Sunday, November 29, 2009

Boston Globe endorses Charter Schools, hope

The Boston Globe today continued its practice of endorsing any Democrat running for charter schools. In 2006, they went for Deval Patrick in the primary, a man who never attended a public school in Massachusetts outside of photo ops. In 2008 it was Barack Obama, a man whose "Race to the Top" program seeks to avoid other branches of government, or respect of federalism, in its efforts to push the privatization of education. And today it was Alan "Who?" Khazei, who hopes to leverage this endorsement into a stunning jump into third place next Tuesday.

There are two significant commonalities to Deval, Obama, and Khazei: they speak in generic terms of hope and good intention, and they advocate the privatization and union-busting of education through the lever of charter schools. Of course, the insanely rich people running the Globe into the ground have their own problems with unions, and they know a fellow-traveler when they see one:

Khazei speaks admiringly of streetwise education reformers who, having seen challenging conditions in urban classrooms, dreamed up such innovations as charter schools and Teach for America.


Take it from this massive corporation -- those unions get in the way of "streetwise reforms" such as pay cuts, curtailing benefits, unilateral policy changes, and arbitrary firings. Heck, invading a country on no real provocation was a "streetwise foreign policy reform", too. The Globe's liberal use of magic words doesn't strengthen their argument. Then again, as I've noted before, the Globe's grasp of public education is alarmingly tenuous. When the editorial board writes about its "high hopes" for Khazei, I think it's clear what they're hoping for.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The War by Christmas

It was an unnecessary war declared quite some time ago without a clear exit strategy, where the tide is running against conservative dreams, yet it is still cheered on by Fox News and their friends despite all evidence. Iraq? No, the War by Christmas.

That's not a typo, and it is something that needs clarification up front...we don't have a case of a recently declared "war on Christmas" in America that seeks to victimize delicate Christians, but rather a new phase in a centuries-long war declared and conducted by Christmas. The war was begun by Christmas, and I see no reason to ease up now that the aggressors are seeing the tide reverse. From now on, I will refer to this conflict by the historically accurate name "War by Christmas" and encourage you to do the same.

You likely know the full story. The most primitive of humans knew that life was warmer, better, more comfortable with more time with that bright thing in the sky. The two greatest miracles of their world were childbirth and the sun, so no small wonder that almost every culture assigned an Earth-mother and a Sun-god. However, on a yearly basis the sun seemed to be moving away, and weakening. Their god was dying. And every year, somehow, at the point of death, the Sun-god returned and grew again in strength.

We call it an astronomical event, the winter solstice. They turned it into a seminal religious feast. This near-dodge with the end of the world was a solemn annual moment, and inspired a wide range of rituals that would occur in late December. The Incans tied a celestial rope to the sun lest it stray too far away. The Kalash of Hindu Kush still offer dances and praise. Egyptians honored Aset. European pagans and their early Roman neighbors celebrated Saturnalia in late December. Most Romans marked the feast of Natalis Sol Invictus -- the Birth of Mithras, the Unconquered Sun -- on December 25th. Mithras became known to the Roman in the second century BC as a sun-god of Persian background who was born of a virgin mother, and would later die and resurrect in order to offer salvation to all. (Mithraism was as fundamental to the final shape of Christianity as Judaism. It is as accurate to say that Paul and Luke set out to spread Christianity to Mithraists as it is to say they were targeting Gentiles.)

Then the Christians came. Insofar as we can trust the Christian Bible with the label of "history", we are told that Jesus' birth occurred as "shepherds were outside, keeping watch over their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8). Shepherds only lived outside with their flocks while the sheep might be birthing -- something that only happened in springtime.

However, by the early 3rd century, the Christian church moved the feast of Jesus' birth lock, stock, and barrel to December 25th. A few days from the winter solstice and the exact day of the birth of Mithras. When exactly this occurred, we don't know, as the Catholic Church has a long history of keeping inadequate and questionable records on things like historical developments, treasury, and personnel shufflings. So when Emperor Constantine decided to use the Roman army to force Christianity on all, the die was cast. Christmas had declared war on all comers. Several centuries later, it is losing the war it began.

So don't give me this "War on Christmas" BS. About 1,700 years ago, Christmas declared a war in which it is experiencing a reverse. So Fox "News", the AFA, and the rest of you morons, stop complaining.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"He lurched from crisis to crisis"

Sounds exactly like the type of guy you want to give a second chance to run your country:

Former Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme has been nominated to take office for a second time...His Flemish Christian Democrats, though decisive winners in the election, struggled to form a coalition for the first nine months...The government which finally took office in March 2008 lurched from crisis to crisis. It became bogged down in arguments over how to devolve more powers to Belgium's regions.


I'll call it even money that he's gone by Easter, and Belgium starts over. The place is really getting reminiscent of post-war Italy -- new governments on a yearly basis, the newest one headed by someone previously judged as unfit for office.

(Background on this)

Speaking of odd selections for high-profile jobs, Muammar Gaddafi has been tipped as a regional mediator in the wake of spectacular rioting over soccer...

Algeria qualified for the World Cup by beating Egypt 1-0 in the play-off held in Sudan on 18 November...but Egyptians were incensed by reports that 21 of their fans had been attacked as they left the stadium in Khartoum. At an earlier game between the two sides in Cairo, Algerian players were hurt by stone-throwing Egyptian fans and 32 supporters from both sides were injured in clashes when the match finished.

Happy thanksgiving (with recipe)

Thanksgiving is one of the reasons November is my favorite month. The food, the family, the camraderie, the laughter...it's a wonderful holiday. An unspoiled warm moment in life, and I hope everyone has a good one.

For those in a last-second bind, below is one of my favorite recipes of all time:
Apple Pecan Stuffing








1/3 cup Butter, divided 1/8 tsp Ground sage
2/3 cup Diced onion1/8 tsp Ground marjoram
2/3 cup Diced celery1/8 tsp Ground thyme
3 cup Diced apples1/2 tsp Dried parsley flakes
3 cup Day-old bread1/2 cup Chopped pecans
1 tsp Salt1/2 cup Water
1/2 tsp Black pepper


1. Melt 1/4 cup butter into skillet
2. Add onion and celery. Cook until tender.
3. Add to bread.
4. Melt remaining butter in skillet.
5. Stir in apples.
6. Cook until golden.
7. Add apples to bread mixture.
8. Mix in salt, pepper, sage, marjoram, thyme, parsley, and pecans.
9. Add water and mix thoroughly.

Makes enough for a ten pound turkey.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kerry pushes feds to provide lethal "medicine"

Picked up in many places this month (and today on Daily Kos) is the surprising and decidedly un-liberal maneuver John Kerry is doing relative to the health care reform proposal. Members of the Boston-based Church of Christ, Scientist refuse medical care in favor of prayer, a practice that is described in the Washington Post:

Prue Lewis listens as they explain their symptoms... Then Lewis -- a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights -- simply says, "I'll go to work right away." She hangs up, organizes her thoughts and begins treating her clients' ailments the best way she knows how: She prays....Christian Scientists call it "spiritual health care," and it is a practice they are battling to insert into the health-care legislation being hammered out in Congress.

Front and center in the effort to purloin public money for this religious practice is Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Approving this destructive practice in government health care is a ridiculous divergence from best practices. I gather that the public option would be funded by Americans who choose to enroll, thus dodging any real church and state separation concerns. Of much greater concern is that many Christian Scientists have been criminally charged for allowing family members to die of curable diseases this way (a couple was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Massachusetts in 1993). The last thing we need is the federal government implicitly improving such a lethal practice.

I just can't understand why Kerry would want to promote a religious practice that has had the practical effect of killing innocents. Along with Orrin Hatch and the late Ted Kennedy, Kerry made sure this provision made it into the Senate version of the bill. Though the church is based in the Senator's (and my) state, his obligation is to all citizens of the Commonwealth, and the country. This isn't just the church-state question as UniversalHub flags it. Much worse is the idea of a pseudo-liberal Senator pushing the government to provide, promote, and support a practice that results in the deaths of innocents -- the exact opposite of what health care reform is supposed to do. And the opposite of the kind of clear thinking that John Kerry was elected to exercise.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Storm clouds on the horizon in Brussels...

The European Union's mandarins completed the process of shoving through some forced integration in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, just ratified by all member states. One high-profile change is the creation of a post of "President of Europe" and its first officeholder will be current Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy. Which leaves an opening for the job of the most thankless and difficult head of government post in the developed world.

I have a fascination for Belgian politics which has been reflected on this blog. I wrote a briefer two years ago on Belgian politics, which were remarkable at the time for going an astounding 168 days between an election and the formation of a government. In capsule form, Belgium consists of two linguistic groups, one Flemish and one Francophone, that are not only separate nations, but have created a Belgian system of government that reserves almost all powers to those separate nations. Thus, finding a head of government who can satisfy both sides is near impossible. In 2007, Yves Laterme was tapped to be such a person, and despite an early wobble, lasted over a year until brought down by a banking scandal. His successor Herman von Rompuy endured through a relatively quiet period until this promotion.

While beaming with pride at their prime minister's promotion, some Belgians are already asking...what next? Prime Ministerial tenure is averaging a Bolivian 11 months recently, and decent candidates seem to be running short. The list is so thin that the most likely replacement is...Yves Leterme. The guy kicked out for pushing judges to rule in a certain direction on a major financial bankruptcy.

We'll close with an original piece by new European President Herman van Rompuy, famed for his haiku:
Hair blows in the wind
After years there is still wind
Sadly no more hair

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Interesting People: Eric Gairy


It's been nearly a year since I devoted an entry into my annals of "interesting people", a series focused on persons who stood out during their moment of history, but have largely been forgotten. Shame on me. Today's subject, Sir Eric Gairy. Sir Gairy was a firm and enthusiastic backer of the notion that extraterrestrials were conducting repeated visits to Earth, and that he should do everything in his power to spread this news and make the aliens welcome.

What differentiated Sir Gairy from your typical believer was that "everything in his power" was actually quite a lot, considering that Gairy was a head of government at the time. Oh, and there's an interesting bit about a beauty pageant in here, too.

Gairy was a schoolteacher and labor leader in the British colony of Grenada, calling a general strike to successfully pressure the United Kingdom for independence. But as with so many leaders against colonialism, Gairy's worthiness as a revolutionary strongly outpaced his worthiness as a head of government. Gairy became Prime Minister in 1967, and in true tinpot dictator fashion quickly built his own private army (the Mongoose Gang) within three years. Protesters were attacked, arrested, and killed. He received "advice" from Augusto Pinochet on surpressing his population, while the Grenadan opposition linked up with Fidel Castro. Two years later, he fled to the United States. Gairy would return to Grenada after the American invasion, but would lead a largely unremarkable life until his death. But it was the end of his rule that stands out...

I think it is accepted that these things do exist. I think we now want to know the nature, the origin and the intent of these saucers. Some people think they have come to do good. Some think they have come to dominate human beings.
--Prime Minister Eric Gairy's address to the United Nations

Gairy wasn't speaking academically, it seems. He believed that he'd seen UFOs twice in three years. Amid efforts to build suitable landing facilities for these extraterrestrials in his home country, Gairy spearheaded an effort to bring this urgent concern to the governments of the world. His precarious grasp of reality likely wasn't helped by conversing with a receptive audience in American president Jimmy Carter, who reported having seen a UFO himself. A natural consequence of an amiable chat between these two would be United Nations meetings on this topic. That meeting was chaired by Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, a man who was, er, willing to believe in extra-terrestrials himself. Several heads of government gathered in New York City to seriously grapple with the question of alien visits to Earth. In a minor way, Gairy's fascination with UFOs would be his undoing -- it was en route to this UFO summit with Waldheim that Gairy learned that he'd been disposed as leader of Grenada.

Before he left, though, Gairy got a nice perk of leadership: he was a judge during the 1970 Miss World pageant. And lo and behold, Miss Grenada walked away with the title. Some cynical commentators were suspicious of the coincidence, particularly as Miss Sweden had won first-place votes from four of the nine judges. Such math is hard to beat, but if one rates a contestant at the very end of the scale consistently, one suspects it can only help.

The world has a long history of kelptocrats. But UFO-believing dictators who liekly played a role in fixing a beauty pageant? That...that is something special.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Something you won't see in the Globe...

It turns out that when you get layers of bureaucrats out of the way, and you get out from underneath the privatizers and sloganeers in the Governor's Office, you can get some good education done. Though still a work in progress, a Boston school actually run by teachers is proving to be successful, according to one skeptical parent.

As a pilot school, the BTU school is still part of Boston Public Schools, but it has more freedom when it comes to curriculum and budget matters. Among the biggest differences between the Union school (as I saw it referred to in school literature) and standard BPS schools:

  • Instead of principals, they have co-lead teachers. These teachers will probably teach about one period a day and spent the rest of their time on administrative tasks.
  • All students have Spanish three times a week.
  • Students also have music every day.
  • Science and social studies are integrated into the curriculum, rather than having special teachers assigned to those subjects. History lessons start at the K1 level. I feel like social studies and science often get left behind in this age of testing.
  • Although school had only been in session for nine weeks, there were many student projects hanging in the hallways.
  • Several classes have already been on field trips to the arboretum and Spectacle Island.

I'll admit to concern over the new practice of having teachers moonlight in science or social studies, as if those subjects require less specialized knowledge and training than math, ELA, or music. I've witnessed this in action a few times, and it never works out well for the students.

Pilot schools are the way to go...frankly, one thing our public education system needs is more diversity, moving away from the academic pipeline model...many more pilots, vocational, aggie, and especially magnet schools. This is a good first step.

Of course, you'll never see anything positive about teachers or public education in the Globe, which came out powerfully in favor of two unfunded mandates from schools. If these mandates pass and schools prove unable to do more with less, I'm sure the Globe will reiterate how evil all unions are.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Two years

Almost 500 posts later, it's been two years.

Thanks for the reads everybody.

Wanted: Outsider for State Auditor

Fed up with the Democrats running Beacon Hill? Want to keep Democratic values alive while working for the citizens and not the hacks?

Do you really mean it?

If so, you're in luck. Let's face it, Massachusetts has not been hurting for office-seekers who proclaim that a small cabal of Democrats ("hacks") is running the government in the wrong direction. Some of these folks are Republicans running against Democrats (and into a brick wall), but many others are Democrats running in a primary against other Democrats. Sadly, we've seen many such good Democrats run for a high-profile position in a primary, just to lose and exit elected politics. It's hard to start at the top in any field, and our state would be better off if some of these candidates pivoted into a state legislature race for a second shot. Or even better, ran for state auditor.

Because several years after accepting the role of "highest-ranking warm body in state government", Joe DeNucci is retiring.

Call me crazy, but if the Big Dig is allowed to go as wrong as it did, whoever was State Auditor was not doing his job. Other than repeating the same 80s-era tv ad showing DeNucci at a desk the two weeks previous to every election, I'm not sure DeNucci had any real impact on the state. So this is a chance to break up that insider cabal on Beacon Hill.

A chance that several people in the past have claimed they're awaiting. In a one-party state such as Massachusetts, if there is any position that cries out for an "outsider" it's the auditor, but so far all I hear are the same old insider names. Often people I respect, but neck-deep in Beacon Hill dealings already. If there's one place where an "outsider Democrat" would be a plus, rather than code for "hoping to learn on the job", it's state auditor.

Frankly, I'd love to see the Democrats who have run against disappointing incumbents and insiders in previous campaigns (John Dunkelbarger, Alan Khazei, John Bonifaz, or Ed O'Reilly) take a shot at this race. It's not as glorious as going to Washington, DC, but if any of these gentlemen were serious about trying to bring change to the Democratic Party, they should take a close look at this race. This is a real chance to change how business is done in Massachusetts. Of course, the downside is that this is a race that's actually winnable, so the day may well come when the outsider has to back up their words with actions.

Let's see what these four were made of -- serious about changing politics for Bay Staters? Run for auditor.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On the lighter side...

...there's been a lot of heavy stuff out there on the Senate race, health care, and education lately, so I need to ease off the gas.

So today's topic -- what do you see as the catchiest songs in the world? These are songs that burrow into your mind right before you turn off the car or mp3 player, and spool over and over again through your head. Some are pleasures, whereas others just will not go away. It's not just you and me, by the way...there's actual science behind this phenomenon and you can even get some university intervention.

I bring this up because I discovered a recent ditty Robbie Williams last week, a piece of fluff really, that won't go away. I have played it into the ground, and still it plays in my mind. It's called "Do You Mind?" and it's superficial and catchy as heck -- press the play button below if you dare...



There are others that just won't go away, love 'em or hate 'em. Here are some of the earworms to which I'm most vulnerable:

  • "You Belong with Me" by Taylor Swift (embarrassing, that one)
  • "Shoop" by Salt-n-Pepa
  • "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"
  • "Theme to 'Indiana Jones'"
  • "Sensualit√©" by Axelle Red
  • "Get Off My Cloud" by The Rolling Stones
  • "Hey Jude" by The Beatles
  • "All That Jazz"
  • "Raspberry Beret" by Prince
  • "Narhwals" by the Weebl


What about you?

A process, not a product

Remember back in the dark days of the Bush presidency, when most progressives would have given anything to make a public health-care regime happen? Yeah, now that we're there, the tune has changed. With an initial bill -- not even near final bill status -- to read, people are hitting the brakes. People I admire (the indefatigable Deb Butler, and Martha Coakley) are finding this or that provision that is disagreeable in the bill, and declaring that the whole thing should be shot down. Perhaps we'll do better next time we try, which would probably be around 2027 or so...

Go ahead and knife the current effort if you want, but if this bill is killed don't expect anyone to try again for a while. Obama has expended gigantic amounts of political capital on this and needs to build some up. Rahm Emmanuel, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer are some of the sharpest vote-counters since LBJ. The ombre of Ted Kennedy still hangs over Congress. In the wake of a failed attempt at reform, there'll be many more Republicans in Congress come 2011. Right now is the moment -- if we don't take it, it will not return probably for a generation.

Health care reform is a process, not a product. Canada passed its current health care regime into law in 1984, and they still tinker with it almost weekly. The CBC has mountains of reports of health care improvements, studies, and reports. Canada's system is a work in progress, and so would our system be. Don't doubt that in two years, before the health care system is actually implemented, that Stupak would be lasered out of the system by a smart bill weaving through a pro-choice Congress. Don't be surprised that in four years defects will appear in the system that will need shoring up.

It's a work in progress, if we get there. But first we need something to work on, and that "something" is this bill. Because righteous indignation ain't gonna take care of your cancer when you can't afford a doctor; this bill will.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Scot LeHigh tries other fields

After reading Scot's evident confusion over the legislative process, where voting to push a bill on isn't the same as voting for the final bill, I wonder how things would go if LeHigh had to analyze other fields. This what Scot said about Capuano's vote:

Oh my. For Capuano’s sake, let’s hope the congressional health plan offers coverage for candidates who become so dizzy from turning political somersaults that they suffer self-inflicted injuries to the foot.


Of course, Capuano's position hasn't changed -- he's pushing for health care reform, even if that means changing the button he pushes on his voting thingy at different stages of the process. Something apparently too complex for LeHigh to understand.

So let's ask Scot about football:
Oh my. Belicheck keeps changing his mind about Tom Brady. In one drive alone, he flip-flopped three times! Brady threw the ball...then he didn't. Then he did again. How is any football fan to have confidence in Belicheck if Belicheck can't decide whether Tom Brady should throw the ball??


Scot on the stock market:
Oh my. My stockbroker sure seems to be dizzy. Just three months ago, he told me to buy a stock. A month ago he said to "hold" it. Now today he wants me to sell. I've learned a lot about my stockbroker this season...and it's not good.


Scot on medicine:
Oh my. My doctor sure is out to lunch. I went to see him yesterday and received a flu vaccine. Yesterday, the vaccine was a good thing. So I saw him this morning for another shot, and he said no! Aren't vaccines a good thing? That flip-flopper in a lab coat better not turn me down tomorrow...


Scot on being a pedestrian*
Oh my. The guy walking down Beacon Street in front of me is making me dizzy. For the last two blocks, when he's gotten to the curb, he's kept walking. Suddenly, on this key issue, this key block -- he stops! This idiot better get out of my way, because consistency is what counts no matter the situation, and I'm crossing the street right now no matter what this guy thinks...


*Granted, there's likely no better word to describe LeHigh's writing as pedestrian...

Thanks

All gave some, some gave all. Happy Veterans' Day everyone, and gratitude to all who serve and have served...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Coakley on "kill the bill" side

Martha Coakley does deserve credit, I suppose. Rather than run a play-it-safe campaign typical of a front-runners, I have to agree with Massachusetts Liberal that Coakley certainly embraced risk by saying she'd have voted against the health care reform bill. Her vote isn't against health care reform, but rather the Stupak Amendment that would prohibit funding of abortion as part of this system:

Attorney General Martha Coakley said yesterday that she opposes the landmark health care bill approved by the House Saturday because it contains a provision restricting federal funding for abortion.
She explained her judgment that

Fighting for women’s access to abortions was more important than passing the overall bill.
The Stupak Amendment wouldn't end access to abortions, though it would probably narrow it. Abortion providers (such as Planned Parenthood facilities) could still offer the procedure in private practice under the Stupak-ed reform. Given that many Midwestern states count less than half a dozen abortion providers, that practice is already under threat. The end result would be fewer, and less accessible abortion providers.

Meanwhile, the bill which it amended would open access to health care to an unprecedented extent in American history. It would slide through a narrow, historic, window of political opportunity -- a Democratic President and Congress spending massive political capital to enact an idea that is standard practice in the industrialized world and was first proposed in this country in 1912. Millions of people would have the access to prevetitive and theraputic care they need.

Let's be clear about this -- a no vote on this health care package in the House would have killed health care reform for another generation. Bill Clinton didn't even get that far and it was 16 years before someone took a kick at the can. Voters who elected Democrats to make it happen would be disillusioned, and the next window of opportunity would likely be in the far future. Instead, Coakley would sacrifice it in the name of abortion access at the same vote when battle-hardened Democratic women such as Maxine Waters kept the push on. I suppose in Coakley's ideal world she could stand on these principles while hard-charging activists for women's rights fold in the name of progress.

I could almost understand Coakley's statement were this the final vote on the bill. But with health care reform still to go through the Senate and conference (where the Stupak Amendment is likely to die) it is a bit early to finish off the bill. Again, this is the furthest that a public health care regime has ever gotten, and I'm amazed that Coakley would be ready to kill it so far from the finish line. It's like giving up on a losing football game at halftime, and refusing to retake the field.

Update: Mike Capuano is showing his experience in Congress by refusing to announce how he'll vote on the final bill...possibly because the final bill doesn't exist yet. Capuano, unlike Coakley, did what he could and what he had to do in order to advance health care to the next -- not final -- stage. For this high-stakes high-wire act, promises are best made by those uninterested or powerless over the consequences. With Capuano, the fight for health care lives another day. With too many like Coakley, it would be dead.

PS: At the end of the day, I think it comes down to not just what is more important (better access to abortion, or any access to health care for millions) but what is more likely (a pro-choice Congress and president building abortion provision into the system post facto, or getting a second go at heath care this decade).

With sunglasses like these....

CNN (of the NY Post-style website redesign) was having some fun at Mike Huckabee's expense...



That's the full, unedited caption. Irony abounds. In any case, Huckabee may be a huckster, but he ain't presidential. However, I still maintain that he may be related to Kevin Kline Spacey...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Easy Ed Reform II: Change the schedule

Neurological research -- sometimes called "brain-based" learning -- by a phalanx of researchers than includes Lynne Lamberg (published in the AMA), Kyla Wahlstrom, and Nancy Kalish, no slouch on research herself, referencing successful cases in Minnesota and Kentucky among others all the say the same thing: high schools should start later.

So naturally most suburban schools start at or before 7:30am. Students arrive on less sleep than they require, unready to do what they have come to school to do.

Want to raise your district's test scores, and/or ensure your students learn more? Bump up your high school schedule by ninety minutes. That simple. You may have to re-schedule football practice, and adjust bus routes, but isn't learning the whole point of high school? There is the puzzle of start times for other schools, but as Dr. Mahowald notes, elementary students need less sleep, and simply flopping the starting times for secondary and elementary education can accomplish this task, to the benefit of all.

(Note to Commonwealth magazine: feel free to follow my example of quoting the juried, published work of modern academic researchers to back up assertions. May come in handy next time somebody there is assigned to write a hit-piece on education and is reduced to pulling assertion out of thin air -- provided you can find any decent research to back up the attack du mois.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reville's Weak Tea

Today in Gloucester, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (whose membership is explicitly denied to teachers) met to consider, or re-consider, a charter school application. This application had been found significantly in need of revision. The application was approved anyway, and not long after that an email from Secretary of Education Paul Reville came out saying in part:

Our reality is that we have to show some sympathy in this group of charters or we'll get permanently labeled as hostile and they will cripple us with a number of key moderate allies like the Globe and the Boston Foundation. Frankly, I'd rather fight for the kids in the Waltham situation, but it sounds like you can't find a solid basis for standing behind that one. I'm not inclined to push Worcester, so that leaves Gloucester.

From Gloucester to Boston to all points in the Commonwealth, this email was read to indicate that Reville had pushed for this charter for the benefit of Deval Patrick's position re political opinion leaders. Unsurprisingly, this subject came up again at the Board meeting today, and this was Reville's explanation for his remarks:

He said the e-mail was “one piece of a lengthy conversation’’ that education officials had while discussing applications for charter schools proposed for Gloucester, Waltham and Worcester, his hometown...He added that the e-mail was part of the “process of deliberations. We all get advice from staff on a variety of issues.’’

I don't doubt all of this is true. I don't doubt that there was a long conversation which prompted this statement -- and I have trouble imagining that conversation to be about anything other than Governor Patrick's political fortunes. The opinion of the Boston Globe is at best orthogonal to choosing which policy outcomes will benefit students. No, this advice and conversation was political. And Reville says nothing at all to change that consideration -- he refuses to say what type of advice he was seeking to elicit this reaction, or what wider subject was under deliberation. Heck, a criminal could say that a recent bank robbery was part of his more general retirement plan...that doesn't make it acceptable.

Given a significant amount of time Reville had to prepare some sort of defense for these egregious actions, he offers something short of satisfying. While getting points for a reluctance to outright lie, Reville clearly cannot bother to find some way to make this statement at all appropriate to a Secretary of Education.

This tells me that A-Reville knows there is no good defense for what he did, and B-Deval Patrick doesn't care, and will keep him on regardless.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

CW's latest steaming pile, Part Two

Using a mix of obsolete data, self-refuting pull quotes, and unsupported assertions, Commonwealth is continuing to pound away with their latest assault on public education and decent writing. I've already taken apart the first half of this army of words in search of coherence, today I finish.

I'll be honest enough to say that the easy pickings were in the beginning. In the second half of his article, Michael Jonas takes the tack of building up a small organization whose conclusion match those of Commonwealth magazine in an attempt to pretend that some people with experience inside modern public education agree with their agenda. Of course, the description of this group is an artful mix of opinion, fact, and unanswered questions that creates an impression that doesn't stand up to reflection.

This group, Teach Plus, has an admirable goal -- trying to figure out what makes good teachers good and bad teachers bad, and apply those differences, called "best practices" in a wider forum. However, the details of the story is where it all goes awry...

Rather than examine scholarship or research for an effort, Mr. Jonas chooses to focus on a group named Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a small group of teachers hand-picked by its founder. This group, whose selection criteria is unknown beyond, is closed to any teachers with more than ten years' experience, duplicated an approach used pretty much nowhere else. The group met once a month for a year and a half, during which unnamed leaders and experts met with them, and then Teach Plus announced its recommendations.

I'm sure you won't be shocked of the decisions of this group closely match Commonwealth's priorities. Why else would so much ink be spent on building them up, while avoiding the fact that it sounds like nothing more than a self-declared reformer meeting with people she likes. Anyway, their plan is:

Identify effective teachers using rigorous evaluation criteria, which could include student achievement data among other factors. These teachers would be designated as members of an Excellence Corps. Based on a belief in the “tipping point” concept that a critical mass of effective teachers is needed to drive a change in the culture of a struggling school, the proposal calls for Excellence Corps teachers to make up no less than one-third of the teaching staff at a school.


Wow...there must be a lot excellence if you can gather than much in so many places. If one third of the future staffs of urban schools are "excellent", then we're either screwing over non-urban schools, or there is some serious grade inflation is going on (apparently bad from teachers, good for teachers. Mind you, several paragraphs ago we were instructed to be aghast at how positive teacher evaluations can be.)

This idea demonstrates the ignorance of calcified conservatism as embodied by CW. At this point, anybody who has put real time into education has seen repeated goals, drives, and initiatives stymied by administration. Not that I really blame them -- they are locked into required test scores, required scheduling parameters that lock students into test-taking classes, and budget restrictions that pare away any money that doesn't translate into MCAS scores. The regime is set up to take most good choices from administration, even if one-third of the staff supports such choices.

Changing the name given to the people whose ideas will be shot down by administration because of the current education regime isn't going to change that. So why recommend such a solution?

Well...

To recognize their demonstrated success with urban students, such teachers would receive a base salary increase of 10 percent — with other staff at the school eligible for bonuses if they meet individual improvement goals and the building meets schoolwide achievement goals that would be established.


Utterly predictable.

A "rigorous" but nebulous method of evaluation, linked to test scores, will grant some teachers higher salary. Probably the most hilarious part of this is the contention that all needs to be done is to cut pay for some teachers to find money to raise salaries for others.

Something conservatives never really get is that teachers don't much factor in money to choose where they teach. After a couple years, the costs to moving districts -- learning new policies, often a new curriculum, a new culture, new administration -- dwarf whatever monetary benefits there are. Teachers also teach for the satisfaction of watching students learn, and that exists independent of salary. A community that does not value education and sets up myriad barriers to good teaching can raise salaries 10, 20, 25%, and will still have trouble filling vacancies. A positive community and school culture is worth thousands of dollars to teachers, particularly the "right teachers" that conservatives think are out there for the taking. Furthermore, opportunities in the district for supplemental income such as summer/afterschool work is often based on specialize training that is only available by virtue of...working in those fields. Thus, there is a government (not union) directed emphasis on seniority that makes up for the monetary benefits of that 10% pay raise.

What this proposal does offer is a way to destroy educators' solidarity by creating two classes of teachers. Furthermore, setting them in frequent competition with one another is a great way to destroy a positive building culture -- if only one teacher in my department is going to get a 10% raise next year, I have every economic incentive to keep my best ideas to myself. Again, most teachers in my experience don't act as greedily as CW's writers have convinced themselves, but it's still a poisonous idea set to introduce.

I wonder if CW's authors are paid by the number of hits their articles generate.

I will give credit to CW for briefly offering a solution (though one bound for failure for reasons I just mentioned, one self-conflicted pull-quote from a single teacher notwithstanding) before going back to its usual whining. CW approvingly mentions the RI Secretary of Education who had declared his policy decisions to be "above the law" (I guess when he does it, it's not illegal).

We wrap up with praise for Arne Duncan's effort to override the Constitution through the spending power, and a careful editing out of George W Bush's role in driving No Child Left Behind. And that's it.

I'll be back later this week with more simple solutions to education concerns, but I thought it worthwhile to examine what happens when agenda-driven amateurs try to sound serious about education. And whatever it is that Mr. Jonas sought by writing such an evidently poor article, I hope he received it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where does your collection dollar go?

If you are a Catholic living in Maine, the Most Hateful New England state, you may want to ask yourself where your collection money goes.

I went to a Catholic High School, and grew up with Roman Catholics all around me, so it's not a question I ask lightly. Catholic Charities is the largest non-government charity in the state. St Vincent de Paul does a lot of good work, and so do individual parishes. For that reason, I always thought that it made sense to throw some cash on the collection plate when attending a Catholic mass of some sort.

Well at least $378,000 went to defeat equality in Maine. Much of that came from out of state. NPR tags the price tag of hate at a half-million in cash from Catholics who were hoping to do good. Rather than take any of Jesus' words (you know, "when I was hungry, you fed me" "blessed are the poor" or "as ye would have done unto you, do unto them likewise"), these failures took an odd line from Leviticus, and all but ran over hungry families in their eagerness to blow money on television ads indemnifying gay Americans.

Your collection dollars went to television stations, to promote bigotry. That's where it went.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

CW's latest steaming pile, Part One

Someone at Commonwealth magazine is very unhappy, I think. Michael Jonas, or one of his assistants, apparently decided to sabotage their assignment by turning in a column whose main idea is entirely contradicted by its contents. In case the intent was unclear, it was so shoddily supported that the editors would be able to tell that this assignment was not wanted.

Well, the editors never caught on, and we're left with this steaming pile of words that purports to be about something...education-related...or education-like. Of course, Commonwealth has published a long string of ant-labor, anti-teacher, anti-public ed columns, articles, and editorials (the line within is as blurry there as at FoxNews) and has recently slipped so far from professionalism or basic courtesy that it's gained notice how desperate their attacks have become.

Let's take the first couple lines of the "featured" article...

[S]tudy after study has shown the strong connection between forces outside schools — parenting, family stability, socioeconomic background — and achievement levels. Students in wealthier communities almost invariably score higher on standardized tests than those from lower-income communities.


Anybody accustomed to reading quality non-fiction would recognize this opening to an article on the impact a child's entire world has on his/her learning. But then, you wouldn't know Commonwealth, where any opening, anecdotal, study-quoting, the weather report, is a segue for explaining why everything about public school sucks. Indeed, this quote that education is only thinly related to teacher intervention is a setup for an article about how vital teacher intervention is to education...and that current teacher intervention sucks. It's akin to opening an article on British cowardice in World War II with Churchill's stand to fight on the beaches, the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, etc...

Hoping that you didn't notice, Jonas quickly slides into pseudo-academic declarations "a growing body of research" this or "study after study" that...by which he means the two antiquated studies he'll mention later on.

Having thoroughly undercut himself, Jonas trots out Paul Reville, who paused in his effort to kneecap efforts to improve student scores on standardized tests in order to tell us that

Teachers are the linchpin of student success..."That seems to be stipulated common knowledge now. People accept that,” says Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education. The issue, he says, becomes, “What do you do about it?”


So something the article just told us is wrong is now right.. Sorry, it's not right, but rather is true...er, seems to be true...wait, seems to be stipulated common knowledge (can he tapdance any faster?). With this strong declaration that Paul Reville believes in wiggle room, Jonas re-directs our attention to Reville's "very loaded question". Wanna guess how the dice get loaded?

The answer is that most teachers suck and everyone knows that but only Jonas has the guts to tell you.

To get a sense of how bad things are, Jonas again performs a bit of sabotage by diving right into the research, and triumphantly presenting an actual academic study. One performed in 1966. That's right, Commonwealth is seeking inspiration from work completed before Woodstock. You see, if we're going to talk about teaching in urban areas, it only makes sense to begin with a study of 1960s Gary, Indiana, an urban area with exactly zero relevance to modern Massachusetts. You see, before the first Super Bowl, teacher colleges had as little academic foundation as this article, which means that modern public education sucks. (If you don't believe me, read the article yourself...seriously.)

The column then moves on to value-added studies, teasing out interesting data over several paragraphs, data that comes from studies which Jonas himself declares are of a type that have "plenty of grounds for caution", are subject to "the haphazard use of value-added assessments" where "the potential pitfalls are everywhere". I do appreciate the author's honesty that his methodology is transparent and inadequate...though I'm not sure why he insists on using it.

We are then told that too many teachers receive positive evaluations. There is no proof given that this is incorrect or inauthentic, but of course Commonwealth assures us that it is. Finally, to wind up the section, Commonwealth holds forth that student assessment may or may not be reflective of teacher quality and may or may not be a useful way to measure teacher performance.

You see, teachers should be evaluated the same way as doctors, who are judged by the number of patients who take the medication he prescribes. (Wait, they aren't? Don't tell Mr. Jonas!)

And then....

Huh?

Well, it is getting late. Halfway through. Yeah, only halfway.

You're right.

It turns out I won't be able to go through this article in one night. Heck, it took these people a couple months to write this dreck, so I may as well take a couple days to untangle it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

One good thing about Alan Khazei

When his campaign founders, hopefully Alan Khazei's story will convince local Democrats that it takes more than hope, a slick website, and a smile to be elected. After the strong run of Deval Patrick and Barack Obama, it seemed that we were setting up for an avalanche of office-seekers with nothing but warmed-over Kennedy Inaugural rhetoric and an outstretched hand.

Then came Sam Yoon...and there he went. There goes Alan Khazei. And hopefully, there goes every smug ignoramus who is convinced that you don't "get it" because you ask for something more than that from your candidates. Hopefully, there goes every sly inside joke about "cynicism" -- what we used to call learning from experience -- because you think that some career politicians (Ted Kennedy comes to mind) are worthwhile.

The whole "Insiders bad, Outsiders good" template was created by incompetents for morons. Franklin Roosevelt was a consummate insider. The only way the Civil Rights Act passed was thanks to the consummate insider Lyndon Johnson. The last balanced budget in this country happened because Bill Clinton could count on insiders getting it to his desk without a single Republican vote. But incompetents like Mitt Romney couldn't offer anything but his inexperience, so the "outsider" thing was focus-groupped into the 21st century, turning this woeful default into a virtue. After all, the conservatives needed to find some way to get Ronald Reagan into office.

Listen, there are competent, skilled insiders in the Democratic Party, and moronic outsiders in the Democratic Party who should stay where they are. And guess what? Some insiders are bad, some outsiders are good -- it's a complicated world, and chasing the newest shiny thing isn't going to make politics simpler, it makes the chaser simpler. Most followers of politics new that, to the detriment of outsiders looking for a quick trip to the top.

Then came the Ascendency of Axelrod. The Reagan playbook was updated and freshened, and now it was Democrats who sought to neutralize the advantages of Democrats. They sought to simplify this complicated world, as the records of Hillary Clinton and Tom Reilly were unanswerable on the merits...so enters the Republican frame and changed the conversation. Since then, we've witnessed this scrabbling attempt at superiority on behalf of the Outsider Hollaback Boys. They drown out this state's massive dissatisfaction with Governor Patrick, rejection of Sam Yoon, and cellar-dwelling of Alan Khazei. They take pride in never learning that experience is just as good in a politician as in an auto mechanic, surgeon, architect, or cashier.

Sometimes, there's a reason why outsiders are where they are. And a reason why there they should stay.