Letter From Los Angeles
May, 2011
© 2011 Joel

Quote of the Issue

”Some of our American friends- Ohlone, Hopi and Iroquois- have emphatically stated that residents in these United States should have on their birth certificates, the long form, a statement indicating whether their ancestors were illegal immigrants because they arrived here after 1491 or good Americans whose ancestors, at least some of them, were here before 1491. Such an improvement in the birth certificate would eliminate many of our ethnic problems.”— John Caris, on whose site you read my letters

Osama bin Laden, R.I.P. (Rest In Pieces)

Initial reaction: Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead.
Funniest take: bin Laden’s face on a can labeled “Fish Food, May Contain Traces of Lead.”
Profoundest statement, found on the front cover of The Economist: “Now, kill his dream.”

Undies, aka Briefs

Would it be correct to call Paris Hilton’s web address a Paris site?

Lindsay Lohan- yes, again!- has been sentenced to teach acting to L.A.’s homeless as part of her community service. Haven’t the homeless suffered enough? Lohan could have been sentenced to attend the recent royal wedding in violation of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.

With the support of his congregation, Rev. Derek Penwell of the Douglass Boulevard Christian Church of Louisville, KY, will not perform marriages until gay couples have the right to marry in his state.

From Louella Parsnips and Hedda Lettuce: Household employees in L.A. tell us the very well to do are cutting back by firing half their staffs. Hollywood’s richest personality has replaced the chef with the culinary services of his maid. How lovely to have more people unemployed.

A six year old brought a gun to school in Texas this past April. Do Second Amendment advocates not see something freakin’ wrong with that?

Learned at the unveiling of the Gregory Peck postage stamp at the Motion Picture Academy on April 28th. On the final page of his To Kill A Mockingbird script Peck noted, “Fairness, Courage, Stubbornness and Love.” Atticus Finch and I share a quality- the third.

From your pragmatist. The vacuum cleaner breaks and the progressive blames Eurerka’s greedy CEO. The conservative finds fault with the Eureka worker’s union. I get the damn thing fixed.

The Prescient

In the mid-1960s, a New York friend told us approvingly that corporations were soon going to be calling all the shots.

In 1960, my summer boss, the manager of a chain men’s clothing store on 42nd Street, spoke with amazement of what his son, a technology researcher, told him. Microchips were someday going to revolutionize communications. Something he called computers were involved. I should have bought stock in the company.

Oh, Yeah? (Comments from readers on the April 2011 edition)

A retired history teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area called April’s letter “magnificent,” and shared stories of the good and terrible people he has worked with.

A reader from Vermont enjoyed learning about my mother and says she loved her teachers.

“I enjoyed your recent rant and rave of April 2011,” writes John Caris. “Riding your fiery steed, breathing righteous indignation, your wrath warmed my heart and curled my beard.” (Moi?)

“Your blog requires a response,” a former colleague from Manhattan, writes. “After all, you cannot throw opinions at me without my expressing some opinions of my own.” Of April’s newsletter: “The sweeping generalizations bothered me. Nothing is black or white.” On class warfare: “I do not believe that the Republicans are targeting the middle class and poor.” Unions: “Unions were necessary when workers were exploited. Now, as all other good ideas, unions have become political and militant.” On corporations: “Big corporations are not all corrupt and bad like poor people are not all corrupt and bad. We do not need people to be poor, but we need corporations and the incentive and reward for hard work.”

Government programs: “Some programs are good for the universal well being of our citizens. Most of the time, unjustifiable entitlements get in the way. People with a dependent streak prefer being taken care of.”

George W. Bush: “I do not believe that Bush ‘pretended’ to be sincere. I believe that he was sincere and did what he could in untenable situations.” Libya: “I agree with you we should not be in Libya.” (Joel note: I’m conflicted about that.) On Obama: “Not all politicians are self serving, but many of them are. I believe, however, without a shadow of a doubt that Obama has an agenda and has brought our country down.....Whatever you do in 2012, please do not choose Obama for President....Obama with all his communist czars will ruin our country for good.”

And from San Francisco, a young reader applauds Barack Obama’s contributions. “Health care legislation (which has eluded every president for 50 years), the most wide-reaching financial reform since the Depression (for all its flaws), dealing with the largest financial crisis since the Depression (it is under-appreciated how close we were to that outcome, and how much both the Bush and Obama administrations did to prevent it), dealing responsibly, in my opinion, with our conflicts in the Middle East, Race to the Top, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, rebuilding relations with our allies, etc.” He concludes, “I think (the president) has delivered to any reasonable standard.”

Thanks, dear readers.

School Daze ll The Players, The Stakes and The Challenge

“Thomas Jefferson once said ‘a nation’s best defense is an educated citizenry.’ Right now, the United States is defenseless.” — Robert Steele in Foreign Policy Magazine

‘This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. We have to win the race to educate our kids.”— Barack Obama

“Education will propel the U.S. to a Sputnik moment.”— Rep. Mike Honda (D., California)

“I’m thinking Sputnik.....”— Chester Finn, former Assist. U.S. Sec. of Education

“Call me hysterical, but when the United States doubles the amount of money it spends on something, as it has done for K-12 education since the early 1970’s, and sees no major progress, it may be worth considering what other countries are doing that America isn’t.”—Amanda Ripley, prolific education writer

An article entitled “Opening Day: America’s Schools Ponder Some Sobering Lessons,” appeared- when else?- on the opening day of school. Some of the “lessons” or issues included: restraints on school spending, going back to basics, common standards measured by state testing, automatic promotion, truancy and disruptive behavior, teachers unions, the distractions of t.v., and the public perception that schools have hit a new low. The publication date? September, 1977.

How much has really changed since then? Does the laundry list of issues I remember from my teaching days, 1965-1976, not still apply?

  1. Whole word vs. phonics methods of teaching reading
  2. Child centered vs. teacher directed instruction
  3. Experienced teachers vs. idealistic novices
  4. Teachers caring/ not caring enough
  5. Bilingual education
  6. Obstacles to removing unsatisfactory teachers from the classroom
  7. Parental v. centralized school control
  8. “Top down” v. “bottom up” modes of management
  9. Sclerotic educational bureaucracy
  10. Placing the least experienced teachers in the toughest schools
  11. Teen pregnancy, drop out rates, truancy and disruptive behavior
  12. The quality of teacher training institutions
  13. Whether teaching is a profession, and....
  14. Failed schools, plenty of them

Let’s go even further back in time. School discipline problems of the 1980’s were compared with those of the wartime 1940’s, when talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the hallways and getting out of place in line were among the hanging crimes. In the 80’s, offenses as serious as assault, rape and robbery swelled the list. School violence is nothing new, of course. My maternal grandfather threw a book at his eighth grade teacher and left school forever c. 1890. However his book was bullet free.

That American students lag behind their international counterparts, especially in math and science, is indisputable. December 2010’s Atlantic compared student achievement in specific American states with offerings overseas. California’s schools ranked somewhere between those of Italy and Portugal, Mississippi’s more akin to Serbia’s. The Program for International Student Assessment revealed that out of 65 “economic regions,” our high school students came in 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan reports that one quarter of our high school students drop out or do not graduate on time, in an age when high school diplomas barely qualify one to make a living.. Tom Friedman tells us that “America’s youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment.”

And from the New York Times, February 8, 2011, came word that less than half of New York State’s high school graduates are prepared for college or “successful careers,” and less than a quarter in New York City. The figure is closer to 17% in Yonkers, Rochester and three other cities in the state. But enough statistics. Amanda Ripley worries that today’s “kids are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents.” Too many American students are unprepared to function in the contemporary world.

A pair of class photos taken in front of two very different high schools helps illustrate the point. South Korean students are shown wearing ties and jackets, dresses and serious expressions. Their American counterparts, mostly in shorts, are goofing, grinning and striking silly poses like on T.V.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn notes that Shanghai’s “culture of education” features “more time studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.” Reports on South Korean high school students, on the other hand, indicate the relentless push for achievement may have gone too far. These kids are often nervous wrecks.

Yale law professor Amy Chua’s “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” is causing quite a stir. Chua’s own children were all work and no play. A Massachusetts mom I know complained that her daughters were required to read and report on books last summer. Other parents beg teachers to assign even more.

Childhood has a history of its own. Once kids were pint sized versions of the grownups, in other eras seen but seldom heard. Nineteenth century children labored on farms and in immigrant congested cities. I took the leisurely Julys and Augusts of my more progressive childhood for granted until high school, when summer jobs and reading lists kicked in.

I’m for giving kids their fleeting years of innocence. With extended life spans they may work for over fifty years. Developmental tasks of childhood such as physical, intellectual and emotional growth, socialization and stimulation of imagination, are best served by a mix of work and play. Is childhood all play and the rest of life unending labor, or can we find some ideal combination of them both? (Psychologist Murray Banks pondered, “Do children have as much fun in infancy as adults have in adultery?” Answer: no!)

Few disagree that improving education is essential to our country’s future. Almost one hundred million children, K-12, are taught by 3.2 million teachers- “more than all the accountants, lawyers, judges and physicians in the country combined,” education writer Sara Mosle reports. Players in the education game include students, teachers, specialists, supervisors and administrators, school boards and superintendents, teachers colleges, non profits like Teach for America, politicians, the media, social scientists, unions, professional associations and the general public. That’s an awful lot of people and an awful lot of dough. So what’s the problem?

America’s educational dilemma cannot be laid entirely at the feet of teacher’s unions or even teaching to the test. Reflect on all we expect our schools to do. Teaching language and computation. A grounding in our culture and an acquaintance with those of others, their languages included. Familiarity with the social and political world. Knowledge of nature and the facts and ways of science. Critical thinking, and an appreciation of literature, music and the arts. Technological proficiency. Promoting healthy bodies, too.

Inner city children may need instruction as basic as “sticking to a schedule, delaying gratification and shaking off disappointments,” counsels educator James Heckman. They often also need some food and rest. More broadly, Harvard’s Tony Wagner has identified three critical skills in what we call the “knowledge economy:” Critical thinking and problem solving, effective communication, and the ability to cooperate.”

This at a time when schools are widely viewed as failures. An amorphous distrust of public institutions pervades the land. Government limps along with little revenue from its wealthiest citizens. The recognition that education is a major national interest is paired with starving schools of funds.

The imperatives of sufficient funding and smaller class size has been superseded by the understanding that money alone can’t buy quality in the schools. The U.S. spends more per student than all but three countries in the developed world, and voila! In any event, spending isn’t being slashed voluntarily. School budgets are being decimated and teachers laid off left and right. Programs like history, art, music and languages, which don’t get measured on competitive tests, face elimination. Still, if money doesn’t solve the problem, does its absence help? If student achievement lags, are smaller classes where we lay the blame?

The air is filled with ways to fix our schools. I happen to be queer on evidence based policy. Minister Galen Guengerich insists that “knowledge comes first; belief follows.” Half digested theories and demagoguery offend my soul. The first step toward improving something is knowing how to. But how do we know? David Brooks cautions, “The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.” Of course that doesn’t mean we throw our hands up in despair.

What qualifies policy makers, much less ordinary citizens, to evaluate the findings of educational research? Experience as a parent, teacher or former kid may be drawn upon, and remember, intuition matters. We can rely on authorities, but none are immune from bias, and even credible experts have been known to change their minds.

We could listen to the politicians. Politicians hold B.S. degrees, and I don’t mean Bachelor of Science. Politicians interfering with the schools is nothing novel. New York City’s Mayor LaGuardia sought to abolish kindergarten in the 1940’s, as did GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. In the 1960’s, the era of the first real political incursions into public education, Mayor John Lindsay’s push for community control gave rise to some pretty crooked New York City local school boards. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently chose businesswoman Cathleen Black to run the city’s schools (and promptly replaced her). Mayoral control of big city schools, e.g. Chicago’s, has not always been successful.

My mother knew she was going to be a teacher when she was six or seven. She worshipped her teachers and followed them to school. Yet, as Peter Schrag reminds us, there was never a golden age of American education. Minorities a hundred years ago, including many of our forbearers, were considered less than human. Schools were segregated by race. High school graduates were once a rarity, and from April to November rural kids, especially in the South, had no school at all. Fifty years ago Americans were asking “Why can’t Johnny read?” and scrambling to improve science education when the Soviets launched Sputnik. Desegregation, busing and community control brought challenges a decade later. The schools reflect the realities of their times.

Nathan Glazer tells us that Americans were content with the public schools until “something happened” in the 1960’s. Desegregating schools “could no longer be insulated from politics.” The American family structure changed as well. Glazer remembers when “everyone went home for lunch, or brought sandwiches. There were no lunchrooms in elementary and junior high schools then.”

The New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y. maintains a display of New York City’s schools in the twentieth century’s age of immigration. Graduates of “normal” schools taught overcrowded classes of students unfamiliar with English, much less the culture. Their parents, explains Glazer, were frequently illiterate workers who distrusted public schools and had lower expectations for their children than Asian immigrant parents of today. Tarnished gold notwithstanding, these schools did an amazing job.

Schools have changed since 1911, of course. The one- room school house gave rise to the regional high; teacher preparation moved from normal schools to our greatest universities. We live in an age of mass communication and social technology. A hundred years of history has gone by. But all has not changed for the better. States still differ widely in what they offer students. Children of affluence still get better schooling than the poor. Non English speaking students are still the teacher’s challenge, and women whose sole career option was teaching now have greener fields from which to chose. The easy take is that our schools alone have let us down.

Twentieth century schools prepared students for a far less technologically advanced and entirely different employment situation than today’s. The breath of international economic competition is at our necks and all kinds of jobs go overseas. When Chester Finn compared the scores of Shanghai’s students to America’s, he was “kind of stunned” and started “thinking Sputnik.” In the past students were prepared for roles in an industrial society. Now we must re-gear.

Policy researcher Ben Wildavsky presents a contrarian case in March/April, 2011’s Foreign Policy. Sputnik moments be damned, says he. “Even at the height of U.S. geopolitical dominance and economic strength, American students were never anywhere near the head of the class.” Remember the contrasting photos of those Korean and American high school kids I mentioned earlier? Immediately after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Life magazine covered a day in the life of an indolent high school kid in Chicago. The slothful will be always with us.

Wildavsky reminds us that “unfortunately, the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic demographics of the United States- none of which have analogies in Finland or South Korea- correlate closely with yawning achievement gaps in education.” He counsels “Americans should be less worried about how their own kids compare with kids in Helsinki than how students in the Bronx measure up to their peers in Westchester county.”

Yet even the skeptical Wildavsky agrees we should care about our schools. Education is democracy’s “best defense,” and that is no abstraction. We must compete to maintain our treasured way of life. Tom Friedman says that every time he tells his girls to do their homework, he competes with China.

An education can dispel ignorance and mitigate its consequences. It can prepare students to become responsible citizens and employable, successful workers in a dizzyingly changing, highly competitive world. And John Caris’s recommended “opportunities for human growth, self-development, and self-realization.”

But enough of these abstractions. What, exactly, are we going to do? A doctor examines the patient before deciding on a course of treatment. Plumbers find the leak before they fix the pipes.

Next: The Usual (and Unusual) Suspects

Joel: Letters