Archive for February, 2016

Where Does Anti-Union “Reform” Lead? Wisconsin Gives Us the Answer… It Leads to Corruption

February 21, 2016 1 comment

Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s union busting Governor, just signed a bill into law that will eliminate civil service testing and replace it with hiring “…based on résumés and the impressions they leave on administrators perusing them.”

The NYTimes editorial board coldly describes the result of this legislation:

New hires who had six months’ probation will now be under a two-year watch in which to please their masters. And should anyone wonder where the power lies in this “streamlined” system, the law centralizes hiring decisions firmly in the governor’s administrative office, with a new system of merit bonuses at the ready.

Patronage, anyone? Mr. Walker hailed the changes as “common sense” efforts to “get the best and brightest in the door and keep them there.” He did not mention energetic toadying as a possible qualification, nor the political cronyism the law so obviously invites.

I worked as a Superintendent of Schools in New York State for five years and found the civil service system used to hire some of the non-teaching staff members to be cumbersome and complex. But having also worked in school districts where board members and local elected officials often attempted to use political pressure to show preferential treatment for local applicants over “outsiders” I appreciated the need for some means of objectivity in hiring. And my experience in NYS makes me appreciate what the consequences might be If Governor Cuomo ever eliminated civil service in that state as a “common sense” provision: the door would be open for local school boards to insist on hiring a relatively unqualified friend or relative who needs a job to fill a mid-level vacancy in the business office or on the maintenance staff.

The celebrated “union-busting” and especially the “deregulation” championed by the likes of Mr. Walker open similar doors for patronage. Union contracts often include language designed to protect employees from administrative bullying and arbitrariness, tools heavy-handed and toadying administrators often wielded to help school board members “weed out” teachers who held controversial opinions on issues. And regulations like certification requirements for teachers and safety provisions for schools ensured that students attended well maintained facilities with qualified staff members in all subjects.

Mr. Walker has been hailed by those who favor deregulated for profit schools… and the day is rapidly approaching in Wisconsin when parents will flee public schools for good reason: they will be staffed with energetic toads who serve at the pleasure of arbitrary and capricious board members and administrators and no longer be subject to those stifling “government regulations”. They will, however, reward the shareholders who invest in them.


Advertisements Pays for Grades, Extra-Curriculars that Make a Difference in College Success

February 21, 2016 1 comment

An article by Natasha Singer in today’s NYTimes describes, a program that offers students micro-scholarships to nearly 100 participating post-secondary schools. The idea behind these micro-scholarships is described in the headline:

Got an A in Algebra? That’s Worth $120

The background on is offered in this paragraph:, a three-year-old start-up in San Francisco, aims to make the admissions criteria clearer and the costs a bit more feasible, particularly for first-generation collegegoers. High school students may sign up on the free site to accrue incremental scholarships from about 100 participating institutions, including Oberlin, Temple University and soon, the University of Iowa.

The article describes how these incremental micro-scholarships extend beyond the classroom. Penn State University, which offers micro scholarships to students attending selected high schools in the state, rewards selective extra-curricular activities as well:

Penn State has made its program available to students at five high schools in Philadelphia, as well as six rural Pennsylvania high schools. Those students may earn scholarships of up to $4,000 a year for four years. Among other awards, the university offers them $120 for each A grade in a core course, $400 for each advanced placement course, $100 for each year of perfect attendance, $100 for a leadership role in a sport or extracurricular activity and $5 for each hour of community service, up to $500.

The notion of offering money for good grades and desirable behavior outside of the classroom seems crass, but it is a common practice in many middle class and affluent families and does provide a clear and direct answer to a student to the question “what am I ever going to get out of this course?” The program works for colleges as well since they are often seeking first generation students who attend high schools serving children raised in poverty and find that those students often enter without the strong transcripts that other students accrue. There is a potential downside to this program, however, one that Middleburg College Dean Suzanne Gurland flags:

The potential risk is that introducing monetary rewards could curb students’ intrinsic motivation to succeed in school, or their innate enjoyment of activities like reading, in favor of striving for scholarship dollars.

“Hinging dollar amounts on individual microachievements probably creates a bunch of kids running around thinking, ‘How can I get the next 250 bucks?’ instead of focusing on what’s really important — which is learning,” said Suzanne Gurland, the dean of curriculum at Middlebury College in Vermont, who has studied processes that help children thrive in school.

Rather than using microscholarships to micromanage students’ educational pathways, Professor Gurland said, colleges could simply pledge lump sums to promising ninth graders if they agreed to work diligently during high school on whichever subjects or projects interested them most.

“If a kid is interested and hard-working,” Professor Gurland said, “they will take that calculus course anyway.”

While I wish that a students primary motive was learning for its own sake, our culture and our political environment at this point sees education solely as a means of earning more money and I know that many parents actively discourage their children from pursuing more education because they do not believe it is within their reach. Moreover, once a student gets onto a campus like Penn State and sees the opportunities that exist for learning, it is conceivable that the love of learning will replace the love of earning. Anything that gets a disadvantaged student out of an environment that discourages advancement will benefit them and benefit our society as a whole.

Meditation, Medication, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? The Answer is Clear to Me

February 20, 2016 1 comment

Earlier this week the NYTimes “Well” blog reported on a study that provided scientific evidence that formal training in mindfulness meditation relieved the stress adults experienced as the result of extended unemployment. The study compared two groups of unemployed individuals who had no background in mindfulness meditation: half of the 35 participants “were taught formal mindfulness meditation at a residential retreat center; the rest completed a kind of sham mindfulness meditation that was focused on relaxation and distracting oneself from worries and stress.” The result? All expressed relief from their tensions immediately following their training experiences, but those who received the formal meditation training had a substantial change to the way their brains functioned:

…follow-up brain scans showed differences in only those who underwent mindfulness meditation. There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.

This gibes with my own personal experience and the experience of many mindfulness practitioners I know. I began engaging in meditation practices nearly a decade ago and since doing so have had the longest stretch of relief from colitis, a stress-related auto-immune condition, in my lifetime. I was initially drawn to mindfulness meditation practice intellectually. Unlike traditional religions, Buddhist practices value direct experience more than mythology. For example, there is no future “heaven and hell” that will result from one’s accumulation of life experiences or spiritual awakening. These “mental formations” are seen as intellectual constructs that divert our attention from the present moment which is invariably precious. Through meditation one learns to be a witness to the thought patterns that govern our habitual behavior and create narratives about our personal experiences… narratives that ultimately delude us. I stayed with the practice because I witnessed how it was favorably effecting my well-being.

As indicated in earlier posts (including this one from two days ago), I am distressed by the reliance on medication to control the behavior of young children and have advocated the use of other interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy. But if this study can be replicated among children and teens— and I see no reason why it would not result in the same findings— it is conceivable that three day mindfulness meditation retreats followed by daily sessions of mindfulness meditation would be far superior to a lifetime of medication and the development of self-discipline through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Alas, even if impartial scientific analysis proved the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation beyond a doubt it would face an uphill battle in our culture. As some school districts have already seen, religiously minded parents and community members see mindfulness meditation as  “religious” training. Religiously minded groups have pushed back against mindfulness meditation and even yoga programs in public schools. There would also be formidable opposition would come from the pharmaceutical industry who benefits mightily from managing the behavior of children and adults. If children and adults attended three day meditation retreats instead of taking ritalin or the array of stress-relieving medications offered to adults the pharmaceutical industry would experience substantial challenges to their bottomline. Finally, the most daunting challenge: our culture’s belief that there is a quick and easy way to relieve suffering… a belief that leads us to accept get-rich-quick schemes, to buy lottery tickets, and to repeatedly seek short-term relief through drugs— prescription drugs or recreational ones. Alas, until one accepts that suffering exists and the end of suffering can only occur through hard work we will continue the cycle of spending countless dollars on worthless medications.

Todd Rose Celebrates Jaggedness and Advocates the Abandonment of “Averagearianism”

February 19, 2016 Comments off

I just finished reading a transcript of Anya Kamenetz’ NPR interview with Todd Rose, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and the co-founder of Project Variability, a new organization devoted to “the science of the individual and its implications for education, the workforce, and society”… and based on what I’ve read, he’s written the book I tried to write over a decade ago. I’ll spare you my narrative analysis and instead use some aphorisms as headers for some of the concepts Rose covers in his book:

We are jagged, not “average”

Body size is a very concrete example of what I call jaggedness. There is no average pilot. No medium-sized people. When you think of someone’s size you think of large, medium, small. Our mass-produced approach to clothing reinforces that. But if that were true you wouldn’t need dressing rooms… Height is one-dimensional, but size isn’t. People are jagged in size, in intelligence, everything we measure shows the same thing.

“Averagearianism” plagues public schools… and results in age-based grade cohorts

It’s so ubiquitous that it’s hard to see.

We design textbooks to be age-appropriate, but that means, what does the average kid of this age know and can do? Textbooks that are designed for the average will be a pretty bad fit for most kids.

Then you think of things like the lockstep, grade-based organization of kids, and you end up sitting in a class for a fixed amount of time and get a one-dimensional rating in the form of a grade, and a one-dimensional standardized assessment. It’s everything about the way we test and move kids forward.

Standardized tests value “averagearianism” over jaggedness… and diminish student learning a seemingly false numerical score: 

Kamenetz: “With standardized tests, I often hear teachers talking about students being two months behind or ahead, as if there’s a very fixed timeline for progress that all human beings should fit.”

Rose: It feels comforting. But if you take the basic idea of jaggedness, if all kids are multidimensional in their talent, their aptitude, you can’t reduce them to a single score. It gives us a false sense of precision and gives up on pretending to know anything about these kids.

Public education confuses speed with capacity:

I think when you look at the idea of pace, we are so convinced that slow means dumb and fast means smart. We feel justified in pegging the time to how fast the average person takes to finish.

But this is where, with a better understanding of this and realizing, “Oh, pace really has nothing to do with ability, people are fast at some things and slow with others,” you would build a very different system than the one we have.

Competency based education can lead us to abandon the time-learning linkage: 

To me, competency based education is nonnegotiable. I don’t think you can have fixed-time, grade-based learning anymore. I don’t see how you justify diplomas.

It doesn’t mean students can take forever, but allowing some flexibility in pace and only caring whether they master the material or not is a sound foundation for a higher ed system.

Rose wants to move beyond factory schools:

What I think my contribution is, is to say: Our institutions are based on assumptions about human beings. Our education system is based on a 19th century idea of an average person and using 20th century statistics.

As long as people think you can understand people based on averages, or how they deviate from averages, it seems reasonable. It looks like accountability and fairness rather than absurdity.

I hope Mr. Rose’s book sells… but his ideas are so contrary to our current paradigm that values efficiency and standardization that I fear he may be swimming upstream. One ray of hope: for all of its flaws, ESSA does allow states to set standards. MAYBE Vermont and New Hampshire will seize this opportunity to introduce the kind of jagged education required to ensure that all students master the material needed to become successful citizens.

Behavioral Therapy Difficult for Parents and Teachers, But Sends a Better Message Than Drugs

February 18, 2016 1 comment

Benedict Carey’s article in today’s NYTimes reports on a study comparing the effectiveness of behavioral interventions with drug interventions in treating ADHD in young children. The findings, published in two papers by the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology:

Children with attention-deficit problems improve faster when the first treatment they receive is behavioral — like instruction in basic social skills — than when they start immediately on medication.

The article details the research and describes the challenges parents and teachers face in implementing the behavioral therapies which cost less than the drug therapies:

Having children and their parents begin with behavioral treatment and follow with medication, if needed, cost an average of $700 less annually per child than treatment as usual, in which a doctor writes prescriptions and periodically monitors behavior, the team found.

The analysis did not account for the psychological cost to parents — in terms of a child’s tantrums, slammed doors and hurled tableware — of carrying out behavioral techniques.

Those psychological costs also play out in classrooms, where teachers must closely monitor children who are on behavioral therapies. Moreover, it is far less costly to medicate students in schools than it is to provide a classroom teacher with the training needed to administer such a program or to provide a 1:1 classroom aide to monitor and administer a behaviorally based program. By the time a school district adds in those costs it is far more economical to administer medicine than it is to adapt to a student’s idiosyncrasies.

But the if the short term costs for behavioral intervention avoids a lifelong dependency on drugs— and ADHD does not end when a child leave school— isn’t it better for the child to learn how to regulate his or her behavior than it is to medicate the child? What message do we send a child who needs to take medication in order to “behave” in class? Is the behavior we seek reasonable for ALL children? If not, we are arguably over-medicating scores of children… and based on data I’ve observed that seems to be precisely what is happening.

Reclaim Our Schools, Arguably an Astroturf Movement, Fighting for Right Principles

February 18, 2016 Comments off

I read with a mixture of enthusiasm and dismay about the “Walk-In” movement that is occurring in a number of cities around the country sponsored by an organization called “Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools”.

I was enthused because I am in complete agreement with the principles the Alliance stands for and the approach they are using. As described by Common Dreams writer Nadia Prupis, the Alliance is protesting privatization, relentless state budget cuts, state takeovers of education, and high-stakes standardized testing… all issues I have written about extensively.

“The future of public education in the United States stands at a critical crossroad,” a statement from the Alliance reads. “Over the past two decades, a web of billionaire advocates, national foundations, policy institutes, and local and federal decision-makers have worked to dismantle public education and promote a top-down, market-based approach to school reform. Under the guise of civil rights advocacy, this approach has targeted low-income, urban African-American, Latino and immigrant communities, while excluding them from the reform process.”

“These attacks are racist and must be stopped,” the statement continues.

Among the list of topics the Alliance is demanding are:

  • Full, fair funding for neighborhood-based community schools that provide students with quality in-school supports and wraparound services
  • Charter accountability and transparency and an end to state takeovers of low-performing schools and districts
  • Positive discipline policies and an end to zero-tolerance
  • Full and equitable funding for all public schools
  • Racial justice and equity in our schools and communities.

These demands mirror ones that I, too, would place on a short list. Why, then, would I be dismayed? Two reasons: the groups who form the Alliance are arguably self-interested and, consequently, their claim to social justice may be undercut by those who oppose the movement; and the relatively small numbers who participated in the “Walk-in”.

As Prupis reports, the members of the Alliance coalition are “…the American Federation of Teachers, the Journey for Justice Alliance, and the Center for Popular Democracy, among other organizations and unions.” One reason the opt-out movement got the attention of the public was that it was truly a grassroots movement of parents whose leadership intentionally kept their distance from unions who are, unfortunately, a convenient target of politicians who want to engender resentment among taxpayers. When a union is funding a “movement” it appears to conservative minded individuals the way anything funded by the Koch brothers appears to Progressives.

The numbers who participated in these various “Walk Ins” are evidently not that substantial as compared to those who opted out or those who participate in North Carolina’s Moral Monday gatherings. Instead of giving a precise number with, say, five digit, Prupis describes the number of participants as “thousands”. When a well planned event (which this presumably was) is held in a multiple cities (i.e. Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Diego) a major grassroots movement would hope to engage tens of thousands of people.

Despite my misgivings about the funding for the movement, I hope that it gains traction and gets the crowds their principles deserve because children raised in poverty and children whose parents do not advocate for them need someone to speak for them… and I DO believe the union members serving those children DO have the interest of children at the forefront.

Free College for Prisoners? Not When Law-Abiding Citizens Effectively Pick-Up the Costs

February 16, 2016 Comments off

The NYTimes editorial board today opined that more post-secondary education was needed for those incarcerated in our prisons in order to reduce recidivism and provide those currently in prison “…jobs skills that make them marketable employees.” The editors decried those who opposed a recent initiative from Governor Cuomo, who sought additional funds to provide the kinds of educational programs the Times editors advocated:

In New York, for example, raucous opposition in the Legislature led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to withdraw a sensible 2014 proposal that would have set aside a mere $1 million in a state corrections budget of $2.8 billion to finance college education programs behind bars. Know-nothings in the Legislature argued that the proposal was “a slap in the face” to law-abiding taxpayers, when in fact it represented a clear cost savings for those same taxpayers.

from my perspective those who opposed the legislation could be called “know-nothings” if they did not support more funding for post-secondary education for ALL students.

In the 90s the prison programs were shuttered in large measure because state legislatures were defunding public post-secondary education at the same time as they were escalating the misbegotten “War on Drugs”. In effect, voters supported politicians who promoted the idea that kids going to community college should pay their own way and we needed to use our increasingly scarce tax dollars on prisons to incarcerate those who were using and selling drugs. If we are really serious about crime prevention and drug abuse we need to face the fact that more money will be needed in the short term to address the treatment of those suffering from the illness of addiction and to underwrite the cost of post-secondary education for those NOT in prison as well as those who are incarcerated. As long as we conceive of drug use as a moral failing and college attendance as a privilege for those who can afford it we will continue on the cycle we are now in where those who cannot afford post-secondary schooling cannot find meaningful work which can result in depression which, in turn, can lure many into drug and alcohol addiction as they self-medicate.

I believe we need to replace the culture of fear that fueled the “War on Drugs” with a culture of caring that provides some form post-secondary schooling for all. If NYS legislators oppose the increase of funding for post-secondary schooling for ALL NYS residents, including those incarcerated, they ARE know-nothings… and uncaring know-nothings at that. If they opposed the Governor’s proposal because the Governor did not seek higher funding for ALL post-secondary students, then the Governor is at fault for not reaching far enough to help those in need to pull themselves up… and HE may be the uncaring know-nothing.