Sunday, February 28, 2010

LA does it smart

Los Angeles has figured out that maybe letting teachers do their job might work (emphasis added):

In a move that affects nearly 40,000 students, the Los Angeles Board of Education has let teachers' groups -- instead of charters -- take over failing schools in the city's Unified School District (LAUSD). Twelve failing campuses were overhauled, as were 24 newly built ones. Though charters were selected to operate a portion of the new campuses, the teachers' groups are charged with improving the failing programs.

The teachers' groups, composed of instructors previously under LAUSD authority with local union support, fought hard to maintain a certain level of autonomy -- they argued that greater control over staffing, budget, and curriculum allows teachers to target specific school needs that may not be addressed by district mandates. And so far, giving teachers a more active role in campuses has been an effective tool in fixing the problems of L.A.'s public schools, with various pilot programs receiving high remarks from district administrators.

Wow. What a concept. Have doctors, not HMOs, decide on medical procedures. Give the say to farmers, not multinationals on how to raise healthy food. Allow teachers, not paper-movers to direct education.

It's so obvious you'd have to be a private-sector politician not to get it. Speaking of which...

The Superintendent who unilaterally fired all the high school teachers in her district rather than suffer the indignity of negotiating with them has found two sources of support: a group of far-right taxhaters...and Obama's basketball friend Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could love.

Thank goodness they won

While the jingoistic side of me wished Team USA had won the hockey match for the gold medal today, it's better in the long run that Canada won.

It's a matter of perspective. See, there is no medal in any sport that means as much to the American zeitgeist as this one did to Canada. Ice hockey is Canada's only notable athletic endeavour and more than any singular event, an ice hockey tournament is the only measure of Canada's athletic greatness. On the other hand, basketball tournaments are pretty much a joke for the US in the modern era, we get silvers in ice hockey even though the vast majority of Americans live in areas where it isn't a realistic sport, and arguably most of our better athletes go into American football. Heck, in the second-tier sport of soccer, we made the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. Admittedly, baseball isn't America's strong suit at the moment.

On the other hand is Canada, a regular doormat in international tournaments (didn't qualify for the soccer World Cup, 2008 Beijing Olympics in basketball, etc.). The "Canadian" Football League survives on NFL sufferance and funding. Canada doesn't have the chops to handle more than a single major league franchise in pro baseball or basketball. This is truly all they have. Add in the fact that in a nation as culturally cleavaged as Canada, where one-fifth of the people live in a Quebecois culture which is more distinct than anything else in North America, and hockey is the only national touchstone the nation has. This wasn't an athletic was amusingly close to a vindication of the Canadian experiment.

America wanted this gold medal.
Canada desperately, cryingly needed it. Good for them.

That said, I'm still more pissed about the Celtics losing at home to the New Jersey Nets.

PS: Anybody who watched the closing ceremony knows what I mean. A somewhat limp presentation from Sochi, Russia was followed by a tedious 45 minutes about what it means to Canadian, and Canadian iconography. If there's a culture in the world that cries out for legitimacy more than English-Canadian culture, I don't know it. I'd really have to rate this as the worst closing ceremonies I've ever seen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Questions of Europe and Race

Do Europeans understand what race is?

Quite a contrast in two stories out of Western Europe today. First of all, a rather stunning decision of the French railways to post some rather, er, targeted signage at some railway stations. The signs read:

"In the last few weeks concerns have arisen about Romanians. Indeed, numerous baggage thefts have been noticed.
"We ask you to redouble your vigilance. In addition, all the activities of Romanians should be brought to the attention of the PCNS [rail security services]."

So apparently, there was little proof of this happening by people of a certain, distinct nationality. But to single out a single group (not Roma, or Gypsies, but Romanians) for pubic notice and shaming represents an astounding callousness -- especially seeing that France is probably the most ethnically diverse country in Western Europe, with about 9% of its residents being non-white. It also indicates that a typical French railway worker or customer unfailingly distinguishes between Romanians and Bulgarians, Hungarians, and other neighbors.

On the other side of the Channel, a merchant in England is apparently getting in some hot water for selling what seem to me to be rather humorous shirts:

A company selling "Anyone but England" T-shirts for this year's World Cup has rejected suggestions it is racist after police in Aberdeen visited its store.

First off, the idea that Aberdeen Scots would be upset about this shirt humors me...I'd sooner expect them to support that shirt as "Yankees Suck" is supported in Boston. Secondly, I think the shirt is funny, and understandable. The English have a less-than-sterling reputation as players and fans, and selling these shirts in Scotland seems plain smart to me. If they were selling an "Anybody but Canada" shirt in reference to Olympic hockey, I’d buy one. Thirdly, even if it's in poor taste, it amuses me that police would feel compelled to visit the store.

There are differences in the two stories: undersensitivity in France, oversensitivity in England, for example. However, what they have in common is two things: an official reaction...and poor understanding of the concept of race.

I don’t grasp how the police in England and a union in France declared these respective actions to be "racist". Sure, if you’re an English yob with no sense of humor, I guess you could say the t-shirt is prejudiced -- if you leave aside the fact that it refers to the English soccer team rather than the nation, and the team itself is mixed-race to begin with. But racist? Since when are the English a separate race? Or Romanians?

I’ve read many a survey form that lists "White (non-Hispanic)" as an option, implying that Hispanics are white. Even in the broadest definition, though, I can’t see how Romanians are a different race than the French, the English a different race than the Scottish. What I do see is a culture so inexperienced with multiculturalism and diversity that prominent unions and law enforcement don’t really understand what racism is, and isn’t.

It’s a good thing that whatever it is, they’re against it; but as trackless as American discussion of race seems to be at times, we’re still light-years ahead of the folks across the pond.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Health-care tale from abroad

The good news is that many Americans (such as Ezra Klein, kinda) have fallen out of love with the Canadian system as a model for health care, after they've gotten a decent look at it. Others (such as this example) haven't:

I'm not saying that Canada's approach is perfect. I am sure that it has its troubles, too, but it looks to me that they are doing a better job of caring for their citizens and that we could learn a thing or two from their approach.

However, north of the border, passions are aflame due to the decisions of an administrator of health care in the country. I remember weekends in Montreal where emergency room wait-times exceeded 24 hours. Danny Williams, premier (equivalent of governor) of Newfoundland decided in was in his interest to avoid the Canadian system:

An unapologetic Danny Williams says he was aware his trip to the United States for heart surgery earlier this month would spark outcry, but he concluded his personal health trumped any public fallout over the decision.

Later on, Williams defended his decision, because "this was my heart, my choice and my health". The premier of each province is responsible for administrating health care in his province and is presumably more familiar with his/her system than any other person. Yet Premier Williams -- like Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney years ago -- ducked out to Florida for care he didn't want to get in Canada.

Living in Canada for about six years, I can't and won't blame either one of them one bit. Wait times were atrocious, medical technology obsolete, and understanding of medicine too often questionable. Now, I am fortunate to be in the 84% of Americans who have health insurance. Before that, I was in the significant number of Americans in the remaining 16% who chose not to have it because I was in decent enough physical health.

Of course the system needs reform, for many reasons. However, whatever form that takes I hope it isn't the kind that gives some 30% of Americans better health care, and drives the other 70% to the point where they get care outside of the country if at all possible.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Question of scale I guess...

Why is something like this presented as a human interest oddity:

A shaman in Norway has suggested aboriginal people in B.C. might have cursed the Nordic country's Olympic athletes...when Norway's early results in the Vancouver Games were not as good as expected, the Norwegian broadcaster NRK sought out a Sami shaman — or indigenous spiritualist — who speculated his counterparts in B.C. might be the cause.

The main reactions are ones of mocking dismissal, treating this story as a spiritual amuse-bouche. Meanwhile this is seen as a serious (if outrageous) statement by millions:

Pat Robertson, the host of the "700 Club," blamed the tragedy on something that "happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it."...
The Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever," Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. "And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "

Thinking of this sort has engendered actual discussions here and here, for example.

As for the wider scope of the Vancouver 2010 games, it's been interesting contrasting the coverage from American/Canadian sources, and the far less fawning -- even acerbic -- British. I'd say a lot of the British writing makes sense.

PS: I wrote up a thing of Louis Riel months ago. Think the story of that 19th century isn't still sharp? Check this out:

Liberals are demanding a Tory MP apologize for criticizing Métis leader Louis Riel. Edmonton MP Peter Goldring sent out a pamphlet in December to "set the record straight" about Riel's actions in the late 1800s...Winnipeg Liberal MP Anita Neville said the Conservative party should apologize to the Métis for what she calls a "smear campaign" against the founder of Manitoba.

Monday, February 15, 2010

But why?

During an online conversation at BlueMassGroup on charter schools, I got an interesting reply to some questions I posed to the still-not-fired Secretary of Education, Paul Reville:

Secretary Reville often notes himself: the distribution of student performance across charter schools is actually quite similar to the distribution of student performance across traditional public schools. That is really what the aggregate of available charter studies tells us. Meanwhile, some charter schools and some traditional public schools have achieved remarkable results.
--Tom Weber, Secretary Reville's Chief of Staff

I appreciate the willingness of Secretary Reville and his staff to continue this conversation, and the honesty of Mr. Weber in saying this. I'll give him credit.

But this statement to me is stunningly flabbergasting. The most rigorous study in the country says this, and Secretary Reville accepts that data. On average, there is no appreciable difference in student outcomes between district schools and charters. While student outcomes are the most important way to compare the two models, they aren't the only one. If outcomes are equal, then we go to other metrics.

District schools are accountable to democratically elected committee members. Charters are not. District schools educate all students, not just the easy ones. District schools don't shut down suddenly (PDF), get managed by felons, or squirrel public money into a rat's-nest of family and friends receiving astronomical salaries.

So here we see that Secretary Reville knows that charters don't offer anything better than districts in terms of student outcomes, and are beset with other problems. Yet he continues to promote charters in the general and the specific, to the point of engaging in legally questionable acts. On balance, district schools offer as strong an education as charters, yet offer superior service to the communities they serve.

Now, desperate, well-paid charter advocates may try to make hay of the fact that Reville implies that some charters are superior to some public schools, if you take the best extreme of the charter aggregate and the worst extreme of the district aggregate. Well, true. Some private security is superior to some police departments -- should we pour public money into private companies that provide security? If a Blackwater soldiers shoot better than a soldier in the US Army, should we make it easier to hire mercenaries? I don't hear anybody saying Medicare dollars should go to Anthem Blue Cross because an occasional Medicare procedure is worse the same as private ones. Smart policy making does not hope for the best of a given policy, but plans for the aggregate...not what we hope will happen, but what is most likely to happen. Doing otherwise is akin to betting on double zero at the roulette table.

So why does Reville so enthusiastically favor charters, when he frankly knows such policies do not benefit students and harm the democratic process? Why does our governor? I can't answer that question, but the best guide I've found is Secretary Reville's own words:

A number of key moderate allies like the Globe and the Boston Foundation

Friday, February 5, 2010

HB376 update and denouement

A draft post became published a while ago on this blog about HB376, a bill in the State House. The thinking is much more logically and clearly presented at my post on BlueMassGroup. I'll talk about the bill in a second, but I do want to relate my experiences attempting to contact the Democratic co-sponsors.

I have made three attempts to contact each Democratic state representative who signed on as co-sponsor of this bill over the past two weeks. I can understand that these representative are busy, so I must highlight Representatives Calter, Dwyer, DiNatale, and Rosa not only for replies to my initial inquiry, but extended the kindness of responding to a follow-up with a real discussion. I also had a productive talk with the legislative aide for Representative Lantigua.

The other representatives' offices have yet to offer even the courtesy of indicating that they have received my message. If anybody would care to contact the representatives below with questions of their own, please feel free. Maybe you'll get an answer; if you do, please comment it here.

Paul J. Donato 35th Middlesex 617-722-2090
Kevin J. Murphy 18th Middlesex 617-722-2877
Kathi-Anne Reinstein 16th Suffolk 617-722-2783
Angelo M. Scaccia 14th Suffolk 617-722-2060

As for the status of the bill itself, I've gathered through my conversations the following impressions:

1 - This bill was filed in a political and legal vacuum of sorts. Representatives signed on as co-sponsors before the initial process of examining the implications of this bill could be addressed. The facts that this law would be swatted down by settled precedent, or the effect of deputizing school committees to arbitrate between different religion(s) seeking time in ceremonies had not even been considered.

2 - Furthermore, given the paucity of sponsors and the deadline for the session on the horizon, there is little chance of this bill advancing toward debate, vote, or passage.

3 - This bill was written in reaction to a student's recounting of a solitary incident to members of the General Court. As described to me, that incident was mishandled by school administration according to current law. The law was not the problem; administration understanding of it was. This is an issue for that district's administration, not the Commonwealth's legal code.

All this to say that this misguided bill seems to have little chance of going anywhere, probably wouldn't stand up much to real scrutiny in the first place, and hopefully will not be re-introduced in the next session.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Well, this is a new spot in which to find oneself.

Grace Ross is going to run for governor as a Democrat, forcing a primary between her and Deval Patrick for the nomination. Mind you, she isn't a Democrat, or at least wasn't when she ran four years ago. She was the Green-Rainbow candidate. This blog post from two weeks ago implies she wasn't a Democrat as recently as the special election.

So I'm in no hurry to welcome somebody who just joined the Massachusetts Democratic Party to campaign for the most prestigious post for a member. I do hope she'll rush out a platform and agenda soon, to make clear where she's coming from. Right now, were I in the voting booth on primary day, I'd likely side with Deval (whose inexperience and idealism resulted in a disappointing tenure) over Ross (who I think would be even worse).


But. I'm hoping to attend the Democratic convention as a delegate. And one of my strongest beliefs as a delegate is that any candidate that rises above LaRouche-level insanity should be on the ballot. The voters should decide, not party activists. To my knowledge, Grace Ross is a serious candidate. And to get on the ballot, a candidate must win 15% of the delegate votes.

So as I present myself as a candidate for delegate, I gotta decide. Do I promise to vote for Deval Patrick, the better candidate, or do I stand with Grace Ross, so the people of Massachusetts can decide.