Letter from Los Angeles
April 2012
© 2012 Joel

Premier Quote of the Issue

If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.- Barack Obama

Quotes of the Issue

Here’s what I think may happen. Romney gets the nomination and is defeated. Republicans decide they are sick of moderates and next time they go haywire. Then the party gets really crushed and sanity returns.- David Brooks

Don’t look down (at lower status people), look up (at those who take from you.)- Randii Rhodes

I keep hearing political campaigns and pundits refer to religious folks as ‘people of faith”....So I suggest that we atheists and agnostics be referred to as ‘people of evidence.’- Brent Meeker, L.A. Times

You don’t have to believe in climate change to solve it. Everything we do to raise energy efficiency will make money, improve security and health, and stabilize climate.- Amory Lovins, physicist

Roland, the American dream means to me that a kid born in this country, any kid...whether he’s rich or white, whether he went to an Ivy or a Safety, whether he lives in a family compound or a pied-a-terre...that kid can grow up to enjoy tax loopholes, unearned income, holdings in the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account. That’s the American dream!- “Gov. Romney”

I agree provided that blacks start with earned income.-“Speaker Gingrich”–From Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau

If I Were A Rich....

Show of hands please. How many of my readers played the recent super-duper lottery? Now, how many of you won the jackpot? (That’s what I thought.) As a means of sustaining government programs we’re too cheap to fund through taxes or as a way to separate the naive from their dollars, the lottery is a form madness.

Liberals rightly condemn the lottery for exploiting greed, conservatives for its emphasis on getting something for nothing. If I won the grand total, which would imply that I had lost my mind and bought a ticket, even I wouldn’t have a clue how to manage so large a sum. Our conception of what money means and what we imagine money will do for us, how we wear our good fortune and advertise the wealth of others, and, let’s be honest, our adulation of the rich, will be the topic of a future series which I will write myself. Unless I win the lottery, in which case I’ll hire Ernest Hemingway to ghost for me.

The “F” Word State

Joel the American history buff feels no nostalgia for the days of lynchings, overt racism and well known cover-ups. My profound sympathy, then, to the family of Trayvon Martin, black Americans in general, and readers who live in the Fucked Up State of Florida. This old white man won’t be satisfied until everyone who has done wrong in the death of Traynon Martin is brought to justice and Stand Your Ground is buried in the ground.

Rick Santorum is Doing (Almost) All of Us A Favor: A Rare Prediction

In “God and Caesar in America” (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2012), David Campbell and Robert Putnam conclude that “data point to a rich irony about the emergence of the religious right. Its founders intended to bolster religion in the public square. In a sense, they have succeeded. Yet at the same time, in a classic demonstration of the danger of unintended consequences, the movement has pushed a growing share of the population (especially the young) to opt out of religion altogether.”

This non-believer regrets the blow mainstream American religion has been dealt by the religious zealots. I do predict that Rick Santorum’s ravings are going to strengthen the separation of church and state the Founders established for damn good reason, hasten the decoupling of politics and religion, and accelerate the fringe’s retreat to their revival tents.

The Ball Is In Your Court

The Founders would have “kvelled” (Yiddish for to gush with pride) if they read a recent New York Times editorial. “The Supreme Court has no authority under the Constitution to judge the merits or the effectiveness of the health care law. That is Congress’s job,” and I of course agree. Legislating from the bench is hardly a conservative prerogative; however, we all know that liberal justices step out of bounds and do so, too. If, therefore, judicial activism is all but inevitable, I advocate electing Democratic presidents to make high court appointments so that liberal values will prevail.

Gone With The Facade

Recently I accompanied a man named Lloyd to a stint in a segment of a yet-to-be-released TV show called Are You Normal, America? No further details available at the moment. Please google Culver Studios, where the show was taped. Does the iconic white house with the pillars look familiar? The image of that stately structure preceded the titles of films made by David O. Selznick, not the least of which was Gone With the Wind.

The movie industry was founded by Jewish immigrants whose presence in America was not entirely welcome. Not surprisingly, the faux plantation building suggested the respectability movie mogul’s craved. Hence Selznick’s logo.

The mansion’s image suggests gentility and tranquility, does it not? Think again. The studio’s bosses ranged from Selznick and de Mille to Desi and to “Lu.” Imagine what went on behind those doors. Behind the antebellum facade lies acres of low buildings and sound stages with all the grace of airline hangers, around which actors, producers, directors, carpenters, electricians and support staff buzz and buzz. That’s where the glamour lies for me.

Slaughter in Ohio and in Afghanistan

We’re still adsorbing the horrifying news from Chadron, Ohio, where seventeen year old T.J. Lane shot and killed four other high school students in March, and from Afghanistan. where Staff Sergeant Robert Bales slaughtered sixteen Afghan villagers, nine of whom were kids.

These crimes differ vastly from intentionally popping off grandma for her money. T.J. Lane has a horrific family background, which of course excuses nothing. Sgt. Bales was brain injured and has gone through horrors, which excuses nothing either. Both behaved like fiends. One wonders where the former got his gun, and why Sgt. Bates hadn’t been medically discharged. That more troops in war zones don’t go berserk is a tribute to their morality and sense of mission.

What, then, can we learn from all this carnage? On the domestic front our challenge is to deal with violent crime before it happens, which requires awareness and intervention, and with its dreadful consequences, too. How does one reconcile merciful impulses with the enormity of what has taken place? Twelve of those who died in both cases were under the age of twenty.

That the parents of one of T.J. Lane’s victims feel compassion for the seventeen year old who killed their son gives us much to ponder. We also need to consider the unforeseen, inevitable consequences of our wars.

Diplomacy Is for Pansies? The Strain of Nice

Movie mogul Harry Cohn was reputedly the roughest, toughest man in early Hollywood. When his first son was born co-workers noticed how suddenly pleasant he became. “I can’t take the strain (of being nice),” Cohn declared after a week or two, and reverted to his customary self.

Some support a preemptive strike against an undeniably about-to-go nuclear Iran. The negative consequences of such an action have been considered elsewhere, but here’s my point. An air strike may seem as satisfyingly macho as a war, but take it from old Harry Cohn, Joel, and, if you think about it, your own experience. Restraint- sometimes just managing to be pleasant- can be a whole lot “tougher” than hitting back.

Light Bulbs and the USPO: Prospects Dimming

I still want hard covered books.- Erin Burnett, CNN anchor, age 36

Been looking for traditional 100 watt incandescent light bulbs lately, or expecting your mail delivered efficiently and on time? They may both be going the way of printed books, Erin Burnett’s wishes notwithstanding. Search for old fashioned bulbs in your hardware store, then settle for the energy savers which make your antique lamp look like it’s from Ikea.

More serious is the current problem with the mail. Items which are clearly and accurately addressed to us are at times returned to senders as “undeliverable,” others never reaching us at all. A stream of substitute carriers dump half the mail- again, correctly addressed including the unit number- with our building manager to distribute to residents herself. Friends and businesses in the L.A. area report similar experiences.

Recently I reported the situation to our local postal supervisor, who then posted an “alert” for our carriers to read. “I’m liberal,” I confirmed, “and I sympathize with federal workers who have gotten shafted. But if individual postal employees take this out on customers there’s going to be a backlash.” Despite his heavily accented English he understood.

Senior(s) Matter(s)

Youth is not a time of life- it is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a temper of will, a quality of imagination, a vigor of emotions; it is the freshness of the deep spring of life. Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite of adventure over love of ease.-Samuel Ullman

My readers are all young, then.

Olympia Snowe

Dogmatic ideological parties tend to splinter the political and social fabric of a nation... (and) lead to governmental crises and deadlocks, and stymie the compromises so often necessary to preserve freedom and achieve progress.- George Romney, Governor of Michigan, then Republican presidential candidate, early 1960s

If you want to get something done in Washington, you don’t end up picking teams with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other.- Mitt Romney, running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 1994

This year’s east coast winter has been milder, has it not? Warmer temperatures have prevailed, and now they’ll have less Snowe. Olympia Snowe of Maine’s decision to leave the Senate hit political moderation hard.

In March/April’s Foreign Affairs, conservative columnist Reihan Salam reviews Geoffrey Kabaserice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. The review was filed before Ms. Snowe’s announcement. Kabaservice maintains that “a Republican Party without moderates (is) like a heavily muscled body without a head.”

“After Bush’s 2004 reelection,” reviewer Salam reminds us, “Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate for the fifth straight election, but, Kabaservice observes, ‘conservatives proved unable to achieve their goals, largely because they lacked the ideas the moderates had once provided and the skill at reaching compromise with the opposition at which moderates excelled.’” The reviewer points out, “The irony of the decline of the moderates is that it made the achievement of conservative goals all but impossible.”

Some victory! The Constitution Tea Party Republicans claim to revere is itself a “bundle of compromises.” We need conservatives to monitor the progressive direction in which our country has been headed for the past one hundred years, their concern for more efficient, decentralized government being not unreasonable. We also want to bring as many Americans into the political conversation as possible, although I would leave the “my way or the highway” types and religious zealots at the door.

Rand Slam

My sermon on political moderation notwithstanding, for delicious parody I recommend you google “Ayn Rand Worshippers Should Face Facts: Blue States Are the Providers, and Red States Are the Parasites.” Sara Robinson, who makes light of Rand by labeling herself a “Progressive Objectivist,” makes “five simple demands.” A Sara sampler, then.

“Stop taking more money from the federal government than you put into it. If you believe in paying your own freight, then do it. If you can’t, that’s fine- we’ll go back to helping you- but you have got to let go of that producerist superiority crap.”

“Admit that nobody in America ever makes it on their own, and that we are all in this together, and that there’s such a thing as the common wealth and the common good.”

“Admit that regulation is necessary to keep the unprincipled strong from preying on the weak.”

“Accept that evolution happened, and that climate change is happening now.”

“Admit that we love our country every bit as much as you do.”

“Knock off the hate-mongering, threats and name calling.... And, just once, say thank you to us for all the contributions we’ve made...toward your well-being.”

School Daze IX: Home Schooling, Computers, and Mr. Johnson
(But not the one you think)

110 Livingston Street (Back In The Day)

We’ve gone many miles together examining a complicated set of issues about our country’s schools. You’ve met my teachers and my mother, me as a young teacher, my principals and The Bureau. America’s schools, teachers and students have been compared to those in other countries, not always favorably.

Parents, teachers, children, reformers, teachers colleges, politicians and the public got their day in court. This writer’s education heroes, among them Raif Esquith, Erin Gruwell, Ruth Love and Geoffrey Canada, were exposed for what they really are: successes. I stressed that teachers are underpaid and held to ridiculously unrealistic expectations, and that their unions are essential and have also got to change. Inner city schools and programs- some successful, others questionable- got two segments of their own. Before next month’s conclusion in which I interview a figure no less impressive than myself, we have some final matters to consider. School governance, specifically school boards and central administrators, are part of what is wrong.

110 Livingston Street, New York City Board of Education headquarters from 1940 until the renamed Department of Education moved to Manhattan in 2003, is more than just a street address in Brooklyn. How many of you have ever visited “110,” which is today a condominium? A book about what the building symbolized, 110 Livingston Street: Politics and Bureaucracy in the New York City School System was written by David Rogers in 1968. I still have my copy.

“110” housed the superintendent of schools (later known as chancellor) and a plethora of associate and assistant superintendents, bureaus and departments and their staffs. “Service to clients and the community,” author Rogers reported, “are often secondary considerations for school officials who are more preoccupied with their own careers.” Rogers correctly concluded that the city’s “top down setup violates many basic principles of rational administration, little unity of command, much duplication, overlapping of responsibilities, and confusion on who should report to who.”

My mother and I hated the mere thought of that address. The joke was that headquarters employees were never seen without a pile of papers in their hands and confused looks on their faces. Lloyd and I joked that the staff spent half their time at A&S, a nearby department store. That competent individuals were among the hierarchy is undeniable, but the building had more than its share of teachers, assistant principals and principals engaged in cushy jobs or, being tenured and unable to remove, as far away as possible from anything resembling a child. And how they treated teachers! I once complained to union leader Al Shanker about how hard it was to find one’s way around the building. True to his grumpy reputation, Big Al snapped that there was a directory in the lobby. Yeah, one that was inadequate and imprecise.

Teachers mostly visited “110” on matters relating to their employment and came out having gotten nowhere. The challenge was to find the answer to your question, which required finding the sole individual who might know and would give the time of day. Teachers who walked into offices unnoticed found staffers chatting amicably with one another, but at the sight of an interloper all smiles vanished and their New York accents turned sarcastic. The tenor was always “Who the hell are you, and what the hell do you want?” The teacher’s mantra, “They treat us like the children,” was far from incorrect.

Then, in 1969, due to racial tensions, New York City’s schools became decentralized. The teachers strike that autumn was the most bitter in public school history. A Ford Foundation-sponsored school decentralization plan shifted power from headquarters to thirty or so local school boards and community superintendents. Superb veteran local superintendents and principals were replaced by those whose politics were more in sync with local sensibilities. One was never certain where the children stood in all of this.

Some less than lovely groups now felt empowered. The coup de grace to my decade of teaching came in 1975, when a band of radical parents, dissatisfied with everything in their world, occupied P.S. 87’s school office day and night. (At another school in the district parents chucked the principal’s desk out on the sidewalk.) Progressive principal Arthur Block and his secretaries had to operate out of the library without benefit of their files and office conveniences for months until the renegades were evicted. Teachers took sides and often hated one another, this in a school known for its excellence and calm.

After Mr. Block retired, a committee of parents interviewed possible replacements. Their goal was to find a minority principal for this mostly white, middle class elementary school. (Evidently Block’ s being Jewish hadn’t counted.) One candidate seemed perfect, but they were uncertain of her race. After the meeting a committee member chased the woman down the hall and less than subtly asked ‘Are you Italian?” (She was black but didn’t want the job.)

Almost forty years later things are hardly saner. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has assigned community superintendents to school headquarters adjoining City Hall for purposes of control and “accountability.” Why not sequester all the principals and teachers, too? Shouldn’t the superintendents be in their districts?

Today’s trend is toward greater local autonomy regarding hiring, methods and curriculum, which I applaud. Headquarters no longer call all the shots, and while superfluous positions must be eliminated and personnel more productively deployed, necessary central administrative responsibilities must not be shortchanged.

Home Schooling

A former teacher and devoted reader supports home schooling as an alternative to attending public school. I have suspicions and misgivings about this trend.

Approximately two million American children are schooled at home today, a practice which has been legal in all states for almost twenty years. Parents become home teachers because they’re disillusioned with the quality of public education, for religious reasons, or because they want to avoid problems they associate with schools. Some form home school cooperatives to teach small groups of students. Pennsylvanians have the option of enrolling their kids to publicly financed online charter cyberschools. Public opposition to home schooling has steadily been growing softer. A bare majority of Americans surveyed disapprove of home schooling compared with 73% who felt that way in 1985. The movement’s potential to harm public education has not been measured yet.

Objections to home instruction include questionable standards and lack of supervision, home schooling as a smokescreen for religious indoctrination, isolating students from different ideas and different kinds of people and denying them the benefits of socialization. The Dept. of Education reports that "83% of parents who home-school their children....do so out of ‘a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.’” The Santorums and their home schooled seven make a fine Exhibit A.

Still, my reader maintains that home schooled kids are learning and achieving and that some go on to the most competitive universities, which is correct. They have ample opportunities to interact with their peers in neighborhoods, clubs and teams, she adds, and they’re overall a healthy, well-adjusted crew. “My Parents Were Educational Anarchists,” (New York Times, November 20, 2011), is a rare first person account by a formerly home schooled adult. Margaret Heidenry affirms that well-informed, conscientious parents can teach their kids. The family’s experiment ended when the Heidenrys opted for full time work and sent their kids to public school. At first Margaret and her siblings had trouble catching up and interacting with their peers, but they’ve middle aged now and leading satisfactory lives.

I’m skeptical about parental motivations. There are plenty of religious schools for those not wedded to a private family faith. If a child’s a working actor or the family often moves about, home schooling is an acceptable provisional alternative. But if nothing’s wrong with the idea of home schooling, what’s wrong with the idea of public schools? Their creationist-free curriculum? Their offer of opportunity for all?

That public schools have much to answer for is undeniable. Parents shouldn’t have to resort to drastic measures because of a child-teacher mismatch, for example. When schools take no meaningful action against bullying, I encourage parents to teach their child at home until the situation changes. Offending districts ought to be fined for every day a bullied child must remain at home and required to send a teacher to the home or compensate the parents for their services. This would put enormous pressure on school authorities to deal with bullying, and the bullies would have much to fear.

A partnership between home-school favoring parents and the local school might satisfy some of my objections. And I would encourage committed home schooling parents to lobby on behalf of better public education. They’re still paying for their local schools.

Homework (Eat Your Spinach, Dear)

"Spinach has the reputation of being the homework of vegetables,” Mark Rittman tells us in the New York Times.

A persistent parental complaint for years now has been the lack of sufficient homework. (In South Korea, after-hours schoolwork never ends.) Educators at leading private schools like New York’s Horace Mann are wondering if five hours homework every night isn’t just a bit excessive. A Stanford researcher found that burning the oil too close to midnight can result in “physical and mental health issues, such as sleep deprivation, ulcers and headaches.” New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, whose two children attend the Dalton School in Manhattan, believes “there are values other than achievement. For example, let’s be curious.” Of over-worked, over-stressed kids he says, “You are robbing them of their childhood.”

“Smarter” homework may be the answer. Annie Murphy Paul weighs in on whether American students are given too much homework or too little. “Neither, (she) would say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether.....How effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning?”

Parents know that “a great deal of homework is busywork.” Ms. Paul looks to the emerging “Mind, Brain and Education” discipline for direction. “Spaced repetition,” a new form of practice makes perfect, strengthens learning. “Retrieval practice” uses tests not just to measure achievement but to learn and helps cement things in student’s minds. “Desirable difficulties” means the harder we work the better we remember. Giving homework a better name is not a bad idea.

Computer Technology in the Classroom

The next generation of teachers will find even more effective ways to use computers in their classrooms. Fortunate students have been using computers to learn at their own pace for several years. However, teachers in Idaho have recently questioned the utility of new technology in the classroom, and the aspect of the computer revolution known as social media is not without its flaws. Internet mischief like maligning and taunting fellow students has led to incredible stress and student suicide.

Parents at one of America’s private Waldorf Schools believe that “computers and schools don’t mix.” For them, “computers inhibit creative thinking, human interaction and attention spans.” A bunch of Luddites, like I was called before I went online?

This Waldorf School is located in Los Altos, California, the heart of Silicon Valley, and the parents are employees of the highest high tech firms. Computers are not allowed in school before a certain age and their use at home is frowned upon. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my child to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous,” maintains an expert employed by Google.

Consider the Waldorf’s schools’ philosophy. Their teaching methods are offbeat and creative, like using knitting to sharpen problem solving skills. Classrooms sport old fashioned blackboards. “Some education experts say that the push to equip classrooms with computers is unwarranted because studies do not clearly show that this leads to better test scores or other measurable gains,” the New York Times reports. The article’s conclusion is directly from the Book of Joel. “Waldorf parents argue that real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.”

Mr. Johnson

By his principal’s assessment and by his own admission, William Johnson is the culprit in “Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher,” New York Times, March 3, 2012. Johnson begins by telling how he earned his “unsatisfactory” rating as a special education teacher in a Brooklyn, N.Y. high school. Johnson describes how his rating was due to school administrators’ bungling. The following quotes are spot-on accurate and instructive.

“Behind all of this (the administrative bungling that led to his poor rating) is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work..... “My ‘bad’ teaching has mostly been successful.”

“Teaching was a high-pressure job before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.”

“Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments- not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.”

“Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach.”

“It wasn’t Ms. Leonard’s (Johnson’s own English teacher) fault that 15-year-old me couldn’t process this lesson completely. She was planting seeds that wouldn’t bear fruit in the short term. That’s an important part of what we teachers do, and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t show up on high-stake tests.” (Take that, Joel Klein and Michele Rhee.)

“If you give some students green fields, glossy textbooks and lots of attention, you can’t measure them against another group of students who lack all of these things. It’s bad science. Until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, no matter where they come from, we can’t say- with any scientific accuracy- how well or poorly they’re performing. Perhaps if we start the conversation there, things will start making a bit more sense.”

Next month the conclusion of this series, in which I interview myself!

Joel: Letters