Thursday, September 24, 2015

Minimum Wage v. Housing Costs in Ithaca

We're talking a lot in the county about raising the minimum wage to a living wage. The Dems supported a resolution to phase in such a plan, relying on the state to permit the county to effect such a local change.

When I was in college, minimum wage rose from $2/hour to $2.30/hour (except for farmworkers), a 15% increase. During the same period, my Collegetown rent in a three-bedroom apartment rose from $75/month to $90/month, a 20% increase.

Today, minimum wage is $8.75, a 280% increase over minimum wage in 1976. Meanwhile, Olivia's Collegetown rent in a three-bedroom apartment next year will be around $895/month, an 894% increase over my rent in 1976. I rest my case.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ithaca Connections

It turns out that Carly Fiorina, then Cara Sneed, lived in Ithaca from 1957-62 while her dad was teaching at Cornell Law School, and presumably attended Cayuga Heights School, at least through second grade. Her last year at that school would have been my first. I was in Mrs. Cohen's class. I wonder if she was, too.

Some enterprising young reporter should dig up Ms. Sneed's literary output in the old Cayuga Heights Review. It's clear that her time in Ithaca didn't rub off on her politically, but it's always important to read the early work of key political figures for clues to their intellectual evolution....

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dickensian Trope Trump

It came upon me as I watched him bloviate for an hour plus in TX last night. I've had this weird sense of deja vu all along with Trump, but I thought it stemmed from following his antics when I lived in NYC long ago. Wrong. He is a creature from another era.

"Here's the rule for bargains. 'Do other men, for they would do you.' That's the true business precept."

The very first word he learnt to spell was "gain" and the second (when he got into two syllables), "money.”

"Why, I don't exactly know about perjury, my dear sir," replied the little gentleman. "Harsh word, my dear sir, very harsh word indeed. It's a legal fiction, my dear sir, nothing more."

. . . still his philanthropy was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine.

Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars.

“Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same.”

"A man can well afford to be as bold as brass, my good fellow, when he gets gold in exchange!"

"Why, what I may think after dinner," returns Mr. Jobling, "is one thing, my dear Guppy, and what I may think before dinner is another thing."

He wore a sprinkling of powder upon his head, as if to make himself look benevolent; but if that were his purpose, he would perhaps have done better to powder his countenance also, for there was something in its very wrinkles, and in his cold restless eye, which seemed to tell of cunning that would announce itself in spite of him.

The man who now confronted Gashford, was a squat, thickset personage, with a low, retreating forehead, a coarse shock head of hair, and eyes so small and near together, that his broken nose alone seemed to prevent their meeting and fusing into one of the usual size.

He had a certain air of being a handsome man—which he was not; and a certain air of being a well-bred man—which he was not. It was mere swagger and challenge; but in this particular, as in many others, blustering assertion goes for proof, half over the world.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reflecting on the Mine

At our Board Presidents' Round Table in Syracuse last night, we heard from TC3 professor Jeanne Cameron, who has written a book about high school dropouts' perceptions of school. She interviewed a dozen Cortland dropouts and determined that the problem was not the kids but rather education reform, especially reforms that impose specific requirements on high school students. For example, Olivia had science and math requirements that I never had in my NYS high school career. She did fine with them, but it's a safe bet that she won't be using precalculus or chemistry if she ends up in a social science or humanities career path, as seems likely. For Cameron's dropouts, the lack of relevance of certain coursework to their own interests and life plans was the final blow. These were, for the most part, students who easily could have graduated, some with high grades—but they were turned off by the regimented character of high school today. Cameron compared it to her own school days in the late '70s, when she failed several science and math Regents but was saved by her many humanities electives, which taught her to read critically and to write elegantly. The more you pack the curriculum with requirements, the less hope there is for choices that match students' passions.

It is interesting to contemplate this on the heels of the governor's recent flip-flop on Common Core. It's not working (suddenly) and must be fixed, and he (very suddenly) sympathizes with the Opt Out parents. He wants his retired education commission, which I wrote about when it was first convened, to review the standards and make some recommendations in time for his State of the State.

Now, it's important to recognize that the Common Core State Standards set no requirements for numbers of courses, although they suggest "pathways," and the math standards, although they get into trig and proofs and functions, don't extend into the world of precalculus and calculus. They allow for accelerated pathways, in which advanced middle school students work their way into high school math. But when it comes to advanced coursework in math, the Standards leave it up to districts, saying, "STEM-intending students should be strongly encouraged to take Precalculus and Calculus (and perhaps a computer science course). A student interested in psychology may benefit greatly from a course in discrete mathematics, followed by AP Statistics. A student interested in starting a business after high school could use knowledge and skills gleaned from a course on mathematical decision-making. Mathematically-inclined students can, at this level, double up on courses—a student taking college calculus and college statistics would be well-prepared for almost any postsecondary career."

So requiring higher math of students who are not "STEM-intending" or "mathematically-inclined" is a state decision, unrelated to Common Core. Cameron is right about its connection to a desire to make America more competitive on the world business-and-economics scene, and she's also right that it's not a path for everyone.

Parenthetically, it would be nice if all discussion of Common Core went as science standards discussion did recently in Alabama, where "at public hearings where citizens could voice their concerns, the state required comments to be about specific standards. Critics couldn't simply oppose the whole effort on principle." Imagine that. The result was that Alabama, for the first time ever, is teaching undiluted evolution and even a smidgen of climate change. Back here in NYS, I hear "the standards are not developmentally appropriate," and I ask, "which ones?" and I wait.... Kudos to Alabama.

If Cuomo's commission wants to do something useful, it will pause all discussion of linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluation and will look seriously at limiting numbers of tests. Paul suggests that (since the point of testing for the students is to get kids who need it into AIS) if students get a 3 or 4 in third grade, they don't have to take any test in fourth grade. Then they're retested in fifth grade to make sure they're on track, and don't have to take a test in sixth grade if they are. That's one way. Another is to go to the European model, which used to be our model, of testing three times—say, fourth, eighth, and graduation.

But I like Cameron's idea about offering more choice at the high school, and it doesn't interfere with Common Core in the least. In NYS, we're talking about instituting multiple pathways to graduation, and if we ever figure out how to make that work from school to school, it will help to solve the relevance problem. In the meantime, the state would do well to look at graduation requirements and consider tweaking them once more.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Did Opting Out Have Any Effect?

I've been irritatedly waiting for some enterprising reporter to do an analysis of the effects of opting out on the 2015 test scores, if only to settle a bet. I was absolutely sure that test scores would go down, because I was convinced that Opt Out was a classist collusion of soccer parents of gifted children with no clue or caring about the original intent of 3-8 testing as a means of determining whether students of color, students in poverty, or students with disabilities were being underserved by their schools. Paul was sure that scores would go up, because he felt that parents of kids who regularly did poorly on standardized tests would be the ones to keep their kids home, in an attempt to bolster their otherwise potentially diminished self-esteem.

Leaving aside how boring our marital spats are, or how obnoxious it is to attempt to second-guess the motivations of other parents, I was pretty surprised when I finally gave up on locating any enterprising reporters and ran my own numbers.

I took the Syracuse paper's nice informational database and drew some quickie graphs. I selected two schools for which I had opt-out data: Dryden and Lansing. In both districts, Opt Out was minimal in 2014 and between 20 and 25 percent (subtracting out the small percentage of students with disabilities who regularly opt out) in 2015. Here are the results.

Leaving aside how different these passing rates are from district to district, which is a topic for another day, I can't really draw any conclusions at all from a comparison of the data from year to year.

Now, Dryden and Lansing were about typical for NYS: About 20 percent of students across the state opted out. In a place like Dolgeville, where the opt-out rate was closer to 90 percent, you're likely to see some effects. We already know that districts with richer students were more likely to have higher opt-out rates. I thought a 20 percent opt-out would have some sort of effect. I was wrong. I don't pretend that a sample size of two is nearly enough, and I hope some enterprising reporter will follow up. Statewide, it sure looks as though the scores were consistent with last year's. Not the result I expected, but at least Paul didn't win, either.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

GOP a Toxic Brand, at Least in Dryden

When I moved to Dryden in 1991, it was pretty much a Republican town. We had a Democratic town supervisor, and the village had a Democratic mayor, but on the whole, the voting population was heavily and historically Republican. That year, the supervisor ran unopposed, but chose to run on a second ballot line (Dryden Independent) to allow Republicans to vote for him without qualms.

In 1995, we elected our first Democratic town board member since I'd moved here. In 1999, she won again by running both as a Democrat and on the Livable Dryden line. She was lonely, though, and by 2003, Republicans held the entire town board and supervisor position.

Then things started to change. As Simon St. Laurent pointed out on Living in Dryden, suddenly in 2007, 9 out of 11 districts proved more willing to vote Democratic than in 2003 or 2005. For the first time in living memory, the board tilted 3-2 Democratic (although one candidate was an independent running on the Democratic line). By 2011, the distance between Democrats and opponents was substantial. Even in districts where more Republicans voted, Democrats won.

A number of things happened to cause this change: Demographics shifted slightly. Anti-fracking sentiments crossed party lines. And locally, Tea Party Republicans started to scare the bejeezus out of old-time Republicans, to the extent that we Democrats started to hear complaints from the opposition about their committee leadership.

Now we find ourselves in a presidential race where Republicans favor Donald Trump, believing that "he's one of us." To most Dryden Republicans, that's just crazy talk. When you look at "What's Important" on the Tompkins County Republican website, you find that it's "suing the president." I doubt that for the majority of Dryden Republicans, suing the president ranks anywhere near their Top Ten of Important Things. The Republicans of Dryden are not the Republicans of talk radio.

The upshot is that we have no Republican candidates in Dryden this year, save for the Town Clerk. There is a slate of candidates running on the Independence line, which is frequently used locally as a second line for Republicans (and in the case of our sheriff, for Democrats). The candidate for town justice, a 20-year incumbent, turned down the Republican nomination, changed his registration to independent/blank, and is running on the Democratic line. The last time I checked the Dryden Republican website, it had been hacked by "a Muslim."

I'm not going to pretend that I see Dryden as representing the nation at large. It's just one little corner, where some people feel that their Party has left them, and some of those people are choosing to return the favor. The Democrats have a strong ticket in Dryden this year. The Independence Party (which has a kooky left-wing platform in NYS, by the way—I wonder how many people running on that line have read it) has a fairly strong ticket, too. My guess is that the two slates will talk local issues and find that there's more common ground than they might expect. They won't be talking about the Pledge of Allegiance, or suing the president, or who's a better Christian, or any of the pseudo-issues that got in the way of sensible discourse a few years ago. Sic transit stultitia mundi. Or if not mundi, at least here on the local scene.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

WTF, Buffalo?

It's not every failed candidate for governor who winds up on a school board. Carl Paladino, whose supporters like to call him the next mayor of Buffalo, is just one of nine on the dysfunctional Buffalo School Board, but he for sure gets the most press. With Trump-like sensitivity, he likes to refer to the African-American women on the board as "the sisterhood," and he's been vocal in wanting to hold off on handling the Justice Department's complaint about racial bias in the district when it comes to choosing students for elite "criteria" schools. He's also quite happy to blame the unions for the disgraceful state of the schools. He is even subject of a civil rights complaint all his own.

Buffalo may be the most messed-up district in the whole state, and a lot of that seems to be political. They're on their fourth interim superintendent. Their last real superintendent was forced out after two years. The last interim superintendent quit in disgust. Twenty-five of the district's schools are now in receivership. The new Commissioner, who once lived in the neighborhood, has told Buffalo to shape up or expect a takeover.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a former official is indicted for absconding with Title I funds (for a no-show job for her son, which seems to be a NYS motif). Forty percent of Buffalo students are chronically absent. FORTY PERCENT! Seventy percent of the city's schools are segregated, a complete reversal of progress that was made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Is there any solution? Well, Carl Paladino is of course in favor of charter schools, largely because, as the Alliance for Quality Education has pointed out, he benefits financially from every single one that goes up in the Buffalo region.

Instead of recusing himself, Paladino actually is the most vocal proponent of charter schools on behalf of the majority of the school board. He recently led the way when the majority members of the school board passed a resolution in support of immediate conversion of four public schools into privately-run charter schools and even offered an amendment that would set the stage to potentially convert all of Buffalo public schools into privately run charter schools.

I can't imagine any qualified person taking a job as superintendent in Buffalo. Some have gotten partway through the process and thrown up their hands. Former deputy commissioner Ken Slentz got cold feet in June. Sito Narcisse, a leading candidate with an outstanding record in Boston and Prince Georges County, just bowed out yesterday. This Buffalo News report gives a pretty nice picture of the typical board meeting. Who wants to put up with that?

For a while, Jean-Claude Brizard was considered a front runner. He ran Rochester schools and then Chicago schools, neither for long, and he's a big charter school guy. Before that, the frontrunner was the Associate Superintendent for Student Support Services, and after that, it seemed to be the Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, Darren Brown, who is now the interim.

But honestly, all bets are off. The politics are just so deranged, as the county clerk (a former board member and relative-by-marriage of Paladino's) calls for moving school board elections to November, something I would think was a great idea if it weren't coming from this guy.

I tend to appreciate people who run for school board. It can be a thankless job, and most applicants really care about kids. But I think Buffalo's school board would be doing their city a favor if they all stepped down and let the people of the city start over. For the sake of their children, who aren't attending school, aren't graduating, and, one posits, really aren't learning, they should give up their paid positions (Buffalo school board members get $5000 annually—a pittance compared to Rochester's $20-$30K, but much more than us unpaid heathens in the hinterland) and let someone else try. Every year they remain is another year lost to a generation of children.