Monday, September 30, 2013

One School Board At A Time


I don't dislike people because they're wealthy, but I am always more suspicious of a wealthy man than one of more meager means.

In my life, I've had ongoing dealings with four individuals who are wealthy by anyone's standards: two from the world of business, one from the world of entertainment, and one whose wealth was derived from some sort of ancient hereditary source that I'm sure I could determine by reading the right European history books. I didn't know any of these people with any level of intimacy, but I was enough a part of their lives that they knew my name and were at moments unguarded enough in their dealings with me that I feel I gained at least some insight into their personalities. None of them were any happier than me. Of that I'm certain. And at least one of them was far, far less contented than I, a paranoid victim of his wealth. They were all smarter than me about some things, but not about others. And while they all had a lot of stuff and a lot of people around them pretty much all the time, I can honestly say that while I might have sometimes wished their money for myself, I would have never traded their lives for mine.

It's a cliche to say that money can't buy you love or happiness or friends. I would assert that great wealth can, in fact, make those things much more difficult to attain: one must always wonder if people are attracted by you or your money. One thing that money does apparently buy is a sense of entitlement. Research consistently shows that it makes people less generous, more rude, and, in fact, more likely to believe that rules and laws don't apply to them. But most interestingly is that being wealthy, even if the source of that wealth is entirely arbitrary, tends to make people believe that their wealth is due to their innate qualities, even when that is manifestly untrue.

No where is this "money equals universal competence" phenomenon more evident than in the corporate education "reform" movement, which is lead by wealthy dilettantes. These people seem to believe that because they have managed to somehow attract money to themselves, they are now qualified general purpose experts. In this case, people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates have decided that their wealth means they know best and what is best is that schools be run like a business. You know, like Lehman Brothers or Enron or one of the 90 percent of start-up businesses that fail within their first five years. Or maybe like Bill Gates' other company, Corbis, which he founded in 1989 and has yet to turn a profit (it makes one wonder whether Microsoft's success was based on skill or luck).

There is an election coming up for a vacant seat on the Seattle School Board, one that pits a highly competent, well-qualified candidate named Sue Peters against an unqualified, yet well-connected, wealthy woman named Suzanne Estey. Up until a few years ago, our school board was dysfunctional, reeling from financial scandals, a superintendent and who was pushing inferior curricula from which she personally profited, and a chief financial officer who was forced to resign. The new superintendent, supported by the wealthy folks, doubled down on the "reform" agenda, bringing in more high stakes testing, school closures, and heavy-handed control over teachers and principals, but things began to change. From terrific Cliff Mass' blog (from which I normally get my local weather):

Two independent, energetic individuals . . . ran for school board against the stay-the-course incumbents . . . both of whom were supported by the rich folks and the Seattle Times. To the dismay of the establishment, the citizens of Seattle had a different view from theirs: (Sharon) Peaslee and (Marty) McLaren won, and a new activist, inquiring majority was formed . . . Things started to change. Have you noticed there are few new financial scandals? That better decisions are being made in important areas such as adding new schools and transportation? That schools are being given the opportunity to use the best books for their students rather than being forced to use the district choice? A problematic, ideological superintendent Susan Enfield resigned when she saw the independent, questioning new board. And a competent, non-ideological, quiet administrator, Jose Banda, was selected to run the district. Scores have begun to rise and there has been a surge of new students to the district.

This turn-around is a direct result of voters giving independent voices a 4-3 majority on the school board.

Once again, the usual cabal of wealthy people are lining up behind their champion, dropping huge amounts of money by local school board standards in support of their candidate who, as Cliff writes, "has a very thin educational background, apparently limited to tutoring in her son's classroom this year." Oh, and she is a successful business owner (a PR/lobbying/consulting firm apparently) which in the world of wealthy people means she is, by extension, an expert on all things. These wealthy people have produced attack ads, established PACs to allow them to get around legal spending limits, and generally engaged in the kind of nasty, bare-knuckled tactics rarely seen in school board elections.

Sue Peters

In contrast, Sue Peters, "has an extraordinary background for the Seattle School Board. She is one of the founders of the popular Seattle Education Blog, which has been analyzing district policy for years. She is a co-founder of the Seattle Math Coalition and a founding member of Parents Across America, a national education policy organization. She was a member of the district's Superintendent Search Community Focus Group and the Strategic Plan Stakeholder Task force, and has extensively volunteered in the Seattle Schools over the past decade." And she is supported by Diane Ravitch.

If you're a local voter, please click through and read Cliff's entire piece. This is an important moment in the history of our public schools. We finally have things going in the right direction, but wealthy people are threatening to simply purchase our school board out from under us. And please consider donating to Sue Peters' campaign: she is, of course, way behind in fundraising.

Money can't buy love, but it can buy elections if voters don't stay vigilant. This exact thing is happening in your town or city, if it hasn't already. People ask me all the time, how they can effectively push back.  This is one of those ways. We can turn the tide one school board at a time.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

"It's Gone"

Our valuable art shipping crate has been tipped on its side, serving primarily as a table for our bug terrarium and an occasional hideout for quite some time, as long as most of the currently enrolled children probably can remember. Yesterday before the kids came out I tipped it onto its bottom so that it opened toward the sky. I figured the kids might like climbing in and out of it.

Claire was the first one on the scene. She peered into the box and said, "It's gone."

Nico was next. He asked, "Where did it go?"

Yuri asked, "What's gone?"

Claire paused, looked at each of the boys, and with a voice full of wonder, answered, "I don't know, but it's gone."

They stared into the box for a good minute before Nico suggested, "Let's get in."

Claire replied, "We can't. What if it comes back?"

This is why I so prefer our kind of playground over those tidy fixed equipment ones. It takes such minor changes to make it once more new and full of wonder.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Science And Pseudoscience

I'm no longer a regular Popular Science reader, although I do find myself on their website a couple of times a month and whenever I fly, like I did when traveling Down Under in August, I always do so with the latest copy of the magazine in my backpack. I'm not a scientist, of course, although I approach my job with a kind of experimental approach. I joke that most preschool teachers, if forced to choose another profession, might well choose science because, as my scientist friends often describe their work, it sounds a lot like children's play.

But I know I'm not really a scientist. That's why I appreciate a publication like Scientific American, one that makes the latest scientific theories, discoveries, and debate understandable to the man on the street. This is what they have done for 141 years. This week, the editors have announced that their website will no longer permit comments on articles because of the negative impact science deniers are having on the discussion on their pages. 

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientific validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

The New York Times editorial linked to in the above excerpt, tells us that the number of Americans who "believe" in human caused "climate change" has actually declined by five percent since the concept was coined in 1989. This despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Even more insane is that doubting the scientifically unquestionable Theory of Evolution has become a kind of litmus test for one of our major political parties, and the transparently unscientific muddle called "creation science" is actually being taught in schools. These are only two of dozens of areas in which the cynical have intentionally sewn the seeds of doubt as a way to promote their own political agendas. It's a dangerous game they are playing, one that undermines the whole idea of science in America.

Of course, there are science deniers all over the world, but if a politician in any another modern country let it be known that his beliefs would trounce science, he would be relegated to ash heap of history. The only nations I'm aware of, besides the US, where people can proudly wear their pseudoscience badge with "honor" are third world theocracies. 

I'm sad that Popular Science has been forced to make this move, but I'm even sadder that my nation, the nation that has for the past century lead the world in scientific discovery and innovation, is now educating its children in ignorance. Some time ago, I made a similar decision to that of PS, choosing to moderate the comments on this blog. Most comments I approve, but those that deny facts, data, research, and science are deleted. I have no patience for those who argue their denial of science with the use of anecdotes, faith, name-calling, and, well, general trolling. I engage some of the more civil ones on my Facebook page, but only by way of demonstrating to the rest of you ways to push back. Otherwise they find their comments deleted as well. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I will not engage in a debate that pits your "beliefs" against science: it makes all of us stupider.

Most frustrating are people who send me links to things that support their beliefs dressed up as science. I've gotten quite good at recognizing many of these pseudoscientific sites and organizations set up to provide rational sounding arguments to support the fixed beliefs of believers, but every now and then I'll click through. It's stunning how ignorant and cynical these people are. I pity the children they are raising who will one day step out into the world to learn they've been lied to, or perhaps worse, laughed at.

I'll leave you with this handy-dandy infographic detailing some of the fundamental differences between science and pseudoscience.

I will be moderating the comments.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Artist’s rendering of the amplituhedron, a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated — the probabilities of outcomes of particle interactions.

Yesterday, at the sensory table -- which held rice, a couple of old Fisher Price barns, and a collection of farm animals -- two-year-olds Cecilia and Spencer began to jump up and down, feeding off one another in a rough synchronicity, both making breathy, rhythmic sounds that were similar to laughter.

Yesterday, while we hunted for bugs out behind the green house, two-year-old Zinn, pointed at nothing and said, "A bug!" We all looked carefully, but couldn't see it. I said, "Zinn said he saw a bug." Zinn replied, "I see a bug!" pointing at nothing. Juaquin and Acadia looked more closely, leaning in until their noses nearly touched the ground. One after the other they then said, "I see it!" and there was general agreement that we'd all seen bugs.

Yesterday, at circle time, I was working the felt board, telling the chanted story of a "sleek and fat" pussy cat and five little mice, which it consumes one after another. This is only the second time they've heard it together as a class. As I reached the point where I say, "Along came a pussy cat, sleek and fat . . ." First one, then several, of the kids began to squeal in feigned terror and pretend to escape by running in a circle on our rug.

Yesterday, I couldn't help imagining their future, these two-year-olds together at Woodland Park. I try to stay present because that's their gift to me, but it's hard when I think I can see their futures; project them as four and five-year-olds, as sophisticated as the kids in yesterday afternoon's Pre-K class, all but one of whom I've already been teaching for two years.

Yesterday, I tried to stay present with the older kids because that's also my gift to them, but it was hard because I couldn't help recalling their past, their own first days toddling around our Pre-3 classroom, feeding off one another, jumping up and down, agreeing upon imaginary bugs, and disrupting circle time with better ideas.

Artist’s rendering of the amplituhedron, a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated — the probabilities of outcomes of particle interactions.
Artist’s rendering of the amplituhedron, a newly discovered mathematical object resembling a multifaceted jewel in higher dimensions. Encoded in its volume are the most basic features of reality that can be calculated — the probabilities of outcomes of particle interactions. Illustration by Andy Gilmore

Yesterday, as I tried to help my old friends re-discover their community for this school year, I wondered about the community that my new friends will shape together over two and three year's time. I can still see those two-year-olds in my older kids, but I could never have foreseen the people they would have become together. That's the real task coming to school sets before young children after all, to play together, and from that a kind mutual ethos emerges, shaped from all those experience, a shared sense of humor, and a co-mingling of imaginations. This is what kindergarten teachers remark upon when they find the children of Woodland Park in their classrooms: they already know how to do this.

Physicists tell us that what we know as time and space are accidents of our human inability to perceive the universe as it really is: that the universe is, in fact, perhaps best understood as a geometric shape in which all things exists simultaneously: sort of like all those past and future bugs existing there for us all to see. Usually, I have a hard time getting my mind around ideas like that, but yesterday, I had a small epiphany, having clearly seen a moment of the past and future existing together as parts one thing, right here in the present.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

God Laughs

When my daughter Josephine was born, we were living on the 24th floor of a condo in the heart of downtown Seattle, only a block from the famous Pike Place Market.

We went to the market almost daily, first in a stroller or Baby Bjorn, and later on foot. I love that place and the former chamber of commerce manager in me wants to provide a tour of the highlights right here, but I’ll fight that urge and instead point you to their website. As my wife eased herself back into her consulting work, I took on the responsibilities of primary caregiver, considering these forays into the market to be a quintessentially Seattle and relatively uncommon way for my uncommon baby to learn about her world.

The mornings were the best, just as the vendors were setting up. It was a little quieter than usual, the street musicians would start later, but there was still enough shouting and banging around to make it lively. The briny scent of the fish stalls mingled with that of the bakeries, the musty underground spaces, and the original Starbucks, forming an ad hoc potpourri signifying a place like no other. I craved the misty maritime air on my skin and was proud that I was exposing my baby to it.  I couldn’t wait for Josephine to get older so that we could share the produce samples being offered by vendors from the edges of their sharp knives. As we passed through this richly textured place, I imagined how the movement, colors and shapes of the market were embedding themselves deeply into her developing brain, shaping it in ways that would later shape her entire life.

One of my favorite stops was the live crab tank in front of Jack’s Fish Spot. I’d park the stroller in front that visual feast, lean back in a cafĂ© chair and watch my girl’s little hands and feet as they seemed to reach out toward those shellfish, and listen to her use her baby words to excitedly “talk” about what she was seeing. I was the best damn daddy in the world. The fact that she would often wind up crying inconsolably made me think she was just over-stimulated and needed a nap.

When she started shouting, “No, no, no!” as we approached the tank I finally got the idea that there was something amiss in my idyllic little scenario. Her all-things-sea-creature phobia became so pronounced that we developed special routes through the market in order to avoid the fish mongers – no easy feat in this place more or less known for its fish mongers – and eventually quit going altogether. To this day, the presence of crab or lobster, alive or cooked, makes her nervous.

Who knew?

This wouldn’t be the last time my expectations as a parent would be thwarted by the actual, real live, one-of-a-kind human being I was helping to raise.

I worked really hard to create a tomboy, but from the moment she could express a preference it was for pink, fluffy, and sparkly.

I bought her a Hot Wheels set and was incredibly proud of my bad, non-gender-stereotyping self when she and her girlfriend spent an afternoon playing cars. That is, until I realized that the game they were playing involved all the cars getting married to one another and setting up house under the track.

I figured that, at least, I would be raising an athlete, but while she’s fond of volleyball, swimming and other sports, she’s made it clear that if she’s going to be in front of an audience, it’s going to be as a singer or actor.

This isn’t to say that my big picture parenting objectives aren’t being met. She has a lot of friends, is confident, has interests that compel her to learn, and takes on new challenges with enthusiasm. Now, a decade removed from the specifics of my new parent expectations, I see that she’s exactly where I hoped she would be as a teenager, but seems to have arrived there by a path I could never have plotted for her.

As the proverb goes:

Man plans, God laughs.

There is no circumstance where this is more applicable than as a parent. I’m pretty sure god wants us to laugh along with him.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

"When She's Nice To Me, I Play With Her."

Over the weekend there was a discussion on Janet Lansbury's Elevating Childcare Facebook page about the common preschool phenomenon of children experimenting with "power" by saying things like, "You're not my friend anymore!" "You can't come to my birthday!" or other forms of arbitrarily, and often hurtfully, excluding others.

Just as we start the school year by warning the parents in our Pre-3 class that hitting (and kicking, biting, taking, etc.) are normal parts of 2 and 3-year-old development, we warn the parents of 4 and 5-year-olds that this kind of exclusionary experimentation is likewise quite common for the older kids. In fact, already, after only one week of school, the children in our 5's class, without any prompting from me, have made the rule, "You can't say you can't play," which will be a good starting point for the kinds of discussions on this topic we will be having all year. The conversations will become increasingly nuanced, especially as we get to the point where we are understanding that sometimes you can say, "You can't play." It's not an easy concept, and it's a process that will continue beyond preschool. 

For some, it will continue well into adulthood: we all know adults who have never learned that you really don't make yourself more powerful by arbitrarily judging and excluding others. These are people most of us avoid -- a version of acceptable exclusion. Like most human things, it can be very emotional and complicated.

If you want to read more about how we deal with this issue at Woodland Park, I invite you to click on the links above. Today, however, I wanted to tell you my own story as a parent of a young child.

As a preschooler, my daughter Josephine engaged in some of the usual exclusionary experimentation, but was more likely to be the one on the other side of the equation. She tended to fall in love with other little girls from afar, then persist in attempting to force friendship upon them, often facing rejection time and time again. We had many tearful trips home from school and playgrounds, especially when she was 4 and 5. We worked out some strategies and I tried to urge her toward more "healthy" friendships, but as she moved on to kindergarten the pattern continued.

There was one "glamorous" kindergarten friend in particular, I'll call her Mary, who tended to run very hot and cold, one day being a "best friend" then turning around the next day with an assertive rebuff. I really tried to urge Josephine toward other friends, often scheduling after school "play dates" with different girls. She loved all of her friends, of course, but Mary was always out there as a sort of unattainable treasure. I knew that we would eventually figure it out, but that didn't make it any easier on either of us.

One day I was driving Josephine and her friend Katrina home from school and the two of them began talking about their day.

Josephine complained about Mary.

Katrina answered matter-of-factly, "When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean to me, I don't."

After a pause, I heard Josephine answer, "That's what I'm going to do."

It was a light bulb moment for both of us. Josephine is now nearly 17-years-old and we still quote Katrina's simple, yet profound wisdom to one another when we find ourselves dealing with challenging people in our lives. When she's nice to me, I play with her. When she's mean to me, I don't -- words by which to live.

Yesterday, our family was having breakfast together at our favorite greasy spoon and amidst discussions about college, Shakespeare, and high school parties, the subject of Mary came up, a girl who Josephine continues to count among her best friends. She still tends to run hot and cold. Josephine said, "She's just Mary. She doesn't hurt my feelings any more. Some people think she's a bitch, but I'll always love her, because I understand her." 

I know its hard to see the tears our children shed when they're young. The pain is real for both our kids and ourselves. And they are necessary. The future seems so far away, but believe me, it's so close you can already touch it. In only a few days time, you too will be sitting in a diner and realize that your child has acquired the wisdom that only comes through tears.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

The Civil Rights Issue Of Our Time

I'm going to finish the week with one more post on education historian and researcher Diane Ravitch's new book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. The last I heard, in just 3 days the book has risen into the top 50 in sales on Amazon and is the #1 public policy book in America. It's a good start. A lot of people need to read this book and I want to do what I can to help that happen.

I suppose if you want to say one good thing about the corporate education privatization movement it is that they, with their billions of dollars and bully pulpits, have helped make public education a front burner issue. In a political climate in which it seems very little can get done, this is one issue upon which legislatures and executives across America have actually found enough common ground to make something happen. Sadly, it's a common ground built upon the big lies of the privatizer's well-funded misinformation campaign, and these reforms have done nothing but further damage our schools, placing their very survival in question. 

Of course, as Ravitch repeatedly points out, that's their plan: the destruction of public education in favor of a "free market" system, one driven by competition and profits rather than, you know, actual education.

A lot of people need to read this book because the only thing that has ever successfully pushed back against monied elites is we the people, collectively saying, "Stop!" I know, I sometimes hear that cynical voice the back of my head as well, doubting the efficacy of our democracy, but when I look back over my lifetime, I've seen major progress on issues once thought too well-entrenched to change: women's rights, civil rights, and gay rights have all made dramatic progress in my lifetime. Peaceful popular resistance has ended wars, and recently, in the case of Syria, may have averted one. What I've come to understand is that democracy in the real world is both slow and messy, and it only works for the people when the people stay engaged.

Going forward, I intend to use Ravitch's book as a tool and to continue using this space as a soap box from which to discuss these vital issues, but if we are truly going to serve our children and, through them, our democracy, we will need to do more than to shout, "Stop!" although that is the necessary first step. And while we have managed, I think, to slow down the privatization train, it continues to move forward. We need more well-informed citizens to join us, and a good place to start is this book.

(W)henever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government . . . ~Thomas Jefferson

The second half of Ravitch's book is her proposals for solutions to many of the very real problems in education, most of which, as she clearly details, are merely symptoms of the much larger societal problem of poverty. Yes, Ravitch does go into specific research-based reform proposals, relatively manageable solutions like more early childhood education, smaller classes, strengthening the teaching profession, reforming charters to work with and not against public schools, the end to high stakes standardized testing, and a broad and deep curricula instead of the increasingly narrow one envisioned by the privatizers. But at the core of her message is that our schools are operating in a world that is increasingly hard on children, and schools cannot be expected to handle these problems on their own. It will take our full democracy, all of us working together as we have in the past to affect real change.

Of course, none of this is the kind of shiny object quick fixes being promised by the privatizers. It will take money and political will. And sadly, it will likely take a long time, but that shouldn't stop us.

People often believe that there is nothing they can do, that the levers of government are so remote from their day-to-day lives that they despair of anything ever getting done. Yet when we look over the scope of our history, we see the American people time and again, when we are well informed, making the right thing happen. It may take a long time and there will be set backs along the way, but it is the story of our country.

Here's what you can do: start by becoming well informed. A good starting point would be reading this book. Then talk to the people in your world about what you know and wish for our schools. This is the kind of day-to-day, retail level politics that winds up shaping the world. Write and call your elected representatives and write letters to the editors of your local newspaper. Attend your local school board meetings. Become active in your neighborhood school's PTA. But mostly talk. Talk about these matters around your dinner table, at the coffee shop, and while otherwise engaged in your social networks.

The local school just up the hill from Woodland Park is where many of our students wind up after leaving preschool. In the last two years, parents of three of our children have been hired as staff, and several more are involved as parents. Engagement: this is how to get the education you want for all children.

Despite its faults, the American system of democratically controlled schools has been the mainstay of our communities and the foundation of our nation's success. We must work together to improve our public schools. We must extend the promise of equal educational opportunity to all the children of our nation. Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for future generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

With Them As My Guide

As unlikely as it may sound, I was a child who took very good care of his toys. A few years ago my parents decided they needed to clear out their attic and arranged a day for my siblings and me to go through the stuff that had belonged to us. As you can imagine, it was an afternoon spent on memory lane as we pulled the various road signs of our childhood from those cardboard boxes.

We managed to relegate much of it to either Goodwill or the garbage, their stories being told one last time before they went, but since all of us have young children in our lives, and most of it was still in good condition, everything with any play value left in them found new homes, much of it at the preschool.

I've written before about how it feels to watch the children play with toys with a history. When it comes to new toys, I'm inclined to be hands-off, allowing the children to figure out on their own how to play with them, but these toys are different. They're better, I think, for having real stories attached to them as opposed to fantasy histories invented on Madison Avenue and printed on the label. Even if they were once cheap crap "Made in Japan" (that's where the cheap crap came from when I was a boy) they are now treasures that come with a living, breathing instruction manual in the form of a grown-up who has already put that toy through its paces and can often tell you, to this day, exactly what he learned from playing with them.

My Matchbox car collection is one of those. I must have been one of the last of the original Matchbox car collectors because even my brother who is only 20 months younger than me, collected cars made by an upstart competitor called Hot Wheels. It was one of the ways we knew whose cars were whose. I disdained the Hot Wheels as a Johnny-come-lately even while I envied their undeniably greater speed, more modern designs, and orange tracks. The makers of Matchbox obviously saw the writing on the wall, coming out with their own Superfast line of cars, but it obviously wasn't enough to staunch the inevitable.

The transition from Matchbox to Hot Wheels was one from what was essentially a form of "doll house play" to one of raceway action. While the Hot Wheels were toys designed to teach the physics of speed and motion, Matchbox cars sought to recreate, down to the smallest details, both the common and exotic real world vehicles we saw on the roads, in magazines, and on television. Looking over my cars today, I'm struck by how many are simply scaled-down versions of the Detroit-built sedans found in everyone's garages at the time. There were a few racing cars, but mostly the cars in my collection would today be considered too hum-drum for the toy aisle.

It was the trucks and working vehicles that really stand out, even today.

I still have all the small parts that came with these toys.

You can actually build with the pipes, girders and scaffolding in the beds of
these trucks, but it takes a mighty steady hand.

Whoa! I have very fond memories of these vehicles. No wonder I feel so
betrayed and angered by what happened in the Gulf of Mexico.

We do have a small set of Hot Wheels with tracks at school, and they are very popular, but when my Matchbox collection comes out, they stay on table tops. I tell the children the truth, that these are very special toys, that I don't want the parts to get lost, that I don't want them to crash the cars together. I don't put many caveats on other toys, but I have no qualms about doing so with these.

You should see with what reverence the boys -- and indeed it is mostly boys -- fold out the case, peering at the vehicles behind the slightly yellowed plastic windows within.

They point to the ones they want to play with, handling them carefully, as they drive them around the table while making soft motor noises. It's not the usual wild, on your feet, zoom zoom kind of play that our Hot Wheels evoke, but rather a nose-to-the-table kind of play that stimulates conversation, comparisons, and doll-house style dramatics.

It's not a particularly large collection by today's standards, but it's large enough. Whenever they come out, they draw a crowd, many of those boys spending an hour or more lost in the Matchbox world where I once lived, but can now only visit with them as my guide.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

No Matter What Happened Tuesday

He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday.  ~Stephen Colbert

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch's important new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Today I'm doing so again, as I will likely do tomorrow.

As I read Ravitch's surgeon-like dissection of the arguments made by those hell-bent upon privatizing our nation's public schools, I began to keep track of all the instances in which, when faced with stark evidence of failure, they have doubled down on their bad ideas, by writing the word, "Again!" in the margin. Flipping through the pages of my copy of the book it appears I've written it on almost every page.

Let's take, as our for instance, the concept of merit pay for teachers, the idea of providing financial incentives to teachers in exchange for motivating their students to achieve higher standardized test scores: those whose students get higher test scores get a bonus, those whose don't get fired. Setting aside the question of whether or not high stakes standardized tests, as they are now being used, measure anything other than a student's socio-economic class (and that's a big set-aside), the idea is one that on the surface sounds worthy of more than a cursory look, right? Well, it has been looked at extensively, and found wanting, throughout the last century.

Merit pay is not an innovative idea. It has been tried in school districts across the nation for the past century. Richard J. Murnane and David K. Chohen surveyed the history of merit pay in the mid-1980s and concluded that it "does not provide a solution to the problem of how to motivate teachers." In 1918, they reported, 48 percent of the school districts in the United States had some kind of merit pay plan, but few of them survived. By 1923, the proportion of districts with a merit pay plan had fallen to 33 percent, and in 1928 it was down to 18 percent. During the 1940s and 1950s, interest in merit pay declined, and by 1953 only 4 percent of cities with a population over thirty thousand offered merit pay. This could not have been because of the power of teachers' unions, because there were few unionized teachers at the time, and where unions existed, they were poorly organized and weak. After Sputnik in 1957, there was again a flurry of interest in merit pay, and 10 percent of districts offered it. But many of these programs disappeared, and by the mid-1980s, when Murnane and Cohen wrote their article, 99 percent of the nation's teachers were in districts that had a uniform salary schedule, based on education and experience.

So why did merit pay fail as a way to improve education? Because this kind of piece-rate compensation doesn't work in a profession like teaching the way it might in, say, a commercial laundry in which workers are paid per folded shirt. Merit pay incentivizes teachers to focus on students who respond to their teaching methods and ignore those who don't. It incentivizes teachers to concentrate only on subjects being tested (today that is largely just literacy and math), which dramatically narrows the curriculum. It has been shown to demoralize rather than motivate teachers, as it pits teachers against one another in a competition that undercuts the kind of teamwork and cooperation that is the backbone of teaching. And, of course, it doesn't work because most of the people who chose the teaching profession are clearly not motivated by money: we want to actually educate children. (I know! It sounds almost un-American!)

This is what we learn from both history as well as current research. A 2010 Vanderbilt University study of Nashville's merit pay system found no significant difference in the test scores of the students taught by teachers who received merit pay and those who didn't. New York City's experiment with merit pay, in which the city paid out $56 million in bonuses, was abandoned after three years during which test scores didn't budge. A Chicago merit pay system met a similar fate. As did one in Texas. And this is using their own flawed measuring stick -- high stakes standardized tests.

(A)ll contemporary evidence on merit pay plans in American schools shows that they have had no effect on student test scores.

The result, of course, is that New York is doubling down with a "new" plan modeled after the failed Nashville plan. The Texas legislature is also doubling down on their failure, expanding their pilot test statewide. In fact, right across the country school districts, urged on by corporate education reformers like Bill Gates and the Walton family (of Walmart fame), are doubling down on their past failures, coming up with yet another rehash of merit pay, convinced somehow that this time it will work, believing the same thing on Wednesday they believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday.

They cry, We must get rid of unions! ignoring the fact that the states with strongest unions produce the highest test scores, while those with weak unions produce the lowest test scores. Yet again they double down, pushing in state after state for a weakening of teacher seniority and tenure with no evidence that this will do anything to improve educational outcomes.

They insist that when it comes to teaching, experience doesn't matter, urging schools to rely on young, inexpensive, fresh-out-of-school temporary teachers trained in five weeks by organizations like Teach for America, ignoring the fact that teacher turnover has been shown time and again to depress achievement, especially in schools with more low-performing and black students. Yet again they double down, pushing in state after state to de-professionalize teaching, insisting that teachers don't really need much more skill than a line worker in a factory.

They advocate for more and more high stakes standardized tests and curricula despite ample evidence that these are poor measures of actual learning, not to mention how they narrow our curricula to only those things that can be tested like math and literacy, pushing out the humanities, science, arts, civics, and physical education. Yet again they double down, pushing in state after state for more and more frequent testing as if they believe this time weighing the pig will fatten it.

They demand more "choice" for parents, the traditional cry of segregationists, calling for charter and online schools, vouchers, and parent triggers, all of which have been found to, at best, produce results no better than public schools, and in many cases worse, often much worse. In state after state, these privatized replacements for public education have been riddled with corruption, fraud, nepotism, greed, and conflicts of interest, often pitting parents against one another, dividing communities where public schools once united us. Yet again they're doubling down.

Listen, I don't know why smart people like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Arne Duncan (US Secretary of Education), and Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) continue to insist that we keep banging our heads into the wall again and again. But I think I do. As Ravitch writes:

Their belief in the magical power of money is unbounded. Their belief in the importance of evidence is not.

We are being hoodwinked by "free market" ideologues, people of faith that put most religious people to shame. It is a faith based upon the mental experiments of people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, apostles of selfishness, competition, and the spread sheet mentality. There is nothing in these people's world that cannot be improved by the application corporate "values." You know, the values exhibited by the Wall Street hedge fund managers who, of course, are part of the neoliberal chorus in support these evidence-free "reforms."

This is why they simply cannot accept the evidence before their eyes: like all fundamentalists they are incapable of seeing anything that doesn't exist within their carefully constructed belief system. They believe the same thing on Wednesday that they believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday.

This is why they must lie, insisting that our schools are failing when they are not; that our test scores are too low when they are the highest they've ever been; that our achievement gaps are growing when they are, in fact, shrinking; that we are falling behind other nations when we are not; that there are too many dropouts when our graduation rate is at an all-time high. Heck, corporate reform poster child Michelle Rhee's entire "career" is based upon lies.

This is why they cannot answer us when we point these things out, choosing instead to try to deflect our reasoned response by accusing us of being racists or union thugs or communists or, as Bill Gates once described Ravitch, "my enemy."

The goal is nothing less than the destruction of public education, because its continued success -- and it must succeed if democracy is to succeed -- stands as a refutation of their faith.

These are my words, not Ravich's, who writes, commendably, with a much steadier temperament, although as a reader, I can feel fire just beneath the surface.

The facts are not on their side and deep down they must know it. It's hard living with this level of cognitive dissonance, especially when you have billions of dollars and can usually buy whatever you want. And ultimately that is why they are so dangerous: sometimes you don't need evidence when you have money. It can pay for people to forget what happened on Tuesday.

But, I'm afraid they underestimate us. We are parents and teachers. We're fighting for our children. What happened on Tuesday matters. Diane Ravitch is the voice of Tuesday.

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