Monday, August 18, 2014

They Must Think We're Stupid. And Maybe We Are.

Chapter 1: Test Scores

Well, it's August, so it's time for a lot of concern-and-pleasure over rancid test scores statewide. It is pretty hard to spin a 6% passing rate in seventh grade math, except by comparing it to the 5% passing rate in 2013. But wait, you might ask, shouldn't we compare grade 6 in 2013 to grade 7 in 2014? After all, those are the same kids, whereas comparing seventh graders then to seventh graders now is a mismatch. Well, yes, but then you might notice that sixth graders in 2013 had a 7% passing rate, and the same students this year had a 6% passing rate. And so it goes. My statistician friends would be able to tell me how large a sample one would need to be able to compare unrelated kids overall, or to say that a rise from 7.2% to 7.6% represents growth of any significance. But it really doesn't matter, because the media apparently have no interest in what the numbers mean. It's math! It's hard!

Chapter 2: Rebate

Lucky us, we're all getting a rebate check or two. If our schools stayed within the cap, we might get $50! (Our county administrator estimates something closer to $15.) If we lived in Westchester, we'd get a whole lot more! Gosh, our governor and legislators really are watching out for us.

Chapter 3: Ballot Initiative

The first proposal on our ballot in November is for an "independent" redistricting commission to establish new senate, assembly, and judicial districts. But hold on! Is it "independent" if it's appointed by the legislature and if legislators can thumbs-up or thumbs-down anything that comes out of it? Well, it says "independent" right there on the proposition, so it must be true! Heck, it worked for that nutty casino initiative! Even if you thought gambling was bad, how could you resist something that promised that it was designed "for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes." You couldn't! It passed easily!

Pretty neat trick: First prove that New Yorkers can't read or do math. Then take advantage of that fact.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Our Tolerance of Intolerance

I'm a white woman and thus unqualified to speak about the plight of Michael Brown or Ezell Ford or Jonathan Ferrell or Eric Garner. I was teargassed and chased by police in my day, but it was because of what I was doing and saying, not because of how I looked. But now that Ithaca has joined the ranks of places where white policemen and African-American boys and men collide, it's hard not to think about it constantly.

Although anyone who's been through middle school knows that a gaggle of white girls is the biggest force for evil on the planet, had my daughter and some of her friends been riding around near the site of the Ithaca arsons, she never would have been followed and stopped by a cop. It simply would not have happened. My kid sees guns in hunting season and on TV. The thought of her seeing a strange man pull a handgun around her, even if it was in fact "pointed in a safe direction"—well, it doesn't bear thinking about. As a parent, I can imagine the parents' fear and horror, but all I can do is imagine it, because it won't ever happen to us.

I'm always aware of white privilege, although as someone whose relatives died in the gas chambers of eastern Europe, I honestly don't often translate it into white guilt. My daughter identifies as Jewish, which led throughout her school career to some ignorant shaming by teachers and classmates. She came home once to report that a teacher had made her teach the class about Judaism when they came to that part of the Religions chapter in history. The joke was on the teacher, because my kid (to my shame) knows as little about Judaism as most of her classmates did, although she has a good imagination and is always willing to make stuff up. But although she thought it was funny, I thought it was horrible. Would the teacher have had an Asian-American student teach the lesson about the Han Dynasty?

It is hard for me to see the same people who cannot differentiate "Hamas" from "all Gazans" call on us all to be tolerant of looters in Ferguson, pointing out that it's just a small group of bad-actors and should not reflect on the population of protestors as a whole. That's true, for sure, but it's curious how our tolerance of intolerance is a direct reflection of ourselves, our upbringings, our experiences. For me, looters = Hamas, and other protestors = other Gazans. But of course, I'm not a real Jew; I'm Jewish on my father's side, and we were never religious. Where my father had to run away from gangs of Italians and Irish, I was instead belittled by people who denied half my heritage. So maybe my intolerance of people's intolerance toward Gaza is a reflection of my non-Jewishness—or my anger at those Jews who pointed it out incessantly.

I belong to a very multicultural extended family—white, Christian, Jewish, Latino, Asian, African-American. Somewhere on my mother's side is an Inuit great-great aunt. You would think that I'd be pretty tolerant and unbiased. But as my daughter can tell you, my biases are political, and they are fierce. So I don't pretend to be better than anyone else when it comes to this stuff.

I don't plan to prejudge the police officer who was involved in the Ithaca incident. Anyone who has ever felt threatened, rightly or wrongly, knows that adrenaline can lead you to do stupid things. A lot of people are concerned about the militarization of our police forces, and I am too, but I don't think it can be solved until we demilitarize bad-actors. But gun control is probably a topic for another day. Right now, I'm just thinking about those teenagers and their parents and the police and fear and race and expectations and beliefs and ignorance. We like to think of our little corner of the world as a pretty open and tolerant place. Yet when my brother's former girlfriend moved to Ithaca with him for a year back in the 1980s, she found it the least tolerant place she'd ever lived—and she had lived in half a dozen countries and many large cities. People threw things at her from their cars as she walked to work, and as a mixed couple, they were often verbally harrassed. She was thrilled to move back to the big city.

My daughter will never know what that is like, to be abused for the color of one's skin. On the other hand, she knows what it's like to be called a "Jew Whore" (by an African-American classmate, as it happens) and to be humiliated by teachers and students when she suggested that selling Easter candy (complete with crosses!) was an inappropriate school fundraising activity.

We're none of us immune, but some of us are more likely to die due to other's intolerance. Right now, being a brown-skinned male means having a target on your back. And that should be intolerable to anyone with a conscience.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Prisoner of the Amazons

"I think the definition of a book is changing." So said Jeff Bezos of Amazon some years ago, and he was right.

I have lately had an issue with Amazon that I haven't heard about elsewhere, not on Wikipedia's growing list of Amazon controversies, not in February's remarkable New Yorker article. I haven't met anyone who's had this particular problem, and I am not sure what to do about it.

One of my best-selling books (which is to say, one of the ones that sells best, not that I have dozens of bestsellers) is a test prep for the nursing test known as the TEAS. It has sold close to 100,000 copies on Amazon alone, a fact that I know because I log onto Amazon's useful Author Central website every so often to check things out.

Among the features on Amazon's Author Central are customer reviews. Amazon has had a bit of trouble with those reviews, some of which is documented on Wikipedia (above), but in general the reviews have been useful for me and fairly informative—and regularly positive. All of that changed back in May, when I started getting reviews that read like these:

I would love this book for studying, except all the graphs/maps/charts aren't printed correctly, so you can't answer 15% of the questions in the book because you can't read the charts! Almost all of the charts have missing information. For example, a bar chart without the bars!!! Horrible. And there is no way to contact McGraw-Hill...

Looks like I received a copy of this book that has a print defect. None of the charts and graphs are filled in, so I cannot answer those questions. I really was depending on this book to help me with the Teas test that I am taking in a week. Real bummer to have received this defective item. If you are planning on ordering this book, make sure with the seller that the graphs and charts are all visible. I feel like I have been ripped off!

And so on, and so on. There is no way to identify a reviewer on Amazon, and even though I wrote back to the angry customers and asked for details (where the book was purchased, etc.), I got no responses. Meanwhile, my ratings dropped, and eventually, in July, Amazon had so many complaints that they pulled the book, dropping sales into the toilet for several weeks.

At the same time, my publisher was going nuts, with the inventory manager ripping open cartons and checking books willy-nilly and finding absolutely nothing wrong.

Finally, in August, the publisher had a complaint directly from a real person and asked him to send a copy of the defective book. Surprise! THE BOOK WAS NOT PRINTED BY MY PUBLISHER. It was actually printed by Amazon as part of their "just-in-time" stocking program. If a publisher runs low on a title, they must allow Amazon to do short printings to stay in stock. In my particular case, the books were not even printed from existing digital files; they were scanned and sold, presumably for the same price as the originals. Somehow in the scanning process, pieces of the charts and graphs dropped out.

My publisher is looking into this, and I trust them to follow up. I have lost revenue (and ratings), my publisher has lost countless hours, and the poor customers who assumed they were buying a real book have been scammed twice.

Gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, who writes often about monopolies, made it clear at breakfast the other day that she is down on Amazon for a variety of reasons. The battle with Hachette appears to be just one in a long string of dubious business practices. And now I am a victim, along with a bunch of would-be nursing students.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Disinformation Era

I first saw one of these fake sites in 2012, and I wish I could find it again, because it was genius. For a long time, the very first site you came to when you Googled our local Democratic candidate for Congress was 100% fake. There are still a variety of fake sites bearing her name. And now her opponent has put one up himself—not really fake, I guess, because his name's right there at the bottom. It's "just a way of getting this information out there," as the RCCC likes to say.

It's pretty clearly covered by both the First Amendment and caveat emptor rules; if you don't read carefully, shame on you. Just because you thought you were giving $50 to the candidate, but you really donated to her opponent, well, I guess you're exactly the idiot that opponent was hoping to nab.

We Dems claim to be above all this, but maybe we're just sorry we didn't think of it first. After all, it's a really brilliant way to cover up the fact that you have no plan, a great way to spread hate speech without getting your hands dirty.

Our current Congressman doesn't believe in climate change and just voted to sue the President. Govtrack ranks him second most conservative in the NY delegation. He has staffers that make the governor's aides look ethical. My fingers are itching to run to Wix and set up his fake website, but honestly, it would be no more appalling and freakishly hilarious than his existing real one.

P.S.: If you are so down on liberal Ithaca, Tom, maybe you shouldn't advertise so much of it in your homepage video.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pardon One Offense, and You Encourage the Commission of Many

So saith Publilius Syrus, better known for "a rolling stone gathers no moss." It seems an apt quote today. And speaking of commissions, now that the Guv is under fire for hobbling his own Moreland Commission, maybe it's time to look at his other commissions for a moment. What ever became of the Education Reform Commission, notable for including no one who actually worked in public schools at a level below state union president? They issued a couple of reports calling for merit pay, more early education, better technology, raising the bar for entrance into teaching programs, and an extended school day. The extended day may apply to a handful of districts who could afford a grantwriter to do the preliminary work. The better technology may have led to the Smart Schools Bond Act, and the more early education to the UPK Expansion plan this year, both of which were ripoffs for upstate (more about that later). And what ho, Mandate Relief Council, whose Chair was none other than the very Lawrence Schwartz who stood between reform and the Guv's pals and office on the Moreland Ethics probe? Let's see. You enabled school districts to share superintendents and to transport kids based on "patterns of actual ridership." How'd you do on anything that might save a district or municipality more than a handful of dollars? And where are you now?

Here's how that Council went: It requested proposals for unfunded mandate relief. It received thousands. It allowed public comment on some. It selected a handful through magical means. It referred a percentage of those forward to be repealed or modified.

This was Dryden's list of most burdensome mandates as described by the administration in 2008:

1. Academic Intervention Services (AIS) 2. 3-8 testing (costs accrue for scoring [including substitutes to replace classroom teachers], printing, and reporting)

3. 504 Accommodation Plans

4. Response to Intervention (costs for committees and implementation of strategies)

5. School safety plans (costs for committee time and printing)

6. Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs)

7. ID badges and fingerprinting

8. CPR and First Aid requirements for special ed aides and athletics

9. Mentoring program costs

10. Professional Development costs

11. Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) costs

12. Green product use

SPECIAL MENTION: Wicks Law, Taylor Law

Every one of these is still unfunded and still a burden. But the Mandate Relief Council has been and gone, so tough luck for Dryden, I guess.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Major Rant on CCSS and Politics

My favorite gubernatorial candidate, Zephyr Teachout, has leapt into the deep end of the cesspool of Common Core politics with a recent op ed calling for their immediate halt. In her piece, which blames Bill Gates and focuses on something Teachout calls “education democracy,” Teachout goes beyond even the famous WaPo article that tied Gates to the standards to imply that there is a vast corporate conspiracy to destroy our schools and that local control is always best. She quotes and parses Diane Ravitch, once the darling of conservatives and now the darling of urban left-wing thought on educational policy.


I like a person who can admit when she’s wrong. Diane Ravitch built a career on wrongheaded education policy, but very recently, she’s pulled a 180 and rejected most of what she supported up till now. Privatization of schools: Was good, now bad. Accountability through testing: Was good, now bad. And with the zeal of the true convert, she has spread the revised Gospel far and wide, primarily through her popular blog.

Unfortunately, Common Core has come under Ravitch’s scrutiny, and when the ink was barely dry on the policy, she declared that it was not working and must be tossed. Would the FDA, she fretted, approve the use of a drug with no trials? (I wish I could have my late father-in-law, a longtime FDA whistle blower, respond to that one.) She was suddenly fearful that such national standards, which she once freely supported as many reformers did, would cause irreparable harm to children.

I know that Ravitch, as a student of education history, understands that standards are not field tested, tests are field tested. I know she knows that we’ve been “a nation of guinea pigs” many, many times, through a thousand twists and turns of educational policy, including some where she held the scalpel for the mad scientists. I’m sure she realizes that the states’ 50 sets of disparate standards were no more field tested or voluntary or public or democratic than the Common Core has been. She may even recognize that the public comment period for Common Core was far longer and more inclusive than any such period for a set of state standards. What her motivation is, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m even willing to concede that she may be sincere. But since she published her original screed in 2013, her anti-Core comments have become a noisy series of ad hominem attacks on people who support the plan, and far too many otherwise sensible people have taken to parroting her opinions.

Here’s Ravitch in 2010 after rejecting NCLB, which she once supported: “[It has failed because] it has encouraged the states to dumb down the standards by saying that every state would have its own definition of proficiency, every state would use its own test, by setting a deadline of 2014—which is totally unrealistic—by which all students are supposed to be proficient….”

Well, yes. When every state has its own definition of proficiency and uses its own test, as has been the case for decades now, students in a mobile society get screwed. That is exactly why those of us who work with state standards for a living and see daily how crazy they are have been fighting for national standards for years.


I don’t have big opinions about the Gates Foundation. Malaria stuff: Great. School-related stuff: Iffy. That huge study about what makes a good teacher good seems like the sort of thing I’d probably reject as a master’s thesis topic. The “science” becomes too squishy, a bit like defining what makes a good mother. That being said, I certainly do not believe that Gates has pulled off an educational “coup” or that the Common Core Standards are “Bill Gates’s standards.” Even the WaPo makes clear that Gates money was used to promote the standards once they were created. Gates didn’t write them; it’s not entirely clear that he’s read them. This is not a case of private money “supplanting democracy.” It is more likely a case of a typically ham-fisted Obama administration reaching out to friends to help them support a cause they like. Does he have more money than he knows what to do with? Yes. Does he hope to use that money to influence policy? Probably. Is it fair to point out Teachout’s pride in being supported by inventors and entrepreneurs from Wordpress and DIGG? How many millions are too many? When is money in politics okay, and when is it dangerous? (Yeah, that’s rhetorical.)

As for Gates making a pile on Common Core assessments, his market share in public schools pales beside Apple and now Chromebook, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m sorry lots of people don’t feel they had input into the Common Core Standards. Do they feel that they had sufficient input into their own state standards? I wrote comments; so did thousands of parents, teachers, administrators, and ordinary citizens. Sorry you didn’t hear about it until the comment period had closed. Could it be that most people don’t really pay attention to public policy until it directly affects them? (Rhetorical, again.)


Before the 1980s, and specifically before A Nation at Risk, we used mostly norm-referenced methods to compare students to one another and create a bell-curved picture of our kids compared to a mythical “average” student. Standards-based education instead compares individual student progress and growth to a set of standards or goals. Zephyr Teachout started her school career in Vermont, which she remembers so fondly in her op ed, under a norm-referenced system and ended it using Vermont’s learning standards. As a student, was she aware of this? Almost certainly not. Students care whether their teachers are good and their content is interesting. Only recently have we begun to start lessons with a suggestion about what is to be learned, in the hopes that kids will be able to think about and monitor their own learning. This sounds like a good idea to me.

Who decides on those goals, of course, is a question that should be asked. Should it be democratic—should we let the people decide? How? District by district, region by region, state by state?


If the people of my child’s district set the standards for the district, we’d have Bible study all morning and lacrosse all afternoon. We’d teach no foreign languages, for, as one memorable chap remarked at the very first board of ed meeting I ever attended, “In my house, we speak English.” There would be no course on the Holocaust, a course that is provided by an interested teacher and garners much student interest, because after all, there are just two Jewish kids in the whole district, and one, mine, is merely a half-breed.

If you want to see local control in action, move to Texas. Texas, of course, is one of the few states that from the first refused to sign on to the Common Core. God forbid that the Texas School Board lose its power to gut separation of church and state, highlight conservative ideology, and remove the word “democratic” from any description of the nation.

Texas is an egregious example of what happens when you unleash local control and throw a lot of money around. I remember being a young editor at MH in the 1980s and hearing a sales manager remark, “Well, we made the list in Texas, and I didn’t even get pregnant!” Making the list in Texas meant millions for textbook companies (why yes, market forces have controlled education since long before the Common Core), and the amount of booze, money, and yes, sex, that flowed down south during so-called “adoption” cycles was terrifying to behold. Texas Board of Ed members and their connected TEA associates expected to be wooed. Most publishers spent the extra dollars to create “Texas editions” of textbooks, often with separate chapters showing how the state figured prominently in American history or science. Where separate editions were cost-prohibitive, publishers followed Texas’s lead. Don’t like evolution? We’ll minimize that. Love those Founding Fathers? In they go. Because Texas money was especially green, Texas local control trumped other states’ local control, and the results may be seen in textbooks from the 1980s through to the present day.

Local control, in other words, is a major contributor to the culture wars. If majority rules in curricula, minorities get screwed.


The countries where students outperform ours, which is to say a bunch, have national standards. What they do not have are annual tests. Many test kids at intervals; say, 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. This seems to be enough frequency with which to draw conclusions about efficacy of the standards.

We test kids constantly. It may come as a shock to note that we don’t test them any more now than we did seven years ago, but it’s still way too often. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the power of the major test publishers, Pearson and CTB/McGraw. Another is the accountability movement, which is not limited to the U.S. but is particularly active here. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have encouraged testing not only as a means of measuring student achievement but also as a means of measuring teacher and school achievement.

[A quick sidebar about accountability in NYS. The unions are miserable with APPR, NYS’s accountability plan for teachers, and they’ve succeeded in gaining a postponement of testing as a means of measuring teacher success. That makes sense to me—the tests are new, the standards are new, students taking tests this year haven’t been using the standards long enough to measure progress. But it’s worth pointing out that those same unions negotiated APPR contracts with every individual school district in the state. They worked out the percentages; they signed on the dotted lines. I’m not allowed to back out of a contract just because I decide it’s hard to meet the terms. My guess is that the leadership did the negotiating, and the membership balked after the fact, but I don’t really know. Still, the media has covered this as though it were something imposed on the teachers from above, and that is absolutely not true. Again, these were negotiated contracts.]

Those of us in the ed publishing racket raised a stink years ago about the movement toward increased testing. The projects we were offered made it clear to us early on that we were teaching less and testing more. Testing is nearly always an unfunded mandate for school districts. The state may pay for the tests themselves, but the schools must cough up dollars for substitutes while teachers spend valuable time grading, and the constant paperwork is a drag on the whole system. Now that testing is moving to computer-based platforms, the costs are even greater.

So why are we limited to two enormous test publishers? For the answer to that, you have to go back to the 1980s, when mergers and acquisitions erased most of the small houses and a lot of the big ones. Yes, market factors have damaged American education, but perhaps not in the way Diane Ravitch supposes. The fact that we allowed and even enabled monopolistic publishing was a disaster in many ways, but the effects on educational publishing were especially dire.

[A note about Pearson: I’ll work for nearly anyone, but I won’t work for them. Their quality control has been embarrassing, and I hate their recent entrance into the private school market. I won’t work on science for anyone, because I’m not willing to kowtow to Texas et al., and I rarely work on social studies for the same reason.]


I’m sorry that Zephyr Teachout has jumped willingly into this pit, because it’s hard to wipe this Common Core crap off your shoe once you’re in it. I know that many administrators and pro-Core educators may withdraw support when they read her op ed, but I won’t. I’ve been around the block enough to know that there are no perfect candidates, and that any candidate worth her salt is open to diverse opinions. Teachout is right on the finances of NYS education, as far as she’s gone. I trust that she will emerge from the downstate bubble as the campaign progresses and will visit upstate educators to hear about their own experiences with the standards and their ideas about school equity. It’s a shame the primary is in September, so she won’t get the real picture of life in upstate schools.

No, I don’t want Bill Gates to decide what kids in my district learn, and you know what? I don’t want my governor to decide that, either. The NYS standards were something like the blind men’s impression of an elephant—patched and repatched over the years by committee after committee until there was no clarity, no logic, no consistency—if there ever had been any. The Common Core is simpler, it is coherent, it is relevant and rigorous, and educators actually were involved in its creation, like it or not. Will it work? Not if we don’t back off and let it. Will it work for everyone? Almost certainly not. Will someone come up with something else in five years? You bet. And when they do, I hope we talk a lot more about children and a lot less about politics, but I kind of doubt that we will.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Required Reading

Today's Hobby Lobby decision wasn't a surprise to me, but some of the information in this week's TIME article was. Well worth reading, if you like faith-based conspiracies.
In addition to Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Greens are beta testing a high-tech Bible-study curriculum for public schools this September in an Oklahoma district. They hope to see it adopted in thousands more districts within three years. A draft copy suggests it will be a wonderland of technological pedagogy but will raise church-state issues that could also end up before the high court.

And then there is the as-yet-unnamed museum of the Bible in a 440,000-sq.-ft. building two blocks from the National Mall, which was bought to house the best of the Greens’ 45,000-piece collection of biblical artifacts. The museum will function as both a magnet and a marker for evangelical Christians on the country’s most symbolically loaded swath of real estate.