Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Limited Efficacy of "School Reform:" Drugs

I don’t know about anyone else; but I often find myself thinking that “school reform” fails for the most basic reason. 

It fails because school isn’t the place where many problems in schools take root.

(See also: absenteeism.)

Today the focus is drugs, on the catastrophic damage done to hundreds of thousands of children every day in homes.

I learned a bitter lesson back in 1976, as a new teacher. One day, Carolyn (all names changed), a young lady in my second bell class, was missing. I had been working with her, as best I could, but wasn’t having much success. She was chronically absent, exhausted if she made it to school, and repeatedly caused trouble for me and for her peers. On this particular morning she wasn’t in history at all.

During third bell a colleague filled in the outlines of a tragic tale. Carolyn had ingested some illegal substance on the way to school. In first period Language Arts her speech slurred. Her teacher grew alarmed, but before she could act, Carolyn began wobbling in her seat. Suddenly, her bodily functions failed. She soiled herself and toppled from her chair. The school nurse was summoned, then the Life Squad, and a terribly troubled 14-year-old left school strapped to a stretcher.

Carolyn survived that day—only to die four years later—but even then I had to wonder. What could we, as educators, do to help such young people? 

Like most educators, I never came up with a satisfactory answer.

Of course, I did everything I could. I gave any student who was doing poorly as many chances as possible to raise their grades. I sacrificed a thousand lunches to talk to teens in dire need of counseling of any kind. I provided my home phone number to parents and students who wanted to call. 

After spending a good part of one evening talking to parents I recorded these results in a diary I keep:

Spent 1½ hours on phone tonight with five parents. Bill -----’s mom has him in AA three nights a week and says he’s rated chemically dependent. (Cheryl, his sister, is also in the program on a limited basis.) Bill’s dad started him drinking at six—Bill got into his father’s cocaine. She says Walt and Rick [two other eighth graders] are dealing.

I retired in 2008. But last summer, waiting a turn at the barbershop, I had another one of those flashes when it seemed obvious the foundation of the argument for “school reform” rested in quicksand. A front page story in the Cincinnati Enquirer caught my eye. A pretty young woman, Samantha Gibson, 26, had just had her day in court. Her offense was minor, this time, so Gibson was going home. But she outlined her problems for a reporter. “I can’t get through the day without heroin,” she admitted.

Then, the detail that really hit hard: Gibson was the mother of three young kids.

According to the Enquirer, “more than 13,000 heroin users spent time in Greater Cincinnati jails [in 2014].” Not all were parents, but far too many were. Some had been arrested after leaving their children “alone at home or in cars because they were out trying to buy heroin.” The Enquirer went on to explain that there were medication-assisted treatment programs available. Unfortunately, all were costly and under optimal conditions only 50% to 65% of users got clean. 

Despite a stunning rise in overdose deaths, county governments in Ohio and other states had been cutting budget since 2008. Treatment was expensive and counties “rarely have millions of dollars available to pay for it.” In-patient programs, most expensive and successful of all, were prohibitively costly. Treatment, one expert told reporters, “is medical first;” but there weren’t enough doctors willing to help. Gibson tried to find care in 2014 but all the programs had long waiting lists.

Now a reporter watched the young mother as she was released. He followed as Gibson left the building—saw her light a cigarette—dig in a purse—pull out $25.

“That’s all I have to my name,” she admitted. She might just as well have added: “So, my poor children are doomed.”

I was fortunate to teach for thirty-three years and loved working with kids. Still, I saw how drugs ruined young lives. I remember asking Joey what his father was like. Joey and I had a good relationship; but he struggled a little in school. “My dad is a useless meth head,” he replied with a smile; and then I understood why Joey might not always focus on history. I remember Sam, too, who turned it around in seventh grade, partly with help from Julie Cohen,a dedicated student teacher. Only Sam didn’t stay turned around. He died three years later of a drug overdose, choking in his own vomit.

Yet, in those same years, Congress was promising every child would be proficient in reading and math. I kept reading stories about “dropout factories” and listening to cable news talk about “failing American schools.”

Across the nation, by 2015, one baby was born every hour, suffering from opiate withdrawal. That’s 8,760 newborns per year, with average cost of a hospital stay $53,400. USA Today referred to children “born into suffering,” but school reformers and politicians never blinked. They kept faulting educators for not undoing the damage done by too many parents, to too many kids, in too many homes.

Time and again, I could only shake my head. I read of a Pennsylvania mother, 22-year-old Sarah Kessler, who died of an overdose in her apartment. Before she was found her 9-month-old son starved to death.

I read about gang violence in Chicago, tied to the drug trade. I read about Tyshawn Lee, a 9-year-old boy, lured into an alley and gunned down during a battle over turf. I read that dozens of young people in that city were shot and killed every year. 

Then, in January 2016, I read that MaryAnn and Wesley Landers brought an infant daughter to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for care. They left an older child at home. What they didn’t leave was their heroin stash. Shortly after their daughter was operated on mom and dad decided to shoot up in the hospital room. A nurse discovered them sprawled on the linoleum at 11:34 a. m., but by then MaryAnn was dead.

I read these stories and switched on the news and heard experts insist “school reform”  was key to curing our nation’s ills. Listening to experts, I almost imagined educators wielded magic wands. But I taught for years. 

I knew they didn’t.

I certainly dont claim to have the answers. I know what I’d be saying if I were U. S. Secretary of Education, however. I’d be arguing we’d should take the money wasted on standardized tests and pour it into expanded drug counseling and treatment for adult users and kids.

I’d argue that every school should have more counseling and psychological services for parents and children.

I’d make the case that every school should have a nurse practitioner on site and a clinic where young people could get quality care.

I’d urge lawmakers to push for reform and stop jailing non-violent drug offenders. The annual cost of keeping one inmate in federal prison comes to $30.619.85 per year. I’d let non-violent prisoners out.

I’d use the money saved to target problems that effect youth, including the fact 2.7 million kids  have one or both parents behind bars.

I’d tell school reformers to stop blaming society’s ills on educators and schools. I’d make it clear that America’s schools aren’t failing at all. 

Too often they’re overwhelmed.

There's no school reform there there.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Do You Know What the Declaration of Independence Means?

Happy Fourth of July! I don’t know about anyone else, but I am sitting here, mulling over the current state of American political discourse.

I think we can probably agree, it’s not exactly on the same high level as we might have seen in 1776.

(Then again: women can vote. African Americans are free. It’s not as bad as some people seem to believe.)

In any case, when I was teaching, I was a massive fan of the Declaration of Independence. I still am. I love the message the document sends, even if sometimes the messengers who send it are flawed.

Luckily, I taught in the days before all the standardized tests. That meant I could do what I thought was best for kids.

But before we continue, why don’t you take out a piece of paper and write down all you recall about the Townshend Acts?

Done? Sure you are. 

You don’t know squat.

You don’t need to, either; no one cares today; but you might want to think about the fact the people who push all the standardized tests think you should know about the Townshend Acts—and the Proclamation of 1763—and maybe the Sugar Act, too.

But what about the ideals of the Declaration? These ideals on which our nation was founded still matter very much today.  

In my history class, I wanted students to be able to answer the six questions which follow, with the answers to all six to be found in a short section of the document, only 84 words long.

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

If it’s been a few years since you had a class in American history you may not recall that the Declaration is several pages long.  Most of that length is filled up by a list of grievances against Parliament and George III. 

But if you are a normal American—and admit it, you think you are—you have forgotten what those grievances were. Whereas you may still remember the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” and be able to list all the movies in which Blake Lively has starred.

In my class, we began with a few specifics. Courtney could immediately raise a hand and name the main author of the document (Thomas Jefferson, in case you forget); Eric or Renee might know the date and year of the document (July 4, 1776).  Then I liked to add a few relevant details. I pointed out, for example, that Jefferson was a slave owner, hypocrisy never running far below the surface of politics. 

Then I might tell my students: “If you don’t know anything about the Declaration of Independence you shouldn’t be allowed to shoot off fire crackers on the Fourth! You shouldn’t get a hot dog, either,” I added.

“You should have to eat strained peas.”

Joking aside, I was always deadly serious about the Declaration, about imparting critical knowledge. So I required students to memorize the critical section which still matters today, which will always matter in human affairs:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.

To help my seventh and eighth grade students grasp what the Declaration is all about, and aid a bit with memorization, I provided a copy of the section in two forms, one seen above.

In the version below, the words in capitals tended to confuse some or all of my young charges. So we started by defining each of these. Someone like Cheryl or Cathy might realize at once that “self-evident” meant “obvious.”

Blake—not Blake Lively, but a star student in my fourth bell class—might offer, “It means ‘something proves itself.’”


So, we’d move along. Few students could ever define “endowed.” I used the same joke every year.

“‘Endowed,” I explained, “means ‘granted at birth, born with.’ Some of us are endowed with great intelligence. Some of us are endowed with good looks.”

I would always fluff my hair at that point. Sometimes my loving students would groan and hiss.

We worked our way through: unalienable = can’t be taken away; secure = protect; consent = permission; abolish = get rid of.

We hold these truths
to be SELF-EVIDENT,                                                 
that all men are created equal;
that they are ENDOWED                                                         
by their Creator
with certain UNALIENABLE RIGHTS;                                                          
that among these
are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;              
that, to SECURE these rights,                                      
governments are INSTITUTED                                   
among men,
DERIVING their just powers                                       
from the CONSENT of the GOVERNED;                             
that, whenever
any form of government
becomes destructive
of these ENDS,                                                              
it is the right of the people
to ALTER OR ABOLISH it,                                        
and to INSTITUTE                                                        
a new government.

When Kayla fell asleep one day in class, during a typically scintillating discussion on this topic, I woke her gently, and from then on liked to call her “Rip Van Kayla.” (She did fall asleep in class a lot.)

This required a quick aside on the legend of Rip Van Winkle.

As for those six questions—shown again for convenience—the answers to some came quick. Mara and Leslie both raised a hand to answer the first. Mara was quicker, and when called upon, supplied the word “people.” Brad was equally quick to supply an answer for four. “Equally,” he said.

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

The answer to #2 also came fairly fast every year, in every class. “Change the government,” Heather said.


Then #6: “To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Candace tried with a tinge of doubt.


Number three always proved difficult. Eventually someone realized that Jefferson was saying government existed to protect our rights. 

Yes. Yes, YES. That’s a critical point.

But the greatest confusion came when we tried to get an answer for #5. (I’m afraid some politicians couldn’t answer this today.) “The government,” some student would always try first.


 “The president?” “Jefferson?”  “Congress?” others would try. You always had some poor devil that stuck up a hand and repeated: “The government?” 

No, no, no.

And still no.

Finally, Jodi or Jamie would realize what Jefferson was saying and respond, “Anyone. He means our basic rights can’t be taken away by anyone.” 

I would sometimes reach in my desk and pull out a candy bar from a rather large stash I kept, and toss it to the student who had just answered.

“Very good, that’s right,” I’d say. “Jefferson was saying that God granted us our rights at birth and those rights cannot be taken away, not by anyone, not by government, not by other citizens.”

I don’t know: I think these ideas matter, on this day, July 4, and on every other day of our lives.

If it's good enough for Abraham Lincoln,
it's good enough for me, and my students, and all Americans.


You know, if you’ve taught more than five days, that not all students are going to willingly sit down and memorize 84 words of anything; but I expected it to be done, and always put those six key questions on my American Revolution test, on the first semester final, and on the final every year.

I always gave students a week to commit the piece to memory and then on the day of the quiz asked them to take out a sheet of paper and write the section above for a test worth 75 points.

(Some students preferred to come back to my desk and quietly recite it, instead.)

I was a fanatic when it came to learning, I guess. And I was happy every year that a large majority of students earned A’s or B’s on the first try. (I gave those who had C’s or D’s an option to try again later. I wanted everyone to succeed.)

But every year, fifteen or twenty students would complain during the day, “I can’t learn this! It’s too long! Boohoo. Boohoo.”

Too bad, I always replied.

I required all who failed to come in and try again during lunch. Let’s say I had twenty students in a typical year who had to try again. Two or three wouldn’t show up as required. Another might have a hidden, pre-written copy in a book and try to slip it out when I wasn’t looking. (I usually was.) Three or four would fail again. Typically, most earned A’s and B’s with a smattering of C’s. (I always gave kids the higher grade; as I said, I wanted them to succeed.)

I told the three or four who failed again to return again the next day. 

Then I steamed down the hall to the lunchroom to hunt down the two or three who hadn’t shown up. These lucky teens were awarded detention after school and yet another chance to study and get their grades up. 

By that time, I had missed my entire lunch. 

So I bought four fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies from the lunch ladies and wolfed them down as I headed back to my room, wiping the last crumbs from my lips as I began my first class after lunch.

Eventually, all but one or two of those who said they couldn’t learn the Declaration did. All I had to do was miss a few lunches and stay after school once or twice.


Friday, July 1, 2016

A Few Quotes that Still Matter

As a history teacher I always liked to post good quotes around my room. I thought it might make students think. 

One of my favorite moments came one day when Josh hailed me from far across the lunchroom. “Mr. Viall,” he called loudly, “you are not worth the dust the rude wind blows in your face.”

I was pleased to see the young man was quoting Shakespeare, himself, by way of one of my posted quotes.

Here are a few of my favorites.

(I’ve gathered more than 3400 if anyone would like a copy, including Josh, who is actually one of my Facebook friends today. If you’re interested, Josh, or anyone else, particularly teachers, send me an email ( and I will forward my list to you as a document.

Clearly, many still resonate today: 

I wish more political figures kept this in mind.

My teenage students could relate to this one.

Chaucer was talking about war (werre);
but I always thought this applied to school reformers, people who never teach.

I always thought this last quote summed up the trials and tribulations that come along during a stretch of any teen’s life.

Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is available at 

The Tilapia Choice in 2016: Donald J. Trump

For starters, you may be asking: What does Donald J. Trump have in common with delicious fish?

First a disclaimer. My father, the most honest man I ever met, ran a business with honor. He didn’t stick our name in giant letters on any buildings; but he was proud of what he and his father built.

There are plenty of good people running businesses.

Still, I’m not blind. I know government is often better at protecting the interests of ordinary citizens. 

A Trump property in Chicago.

For starters, let’s talk fish.

In 2013 scientists (the same people who warn climate change is real) decided to do DNA testing on fish sold in markets and restaurants. It turns out not all business people are fit to serve flounder.

How often were people selling fish pulling what one writer called a “bait and switch?” In New York City a study found 39% of sellers, wholesale and restaurant, were dishing up tilapia that wasn’t—and 100% of sushi restaurants would have served an old shoe if they thought they could get away with it.

As a liberal, I understand why Trump supporters are sore. If they feel Big Business has been screwing them, they’re correct. But the argument the GOP loves—a bizarre variation of which Mr. Trump peddles himself—that he’s suited to run America because he ran a business—flies in the face of logic.

Let’s talk food again; let’s talk Trump steaks. 

I am not about to claim Donald Trump is selling weasel meat and calling it premium beef. 

I am saying the fact he once sold beef doesn’t qualify him to be president. If it did, some future White House dinner would feature meat from the Rancho Feeding Corporation, a California slaughterhouse. According to federal agents, Rancho made a habit of butchering cattle no one else wanted, for the simple reason those cattle had cancer.

In fact, government isnt always the problem, as Ronald Reagan once claimed. Government is the main reason you are not currently gobbling down cancerous beef. 

And if you’ve ever been to Yosemite you know government does a magnificent job creating national parks.

A gorgeous Yosemite stream. Don't let British Petroleum within a thousand miles.

By comparison, we all remember what the business geniuses at British Petroleum managed to do. In 2010, eleven workers were killed when BP cut safety corners and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded. Before the damage could be contained, 4.2 million barrels of oil had fouled the waters and shorelines of the Gulf of Mexico.

In fact, history is chock full of examples of business people you would definitely not want running the country. Instead, government must check the abuses of crazed men and women in pursuit of a buck. Today the child pornography business is a $3 billion annual industry in the United States.

You can’t go lower than that.

Still, no list of greedy rats would be complete without Henry’s Turkey Service. For decades the company held dozens of special needs workers in a condition akin to slavery. The men were abused and paid, on average, 41¢ per hour. In 2013 an Iowa jury awarded thirty-two victims $240 million in damages.

Remember Bernie Madoff? He stole $20 billion.

Remember Enron? Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling rigged company books, jacked up stock prices to $90 and walked away with millions. When their scheme unraveled investor losses exceeded $63 billion.

Remember the Ford Pinto? In the “good old days” when safety regulations didn’t “strangle” job creators, Ford engineers decided to cut safety corners and save a few dollars. In rear end crash tests, conducted by the company, the Pinto kept failing, even at speeds as low as 20 mph. Ford sold the car anyway and, all across America, Pintos began exploding in giant fireballs. At least 180 drivers and passengers were incinerated.

Remember Joe Camel? In 1994 the first big lawsuit was filed against R. J. Reynolds and Big Tobacco. During hearings before Congress, executives insisted their products were perfectly safe. Why, babies could smoke cigarettes! The courts disagreed; state and federal agencies won $246 billion in damages.

Okay, those executives lied. According to the Center for Disease Control smoking results in the premature death of 480,000 Americans yearly.

How about business skunks like Martin Shkreli, of Valeant Pharmaceuticals. He made a name for himself recently after his company bought the rights to Daraprim, a drug used to treat life-threatening parasitic diseases affecting newborns and promptly raised the price from $13.50 per pill to $750. Yep: an increase of 5,500%.

How about the men and women who run Johnson & Johnson. For years the pharmaceutical giant provided expensive perks to doctors who agreed to prescribe Risperdel for creative uses. This included sedating elementary-age school children with behavioral issues. Presto! No more behavior issues! 

Also: tidy profits! 

Who cared if 1,200 kids suffered from serious side effects? Who cared if thirty-one died, including a 9-year-old who suffered a stroke days after beginning treatment? An Arkansas judge cared. 

He fined Johnson & Johnson $1.2 billion.

(We might also mention Pfizer, Amgen, Merck & Co., Eli Lilly, Abbott Laboratories and other big drug companies all successfully sued for hundreds of millions for illicit practices. The biggest fine of all, however, $3.3 billion went to GlaxoSmithKline, in large part for making false and misleading claims about the safety of their products.) 

Drug cartels: Not to be confused with pharmaceutical giants already mentioned! Then again, money is money is money. 

Speaking of which, HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks, helped Mexican drug cartels launder $400 billion. In one email an HSBC executive lamented the fact the bank could lose $2.6 billion in fees if the lucrative pipeline was sealed.

Also: It turns out playing football is hard on the brain. For years, the NFL denied it was. “Here,” they said to players who suffered concussions, “take these pain killers and get back on that field. No! Wait! You’re heading for the stands. That way.” In a recent out-of-court settlement the league agreed to pay former players $765 million in damages.

How about that cesspool we know and love, Big Time College Sports! Top coaches earn millions even as players graduate with useless degrees. Or no degree at all. 

In an effort to keep athletes eligible, for example, the University of North Carolina came up with a novel plan. The school paid a professor to create dozens of classes that…how do we say this...never met at all 

Grades were good though!

Speaking of education, consider the whole for-profit college industry. (We will give Trump a pass, for now, until the matter of Trump University is litigated.) Not long ago Corinthian College paid five top executives $22 million for a years worth of effort, while simultaneously employing a variety of illegal sales tactics (including recruiting homeless individuals). Then they saddled students with high-interest loans. Eventually, Corinthian went bankrupt. Thousands of young people were still stuck paying off crappy loans.

And let’s not forget the University of Phoenix, once the biggest cash cow in the for-profit education game. The school came up with $67.5 million in court to pay for defrauding students—kicked in another $11 million for legal fees—all while spending $892 per pupil annually to…um …educate them.

Business people have been doing a fantastic job running various charter schools into the ground too. Consider General Chappie James Leadership Academy, a Dayton, Ohio charter. In 2015 the Academy was billing the state for each of 459 students enrolled. An audit revealed that Chappie James was missing a few bodies. 

Total students in attendance…oh, thirty.

And if you haven’t read about the scam that was Trump Institutenot to be confused with Trump University, but an entirely different schemeyou should. Glowingly endorsed by Good Businessman Trump, the institute was piloted by a couple who fled Texas, fled Florida, and fled Vermont to stay ahead of the law.

In fact, Susan G. Parker, who worked for Trump Institute and helped compile curriculum material (much of which has since turned out to have been plagiarized), came away from one training seminar appalled. “It was like I was in sleaze America,” she says, “It was all smoke and mirrors.”

I know. This is depressing.

So, perhaps a little levity might bring this post to an end. According to the Good Housekeeping Institute, when business people are on the loose, the consumer—and, in 2016, the voter—has reason to worry.

In various tests, Good Housekeeping uncovered more than bogus tilapia. It turned out a moisturizing cream sold by Olay for $22 outperformed a competing salon product that cost $350.

Another test of seven shampoos advertised to reduce split ends, involving magnification under microscopes to 700X, found none did.

Could it be: Is Trump using the wrong shampoo?

Well, the money-making shenanigans only continue! The New York State Attorney General recently accused GNC, Target and other retailers of fraud related to sales of herbal supplements advertised for health benefits to the unhealthy consumer. Walgreen was selling ginseng pills said to promote “physical endurance and vitality.” Turns out the pills contained nothing except powdered garlic and rice. 

In the same way, Walmart was offering ginko biloba pills, supposedly filled with a Chinese plant product touted to enhance memory. Sadly, someone making the pills forgot to include ginko biloba. The suspect pills contained powdered radish, powdered wheat and powdered houseplants.

In other words, the argument that we can trust business people to run the entire world has more than a few gaping holes in it.

Consider, for example, the coal and oil barons who pay for bogus climate denial “science” today. 

Consider the Oklahoma fracking companies, where earthquakes have been one unwelcome side effect. 

Throw in the trawling vessels which drag nets along ocean floors, nets which have scraped bare twenty million square miles of continental shelf. You know: the guys looking for tilapia to harvest—the guys not worried if they devastate an area equal to the land mass of Brazil, Canada, China, Russia and the United States.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, I would argue that Donald Trump is to government what fake ginko biloba pills are to healthful living.

Trump is political “tilapia” for the unwitting restaurant patron.

Maybe it's tilapia. Maybe it's Trump.