Thursday, December 18, 2014


We'd already been shocked by Obama's opening of Cuban relations and Sony's closing of The Interview, and while I knew the health report on fracking was due out yesterday, I never imagined it wouldn't be followed by dithering, with the best possible outcome being a split decision: You guys who like fracking can frack; you other guys can sit around and watch. Well, I was wrong. Phillip Anderson of The Albany Project has the best synopsis of how local grassroots action led to a statewide ban. The IJ today points out Dryden's role in the decision.

To call the decision not to frack gamechanging is to minimize it. Not only does it set a precedent for other states on the fence (Maryland, Michigan, etc.), but it also pulls the rug out from under a lot of NYS politicians for whom this issue, pro or con, has been the bellwether. Here's hoping that a lot of that grassroots energy that underwrote the ban can be turned gently toward related issues of climate change and green technologies. Meanwhile, those of us who have built up calluses of cynicism are starting to crack and soften with this vindication of the more sanguine activists who led the way.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Michigan Turns Red

As the rest of the country rails over police excesses or UVA frat rape, Michigan has stealthily been passing some legislation that would be remarkable even in some red states. I wrote about the denial of funding to public schools. Now their House has passed a religious freedom measure that ties up loose ends in the Hobby Lobby decision, while blocking the addition of "sexual orientation" to the list of categories protected under their anti-discrimination law.

Now, Michigan under Gov. Snyder is not the Michigan we may remember. Sure, it went for Obama in 2012, but that same year, Snyder made the state built on unions into a right-to-work state. In that same session, he signed into law anti-abortion and pro-gun legislation.

So when is a blue state not a blue state? Ask Wisconsin. And now, it seems, ask Michigan, too.

Plus C'est La Meme Chose

Chokehold, 1977. UVA frat rape, 1984.
Senate flips from Democratic to Republican: 1861, 1881, 1895, 1919, 1953, 1981, 1995, 2001, 2002, 2015.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

If You See Something, Say Something

Too many people are busily attributing bad behavior on the part of the police to "a few bad apples." But you know that if you have one rotten apple in a barrel of apples, eventually ethylene gas from the rotter will ruin all the perfectly fine apples in the barrel. It's time to snip the thin blue line and get decent cops to rat out lousy ones, in much the way that fraternities and members of the armed forces are now being asked to stop sexual assault via bystander intervention.

I get that it's a tough sell. The bro mentality is strong and resolute from childhood. It's reinforced on sports teams and in scouting programs. But it sucks, and eventually it will destroy the very institutions the bros are trying to protect. The danger may be greater from within than from the unknown terror outside.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Running Low on Funds? Remake Yourself as a Charter

Tuxedo, NY, is a cute little town I must have driven through a thousand times on my way to NYC via Route 17. It is also a town with a school district that's in dire need of cash. It's a tiny district with one K-8 building and one 9-12 building. The high school has 375 students in all, and most of those come from a next-door district, Greenwood Lake, which is too small and poor to have its own high school. Greenwood Lake pays Tuxedo $12,240 for each of those high school students. The system has worked for years, but now, as with most semi-rural NYS schools, Tuxedo can barely afford to keep its doors open.

So the board and administration came up with a Good Idea: Tuxedo would remake itself as a charter school, specializing in STEM. That way, they could charge Greenwood the going charter rate for students, which in Greewood Lake's case would come to $18,311 per kid. They could hope to draw students from homeschool situations and from other surrounding districts as well if they billed themselves as a STEM school. And at the same time, they could follow charter rules and perhaps spend less on teachers, because as a charter, they could hire some that lacked certification.

It would be a totally cynical plan if it weren't so necessary and so clever. Needless to say, Greenwood Lake is not pleased. And educational leaders around the state are sitting up and taking notice, because if this works for Tuxedo, why couldn't they be next?

The Greenwood Lake superintendent's remarks are worth contemplating:

"I don't know that this is what the intent of charter schools was. My impression was that it was a way to help get students out of schools that weren't academically successful, not a way to seek out financial stability and deal with enrollment problems."

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Fighting Uphill to Reach Adequacy

Thanks to Simon for posting a recent article on the case in Michigan that found that the state has no legal obligation to provide a quality public education to students in Highland Park, a town with 20 percent unemployment that is facing bankruptcy and whose schools were given over by the state to a low-performing, for-profit charter school company. It reminded me that NYS is not alone in battles between the people and the state over equitable or even adequate funding for public schools.

At a recent event about school funding, someone came up to me and suggested that we should not talk about education as a “right” when we force kids to go. I was sorry not to continue the conversation, because in the United States, like it or not, education is NOT a right. That was determined in the case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez back in 1972. Mexican-American parents brought a class action suit against the state for financing schools in a way that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by failing to distribute funding equally among districts. The Supreme Court decided that it would not examine the system with strict scrutiny because there was no fundamental right to education in the Constitution. Justice Powell, writing for the 5-4 majority, also found that the Equal Protection Clause really didn’t mean “absolute equality.”

So since that time, any such case has been stuck at the state level, because every state constitution has a clause somewhere that guarantees students an education. In NYS, we talk about a “sound basic education.” Other states refer to a “thorough and efficient system of common schools.” Incorporating this right into state constitutions was mandated by the federal government as territories applied for statehood.

Today, not only is litigation about school funding pending in most of the states in the Union, but also certain states (OH, KS) are seeking to remove the right to education entirely from their constitutions.

One of the best resources on current and past litigation is out of Teachers College at Columbia University, where Michael Rebell currently resides. Rebell is the lead attorney in the battle of students v. NYS for adequate funding. This site’s map and some of its material need updating, but it’s a great place to start if you want to see how states are systematically fighting their own people over public education.

Sometimes the people win: Washington courts found the state legislature in contempt for not providing adequate funding for public education. Sometimes they lose, as in the Michigan case. The Teachers College site clarifies the shift between cases that asked for equity and those that request adequacy. Equity cases, brought mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, routinely failed. In adequacy cases, starting in 1989, the plaintiff prevails two-thirds of the time.

This begs the question: Why do the people have to fight so hard to retain a guaranteed right? Anyone viewing this from the vantage point of another country would have to conclude that the United States as a whole values education very little.

“Adequate” is a term Paul likes to use when a waiter asks how a so-so diner meal tastes. It’s not a word I would willingly choose to describe a school system. Yet “adequate” is apparently the best we can do, and many states, including ours, are not even there yet.

States to watch over the coming months: Mississippi, Pennsylvania. And NYS, of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Irrational, Arbitrary or Capricious"

In 1993, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity began a thirteen-year march toward a fair and equitable school funding formula. The march for fairness culminated in a lawsuit which wended its way through the NYS court system a la Bleak House, ending with a Court of Appeals reaffirmation of an earlier decision, and a victory for CFE. The legislation that came out of this victory was meant to increase annual state aid to public schools and to design a new formula for foundation aid based on need.

Well, that was 2007, and you'd think that would have been the end of it, but then came 2008 and the Great Recession. And in 2009, the aid was frozen and then cut, with school funding seized to cover other state needs. You'd think that a court-ordered payment would have to be made, but as Assemblywoman Nolan told a group of us recently, "Well, we didn't have the money, so what are you gonna do." As the then-head of CFE, Michael Rebell, has stated, all of CFE's work since 1993 was thus erased by the legislature. And despite the fact that aid has slowly been added back in, most districts are not funded up to 2007 levels even now.

So Rebell, who is really the hero of this Dickensian tale, worked over the past year or so with a group of parents and others to initiate a whole new lawsuit. New Yorkers for Students' Educational Rights (NYSER) seek to have $1.6 billion immediately restored to school coffers, property tax caps rescinded, and a fair formula reimposed.

Again, the case is wending its way through the courts. And yesterday, NYSER won step one with the State Supreme Court, which refused to dismiss the case as requested by the state. Justice Manuel Mendez, ruling for the plantiffs, pretty much wrote their argument for them, stating that the mechanisms the state has used to keep from paying up "could potentially be found irrational, arbitrary or capricious and capable of preventing a sound basic education."

The state now has twenty days in which to appeal the ruling or go to trial. Rebell expects the state to delay the case as long as possible.

Rebell will be one of the speakers at an event I'm moderating Monday night. It should be enlightening and entertaining, if moderately depressing. I encourage anyone local to attend.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Flash from the Past

For Cornell’s sesquicentennial, each college gets a month in which to supply the community with an event of the college’s choosing. Arts & Sciences started things off in November with a three-day symposium on The Vietnam War at Cornell. I attended the teach-in, which featured former students and professors reminiscing about their experiences plus an advanced screening of a film-in-progress about the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969.

Professor Kramnick was careful to invite former SDSers as well as men who had fought in Vietnam, for a balanced perspective. The most affecting five minutes were from a one-time professor, who wept when he remembered a favorite student’s death in-country—a student who only enlisted because he was convinced that to argue more persuasively for peace, he needed to experience war.

Although I was younger than most of the people in the room, much of the two-and-a-half hour event resonated with me. There was Dave Burak '67 (below), who enlisted Mark and me and Winnie Rossiter and others into Junior SDS. One participant recalled the Barton Hall “America Is Hard to Find” event in 1970, when the sudden, unexpected, and daring appearance of Dan Berrigan lit up the room before he was spirited away into the underground again, disguised by friends from Bread & Puppet Theater. I was there. Paul was there. Our families were there.

The footage from the documentary reminded me of things I’d long forgotten—the long meetings of faculty at Bailey Hall as the university tried to decide what to do about the appearance of arms on campus, the way in which town and gown divided and the children of professors were forced to take sides on issues that were certainly over our heads at the time.

This was a time that would soon blow up families I knew—the Rossiters and the Perkinses, among others—not to mention the families of boys who went away and never came back, or moved to Canada, or went away and came back changed. Yes, I was alive for JFK’s assassination, but it’s the antiwar era that left its mark on me. Olivia’s generation has nothing comparable. Take away the draft, and war is rendered hazy and impersonal.

It was interesting to be in a roomful of people who shared the same points of reference.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Polonius Was Right

There's nothing much to add to the chorus of mea culpas and finger pointing coming from Democrats about our hideous trouncing on November 4. Democrats lost for lots of reasons, only some of which were related to outside money. The most obvious reason has to do with failing to stand for anything, much less for Democratic principles, and running away from the administration's successes while failing to call them on their failures. The remarkable cave-in of NY's Working Families Party, which lost any credibility it had left when it made a toothless deal with Cuomo, is just one example of progressives making deals with the devil to avoid confrontation.

Campaigns should be about confrontation. Polonius told Laertes, "Beware/Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,/Bear ’t that th' oppos├Ęd may beware of thee." If you're not willing to stand up for yourself and define yourself, you allow your opponent to define you. That happened time and time again this year. "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man." If you're pretending to be centrist, or working-class, or a teen mom, or something that you really are not, your campaign won't pass the smell test, and the electorate will feel used. If you leave little room between yourself and your opponent because you are afraid to come out as [anti-fracking/pro-choice/pro-ACA/anti-gun/fill-in-the-blank], you take away any reason to vote for you. And if you campaign on trivia rather than on something big like income inequality, your campaign loses meaning and fades into the noise.

I wonder whether the cautious Clintons, whose stumping this year was more useless than not, will learn something from all this. I know that 2016 will be a very different year for lots of reasons, only some of which will be related to outside money. Let's hope one of the differences is the way Democrats talk about themselves and their ideals.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Great Equalizer

Once upon a time, there lived a self-educated fellow named Horace Mann. He worked his way through Brown University and later served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then the Senate. He then gave up his legislative career to become the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.

Before departing to dedicate his life to abolitionism, Mann spent his 11 years on the board formulating a philosophy of public education that became the foundation for American education from 1838 on. He declared that American public education should be universal, provided to students of all religions, classes, and ethnicities. He determined that such education should eschew specific religious influence while still being based on moral principles. He decided that education should be paid for by the public and delivered by professionally-trained teachers.

What’s remarkable about Mann is his eternal optimism—his lovely belief that education could make someone virtuous, appreciative of God and nature, a pillar of democracy, and the equal of every other educated person. He successfully overcame the derision of religious and governmental leaders who disliked this usurpation of their power, and he essentially created the system we have today.

I have to think that poor Horace is spinning in his grave as he contemplates the dissolution of public education as envisioned by certain U.S. governors, including our own. The public school system a “monopoly”? Competition via privatization?

Even Mann never envisioned a land in which we promised to educate ALL children. Prior to 1975, we really didn’t do that—states could opt out of educating students with certain disabilities, whether emotional or cognitive. Then came the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and today U.S. schools must educate ANY student with special needs. Although this has become a worldwide human rights issue, we remain one of the very few nations, developed or not, that offers inclusive education. Even in Europe, most students with special needs are educated in a segregated setting.

In contrast to public schools' education for all, private schools can pick and choose their students. Indeed, a student who enrolls in a private school and can’t handle the work may be “counseled out.” As for charter schools, if they are publicly funded, they are required to take children with special needs, but odds are that unless the charter is specially designed to provide services for those children, fewer children with special needs will enroll in charters than enroll in “regular” schools. Of course, if you are a rabid supporter of charter schools, you can come up with a different reason: because “some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically [in the charter] and thus are never designated as disabled.” It’s worth considering studies that compare charters to public schools academically and find them wanting despite their lower percentages of students with special needs.

When our governor refers to public education as “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” I guess maybe he’s referring to prisons, which are increasingly privatized (and how’s that working out for us?) and perhaps hospitals or the post office. But we’ve had private schools forever; if you want to avoid Mann’s secular, inclusive model, you can do so, even in a county as small as ours. We even subsidize those private schools with public funds; we pay for their transportation, textbooks, computers, health services, and library materials. So I’m not entirely sure what the governor’s talking about. He claims to be motivated by public school teachers’ unwillingness to be evaluated, yet he supports charters that allow up to 30 percent of teachers to teach without certification.

You want to bust a public monopoly? I can think of a few public utilities and telecommunication companies that really ought to have some competition. How about our ridiculous public authorities? Let’s break up some of those, or at least make them accountable to the people of New York. But keep your hands off Horace Mann’s invention: the free, public education that “is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

Monday, October 27, 2014

Calling a Spade a Trowel

Here's how the ACLU defines "The War on Women":
The "War on Women" describes the legislative and rhetorical attacks on women and women’s rights taking place across the nation. It includes a wide-range of policy efforts designed to place restrictions on women's health care and erode protections for women and their families. Examples at the state and federal level have included restricting contraception; cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood; state-mandated, medically unnecessary ultrasounds; abortion taxes; abortion waiting periods; forcing women to tell their employers why they want birth control, and prohibiting insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their policies.
I guess I would include voting against equal pay somewhere in there. If it's only about reproductive rights, let's not pussyfoot around; let's call it "The War on Reproductive Rights."

At last week's debate, our Congressional candidate made the national conservative press by getting laughed at for accusing Tom Reed of being part of the War on Women. Tom did not vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and he voted against the use of federal funds for Planned Parenthood. He may pal around with his sister in his television ads, but he is not a friend to women when it comes to laws that protect specific rights.

CNN suggests that the War on Women sobriquet isn't working anymore because unlike in 2012, "this time around, there aren't any candidates talking about 'legitimate rape' or 'binders full of women.'" That would be acceptable if we'd actually made any improvement in women's status other than in pushing the really stupid candidates back into their holes. Politicus is keeping score, although their list is outdated. It's pretty obvious that rights are being chipped away at the state level.

But we can't call it the War on Women anymore, because the Wall Street Journal calls that "gender-pandering" and because candidates for Senate tell us that they are women who've been to war and therefore they know there's no War on Women.

So nothing has changed, but we can't use the name we've been using. Heck, it was at best a euphemism, anyway, like calling a spade a trowel. It doesn't roll as trippingly off the tongue, but how about "The Republican Attempt to Keep Government Out of Wage Decisions but Inside My Uterus"? Or maybe "The GOP 'Control Your Damn Libido and Dress Appropriately' Initiative"?

Maybe War on Women is now as defunct as Silent Majority, but we need a new name for the fact that reproductive rights are under attack and income parity does not exist. I'm open to suggestions.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Vision of Regional Education Circa 2020

I've been thinking about the proposed Regents' Pathways to Graduation combined with our local proposed school transportation hub, and it makes me envision something grand: A series of magnet schools throughout our region that any local high schooler may choose to attend. Maybe Ithaca High School and South Seneca, with their fabulous new auditorium complexes, house the Arts Pathway. Maybe Lansing and Groton house STEM. Maybe Trumansburg and Dryden house Humanities. Candor, with its great Cisco program, could be an alternative CTE site. There are multiple possibilities, and it's exciting to imagine.

Here's what stands in the way: The NYS legislature. Tradition. Parents who want their kids local. Football programs.

Here's what will probably happen: Our region will end up with one alternative: CTE. Districts won't be able to get their heads around creating a brand-new program; the region won't figure out how to move teachers around to make this work. Not to mention that the legislators will turn a big thumbs-down because they lack the imagination to see how any alternative could be any better than what we have now.

But it's a pretty vision: Kids in a school that is relevant to their passions, together with other students who share their interests. Who wouldn't want to see that happen?

Monday, October 13, 2014

School Board 101

Third in a series:

School board members learn early on how to spend one-time money; for example, that $150K in annual pork from your State Senator. Maybe you repair a roof. Maybe you buy something you would buy anyway that doesn't have maintenance costs—new auditorium seating, say, or replacement tables for the science lab. Here's what you don't do with found money: Hire personnel. Purchase anything with a maintenance contract or licensing fees. Start a new initiative. Build something new.

Now here comes NYS's Proposal 3, the sweetly nicknamed "Smart Schools Bond Act." It forks over $2B to

"purchase educational technology equipment and facilities, such as interactive whiteboards, computer servers, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and high-speed broadband or wireless internet; construct and modernize facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space; and install high-tech security features in school buildings."
It's a boatload of money. You can go online and find out how much your district might get. It's going to be hard for districts to resist. But maybe you see where I'm going with this. Proposal 3 violates every one-time-money rule. It is, as I like to say, the gift that keeps on taking.

People are complaining about Proposal 3 because they think bonding is too risky and expensive or because they feel it's a sly way to get districts ready for online testing. Nobody seems to be talking about how just-plain-stupid it is to buy a mess of technology with one-time money when that technology has a short shelf-life and its purchase price is merely the tip of the cost iceberg.

Go ahead, buy an interactive whiteboard. In fact, buy one for every classroom. Then figure in the retrofitting and additional hardware. Then train your teachers to use the whiteboard. Then buy the software and technical support. Then buy a tablet for every student. Then update your network to enable these materials to work. Buy switches. Buy lots of switches at $8-$10K apiece. Don't forget the annual maintenance costs for each switch. Don't forget the bulbs for your projectors and the yearly licensing fees for every bit of software. And more professional development—a lot. Maybe you need to buy 20 or 40% of a BOCES employee to show your teachers how to use technology for instruction, because who else is going to do it? But we're done giving you money. It's year one, you've had the spending approved, you've bought the actual stuff. Now you're on your own. And what will you do in 2019 when all that new stuff is old stuff? Do you imagine that we'll have another $2B bond to bail you out? Or will it all sit on a shelf somewhere gathering dust like your teaching machines and VCRs?

Paul likes to talk about the "carrying capacity" of a district, which he defines as the amount of stuff a district can support and replace in a given year. Ideally, districts are on a cycle, during which they budget to replace 1/5 (or any reasonable fraction) of their technology each year, thus ensuring a sustainable turnover. A windfall can crush a district, and the Proposal 3 windfall is big enough to kill.

It is also being sold right in the ballot text as something that will "equalize" opportunities in classrooms across the state, which is just silly. Prop 3 is based, as usual, on the same inequitable formula that underpins all other school funding. Rich districts get a lot of money. Poor districts get less money.

Now let's look at part 2: modernizing facilities to accommodate pre-K and replacing classroom trailers. Where, you might ask, are these classroom trailers? Well, they are in the urban districts overseen by Cathy Nolan and Francisco Moya, which is why those folks, among others, are eager to see this pass. Dryden has housed its primary kids at the big K-5 building in a modular hallway for 25 years or more. Not a trailer, exactly, but perhaps not an ideal instructional space. But the trailers are in NYC, as are the schools that need space for Pre-K. Upstate districts are losing population, and if they don't already have Pre-K, they're not about to invest in it just because they suddenly get money to build a classroom they don't need. So part 2 is really wholly downstate. I don't mind replacing some other district's trailers, but it would be a lot better for us upstate if this were done as another building project initiative, where any district could apply for any building project it needed and get a larger-than-usual percentage of that project paid for by the state.

As for "high-tech" security features, most districts around here have already put those in as part of a building project. Such features come with maintenance costs as well (and personnel, in some cases), so they are not appropriate purchases with one-time money.

If I had to guess, I'd expect this one to pass. It's money for schools! Who doesn't like that? A Google guy, Geoffrey Canada, and the Superintendent of Auburn served on the Commission, so it's obviously fair-and-balanced!

Well, it may be Smart Schools, but it's Stupid Finance. It violates School Board 101 rules and should be shot down. Vote no.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Amending the Constitution for the Umpteenth Time

This is the second in a series...

Second on the ballot November 4 is a proposal that would again amend the NYS Constitution. Essentially, the purpose is to allow electronic distribution of state legislative bills to satisfy the constitutional requirement that a bill be printed and on legislators' desks at least three days before a vote. Current provisions are only satisfied by the distribution of a hard copy of the bill.

This one is a "yes" as far as I am concerned, but it also serves to point out a big flaw in our constitution in general and NYS law in particular. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. NYS, meanwhile, has had five constitutions. We're currently using the 1938 one. We can amend it by holding a convention every 20 years or by passing an amendment twice in the legislature and then presenting it to the general population on the ballot. Usually, the general population ignores this entirely; "Politics on the Hudson" found that 54 percent of ballots don't log a vote for these amendments at all. But despite this oversight, the NYS Constitution has been amended many, many times.

So what? That makes it a living document. Well, yes, but it is also way too specific, as many NYS laws seem to be. Paul likes to complain about the law that forces every person working in a NYS Department of Social Services to have two separate computers, one for State business, and one for County business. This dates back to a time when you couldn't easily partition a hard drive to keep one set of files separate from another. Now the law just sits quietly on the books, racking up dollars for the counties as they continue to purchase and support twice the number of computers they need. That's a bad law.

A clever writer of laws tries to anticipate the future and to be as general as possible without being vague. Goodness knows some of us would like a little tweaking on "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," but for the most part, the U.S. Constitution walks the line of generalities without veering over into specifics that would need to be amended or vagueness that would need to be explained. It says, for example, "...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." It doesn't say "petition the Senate" or "the right of male landowners." Perhaps the founders had good imaginations, or perhaps they were just smart. Whichever it was, the First Amendment still holds up pretty well after 227 years.

So vote yes on Proposal 2. For the 54 percent who don't usually vote on these, you will find it on the BACK OF YOUR BALLOT.

Coming soon: Proposal 3.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our New President

As a land-grant college, Cornell was founded to be co-educational, a place "where any person can find instruction in any study." Despite this auspicious beginning, it is actually the sixth of the seven Ivy League universities to hire a woman to lead it. Harvard hired Drew Gilpin Faust in 2007. U Penn has had three women in a row: Claire Fagin (interim) from 1993-94, Judith Seitz Rodin from 1994-2004, and Amy Gutmann ever since. Ruth Simmons ruled Brown from 2001 to 2012. Shirley Tilghman ruled Princeton from 2001 to 2013. Hanna Holborn Gray was acting president at Yale for a year in 1977. Only Dartmouth is a holdout, and they at least broke the white male barrier when they hired Jim Young Kim in 2009.

So the hiring of Elizabeth Garrett is a big deal here. She has bounced around the country much as David Skorton did, although where he went from West to Midwest to East, she went from Oklahoma to UVA to UofC to USC and back east again. Her specialties include the federal budget process and direct democracy, which has made her the go-to gal for many political oversight committees and panels. In addition to her primary appointment in the law school and as provost at USC, she has secondary appointments in the business school and school of public policy as well as a "courtesy appointment" in the Annenberg School.

She is, in other words, hot stuff. She attended law school with a friend of Paul's, so we await the dish from that. Apparently she won't take over until July of 2015, because Skorton would like to preside over the sesquicentenniel. Then he leaves to make $795,000 at the Smithsonian.

O's questions were: "Will she lower tuition? Will she give me a job? How can I be president?" I said, "No, maybe, and check out her bio." Impressive.

Friday, September 26, 2014

When Is Reform Not Reform?

When it's self-serving, for one.

The history of redistricting in NYS goes back a hundred years and more and is rife with lawsuits. The rules are simple: Every ten years, the state may look at the census and revise its legislative districts based on population shifts. The reasons are simple: No one part of the state should have significant sway over any other parts of the state. If population is essentially similar from district to district, that should eliminate power plays. The reality, of course, is far from simple. This is New York!

Like most of the nation, New York has a bizarrely high return of incumbents to office, one that simple statistics would suggest is practically impossible. There are a handful of reasons for this, including name recognition and ability to raise funds, but certainly one reason is the drawing of district lines to favor certain parties. In a state with a clear upstate-downstate divide, that becomes a litigious issue when one party feels that the other is unfairly favored.

The state legislature has always had the power to establish districts. In the past, it has established an advisory commission but has retained the power to thumbs-up or thumbs-down any suggestions from that body. Former NYC Mayor Koch led the charge for independent redistricting via his NY UPrising group. He asked legislators to sign a pledge vowing that they would support such an initiative, and the results may be seen here. Being Ed Koch, he called the refuseniks "Enemies of Reform." It's an interesting list!

Fast forward to the current ballot proposal. It passed the Assembly and the Senate, and now it is in the hands of the voters, because such a change must be an amendment to the state constitution. It reads as follows (the word "independent" has been removed, as it clearly is not independent in any sense of that word). I did the boldfacing:

The proposed amendment to sections 4 and 5 and addition of new section 5-b to Article 3 of the State Constitution revises the redistricting procedure for state legislative and congressional districts. The proposed amendment establishes a redistricting commission every 10 years beginning in 2020, with two members appointed by each of the four legislative leaders and two members selected by the eight legislative appointees; prohibits legislators and other elected officials from serving as commissioners; establishes principles to be used in creating districts; requires the commission to hold public hearings on proposed redistricting plans; subjects the commission’s redistricting plan to legislative enactment; provides that the legislature may only amend the redistricting plan according to the established principles if the commission’s plan is rejected twice by the legislature; provides for expedited court review of a challenged redistricting plan; and provides for funding and bipartisan staff to work for the commission. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

The folks who are urging us to vote "yes" include the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union. They've gotten rid of their original language that claimed the amendment was "not perfect" and are going whole-hog for redistricting.

But the plan clearly violates at least part of Common Cause's redistricting principles, the part about "disclosure of potential conflicts of interest," because if the committee is established by the legislative leaders and appointees, bias is already built in. Yes, we can no longer assign Nozzolio (R) and McEneny (D) to be part of the commission, but is that the reform that really matters? I would posit that the current plan again allows legislators to choose their voters, and that like so many good ideas in NYS, it has been edited and manipulated to maintain the status quo while looking all pretty and new.

For the best overall history of redistricting in NY, including an explanation of the role of prisons, see Ballotpedia.

People urging "yes" say that Proposition 1 is a step in the right direction. I think it is a step in the same direction. We still have time to do this right. Vote no.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

At Last, Someone Who Can Read

I wrote earlier about the idiocy of calling proposed redistricting "independent" when it was clearly manipulated by the powers that be. Now comes State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath, who rules that
"the Commission cannot be described as 'independent' when eight out of ten members are the handpicked appointees of the legislative leaders, and the two additional members are essentially political appointees by proxy."
It's still on the ballot, but "independent" is out. Hallelujah!

Saturday, September 13, 2014


Cornell's sesquicentennial year, which was begun with a bang involving the red-and-white lighting up of the Empire State Building, has led me to ponder this uncomfortable truth: Olivia's class of '18 is as distant in time from my class of '76 as my class was from the class of 1934. Suck on that for a while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Zephyr-Andrew Map

We'd been a little worried that Tompkins would be an outlier in voting for Teachout. Well, the numbers don't entirely tell the story. I thought I'd like to see this graphically, so I did a little map, showing where Zephyr won (dark blue) vs. where Andrew won (light blue). I leave it up to others to draw conclusions. Click on the map to see more detail.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What Zephyr's Done for NY

I'm not calling the game, because I am the worst predictor of all time. But seeing Cuomo pretend not to see Teachout at the Labor Day Parade today, seeing the thugs who always surround him push her aside, reminded me again of what Zephyr has done for NY, win or lose.

1. She verified the irrelevance of the Working Families Party. I haven't found them interesting in a long, long time, but their decision to dump her in favor of a deal with Cuomo—a deal that I guarantee he had every intention of carrying out before they made that deal—proved their small-mindedness and gave her the opportunity to connect with people who would never have taken a third-party candidate seriously. WFP's dumping of her was a gift to us all.

2. She reminded Democrats of our roots. Instead of capping property taxes and worrying about gridlock, she talked about corruption, the environment, and dignity for all.

3. She suggested that NYers don't have to settle. Until she decided to run, everyone I knew was resigned to another Cuomo term. We spoke about the governor's race dully, if we spoke about it at all. Even the most gung-ho Dems I know could only pick on social policy as a plus for the Cuomo regime, and that starts to pale in significance when you start to look at the map. I mean, we were seventh, not first, when it comes to marriage equality. New Hampshire and Iowa beat us, and they aren't exactly bastions of liberalism. Is it a radical, profound position or just part of a trend?

4. She made politics fun again. With sparkling energy and unaffected enthusiasm, she lit up small rooms and open spaces and often seemed larger than life. Someone said to me early on, "All people have to do is meet her, and they'll vote for her." I thought it was hyperbole until I met her.

5. She brought up some critical issues. Her attempt to sue the State Committee for paying for and sending out Cuomo mailers failed thus far, because that sort of unsavory party-as-an-arm-of-the-governor's-office was more-or-less legalized in 2006, but the lawsuit reminded us how wrong that relationship is. She showed us once again how deeply corrupt our institutions are and how insensitive to corruption we have become. She shone a light on the dark corners of the Cuomo administration, pointing out its failure to connect at any genuine level to the people of the state.

6. She unmasked the governor and revealed him as the mean-spirited bully everyone had always said he was. He had countless opportunities to refute this impression, but he failed at every turn, becoming more and more himself with every passing week—insular, angry, cowardly, and rude—up to today's grotesque behavior at the Labor Day Parade. If nothing else, she punctured the test balloon for his anointing as presidential candidate down the road. And she did it all not with the bombastic ire one would expect when confronted with the dreadful, tangled, nasty political mire that is the State of New York and the people who run it—but with a smile. We owe her, seriously, our eternal gratitude.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Math. Still Hard.

Okay, so it turns out that 94 percent of teachers outside NYC were rated "effective" or "highly effective" via the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review). Twenty percent of that assessment is to be based on growth on state assessments (or a comparable measure using Student Learning Objectives for those subjects not tested on state assessments). In many districts right in our area, no teachers at all were found to be ineffective. Yet, as we know, the growth on state assessments was negligible.

Which brings up a couple of questions. 1: What were the unions so worried about? and 2: Does the way we're measuring teacher effectiveness make any sense at all?

I have no doubt at all that effective teaching correlates to student achievement. This introduction to a 2005 book explains why teacher evaluation can nevertheless be so difficult to do with any validity. NYS is applying multiple modes to their teacher assessments, as the authors would recommend, but the results simply defy logic.

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.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

IJ Covers Graduation

O and her classmates are all over these photos.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The State of Educational Freelancing

I sent out a query to my freelance listserve yesterday, remarking on the fact that I've had four projects start and fold this year already and wondering whether I was just unlucky or if something else was going on. Here are some responses I received.

I've stopped doing educational publishing. Ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
I was burned out on assessment projects years ago, kind of in solidarity with kids, I reasoned, and tried to live in hope of the return of the olden days when nearly all the writing projects I worked on seemed to value high-quality research, creativity, and writing. So much fun! Hard work, but great compensation and satisfaction.

I'm still open to such a project, but I'm no longer expecting it to my working lifetime anyhow. Still, I mull what it would take to get out of this rat's nest we're in and will fight to the end for a vibrant public education system worthy of our children and, in my case, my grandchildren. :)

I don't know whether to be glad or sorry to learn that I'm not the only one. I have literally had no work since December. One project seems to have fizzled; other people not even getting back to me. Longtime clients whom I've worked for repeatedly over several years; it burns me when they can't even be bothered to reply to e-mails.
I had a relatively decent year in 2013. There was steady (if not always well-paying) work through the winter and into the early spring. Since then, however, I've had three projects that have turned sour: One was cut back in scope and then postponed until the fall (and I'll be surprised it if revives even then), one suddenly went back to the drawing board (and has since revived--but it's very small, and I hear that it is still a very rocky road), and one that has parceled out one lesson at a time, with unannounced gaps in-between (thus far). In putting out a few feelers, I've heard from one client, "Maybe something in July or August"; and from another, "It's still very much up in the air."
I recently did a social studies project that ended up with my earning less than the lowest paid employee at McDonald’s. The only advantage over McDonald's is that I don’t smell of cooking oil.

The whole industry seems to be fracturing. Digital publishing is spawning a whole new set of players—and a new mentality about publishing. Remember when we prided ourselves on our "bookmaking skills"?

There are now Indian firms who are training their writers to do assessment. I know this because I was approached to do the training! The offer was too low to consider (especially when it involved flying coach to India); I also had serious qualms about undermining a threatened species--American editors. Cries of “turncoat!” haunted my dreams. Nonetheless, overseas writers are poised to grab a share of our too limited market. A writer from another (somewhat) English-speaking culture could do assessment in some areas (math and science, for example) with relative success. With an American editor, non-native writers could even do assessments in other subjects. Their biggest challenge would be to avoid the forbidden topics.

I am currently working on a project for a company that has to have a translator on site so that editors can communicate with the boss a few steps away in the corner office.

Mind you, these are the best of the best and include two people I worked with closely at McGraw-Hill and Harcourt back in the short-lived glory days of educational publishing. DZ wrote a blog post that sums up all of our feelings, I think.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Nimbleness and the News

At TST BOCES this year, we've talked a lot about the advantages of being a smaller, more localized organization than some other BOCES. It gives us the opportunity for a sort of agility that larger organizations just cannot have. If necessary, we should be able to turn on a dime to support new objectives or unexpected requests. We haven't entirely reached our goal of nimbleness, but we're getting there.

A few weeks ago, wearing my other hat as Director of Communications for the local Dems, I met with the editor of a new online newspaper, the Ithaca Voice. The paperless paper went live on June 15, and just five days later, this new medium was tested in the fire of a genuine disaster when a tractor-trailer laden with cars missed the turn at the bottom of State Street, avoided a group of construction workers, and barreled into Simeon's, killing one, injuring several, and nearly destroying a beautiful historic building at the entrance to the City.

What made the Voice's coverage stand out was its nimbleness. Other media tweeted from the site, but the Voice did so continuously and in depth. The Journal was limited by the fact that the accident happened on a Friday late afternoon, when much of the Saturday paper is already complete, and the paper does not publish on Sunday. The radio stations were hampered by lack of personnel and the fact that their local news coverage mostly happens in the morning. Other media arrived late to the scene, but the Voice had already been sending updates for hours on Facebook and Twitter, while putting together longer pieces on its website.

To its credit and reputation, the Voice clambered all over the story, interviewing key players, posting photos (but deciding not to post video of the incident itself), and generally comporting itself like a real, live, capable, scrupulous, nimble newsforce to be reckoned with.

UPDATE: And now the Voice reveals itself as a credible investigative tool as well, with an aspect of the story no one else has broken.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Required Reading

Ed Week blog on the perhaps unsurprising link between presidential contenders and dropping of the Common Core State Standards. My question is: Why do those most avidly seeking a federal position most avidly argue against federal intrusion?
In the end, the landscape seems to say that governors not running for president feel far more comfortable supporting the common core, or at least not actively undermining it, than the half-dozen or so governors who have 2016 on their minds.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Might Actually Have to Read His Book

I don't know, but I still think this stuff's important.
Bureaucracies organically flow toward the easier result, and the easier result is always a smaller company, an undefended person, a low-level drug dealer. They hesitate before it decides to proceed against a well-heeled, well-defended company [against which] they’re going to have to fight for years and years and years just to get the case in court … It’s not just about the poor, it’s more about how there’s a class that enjoys impunity and then there’s everybody else.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Back to the Stone Age

So South Carolina and Oklahoma have voted to dump the Common Core Standards and devise their own. Of course, like all 50 states, SC and OK had their own educational standards for years, which enabled their kids to score regularly well below the national average on the NAEP, the "nation's report card." This chart from the Center for Education Statistics is pretty easy to interpret; just select a state, read it, and weep. It doesn't do much to reassure me that either OK or SC can "raise the bar," as Governor Fallin suggests they can. Both states are always in the bottom 10 of Education Week's ranking of the nation's schools. But f*ck the kids, let's play politics.

"The bill is designed to make sure that any future public school standards bear little resemblance to the Common Core...."

Thursday, May 29, 2014


The Twitter feed is difficult to read, riddled as it is with misery and fear and the occasional misogynistic blat of denial. But there’s no question that it’s touched a nerve, and resurrected in thousands of us memories we’d thought long dead and buried.

Like walking to school at 13, a long walk, because I had changed neighborhoods but not schools, and confessing to a friend that I couldn’t make the walk without having guys honk or whistle out their windows at me. So she told her brother, and his reaction was, “Why, when all she wears is that baggy dress?” which was a dress I’d made myself and loved, but really, as he rudely suggested, it was not revealing at all, so now I wondered, “What was I doing to make this happen?” The decades-older me knows it was “Being female and 13,” but the newly sprouted teen hadn’t a clue. So I started walking with my bookbag slung between me and the road, as if it were a shield.

And using a book as a shield lifelong whenever I dine out alone.

And riding a crowded subway to work, jammed like sardines, and wondering whether that was someone’s briefcase, but slowly registering, ew, it wasn’t, because there’s nothing like a little frottage to start the day right, and twisting imperceptibly so that it hit somewhere less vulnerable, and the guy in his Brooks Brothers suit or his low slung jeans staring straight ahead, never ever at me or anywhere near me, because again, it wasn’t about me. It had nothing to do with me, really.

Or sitting at a desk in a long Queens office with the bosses’ father at the desk directly behind me, quietly, whisperingly, asking me all day long whether I went on dates, was I wild, were shiksa girls like me easy, he’d always heard that we were, and finally complaining to the bosses, who shrugged and said, “He’s old and blind, what’s he gonna do?”

Sort of like when I went with my cousins to an island in the Caribbean, and we walked into a club and someone immediately, drunkenly, grabbed my crotch, and I turned around and left, and my cousin was disappointed in me for ruining the fun.

Or walking happily to work one day in the spring sunshine, past the fire station, and having one of the heroes sunning himself outside remark to me, to the delight of his comrades, that I’d be beautiful if I lost about 12 pounds. And spending the rest of my walk thinking of things I could have said but didn’t.

Or sitting on an airplane as the guy next to me, a cute young guy, too, falls “asleep” and somehow has his slumbering hand come to rest between my thighs, or on a train where the guy standing right in front of me exposes himself to me, or walking past a car, ditto, or walking through a park, ditto, or walking down a long hotel corridor, ditto.

And those tremulous moments of breathless fear on the way home when a man comes out of the shadows toward me—it’s laughable to think that we’re castigated for crossing the street when we see a group of African-American men come toward us, because I can’t count the number of times when I’ve crossed the street to avoid just one single man of any age or race, holding my keys pointed outward in my fist, just in case, as though keys trump knives or even muscles. And the seconds between opening the street door and the vestibule door in my no-doorman building, those moments that every woman knows are the most dangerous, because you are trapped like a gasping goldfish in an empty bowl.

Or cutting short a hiking trip with my sister because times had changed, and suddenly being a couple of young women in the forest alone was scary for reasons more vital than losing one’s food to a bear. Or buying a dog once I moved to the country, because I couldn’t keep checking all the closets every night.

And now I have a gorgeous teenaged daughter who works at a bodega in Collegetown that is besieged some afternoons by students buying beer and ping pong balls, and I ask her whether she ever feels threatened by them or by her male boss, and she flips her hand and says, “Nothing I can’t handle.”

And I know exactly what she means, because that’s what we do.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

40 Under 40

In which the mayor of Ithaca makes it onto a Washington Post list of politicians to watch. And he's a good mayor, too!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

And Every Word Is True

DZ rants (more politely than she might) about the state of educational publishing today.

Beating the Odds

And Ithaca becomes one of the few school districts in NYS to get the 60 percent approval needed to override the tax cap. Interesting note: Only Spencer Van Etten, of all the districts around here, had a contested board election. That sound you hear is people giving up.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Penn Yan in National News

We had rain, but Penn Yan, at the north end of Keuka Lake, had LOTS of rain. The photos are hard to believe.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Slippery, Slippery Slope

Here's another unfortunate decision where Kennedy leaned the wrong way. Greece is hardly the Podunk redneck town its prayerfulness might imply—it has one of the nicest school districts I've ever seen, a decent median income (especially compared to much of upstate), and nearly 100,000 inhabitants.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Dirty Tricks in the 23rd

Simon alerted me to this story in Mother Jones, about a failed attempt to split the left in our Congressional district, where county legislator Martha Robertson is battling incumbent Tom Reed. If the operative hadn't been so inept, this might have worked, leading me to wonder how often it happens.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Act Locally, Get Recognized Globally

Helen and David Slottje offered their legal assistance gratis during much of Dryden's long anti-fracking slog. Now Helen is the North American winner of the Goldman Prize, which "annually honors grassroots environmental heroes from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America. The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk." Here is the list of this year's recipients, from South Africa, India, Russia, Indonesia, Peru—and Ithaca.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Spring Break

The last time I was in the Yucatan was over 30 years ago, when there were maybe four hotels on Cancun and no vendors around Chichen Itza or Tulum. I know things have changed. This time we're going by boat and spending just two quick days on shore, visiting Uxmal, because, as Paul pointed out, "How often do you get to go places that start with U?" We'll also stop on Cozumel for some snorkeling time. Sun would be nice!

TULUM, 1981

Friday, April 4, 2014

Honey Maid

I don't usually share pages like this, but I really like this story. Scroll down to watch the original ad that caused all the flap, then click on the response up top. ♥warming.

The Worst Decision?

The Roberts Court is responsible for a bunch of loser decisions—Gonzales v. Carhart, Ledbetter v. Goodyear, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Morse v. Frederick (with a very different view of free speech), Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, and of course Citizens United v. FEC—but I can't help feeling that McCutcheon will be the one that most comes back to bite us. It's worth looking at Breyer's dissent, excerpted here. It's already being talked about on both sides more than the majority opinion is.