Friday, December 18, 2015

Physician, Heal Thyself

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2015

NY Common Core Task Force Issues Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Our Tolerance of Intolerance

Yesterday I had to test the noun persecution to accompany Elie Wiesel's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in a literature series. I did not use the model sentence "Donald Trump hopes to initiate persecution of American Muslims"; I wrote something about the Kurds. But it did get me thinking about the long and dreary history of religious persecution in the US, where sects avoiding persecution elsewhere were more than happy to persecute those who followed them to our shores.

The Puritans put down stakes early on and took the European tack of enforcing theirs as the only allowable official religion in the territories where they lived. In fact, they went beyond their own Anglican roots in England, which by then was accepting presbyterianism and tolerating some other forms of Protestantism. The Puritans turned on Quakers with a vehemence that is Trump-worthy. They accused them of witchcraft, punched holes in their tongues, imprisoned and beat them, forced them out of New England and Virginia, or sent them back to England.

Even before that, French Huguenots had established a colony in what's now Florida, only to be wiped out by the Spanish, who told their king that "they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces."

Not until James Madison was there any movement toward tolerance in government policy, and it is Madison's work that allows us to suggest that ours is not necessarily a Christian nation. He and Thomas Jefferson agreed on a plan for establishing religious freedom. Madison wrote later that "religion and Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

That did not stop anti-Catholic fervor, which started with the burning of a convent in Massachusetts in 1834 and built steadily through the growth of the Know-Nothing Party, which of course built anti-Catholic rhetoric into its platform. The Know-Nothings were followed by the Ku Klux Klan. In the 20th century, Al Smith was defeated by anti-Catholics, and even JFK had to reassure the populace that his allegiance was to the nation, not to the Pope. There is even an element of anti-Catholicism in our current immigration hysteria.

Mormonism is an easy religion to mock—the only one I can think of to have inspired its own satirical Broadway show—but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints may be the only religion since the founding that has also inspired its own war. The Utah War of 1857-58 saw the federal government under President Buchanan descend on Utah Territory in an effort to disperse the Mormon population. It was apparently a bloodless war, since the Mormons were underarmed and refused to fire on the soldiers. Mostly they played pranks on the federal troops, blocking their way, burning the grass for their horses, and stampeding their cattle. It's a pretty good David v. Goliath story. But that's not to say that Mormons did not suffer from persecution—their prophet was killed by an armed mob in 1844, and they were forcibly expelled from their homes in the midwest, leading to their re-establishment in Utah Territory under Brigham Young.

And then there's anti-Semitism, both overt and covert. We've had Charles Coughlin and the Christian Front; the Ku Klux Klan, which never met a non-Protestant it couldn't hate; the overt anti-Semitism of Richard Nixon and the slightly quieter but far more dangerous anti-Semitism of FDR, which may have been responsible for the turning away of Jewish refugees and the suppression of information about the Holocaust.

I will say that I can't remember a candidate using anti-religious prejudice as a plank in his campaign—but there does seem to be a bit of a precedent in the Hoover-Smith battle of 1928, where Hoover was careful not to cross the line but let his wife and the Klan spread the message about Smith. In the Nixon-Kennedy battle, Nixon vowed to keep religion out of the campaign while working behind the scenes to build up anti-Catholic fervor. Our local Millard Fillmore was nominated by the Know-Nothings to run a second time for the Presidency in 1856, an election he lost. It was an ironic move, because Fillmore had actually named Brigham Young governor of Utah Territory during his earlier presidency. The only thing he really had in common with nativists was his desire to unite the nation.

Lest we forget, here's the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is amazing how the people who tout American exceptionalism, by which I think they mean our unique pursuit of democratic ideals, can be the very same people who are willing to set fire to the Constitution whenever adhering to its principles seems a bit inconvenient. But they have many historical prototypes on which to model their bad behavior.

Thursday, December 3, 2015


It's rare that you find people applauding a bill that is such a compromise that absolutely nobody gets anywhere close to everything he or she wanted. Yet the chatter around the revamped ESEA reauthorization, now titled Every Student Succeeds, is that just about everyone's a little bit happy.

Folks like the Center for American Progress are grateful that the feds still play some role, however small, in maintaining the data that proves that at-risk students are or are not doing okay. If we're honest, we know that returning all power to the states ensures that Every Average White Student Succeeds. ESSA doesn't return all power to the states, but it returns a lot. States may now choose their own highly rigorous standards (mostly, so far, that means Common Core Lite), meaning that we will return to an apples v. oranges situation as kids move across borders or apply from different states to the same college. Seven (why seven?) states may revamp their assessments immediately. Punitive sanctions and Annual Yearly Progress goals are gone, which is enough to let the NEA sign on. Despite the NEA president's suggestion that testing is enormously reduced, 3-8 and HS reading and math testing remain, with science tested three times across the student's career (elementary, middle, high school). Results must still be reported for various subgroups, which cheers civil libertarians. But the states get to decide how to intervene in low-performing schools. That never worked before; who knows why people assume it will work now. But perhaps there are built-in incentives to hold their feet to the fire.

I do like this quote from blogger Jeff Bryant: "First, it’s a sign of dysfunction, rather than a triumph of bipartisanship, to see officials in Washington, DC celebrating legislation that significantly curtails the influence of officials in Washington, DC." NCLB was an overreach, for sure. In attempting to shove every student, teacher, and school in the US through the same round hole, it perpetrated unfairness and suffering on children whose only fault was to be in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, or to exhibit a learning disability, or to be new to English. I accept that we can't trust officials in Washington, DC, to educate our kids. Can we trust officials in Albany? Topeka? Jackson? Stay tuned.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Untreated Mental Illness Plus Guns

After Aurora, a Colorado Springs reporter wrote, "James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding 58 at an Aurora movie theater, was seeing a psychiatrist at the time of the July 20 attack. If he’d been in Colorado Springs, chances are he wouldn’t have gotten even that much help."

After an October incident in Colorado Springs where a guy with a rifle and gas cans opened fire on civilians in the street, the local gun-nut mag noted that someone with an open-carry gun plus gas cans might be worrisome and require some level of serious response even as they applauded the mayor of Colorado Springs for not budging on the open-carry law.

Now that same mayor says about the most recent mass killing in Colorado Springs, the second in a month, that "one of the things we don’t do very well is identify these people, sometimes with mental health problems, and prevent their access to weapons."

Well, yes. We don't identify them, we don't treat them, and we don't prevent their access to weapons.

Adam Lankford at the U of Alabama has done the most interesting recent work on mass killings. He used a definition of four or more kills, meaning that the recent Colorado Springs shootings wouldn't even appear on his radar. (The FBI uses three or more.) Nevertheless, he found that the US accounted for 31 percent of mass shootings, and that the only real predictive correlation with any meaning was our firearm ownership rate.

So many people, the mayor of Colorado Springs included, attribute these shootings to mental health issues that I thought I'd look at a comparison. So I chose a few countries at random across the spectrum of mental illness and looked at their gun ownership rates as well. Numbers are pulled from WHO and from Small Arms Survey. Note that Nigeria has plenty of mass shootings involving Boko Haram, and Mexico beats the US in murder by gun thanks to drug wars, but until two weeks ago in Paris, almost no one on this list offered much that would rise to the FBI's definition of an "active shooter situation." In the US, "70 percent of the incidents" occur in either a commercial or educational setting.

We have more people with serious mental illnesses than any other nation on my list—2.8 percent more than the next closest country, which is Lebanon. But we have a boatload more guns. It's a lethal combination.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Find a Better Example

REFUGEE (n.): A person forced to leave his or her country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Want to keep refugees out? Find a better example.

1980, Cuban Refugees:

"But some of them might be Communist!"

1840, Irish Refugees:

"But some of them might take my job!"

1615, European Refugees:

"But some of them might have smallpox!"

DING DING DING We have a winner!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

No Struggle, No Progress

In his smart and sympathetic paper on Cornell's 1969 student revolt, Caleb Rossiter writes,
A university is not a democracy with a rule of law, but a corporation that makes and breaks its own rules as its Board of Trustees sees fit. There is no mechanism available for democratic decisions other than perceptive administrators' gauging of the majority will. In such a setting, if a demand for change is denied, it can only be realized through disruption....

I was a kid in 1969, a classmate both of Caleb's younger brother and of the son of the Cornell president. It is hard to imagine the repercussions of the Straight takeover, hard to imagine how it fractured the faculty, with moderates like Caleb's dad urging leniency, and others (conservative, closeted Allan Bloom among them) calling for the harshest of penalties. This was an era when taking over a building might be an illegal act, but carrying guns on campus was not a problem. It's hard to imagine how it fractured the student body, with SDS forming a sympathy barricade around the Straight while white fraternity members barged in and fought with bats and fists to take back the building before the occupiers armed themselves. Other students occupied Barton Hall with friendly faculty and held out until the administration agreed not to pursue major charges against the Straight occupiers.

Unlike the lead-up to today's situation at Ithaca College, Cornell had made an earnest if modest attempt in the years preceding the takeover to increase enrollment of African-American students and was in the process of building what's now the Africana Studies and Research Center (the original would be torched in 1970; the arsonist was never caught). Failing to recognize how slow progress felt was perhaps President Perkins's main error. He had initiated his plan to increase and support African-American enrollment six years earlier. But undergraduates spend just four years on campus. From their vantage point, a multiyear plan can seem...invisible.

Now here we are, nearly 50 years later, and we're still fighting the same systemic battles. Burning crosses, cartoons, costumes, language—any number of things may be the catalysts that force us to hold up a lens to our societal structures and find them fractured and flawed. At Cornell in 1969, the surrounding culture included the unpopular war in Vietnam and the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At Ithaca College (or Yale, or SUNY Plattsburgh) in 2015, the surrounding culture includes the multiple violent incidents that led to Black Lives Matter. And we're startled to see the anger on both sides, because we think we've moved past that into some kind of postracial era. Surprise!

Cornell 1969 led to Perkins's resignation, Bloom's disgusted departure, and the elder Rossiter's suicide. One key figure from the takeover and a Daily Sun reporter who covered many of the events that April later became Cornell trustees. The Africana Studies program offers a major, a minor, and recently, a PhD program. The Class of 2017 features 231 African-Americans (7%) compared to 94 in 1968 (and 4, or 0.2%, in 1963, when Perkins began his tenure).

Have we made progress? Not enough, clearly. Why are we still fighting these battles? You name it: Inequity, fear, insensitivity, history, divisiveness, prejudice, injustice, ignorance. If history's any indication, the current upheavals at Ithaca College, Yale, Plattsburgh, and elsewhere will result in incremental, positive change. But not easily, and not without pain, and not enough.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Local Politics

Well, we swept in Dryden, elected another Dem in Newfield, got two on the board but lost the supervisorship in Lansing. It's been a long slog, but the results were largely good, despite strong opposition here and a messy special election in Ithaca. Some random thoughts:

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 1. For those of us who thought Svante was a lock for coronation, this election season proved otherwise. Mostly due to clashes over the size and placement of development, people came out of the woodwork to smack the mayor over perceived machinations involving the special election for county. Although no one could tell me what Svante would get out of having friends on the County Legislature (breaking news: he already has friends on the County Legislature), some determined that his support of ex-roommate Nate Shinagawa and one-time City Hall intern Elie Kershner was a power grab that only the People could stop. It's worth remembering, perhaps, that four years ago, when Svante ran for the first time in a three-way primary, he seemed like an outside shot to most party members. Because the party doesn't support anyone in a primary, we mostly sat back and watched. That fall he won 54 percent of the vote against two independents and a Republican. I guess it doesn't take very long at all to become the Establishment candidate and head of the machine.

All Honeymoons Come to an End, Part 2. Some of the very people who fought hard to elect Nate to Congress turned against him when he tried to get reseated in District 2. Their reasons ranged from disdain for carpetbagging to perception of a mad power grab (see above), and surely some of it was colored by his vote on the Old Library, which he changed at the last moment in a possibly misguided effort to move things forward. Of course, he faced a strong and well-liked competitor in Anna Kelles. The two campaigns kept it clean, but the word about the Fall Creek listserve is that the commentary back and forth was vile.

Organization = Machine? People tossed around the terms "machine politics" and "cronyism" all month. One professor who surely knew better compared Ithaca to Chicago, and his remarks were picked up by the media. I've lived in Chicago, and let me tell you: This is no Chicago. I laughed out loud when the Dryden Independence Party referred to the Dryden Dems as a "machine" and a "steamroller." If being organized and effective makes us a machine, I'll take it. But machine politics involves a system of patronage and favors, and honestly, I have yet to get bupkes for the 23 years of work I've done as a committee member. Maybe I'm bad at this machine stuff. Or maybe you're using the wrong term. Want to see Crony Politics in action? Visit Groton, or maybe the Etna Fire Station.

Special Elections Suck as a Concept. Either they cost the taxpayers extra, or they result in next-to-no turnout, or they don't leave enough time for anyone to mount a real campaign. (Anna Kelles wouldn't have had to stay up till 2 every night if she'd started in August like the rest of us.) At lower levels of government, you can appoint someone to fill a vacancy until the next election cycle. That's not necessarily any better—it gives that appointee a leg up in the next election—but at least it's more visible to the public, should they be paying attention. The Dems are asking for a change to the county charter, but it's not quite clear what that change will look like. To some extent, the county's hands are tied by definitions and calendars in state election law.

People Ask the Wrong Questions. Here are a few questions I wish had been asked: Did anyone tell Nate not to run? Should home ownership be a prerequisite for a government position? Should fiscal incompetence that results in dismissal be a red flag in a run for town supervisor? Is "Independence" another word for "Republican"? Can a vacancy ever result in a primary? If either committee vote had tied, would both candidates have had to run as independents? If committee votes had been publicized better, would other citizens have turned up, even knowing that they would not be legally allowed to vote on a candidate? Who chooses candidates in the case of regular elections? How did Democrats win in Newfield? Why did Rich John leave the Democratic Party in the first place, and why was he willing to return? Why hasn't a strong third party ever emerged in Ithaca, of all places? (We've had independent mayors, but their parties have been only as strong as their candidacies and have had little or no influence beyond that.) How long does it take to build a machine? (Ithaca had an independent mayor as recently as 2003, and our most recent pre-Svante mayor, in an anti-machine sort of move, supported Anna.)

The Best Intentions May Have Bad Results. Others have mentioned that the departure of Kathy Luz Herrera and the failure of Nate and Elie to win seats on the County Legislature means a decrease in diversity there. As I've said before, even had Elie won, the average age of legislators would still have topped 50, in a county with a median age of 30. And the white, upper middle-classdom of that body has just increased. The only way to fix that is through the electoral process. There's always next year.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

All Else Being Equal

If two candidates presented with the exact same platform, but one were male and the other were female, for whom would you vote, and why? How about if one were LGBT? How about if one were white? How about if one were Jewish? How about if one were a teenager?

Let's be clear: All of us have our prejudices. And ageism is a prejudice, just as any bias is against a person for attributes he or she presents that are not personality-driven.

An article in the Ithaca Voice about the recent candidates forum makes it pretty clear that Rich John and Elie Kershner share very similar plans and opinions about the county. The main difference, as far as I can tell, is in their comparative ages. Rich has children older than Elie.

Ithaca has a history of very young people doing pretty amazing things. Many of them leave town to do so, but we're lucky enough to have several who've stayed. One ran for Congress in his 20s. The mayor won't turn 30 for a while. The founder and editor of the Ithaca Voice is 20-something. It does start to look as though "they" are taking over.

I have seen people I know who would never cop to racism or sexism deplore Elie's candidacy and deny outright that it has anything to do with anything other than "lack of experience," which we all know is coded language. If Elie were 85, we'd be talking about "lack of energy."

It's worth considering that if Elie is elected, the average age on the County Legislature will still not dip below 50. Yet in the county as a whole, the median age is 30.

I was around for the 26th Amendment. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote" had been a chant since World War II, but it took until 1971 for an amendment to be written and ratified. Age rules for Congressional and Presidential candidates go back to the Founding Fathers (several of whom were 20-somethings), but for most elected positions in the U.S., if you're old enough to vote, you're old enough to run.

The Founding Fathers, of course, also gave us rules tying voting to the ownership of property. That restriction went away over time, and a good thing, too. Yet it has reared its head in this year's election, with one candidate suggesting that owning a house was an important credential for office. People who ought to have shaken their heads in disbelief instead nodded and said, "Right, right."

These are good people I'm talking about, from the candidate to the people I know who are doing the nodding. It's a lesson for me in how prejudice, deep-seated and denied, can render thoughtless even the best among us.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What's Dirty?

On the Dryden Independence Party's Facebook page, an apparent Dem supporter says, "Smear campaigns don't go far. This is the first smear campaign I've seen for Dryden. Shame on Craig Schutt." Whereupon a Schutt supporter writes, "When did the facts become a smear campaign?"

Good question. The first poster must not remember the real smear campaigns of the mid-2000s, when Democrat Mary Ann Sumner's lack of religious fervor and failure to pledge to the flag became a drumbeat issue for the unpleasant bunch of Tea Party Republicans running against her. That smear campaign, which was totally personal and unrelated to town governance, failed.

This year, the Independence Party, in a series of increasingly rabid Shopper ads, has accused our team of "dirty politics" and "coordinated politically motivated attacks." They refer, I think, to an article that came out in the Ithaca Times on Schutt's mismanagement of Soil & Water when he was there—something I can pretty confidently say nobody on our committee save the county legislators knew anything about before the article aired. What we know, we continue to read in the paper, and if the Independence Party thinks somehow that multiyear fiscal mismanagement of a critical agency is irrelevant to a campaign for town supervisor, they really don't understand the job of town supervisor.

My guess is that it was news to the rest of the Independence Party candidates, too—I don't think Tom Hatfield is stupid—and that most of their hysteria derives from trying to manage a message that has gotten away from them entirely. But is it "dirty politics" when an independent newspaper prints the truth about a candidate for office?

The Independence Party sent the letter below to all nonaffiliated Dryden voters. We annotated it and posted the corrected version. Is it dirty politics to print things that are completely untrue? Is it dirty politics to correct the misstatements?

I just got a call from WHCU about a press release I sent out about the 30 political signs stolen from yards in Newfield. Is it dirty politics when someone steals only Democratic signs and leaves the Republican ones standing?

This is small-town, penny-ante stuff, and it's nothing new. Sometimes competition brings out the worst in people, as when sports teams get arrested for trashing other teams' locker rooms. But I think every campaign the Democrats have run in the county this year has been clean as a whistle. We've talked about issues, and we've told the truth. If being organized and effective makes us a "machine," I can happily live with that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Surprise! Democracy Isn't All That Democratic

If a senator from NYS resigns from the Senate, the governor gets to replace him or her until the next statewide general election. Remember how when Hillary Clinton resigned to join the Cabinet, Governor Paterson kept Caroline Kennedy on the hook and finally settled on Kirsten Gillibrand? That wasn't pretty. He managed to irritate just about everybody, but the result was that Gillibrand got a leg up—running in November of 2010 as essentially an incumbent after nearly two years on the job. She beat the woman who primaried her 3 to 1. Not really fair, right?

If any NYS candidate drops dead prior to the election or otherwise cannot serve, a vacancy committee may choose his or her replacement on the ballot. Such a vacancy committee may consist of as few as two voters from that candidate's party in that jurisdiction. Typically there are three vacancy committee members on a local petition, but only a majority vote is required to fill the vacancy. A larger number of vacancy committee members may be listed for higher offices. Two people choosing a candidate? Hardly seems right.

In a town such as Dryden, which makes its nominations by caucus, it's quite possible to end up with a handful of people selecting the nominee. Caucuses are open to all voters from that Party in the town, but no amount of advertising seems to draw people to these public events. Most people don't know they exist. But this year, except for in Ithaca, at least one Party in each town selected candidates by caucus. Democrats in the Village of Dryden and Republicans in the Villages of Dryden and Groton also selected candidates by caucus. Sometimes it's an easy process. Sometimes nobody steps up until people convince their friends in the room to run. Usually it's over in half an hour. It's lively and interesting, but at present, it's hardly democratic. Dryden has around 2,270 registered Democrats this year. Maybe 25 attended our caucus—and that's a big number for us.

If you don't choose your candidates in a caucus, you do it by petition. In NYS, the number of signatures required on a petition for a village seat equals five percent of the number of enrolled voters of the Party residing in that village. The number of signatures required for a statewide seat equals five percent of the enrolled voters of the Party or 15,000, whichever is less. If a candidate does not knock on your door and request your signature, you very well may not know he or she is running until the petitions are filed. Again, is this democratic? Do you have any input into choosing such a candidate?

So we come to the situation Ithaca is facing now, with two county legislature seats up for grabs in a special election. Because the vacancies occurred prior to September 20, the special election can coincide with the general election; both will take place on November 3. And the rule is that candidates are chosen in a meeting of the members of the committees "in the political subdivision in which such vacancy is to be filled." Which is not to say that the members are "party chiefs" or "officials"; rather, they are people like me, who have petitioned or otherwise been selected to represent their election districts on the Democratic Committee. In Dryden's case, we have 30 such representatives; a choice of nominee could be made by the majority vote of a quorum—say, maybe by 8 people in all. But other towns and wards have far fewer representatives. A couple to a handful of people can choose the nominee. If there were an active Republican Party in Districts 2 and 4, they, too, could have selected nominees.

The election calendar is engraved in stone. We are allowed one primary election, this year on September 10, and one general election, this year on November 3. If vacancies happen after September 20, a special election may need to take place after the general election, as happened in 2007, when Dick Booth resigned from the county legislature in November to take a governor's appointment to the Adirondack Park Agency. Such special elections are rarely well attended; turnout in District 3 that year was 9 percent.

So there are many times when elections in NYS are less than democratic, from those where turnout is especially low to those when the governor gets to choose all by himself. People who are alarmed at the current situation in Districts 2 and 4 should perhaps be alarmed more generally.

I don't pretend to know how to make our electoral process more democratic. We committee members do the work of finding candidates, helping them to fill and file petitions, or setting up caucuses. We try to get out the vote in our towns and villages, making calls, sending postcards, and generally attempting to boost turnout where we can. The media help somewhat. They publish candidate interviews and letters to the editor, and they remind voters about upcoming elections. They could help more if they ever printed our requests for candidates; I've been told that such requests are "the Party's job." If that is true, of course, we are unlikely to find those candidates who aren't active in the Party or who don't otherwise put themselves forward.

I've seen a lot on social media this week about how "I should get to choose candidates; after all, I'm a registered voter." I don't disagree. If everyone thought that way, we'd have a lot more people come to our caucuses. We'd have more people active on their ward and town committees. We might even have more people step up and run. I'm sorry our NYS nominating processes are so quick and noninclusive. If you get to choose between two candidates in a primary, are you really "choosing a candidate"? If you look around at a caucus room of a dozen people and pick someone over the course of half an hour, are you really "choosing a candidate"? We committee members beat the bushes in the towns to find candidates to run for town and village offices and are lucky to find any. Is that "choosing a candidate"?

I'm grateful for every person on the ballot, no matter which Party he or she represents, because I know a little about how hard it is to find candidates and how daunting it is to run. I'm hoping that people channel their irk about the process into some kind of action, whether it's petitioning the county or state to change some rules, or it's learning more about how things work in other states and making some recommendations, or it's attending a caucus or helping with nominating petitions for the first time or working on a campaign or joining a committee or encouraging someone great to run for office. We live in a representative democracy that purports to be participatory. If you don't want representatives making choices for you, you'd better participate.

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.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Still Fighting the Same Old Fight: Reauthorizing the ESEA

The fight we're still fighting is the one between federalists and states' righters. More than anything, that fight defines this nation and differentiates it from any nation on earth. Some nations have tribal warfare. We have a constant tension between centralization and decentralization. If you believe, as I do, that the only way we'd have any sort of civil rights in this country is via a strong central government, it's often disheartening to see slippage back toward states' rights. But that's where we're sliding, and the Senate's revision of ESEA is just one result.

A little history: LBJ signed ESEA (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) into law back in 1965 as a Great Society civil rights act, one that aimed to ensure equal rights in education. The original law offered federal grants for impoverished districts and children and gave money to the states to improve educational quality. It provided a large infusion of federal dollars into what had been a state- and locally-funded arena. The original law gave us Title I through Title VI; later amendments added funds for "handicapped children" and for bilingual education.

And for the first two decades of the ESEA, we saw progress in shrinking the achievement gap, especially between African-American and white students. But as other pieces of the Great Society came undone, so did the ESEA. The Reagan Administration took away some of the regulations in Title I in an attempt to move control back to states and localities. The Clinton administration's 1994 Improving America's Schools Act was a critical reauthorization of ESEA, because it merged the new standards-based reforms with federal funding. Now states had to prove that their schools were improving overall, based on those schools' meeting rigorous state standards. Accountability was now built into the system. States had to develop state assessments, measure progress, and report it publicly.

It wasn't much of a leap to the dreaded No Child Left Behind reauthorization of 2002. It's worth remembering that both George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy promoted this bill, for very different reasons. Again, accountability was key; the NCLB called for annual testing and AYP, annual yearly progress, that measured schools against each other and against the state-designed yardstick. Now schools that did not meet standards were punished by being labeled "failing." At the same time, resources were drying up at the state level, and the federal support was not adequate to help schools meet the goals. Even educators who had strongly supported ESEA now turned against it.

Many other things occurred in the 1990s and 2000s that slowed the progress that had been made post-ESEA. Head Start came under fire, and much of its funding went away. Desegregation efforts ground to a halt. The nation stopped thinking that giving money to poor people was a good thing, and we saw the final death throes of the War on Poverty. But it's the focus on accountability that probably changed ESEA in the public eye from a civil rights act into a punitive unfunded mandate.

To see the tension in living color, all you have to do is to look at the polar-opposite reactions of the NEA, our largest teacher's union, and the Leadership Conference, our biggest lobbying group for civil rights, to the Senate's new proposal for ESEA reauthorization. The new legislation is titled "Every Child Achieves." It gets rid of AYP. It sets a cap on test time. It funds community schools—schools that act as a central clearinghouse for social services as well as education of children. It allows states to design their own accountability systems that involve more than just testing. The NEA is all for it.

Yet by moving away from federal oversight, the ECAA opens us up again to civil rights violations, and that's where the Leadership Conference gets up in arms. "We do not have confidence that the law would be faithfully implemented or that the interests of our nation’s most vulnerable students would be protected," says the conference. "The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students."

The Leadership Conference remembers, as few do, the original purpose of ESEA. It was not supposed to be about punishing teachers or schools but about providing equal opportunities. For a while, it seemed to work; then new philosophies and priorities took over, and the achievements of the '70s stalled. The new ECAA moves so far away from the goal and so far back into local control and options that I tend to agree with the Conference: It runs the risk of codifying "a system of achievement gaps and opportunity gaps, with no one to answer for them but the affected students, their families, and communities."

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Some Troubling Stats from Rural Schools

I learned a handful of surprising-to-me things at this year's Rural School Conference.

1) Over four years, the tax cap has cut voter turnout at school elections by 30 percent. This is from Tim Kremer of the NYSSBA. It's maybe not that surprising—the usual "no" voters probably feel they can stay home because the school budget increase is predictable. However, when you consider that the budget election is also the school board election, this pitiful decline in what was already a sad figure means that if you run for school board on a particular wedge issue and can get a handful of friends to turn out, you can win.

2) Despite the horrendous participation rate, NYS voters still rate education their #2 issue. This one came from Steve Greenberg of Siena Research. I guess education's important, but not important enough to do anything about.

3) After federal sequestration in 2013 killed Head Start in Dolgeville, 1/5 of entering students tested as high risk on their kindergarten screenings. The loss of Head Start is compounded by the loss statewide of Even Start, which provided parenting, financial, and navigating-the-system skills for adults in poverty.

4) Out of 155 districts classified as high-need/rural, only one, Beaver River, received a rating of "Reward" (high-achieving) in 2013-14. Reward districts show growth, good graduation rates, including for at-risk students, annual yearly progress, etc. That's just not happening for high-need/rural schools. Beaver River is lucky enough to contain a military base, giving it an unusual demographic that probably propels its stats upward.

5) Within a school population of 2,400, Fulton, NY, has a shocking number of homeless/abandoned students (over 100). This contributes to the district's below-average 65 percent graduation rate. In case you think homelessness is strictly a big-city problem, we're talking about a small metropolis of around 12,000.

6) Despite upstate NY's aspirations to be a center of high-tech or other industry, our levels of highly-educated workers are dismal compared to most of the Northeast. John Sipple of RSA used a lovely map to demonstrate; sadly I can't duplicate it here. The census reports that the nationwide percent of citizens age 25 or older with a bachelor's degree or higher topped 30 percent in 2011. In upstate NY, we have large swatches of 0-24% with isolated pockets above that level. Ithaca is over 50 percent, making it close to unique in all of the state. Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hamsphire, and even southern Maine are better educated than we are. Think about that the next time you're arguing for a high-tech zone in the Southern Tier.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Random Thoughts from Rural Schools

Back from the Rural Schools Conference in Cooperstown, where leaders from impoverished districts live it up for a couple of days at the pricey Otesaga. A few random thoughts:

1) Whatever the theme, we end up talking about poverty. It might be nice to share teaching strategies or successful online communication tips someday, but we're too deep in the weeds of rural poverty. It's everyone's primary focus. One session I attended dealt with how to track down every single child in a region who might be eligible for PreK, because they're dealing with kids in many cases who are preverbal and not even close to being prepared for K. One dealt with how to establish a community school that connects parents to desperately needed social services while extending the school day for their kids who need help and a safe place to be. Everyone talked about the scourge of drugs (meth/heroin) and how they're making the lives of small, poor children even more perilous. We heard from John Sipple that we cannot rely on schools to be short-term poverty eradicators, but time and again, we heard from schools that were trying their very best to be exactly that.

2) Even as we talk about poverty, we don't completely get it. I heard over and over how technology was going to bridge the gap for poor rural schools, allowing them to supply kids with the AP courses or shared classrooms that kids in richer districts get. Yet at the same time, we were hearing about families who lived off generators that they turned on for a couple of hours a day. Even universal broadband isn't going to fix that.

3) A flipped Senate won't help upstate schools. Many assume that the State Senate is a seat or two from flipping Democratic. Yet even if the IDC suddenly votes with the Democrats, that's not automatically a plus for upstate schools. Democratic senators are largely downstaters, pro-charter, pro-voucher, etc. It's a sad fact that our GOP senators are often upstate schools' best friends. We'd need a lot more than a simple majority—we'd need a sudden glut of upstate Democrats voting as a bloc. Seems unlikely.

4) Teachers as Regents? Not the greatest plan. Yeah, I was unimpressed by our new "backcountry" Regent, Bev Ouderkirk. Did we need to replace a progressive 70-something Regent with another 70-something Regent whose goals seem to be to oust the Regents leadership and turn the clock back? Her self-comparison to Susan B. Anthony and Hillary Clinton (I think she was trying to illustrate some sort of lineage of strong women that led directly to the new commissioner, but just couldn't help including herself) was especially disheartening. I'm not a fan of the current leadership, or even of the Regents as a concept, but I think we're all better off if they work together rather than sniping per the NYS legislature. Think about who wins in that scenario. (Hint: Not children.)

5) On the other hand, the new commissioner seems to be someone to reckon with. I still don't know why anyone would want that job, but she's a bit of a pistol. Ours was the first group MaryEllen Elia formally addressed in her new tenure, and she did not pontificate or do much more than greet us and thank us for our service. Nor did she just fly in and out for an hour or two as John King was sometimes wont to do; she stuck around and met a lot of people. We'll see.

More to come as I sort through my notes.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Not Pearson, but Still

There are honestly so few companies able to cope with developing a testing product for a whole state that it is unusual for an RFP to get more responses than you can count on the fingers of one hand. In NYS, the account has gone back and forth between McGraw-Hill/CTB and Pearson, with Pearson winning a five-year contract in 2010. Instead of renewing that contract, NYS has decided in 2015 to go with Questar, formerly Touchstone Applied Science Associates, a company out of Minnesota that does nothing but tests.

When the Common Core Standards were being developed, two consortia started to develop accompanying tests, to be called PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments. But after spending enormous amounts of money getting those tests off the ground, states started dropping out one by one, or, as in NYS's case, never opting in and deciding to create their own, state-centric tests. Pearson holds the contract for PARCC, and McGraw-Hill/CTB holds the contract for Smarter Balanced. From the original 26 states that signed on for PARCC, fewer than 10 are left. Mississippi dropped out early this year and signed on with Questar. Arkansas dropped out this month, and who knows what they'll decide to do.

It's a little surprising to see how pleased the unions are at NYS's move from Pearson to Questar. The teachers themselves seem a bit more cautious, at least on the UFT's FB page, recognizing, as one person posted, that this might represent the "same crap, different company." It helps that the new commissioner is promising that teachers will have significant input into the new tests.

To a large degree, Pearson brought this on themselves with some awful errors that were widely publicized. But there's also a level at which Pearson became the scapegoat for a testing regimen it did not birth. NYS's even larger contract (by $12 million) with Questar is for the same thing that the Pearson contract was for—tests at grades 3-8 and a plan for computer-based testing.

So what are we celebrating? Well, maybe we can celebrate the fact that this is a US-based corporation. Maybe we can be glad that it has an office in Brewster, NY. Maybe it's nice that the teachers will be involved, as they are for the Regents exams, although we'll have to see how that plays out.

But it's worth remembering that tests are written and edited by people, and the same people move around quite a bit. Questar's VP of Assessment Design spent two years at Pearson. When I look up Questar folks on LinkedIn, I find lots of connections to people I know, because people I know have written test items for Pearson, and McGraw-Hill, and Questar, and probably the other two testing companies. We all tend to go where the work is.

Here's what we've lost by scapegoating the tests: Any means of making intelligent comparisons between and among states. If only nine states out of 50 are using PARCC, that's not very useful. If we go back to a system by which each state can develop its own tests, we're right back where we started, with different states determining what "proficient" means to them, as in this chart:

chart by ICLE

When you let the nation determine what learning is state by state, you come up with a mythical system in which Mississippi kids outrank Massachussetts kids in reading and math. Hey, 81% of our kids are proficient in math, so suck it, Massachussetts, with your lousy 39%! That's where we're headed, once again. States' rights forever! We might not let them fly their Confederate flags, but we can let them pretend that their kids are learning. Is that really what we want?

Questar isn't Pearson. That's about the best I can say about them for now.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Creating/Rejecting a Monster

To witness the effects of the Republicans' toxic brand this year, all you need to do is look at the Party running as fast as it can away from its own creation. Donald Trump is the spawn of reality TV crossed with talk radio, and even though they created him, the Party leadership can't stand what they have wrought.

"If I Cannot Inspire Love, I Will Cause Fear!"

Whereas Frankenstein's monster tried but failed to balance ego and id, Trump is 100% ego. He need not commune with the hoi polloi like other candidates; he need only be himself and get a lot of TV time. And he's right about that strategy! Back in the '80s, when I volunteered at Harlem Hospital, I asked one of my young teenage gunshot patients what book he wanted, and he requested Trump's biography, then a bestseller. "I love that guy; he's soooo rich!" In Trump world, the only truth worth speaking is the bottom line.

So with Trump riding high in the polls, the GOP is through being the party of God and is full bore the party of Mammon. As Trump echoes conservative talk radio and sounds the alarm on immigrants, the Middle East, and China, all of the other GOP candidates look completely irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Back in the Village

My town of Dryden was once solidly Republican—the kind of Republican that grew out of family history rather than serious ideology and was nurtured by friendships, community involvement, and church. As the Tea Party influence grew in the region, we Democrats started hearing from unhappy, once-committed Republicans who no longer recognized their own Party.

This year, for the first time, the Dryden GOP isn't running a slate of candidates. They aren't running a single person for Town Board or Town Supervisor. They will have one candidate for Town Clerk, and that's it.

"Who Was I? What Was I? Whence Did I Come?"

Instead, the Democrats' competition will come from the Independence Party, which likes to bill itself as the "largest third-party organization in the nation," an achievement derived specifically from the fact that when people register to vote, they often check "Independence" thinking that it means that they are then independent, or unaffiliated with a party. To be fair, the Independence Party in NY now addresses that problem as part of their party platform, a platform that is otherwise remarkably bland. Dream Act? They're for it. Medical marijuana? Ditto.

Typically in Tompkins County, people run on the Independence Party as a second line, running on the Republican line first. Our county Republican platform, it should be pointed out, is solidly anti-science, small-government Tea Party. In other towns in the county, folks are blithely running on both lines again this year, quite as if they hadn't read either platform. But here in Dryden, the Independence Party has taken charge, led by Tom Hatfield, who once led the Dryden GOP but had a change of heart when the Party started going off the rails during the Bush years.

I'm not saying the Dryden Independence candidates aren't solidly red. They pretty much are. It remains to be seen what their local platform will look like, but it's certainly possible to make predictions. I just think it's fascinating that the villagers, at least some of them armed with pitchforks, since it's haying time, are fighting back against the product of their once-beloved GOP. With luck, this won't be a campaign where church attendance or saluting the flag or "extreme environmentalism" are prime topics of conversation. And maybe, in time, the Republicans in town can take their Party back.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

TC3 to Become TC2?

Tompkins Cortland Community College spans two counties and is supported by financial donations from both. This year, the college went to the counties to request an increase of 4%. Cortland votes first; Tompkins votes in July. At their budget and finance meeting in early June, Cortland legislators agreed on a 2% increase, with all committee members but George Wagner voting yes. Then at their legislative meeting in late June, the whole body voted against any increase at all, with the chair of the budget committee flip-flopping on his original vote. Now either Tompkins picks up the slack, which is doubtful, or the counties allow the college to suck up its reserves, or the college continues to lay off personnel—or renames itself TC2.

George Wagner is quoted as saying that he thinks the college should become its own self-supporting organization. I wonder if he feels that way about all public schools.

The community colleges of New York State were established postwar as state-supported institutions, primarily technical schools at the start. Early on, the state asked local communities to start pitching in to support the technical colleges, which were to become part of a system of community colleges. Funding was set in a 1/3-1/3-1/3 model, with 1/3 coming from the state, 1/3 from the community, and 1/3 from tuition.

Legislation in the 1970s was supposed to increase the state portion to 40%. In 1999, Comptroller McCall put out a report explaining that the state had only met that goal once since it was imposed, and that it had in fact dipped below 30%, causing tuition to increase. Since that time, the legislature occasionally proposes increases on the part of the state, but funding of the colleges continues to be a battle, with students generally taking up the slack as tuition rises, and two-year education becomes out of reach for many families. Most recently, Governor Cuomo has asked to tie college funding to a variety of performance standards, just as he has for the pK-12 schools.

Half of Cortland High's graduates who go to college go to a two-year school, and I'm willing to bet that 98% of those go to TC3. If they're like Dryden's graduates who attend TC3, probably half of them or more need the community college's remedial courses to advance any farther educationally.

Sure, we need to improve pK-12 so that we're not teaching high school make-up courses at TC3. But until we do that, we'd better think about what we get out of our community colleges and whether or not that's worth supporting. The current funding structure isn't working.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Win Some, Lose Some

Here's what the Big Ugly NYS session-ending craziness looks like for schools.

The Good: 1) No tax credit/deduction for private school tuition or scholarship "investment." 2) No raise in the cap on charter schools except in NYC. Since we're not near the cap yet upstate (we have 130 unused charters!), it never made sense to raise it except as a PR move. However, the state is releasing some charters that have been revoked in past years and re-adding them to the total in NYC plus moving four charters from outside NYC to inside NYC. So the increase, even in NYC, is minimal. 3) Money for production of 3-8 tests that will enable State Ed to release items in time for that release to be meaningful. 4) Changes to the tax cap that allow for the creation of rules that exclude certain BOCES capital expenses from a district's overall costs. It remains to be seen what exactly that means for local districts. 5) Changes to the tax cap that take into account development on tax exempt land. Again, the details are sketchy. 6) Inclusion of student characteristics (ELLs, students with disabilities) in the calculation of growth scores for teacher evaluations. 7) Plans for a "review" of the state learning standards, to include "stakeholders."

The Bad: 1) No yearlong delay in implementation of teacher evaluations. 2) The use of independent observers is still required for teacher evaluations. (This is an issue for small [usually poor] districts with a single building—they will have to hire independent observers with administrative certification to observe teachers. Other districts may just move administrators from building to building as needed.) 3) Failure to complete evaluations in a timely fashion is still linked to state aid. 4) $250 million to private schools for mandated services. Although this is to pay for past services, the release of this money is new. I believe the private schools still have to request the funds, as detailed here. 4) Property tax cap still exists. 5) Dollars better spent fixing schools will now be shipped to taxpayers in the form of election-week rebates. 6) No additional funding for needy upstate cities (except for Yonkers).

The Ugly: Well, it sure wasn't pretty.