Washington Posts Concludes That Americans Can’t Write… and Blames Teachers!

September 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I just read a maddening article by Natalie Wexler from the September 24 Washington Post titled “Why American’s Can’t Write”. Ms. Wexler’s reason for this situation?

Surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven’t taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced.

Ms. Wexler writes a well thought out explanation of how writing could be taught in schools, noting that the punctuation and grammar skills need to be developed incrementally and hierarchically and that teachers need to spend time reading and correcting increasingly lengthy pies of writing. She notes that the common core delineates the skills needed but implies that teachers might lack the capability to deliver instruction on those skills.

What Ms. Wexler fails to note is that writing is not tested effectively… and when it IS tested creativity and flow are far less important than consistency and format… because computers cannot “measure” creativity and flow nor can “readers” who must scan “essays” quickly in order to get tests graded quickly.

We are reaping bad writing because grading writing is complicated, slow, and expensive and we want to measure our students with standardized tests that are easy, fast, and cheap… We won’t get good writing until we are willing to provide the time needed to teach it effectively and the time needed to grade it well.

The Painful Facts, State-by-State: How We’re Victimized by Corporate State Tax Avoidance

September 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Source: The Painful Facts, State-by-State: How We’re Victimized by Corporate State Tax Avoidance

Paul Buchheit keeps state and local tax dodges in the limelight… This is one of the stealth means of corporate welfare that undercuts the public schools’ ability to provide services to children in need.

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Drug Laws Based on “War” Sent Millions to Prisons, Failed to Treat the Disease

September 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes has an op ed piece by CCNY professor Michael Javen Fortner who’s book Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” was recently reviewed in the New Yorker. The Times essay, “The Real Roots of the 70s Drug Laws”, asserts that a silent majority of blacks fully supported the need for tougher laws to remove pushers, pimps, and prostitutes from their neighborhoods. Fortner peppers his article with quotes from black activists of the early 1970s who call for increased police presence, tougher treatment of pushers, and longer sentences for muggings and the sale of drugs. He expresses concern that the current movement to repeal the laws that led to the wholesale incarceration of many blacks will lead to an increase in crime which, in turn, will lead to even more repression.

Fortner’s essay is compelling, but I the recent New Yorker article noted that only a handful of black NYS legislators voted for the Rockefeller Laws and none voted for the laws that led to the so-called War On Drugs. As a teacher in Philadelphia in the early 1970s I DO believe black parents in that time were appalled at how gangs were luring their children into crime and drug use and would support faster and more certain justice for those whose values did not match the ones they held. But I also believe the disconnect between the laws that were written and the way they have been enforced has led to the Black Lives Matter movement and the sense that we’ve gone way too far in dealing with drug abuse. It seems likely that one of the quotes Fortner used to support his argument, a call to “Take the junkies off the streets and put ’em in camps”, was issued in the spirit of rehabilitation and treatment and not in the spirit of the Rockefeller Laws that led to long-term incarceration for petty drug users. Ultimately, the decision to choose incarceration over treatment has been a disaster for drug users of all races…. but once the increased use of illegal drugs was framed as a “war” instead of the “spread of a disease” we started “taking prisoners” instead of “treating patients”.

If we really want to “bolster religious and civic organizations that cultivate stronger social ties, mitigate disorder and fight crime” we should re-define our “War on Drugs” as an effort to “Prevent the Spread of Disease”. Such a re-definition would lead to the expansion of medical and social services instead of the expansion of police forces and encourage self-control instead of external control.

We Need Infinite Compassion Instead of Zero Tolerance

September 27, 2015 Leave a comment

I have vivid memories of the impact of the Columbine shootings in 1999. At the time I was serving as Superintendent in Duchess County NY and we were in the midst of convening several public meetings on our budget in anticipation of the annual vote in mid May. Once the images of children vacating a suburban Denver HS appeared nightly on the news, though, parents were less concerned about the initiatives included in our budget and overwhelmingly concerned about the safety of their children in school…. because unlike the earlier reports on school violence that focused on urban schools, Columbine looked a lot like the neighborhoods in our school district and the children vacating the school dressed the same and looked the same as the children in our schools.

Pando writer David Forbes posted an article titled “The Zero Tolerance Generation” that describes the history of the “zero tolerance movement” that he traced back to Columbine. (NOTE: you can only read the initial paragraphs of because it is now behind a paywall). The article reinforces the premise of many posts I’ve written: in the name of safety we’ve spent millions on surveillance equipment, door locks, and police presence in school. With more police in school, we’ve criminalized “disobedience”, and created a school-to-jail pipeline that becomes, in the term used by Yves Smith, a self-licking ice cream cone.

To break out of the zero tolerance mentality we need to get parents and politicians to focus on the root causes that lead to violence in schools instead of spending time reacting to the violence itself. If the funds sent providing armed guards in schools, surveillance cameras, and door locks had been spent on early intervention and mental health services we’d be further along in preventing the random acts of extreme violence that occur in school. Most importantly, we’d be limiting the day-to-day misconduct that stems from the problems children face growing up in our  hyper-competitive country. Instead of zero-tolerance we should strive for infinite compassion.

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Computer Using Students Did Worse on PISA in 2012. Time to Re-think Technology as Salvation?

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Alternet cross-posted Jill Barshay’s essay from the Hechinger Report summarizing the findings of OECD research based on the 2012 PISA tests that found that the highest performing students on that test used computers in school the least.

While the findings were not as strong based on home computer use, it was evident that students who used computers the most at school did worse on the tests.

Bruce Friend, the chief operating office of iNACOL, a group that advocates the use of technology in school, suggests that US schools might be overlooking the real power of computer technology, which is the real-time analysis of student performance to tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of each student. As he noted in Barhsay’s article, improving education for each child requires much more than giving each of them a computer: it requires trained teachers to assist in the application of that technology.

Barshay ends her essay with this suggestion: “Perhaps it is best to use the computer money into hiring, training, and paying the best teachers”. 

School Rezoning in a Brooklyn Neighborhood Tests Parents Values

September 25, 2015 1 comment

I read a column by Kate Taylor in yesterday’s NYTimes describing an emerging parent protest regarding the need to move some children in one overcrowded school in a nearby neighborhood into a school in another nearby neighborhood that has additional space. Why the protest? Well the overcrowded school is located in an affluent neighborhood where housing values are congruent with those in the area of affected and affluent parents. The under crowded school is located adjacent to a housing project and serves black and Hispanic students.

Reihan Salam, a writer for the National Review saw this protest as an example of inconsistency on the part of Brooklyn’s famously liberal residents and wrote an article titled “Brooklyn – The Capital of Liberal Hypocrisy”. Despite it’s inflammatory titled, the article does a good job of describing the conflicted feelings of residents in a gentrified neighborhood that is compelled to change schools because of overcrowding. He notes that it is the difference in behavioral norms as much as the difference in academics that matters to parents, and describes the importance of providing more support for those children who enter school with learning gaps and behavioral challenges.

Salam, however, conveniently neglects the real factor that makes it difficult for NYC schools to succeed, which is the need for more money. He glibly writes that “New York city spends $20,331 per pupil, almost twice as much as the national average of $10,700, and that much of this money is spent very inefficiently”. 

There is one major problem with Salam’s per pupil spending analysis: the NY State median for last year was $22,552… so NYC spends $2,000+ LESS than the per pupil midpoint in NYS. Oh… and nearby affluent suburb Scarsdale spent over $30,000 per student. Salam mentions the need for more support in classrooms housing students with troubled backgrounds but fails to note that $2,200,000,000— the amount of money needed to achieve the State’s median figure— would provide a wealth of personnel to help classroom teachers. He could have also noted that NYC would need another $8,250,000,000 to catch up with the spending levels in Scarsdale. As for “inefficiency”… either ALL NYS schools are all extraordinarily inefficient or NYC schools are no worse.

Given the entrenched attitudes of parents regarding class and race, the solution to disparities in schools might not be to force racial and/or economic integration but rather to spend large sums of money to provide support services to neighborhoods and schools serving children with learning and behavioral challenges. If the blocks surrounding the housing project resembled the blocks surrounding the pricy high-rise and the children from the housing projects had the same preschool enrichment and learning opportunities as the children in the pricy high rise the notion of sharing classroom space might be easier to accept for both parties.

Confidential Memo Describes Billionaire Charter Cabal in LA

September 24, 2015 Leave a comment

An article by Dierdre Fulton in yesterday’s Common Dreams described the fall out from a confidential 44-page memo written by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation staff and other charter advocates delineating a plan that would result in the privatization of half of Los Angeles’ schools and substantial profits for the investors in the plan. The LA Times uncovered the memo, titled the “Great Schools Now” initiative that has a long list of celebrity billionaires who are likely supporters of the plan to takeover the schools. As the LA Times reports: 

Organizers of the effort have declined to publicly release details of the plan. But the memo lays out a strategy for moving forward, including how to raise money, recruit and train teachers, provide outreach to parents and navigate the political battle that will probably ensue.

The document cites numerous foundations and individuals who could be tapped for funding. In addition to the Broad Foundation, the list includes the Gates, Bloomberg, Annenberg and Hewlett foundations. Among the billionaires cited as potential donors are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, major producers of mandarin oranges, pistachios and pomegranates; Irvine Co. head Donald Bren; entertainment mogul David Geffen; and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk.

Fulton describes the reaction from education bloggers like Peter Greene and Diane Ravitch who were appalled and infuriated at the blatant proposal to make a profit from the operation of schools that were specifically designed to serve those students whose parents were engaged in the lives of their children while leaving the others behind. She also described the reaction of board members, who, astonishingly, were split on the concept. One Board member, Steve Zimmer, who was strongly opposed to the concept, was quoted at length, and his reasoning resonated with me: 

Among the plan’s sharpest critics is LA Unified school board president Steve Zimmer, who characterized it to LA School Report as a destructive strategy that would ignore the needs of thousands of children “living in isolation, segregation and extreme poverty.”

“This is not an all-kids plan or an all-kids strategy,” he told the online news site. “It’s very explicitly a some-kids strategy, a strategy that some kids will have a better education at a publicly-funded school that assumes that other kids will be injured by that opportunity. It’s not appropriate in terms of what the conversation should be in Los Angeles. The conversation should be better public education options and quality public schools for all kids, not some kids.”

He added: “To submit a business plan that focuses on market share is tantamount to commodifying our children.”

And in an interview with the LA Times, Zimmer called Broad’s plan “an outline for a hostile takeover.”

Those wishing to run schools like a business would see no problem with a “hostile takeover”, because that’s the way capitalism works: the fit corporations survive and the weak noes get bought out or go bankrupt. Implicit in the whole test-and-punish model is the fact that a “failing school” will be closed whether it is a charter or a traditional school or a for-profit or a non-profit school. If you don’t pass muster, as measured by test scores, you close up shop. If you do well and expand your market share, you reap profits for your shareholders and thrive. 

One positive outcome of this discovery of the billionaires battle plan is that a comprehensive public debate over the concept of privatization will now play out in Los Angeles and the public will gain a better understanding of the consequences of privatization. As a run up to the debate, expect to see a raft of op ed articles declaiming the virtues of for-profit charters and denying the loss of public input into their operation…. because that is clearly part of the “outreach to parents” and a MAJOR element of political battle the billionaires will need to win. The problem for those of us who think like Steve Zimmer is that none of us can buy ink by the barrel.