Letter From Los Angeles
February 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.–Justice James Nelson in his dissent from the Montana Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Citizens United

Wealth in politics makes a certain sense. The same drive, vanity, accomplishment and ingenuity that fuel a successful political career often fuel high earnings beforehand. And those earnings in some instances win voters’ confidence.– Frank Bruni, New York Time columnist

For fans of the British TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances. Rose (to Daisy): Do you believe in life after death? Daisy (looking at Onslow, her slob of a neglectful husband): I hope so, ‘cause there’s not too much before it.

Nevertheless, how do you solve a problem like a teacher? At heart unreasonable bastards, they insist on getting paid.–Joel, from School Daze in this issue

Reading Recommendation Alert
(Where Are You, Frank and Steve?)

A caller to a radio talk show this past week bemoaned the decline of America’s vast middle class, which he correctly claims had its run in the decades following World War II and may be headed toward the graveyard.

In “The Future of History,” (Foreign Affairs Jan,/Feb. 2012), scholar Francis Fukuyama asks, “Can liberal democracy survive the decline of the middle class?” On this subject the author is understandably worried. Why, he asks, though in more polite language, are those who have been screwed so seemingly quiescent? Fukuyama faults the political left’s “failure in the realm of ideas.”

“The left has not been able to make a plausible case for an agenda other than a return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy.” How true. All I hear from my left of center friends is “Denmark! Sweden!” Fukuyama “imagines” the broad outlines of “an ideology of the future” which I find sensible and sensitive. He concludes, “The alternative narrative is out there, waiting to be born.”

Where have you gone Franklin Roosevelt? Where have you gone, Steven Jobs? We can only hope that an individual with the vision and leadership abilities worthy of this challenge is also waiting to be born.

Make That Call

For the first time in ages I called Senators Boxer and Feinstein and Congressman Henry Waxman, urging their vote to eliminate Congressional insider trading. As we’re learning, the measure isn’t as comprehensive or stringent as many would prefer. Congress is both a reflection and cause of the moral laxity of our time.

For those who can’t contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns, know you’re not entirely powerless. Send e-mails and letters and get on the phone, and tell your friends to do the same. Get behind good candidates for local public office and help them rise. Sign on to Senator Bernie Sanders’s constitutional amendment stripping corporations of their so-called personhood. Show up at town hall style meetings and voice your concerns about legislation or general trends. Connect with activist groups and do some lobbying of your own, however modest or local. Some politicians want to do what’s right but will only act if we get behind them.

Connect, act and stay informed. And stop complaining, We the People: cause a stir! Winning is unlikely but not impossible.

We Do!

On February 7 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court struck down California’s ban on same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 8, on the grounds that it violates the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The panel wisely avoided “deciding whether there was a constitutional right for same sex couples to marry,” which could have thrown the issue into our Supreme Court Injustice’s right wing hands. California’s bigots have had their moment. Our fair state is all the fairer now.

Seven states- most recently Washington- now permit lesbians and gays to marry. Within their borders dwell more than twenty percent of our country’s population.

Middle East Nightmares

With an able assist from Russia and China, the unabated slaughter in Syria rages on. The possibility that Israel may soon strike Iran’s nuclear facilities or be vulnerable to a devastating attack upon its land and people is the stuff of nightmares also. Egypt, Libya, and Iraq aren’t pillars of stability either, none of which is good news for the United States and other oil-dependent nations. The U.S. has helped topple governments, but what control does it have over what comes next?

The leading American values in this disturbing context are humanitarian, strategic and economic. Everything we do or don’t do has the potential to come back to haunt us big, big time. I hope Israel can be persuaded not to launch a preemptive attack, as the consequences for their safety and American interests could be grave. Still, Israel must be protected. Future editions may bring more developed ideas, not the least of which is curbing the fossil fuel consumption which is at the heart of our involvement in the Middle East, and I welcome yours.

Buzz Off: A Follow Up on Last Edition’s “Cellfish”

On February 3 I observed a concerted effort by a team of police officers on Sunset Blvd. in L.A. to pull over and cite those who were driving while speaking on their hand held cell phones. One officer had to tell a young driver repeatedly, “No. You cannot do that.” To another officer I said, “Good work, what you’re doing. Thank you!” I was rewarded with a “You are welcome” which was quite sincere.

Big deal, of course. Not a single driver will miss the twenty bucks they’ve been fined or likely remember the momentary inconvenience. The cell phone lobby in Sacramento has made sure no more stringent penalties will apply.

Reckless Cronies

Bill Moyers, on his new Sunday night Moyers and Company on PBS, interviewed authors of books of the highest contemporary importance. Former Reagan budget chief David Stockman’s volume bears the working title Crony Capitalism, and financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson’s Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to the Economic Armageddon. Telling titles, no?

The Very Least

No, the beneficiaries of San Francisco’s newly mandated minimum hourly wage of $10.24, including waiters and others who receive tips, are not buying yachts and mansions in Pacific Heights. Minimum wage earners who work a forty hour week year ‘round in Baghdad by the Bay now boast an annual $21K, which many top executives make in a single day. In other words, slave labor, Yet some San Franciscans have expressed reservations about the measure because it might “hurt small businesses.” Who sold them that shabby bill of goods? Not the “American Conservative” publisher Ron Unz, who sees a high minimum wage (wealth envying Commie Muslim that he is) as an antidote to employment for exploitive employers and undocumented workers.

James K. Galbraith, a little to Unz’s left, believes “a jump in the minimum wage would be a reparation. It would be a payback to those who have suffered from the economic crisis: the working population. It would be an act of justice.” I utterly agree.

The China Connection (Between San Francisco and Oakland)

Few are aware that the dangerously delayed San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has finally come to us- from China, A New York Times article on the subject opened with “Talk about outsourcing.” The replacement for the bridge that was damaged in the 1989 earthquake (what’s the hurry?) was manufactured by Chinese workers in Shanghai, although inspected for safety by a team of Americans on the site as work progressed. American workers will assemble the bridge upon the Bay. California claims to have saved “hundreds of millions of dollars” by this move.

And talk about Chinese wages, wow! A steel polisher saw his wage raised from $9 to $12- per day. This when grasping, greedy San Franciscans hold up little businesses for $10.24 pay every hour.

Fail and Ye Shall Receive

I joke that the CEO of a major corporation was not insane to accept a 20 million dollar “golden parachute” over a hundred thousand dollar bonus should he succeed. Because I’ve met the spouse of the recently “retired” CEO of a well known, large size U.S. company, and because the executive and I have friends in common, I will not identify the individual or the firm. The company’s stock more than tripled in expectations when the CEO began and slid to below $2 at his tenure’s end.

Too bad for shareholders and employees; not so bad for CEO. The severance package includes a $5 million cash payment, several stock related benefits, other bonuses, and medical, dental and disability insurance without end. The five story town house that came with the job will stay with this individual, too.

I believe that this executive is a good and conscientious person who had no desire to fail and who cannot be blamed for all that went wrong. It’s the severance package, stupid! Is it merely unfair that an executive is so generously rewarded for failure and accorded the kind of health care benefits that many Americans can only dream of, or is it phenomenally unjust?

Hypochondriacs, Unite!

Have you seen the TV commercial that shows a six year old girl going into a medical scan device manufactured by Siemens? Despite the kid’s healthy appearance, her parents are half scared to death until the doctor reassures them. With medical care costs run amok we’re scanning healthy little six year olds? Happy profits Siemens- and docs who own labs and centers and order unnecessary tests.

School Daze VIII Real Inner City Schools, Real Live People

"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. It’s the first lesson that ought to be learned."– Thomas Huxley

Real Programs

“The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx,” (The New York Times, April 2011) profiled Middle School 223, whose thirty-nine year old principal Ramon Gonzales needs St. Jude’s assistance badly. From its inception in 2003, MS 223 has risen from below abysmal to the 10th best middle school in the city, which, regrettably, isn’t saying very much. The city-operated school takes charge of its own budget, curriculum and personnel. If MS 223 doesn’t get a good report each year it goes out of business, like someone else is going to do a better job.

Principal Gonzales tries everything he can think of, from community reading nights to prizes for parents who come to meetings and gifts for teachers who don’t call in sick. (Bribing parents has a pedigree that dates back to my Bronx teaching days.) His school does amazingly well considering the lack of parental involvement. “We’re trying to change a culture here,” Gonzales explains while admitting, “That’s going to take time. That’s going to take generations.”

223’s teachers are mostly in their twenties, a plus for a principal who is keen on Teach for America personnel. The teachers have a lot to learn. Garrett Adler, a Brown University graduate and second year science teacher trained by NYC Teaching Fellows, was assigned a personal coach when he could not control his class. The studious young man has learned to transmit concepts to his students through dance-like marches around the classroom, one of the “undignified sideshows” (his words) Adler has learned to deploy. Another example is his frequently chanting “Work hard! Get smart! Woot! Woot!”

Adler asked the Times reporter, “Who am I, this twenty-four year old white kid from the Upper West Side, to tell a bunch of kids from a very different background how they’re supposed to behave and act?” Your writer asks, who is supposed to break that news to them? My comfortably middle class mother had no qualms about laying down the law with the inner city kids of impoverished immigrants in 1932.

I don’t recall my mother’s opinion of Head Start. The program, which began the year I started teaching (which was Mother’s last), is for pre-schoolers, and Early Head Start for one to three year olds. Doubts have developed about both programs’ efficacy, despite widespread support for early intervention in disadvantaged children’s lives. The progress kids make in Head Start classrooms does not carry over into elementary school, where special services offered by Head Start cease. A Head Start founder explains, “The problem is jobs and housing. Let us not act as if one year of pre-school will makes these kids middle class.” Families and neighborhood conditions spoil the party once again,

For the harder nosed among us, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the largest chain of charter schools, has appeal. Now in its seventeenth year, program for middle school children reports impressive gains in student achievement. KIPP preaches a no frills gospel of self-mastery and self-advancement. Signs everywhere remind students that “Excuses are for losers!” and “There are no shortcuts.”

In KIPP there are no shortcuts indeed. Rules and codes govern dress, deportment, and details as seemingly small as pronunciation and posture. Students must look at the person with whom they are speaking and are required to shake hands. “In contrast to the national trend toward multiculturalism, there is a conscious effort at KIPP to transform the students’ culture into that of the mainstream,” one profile tells us. “Everything we do is about building character skills,” a veteran KIPP teacher trainer explains. In KIPP schools detention and suspension are back in fashion. Students are hard at work from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and half a day every other Saturday. Nonetheless, the lessons are engaging and often fun.

After making remarkable progress with the south Bronx KIPP middle school’s first graduating class, the program’s founder was dismayed that only a third of the class went on to finish four year college. Those who sustained their earlier gains and went on to graduate, Paul Tough reports in The New York Times, possessed “exceptional character traits, like optimism, persistence and social intelligence.”

These qualities can be summed up in a single word, Tough tells us: grit. By contrast, students at the $40,000 a year tuition Riverdale Country School in New York City are shielded by their parents from one of the most essential preconditions of “a happy, meaningful , productive life-” experience with failure. (Winston Churchill defined success as “going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.”) Their kids’ discomfort is not what parents at posh private schools think they are paying for. I was impressed by actor Debra Winger’s moving her children from Hollywood to New York’s Central Hudson Valley because she believed that children need to learn adversity.

“Zone schools,” David Brooks reports, are “no excuse schools.” Brooks calls Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Zone Schools “The Harlem Miracle.” In 2009 these charter schools “eliminated the black-white achievement gap” and confirmed that “school-based approaches can produce big results.”

Charter schools, of which KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone Schools are respected examples, are controversial despite their promise. At the time of their inception a quarter century ago, charter schools had the blessing of teacher union leader Albert Shanker. Funded partly with public dollars, charter schools are privately run enterprises that often share space in public schools. Freed from the rules of teacher contracts, charters hire whom they please, mostly from Teach for America, and they don’t grant teacher tenure. Charters create their own curriculums and are free to experiment without approval from above. The sine qua non is standardized testing, upon which each school’s success is measured.

Charter schools are popular among parents. The discouraging news is that “for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, in many cases worse, than the local public schools when measured by standardized achievement tests, according to experts citing years of research.” In 2009, Stanford University “found that fewer than 1/5 of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, almost half offered an equivalent education, and more than a third were ‘significantly worse.’” (NY Times, May 2, 2010)

Feathers get ruffled when charters move into already crowded public school buildings. Principal Gonzales in the Bronx clashed with School Chancellor Joel Klein over the comparative value of charter and traditional public schools. Klein believed that local schools failed as a model and strove to “separate children from their presumably malignant environments.” Ramon Gonzales objects to this in principle. “I don’t want to be part of the history of taking talented kids out of neighborhoods and telling them to move on,” he told the New York Times. “Charter schools run the risk of creating a two-track system, with one kind of school for kids with motivated parents and abysmal schools for everybody else.” I see the principal’s point, and I wish him and MS 273’s students the very best.

School administrators need to go beyond grandstanding and issuing threats, unless of course that is what they are being paid to do. Back in 1980s Chicago Supt. Ruth Love enlisted “the aid of our local heroes- professional baseball and football players, and judges and university students who have come through the public school system- to work with students on improving their attendance and motivation.” How about the Justin Beibers, the Jonas Brothers and others who profit royally from the youth market devoting an afternoon a week to tutoring, assuming they can read.

An inner city school suggestion from this writer may surprise you. The idea involves the humor which brings sorely needed relaxation. I cannot see how an individual can work in an inner city school without going slightly crazy. How about dedicating the teachers lunchroom, and even the school office, for the occasional collegial shoulder rub and tension relieving laugh? Even in my “best” schools in the 1960s and 70s, teachers barely greeted one another in passing. Lighten up a little, too.

Real People

Nevertheless, how do you solve a problem like a teacher? At heart unreasonable bastards, they insist on getting paid. Worse, they are capable of only doing one hundred jobs at any given moment. Like soiled tissues they must be replaced with regularity, at least some say.

Even their strongest detractors understand that teachers make the difference. A study just completed by a pair of economists concludes, according to reports, that “teachers who help raise their students’ standardized test scores seem to have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics,” which includes their lifelong earnings. Look at what a few extraordinary individuals have accomplished in their classrooms. In each instance the initiative did not come from disgruntled chancellors or superintendents, parents associations or critics of our schools.

If you’ve never viewed the 2005 PBS special The Hobart Shakespeareans, get thee to your Mac. A middle aged fifth grade teacher at Los Angeles’s Hobart Elementary School named Rafe Esquith uses the Bard to hook his students. Youngsters from a rough Hispanic/Korean neighborhood often work in class from dawn to twilight. The centerpiece of their fifth grade experience is performing an entire Shakespeare play, which at the time of the 2005 broadcast was Hamlet. The students come to understand the characters in light of their own lives, and they “get” Shakespearean language better than this writer does. That same year actors Ian McKellen and Michael York went to see the class perform and made generous donations.

The lives of these “ordinary” ten year olds are often quite depressing. Teacher Esquith’s philosophy is reminiscent of the Harlem Miracle’s. “These kids dare to defy society’s expectations. After all, there are no shortcuts.” Esquith complains that other teachers in the school are envious and don’t try to copy him, but when his students leave his class their motivation doesn’t fade. His Shakespeareans go on to college.

We’ve all been on class trips, but none like Mr. Esquith’s. The children themselves raise the funds to travel around the world. Their teacher believes they learn to become winners by knowing how it feels to live like one. The Shakespeareans stay at the best hotels.

Erin Gruwell’s high school students were a mess before they got her as their teacher, and Ms. Gruwell’s first year of teaching was messy, too. The 2007 movie Freedom Writers featured Hillary Swank as Gruwell in her Long Beach, Ca. high school. The English teacher turned her class around by relating Holocaust studies to their conflict ridden, racist damaged lives. As they began telling their own stories, Gruwell’s students developed respect for themselves and one another. Holocaust survivors and participants such as Miep Gies of Ann Frank fame traveled far to meet the class.

Real-life teacher Gruwell sold underwear and worked at a Marriott to raise money for her class’s materials and books. (Why Long Beach taxpayers were O.K. with this is seldom mentioned,) LIke Rafe Esquith’s Shakespeareans, Ms. Gruwell’s students go on to college.

You’ve never heard of Ms. Grady, but Olly Neal has. Neal was just another black kid in the late 1950s segregated south whose behavior made English teacher Mildred Grady cry. One afternoon Olly was attracted to a novel by black author Frank Yerby he spotted on the school library shelf, so he stole it to avoid being seen borrowing a book. When Olly returned the volume he was surprised to see another Yerby novel in its place, and this experience was repeated several times.

Ms. Grady had seen Olly swipe the initial novel and she understood. On succeeding weekends she drove seventy miles to Memphis to buy additional Yerby volumes with her own money, which one by one Olly “stole” and then replaced. One could conclude that Olly Neal was worth the saving. The boy who stole the books is now an Arkansas appellate court judge. Mildred Grady has passed away.

As long as I’m outing dead teachers, I’ll relate an incident told to me by the son of my former colleague Nella Gonzales, special education teacher at P.S. 87 Manhattan. One early 1970s morning, Nella’s son, then a child himself, observed an African American boy enter his mother’s empty classroom and rifle through her purse. Before he could stop the theft Nella returned and intervened. To her son’s chagrin, Nella gave the boy contents of her wallet, hugged him and allowed him to leave the room. She explained that the boy must have desperately needed the money. One is reminded of the priest’s forgiving the candlestick theft at the start of Les Miserables.

I’m ambiguous about an action which flies in the face of fostering self control and setting boundaries, and I’m more than a little envious of my colleagues being more flexible and generous than myself, but it’s hard to disagree with columnist Nicholas Kristof’s conclusion that “teachers may have the most important job in America.”

Journalist Matthew Miller makes a valid point. “These ideas (charter schools and other school reforms) have merit, but they miss a larger truth: if we can’t have hundreds of thousands of (model teachers) in the nation’s toughest schools, all the ‘systematic’ reforms in the world won’t make much difference.” It’s the teacher, stupid, after all.

And let’s hear it for the principals and their assistants for a change. These people work their hearts out, too. In Freedom Writers the English chair is represented as an obstacle to Gruwell’s students’ progress, and on sitcoms principals are generally buffoons. Of course heads of schools can fail, but they don’t have golden parachutes like in corporations. The Sylvia Mininbergs, May C. Hattons, Paul Warners and Ramon Gonzaleses whose names have filled these pages never made a fortune.

An audacity and commitment that go beyond pontificating and demeaning teachers and everyone in sight will help save our nation’s inner schools. As Geoffrey Canada, Rafe Esquith, Erin Gruwell, Mildred Grady- and before them LouAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds and Jaime Escalate of Stand and Deliver- have demonstrated, the best teaching involves a spirit of “Never say I can’t” and working everybody’s tail off. Homework is regularly monitored by parents or other relatives or volunteers. Decorum and unflagging attention are required. Exciting, involving lesson plans are taught. As they do the amazing and unexpected, students develop respect for themselves and others, and they frequently succeed.

Given the challenges, teachers in the toughest schools may need a Hobart Shakespearean experience of their own to keep them going. Such teachers, as I’ve often said, do not grow on trees. Expecting to find a Gruwell or an Esquith at the head of every classroom in the land under the prevailing conditions of respect and pay is just ridiculous. I don’t know about Mr. Esquith’s home life, but Ms. Gruwell’s husband left her because she had so little time for him. When a teacher has to work other jobs to pay for school supplies, she is not the one who has failed our kids.

Our best teachers need to be honored and compensated accordingly, which is common practice with top people in every field, but the “merely” competent will be with us longer than the poor. And if we can’t find enough “naturals” to be teachers, damn it, let’s find a way to manufacture them. In the meanwhile let’s do everything we can for economically disadvantaged children, whose numbers are increasing.

Parents have had a strong hand in the establishment of charter schools. In the final segment of this series I’ll touch on the ultimate parental involvement, home schooling, and attempt to sum up all I’ve learned.

Joel: Letters