Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For: You May Not Want My Vote

I have always treated primaries as a means of gently guiding the Party in the direction I prefer. On a hunch, I just checked my track record, and as I had suspected, since I started voting in presidential primaries 40 years ago, my choice has NEVER WON. Even in those cases (just Mondale in '84, I think) where my primary choice was the Party's choice, he didn't make it to the finish line. In every other race, my candidate was gone by June.

So be careful what you wish for, all those who are strong arming me for my vote.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Telling the Story

The day after the Iowa caucus, Simon wrote, "I liked yesterday's 50-50 totally mixed up Iowa Democratic caucus results. Today, however, seems to be the day of people trying way too hard to tell that story any different direction they can to help their team. I don't like that."

"Narrative imperialism" is a phrase coined by literary scholar James Phelan to describe the reduction of strings of narratives to a single story, an objection to if not a rejection of the notion of narrative identity—the idea that, as Oliver Sacks wrote, "Each of us is a singular narrative." I believe both things are true: We construct ourselves as a narrative to make sense of our lives (narrative identity), and we impose a narrative grid on things we can't explain (narrative imperialism). The reaction of different acolytes to the caucus is a perfect example of the latter.

Even Trump has now created his own story around his second-place loss. His story has become: I did not lose; my win was stolen from me. It's a perfect example of narrative imperialism, at least as I understand Phelan's construct. Trump's narrative identity is: I am a winner. The Iowa loss doesn't fit. Therefore, I cannot have lost, a villain must exist who stole the election. Luckily for Trump, Cruz makes an excellent villain.

Elections are competitions, or struggles, between opposing forces. The way we humans construct stories, if you're not the protagonist, or hero, and you are in opposition to the hero, as in an election campaign, you must be the antagonist, or villain. This is a ridiculously simplistic way to look at a complex contest, but it's drilled into us from childhood and passed down from the ancient past. It explains why certain people scoff at the notion of supporting whomever emerges victorious from the Democratic primaries. How could we ever support the villain of our tale?

We hire pollsters because we want to be able to predict the plots of our stories. We rely on the media to shape complicated contests into simple tales.

The results of the Iowa caucus were confounding enough to send story-lovers scrambling for a story grid to impose upon the outcome. It is unacceptable for a hero and villain to be as evenly matched as the two Democratic candidates were. The Hillary narrative became: She won handily. The Bernie narrative became: The results are debatable. Plot points abounded: Coin tosses! Blizzards! Bad polling!

What we miss in all this—all the media prognostication, all the polling, all the endless speculation in front of the TV—is that the rest of humanity doesn't know our narrative and thus is unlikely to fall in line. Voters are predictable only to a point. Anyone may change his or her mind at the last minute. Talking heads are paid to fit today's story into a mold from four or eight or sixteen years ago. Life is a lot more fluid, and people a lot more changeable, than the pundits would have you believe. We wanted Iowans to be the flat characters of folk tales—the farmer and his wife, the evangelical preacher, the first-time voter. It doesn't work that way. Our narrative identity is our own; it is influenced by but not written by others. And as much as Hillary and Bernie supporters want to make the primaries into an apocalyptic struggle between sexist pigs and corporate shills, between unrealistic dreamers and stick-in-the-mud pragmatists, between real and faux progressives, they are so much more complicated and interesting than those facile, tedious stories would have you believe.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

School Report, 2016

The good news is that the state has a surplus and can afford to restore aid to schools. The bad news is that the state isn't ready to do that.

New Yorkers will hear a lot in the next month or two about how much support the governor's budget is giving to schools and how much more the legislature hopes to supply but just somehow can't. At the Community Forum in Auburn last night, board members and educators learned once again how we on the sidelines will be affected by these internecine budget battles.

First, a short history. In 2007, the legislature created a system of Foundation Aid in response to the state's loss of the court case that sought to fund schools more fairly. That Foundation Aid was meant to grow incrementally over the next 10 years to a point where the courts had determined that fairness lay. Then came the crash of 2008. Foundation Aid was frozen for the budget of 2009, and although it's thawed slightly over the past couple of years, it's nowhere near the 10-year "fairness" point that was originally planned.

After the crash, the state found itself with a gap between revenues and outlays. It chose to nab that missing money from the money promised to schools, creating the prettily named Gap Elimination Adjustment. Over the years since 2010, Central New York Schools have lost over $600 million in promised funds, with each district giving up dollars to plug the state's gap.

Then came the tax cap, sometimes incorrectly termed "the 2% cap." This cap meant that schools could not make up the difference between their original spending plans and the plans decimated by the GEA by raising taxes willy-nilly on the citizens of their districts.

Put it all together, and as Dr. Timbs told Central New York School Board Association members last night, "We have lost a generation of kids waiting for the state to comply with the court order."

But now the state has a surplus and could set things to rights again. However, the governor's proposal adds just $266 million, or 1.7%, to Foundation Aid, and puts back only $189 million out of the $434 million in GEA the state owes to schools. And to add insult to injury, this year's tax cap for schools is as close to zero as you can get. Not 2%. Not 1%. This year it averages 0.12%, which for all intents and purposes might as well be zero. (The original definition of the state's tax cap was as follows: "With some exceptions, the State’s Property Tax Cap limits the amount local governments and most school districts can increase property taxes to the lower of two percent; or the rate of inflation." The CPI, used as the measure of inflation, is 0.12% this year. The formula is complex, and some districts will have a cap higher and some lower—but I don't think anyone will be close to 2% this year.)

The poorest local schools will have 100% of their GEA restored this year. Candor's and Newfield's will be at $0, bringing them back to 2010 levels. Other local schools will get anywhere from 34% to 45% of their GEAs restored. But all of our local districts will face the ongoing deficit in court-promised Foundation Aid, and they will not be able to make it up with an increase in the tax levy. Keep in mind that a rollover budget includes contractual salary increases, health insurance (about 7% locally), workers' comp, debt service... This year, Dryden is managing to roll over retirement, utilities, and equipment/supplies with no increase to any of those—but that's not going to be true of all districts.

The upshot is this: CNYSBA is calling for elimination of the entire GEA in this year's budget. The money is there; there's no point to the GEA's existence except to manipulate spreadsheets to make NYS's situation look better than it is. CNYSBA is calling for $880 million in improved Foundation Aid, distributed fairly so that the districts that need it most get most. Legislators may point out that poor districts get the most aid now, which is true, but as I've quoted Timbs before, on average, poor districts in NYS get around 8 times more state aid than wealthy districts do. However, our wealthy districts are overall 14 times richer than poor districts. And this year, NYS's wealthiest districts, those with the largest tax bases, won't be able to raise the millions they usually easily raise through property taxes, so they will be competing fiercely for the same aid our needier districts require.

It takes 60% voter approval to override a school tax cap. I don't think you will see many schools trying; such votes rarely succeed. What you will see are more districts entering that netherworld of "fiscally stressed" schools, a world where inequity reigns, and the poor stay poor.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hit or Misogyny

A few years back—maybe 15 or so—someone said to me, "We'll have a black president long before we have a woman." And at the time I was all LOL, because I didn't for a minute believe that America was as sexist as it is racist.

Well, I was wrong. We're really really racist, but we're really sexist, too. Still! Ninety-six years after giving half the population the vote, we're facing an election in which two women are running (out of fifteen candidates--13%, compared to the 19% in Congress). The male frontrunner on the GOP side is in trouble with his staff and with the media for blatant sexism, and it's pretty clear that not one bit of it matters to his supporters, who are eager to cheer Trump as he denigrates Hillary for her husband's peccadilloes but at the same time completely blow off Trump's very public affairs as irrelevant to his campaign. When he blasts Carly Fiorino for her looks, everyone simply agrees. He's speaking his mind! She's butt-ugly! It's all good.

Now we have the Bernie-bros and the Bernie-bro backlash. Because I like Bernie, I don't blame his disgusting followers on him, but I know for a fact they exist, because I make the mistake of reading a lot of comments on articles in the NYT, WaPo, Politico, etc.

Some stuff has come out about Sanders's treatment of women staffers, most of it very old news, and his organization is light on women at the top, although fairly full of women at field level. Is he a sexist pig? No more than anyone else his age. I'm old enough to remember how horribly sexist the last revolution was. At least Bernie is fighting for economic and social equality for women, and I have no reason to think he's faking it when he refuses to talk about Hillary's hair or husband.

Hillary is a deeply flawed candidate, if for no other reason than she thought it was a smart use of her time to spend the last four years garnering speaker's fees from some of the worst players in the 2008 recession. But Democratic women need to realize that saying, "Well, I want to vote for a woman, just not that woman" is as sexist as anything coming from the Bernie-bros, albeit a lot less filthy. When pressed, they often say, "Elizabeth Warren; I'd vote for her," as though there are only two Democratic women in the United States who could possibly be candidates. It is cringe-worthy—and reminiscent, a bit, of the folks who didn't want to vote for "that black guy" because he didn't represent the legacy of slavery. Not the right woman, not the right black guy—when oh when can we put that shit away and just talk about the right candidate for the times?

It's apparently okay to suggest that Hillary's not really a hands-on grandma but not to point out that Bernie never married the mother of his child. We can talk about spousal influence when the spouse is male; the assumption seems to be that female spouses don't contribute much. (That's where Hillary first got into trouble--as a hands-on First Lady. Don't underestimate how irritating some people found that.)

Here are some countries that currently have female leaders: Lithuania. Norway. Malta. Taiwan. Mauritius. Nepal. Brazil. Liberia. Of course, most nations have never been led by a woman, but that puts us in company with China, Russia, and most of the Middle East.

Full disclosure: I'm probably going to vote for Bernie April 19. I have a soft spot for people who campaign around income inequality. That's why I supported John Edwards, speaking of sexism. But I will be eternally grateful when I no longer have to read crap like this (just from today's reading of a variety of articles, and not all from Bros, some from female Bros):

You should have seen Hillary's meltdown in Iowa yesterday she took it all out on Bernie, lie after, lie, after lie. Threw the whole kitchen at him.

NYT= backer and contributor to Clinton foundation reports this story [on Trump's staffer] rather about #BillClinton indiscretions. You're kidding right?

Even the BO(ZO) administration and the State Department can't cover for Shrillary anymore in the face of overwhelming evidence of - at the least - criminal negligence - and at worst- deliberate flouting of the rules for handling classified material.

How is Billary going to change the system if she IS the system?

Yes, I want a woman president, just not Hilary Clinton. Elizabeth Warren would be a great choice but she is not in the race.

We can only hope that Bill calls the shots while she just plays the figure head.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Racism? Or Just a Proud Slice of History?

When you write social studies lessons, which I do but rarely, you learn quickly how every word matters. There is no objective viewpoint; both writer and reader bring bias to the text.

The other day, Chuck sent me a clipping about a new Scholastic book for young readers called A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The author is a New Yorker with a Caribbean-Iranian background; the illustrator is African-American, and the book tells the story of a real-life chef in George Washington's home, a chef who was also a slave. It is primarily about his relationship with his daughter, also a real person. As the writer of the blog noted, it appears to be "a book for parents who want to teach their children that slavery, American style, wasn't that bad."

I LOLed at the commentary and passed the article on to DZ, whose connections in the children's book biz allowed her to find out the moment Scholastic decided to scrap the book. This was after the VP of Scholastic, a well-respected African-American award-winning author of books based on historical personages, wrote a blogpost in support of the book. It was also after 900+ people signed a change.org petition asking for it to be pulled. Now people are accusing Scholastic of self-censorship that takes away from our ability to have a reasonable conversation about race.

So who is right? I am reminded of my father's refusal to let us watch "Hogan's Heroes," because although you can make a show about people acting kooky and having fun in a Nazi prison camp, you probably shouldn't.

I grew up at a time when Communism was vilified and people of color did not exist in my childhood textbooks. I can't say that either fact destroyed my life or even made me who I am today, but I was lucky enough to have a lot of other influences. I object to censorship or trigger warnings for college-age students, and I'm disgusted when local school districts cave to parents who want LGBT-themed books off the library shelves. But when you write for little kids, even if you can't show horror, you should nevertheless not sugar-coat reality. The chef and his daughter may have had a loving relationship, but he ended up running away, and she was enslaved until she died. That's not your ordinary daddy-daughter relationship story. What do you think?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Physician, Heal Thyself

Desperately poor, hostilely stereotyped, restricted from accessing reproductive health services, over-incarcerated, #72 globally in governmental representation with increasing maternal mortality...

There's nothing we love more than carping over cruelty to women in other nations, particularly those that cover women from head to toe (hijab or burka bad, wimple or habit apparently fine), but the recent report from the UN Working Group on discrimination against women had some awful things to say about women's treatment here at home.

Three delegates, from Costa Rica, Poland, and the UK, spent 10 days in three states looking at policies, attitudes, and systems, and boy were they surprised. Pregnant women don't have maternity leave! Violence against women often includes guns! Vigilantes attack women at clinics!

But the worst thing of all, according to Huffington Post's interview, is that American women retain a deep-seated but demented belief that we're better off than women elsewhere. I suppose that's what gives us the self-righteousness to challenge other cultures' bad behaviors.

Friday, December 11, 2015

NY Common Core Task Force Issues Report

That was pretty fast work! The Common Core Task Force, which looked a bit like the old Education Reform Commission with the addition of a handful of people who worked for real in public schools plus a parent and a student, has already issued a report based on public sessions, listening sessions, outreach, and 1,800 comments submitted to the Task Force website, which allowed individuals to comment on specific Common Core State Standards. (I was one of the respondents; assuming that every other respondent was a teacher, which I know is not true, the number of comments amount to about a 0.9% response. Pretty sad, and considering the strong 2014-15 pushback from parents and teachers, surprising.)

The Task Force produced a very nice report with 21 recommendations, which I'll review below. All comments are my opinion, based on 40 years of working with learning goals/standards.

Recommendation 1: Adopt high quality New York education standards with input from local districts, educators, and parents through an open and transparent process. The old NYS standards had such input. They also looked like a patched-together mish-mosh, as indeed they were. Maybe it's my editorial bias, but I liked the CCSS because they were simple and consistent. California has gone through the CCSS and added occasional bits to existing standards, boldfacing their additions but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would be nice if we could do something similar.

Recommendation 2: Modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate. There have been a lot of complaints about the K-2 standards, despite the fact that NYS doesn't test them. It is certainly true that you get enormous variance in readiness at these grades, so some real flexibility is called for. I don't remember seeing a lot of state standards that enabled that kind of flexibility, but maybe we can do better.

Recommendation 3: Ensure that standards accommodate flexibility that allows educators to meet the needs of unique student populations, including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. Yes, absolutely. This isn't so much a problem with the standards as with the application of the standards. Insisting that everyone accomplish everything becomes daunting for teachers and frustrating for students, and yes, cruel. In our eagerness not to track students, we've lost sight of the goal, which has to be to help each individual reach his or her potential.

Recommendation 4: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning. The focus on reading and math of course led to diminished focus on everything else. The focus on nonfiction (which, I have to tell you, is really what people read in college and career) irked everyone who wanted kids to read for fun. I hope we don't ignore the importance of getting students to read nonfiction—it's a skill that my own college student wishes she had. New standards/frameworks in science and social studies exist, but NYS has been slow to incorporate them because of the singleminded focus on CCSS reading and math. I am not sure whether this recommendation means that NYS standards will be in every subject area as they were in the past; it's just not clear yet.

Recommendation 5: Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area experts. Well, yes. I don't think anyone expects any standards to be set in stone and not subject to review. Old NYS standards were gutted and revised every few years, but people seem to have forgotten that.

Recommendation 6: Ensure educators and local school districts have the flexibility to develop and tailor curriculum to the new standards. When I did my student teaching, we had to write lesson plans based on learning goals. That's what we did. It served me well in the textbook biz, where we are given a state or national standard and told to write a four-page or six-page lesson or chapter or whatever. I was so confused when the state started issuing "modules" for districts; it seemed to be the opposite of what most districts usually want. And there was so much grief about the modules—some of them were good, and some were very bad, because, guess what—they were written by people working very fast to fill a sudden need. The reason for the need still eludes me, but I gather that there just wasn't time between the delivery of the CCSS and the school year to revise existing lesson plans. I still find this odd, because I know that state standards change over time, and I guess I assumed that teachers revised lessons to fit. CCSS was not a completely radical shift; it didn't require any textbook, for example, to throw out all lessons and start from scratch. Books did require tweaking; a lit series might need to up its focus on nonfiction, for example, and composition series needed to break down argument writing better than they had in the past. But none of it was super-dramatic, at least in ELA. I just wonder whether teacher training is at fault here; do teachers not get the training they need to accommodate changes in learning goals from year to year?

Recommendation 7: Release updated and improved sample curriculum resources. Again with the modules. Honestly, if you hate the modules so much, don't use the bloody modules. They were meant to be models, as I understand it, not stone tablets.

Recommendation 8: Launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state. Well, these exist all over the place, but having a state-sponsored platform is a great idea.

Recommendation 9: Create ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, teacher educators, and administrators on the revised State standards. This recommendation does focus on teacher prep, thank goodness, and it also ensures that BOCES will continue to play a critical role going forward.

Recommendation 10: Involve educators, parents, and other education stakeholders in the creation and periodic review of all State standards-aligned exams and other State assessments. This calls for a process similar to that for the Regents exams, with questions designed by teachers and reviewed by content area experts as well as special ed and ELL teachers. I can't comment on the practicality of this. The recommendation also asks the State to work with higher ed to help adopt tests that predict college readiness, to which I say, "Hooray!" The goal would be to eliminate the need for students to take remedial coursework at any NY public college. I'm guessing that this test will have to take place in 11th grade in order for remediation to enable a student to graduate—we're talking right now about a huge number of students, as many as a quarter of graduates in some of our local districts.

Recommendation 11: Gather student feedback on the quality of the new tests. It seems reasonable that students should be allowed to complain if questions confuse them or seem unrelated to their learning.

Recommendation 12: Provide ongoing transparency to parents, educators, and local districts on the quality and content of all tests, including but not limited to publishing the test questions. Publishing a percentage of test questions is always useful. Publishing a whole test means creating tests from scratch annually, which is both exorbitantly expensive and fails to allow for correspondence of items from one year to the next. Better and more timely score reports are a great idea; making them as super-specific as the recommendations suggest may be difficult, but would certainly be useful.

Recommendation 13: Reduce the number of days and shorten the duration for standards-aligned State standardized tests. Yes, it's ridiculous and expensive to spend so much time testing. The revision of NCLB, now signed into law as ESSA, ensures that we're stuck with 3-8 and high school testing, but it doesn't have to be 540 minutes' worth.

Recommendation 14: Provide teachers with the flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning. Why isn't this happening now? Or is it? There's nothing in CCSS or even in NCLB that ever suggested that teachers not use different types of assessments for their various classroom needs. I am confused about the inclusion of this recommendation.

Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards. This has to do with reducing anxiety. If the goal is simply to find out whether students have learned, surely there's no need for a time limit. However, untimed tests will offer new challenges for districts and teachers alike.

Recommendation 16: Provide flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities. Kids who fall between a need for alternative assessments and the ability to fly through regular assessments are at a decided disadvantage. There's some desire to test Students with Disabilities at their instructional age rather than at their chronological age, presumably based mostly on reading levels. This will require a waiver from the feds, though. What's happening now isn't working; let's hope a new plan comes forth that is more kid-friendly than what we have now.

Recommendation 17: Protect and enforce testing accommodations for Students with Disabilities. If kids are eligible for accommodations, they must receive accommodations (extra time, oral delivery of directions, etc.) Seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it has not been enforced statewide.

Recommendation 18: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students. If students have instructional ages below K, they simply should not have to take these assessments. Coming up with an alternative plan seems completely sane.

Recommendation 19: Prevent students from being mandated into Academic Intervention Services based on a single test. It would help if AIS were seen as an advantage rather than a punishment, but sadly, that's often not the case. This recommendation calls for AIS to be based on various other input in addition to test scores. Certainly you never want a child stuck in AIS instead of receiving instruction in music or art, as happens sometimes. I think AIS should be entirely rethought, and a state panel should look at best practices and encourage them to be instituted statewide.

Recommendation 20: Eliminate double testing for English Language Learners. Right now, new immigrants who don't speak English at home have one year before they are tested in ELA. The feds require such kids to take an English Language Proficency test as well until they demonstrate proficiency in the language. This double-testing does not seem fair, and I agree with the recommendation that one year is not enough leeway.

Recommendation 21: Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performace of individual teachers or students. My guess is that we will never actually grade teachers based on standardized tests, because we will never end up keeping one test or testing plan longer than a handful of years. This transition phase is purely transitory; when have we ever kept a system long enough to draw any conclusions from it? That, in a nutshell, is the story of American education: Constant change, such that no one student makes it through preK-12 with a single set of learning goals or a consistent curriculum.

This is a lovely report that manages once again to conflate testing with standards but does address most of the critical complaints from stakeholders. With ESSA's effective elimination of federal oversight of schools, it is timely, too. My questions remain: Why would any nation on Earth want 50 different sets of goals for educating its students? How do we protect students from parochialism and dumbing-down? What can we do to prepare new teachers better? How many pathways to graduation should exist, and how can we afford them? When will we start looking at a model for regional high schools?

I liked CCSS for a lot of reasons: consistency, simplicity, thoughtfulness, connection to long-term goals. From inception to finish, they lasted eight years—a bit less in some states. That's longer than New Math, longer than Whole Language. I guess that makes the Common Core successful in American ed-terms. *sigh*