Sunday, August 21, 2016

First, Do Your Job

We rail at the GOP Congress because they are dragging their feet on one of their most important tasks: Voting thumbs up or down on Supreme Court appointments. But we are silent when our own state executive branch fails to accomplish two of its main tasks: Releasing funds that have been allocated and filling key slots in state government.

The State Education Department organizational chart from December 2015 shows several key positions vacant. It's now August 2016, and those jobs remain vacant. This page shows job listings at State Ed, with asterisks indicating those jobs that require Budget Division approval to move forward. The most immediate problem, I believe, is at the School Operations & Management and the Facilities & Business Services levels, where capital project approval has stalled, and what once took four to six months now takes a year or more. This may ultimately affect everything from retrofitting lead fixtures to using Smart Schools monies. It's maddening.

The upshot is that the executive branch can require SED to do various things—monitor the spending of Smart Schools monies, fix crumbling buildings, create a task force to review Common Core—yet withhold the very funds that enable the department to do those tasks. This is a Democratic administration that absolutely fails to put its money where its mouth is. We taxpayers think we are funding our schools. Where's the money going? It's anyone's guess.

I'd encourage parents and others to write to Senate and Assembly leadership and to the Governor to ask: "Where's my money going? Why are the halls of SED echoing emptily when we are paying considerable sums to fund that department? Why isn't the Division of Budget doing its job?"

Segregation + Media = Stereotyping

We know that America is more segregated today than at any time since the '60s. For the most part, black kids and white kids don't live in the same neighborhoods or go to the same schools. At the same time, for every middle-class "Black-ish" on television, there are 1,000 stories about poverty and violence in the black community.

So when Trump reaches out to African-American voters with the line, "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58% of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?" isn't he just parroting the perception foisted upon white America by the media? Yes, we expect our elected officials actually to visit the real world and see it for themselves, but Trump is wholly media-made, so it makes sense that he should believe this skewed version of reality.

When you have a strong middle class, you tend to have people of color working and living together with white folks. Remove those jobs, separate the very very rich from the struggling, and you tend to separate the races, too. At least that's been the result here over the past several decades. And when people are no longer neighbors and in each other's lives, they are free to imagine what "the other" is like. How's that working for us, America?

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Stench of Testosterone and Racism

I've attended NASCAR races and hunt banquets. I've walked past construction sites and New York City fire stations. I've survived pep rallies, bad rock concerts, and sporting events of all kinds. But you'd have to roll them all up into one giant doobie to equal the horror of a Trump rally. That is some scary angry-white-male shit.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Trends and Tribulations from the 2016 Rural Schools Conference

1. We are using the schools of yesterday to educate the leaders of tomorrow.

Bill Daggett was the keynote speaker, and there's nobody better to demoralize teachers, shame administrators, and convince the rest of us that we're on the wrong path. Here's a classic Daggett example.

When we test kids, we make them give us their phones so they don't cheat—because god forbid they should use resources or collaborate the way we'd expect them to do in real life.
2. As the feds get out of education, beware.

Some people are all smiles at the thought of education's being wrested from federal hands and sent back to states and localities. ESSA, the replacement for ESEA and NCLB, throws up its hands and says, "Okay, no more AYP (annual yearly progress) reports; you take care of it." Daggett thinks the feds want out because they're going to have to use those dollars to fund Social Security and Medicare—old folks' demographics going up, kiddies' demographics going down, so you need to put your money where the need is. Doesn't matter what the reason is; it's happening. And even certain states are pushing things down the road toward the localities; see, for example, Texas's "Districts of Innovation" plan. Kentucky's been doing this for a while. A word of warning: The state can still come in and shut you down if they don't like your results.

Kansas's recent resurrection of the "government schools" mantra (which I first heard right here in Dryden 15 years ago in this context: "PreK is an attempt by government schools to take our children away as soon as possible") just exacerbates the movement. But as I wrote a year ago, the feds are all that stand between our civil rights and chaos. Without federal oversight, there's no clear mandate to educate all students. Do you think that a local town will spend $1 million to support a child with significant disabilities? Or do you think the town will find a way to house such children out of sight, as happened prior to the 1960s? My cousin used to care in her home for women who were released from institutions with the big institutional dump of the 1970s; their only deficit was mental retardation, but they had never received any training or education of any kind. Want to go back there? We're well on our way.

3. There's never a lack of tech innovation, but it just magnifies inequalities.

Google Classroom is wonderful, and I would absolutely use it if I were teaching. But kids without broadband access at home have to rely on libraries and after-school programs, which really minimizes the flip in their flipped classrooms. Daggett is pushing Google's AR/VR-supporting Cardboard. It's totally fun and fabulous, but it assumes that every kid has a smart phone with a pretty flexible plan.

By the way, how's that broadband initiative coming, New York? What? Providers only want to upgrade the already-have rather than spending a dime to provide to the don't-have? You didn't consider requiring an "last-mile" block with every "cheap-and-easy" block you sold? There's a shock.

4. ESSA requires tracking kids post-graduation, which could be a game-changer. Or not.

Paul called for this every single year he was on the school board and earned a deafening silence in return. Meanwhile, we continue to send graduates to college, where 34.8%* drop out in their first year of four-year schools, and 44.5%* drop out of two-year schools. In New York, 37.8%* graduate four-year colleges in four years, and 10.9%* graduate from two-year programs. (*Daggett's numbers) College for everyone? Well, we still advertise it that way, and we proudly post the numbers of college-bound seniors in our graduation programs.

I went to a presentation by the superintendent of Unadilla Valley CSD, where the motto is "Everyone will flourish today, tomorrow, and beyond." I asked him what he's doing to assess that "tomorrow and beyond" part, and he said they gave kids a questionnaire at graduation rehearsal, after one year out, and after five years out. However, because they just started doing that, he didn't have results to share. I would posit that pretty soon, all schools will be doing something similar, and I think they'd better start sharing those results with their communities. Schools will begin to be judged by what students do after they leave. It will be eye-opening.

5. The governor's office is trying to strangle State Ed.

I heard this more than once. Positions are not being filled, because new applications are held up in a stalled queue at the Division of Budget. Getting approval for a capital project, even a minor one, takes nearly a year. The Commish is running around the state trying to win back teachers and parents by making changes to testing and standards, but she is being undermined by the lack of personnel support to do the work in Albany.

6. Opioids are the rural school scourge.

This was the first year that I heard a lot from all sides about how heroin and prescription drugs are affecting schools. The main problem right now is the devastating effect on families, but there are problems with student addictions as well. This one won't be going away soon.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Death of Supranationalism?

At my core, I'm a one-worlder, in the supranationalist sense of the word. I'm not into world domination, but I do think that things such as income inequality, climate change, and peace can never be solved nation by nation.

It's that kind of supranationalist thinking that led in the 90s to trade agreements that have sent a lot of lefties into a sudden nationalist tizzy. Even though it's ostensibly the right wing that wants to eliminate the EU and close our borders, a surprising number of people on the left are clamoring for similar changes.

Nationalism sucks; it gives us border clashes and independist wars. It's not a natural construct; in many cases, "nation" is held together by a strongman dictator; remove the dictator, and the nation flies to pieces. Nationalism is the reason I cringe when I hear Trump spout the old anti-Semitic "America First" line, or when I hear references to American exceptionalism. We fly a flag at our house to counter the nasty elements of nationalism that popped up in the flying of flags post 9/11. I like America, but it's an America of my own construct, not the one you all impose on me.

If the pendulum toward free trade is now moving back in the other direction, we can expect what we've seen this year: nativism, sabre-rattling by white supremacists, reduction of political freedoms.

The problem I didn't foresee with free trade was that it meant corporate world domination. The one world we got wasn't an end-of-days Narnia run by a free population of diverse but loving human beings. It was a worldwide dominion controlled by a few monopolies, with the "common good" way, way down on the list of priorities. There is not a chance that such a ruling structure would address income inequality, climate change, or peace.

If the pendulum toward free trade is now moving back in the other direction, we can expect what we've seen this year: nativism, sabre-rattling by white supremacists, reduction of political freedoms.

So what now? We retreat to within our borders and make widgets no one wants as a means of achieving full employment? We hoard our own water while the rest of the world burns? We stop educating and feeding the world? We wall everyone out, deny our own diversity, and pretend we are the Aryans of de Gobineau's fantasies?

It's a creepy, sad time in America, a time when one political candidate has enabled our dormant racism and xenophobia to awaken, full-throated. Since history tends to go in cycles, some day we should swing back toward a freer, more collaborative world. I truly hope it's not too late.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


As someone who once lost her two-year-old for a paralyzing eight minutes in Baltimore's bustling Harborplace, forgive me if I'm a little sympathetic to the doxed and shamed mom of the kid who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cincinnati Zoo, leading to the death of a beloved 17-year-old ape. I get it: The gorilla was just being a gorilla. They could/should have drugged him (although it would have taken ten minutes to take effect, and who knows what that ten minutes would have wrought). Online chatter went ballistic with everything from racist blather to calls for the lazy, incompetent mother to be jailed. The fact that the dad was there, too, is only mentioned occasionally. Because we all know that any accident befalling a child or bad behavior emanating from a child is 100% the mother's fault. Today, in 2016.

It's exhausting.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

John King Doubles Down

Suppose you had the highest education job in the nation for another seven months max. What would you do with that time?

If you were U.S. Secretary of Education John King, you would go out with a bang, not a whimper. King took advantage of the 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to declare,

We have failed to close opportunity and achievement gaps for our African-American and Latino students at every level of education. And in far too many schools, we continue to offer them less—less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses; less access to the services and supports that affluent students often take for granted, and less access to what it takes to succeed academically.

In case people thought he was blowing smoke, the feds came out and found Cleveland, MS, in violation of the constitution after a 50-year court battle. The resegregation of American schools has been a slow-moving but inexorable process since the 1960s. Google "resegregation" to find dozens of intelligent articles about the concept.

King has decided that his best weapon in the battle to equalize resources is the money he controls under Title I. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, currently entitled "Every Student Succeeds Act," or ESSA, proclaims that for schools that serve low-income students to to get Title I money from the feds, they must prove that they are using their other monies—local and state—to serve kids equally. It's about civil rights, which is the unspoken bailiwick of the Department of Education and really, the only reason to have a federal department at all. All those Trumpeters and others who want to get rid of the feds' role in education ought to have their children sent to the wrong side of the tracks in Cleveland, MS.

But of course people are squawking, because no one ever wants to give up what they have to give have-nots what they need. Lamar Alexander and Randi Weingarten are on the same side of the squawk battle, which probably doesn't happen very often.

Arne Duncan, the secretary who preceded King, tried to leverage Title I monies to drive reform. It didn't work. King's focus on specific inequities is more within the latitude of the department, but he's still under fire.

Here's what I think: If School A in Cleveland, MS, doesn't have a lot of low income students, and School B does, so that School A gets almost no Title I money, and School B gets plenty, Schools A and B should get equal monies from local and state taxes. It's the law: Title I is meant to supplement, not supplant local and state dollars. If the district uses Title I money to buy Reading 180 in School B and state money to buy a different reading program in School A, even if everything else is equal, that implies a use of Title I money that is supplanting state money.

It's not an easy fix. Salaries differ between School A (where teachers stay for their whole careers, because it's an easy gig) and School B (where new teachers are dumped and paid less because everyone knows it's a stepping-stone school).

John King doesn't want his legacy to be "that NY Commissioner who messed up on student privacy and Common Core." He wants to be known for something big, something important. This may be it. But it needs to land in the courts between now and December, and I hope that it does.

Nobody wants to give up what they have. But unless the pot is unlimited, what choice is there? What moral choice, I mean.