Friday, March 29, 2013

180 Days: Inspiration, Desperation, and Deselection

This spring break, I didn't read the three education books I was planning to. Instead, I spent a good chunk of time watching 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. It's a documentary about DC Metropolitan High School, an alternative or "last chance" school that's part of DCPS.

It was well-done and compelling. I highly recommend it. On a personal level, it reminded me a lot of the DCPS high school where I taught in terms of the population we served and the dedication and humanity of the faculty and staff. It's a great portrait of what many poor students deal with outside of school and what their schools must consider when educating them. It also inspired me to think about returning to such work, although I realize that this is partly due to the dynamism of Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor.

But there were also some things that reminded me of the dark side of disruptive-style education reform efforts and test-based accountability schemes: test prep and destructive firings and lay-offs.

As in my own children's school, the adults at DC Met try their best to make testing the most humane and fun experience possible. Given the stakes and their good intentions, it would be harsh of me to judge them. But I can't help but shake my head in discouragement by the wasted time and effort. So much creativity, so much planning, so much anxiety goes into teaching test prep. Imagine how much more meaningfully and productively that effort could be channeled.

Former Principal Minor is right when she says that DC Met students should have the skills and knowledge to be able to pass such tests as the DC CAS. Even if they're unreliable and/or biased tests, which I concur that many of them are, it's undeniable that most middle and higher income kids will at least pass them. But the thing is, you can't cram or drill for such tests. Teachers should familiarize test-takers with the format, but that should only take an hour or so. Ultimately, practicing for such tests will not result in meaningful learning, career or college readiness, or alas, higher test scores (see here and here).

As for destruction, I was upset by the ending but then I thought about what Williams-Minor had said during the film on the subject and I read the gracious thoughts she shared after the filming, and I figured that, well, if she's not outraged then I guess I shouldn't be either. DCPS, however showed no such class. When asked for comment by the radio show Talk of the Nation, DCPS Superintendent for Alternative School Terry DeCarbo made this comment about the film:
180 Days accurately shows what we've long known at DCPS — many of our students face tremendous barriers well before the school day begins. It's why we work to ensure our schools are not only rigorous academics environments, but also supportive to meet our students' social and emotional needs. Schools like Washington Met, while not typical American high schools, were specifically designed to address these challenges. We believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met but unfortunately, even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role that the school plays in educating these students. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment. [Emphasis mine.]
Hahaha! Are you kidding me?!?! DCPS spends "a significant amount of time on personnel matters," not to mention commenting on it. "Personnel matters," aka teacher quality and principal quality, aka firing people is the central stated component to their education reform platform. Since when do they concern themselves much with teaching and learning, with pedagogy and curriculum? As for commenting on personnel matters, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee infamously handled a "personnel matter" on national television. Rhee also publicly and without any evidence accused 266 teachers she was letting go of sexual abuse, corporal punishment, and chronic absenteeism.

The documentary and Williams-Minor's approach is premised on the idea that a sense of community and solid relationships between educators and their students are key to the learning process, especially for students who want for healthy communities and relationships with adults outside of school. Unfortunately, DCPS and other reformy systems (see Chicago Public Schools) champion ideology that fosters the opposite.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mend, Don't End, the Easing of the War on Drugs


Blogger's note: This is the fourth (and final) in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. The War on Drugs (and my objections to it--it's been an abject policy failure) are always on my mind, though recent coverage of marijuana legalization/decriminalization efforts (yes, I know they're not the same thing) across the country and particularly in Colorado and Washington reminded me of this piece, which discusses the intersection of the War on Drugs with educational practice.



Education News Colorado published a series of stories last week on the relationship between legalized medical marijuana, the spread of dispensaries since the law was passed in 2000, and rise (by 45%)  in the number of reported drug violations in K-12 schools. Suspensions, expulsions, referrals to police, and marijuana-related school arrests have all risen since 2009. In January of this year, U.S. Attorney John Walsh announced that prosecutors would target medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools, including over 100 in Colorado, for violating the federal Drug-Free Schools Act.

According to the series, the problems are manifold. First, students have easier logistical access to marijuana. By hanging around outside dispensaries or asking older family members or friends, they can get patients with prescriptions (which are easy to obtain) to get it for them. Second, because it’s being marketed by the dispensaries as medicinal, some kids are associating it with healthfulness. Legal contradictions further complicate things. According to federal law, marijuana is illegal. Colorado law dictates that dispensaries must respect a 1,000 buffer zone around schools, but also lets localities set their own limitations—with some outlawing the dispensaries entirely, but others allowing them closer than the 1,000 feet. Additionally, this fall, Colorado voters will consider legalizing marijuana altogether.

Those in favor of legalization of marijuana, for medicinal or other uses, say that more regulation of the dispensaries is needed. If students are getting the drugs illegally, that doesn’t mean it should be outlawed. They can still get alcohol, illegally, after all, but this is hardly seen as reason to return to prohibition.

Given Adam Gopnick’s recent blockbuster commentary on the moral shortcomings of our current criminal justice system (I also recommend reading this David Cole piece from 2009 in the NYRB), I would hate to see a rise in marijuana use among students serve as a litmus test for whether legalization or decriminalization should be pursued. I would hope that states like Colorado would keep legalized medical marijuana in place. I hope that they (and the rest of the country) consider decriminalizing marijuana, if not other drugs, altogether, just as has been done in Portugal with fairly positive results.

The entire Gopnick piece is worth reading, but in the meantime, these tidbits should be enough to make us reconsider our current state of affairs vis a vis our criminal justice system, the War on Drugs, and the continued criminalization of marijuana, if not other drugs:

More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. . . there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then [in 1850]. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.”. . . more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year.
Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime.

In New York City, arrests for marijuana possession went up again in 2011 even though Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum in September calling for police to refrain from arresting people with marijuana unless it’s in plain sight. Recently, NYPD members shot and killed after pursuing into his home, an African-American youth due to suspicion of possession of marijuana.

States like Colorado have an opportunity to stop the school to prison pipeline. They should regulate marijuana dispensaries and move them as far away from schools as evidence dictates is effective. But most of all, they should educate kids early on the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse. Schools should treat drug and alcohol abuse not as a crime but as a symptom of a larger problem. When I was a high school teacher, I suspected a few times, though I couldn’t really tell, that some kids were high when they came to my class. Given what some of them faced at home or on the streets, I didn’t conduct any investigations—they hadn’t been disruptive or anything. I preferred to keep them safe under my watchful eye and trusting enough of me to come back to class the next day. What good would it have done them to confront them or report them to police? I referred some students for counseling (and not just for suspected substance abuse issues) and I would much prefer that this approach, free from risks associated with harsh punishment, be more broadly adopted and available. Schools must educate and inform, not facilitate the school to prison pipeline.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Terriblus Tyrantus

Blogger's note: This is the third in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. All of the school closing announcements of late--in DC, Philadelphia, Chicago, and of course, New York reminded me of this post.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York sees himself as the “Education Mayor.” But lately New Yorkers seem to wish he weren’t. While a recent poll (more coverage here) shows they approve of some of his education policies, for example paying higher performing teachers more and basing layoffs on teacher performance rather than on seniority (the poll didn’t define “performing” or “performance”), it shows that voters don’t approve of his handling of the schools overall or of strict mayoral control, and that they trust the teachers union more than the mayor to be advocates for students. Nor are Chancellor Walcott’s numbers so good: only 34% approve of his performance.

Bloomberg’s cynical reaction: a) I don’t care what the public thinks and b) the public doesn’t really think that—they were manipulated by advertisements except for c) when the voters approved of me in which case they were sincerely happy. I should know because I buy public opinion when I need to. You want a poll in my favor? Believe me, I can get you a poll in my favor by 3 o’clock tomorrow, with nail polish.

What’s most concerning about this is Bloomberg’s utter disdain for democracy. These are the times when I hear Bloomberg talking in Jon Stewart’s thug voice. Yes, he gave that donation to Planned Parenthood during the Komen ordeal. Yes, he supports gay rights and gay marriage. Yes, he gave his own money to a program in New York City to help unemployed, previously incarcerated, and uneducated young men look for jobs. But that’s just the point: he buys policy he approves of but cuts government funding to those he doesn’t approve of. He bypasses democratic institutions and processes.

He has closed schools at an amazing clip, sending students off to try their luck at getting into small schools, charter schools, or, if that fails, other comprehensive schools. Those schools then become dumping grounds for the kids are hardest to educate, and become vulnerable to being closed for low performance, beginning the process anew. In 2002, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) was set up to replace the central board of education; of thirteen members, the Mayor could appoint eight. In 2004, in an incident known as the “Monday Night Massacre” Bloomberg had three of his appointed members removed as they were planning to oppose his proposal regarding social promotion. His appointees on the PEP haven’t voted against one of Bloomberg’s proposals since. I’ve heard some New Yorkers call it the Puppets for Education Policy.

Last night’s PEP meeting featured intense protests regarding the closure or truncation of 33 schools. That brings to over 100 the number of schools Bloomberg has closed with over 400 co-locations of charters in public school buildings, many of those schools already making full use of the building. That’s an astonishing assault on an essential public democratic institution, especially given that it’s occurring without any meaningful public input.
Immediately after Bloomberg engineered the chance to get a third term and won, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote a column in The New Yorker bemoaning the conditions of Bloomerberg’s reign but ultimately approving it. Hertzberg ended with a shrug of the shoulders and a question:
“If Bloomberg had been satisfied with two terms, he would be leaving office a beloved legend, a municipal god. He’ll get his third, but we’ll give it to him sullenly, knowing that while it probably won’t measure up to his first two—times are hard, huge budget gaps are at hand—it’ll probably be good enough. The Pax Bloombergiana will endure a while longer. But then what? Will we have forgotten how to govern ourselves?”
The question is not only whether New Yorkers will have forgotten how to govern themselves but whether after the dismantling of New York’s public democratic infrastructure, they will be able to, whether there will be institutions and processes in which to do so. Bloomberg may give money to good causes, he may be in favor of gay rights, and he may support immigrants, but he’s still a machine politician, and even worse, he’s a machine politician for the party of Bloomberg.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Constituents: Eric Cantor wants to hear that you agree with his bankrupt agenda.

Blogger's note: This is the second in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. Eric Cantor's foray into education reform a la vouchers and privatization--he desires to "move heaven and earth to fix education for the most vulnerable" and says that "our schools are too dangerous"--along with recent attempts to re-invent himself reminded me of this post about how he was was (also) trying to re-make himself one year ago.


Eric Cantor has sent out an e-mail to his constituents; the subject line reads “I’d like to Hear From You.”  The congressman wants “to understand where you stand on the many issues facing our nation and how they’re impacting you and your family.” Included is a survey full of leading questions.

Eric Cantor is notorious for ignoring his constituents, but people or corporations outside of his district, however, are another story. During the 2010 campaign, his advance staff went so far as to have local police remove and arrest for disorderly conduct, trespassing, and resisting arrest a Louisa, Virginia, constituent from a campaign event at his local coffee shop—one that the constituent had registered for. This past August, two hundred of Cantor’s constituents rented a ballroom in the same hotel where Cantor was holding an “advisory council meeting,” again to which he had invited constituents (via an announcement on a Tea Party website). They had been unable to get a meeting with Cantor and were hoping to be heard at this event. Ultimately, the group was kicked out of the hotel where the event was held—the hotel cited discomfort with hosting “conflicting events.”

Three Democrats are competing for the chance to run against Cantor this election. David Hunsicker formerly served in the Air Force and is real estate broker from Orange County. E. Wayne Powell, also a military (army) vet is an attorney. Jim Phillips is a former Assistant Attorney General of Virginia and a Richmond law professor. In 2010, Cantor was challenged by one Democrat and one Tea Party candidate—they held debates which Cantor declined to take part in. Democrat Rick Waugh won 34.1% of the vote and Floyd Bayne 6.5%, certainly not very much, but considering Cantor’s amassed power and that Waugh and Bayne were no-names with no national support, it’s not too shabby, either.

Perhaps with three lining up to oppose him this year, each with more publicity and money than 2010’s candidates, Cantor is somewhat on the defensive and realizing that he needs to at least make a show of engaging in the campaign. Go ahead and laugh, but a poll done in November shows signs of vulnerability. Furthermore, if he weren’t feeling a need to polish his image he wouldn’t have taped this segment with 60 Minutes where he showcased his pro-choice wife and his affinity for rap music. Days later, during a Q & A session after reading to elementary students in his district, he distanced himself from his portrayal on the news show, saying, "You never know what those kind of shows are going to do or not do," and that the producers left out that while “the beat [in rap music] may be okay,” the lyrics are “abhorrent.” On second thought, he doesn’t much care for rap music.

My prediction is that Cantor will still win but by a slimmer margin than he did last election. What will matter in part is how much his opponents are able to call his constituents’ attention to his capitulations to outside Big Money. For example, Cantor just seriously weakened the soon-to-be-passed STOCK Act, an insider-trading ban for members of Congress, by removing an amendment which would have required “political intelligence consultants” to disclose their activities and a proposal that enables the feds to more easily prosecute corrupt public officials. In 2009, Cantor, an investor in the mortgage industry, opposed a measure that would have helped home buyers get lower interest rates and avoid foreclosure.

Perhaps if voters in the VA-07 get this message, they’ll decide the rhymes he’s been rapping in Congress are simply too abhorrent to continue.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Indeed, let’s celebrate the defeat of Prop 8 but know it’s far from the end of hate


Blogger's note: This is the first in a series of posts that I wrote in February of 2012 as part of a writing fellowship application. See the introduction to this series here. That DOMA and Prop 8 cases are soon to go before the Supreme Court is what reminded me of this piece.


Yesterday, Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, was struck down by a federal appeals court in San Francisco. Gay rights supporters erupted in celebration, though those paying close attention to the decision were quick to point out that,

“. . . the Ninth Circuit did not hold that same-sex couples have a right to marry. It held that once a state has granted them the right to marry, it can’t take it away arbitrarily. In California, a state court decision in 2008 had held that the state constitution required the state to allow same-sex marriage.” 

I was living in California when Prop 8 was passed—in Oakland. It passed the same day Obama was elected president, making it a bittersweet day. Many in the Bay Area reflexively blamed Southern California for Prop 8. Yes, Southern California is more conservative than Northern California and yes, voters there approved the measure at a much higher rate, but according to the by-county breakdown data, nearly 25% of San Francisco voters and a little more than 38% of Alameda County voters, where Oakland is located, voted for it. Now those percentages are certainly low, but given the population and history of San Francisco and Oakland, I was surprised and reminded SoCal haters that maybe “no one they knew” voted for it but with one in four voters in San Francisco and one in three in Alameda County voting “yes”, somebody in their community certainly did.

Prop 8 passed in 2007 at least in part because its proponents were more organized and funded. For one, opponents of Props 8 did a lousy job with their ad campaign against it. Furthermore, if the numbers in San Francisco and Oakland were any indication, would be naysayers were complacent. Many people who might have voted against the measure didn’t even make it the polls. Especially powerful, however, was the myth perpetrated by Proposition 8 supporters that if it did not pass, children would be “taught gay marriage (whatever that means), or even to be gay, in public schools. So some voters who might ordinarily have voted with a “live and let live” attitude instead took exception to the possibility of their own children being taught to live as others might choose to live.

The American Prospect's Abby Rappaport holds up happenings in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, among other places, as another reason for hope beyond the Proposition 8 defeat. In this particular case, I would be far more cautious. The night before yesterday’s ruling, I happened to read this article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in Rolling Stone about Anoka-Hennepin, which is about 30 miles north of Minneapolis and is part of Michelle Bachmann’s district. Before it came up for re-evaluation in 1994, health teachers in Anoka-Hennepin were allowed to teach that homosexuality was normal, but after reconsideration, the policy held the opposite. Any discussions or even mentions of homosexuality stopped. Despite student and parental complaints, students who intimidated and assaulted apparently LGBTQ and LGBTQ-perceived students went undisciplined. After an epidemic of suicides, lawsuits, and pressure, in 2009 the district modified the policy again to one of  “neutrality,” which while better still came across ambiguously to educators. Finally, this past December, there was a proposal to eliminate the policy altogether. To note, the school district released a statement which disputes Erdely’s portrayal, calling it “grossly distorted.”

Anoka-Hennepin’s latest policy, which seeks to “prevent teachers from influencing students on controversial topics,” is merely a small step in the right direction, away from a policy that led to often brutal and shameful treatment of a certain class of kids. Educators couldn’t mention the word “gay,” couldn’t discipline students for bullying students for being gay, had to engage in de facto don’t ask, don’t tell about their own sexuality, and couldn’t teach about anyone or anything gay. Kids were beaten, abused, and killed themselves—neither Rappaport’s post or the Minnesota Public Radio piece Rappaport links to mentions any of these specifics. Certainly, the district should be applauded for finally taking this step and certainly, according to Erdely, some school board members and teachers union members there were against the policy from the get go, but that’s a far cry from district leaders being champions of civil rights for LGBTQ kids. Calling identifying as LGBT or Q “controversial” still implies that it could be wrong. Can it be said that being a girl is controversial? A Latino? A Muslim? Of course, students are free to think that being gay is wrong, but when they go through public school doors, they shouldn’t be allowed to behave as such, to discriminate against, threaten, or harm other students based on those beliefs.

That Proposition 8 was struck down is a victory for gay rights, but until we tackle the codification and teaching of discrimination against LGBTQ people—this after all was essentially how Prop 8 was passed, by tapping into people’s fears of their children being exposed to the concept of homosexuality—the struggle will continue. If teachers are not supposed to be impartial while mediating issues stemming from racism, then why should they be impartial in matters of homophobia? Hate is hate, quite objectively.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

When I was free to try to not write for free

As I have been busy with a new job, new projects (more on this soon), and parenting, I have not, as I said wouldn't, posted or, as I said I would, written :( very much in the past several months.

This time last year, however, I was writing up a storm. I posted and tweeted relatively frequently and I had recently finished applying for a writing fellowship. By now the details are fuzzy, but for the second round of the application process, I had to write four blog posts over the course of a week and I had to indicate which day and what time of day I would have posted them (but submit them all at once).

Certain events in the news recently have reminded me of these posts and since I have not written much lately, I have decided not to leave these hard-wrought posts to rot in the hard drive of my senile laptop. So, if any of you dear readers are interested, I will post these four posts over the course of this next week including the story that reminded me of each one.

What a different place I am in now. Not a bad place, mind you, but a different one, one that reflects a re-examination of my passions and aspirations and where they fit in the context of, well, reality.

And in case you want to know, the whole Atlantic-Nate Thayer dust up is what re-ignited this existential conflict, this trip down memory lane, in the first place.