Thursday, June 30, 2011

In the Perfect World of Governor Kasich and Don Blankenship

WHAT CAN GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH be thinking today? His approval rating is in the drink. More than 1.3 million Ohioans have signed petitions to place Senate Bill 5 up for a referendum.

Maybe ordinary, working Ohioans don’t want a state where business ride roughshod over anyone in their way. Maybe Ohioans don’t want businessmen to rule their state with an iron grip. Maybe they don’t want to go backwards in time.

It’s a great myth, with Kasich and all the business types—watch Fox News for an hour and you’ll see what swill they spill—that government is inefficient and run by idiots and government employees are incompetent sloths. By comparison, businessmen are wise and moral and just and know exactly what’s best for the economy and know that jobs can only be added if government gets out of the way.

What could possibly go wrong if we simply let the free-market work its magic and let all those great business minds have their way?

IT’ WORTH TAKING NOTE OF A STORY that appeared in The Vindicator, the Warren, Ohio newspaper a few days ago. In one story, we heard that more than a million Ohioans were standing up and saying, “Enough, Governor Kasich, enough.” There was another story, which had nothing to do with Senate Bill 5 on the surface, and everything to do with Senate Bill 5 beneath.

This is a story about what you get when business people have unfettered power. You get Don Blankenship of Massey Energy in West Virginia—a fellow Kasich would probably call a model of good business sense.

You know what they say at Fox News: Government regulation is always bad—too many rules and protections for workers—stupid safety rules and the like. Or, something like: “Regulation is strangling the economy, regulation is killing good jobs.”

At least it doesn’t kill workers.

Recent investigation shows that managers at Massey Energy, a company owned by Blankenship until recently, kept two sets of safety books at the Upper Big Branch mine where an explosion caused the deaths of 29 miners last year. One set was for their use, the other to be shown to government inspectors. It was important, you see, to keep interfering safety experts away and keep coal production operations running smoothly.

Remember, what the Tea Party people like to say: Second only to Jesus, businessman know best.

The families of the 29 dead workers might disagree. They might call hiding serious safety problems criminal conduct, not free enterprise. People like Kasich, who hate unions, call this a “perfect world.” Twenty-nine dead? No big deal! Profit is what counts.

And counts—and counts.

That’s the world Kasich and Blankenship and the fake journalists at Fox News dream of, a better time when conservatism ruled America and the worker, like the slave who came before him, knew his place.

I think they call it 1890.

THE VOTERS OF THE BUCKEYE STATE don’t want to return to the past and neither do the families of those dead West Virginia miners. So far, one former Massey employee, security chief Hughie Stover, has been indicted for lying to the FBI and federal mine safety officials. Eighteen other Massey officials have refused to testify in the investigation, citing their Fifth Amendment protections. One of them is Mr. Blankenship.

So let’s be clear about why we must defeat Senate Bill 5. In a world run by former Lehman Brothers types like Governor Kasich and owners like Don Blankenships, with the Glenn Becks of the world cheering them on from the media sidelines, it will be open season on worker rights if we don’t fight them.

You don’t have to be some kind of “commie,” as Beck implies, just to know we don’t want to go backwards and wipe out a century of progress. We don’t want to go back to the age of the Robber Barons.

A century ago miners used mules and died by the thousands every year.
That's why we have government safety inspections.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Happy Fathers' Day: A Problem in American Education

WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA TOOK OFFICE, I had high hopes that education policy would improve. I hoped he and Arne Duncan, his new Secretary of Education, would prove to be more realistic.

They couldn’t possibly be so naive as to believe No Child Left Behind was a success. It could only get better. Or so I thought.

You’d think President Obama—who grew up without a father—would know better; but Mr. Duncan goes around preaching at every turn that to fix education all we really need to do is find better teachers. Duncan makes it sound like the failings of our schools are entirely related to teachers.

We need to be realistic.

Sure, there are bad teachers. I’m up in Maine right now, at the start of a bicycle trip across the country. In the Bangor Daily News I see the kind of story that Fox News will highlight for the next two weeks. Rob Mocarsky, 41, a kindergarten teacher, recently pleaded guilty to a charge of “creating child pornography.” Now he faces fifteen to thirty years in a federal prison. The article explains that Mocarsky did a lot of dress-up activities with his students, pirates and fairies and such. At various times he managed to trick four little girls into staying after school, and took pictures of them in various costumes...and....well...he’s a rotten bastard.

By all means, let’s get rid of bad teachers; and let’s be sure we put people like Mocarsky in jail.

Preparing to start a bicycle trip across America.

BUT LET’S NOT FORGET THAT THERE ARE all kinds of problems in our schools that have their roots in the home, as well. That means we have to be honest about what school reform can do and what it cannot.

In the same paper today, another kindergarten teacher, Amy Lake, was in the news. Last week, her estranged husband shot her dead and also their two children. In the same paper, in a similar story, Leah Gordon, 9, and brother, Christian, 8, watched their father Nathaniel chase down their mother Sarah and shoot her too.

The question I keep coming back to when I see stories like this is: What school reform laws are going to address the needs of families like these?

At times recently the news on American fathers has been bleak.

In 1960 only 5% of children in America were born out of wedlock. In 2008 the figure was 41%. I’m a liberal, so I know that might not be the end of the world. But the problem for kids is that so many fathers are absent in their lives. A Pew Research Center study recently found that 27% of fathers with kids 18 or younger live away from at least one of their children and many of those fathers admit they haven’t seen their child in more than a year.

Way to go, dad!

Even worse, the poorest families are the most likely to have children born out of wedlock—and to have fathers who are absent. As a result, problems for poor children are compounded. For black children, 72% are born out of wedlock; for Hispanics, 59%; for white children, 37%. For fathers who don’t have a high school diploma the numbers are 65%, for those who graduate from high school, 51%, for fathers with a college degree, only 13%.

Really: if we wanted to fix our system of education the best place might be to start by teaching would-be-dads to use condoms.

At any rate, I wish every committed dad in America a “Happy Fathers’ Day,” no matter their race, creed or color.

P. S. I may not be updating my blog too often for a while. I'm bicycling across the United States to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

(If you would like to read about the trip go to:

If you would like to donate to help find a cure for type-1 diabetes please click HERE!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Arne Duncan: The Armor of Achilles

Sunday, under the heading:  NEWS THAT WAS INEVITABLE, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration want to offer states "relief"  before schools all over the nation begin running afoul of penalties written into the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) in 2002.

The problem is so simple even a caveman could have predicted it.  Nine years ago, with bi-partisan support and great fanfare, Congress passed a law which promised that ALL children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.  Penalties were included if states failed to keep make "adequate yearly progress" toward this noble goal. 

The problem from the start was that noble goals aren't necessarily realistic.  It was kind of like calling World War I "the war to end all wars."  No matter how ringing the phrase, perfection has a tendency to be well beyond humanity's straining reach.

What exactly went wrong?  First, most states spent six years lowering standards and then gradually raising them again, to insure they showed "progress" in testing numbers, no matter how bogus, to avoid the initial round of penalties under NCLB.  From 2002 to 2008, almost no real gains were made.  In the 2008 elections many of the original backers of the law were kicked out of office; and President Obama and Arne Duncan took over shortly after and began talking about new and improved standards.  Duncan would end the "race to the bottom" which began when states began scuffling to avoid penalties and launch a true "Race to the Top."

One set of standards had failed.  What we needed, Duncan insisted, were BETTER standards.  It's kind of like when one diet plan fails. What the poor dieter tells himself is this:  "It's not my fault.  What I need is a BETTER diet plan." 

Today, nine years into the Age of the Testing Fix, an era when we are repeatedly told that we can test our way to success, states like Arkansas and Kansas are clamoring for relief.  They can't reach the noble goals set under NCLB by 2014, and can't promise that every child will be proficient in reading and math in 2 1/2 years.  They say it isn't fair to hold them accountable for testing targets set under the Bush-era law...when they're working hard to write new standards and draw up new tests to align with these standards, to comply (this time) with rules under the "Race to the Top" initiative being pushed by the Obama administration.

If you're an ordinary, brown-bag educator, the type who sits at a real classroom desk and grades real papers from real students for half your lunch every day, and eating your bologna sandwich is your idea of a relaxing break, you knew in 2002 this was coming. 

I dare anyone to read the first hundred stories you come across about "raising standards" in U. S. education today.  I doubt you will find a single sentence that includes these words:  "students," "must work harder," because in the last two years, I haven't seen those words yet.  The theorists and bureaucrats keep talking about writing new standards, about "bench-marking" U. S. standards to match with standards in countries like Finland and Japan and South Korea. 

We keep talking about testing and standards and miss the essential point.  It's like putting on the armor of Achilles.  Just because you WEAR the armor of Achilles, that doesn't make you Achilles.

Let's say, as a society, we were really committed to excellence in education.  Let's say we didn't have one extra dollar to spend.  Could we still raise standards?  Of course we could.  And we wouldn't need Arne Duncan to tell us how.

Let's say every teacher in American set their head and hand to working harder every day.  That would certainly help;  but let's be honest about the problems we face in American education and admit that we have to expect students to work harder, too.  Let's admit that parents have to stop whining if teachers are demanding.  Let's admit that if we want true higher standards, our children will need to spend more time on academics when they get home.

At some point, the diet PLAN isn't the critical factor.  The dieter has to be committed.  No plan will work unless the dieter is willing to push away the plate. 

We don't need the Department of Education to tell us what to do and how to do it--and if they really want to help, let the experts come into the classrooms and show us how it's really done.  We don't need to rewrite standards.  As a society, we have to be committed to education. 

Standards on paper don't make the Japanese schools better.  Japanese students are simply willing to work harder than American students, generally, and Japanese parents are more likely than American parents to approve of a heavy workload when educators require it.

Ever hear that America's schools are failing when compared to Japanese schools?

In the spring of 2009, the number of U. S. students taking the SAT’s climbed to a record 1.55 million. 

Those who took four years of English and three years of math had better scores, averaging 151 points higher than those who didn’t.  Go figure.  They worked harder and it showed.

Since No Child Left Behind went into full effect in 2006, however, the average score for white students had dropped 2 points. 

The average for African Americans and Puerto Ricans was down 14 points.

The average for Asian Americans was up 36.  It's not the standards the government puts on paper that matter.  It's the standards people set for themselves.

The armor of Achilles isn't the key to any battle.                            

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Governor Kasich puts the Bible (and Koran) Back in Ohio Schools

SOMETIMES IT JUST DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER when talking about Governor Kasich and his plan to remake Ohio schools. He’s a good Christian. Everyone knows that. 

He’s the jobs governor too. 

His plan—and the plan of Republicans in the legislature—is to increase the number of vouchers available to parents and let more and more parents “escape” failing public schools. Praise the Lord Let children go to religious schools!

Did someone say: “Praise Allah?” 

I’ve been thinking about this for some time. But a story in The New York Times makes me feel prescient. That is: if you give parents vouchers to send children to Christian schools, where do you draw the line? 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a life-long fan of the First Amendment.  

I just can’t wait to see some of our political weasels try to chew their way out of the sack they’re currently sewing. I want to see what happens when someone wants to create a Muslim school in Dayton or Cleveland and get their hands on state money?

Put the Bible back in schools? What about the Koran? This is going to be a hell of a mess for conservatives to sort out.  

Bill Cunningham, the voice of WLW radio in Cincinnati, who delights in calling the president “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” may have to re-calibrate his message. And do we know Kasich’s middle name? John R. Kasich? Does that “R” stand for “Rashid?” 

Of course, it would be stupid to mix education, politics and religion, but Kasich and his boys do.  

Giving state money to private schools, an idea popular with the Holy Trinity of right-wing education reform, (Kasich, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Chris Christie in New Jersey) carries risks they blithely ignore.

Pick up the February 2010 issue of National Geographic, for starters. Read about the Jessop family. They’re good religious folk, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. With communities spread across the Southwest and north to Canada, the church has thousands of children who could benefit from a voucher program. 

Of course there are flaws in this picture. The church practices polygamy and Joe Jessop leads the show. The man has multiple wives, 46 children, and 239 grandchildren. He could have an elementary school all his own.

Two wives and maybe nine future vouchers for state-funded education.

I remember reading an article in the Cincinnati Enquirer some years back, about a goofy church over in Adams County. The “minister” was shown in a photograph at the pulpit wearing a Nazi uniform. The story went on to highlight his Jew-baiting sermons. Today, he’d be eligible for state money if he set up his own school. 

Now, for the love of God, or Allah, or The Great Whomever, a shady Muslim organization is moving in on voucher programs. (A shady Muslim organization would be the same as a shady Christian or shady sectarian organization; the word “shady,” not “Muslim” is key.) Want to know where we’re headed? Think:  Harmony School of Innovation, run by the Cosmos Foundation, a charter school operator down in Texas, with offshoots in Ohio. A company called TDM recently won a contract for $8.2 million to build that school. And so you have everything Governor Kasich could possibly desire! Voucher money for kids. Religion back in school. More jobs for Texans—and Ohioans, when we bring this model north!

What could go wrong? 

First, the Cosmos Foundation (which runs 33 Texas charter schools and gets $100 million in taxpayer funding), is a business run by Turkish immigrants. Secondly, many of the founders and operators are followers of Fethulan Gulen, a charismatic preacher of a moderate brand of Islam. If that doesn’t make Kasich choke on his conservative Wheaties, nothing will. 

Remember how law-makers insisted that private enterprise would only increase efficiency in Ohio education? Down in Texas, there have been complaints from numerous local construction companies. Even when they bid lower, TDM and Turkish-owned firms win almost every contract. Out of 35 jobs worth $82 million, since January 2009, Turkish-controlled entities won all but three, worth only $1.5 million. 

Well, what did you expect? If you’re going to insist that business and education are Siamese twins, you want to make a profit, right?

You’re not going into the education game to lose money! 

I’m a liberal. And I absolutely support equality for members of all religions, not to mention members of none. I think you’re an idiot if you don’t know that most Muslims are just as firmly opposed to terrorism as most Christians are.

Still, if you think Kasich is the worst governor west of New Jersey, this story gets better: At one San Antonio school run by Cosmos the entryway features a turquoise arch and the ceiling lobby shows a sun, a star, and crescent moon, clearly Islamic decorative devices. At least some of the female students wear head scarves and all but a few of the 33 principals in the system are Turkish men. Of 1,500 employees at Harmony schools, 292 are on special “H-1B” visas meant to allow skilled foreign workers to fill needs unmet by U. S. workers. 

A professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, Dr. Ronil Hira, explains the Harmony schools’ preference for hiring immigrants as a matter of economics. They can pay them less; and for the immigrant teacher it’s a step toward a green card. 

If I’m a crazy right-wing person what does all this prove? Tune in to Fox News at 5 p.m. and watch as the King of Blackboards, Glenn Beck, reveals the truth.  

Governor Kasich is in favor of madrassas in Ohio!!!! 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Limiting Real Education: The Curse of Standardized Testing

ONE REASON MOST OF THE "LEADERS" IN EDUCATION favor standardized testing is because most of those "leaders" never had to spend any time in a classroom. That's right. They were too busy leading!

You have Michelle Rhee (3 years in a classroom) and that's about it. Bill Gates, Chester Finn, Jr., Joel I. Klein, Davis Guggenheim, Arne Duncan and six other U. S. Secretaries of Education never taught a day in their lives.

So they think education is about "standards."  Good teachers know education is about "learning."
Worth teaching this poem?
A bureaucrat shouldn't be deciding.
What scares me, of course, is the idea that if we keep following the path we're on now we're going to end up with the IRS model in the classroom. We're going to have a system in which technocrats decide what teachers must do.
The efforts we've seen so far don't give me much confidence.

Consider the "standards" listed in the eighth grade Ohio social studies curriculum in 2008. Here was all the guidance teachers were given on what to cover in the period following the Civil War:

INDICATOR 11: Analyze the consequences of Reconstruction with emphasis on:

A. President Lincoln’s assassination and the ensuing struggle for control of Reconstruction, including the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

B. Attempts to protect the rights of and enhance opportunities for the freedmen, including the basic provisions of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

C. The Ku Klux Klan and the enactment of the black codes.

What exactly does the State want kids to learn? Should students know who John Wilkes Booth was, for example?

Normally, I would argue they should.

The reasoning is simple. Every assassination in this country leads to comparisons; and mentions of Lincoln and Booth, or Kennedy and Oswald, often follow. (No one remembers James A. Garfield and Charles J. Guiteau.)

When the State of Ohio designs it's standardized test the bureaucrats forget a central tenet: that education, generally, and history, specifically, must somehow be useful. We should be asking: Does it serve a purpose to know why Johnson was impeached? Students need to know that the president (and other top government officials) can be impeached. They should understand that this protects us from tyranny.

They need to know what "tyranny" is, as well.

So, I’d say  if we're going to talk about Johnson, we throw in Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, more modern examples.

The real standard, not some manufactured standard designed to “measure” what we teach, is how much students learn and how much they can use what we teach in later years. I have no problem focusing on the struggle for equality. I always covered the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which ended slavery, granted citizenship to blacks and guaranteed "due process" rights under state law, and gave black men the right to vote, in that order—because the question of justice goes to the heart of what makes this nation great.

NOW, IN THE AGE OF THE TESTING FIX, I live in fear that the State of Ohio may ask students to discuss which amendment is which. I know adults don’t know. I know that I have never needed to know.

The fight for equality, however, has been brutal and there our focus should lie.

Since the issue of race has loomed like a dark cloud even unto this day it seems wise to look at Jim Crow laws (black codes) and segregation. Apparently, though, the State will not use the term “Jim Crow.” I believe it is a common usage.

Well, then, should I teach it?

When I do this unit, I start by asking students to list five ways blacks and whites were once legally separated. After a couple of years, I can predict which examples classes will always give. I write them down on the board ahead of time and pull down a map to cover my prediction. The five are: SCHOOL, BUSES, RESTAURANTS, DRINKING FOUNTAINS and in SPORTS.

I want to teach more. I don't want to stick to wimpy "standards." I want students to understand the depth and breadth of the racial divide and the antipathy that made Jim Crow laws seem necessary. So I compile a handout giving as many examples as possible:
The sad era of “Jim Crow” began officially in 1887. Florida started the process by ordering the separation of black and white passengers on railroads. Mississippi copied the idea, adding “Colored” and “White Only” waiting rooms. Other Southern states fell in line. But most made one exception: if a black nursemaid was caring for a white baby. Soon states like Alabama and Georgia had separate homes for the deaf, blind, and mentally ill. The races were divided in prisons and on chain gangs. By 1890 Jackson, Mississippi had instituted “Jim Crow” rules in city cemeteries.

Think about it, I say to my class. You’re blind! Isn’t everyone black if you’re blind? I pantomime a sightless person searching for a Negro, a futile proposition. I put my hands on some student’s head and ask, “Are you black, because if you are, I don’t like you!”

What about cemeteries? I ask: Do any of you think you might care who is buried next to you when you die? The kids laugh and I believe they are laughing at the idea of separation, seeing inequality as a mockery of what we say we believe in this country.

The reading continues—seventy examples—not because students need to know seventy examples—but because the weight of it bears down on the way they think, makes the system appear senseless:
After 1915, Oklahoma required “separate phone booths for white and colored patrons [customers].” South Carolina factory workers were paid at different windows, used different stairways and could not use the same “drinking water buckets, cups, dippers or glasses.” In a move of stunning stupidity, Birmingham, Alabama made it “unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together” at dominoes.
Checkers was also forbidden!

In a police-officer-like voice I say, “Drop the checkers and come out with your hands up!” It seems hard to believe that anyone ever thought such laws were necessary.

I don’t mean to blame the South. So we turn to examples from the north, where my grandfather had Jim Crow sections in his theaters in Akron, Ohio. We keep on plowing with one goal in mind. We want to destroy the idea that any form of inequality is acceptable.
The list of rules was as long as human imagination is twisted…Blood banks kept Negro blood on different shelves. “Public libraries” in the South denied blacks the right to check out books! Southern gas stations had three bath-rooms. One was for “WHITE MEN,” one for “WHITE WOMEN.”
A third was marked “COLORED.”

During most of my career, Loveland, where I taught, had a single black teacher. So I used him (with his approval) as example. Both of us were born in 1949. I explained, “If Mr. Battle’s family pulled up to the same gas station as the Viall family, the Battles couldn’t go at the same time. Members would have to wait their turns.”

“Think of how your mother would feel…” I added. I knew every kid understood that.

I don’t know if kids who sat through my classes can tell you why Andrew Johnson was impeached; but I'm okay with that.

I wanted them to have a hatred for injustice burning in their hearts.

And that's not "standardized" education.

Sarah Palin and Real Education Reform: Put Down that Fork!

TODAY THE REALLY BIG TALK IN EDUCATION is all about “higher standards” or “bench-marking” U. S. standards to standards in countries like Finland, Japan and South Korea, where education is supposedly better. 

I’m not much of a believer in “standards” as a solution to school problems; but clearly we need to do a better job teaching American history.

At a stop in New England, during her recent bus tour, Sarah Palin was asked to comment on Paul Revere’s ride. To say that her answer missed the mark and lacked a certain grammatical polish is an understatement. Palin explained:
He who warned, uh, the…the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and um by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that uh we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free…and we were gonna be armed.

I taught American history for 33 years; so I suppose Palin’s teachers could have done better. Then again, maybe it’s not them. We all bear some responsibility for what we know and what we don’t know. In my case I clowned around in school as a teen and don’t know as much chemistry or biology as I could have.

Sometimes, the schools and teachers are doing their jobs. Sometimes it’s students who aren’t working enough.

Changing “standards” so far has had a minimal effect—or no effect at all when it comes to improving our schools. It’s kind of like the change from a “food pyramid” to a “food circle,” shaped like a plate. I support First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote better eating. I just don’t believe the pyramid was the problem and I doubt the plate is a solution.

IT’S THE SAME WHEN EXPERTS get loose and start slinging their favorite theories of education.

At best, the “standards movement” sweeping the nation will have minimal effect. We know it’s already expensive. My gravest fear is that it will backfire badly and be even more expensive in the end than it already is.

Take my history class, for example. When we covered the American Revolution my students and I spent an entire day on the story of Lexington and Concord. (The girls thought it was interesting because at least one woman was seen by the British to be firing their way.) I then asked my students to write a 300-word “eyewitness account.” Anyone who ever had me for class could tell you, I graded this kind of assignment like I was an English teacher.

In this case, I was trying to give students more writing practice.

The problem, of course, is that on a standardized test a HISTORY teacher won’t ever be credited with successfully teaching writing.

So, teaching writing would technically be a waste of time.

That struck me as nuts when I was still teaching and still does today. It seems like a strange way to “improve” learning outcomes.

So, no. I don’t believe “standards” will be our salvation.

If you want better schools a major part of the problem can only be fixed when we convince students to work harder or begin demanding that they do. If we want to lose weight we don’t need new diet plans or standards.

We need to exercise a little will power. We need to show a bit of restraint. We need to do our part and lay down our forks.