Letter From Los Angeles
January 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quotes and Thoughts of The Issue

“God grant us the austerity to defund America back into recession, courage to ignore basic economics and wisdom, to know everything we do can be reversed by a future Congress before any of it takes effect.”– New York Times Sunday cartoon

Bill Clinton makes a practice of saying “I don’t know” and “I was wrong” every day. He finds it “therapeutic.”

“The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why human beings have two ears but only one tongue. Why is this? Possibly so that we have to listen twice as much as we speak.”– Author Henning Mankell

“Most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.”– June Jordan, novelist and poet

Santorum in Iowa

Rick Santorum’s razor thin defeat for blue ribbon in the Iowa Republican Caucus is not just a scary showing by right wing evangelical Christians. His success demonstrates that organization counts as much as the conviction that one speaks for God.

Lemon to Lemonade

A few years ago in these pages I chastised CNN’s news anchor Don Lemon for making love to the TV camera, and I suggested he save his google eyes for his significant other or his wife. I change that to “boyfriend or his husband,” because Lemon is among Out Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Gays of 2011.

Cellfish

The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for a nation-wide ban on the use of cell phones while driving. In a 2010 NY Times Op Ed piece Oprah Winfrey made a impassioned plea not to text or use a hand held phone while driving. I thank Ms Winfrey and I support the ban.

You’d never know that a law prohibits driving while talking on the phone or texting in California. Last spring I marveled as a Beverly Hills driver made a right without taking his eyes off of his phone, In West Hollywood, where I live, a cop pulled alongside a violator. “I’m sorry, but would you please not talk on the phone while driving?” the cop asked with an apologetic grin. “Sorry?” “Please?!” I would have pulled the driver over and given her a ticket. But how much good would a $20 penalty do? Five of those in a year is a hundred measly bucks.

In 2009, Harvard University counted 2,600 fatal crashes due to driving while talking on a phone. The following year UC Berkeley Wellness Newsletter reported “at least 28% of all traffic crashes in the U,S.- or 1.6 million crashes each year- are caused by drivers using cell phones or reading messages, (including) 1.4 million crashes each year caused by cell phones and at least 200,000 crashes caused by texting. At any given moment, about one in ten drivers is using a phone, and one in 100 is texting.”

Pedestrian Lloyd got lightly hit by such a driver a few years ago, but he wasn’t injured. (As the idiot was driving a company car we collected plenty.) A less charitable soul would wonder whether a legislator’s wife or kids have to die as a result of such an accident before a total ban and tough enforcement were enacted. When a fatality occurs the outcome, take my word, is more enduring for the corpse than for the perpetrator. The occasional well publicized manslaughter conviction and harsh sentence would be the start of a solution.

Jesus

The man we call Jesus is the historical character I’d most like to meet. This is not Joel humor; I mean it. I have much I’d like to ask the man from Galilee. First I would apprize him of changes in the past two thousand years. And I would take him on a tour before I asked some questions.

What would Jesus say about his place in Christianity? (First I would have to explain where “Christ” comes from and what Christianity is and has become.) I would want to know if he is God, more God-like than others of his species or an example of what we could become, and his reaction to such concepts as the Trinity. Who exactly is he, and what was the purpose of his life? Did he intend for us to take the virgin birth and resurrection literally? What was and is his message? How should we regard him, and how should we behave?

What, I would respectfully request, does he think of what’s been done in his name. (The Crusades and Inquisition come to mind.) And what of German, Austrian, Polish “Christians” and the Holocaust, in which, not incidentally, he would have been destroyed. What is Jesus’ opinion of abortion, homosexuality, evolution, physician assisted suicide, marital infidelity, excess and display, corruption in business and in politics, capital punishment, war, commonplaces like selfishness and hypocrisy, and unbelievers like myself? I’d like to hear from his own lips his position on forgiveness and human frailty. What does he think about the various sects and churches, of popes, Joseph Smith and Martin Luther? Of Islam? Of his professed followers not allowing African Americans in their churches or gays or Jews to live next door?

If I believed in an afterlife I’d put myself on his, or His, waiting list for sure.

Our Country’s Founders

My second choice for lunch with people from the past would be the likes of Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Jay. I’d seek reassurance that these men understood ambiguity. I’d appreciate their take on the adaptability of the Constitution they gave us to our challenges today. Like the gentleman in the paragraph above, I’d ask what they think of what’s been done in their name.

Borders R.I.P.

I felt sorrowful browsing the aisles one last time at my favorite Borders in Century City, L.A. I know, I know. I hear the promoters and their minions. A 65 year old friend exhorts, “The age of books is over, Joel. Get with the program.” A 23 year old provoked me by predicting in a few years books will disappear. I’m not necessarily mourning the disappearance of the mega-bookstore, but Barnes and Noble, Amazon, independent bookstores and private collections may be all that stands between us and the end of the physical book.

Call me greedy: I want both the books and the machine some say will open doors. Too bad, of course, that future generations may not know the pleasure of browsing before they buy, or the feel of an edition in their hands, the sifting through the pages. Handsome built-in bookshelves have already been replaced by the contents of Ikea, and drawers and closets jammed with lots of clothes. And don’t forget the great big TV screen and the smaller and smaller hand held this and that.

I wonder. Will prosecutors ask judges to “throw the screen at them?” in this world we’re about to enter? What of coffee table books and family Bibles?

Nicole Krauss has written of disappearing bookstores in The New Republic, “It is a curious quality of the internet that it...almost always feeds (the user) the bits that feed her already-held interests and confirm her already-held beliefs. It points to a paradox that is, perhaps, the most critical of our time: To have access to everything may be to have nothing in particular.... If we wished to be changed, and challenged, and undone, then we need a means of placing ourselves in the path of an accident.....A bookstore...asks you to scan the shelves on the way to looking for the thing you had in mind. You go in meaning to buy Hemmingway, but you end up with Homer instead. To browse a bookstore...is to explore a highly selective and thoughtful collection of the world- thoughtful because hundreds of years of thinkers, writers, critics, teachers and readers have established the worth of choices. Their collective wisdom seems superior, for these purposes, to the Web’s ‘neutrality,’ its know-nothing-know-everythingness.” Krauss concludes by asking “Is convenience America’s highest value?” The correct answer, in my opinion, stings.

School children no longer pay attention to required reading anyhow; they read whatever they damn well please. (We’re in an age of self adoration and independence.) The majority of Americans don’t read books on paper or on screens, and when they do it’s to confirm, as Oscar Hammerstein II put it, “what they do not know is so.”

So I’m an older man complaining about an unfamiliar innovation, right? Then how to account for my friends in their twenties who still want physical books? This past autumn while visiting Harvard Square I noticed students reading paperbacks. Today’s youngsters may be wise to follow the betters of their generation. Again, I’m not either/or on this. I’m certain e-book arrangements will have a lot to offer.

A reader in his thirties who works for a major book publisher sees a brighter side for the kind of books we’ve known forever. Books, he predicts, are not leaving us anytime soon. Barnes and Noble is considering opening more outlets (for books as well as Kindle), and the decline of Borders may give independent bookstores a needed boost. Perhaps.

Follow Up on November’s School Daze Segment

A teacher in Ohio who was laid off has now been rehired. Her full time second grade teacher’s salary has been halved to $28,000 a year, and she may soon lose her house. This in the age of the education president.

School Daze VII: Inner City Schools, The Bad News and The Very Good

“The inner city school systems are dropping out the majority of the students.” (Note who’s accused of doing the dropping.) – A wildly gesticulating Bill Gates to Fareed Zakaria, November 6, 2011

“When you’re rich they think you really know.” Tevye– Joel’s response to Mr. Gates

“These kids dropped out in the second grade. They just hang around until somewhere in high school.”– A St. Louis teacher interviewed on TV

“Sometimes very small influences in children’s lives can have very big effects.”– Richard E. Nisbett, professor of psychology

Let’s go back to those contrasting high school photos of the South Korean and middle class American high school classes from the beginning of the series. When we speak of schools in crisis do we mean those in Scarsdale and Palo Alto, or in Newark and New Orleans? We fret about lack of academic rigor and student seriousness among the middle class because their employment prospects and the American economy are at stake. But in our inner cities- more accurately poverty, crime, ignorance and disease infested slums- we often witness tragedy.

Ah, euphemism! We call them inner city schools. Their students are Latino, black, Dominican and Puerto Rican. Attendance, literacy rates, parental involvement, behavior, achievement, graduation and drop out rates, and often the ability to speak English, differ vastly from the schools in more affluent neighborhoods. Lagging behind in math and science seems a luxury in comparison.

In 2003, social commentator Nathan Glazer explained, “We tend to speak of the problem as a minority problem or a race problem....but there are only two minorities, as the term is currently used, that show this problem of substantially poorer education achievement, [namely] Hispanics and blacks.” “But more important,” Glazer continues, “even the Hispanic average doesn’t show the same degree of educational deficiency we find among blacks.”

Study after study finds that income inequality alone does not explain the achievement gap. Sons and daughters of more affluent African American families score considerably lower on the SAT than economically disadvantaged white kids. In the bad old days racial inferiority would have been a common explanation. Today’s analysis looks to ghetto schools, African American culture and social ills for cause and blame, and as always to principals and teachers who just don’t care.

Undoubtedly the prevailing “school ain’t cool,” or “acting white,” attitude among inner city African American children is in need of major alteration. A black high school student in a museum study group asked what the museum was doing about “elitism.” The teacher reminded the lad, “You’ve come because you want to learn something, or better yourself in some way, and I’d say that makes you an elitist.” Bill Cosby is appalled that black students don’t carry books to school and publicly call one another “nigger.”

How can we expect improvement, critics argue, when so many African American parents don’t spend time with their children, read to them, monitor their homework or model more successful habits? The parents are not the only culprits, though. Survey any inner city neighborhood and witness the broken lives and homes, the housing, the frequent relocation, men hanging out on corners instead of working, the fathers and father figures not present because they’re in jail or dead. No wonder children ask “What’s the use?” and enter kindergarten less prepared for success than their more fortunate peers. Poor African Americans are often conscientious parents, certainly, but simply not enough of them.

So Which Comes First?

Debate rages over whether to first improve schools or ameliorate social conditions, vice- versa or in tandem. You don’t have to guess where this writer stands. Not being the either/or type, I want ongoing progress on as many fronts as possible.

In June, 2008, a group known as the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, represented by scholar Diane Ravitch, and another, the Education Equality Project, Joel Klein and Al Sharpton presiding, came into being. The Ravitches, we’ll call them, believe that schools alone can’t solve all their student’s problems. The Kleins see the problem as the schools.

“Studies dating from 1960s have suggested that children’s experiences inside the classroom are responsible for as little as 20 percent of their overall educational development,” according to the New York Times. “No less important is how they spend their evenings, their weekends, their vacations.” These findings lend support to the Ravitches,

Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who is deeply involved in New Orleans’s post Katrina schools, surprised some by acknowledging Ravitch’s approach. “If we want to really get kids to the level that we want to get them....we would be well served if we took care....of mental health issues, of physical ailments and teeth and eye examinations. Including, you know, where these kids go home to sleep at night. I’ve lived in this community a long time, and I can’t imagine how I could ever feel comfortable in neighborhoods that these kids live in at night. And yet they do, and we still expect them to do well.” Pragmatic Pastorek continues, “But I can’t take the position I can’t succeed unless I have those things.... Now will it be hard? Probably yes, but I have to take that approach, because I don’t have really any other cards to play.”

As a young junior high school English teacher in 1940s Harlem, my mentor Sylvia Mininberg kept fresh flowers on her desk as a way for her students to feel more welcome. Her classroom became a kind of home. Later as a principal she made everything in the neighborhood, including social services, safety and sanitation, her concern.

Writer Jonathan Mahler shares his ambivalence in his New York Times article “The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx.” “It’s hard to disagree with the reform movement’s insistence that poverty, like ignorant or apathetic parents, should not be accepted as an excuse for failing schools. But....it’s just as hard to ignore the reality that poverty is an immutable obstacle in the path of improving public education, one that can’t be simply swept aside by the rhetoric of raised expectations, Is it really surprising that a child whose family had been forced to move into a homeless shelter....was having trouble getting himself to school and was acting out in class? Is it realistic to think that demanding more of him and his teachers is all that is required?” Where do my readers stand on this?

Founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone Geoffrey Canada- more about his program in the following edition- provides what the New York Times calls “the first organization in the country that pulls together under a single umbrella integrated social and educational services for thousands of children at once.” Included in what Canada calls a “conveyer belt” of services are a parenting program, family counseling, after school tutoring and a health clinic. The man’s not either/or.

The Party Line

Americans often think along party lines about their inner city schools. Conservatives favor school privatization and vouchers, and an approach to alleviating poverty that stresses greater individual initiative. However, even arch libertarian Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey sees a role for government intervention when “circumstances not of (an individual’s) choosing- namely how they were raised and whom they grew up with- may have prevented them from ever developing the capabilities to thrive and flourish.” The religious right has an affection for home schooling. A non-ideological pragmatic liberal like myself agrees with libertarian Lindsey and favors whatever works. Progressives aim for an all out effort by government to eradicate income equality and poverty. But whatever one’s perspective or approach, when kids are in danger and their future prospects dim we had better act.

Give Teachers A Dose of Old Ruth Love: Bribe ‘Em!

A great deal of attention has been focused on the quality of teachers in inner city schools. Neophytes are mindlessly assigned to the most difficult schools regardless of their capability or wishes. Teach for America is dedicated to placing the best young teachers in troubled schools, a big step forward.

Teachers with seniority often refuse to be transferred, for which they are condemned. Middle class students need good teachers too, they correctly reason. How ironic that experienced teachers, who are commonly regarded as burnt out and just hanging around for their pensions, are the ones we bitch about avoiding ghetto schools. Veterans aren’t necessarily the best teachers or young ones the least gifted, but to stock schools most in need with beginners is heartless to the teachers and the kids. And sending teachers who excel with middle class children is not enough, either. Inner city schools need specialists in succeeding against all odds.

Is success always possible? Many years ago, San Francisco’s Deputy Superintendent Linda Davis assured a radio audience that teachers can motivate each and every child. I almost gagged when I heard that one. Even Hobart’s Rafe Esquith, whom you’ll meet in the next edition, has been unable to reach a third of his class. Perhaps another teacher will get to them later on, and we should never dream of giving up. But unless we assign a social worker 24/7 to every child at risk-and even then!- there are circumstances beyond the best teacher’s control.

Well into to her tenure as a junior high school principal in an essentially middle class school in the central Bronx, Sylvia Mininberg contemplated going back to Harlem. Her request to bring along her own team right down to her secretary was denied, and she stayed just where she was. The way to hook the best people is to offer them the Dream Job with the Dream Team. Give crackerjack teachers the dream principal (and vice-versa), the dream guidance specialists, the dream colleagues, and the dream clerical, paraprofessional and custodial staff as well. Add teacher union and school board support for independence regarding hiring, funding, policy, curriculum and instructional methods- and an understanding of human potential and human limitations (horrors!)- and you may just get somewhere.

Involuntarily transferring teachers to ghetto schools runs counter to union contracts and to reason. How to persuade the right teachers to transfer voluntarily? I say bribe ‘em! Offer extra pay of course, but recognize that every teacher has her price. Give ‘em a dose of old Ruth Love.

Ruth B. Love’s name caught my attention when I first lived in San Francisco’s in the 1970s. After heading Oakland’s schools, Love, an African American, interviewed for the school superintendency in Chicago. When the board saw they were losing Love’s interest a member shrewdly struck the superintendent’s soft point. In an offhand way he mentioned how tough the job was going to be. Her favorite apostle must have been Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, because then Ruth Love was hooked.

I also favor incentivizing better functioning schools to lend or send their best teachers to needy schools in exchange for additional staff for each voluntarily transfer, special funding for programs like theater, sports or art, or the promise of some day getting the beloved teacher back. People like to think of themselves as noble. Perhaps a school in south central L.A. could establish a Beverly Hills High Teaching Chair. Top teachers might be persuaded to tutor after hours in inner city schools if relieved of mundane responsibilities. In the 1950’s, my high school history and science teachers lent a hand, pro bono, to schools in Harlem.

To ask teachers to work in schools that aren’t free of violence is as irresponsible as expecting kids to learn in them. Disruptive behavior is more prevalent in inner city schools. Violent students must be removed from the building and taught elsewhere, but never thrown out on the street. A security officer must always be on duty in any kind of school for a variety of reasons.

Al Shanker said, “In many schools a teacher cannot get satisfaction from the job because of a small percentage of students who are violent, who are not learning. Instead, they are preventing other children from learning and driving out competent teachers. A good teacher does not want to be a policeman, a psychiatrist or a jailer. The schools must come to grips with this.”

Children of poverty often learn to deal with their frustrations violently, which is modeled in their homes and on their streets. Community Boards, which are conflict resolution organizations across the country, have come into many schools. Student monitors trained in techniques of conflict resolution are trained to intervene in lunchrooms, schoolyards and wherever trouble may break out. I cannot over-praise this effort.

In the next edition I’m going to take you into real life inner schools and introduce you to people whom some call heroes. The conclusion of the series will come in the edition after that.

Joel: Letters