable than anyone else. In six state GOP exit polls, Trump was the most popular candidate among college-educated voters and came in second in another six polls.

Indeed, the facile dismissal of all Trump enthusiasts as bigots or ignoramuses speaks to the most urgent problem in American civic life: the inability to communicate with people who do not share the same opinion. Trump himself epitomizes that trend, routinely vilifying his opponents as “losers” or “dummies,” or worse. And yet Trump’s critics often use similar terms to tar his diverse array of devotees. This isn’t a discussion; it’s a shouting match.Public schools aren’t merely expected to teach young people the mechanics of government: how a bill is signed into law, what the Supreme Court does, and so on. They’re also responsible for teaching the skills and habits of democratic life, especially how to engage civilly with people from a different political camp.

Many districts have written policies promoting the teaching of “controversial issues” in schools. Typically, these policies affirm students’ right to discuss such issues as part of their preparation for citizenship. They also warn teachers against imposing their own point of view on students.But there’s an enormous gap between policy and practice. Many teachers say they’d like to address controversial issues but lack the time; in poorer districts, especially, every available minute is devoted to preparing students for high-stakes standardized tests. Others admitted that they were not prepared to lead such discussions, which require deep background knowledge on the issues as well as the skill to manage diverse opinions about them.

Still other teachers said that their districts discouraged or even barred them from addressing controversial issues, particularly if the teacher displayed a liberal or unorthodox bent. After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, for example, two teachers and a counselor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were suspended without pay for hanging posters in their classrooms urging “No War Against Iraq.” School officials invoked the district’s “controversial-issues” policy, which declared that teachers “will not attempt, directly or indirectly, to limit or control the opinions of pupils.”

As later court filings confirmed, however, the district offered no evidence that the teachers were trying to do that; instead, the mere expression of their opinion was taken as proof of their propagandistic intent. Never mind that military recruiting posters festooned other parts of the school, or that one of the suspended teachers had organized a debate between herself and a pro-war colleague. Her poster was an act of indoctrination rather than education, officials said, and it had to be stopped.

[…]

To be sure, it’s easy to imagine situations where teachers might impose their views instead of assisting students in formulating their own. But many school leaders simply don’t trust teachers to know the difference. After the Ferguson riots, a superintendent in nearby Edwardsville, Illinois, prohibited teachers from mentioning the subject, lest they sway students in one direction or another. “We all have opinions on what should be done,” the superintendent explained. “We don’t need to voice those opinions or engage those opinions in the classroom.”

But how will children learn to “engage those opinions” unless they do so in the classroom? That’s become even more urgent over the past few decades, when Americans increasingly segregated themselves into communities of the like-minded. In 1976, 27 percent of Americans made their homes in so-called “landslide counties” that voted either Democrat or Republican by 20 percent or more; by 2008, 48 percent of Americans lived in such environments.

When divisive subjects do arise, Americans don’t know how to discuss them. In the same KRC survey that revealed overwhelming concern about the incivility of modern politics, over a third of respondents said they avoid talking about racial inequality, abortion rights, or same-sex marriage for fear of the discussion turning “uncivil.” And only one-third said that they do not avoid any issues because of worries about incivility.

Trump has played on that anxiety in his frequent broadsides against “political correctness,” encouraging people to follow his lead and say whatever they think. And while there’s a certain attractiveness to that kind of blunt candor, it’s a poor formula for civic discourse. Nearly three-quarters of the people replying to the KRC survey said they supported “civility training” in schools. Let’s hope they prevail on the schools to provide it.

Why It’s The Worst — Katherine Stewart in The Nation on Mississippi’s gay-bashing law.

On Tuesday morning, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law HB 1523—the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act”—one of the most sweeping of the nation’s “religious liberty” bills that are making the rounds in numerous red-state capitals this year. In the press they are often referred to as “anti-LGBT bills,” because they would give legal cover to those who want to discriminate against LGBT people out of “sincerely held religious belief.” Critics such as Ben Needham, director of Human Rights Campaign’s Project One America, has said the measure is “probably the worst religious freedom bill to date.” But there is an even more radical agenda behind these bills, and the atrocious attempt to deprive LGBT Americans of their rights is only a part of it.

According to State Senator Jennifer Branning, one of the Mississippi law’s original backers, the real victims of the story are not the LGBT couples denied services but people “who cannot in good conscience provide services for a same-sex marriage.” These are the true targets of discrimination, and we are invited to sympathize with the proverbial florist who balks at providing flowers at a gay wedding or the restaurant owner who refuses to serve a same-sex couple celebrating their wedding anniversary. But the text of the law also specifically protects the “sincerely held religious belief” that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” a marriage between a woman and a man. So if you are religiously opposed to other people having non-marital sex, this could be the law for you.

It is also inaccurate to think that this law is just about those who wish to refuse to perform a service. One of the more disconcerting sections of the law is that which discusses people who provide foster-care services. The government, we are told, will no longer be allowed to take action against any foster parent that “guides, instructs, or raises a child…in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief.” If you want to know what that could mean, check out Focus on the Family’s “spare the rod” philosophy of child rearing. On its website, the religious-right advocacy group offers handy tips on “the Biblical Approach to Spanking.”

If the point were only to spare the fine moral sentiments of a few florists, why would the law’s sponsors seek such a wide-ranging exemption from the laws and norms that apply to the rest of society? A helpful clue can be found in a letter that the American Family Association sent out in support of the Mississippi bill before it was passed. (The AFA has been named a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center since 2010.) The bill, said the AFA, is crucial because it protects the AFA, and groups like it, from the “governmental threat of losing their tax exempt status.”

There is a revealing irony in that statement. Tax exemption is a kind of gift from the government, a privilege. It is an indirect way of funneling money from taxpayers to groups that engage in certain kinds of activities (like charity work or nonprofit education)—and not other kinds of activities (like political activism). The AFA is right to worry about the governmental threat to their governmental subsidy. As our society views the kinds of activities they endorse with increasing skepticism, the justification for continued subsidies and privileges from the government will diminish.

The people who drafted the bill on behalf of the Mississippi legislators get it. (Most of the red-state “religious liberty” bills were either drafted or, to some degree, inspired by the Alliance Defending Freedom—the “800-pound gorilla” of religious-right legal advocacy and itself a beneficiary of the great tax exemption game.) This is why the very first “discriminatory action” by the government the law prohibits is “to alter in any way the tax treatment” of any person or organization that abides by the newly sanctioned religious beliefs.

It’s about more than money, of course. The AFA and its allies on the religious right want to carve out a sphere in American public life where religion—their religion—trumps the law. It’s a breathtakingly radical ambition. And it upends the principles on which our constitutional democracy is based.

None other than the late Antonin Scalia put his finger on the problem. To make an individual’s obedience to the law “contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs” amounts to “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself,’” he said. It “contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.” Scalia made these comments in his 1990 majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, the majority ruled that the state of Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to a pair of individuals who violated a state ban on the use of peyote, even though their use of the drug was part of a religious ritual. It was the overreaction to that verdict—on both the left and the right—that produced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. Though intended only to ensure that laws did not needlessly burden the religious liberty of individuals, the RFRA sparked a wave of unintended consequences. It effectively planted the demon seeds of the current crop of “religious liberty” bills.

Employment Division, as it happened, involved a religion—that practiced by the Native American Church—with which Scalia likely did not identify. Which brings up a crucial point about the Mississippi law and its numerous cousins. These “religious liberty” bills are really intended only for a particular variety of religion. Indeed, HB 1523 protects you only if your religion involves a specific set of beliefs—such as the religious belief that “man” and “woman” “refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex,” and that “sexual relations are properly reserved to” marriage. To speak frankly, the law was designed to advance the claims of conservative Christians, and it would never have become law otherwise. If you think that every religion will find as much liberty in the laws of Mississippi, then I have a Satanic temple to sell you.

Donald Trump Performs Shakespeare — Aryah Cohen-Wade in The New Yorker.

“Hamlet”

Listen—to be, not to be, this is a tough question, O.K.? Very tough. A lot of people come up to me and ask, “Donald, what’s more noble? Getting hit every day with the slings, the bows, the arrows, the sea of troubles—or just giving up?” I mean, smart people, the best Ivy League schools.

But I say to them, “Have you ever thought that we don’t know—we don’t know—what dreams may come? Have you ever thought about that?” Ay yi yi—there’s the rub! There’s the rub right there. When we shuffle off this mortal whatever it is—coil? They say to me, “Donald, you’ve built this fantastic company, how’d you do it? How?” And I say one word: “leadership.” Because that’s what it’s all about, is leadership. And people are so grateful whenever I bring up this whole “perchance to dream” thing. So grateful.

And on and on with the whips and the scorns of time and the contumely and the fardels and the blah blah blah.

Then I see a bare bodkin and I’m like—a bodkin? What the hell is this thing, a bodkin? Listen, I run a very successful business, I employ thousands of people and I’m supposed to care whether this bodkin is bare or not? Sad!

And when people say I don’t have a conscience—trust me, I have a conscience, and it’s a very big conscience, O.K.? And the native hue of my resolution is not sicklied o’er, that’s a lie! If anyone tells you that the native hue of my resolution is sicklied o’er, they’re trying to sell you a load of you-know-what. And enterprises of great pith—listen, my enterprises are so pithy. So pithy. Fantastic pith. But sometimes, hey, they lose the name of action, right? I mean, it happens—it happens.

“Romeo and Juliet”

Quiet, quiet—shut up, over there! What’s coming through that window? A light, it is the east, and Melania—you know, people are always telling me, they say, “Mr. Trump, you’ve got a wonderful wife”—Melania, she’s sitting right there. Stand up, sweetheart. Isn’t she a beautiful woman, Melania? Gorgeous. I love women, they love me—and I think we all know what I mean, folks! I’m gonna do so well with the women in November. So well.

Melania’s the sun, is what a lot of people are saying. Hillary Clinton? I mean, with that face? She looks like the moon! She’s very envious, if you ask me, very envious, but can you blame her? Visit Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue—which is the best street in New York, by the way—I mean, who wouldn’t be envious? This moon, Hillary, is sick and pale with grief when she compares herself to Melania, who is a very beautiful woman, I have to admit.

Melania, she’s got a great cheek, it’s a wonderful cheek, a bright cheek, everyone knows it, the stars ought to be ashamed of themselves, ashamed. The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars. As daylight doth a lamp! Look at this, folks, how she leans her cheek upon her hand. If I were a glove upon that hand—first, let me tell you, I think we all know what I would do, because I bought the Miss Universe Pageant, very successful, so I know a thing or two about gorgeous women. And all this stuff about the gloves, and my hands—I have great hands, O.K.? Gimme a break.

“Julius Caesar”

Friends, Romans, folks—listen up. The reason I’m here is to bury Julius. It’s not to praise him. It’s just not. Brutus over there—we all know he’s a good guy, right? And he says Julius was low-energy. Is it a crime to be low-energy? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t—who knows?

The point is, Brutus is a good guy, all these guys over there, the ones who did this, they’re all good guys—and Julius, Julius was my friend, a really terrific friend to me.

Julius—he brought a lot of captives home to Rome, filled a lot of coffers. Really fantastic coffers. Does that sound low-energy to you? And when the poor people, regular, hardworking, everyday Romans, cried—Julius did, too. He cried. I saw it with my own eyes—many, many times. But Brutus—Brutus says Julius was low-energy. And everyone knows that Brutus is a good guy, right?

You all saw that on the Lupercal, three times—three times—I tried to give Julius a kingly crown. And you should’ve seen this crown—this was a great crown, O.K.? Very, very kingly. And three times he said, “Nope.” Is this low-energy? Yet Brutus says he was low-energy—and, sure, sure, Brutus is a good guy.

I’m not here to say Brutus is lying, but I am here to speak what I do know. You all loved Julius once—so why not be a little sad, now that he’s dead? Just a little sad.

I’m sorry to say that the Roman Senate has been run by a bunch of morons for a long, long time. Morons! A lot of bad decisions—these guys, they’re like a bunch of animals. It makes me so sad. So sad. And I’m looking here at the coffin of my good friend, Mr. Caesar. Just a minute. (He pauses to wipe a tear from his eye.)

So we’re gonna build a wall! And who’s gonna pay for it? (The crowd shouts, “The Visigoths!”)

“Macbeth”

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and yadda yadda, the days are going by—what I’m saying is this is gonna last a long time, believe you me. Long. I see this candle, and I say—should I blow it out?

Should I? Because, when you think about it, and there’s been some great polling on this, in fact there’s a new poll out from the Wall Street Journal—which is a terrific paper, by the way, they’ve won a lot of prizes—listen to this, they say blow out the candle. They do, they say blow it out.

People come up to me and say, “Mr. Trump, life is like a shadow,” and I’m like, “What? A shadow? I don’t get it, and, listen, I went to Wharton, O.K.—the top business school in the country. So I’m a smart guy, I’m a smart guy, it’s no secret.”

And what’s really interesting is I like to talk, and tell a tale, and that tale is gonna have a whole lotta sound, and a whole lotta fury, because that’s what the American people want to hear! They want to hear some sound and some fury sent to Washington for once in their lives, and, I mean, is that too much to ask? They want to hear me tell it, and they can decide what it signifies, but I’m saying right now—it’s gonna sound great, I guarantee it. Absolutely, a hundred and ten per cent, just really, really great. O.K.?

Doonesbury — Future shock.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Short Takes

The death toll is 14 in the shooting in California.  Two suspects dead; one detained.

House passes sweeping reform of No Child Left Behind.

New arrests in corruption investigation at FIFA.

Britain votes to join air strikes against ISIS.

Texas sues to block resettlement of Syrian refugees.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Short Takes

They may be close to a deal on a two-year spending plan in Congress.

The death toll in the earthquake in Afghanistan and Pakistan tops 200.

The Obama administration wants to limit standardized testing.

House Freedom Nutsery: The farther-rights are attacking the far-right for supporting Paul Ryan.

WHO says bacon causes cancer.  Life is now meaningless.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Welcome Back

School starts this morning for the 340,000 plus students of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.  (Video from NBC 6 autoplays.)

Best wishes to all the staff, teachers, and students as they come back.  We’re ready for you.

And to make it a bit sweeter, the teachers’ union and administration have reached a tentative contract agreement that includes raises and additional healthcare benefits for almost all the employees in the district.  Yay.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Kasich Attacks Teachers

Oh, so John Kasich is the “moderate” and not prone to extremism, huh?

While some Republicans have called for abolishing the federal Education Department, Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday set his sights on a smaller target: the teachers’ lounge.

“There’s a constant negative … They’re going to take your benefits. They’re going to take your pay,” Kasich told former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, whose advocacy news site “The 74 million” hosted the forum along with the American Federation for Children.

If I were, not president, if I were king in America, I would abolish all teachers’ lounges where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us’,” Kasich told Brown.

Yeah, because teachers have it so easy — they get the summer off! — and all they do is piss and moan about how tough things are with their low pay, long hours, crumbling infrastructure, and wingnuts imposing fairy tales into the curriculum because Jesus.

Sounds like Gov. Kasich needs another dose of taking on the unions.  It worked so well for him that last time.

HT to Digby

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Not In Kansas Anymore

Teachers are leaving Kansas by the busload.

News came two weeks ago that Kansas has taken a bold new step in making their schools Even Worse. The story is one of how several current trends intersect to drag schools backwards in defiance of common sense or educational concern.

July 14, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to allow unlicensed people to teach in Kansas schools.

Their motivations are not hard to explain. Kansas has entered the Chase Teachers Out of The State derby, joining states like North Carolina and Arizona in the attempt to make teaching unappealing as a career and untenable as a way for grown-ups to support a family. Kansas favors the two-pronged technique. With one prong, you strip teachers of job protections and bargaining rights, so that you can fire them at any time for any reason and pay them as little as you like. With the other prong, you strip funding from schools, so that teachers have to accomplish more and more on a budget of $1.95 (and if they can’t get it done, see prong number one).

The result is predictable. Kansas is solidly settled onto the list of Places Teachers Work As Their Very Last Choice. It’s working out great for Missouri; their school districts have teacher recruitment billboards up in Kansas. But in Kansas, there’s a teacher shortage.

This all started when Gov. Sam Brownback (R) slashed the state budget in 2012 by gigantic proportions, hoping to show the world that doing so would prove Reaganomics worked: cut taxes and businesses would flock to the state and the economy would boom.  Instead it went down like a turd in a well and the state hemorrhaged money.  While the rest of the country recovered from the recession, Kansas got worse.  Rather than acknowledge the error of his ways, Gov. Brownback touted the results as a huge success the same way that North Korea tells the world that their famine-ridden starving nation was the envy of the world.

I’m sorry that the teachers are leaving and I wish them the best of luck in their new careers elsewhere.  But I really feel sorry for the kids who are left behind in more ways than one.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sunday Reading

What Do You Know? — Eric Lio in The Atlantic on the knowledge gap in America.

Is the culture war over?

That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.

And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.

Yet from another perspective, much of this angst can be interpreted as part of a noisy but inexorable endgame: the end of white supremacy. From this vantage point, Americanness and whiteness are fitfully, achingly, but finally becoming delinked—and like it or not, over the course of this generation, Americans are all going to have to learn a new way to be American.

Imagine that this is true; that this decades-long war is about to give way to something else. The question then arises: What? What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white”? The answer, of course, will depend on how aware Americans are of what they are, of what their culture already (and always) has been. And that awareness demands a new kind of mirror.

It helps first to consider some recent history. In 1987, a well-regarded professor of English at the University of Virginia named E.D. Hirsch Jr. published a slim volume called Cultural Literacy. Most of the book was an argument—textured and subtle, not overtly polemical—about why nations need a common cultural vocabulary and why public schools should teach it and, indeed, think of their very reason for being as the teaching of that vocabulary.

At the end of the book Hirsch and two colleagues tacked on an appendix: an unannotated list of about 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that, in their view, “every American needs to know.” The rest (to use a phrase that probably should’ve been on the list) was history.

The appendix became a sensation and propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list. Hirsch became that rare phenomenon: a celebrity intellectual. His list was debated in every serious publication and elite circles. But he also was profiled in People magazine and cited by pundits who would never read the book.

Hirsch’s list had arrived at a ripe moment of national anxiety, when critics like Allan Bloom and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. were bemoaning the “closing of the American mind” and “the disuniting of America”; when multicultural curricula had arrived in schools, prompting challenges to the Western canon and leading Saul Bellow to ask mockingly who the Tolstoy of the Zulus was, or the Proust of the Papuans; a time when Bill Bennett first rang alarms about the “dumbing-down of America.”

The culture wars were on. Into them ambled Hirsch, with his high credentials, tweedy profile, reasoned arguments, and addictively debatable list. The thing about the list, though, was that it was—by design—heavy on the deeds and words of the “dead white males” who had formed the foundations of American culture but who had by then begun to fall out of academic fashion. (From a page drawn at random: Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, Herman Melville).

Conservatives thus embraced Hirsch eagerly and breathlessly. He was a stout defender of the patrimony. Liberals eagerly and breathlessly attacked him with equal vigor. He was retrograde, Eurocentric, racist, sexist. His list was a last gasp (or was it a fierce counterattack?) by a fading (or was it resurgent?) white establishment.

Lost in all the crossfire, however, were two facts: First, Hirsch, a lifelong Democrat who considered himself progressive, believed his enterprise to be in service of social justice and equality. Cultural illiteracy, he argued, is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness. Second: He was right.

A generation of hindsight now enables Americans to see that it is indeed necessary for a nation as far-flung and entropic as the United States, one where rising economic inequality begets worsening civic inequality, to cultivate continuously a shared cultural core. A vocabulary. A set of shared referents and symbols…

Doonesbury — Final Curtain.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

School’s Out

Shawshank008

Today is the last day of school for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Congratulations to the graduating seniors (Tony and Logan!), best wishes for a good summer to the rest of the kids, and a huge thank you to the teachers, staff, principals, and all of the people who make the fourth-largest district in the country one of the best in the country. We salute you, we thank you, and speaking for the staff downtown, we have your back. (No, I don’t get the summer off. We have to get ready for next year.)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Grant Award Notice

This is good.

Comedian Stephen Colbert announced Thursday that he would fund every existing grant request South Carolina public school teachers have made on the education crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org.

Colbert made the announcement on a live video feed Thursday at a surprise event at Alexander Elementary School in Greenville.

Colbert partnered with The Morgridge Family Foundation’s Share Fair Nation and ScanSource, which is headquartered in Greenville, to fund nearly 1,000 projects for more than 800 teachers at over 375 schools, totaling $800,000.

Grants pay for programs that school districts can’t do on their own either because they don’t have the funds, more’s the pity, or there are programs that are created at the school-site level that are best done when they’re dreamed up by the teachers.  Even well-funded public schools need partners like DonorsChoose to do the job.

Kids These Days

The attention span of a teenager is roughly that of an Irish setter (this is not to put the knock on kids; the same can be said of the average adult — SQUIRREL!), and getting them to pay attention in school when there are many other distractions going on, including the raging hormones that turn the slightest breeze into a towering urge to do something about the circus going on in their trousers, is basically impossible.

So why is anyone at all surprised that there’s an outbreak of chlamydia at a high school in Texas where they teach “abstinence-only” sex education?

District officials are rethinking their approach to sex education after 20 of Crane High School’s 300 students tested positive for the sexually transmitted disease.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the outbreak a health issue at “epidemic proportions,” KFOR reported.

Crane Independent School District officials met Monday to discuss possible updates to the high school’s conservative sex education program.

“We do have an abstinence curriculum, and that evidently ain’t working,” superintendent Jim Rumage told the TV station. “We need to do all we can, although it’s the parents’ responsibility to educate their kids on sexual education.”

However, Rumage defended the current teachings to the San Antonio Express-News.

“If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease,” he said. “That’s not a bad program.”

Well, yeah, and if they don’t breathe, they won’t catch a cold, either.

HT to Balloon Juice.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Short Takes

Cuba is off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The UN voted to slap sanctions on Yemen.

Senate committee votes out legislation to give Congress a say in the Iran nuclear agreement.

Atlanta educators get prison time for cheating scandal.

Neo-Nazi charged in hate-crime murder of gay North Carolina community college staff member.

The Tigers shut out the Pirates, 2-0.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Common Knowledge

Ted Cruz says one of his dreams is to “repeal every word of Common Core.”

Oh, that sounds like a great idea: repeal the federally-mandated curriculum that each state must implement or risk losing federal grants.

Except it’s bullshit.  All of it.  First, Common Core is not a law, so it can’t be repealed.  Second, it is not “federally-mandated.”  Common Core was voluntarily adopted by the states.  Third, the U.S. Department of Education cannot, by federal law, dictate to the states or school districts what they have in their curricula.  Fourth, the major federal education grant, Race To The Top, has nothing to do with Common Core.  RTTT, which came out in 2010, has been distributed already, and so whatever funds are still left to be spent were not and cannot be held up based on compliance with Common Core, which doesn’t require compliance in the first place.

Ted Cruz knows all of this, and yet he is making up shit about it.  Why?  Because he knows he can fool his followers into believing him.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Short Takes

ISIS is being beaten back from Tikrit by Iraqi forces.

The Israel election is next week and getting close between the rivals.

The University of Oklahoma expelled two students connected with the SAE racist video.

President Obama signed the “Student Aid Bill of Rights” law.

Stocks fall on strong dollar worries.

Gun ownership is down in America.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Success By Failure

Headline in the New York Times on Saturday:

Charter School in Miami Fails, but Proves Useful on Jeb Bush’s Résumé

The short version is that Jeb Bush used Liberty City Charter School as a prop in his race to the governorship.  Once he got there, it was a different story.

… his firsthand experience in the education of underprivileged urban grade-schoolers lends him credibility in a party that has suddenly seized upon the gap between the rich and poor as politically promising terrain. In his first speech as a likely presidential candidate in Detroit last month, Mr. Bush credited Liberty City Charter School with helping “change education in Florida”

But Mr. Bush’s uplifting story of achievement and reform avoided mentioning the school by name or its unhappy ending. For all his early and vital involvement during his 1998 campaign for governor, and for all the help he offered from afar in the governor’s office, Mr. Bush’s commitment to his school project was not as enduring as some students and teachers might have hoped.

Critics of charter schools note that Liberty City, named after the impoverished African-American neighborhood from which many of its students hailed, also set an unfortunate precedent for the short life span of schools whose survival is dependent on their financial as well as academic success. And while Ms. Wilson-Davis does not blame Mr. Bush for the school’s demise, members of her former faculty and student body wonder whether it ultimately did more for him than he did for it. What everyone agrees is that Mr. Bush moved on.

So yip-yah; Jeb Bush can turn an educational experiment into something to campaign on despite the fact that it is now a smoldering ruin at taxpayers’ — not to mention the kids’ — expense.  It looks like he did learn something from his brother.

In the real world, this would be a more damning piece of news than where Hillary Clinton stored her e-mail.  But we don’t live in the real world, so there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sooner Be Stupid

Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains… and whistles through the heads of elected officials.

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced “emergency” legislation “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” Fisher is part of a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which argues “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.” The group attacks the “false wall of separation of church and state.” The Black Robe Regiment claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

Fisher said the Advanced Placement history class fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” The bill passed the Oklahoma House Education committee on Monday on a vote of 11-4.

So they’re going for Advanced Placement in Right-Wing Jeebus Propaganda.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Measuring By Degrees

In the unlikely event that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker becomes the Republican nominee, the question will arise as to whether or not he should be disqualified from being president because he does not have a college degree.

The argument being made by his defenders is that not everyone in America can go to college and a lot of successful people have made it to the top without a degree.  Also, it’s snobbery to say that only people who can get in to college and complete the coursework are worthy of being the most powerful person in the world.

Those are valid points, and to some degree — no pun intended — I agree with them.  I know a lot of very smart people who don’t have college degrees, and I know that having one is no guarantee of brilliance; I can think of at least one recent example where we’ve had a president with two college degrees who did not strike me as being someone who put that education to good use.  As I noted elsewhere, wisdom is not measured by degrees.

On the other hand, I doubt that there are too many people today who would trust their health to a doctor who didn’t go to med school, and you can’t be a lawyer without a degree from law school.  In some states you can’t even get a license to be a physical therapist without an advanced degree.  So there are some occupations where dropping out of college for whatever reason is a hindrance, and for good reason.

But college is not just for the coursework or the degree.  It is, for most people, their first exposure to the larger world.  It is the first time they are on their own to make the choices that will shape their lives without parental or school board guidance, and what they choose to do with the opportunities presented tells us about what kind of adult they will be.  For the first time in their life, a college student is faced with making decisions that will determine a good deal of where they will go for the next fifty or so years and how they will touch the lives of the people around them.

It also provides them with a broad base of experience and insight about themselves and the world they face.  This happens not just at Yale or the University of Colorado but at every institution of higher learning, including the community college or trade school.  The classes are the tools; the interaction and the responsibilities assumed are the real lessons, and I would prefer to have a president who has proved to both himself and at least one board of regents he’s learned them.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Reading

Stopping Mass Killings — Tom Junod in Esquire says that everything we know about them is wrong.

NOBODY KNOWS who he is and nobody knows who he was. When he was a young man—a boy, really—his anonymity fueled his desperation, and for a short time his desperation made him known. He didn’t become famous the way other desperate and aggrieved young men have, but he made himself well-known enough to think that when he came home after eight and a half years in prison, there might be cameras waiting for him on his front lawn and people interested in asking him questions. There weren’t. There was just his family and the rest of his life.

So Trunk—a nickname he acquired when he went away—has returned to where he started out. He couldn’t be more unknown. He couldn’t be more anonymous. On the days he goes to college, he takes a bus. He walks a half hour to the bus stop, no matter the weather. He walks in the heat, he walks in the cold, he walks in the rain, he walks in the snow. The bus ride takes another forty-five minutes, and when he gets to the school, it’s also an anonymous affair—a small college attached to a state system and situated a long way from any major highway. He doesn’t care; he works hard at his studies and his academic record is immaculate. He has ambitions. He has friends. He does not mind being anonymous or feeling alone, because he feels accepted and has accepted himself. “The last year and a half, everything is as it’s supposed to be,” he says. “I have zero feelings of societal frustration.”

Trunk does, however, think often of the person who is out there right now feeling the way he used to feel. The person with a grievance. The person with a plan. The person with a gun—hell, an arsenal. The person we feel powerless against, because we don’t know who he is. All we know is what he—or she—is going to do.

Can he or she—they—be stopped before they become what we in America call “mass shooters”? We are so convinced they can’t be that we don’t even know if anyone is trying to stop them. Can they be understood? We are so convinced the evil they represent is inexplicable that we don’t try to explicate it. Mass shootings have become by now American rituals—blood sacrifices, propitiations to our angry American gods, made all the more terrible by our apparent acceptance of them. They have become a feature of American life, and we know very well what follows each one: the shock, the horror, the demonization of the guilty, the prayers for the innocent, the calls for action, the finger-pointing, the paralysis, and finally the forgetting. We know that they change everything only so that everything may remain unchanged.

But we are wrong about that. Mass shootings are not unstoppable, and there are people trying to stop them. They are not even inexplicable, because every time Trunk hears of one he understands why it happened and who did it. We have come to believe that mass shooters can’t be stopped because we never know who they are until they make themselves known. But Trunk was almost one of them once. He was a heartbeat away. And what he understands is that shooters want to be known, not through the infamy of a massacre, but before they have to go through with it. They want to be known as much as he, years later, wants to remain unknown, walking to the bus stop in the rain.

Unaccountable — Pedro Noguera in The Nation looks at the lack of transparency in charter schools.

Advocates of charter schools frequently make the argument that by providing parents with “choice,” the educational system—public schools and charter schools alike—will be forced to improve through greater accountability. As the New York City Department of Education has insisted, charter schools “offer an important opportunity to promote educational innovation and excellence [and] bring new leaders, resources, and ideas into public education.” Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, DC, schools chancellor (and ex-CEO of StudentsFirst, a market-based school-reform organization), seemingly agrees, stating that “accountability has to sit everywhere in the system. The children have to be held accountable for what they’re doing every day; the parents, teachers, school administrators, all the way up.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan, supportive of many charter-school initiatives, has spoken on how we “need to be willing to hold low-performing charters accountable.”

The problem here is that charter schools are frequently not accountable. Indeed, they are stunningly opaque, more black boxes than transparent laboratories for education. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, only 29 percent of charter schools outperformed public schools with similar students in math, while 31 percent performed worse. Most charter schools, in fact, obtained results that were no better than traditional public schools. So what was that 29 percent doing right? And what went so wrong with the failing 31 percent? There are a few reasons why it’s nearly impossible to find out.

To begin with, unlike public schools, which are required by law to show how they use public resources, most charters lack financial transparency. Many of the most successful charter schools pay higher salaries to teachers and administrators and offer students a longer school day and year. A recent study of the highly acclaimed charter-school chain KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) found that “KIPP receives an estimated $6,500 more per pupil in revenues from public or private sources” compared to local school districts. The study could only document an additional $457 in spending per pupil, however, because KIPP does not disclose how it uses money received from private sources. The additional spending appears to be made possible by supplemental funding from organizations like the Walton Family Foundation (run by the founders of Walmart), which has been a major donor to charter schools across the country. According to its website, the Walton foundation supports charters because “we invest in organizations and programs that empower parents to choose among high-performing schools and insert competition into public education.” However, unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to disclose how such funds are raised and used.

Transparency is especially important with for-profit charter schools to prevent fraud and the misuse of public funds. The Pennsylvania auditor general found that the state’s largest charter operator had pocketed $1.2 million in “improper lease-reimbursement payments.” In Philadelphia, where dozens of public schools have been closed due to budget shortfalls, the 2013 state budget projected spending $729 million on charter networks, despite several reports of scandals involving their operators. In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has emerged as a national spokeswoman for the charter movement; she earns over $500,000 a year—more than double what the city’s public-schools chancellor makes, even though Moskowitz is responsible for only a fraction of the number of students.

[…]

Transparency will not put an end to charter schools or eliminate the threat they pose to traditional public education. However, we could begin to address these inequities by fostering a level of public accountability that currently does not exist. Moreover, if charter schools are to serve as the engines of innovation envisioned by their earliest advocates, we must also determine whether the ones that obtain the best results do so because of truly novel and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, or simply because they have more money and fewer disadvantaged students. Finally, if it is true that some charter schools have genuinely found more effective ways to serve children, then they should be encouraged to collaborate—rather than compete—with traditional public schools.

Despite the considerable momentum that charter schools have gained in terms of growth, it is important to keep in mind that around 85 percent of American children attend traditional public schools. In most parts of the country, these schools continue to be our most accessible and stable institutions—a vital part of the social safety net for poor children, whose numbers have grown dramatically since the 2008 recession. Charter schools, on the other hand, were never intended to serve all children. So if the charter-school movement is going to serve as a means of revitalizing—not undermining—public education, greater transparency and collaboration with public schools must be required.

Never Too Late — Andy Borowitz on the GOP attack on the Clintons’ granddaughter.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — A Republican Super PAC defended the broadcast, on Saturday morning, of an attack ad highly critical of Hillary Clinton’s newborn granddaughter, Charlotte, who was born on Friday.

The ad raises several serious questions about the newborn, at one point accusing her of being “related to Benghazi.”

In criticizing a one-day-old infant, the ad is believed to be the earliest political attack ad on record.

“Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky is fair game,” a spokesman for the Americans Concerned About Charlotte Super PAC said. “We have to assume that she is the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2052.”

Doonesbury — Watch this space.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Clear History

Right-wing school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, went revisionist on the history curriculum.  That did not go over well with the students.  Via ThinkProgress:

According to the curricula proposal, students would only be taught lessons depicting American heritage in a positive light, and effectively ban any material that could lead to dissent. Under the proposed policy, a review committee would regularly read instructional text and course syllabi to ensure that educational materials do not stray from subject matter that complies with the policy.

But students involved in the walkout contend that censored coursework actually contradicts American history and ideals. Many of them brought signs about the patriotic nature of protest, and waved American flags as they walked.

Arvada High School senior Tyrone G. Parks disagreed with the school board, and argued that protest is a crucial aspect of American history, “and everything that we’ve done is what allowed us to be at this point today. And if you take that from us, you take away everything that America was built off of.” Tori Leu, a Ralston Valley High School student, shared a similar sentiment. “I don’t think my education should be censored. We should be able to know what happened in our past.”

It looks like the students have already learned a little history: that only repressive regimes re-write history.  It’s also just a bit ironic that it’s the right-wingers who always accuse the left of trying to brainwash the students with their political agenda.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Reading

Warhawks Hawking War — Those pro-war pundits on cable TV have an agenda: their bank accounts.  Lee Fang reports in The Nation.

If you read enough news and watch enough cable television about the threat of the Islamic State, the radical Sunni Muslim militia group better known simply as ISIS, you will inevitably encounter a parade of retired generals demanding an increased US military presence in the region. They will say that our government should deploy, as retired General Anthony Zinni demanded, up to 10,000 American boots on the ground to battle ISIS. Or as in retired General Jack Keane’s case, they will make more vague demands, such as for “offensive” air strikes and the deployment of more military advisers to the region.

But what you won’t learn from media coverage of ISIS is that many of these former Pentagon officials have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world. Ramping up America’s military presence in Iraq and directly entering the war in Syria, along with greater military spending more broadly, is a debatable solution to a complex political and sectarian conflict. But those goals do unquestionably benefit one player in this saga: America’s defense industry.

Keane is a great example of this phenomenon. His think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which he oversees along with neoconservative partisans Liz Cheney and William Kristol, has provided the data on ISIS used for multiple stories by The New York Times, the BBC and other leading outlets.

Keane has appeared on Fox News at least nine times over the last two months to promote the idea that the best way to stop ISIS is through military action—in particular, through air strikes deep into ISIS-held territory. In one of the only congressional hearings about ISIS over the summer, Keane was there to testify and call for more American military engagement. On Wednesday evening, Keane declared President Obama’s speech on defeating ISIS insufficient, arguing that a bolder strategy is necessary. “I truly believe we need to put special operation forces in there,” he told host Megyn Kelly.

Left unsaid during his media appearances (and left unmentioned on his congressional witness disclosure form) are Keane’s other gigs: as special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater; as a board member to tank and aircraft manufacturer General Dynamics; a “venture partner” to SCP Partners, an investment firm that partners with defense contractors, including XVionics, an “operations management decision support system” company used in Air Force drone training; and as president of his own consulting firm, GSI LLC.

To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world. For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006.

The Truth About Standardized Tests: They Don’t Work — Robert Hach in Salon on the bane of teaching to the test.

In recent years, I have begun each semester by asking my first-year composition students two questions, one theoretical and the other practical. First, the theoretical question: What is the purpose of testing? Then the practical question: What happens to the information they study for a test after students have taken the test. My students’ answers to both questions typically achieve virtual unanimity. The purpose of testing, they say, is to find out how much students have “learned,” which is to say, how much they “know.” After they take the test, these same students testify, they forget virtually all of the information they “learned” for the test.

In the subsequent discussion, I ask them what their answers to these questions suggest about their experience in the public school system (only a tiny minority of Miami Dade College students having attended private schools). Did the tests they took achieve the purpose of revealing how much they had learned, how much they know, about the subjects on which they were tested? If they passed those tests (as they must have in that they had been allowed to continue their education) and yet had forgotten the information about the subjects on which they were tested, can they legitimately say that they “learned” that information, and as a result, that they now “know” it? And if they didn’t learn it and, as a result, don’t know it, what was the outcome of their public education?

The answer is surely not that public school students don’t learn anything. They do, after all, learn how to take tests. As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, its ravenous hunger intensifying yearly since the federal mandate inaugurated by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top, students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads (trophies of the class warfare waged by the corporate interests who profit so handsomely from standardized testing).

Of course, students have always had to take tests. But tests (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank) used to be simply one of the tools in the educational tool box. And the least effective tool when it came to assessing student learning. Tests were also the refuge of teachers who lacked the skills or the motivation, first, to engage students’ interest in their subjects, opening their understanding and inspiring their imagination, and, second, to formulate meaningful ways to measure their students’ learning. All teachers had to test their students, but for good teachers (of which there have always been many) testing was, at best, a necessary evil.

The limits of public education must be acknowledged if the most is to be made of it. One teacher per 20 (to 40 or more) students necessarily limits what teachers can accomplish in the best of systems. The educational ideal of the Socratic dialogue assumes an ongoing interaction, whatever the subject may be, between a teacher and a few students, who avail themselves of equal opportunity to question and challenge their teacher, who questions and challenges each student. And the teacher is able to continually assess the students’ understanding of the subject matter based on what those students ask and answer. The classroom setting, by contrast, is an artificial learning environment that threatens to squelch curiosity by the sterility of its structure, and the teacher-to-student ratio typically precludes the kind of interactive dynamic that makes learning natural and lively. The best public school teachers have always found ways to mitigate and compensate for the limitations of the public school setting, but those limitations, nonetheless, remain. (And, as a result, education “reformers” can always point to inadequacies and shortcomings, to whatever degree inescapable—and to whatever degree typically exaggerated by would-be reformers—when they have an innovation to push.) Testing has always seemed necessary to assess the learning of students whose numbers make it impossible for teachers to know them well enough to measure individually their knowledge of subjects.

The Last Carousel Craftsmen — The past lives on, going in circles.  Bourree Lam in The Atlantic reports.

What do you think of when you hear the word “carousel”? Is it 1920s Paris with its glittering lights, music-box tunes, beautiful vintage horses, going round and round near Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre? That’s what I used to see, largely due to the 2001 movie Amélie. But recently, I’ve been thinking of a very different place when I think about carousels. And that place is much closer to home: Ohio.

That may seem like an odd choice, but, as it turns out, there are only two dedicated full-service carousel building companies in America, and they are both located in Ohio: Carousel Works in Mansfield and Carousels And Carvings in Marion.

“We’ve got ourselves a little cottage industry going here,” said Todd Goings of Carousel and Carvings. “[Carousel Works and Carousel and Carvings] are the only ones [where] the owners of the company are the carvers working in the shop.”

While there are other carvers (both hobbyists and professionals), and shops that cast fiberglass or metal carousel replications, along with many companies that sell all kinds of amusement rides—these two companies in Ohio appear to be the only ones taking carousels from design to finish and carving them from wood the old-fashioned way.

Art Ritchie and Dan Jones of Carousel Works first came to Ohio in the late 1980s to build a carousel for the Carousel District in Mansfield. Since then, they’ve sold 58 carousels and restored dozens.

Ritchie began carving in 1973, making anything from furniture to signs. Back then, he recalls, he would carve anything that had a payday. One day, a customer came by and asked him for a quote for a carousel horse. He estimated that it would cost about $1,800. “He couldn’t get his pocketbook out fast enough,” Ritchie remembers.

He didn’t know it then, but Ritchie was then at the leading edge of a revival of interest in carousels in America. Whether it’s nostalgia for childhood or a general interest in all things from the turn of the century, carousel fever has been growing steadily since the 1980s. This wasn’t always the case, as American carousel history has really had its ups and downs.

Steam-powered carousels date back to the turn of the century, the period that carousel enthusiasts now refer to as the “golden age” of American carousel-making. The big names from that era: Charles Looff and Charles Carmel of Coney Island, Gustav Dentzel in Philadelphia, and a handful of other master carvers—immigrants from France, Russia, and Germany but whose work defined the classic American carousel style. All in all, there are nine notable workshops from that time whose carousels are today considered collectables.

Doonesbury — 30% happy.