Letter From The Berkshires
September, 2011
© 2011 Joel


For all its Irishness, the musical Finian’s Rainbow is a quintessential American story. I thank Kate Maguire for a lovely production at the Berkshire Theater Festival this summer. I thank the show’s creators for the lyrics and the lines.

One of the characters, a bigoted U,S. Senator, becomes black so he can learn a lesson, which he does. Earlier he tells constituents on whose property he’s about to foreclose, “I don’t have time to read the Constitution. I’m too busy enforcing it.” A lyric refers to “the misbegotten G.O.P.”

Best Bumper Sticker Ever

Seen this summer in Lenox, Ma. “God Bless Everyone In the World- No Exceptions.” The sticker was a comment on God’s solely blessing Americans, not the monsters of the world like Quadaffi and Assad.

Goodnight, Irene
(And Drop Dead, Eric)

TV commentators fell all over one another to warn the public not to expect the government to help them during or after Hurricane Irene. The hell it didn’t. Police officers, rescue workers, personnel at local shelters, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and mayors and governors from both ends of the political spectrum showed the world how we respond to an emergency. What a welcome contrast to Japan’s handling of last winter’s tsunami and nuclear disaster, and our behavior regarding New Orleans in 2005.

Drop Dead, Eric is for Tea Bag Congressman Cantor, who wants to take money from other government programs that help people to pay for relief from Irene.


A commentary on statesmanship from David Fromkin’s masterful history of the creation of the “modern” Middle East is my comment on a recent political crisis here at home.

“This was the sort of statesmanship to which Churchill was accustomed; but he did not find it in the Palestinian delegation in London, which did no more than repeat its demands. Palestine was an area of complex and competing claims, but the Arab delegation took account of no claims, fears, needs or dreams other than its own...

In Churchill’s eyes, the members of the Arab delegation were not doing what politicians are supposed to do; they were not aiming to reach an agreement- any agreement. Apparently unwilling to offer even 1% in order to get 99%, they offered no incentive to the other side to make concessions. Churchill remonstrated with the Arab leaders- to no effect.”

The American debt ceiling “crisis” of 2011 had nothing to do with Palestinians, Arabs or Winston Churchill, rest assured.

Death: We Cannot Live Without It

This is only for readers who won’t ever die. (Keep reading, wise guy.)

I can’t wait for the release of Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. Cave maintains that being alive forever would make life, well, meaningless. “Action would lose its purpose and time its value.” Every pillar of civilization from the arts, religion, political organization and action, the accumulation of wealth, fame and, of course, bearing children (imagine freeways if death were abolished) is based on knowing we will someday die.

In a video I own and treasure entitled Word Is Out (San Francisco’s Mariposa Film Group), lesbians and gays describe their coming out, which was pretty daring when the film was made in 1978. Thirty years later one of the original participants, John Burnside, then past ninety, spoke of immortality. He likened life to “a wonderful design” or “tapestry” which is “woven every day. When you die the weaver is no longer weaving the pattern, but the pattern is.” Author Cave would rest his case in peace.

Something Wrawng?

The older man congratulated the star of the rock opera Tommy at an opening night party I attended in July. “Anyone who isn’t moved by ‘I Feel’ (Tommy’s anthem) just isn’t human,” the man went on.

This makes me inhuman and exemplifies a widespread sentiment: if you don’t value what I value there’s something wrong with you. That condemnation applies to differences in politics, enthusiasms, possessions and tastes in music and the other arts. Latin speakers told us there’s no arguing in matters of taste. In this context taste is simply what appeals to you.

Differences will always be with us- the trick is learning how to handle them. Our immediate Berkshire neighbors are a conservative Christian and an ultra Orthodox Jew, both of whom we get along with famously. Take the movie Midnight in Paris. Some think it’s brilliant; I couldn’t wait for it to end. When I told a friend I’m not a Woody Allen fan he countered, “I’ll bet you wish you had his success.” The man needs to develop a tolerance for the preferences of others. (So do liberals and conservatives.)

Tommy is the favorite rock musical of a friend who reads this letter. We enjoy a mock- insulting correspondence about our show biz and literary differences and that’s o.k. Each of us saves a lot of money by avoiding entertainments that the other recommends.

How often, though, I get “What’s wrong with you?” when I don’t go on someone else’s vacation or paint my house their favorite color. “I don’t believe that anyone in this day and age doesn’t own a __________ (insert latest high tech gadget) is a common variation. Can people not think of something more original to say, like nothing?

Our tastes are too often conditioned by the enthusiasms of others, Peers and commercial interests tell us what to treasure, and we willingly obey. Mustn’t hurt another’s feelings by disagreeing. If everyone likes or does it I’d damn well better too, concludes the other directed mind. (Read David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd.).

More feathers get ruffled by disagreements over entertainment than even politics. Few of my generation don’t appreciate Elton John, James Taylor, The Beatles, Stephen Spielberg and Jerry Seinfeld except myself. Have you noticed that PBS nighttime programming consists almost entirely of time-worn singing groups from the 1960s? If that’s my generation’s preference, fine with me, but don’t expect my check when PBS calls for contributions.

I’ve never liked rock music from Elvis Presley on, and I can’t abide the Beach Boys, I asked a rock musician friend and reader to help expand my tastes. He says that isn’t possible, because you like what you hear or you don’t.

Popular music is frequently a product of the economically disadvantaged. Rock has African American roots and was popularized by working class, long haired guys from England. There’s nothing wrong with that. Irving Berlin, arguably America’s most beloved songwriter of his generation, hailed from Manhattan’s lower east side. A lyric from the musical Rags proclaims that “where folks are poor, that’s where music is rich.”

Then why do my tastes run to the upper middle class Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim and the silver spoon fed Mr. Porter? Maybe because I grew up listening to them at home. Perhaps because I value the inventive over the obvious. Maybe because I have corny taste just like everybody else.

I get goosebumps from Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, Old Man River, You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Impossible Dream. My tastes are hardly always highbrow, e.g. I don’t dig Gustav Mahler. I’m everything everybody else is, just in my own way. I’m the inner directed type.

The New York Times once ran a feature about popular music. Music changed (not necessarily for the better, the reasoning went) when pop composers switched from piano to guitar. I don’t know enough about music theory or technique to render an opinion, but that change coincided with the advent of the music I don’t care to listen to.

My beloved oldies are occasionally “rediscovered” but are mostly disappearing. The Showboats, Pal Joeys and Kiss Me Kates have been relegated to mediocre Broadway revivals and treasured summer theaters here and there. Contemporary stage stars, who come from Hollywood, don’t want these roles or know how to play or sing them. A young actor/singer I know who worships rock wants to master the traditional repertoire also, much to his credit. I hope he finds some use for what he learns.

That pop culture, here defined as the preference of the numerical majority, has won is incontestable. Special effects, sound amplification and going for the easy laugh head today’s performance values. Even symphony goers judge the conductor by his theatricality. I don’t argue that my standards should be everyone’s or that mine are somehow better, but I yearn for greater subtlety, maturity and the inherent power of restraint in my performing arts. Great art is more than vaudeville.

I hope that when people disagree about music, movies, politics, broccoli versus Brussels sprouts or brunettes vs. blondes they bring better manners to the table.

School Daze IV The Radically Wrong

“Every new cycle of panic and self-flagellation has brought with it a fresh crop of reformers touting a new solution to U.S. academic woes.... Education wonks from across the policy spectrum (are) enlisting the U.S. education system’s sorry global ranking to make the case for their pet ideas.”—Policy wonk Ben Wildavsky

“If anyone is more removed from the realities of the classroom than education bureaucrats, it is the education pundits themselves.”—Sara Mosle, The New Republic

“Improving schools has been a goal since I was a kid.”—Performer Eartha Kitt, who was born in 1927

Note: Issues such as teacher training, recruitment, placement and tenure, all vital to school reform, will appear in upcoming segments about teachers.

The Expanded Federal Role

To understand the direction in which public schools are heading in 2011, the expanded federal role must be considered. American schooling has traditionally been a state and local function. In countries with outstanding records of public school achievement such as Finland, Japan and South Korea, the central governments run the education show.

Washington’s expanded role is rapidly becoming the new normal. Three articles in this spring’s high school publication, The Horace Mann Review, appeal to Congress to improve our schools. In what Time Magazine called “the most substantive education reform in thirty-five years,” George W. Bush instituted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001. Federal funding for school districts became linked to scores on standardized achievement tests. Republicans objected to the Dept. of Education in principle, while teachers balked at being evaluated on the basis of their student’s test scores. Conservatives wanted vouchers so they could send their kids to private (read religious) schools; the libertarians among them favored management of schools by private firms.

In order to qualify for funding, some states with unsatisfactory schools simply lowered their test standards, aka racing to the bottom. Others fiddled with their test results. In 2010, several governors agreed to adopt common educational standards. This is what President Obama intended in his Race to the Top, which funds schools based on each state’s devotion to charter schools and continues to evaluate teachers on the basis of their students’ scores. Attendance and “classroom environment” have been added to controversial test results in assessing teacher performance.

Former assistant secretary of education, influential author and scholar Diane Ravitch went from an all-out supporter of NCLB to one of its harshest critics. Ravitch is one of the few educational reformers who is willing to admit to mistakes or makes a shred of sense. The title of her volume, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Public Education, summarizes her conversion. Ravitch regards NCLB as a disaster. Low income students and those who don’t speak English pull down test scores, not “failing” schools. “Vouchers and charters don’t serve kids better on average than regular public schools, and testing has squeezed every creative drop out of the school day.”

Obama’s Race to the Top is “a massive waste of money that will produce perverse consequences,” she continues. Teachers will “teach to the test” and consequently give short shrift to instruction in the arts, science, history and foreign languages. The Administration “will end up closing schools that are struggling to improve, dismantling the teaching profession, destabilizing communities, and harming public education.” The “mayoral control” of schools Secretary of Education Arne Duncan favors has itself failed in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. As recently as May, 2010, President Obama remained committed to firing staff and closing “failed” facilities. Ravitch eschews this punitive approach. For her- and me- “schools are about support.”

With successive presidents from opposing parties pushing for education reform, the secret’s out. American kids are not up to their counterparts in other developed countries and our schools need fixing. Into this breach have jumped serious educators, political opportunists, and those I call:

The Sorely Tested

“An end to high stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher and school evaluation:” a tenet of “education heavyweights” such as Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol and Deborah Meier who organized the July 30, 2011 Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C.

Actor Matt Damon addressed the rally from his heart.

“I was raised by a teacher... I had incredible teachers. As I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself-- my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity-- all come from how I was parented and taught.

”And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned-- none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success---none of these qualities that make me who I am---can be tested.

”I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep---this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

”Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, “My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous....

”I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized tests. If their very survival as teachers was based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test, If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strength and helping us realize our talents.....

”This has been a horrible decade for teachers.... So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself being called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything.... Please know that there are millions of us behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”

Perhaps the best known and most controversial of the radically wrong is the thirty-nine year former Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee, the single cause explainer of them all, her cause being teachers and their unions. Whether Rhee’s professional demeanor is deliberate or the product of a genuinely nasty nature doesn’t really matter. Good leaders inspire fear of failure, not of themselves.

On the infamous Time Magazine cover of September 8, 2008, Chancellor Rhee is standing in a classroom, legs apart, dressed in a black pants suit and holding a broom. Whether the broom symbolizes Rhee’s penchant for sweeping away those she deems incompetent or her means of transportation is uncertain. The cover’s title is “How To Fix America’s Schools.”

Ms. Rhee lives up to her foreboding appearance. “Teachers hate her. Principals are scared of her,” Alice Ripley’s piece in Time almost approvingly begins. Ripley’s questionable assertion that “The biggest problem with U.S. public schools is ineffective teaching according to decades of research” follows. “Rhee is, as a rule, far nicer to students than to most adults,” Ripley continues. “She doesn’t smile or nod or do any of the things most people do to put others at ease. She reads her Blackberry when people talk to her.”

Apparently Ms. Rhee is also quite a comic, known for “her standard imitation of people she doesn’t respect. She uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times politicians or parents. Never students. ‘People say, Well, you know test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,’ Rhee says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap?’ (A crap? Isn’t that the idiom of people who make motion pictures and of Joel?) “Rhee’s ferocity has alienated many people,” Ripley writes, “even those who support her ideas and could be helpful to her.” The Chancellor “frowned like a specter” at teachers during unannounced visits to classrooms and “smiled only when students smiled at her first.”

Cornell educated Rhee began her extensive three year career in the classroom with Teach for America in a Baltimore elementary school. During her first year she got a case of hives and “could not control (her) class.” She raised the achievement levels of the same group of children during her next (and final) two years in the classroom, and was anguished that they had to go on to teachers far less special than herself. During the succeeding decade, now “an expert,” Rhee founded and steered the New Teacher Project, a non profit dedicated to recruiting high powered teachers. She had the right bias and attitude to grab attention, and was recommended for the D.C. chancellorship by her New York City counterpart, Joel Klein.

Michelle Rhee became the Mandy Patinkin (an over-the-top Broadway actor) of school superintendency, and the Sasha Baron Cohen of educational reform. (See any of Cohen’s lousy movies and you’ll understand.) Her mission, simply put, has been to replace her idea of bad teachers and principals with her idea of good ones. To that end she fired people right and left, closed schools and boasted of it, then locked horns with the teachers union over tenure. Rhee hurled unsubstantiated charges of teachers hitting and sexually abusing children as cause for their dismissal. What else she did to improve conditions in the nation’s capital goes unreported. An African American Harvard School of Education graduate I’ve met left teaching, prior to Rhee, because her D.C. students set her hair on fire. Significantly, even parents often disapproved of the school head’s “my way or the highway” tactics. Rhee hasn’t grasped that being tough is not the same as being strong.

If standardized test results weren’t doctored (as they were in New York State, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, possibly New York City, and most recently Atlanta) during Rhee’s short tenure, D.C.’s children did make impressive gains in reading and in math. After D.C.’s Mayor Fenty, who had recruited and championed Rhee, lost his bid for re-election, Rhee saw the handwriting on the wall and left her post, moaning what a sad day for the children her leaving was. Currently, the superintendent on steroids heads StudentsFirst, an organization dedicated to raising a billion dollars to change the face of education. A former Rhee enthusiast reports “she is now advising several conservative governors....whose commitment to public education is questionable.” Her patron saint, Joel Klein, now works for Rupert Murdoch.

Rhee would have enjoyed the 1960’s. No book written by a teacher in that decade was complete without slamming the author’s senior colleagues for their lack of caring. Novice teachers often bitch that “The trouble is those so-called experienced teachers. They gave up long ago and are just staying for the pay.”

I see their point. For a $48,000 national average annual salary who wouldn’t kill to be a surrogate parent, conflict resolution manager and psychological social worker to a group of other people’s kids? Less tangible but equally real benefits include: spending hours of one’s private time on thought and preparation; exposure to parental threats, administrative indifference and physical abuse; redundant paperwork; lack of materials, supplies and anything resembling support; and the head shaking, tongue clucking of one’s supremely gifted junior colleagues who, by virtue of their inexperience, “care” far more.

Which is not to deny the contributions of capable young teachers. When serious adults of any age set about improving children’s well being, the remarkable can happen. First, however, several issues need to be resolved. Among them: teaching measurable academic skills to the exclusion of those deemed superfluous; granting school administrations greater liberty to fire ineffective teachers while protecting all the others; making curriculum and methodology decisions at central headquarters or by professionals in their schools; supporting charter schools and vouchers or putting all our resources into public education; administering schools by experienced educators or by managers from unrelated fields; reforming schools first, or addressing social pathology.

No discussion of the radically wrong would be complete without a look at policy regarding “failing schools.” Want to consolidate your John Wayne image? Go before the cameras and tell how you’re going to take on failing schools and failing teachers.

Former New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein knows a failing school when he sees one. After all, the man taught briefly a long, long time ago and he can read a number. If achievement scores in a school have gone from minus ten to 64 and the pass/fail cutoff score is, say, 65, everybody gets the ax, student and parental satisfaction notwithstanding. Previously successful schools with little room for improvement had better meet their numbers too, or they are failing schools.

If police were sincere about speed limits, libertarians soundly argue, they would cruise along in traffic where they could be clearly seen, not establish speed traps. Parking enforcers would say, “Uh, uh, uh! Don’t park there.” Similarly, if reformers valued improving schools as highly as presiding over reigns of terror, they would celebrate successful principals and teachers publicly instead of harping on those who “fail.”

For all their faults, reformers like Rhee and Klein understand that we can’t wait for the world to change to start educating children. School reform begins within the classroom.

Next: Who Will Teach Our Kids?

Joel: Letters