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Elaine Altman for State Senate

23 Jun

Elaine Altman is a teacher with 24 years of experience. She’s running for State Senate against Mike Ranzenhofer, a career politician with a weak record. Unfunded Albany mandates and the outright theft of public school funding to help balance Albany’s spendthrift ways, she’s marketing herself with the social media hashtag #sendateachertoAlbany. 

She is advocating for greater investment in public services, fair taxes and fair funding for public education, mandates that support teaching and learning, rather than tests, tests, and more tests. 

The Amherst Democratic Committee is hosting a $25 fundraiser for Altman today from 5:30 – 7:30 at Loughran’s at 4543 Main Street. Anyone who wants to go to Albany to fight for stronger public education is worth a listen. 

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Clarence Bans Nothing

11 Mar

On Tuesday night, the Clarence School Board held its regularly scheduled March meeting. On the agenda was a review of the curriculum procedure regarding materials that some parents might find objectionable. This is a completely reasonable thing for a board member to want to discuss, and wholly uncontroversial. 

However, late last week, an inflammatory hit list of allegedly obscene or inappropriate books and other materials was sent to selected homes in town. I obtained a copy of it and posted it widely  – here at Artvoice and on social media sites.  It – and my accompanying letter to the board – spread throughout the town. 

The people who had hoped that Tuesday’s meeting would include a discussion of an inappropriate curriculum were met with a shocker last night. These meetings – at best – attract about 20 spectators. This time, however, the place was literally standing room only. 

The board flew through its regular agenda, including a somewhat distressing presentation about the district’s understaffed special education department – last year’s budget crisis eliminated all of the social workers. Zero, nada, zilch. Kids who need these special services include those who undergo some sort of situational trauma like death, disease, divorce, drugs, or depression. So, it’s an interesting coincidence that many of the books on the hit list included kids who underwent similar traumas – especially rape. It was also striking to me that the majority of the books on the hit list were written by women, had female lead characters, or advocated somehow for the notion that women not be victims of assault, and that they are human beings equal to men in all things. 

When the discussion turned to this agenda item, Trustee Jason Lahti, who originally brought the matter up, begged off the controversy, indicating that he merely wanted to discuss the curriculum process, not ban any books. He indicated that he did not know anything about the letter and hit list from his wife, Ginger, that circulated throughout the town. Trustee Roger Showalter, Ginger’s brother, tersely indicated his satisfaction with the town’s opt-out provision for parents or kids who find materials objectionable. Then the rest of the board spoke. Every single Trustee spoke passionately and eloquently about the teachers, the students, the curriculum, and the adequacy of the current policies. Julie McCullough got the first standing ovation, and a huge sigh of relief when I realized that the crowd was there to defend – not defame – the books and faculty. Board President Michael Lex spoke about the need for adolescents to learn about overcoming assault and adversity, and quoted the author of hit list book Speak

But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.” – Laurie Halse Anderson

Then, the community spoke. Student after student – some current, some recent alums – was unbelievably brave and eloquent. Not only had they been taught to be rational analysts and critical thinkers, but good speakers, too. They defended specific books – one especially brave young alum spoke of her own assault and how it affected her mental health, causing her to drop out of college. She explained that she suffered terrible anxiety, yet she stood bravely in front of the board and 100+ members of the community to defend Speak, holding up her dog-eared copy and explaining how it helped her. Kids stood and defended their teachers and the way in which they teach these materials in a thoughtful and engaging way. 

There were a small handful of people there who were there to defend the hit list. Ginger Lahti herself was there, and tried to disassociate herself from the controversy. While Channel 2 was airing an interview with her in which she acknowledged preparing the mailing to address “obscene” works, she stood before the community to explain that it wasn’t even her list, that she had only shared it with two pastors, and that she doesn’t know how it got circulated. She said she wanted to see what the community thought, and she acknowledged that the community was clearly just fine with the current policy. One woman relentlessly attacked the works, alleging that she and her family had opted out over 30 times because of language and themes in some of the works, and she saved especial ire for the sex ed curriculum. Frankly, if you’re opting out of award-winning literature 30 times, perhaps public school just isn’t for you. 

However, the four people, including Lahti, who spoke about the hit list did raise an important issue – some kids who opt out have no meaningful alternative, and are just sent to the library for weeks at a time. 

When I spoke I thanked the board for bringing this matter to the community’s attention, and thanked Mr. Lahti specifically.  I said it was good to, basically, air grievances and discuss how to make policies work better, and that it was important that the handful of affected opt-out parents bring the issues of alternatives to the board’s attention so that these matters can be handled better. But I pointed out the Blue 4 Ben movement and argued that the community was capable of great things when we work together, rather than trying to rip people apart. While the agenda seems uncontroversial now, when it was coupled with the outrageous hit list, it certainly seemed to be a set-up for an effort to ban books and restrict the faculty’s and students’ rights. While Mrs. Lahti now disavowed the list and said she didn’t know where it came from, I noted that she referenced it in her letter. I closed by noting how my parents emigrated to this country in order to flee totalitarian dictatorship and a place where they were told what to think, what to read, and with whom to associate, and never did anyone imagine that we’d be facing similar issues in the U.S. a half-century later. 

The faculty – Mr. Zahn and Mr. Starr spoke passionately to defend the teachers and the curriculum, but also the Constitution. There was the kid who joked that the books on the hit list were so harmful to his upbringing that, instead of being back at college doing drugs, drinking, and having sex, he was at a school board meeting during Spring break defending the wholesomeness of his education. One parent stood to link the earlier special education presentation to the issues brought up in many of these books – how will we adequately help kids who suffer real-life traumas if we refuse properly to fund the nurses, special education, and school psychological staff. 

It was a glorious night, and the board just killed it. A packed house to defend free speech and critical thinking. A packed house to defend controversial books and essays, arguing that these materials are part of a carefully crafted, well-considered curriculum, and that the works are handled appropriately, with care. 

Yesterday, in advance of the meeting, I took some time to learn a little bit about each book on the hit list. Each one of them is an important, noteworthy work that teaches adolescents a valuable lesson. 

The Clarence List by Alan Bedenko

 But I learned a valuable lesson, too. I learned that the kids are awesome. They’re brave, well-spoken, thoughtful, and hungry for knowledge. Whether it was the professional-quality, amazing production of Spamalot that the high school drama club put on last weekend, or the heartfelt speakers last night, they made us all proud. 

Attica U.

19 Feb

Via Wikimedia Commons

New York State’s prisons are not necessarily filled with bad people. 

They are, however, filled with people who have made bad – sometimes violent – choices. They are filled with people who have broken our laws. 

Many of them, for instance, have been imprisoned falsely. Some are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. Many are just straight up murderers, rapists, assailants, batterers, burglars, armed robbers, kidnappers – people who have deliberately or recklessly done harm to innocent people. 

It’s very, very easy to forget the purposes of incarcerating criminals. It’s not always just punitive – there is supposed to be a degree of redemption and rehabilitation built into the system. However, it hasn’t worked that way, and people are loath to try because “coddling criminals”. 

How we treat New York’s inmates reflects on us as human beings. It also speaks to whether we’re smart or not. As it stands, we’re not. 

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world; about 3/4th of 1% of our population is behind bars. About 22% of America’s detainees are awaiting trial; presumed innocent, having been convicted of nothing. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed since the early 1980s, and New York is 37th in the nation in terms of the rate of its people who are behind bars – about 1/3 of 1% of New Yorkers. Of those, the prison population is overwhelmingly black and Latino – the disparity between the general population and the prison population is dramatic. Most state prisons are upstate, and these newpats are counted as part of the local population for election purposes. 

It costs $60,000 to house, feed, and guard New York prisoners, and also to give them just enough entertainment so they don’t murder each other or the men and women who guard them. Anyone who thinks that New York’s prisoners are guests at a country club facility should arrange a visit to, say, Attica. These are grim fortresses housing a great many people who never had a fighting chance at doing anything else with their lives. 

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he wanted to implement a program to give inmates a chance to earn a free college degree. A private initiative operated by Bard College has found that recidivism rates among prisoners who earned a degree while behind bars plummeted from 40% to 4%

The knee-jerk reactions from outraged people was swift, furious, and downright disheartening. I believe that people deserve a chance, and even a second chance, at least.  I believe that a $5,000 annual investment to provide an eager, motivated inmate with a second chance at a productive life outside prison is an investment well made. Would we rather shove him out of the prison environment back into the environment from where he came, with no help, services, skills, or education? What do you think is going to happen? Shall we do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results? Would you rather that a man fresh out of prison with nothing more than a probation officer is going to magically find his way to building the sort of life that you or I enjoy, without any guidance, mentoring, or life skills? 

I would rather not pay for an inmate’s return to prison. I would rather that society save the money on pretrial detention, police services, court time, court personnel, transportation, post-conviction detention, food, housing, clothes, etc., through a program to redirect and truly attempt to rehabilitate people motivated to find a new way. 

This doesn’t mean we’re going to be handing out Bachelor’s degrees to murderers, but if there’s a drug dealer behind bars at 21 who’s due to be released in his 30s, doesn’t it make sense to give that person hope and life skills for a future where he’s not relying on crime or the victimization of others? 

In 1995, Governor Pataki dismantled an already existing program. This Huffington Post contributor wrote this, at the time

We the imprisoned people of New York State, 85% of whom are black and Latino, 75% of whom come from 26 assembly districts in 7 neighborhoods in New York City, to which 98% will someday return, possibly no better off than when we left, uneducated and lacking employable skills, declare this Kairos in response to the elimination of the prison college programs, GED and vocational training programs and education beyond the eighth-grade level. The elimination of prison education programs is part of Governor Pataki’s proposed budget cuts. It amounts to less than one third of one percent of the total state budget, but it will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the years to come.

I went on to state that many studies, even one conducted by the New York State Department of Correctional Services, have demonstrated empirically what people know intuitively: that prisoners who earn college degrees are far less likely to return to a life of crime upon release. According to research conducted by the Department, of the inmates who earned a college degree in 1986, 26% had returned to state prison, whereas 45% of inmates who did not earn a degree were returned to custody. For many prisoners, gaining an education signals an end to personal failure and a ladder out of poverty and crime. Without it, the governor may as well change the name “Department of Correctional Services” to “Department of Correctional Warehousing.” As the former Chief Justice Warren Burger stated: “To confine offenders without trying to rehabilitate them is expensive folly.”

The author of that passage was imprisoned at Sing Sing for a nonviolent drug offense under the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws – he went in the system in 1985 and was released in 1997.  During that time, he took advantage of a then-extant program at Sing Sing operated by the Bronx Community College. 

My two year degree opened my eyes to the value of getting a college education. After that I received my B.S. in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, then went on to receive a graduate degree from New York Theological Seminary. I survived imprisonment because of my ability to transcend the negativity around me because of the rehabilitative qualities of a college education.

When I was released from prison after receiving executive clemency for Governor George Pataki in 1997 my reentry into society was eased because of my college education. But it was not an easy deal. When some people found out about where I got my college education they were not too happy. I remember going on a few television shows and talking about my college education. Instead of being happy for me they talked about how I got a free college education instead of being punished. My response was that I did not get a free education, I paid dearly for it serving 12 years in prison and I did everything I could to make a bad situation good.

Our prisons should not be equipped with revolving doors for poor, uneducated, downstate black and Latinos; kids who more often than not came from dysfunctional homes, bad neighborhoods, and who had no one to teach them the value of anything. At some point, some effort should be made to ensure that there is no return visit. Through that investment, we can – in the long run – help save the taxpayers billions. 

Former inmate Anthony Cardenales, 39, of the Bronx, earned degrees from Bard College during his 16-year prison sentence on manslaughter charges. He is now vice president of an electronics recycling company in Mount Vernon.

 The costs of our high recidivism rate is throwing good money after bad. The people convicted of crimes deserve to be punished, yes. But we as a society are completely ignorant and blind to the societal costs of reintroducing ex-cons to society without the support and tools they need to make it. We don’t spend $60,000 per year to rehabilitate them – just to cage them. The New York system already uses their slave labor to build furniture. (Here is another article about other penitentiary work programs).

We already run GED programs and high-school level courses for inmates. 

If we can exploit their labor, certainly we can give those who want it an education and a chance at a better life as productive members of society. 

Chris Collins Propaganda Call on Line 1

28 Jan

Maybe he just hates everything “common”

My Congressman was desperately interested in hearing my input about education and the Common Core standards that are slowly being transformed from an initiative to improve and enhance education and student expectations for the 21st century into a communard bete noir. Because Common Core was implemented during the Obama Presidency, Collins is automatically against it. Because many people are concerned about its testing protocols, Collins is interjecting himself into an issue about which he has never spoken before, and about which his ignorance is palpable.

Why was Common Core implemented? Because employers were concerned that High School students were unprepared for the job market – a pretty basic and fundamental issue

The initial motivation for the development of the Common Core State Standards was part of the American Diploma Project (ADP).

A report titled, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts,” from 2004 found that both employers and colleges are demanding more of high school graduates than in the past. According to Achieve, Inc., “current high-school exit expectations fall well short of [employer and college] demands.” The report explains that the major problem currently facing the American school system is that high school graduates were not provided with the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed in college and careers. “While students and their parents may still believe that the diploma reflects adequate preparation for the intellectual demands of adult life, in reality it falls far short of this common-sense goal.” The report continues that the diploma itself lost its value because graduates could not compete successfully beyond high school, and that the solution to this problem is a common set of rigorous standards.

Why implement it nationwide? So that a kid in Alabama meets the same standards as a kid in Vermont, and so that no kid is shortchanged. But to Chris Collins, this is communistic hogwash. Here’s the press release that followed the call: 

Jan 27, 2014 Press Release Thousands of district constituents participate in discussion about new educational standards

Congressman Chris Collins (NY-27) talked to parents about Common Core today as part of a district-wide telephone town hall meeting.  The new educational standards are currently being implemented in New York State.  Common Core is widely criticized for forcing students to learn skills necessary to perform well on tests as opposed to actually learning critical material. 

Thousands of NY-27 constituents participated in the town hall to learn more about Common Core and voice their concerns about how the new standards are impacting their children. 

“There are few issues as important to the future of our country as the education of our children,” said Congressman Collins.  “Unfortunately, in today’s world, too many of the decisions surrounding our children’s education are being made by government bureaucrats far removed from the classroom.  I believe strongly that parents, teachers and local school leaders know what is best for our children.  Common Core is a typical one-size-fits-all approach generated by big government bureaucrats.”

New York State adopted Common Core standards in 2010.  Across the country, 45 states have begun Common Core implementation, but recently ten states, including Massachusetts, have started to rethink or delay their participation over growing concerns from parents, educators and students themselves.  States were incentivized to participate in Common Core by the federal government through grant money available as part of the American Recovery and Restoration Act (federal stimulus). 

During the telephone town hall, parents voiced concerns about the student testing standards, mandated curriculum, and teacher/school evaluations tied to test results as dictated by Common Core.   Joining Collins for the town hall was Neal McCluskey, Associate Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom

“We should all want our children to be college or career ready following high school graduation and we should be willing to raise our standards to achieve that goal,” continued Collins.  “But Common Core is about churning out students as test takers, not inquisitive students excited about learning.

By forcing students to spend their K-12 years arduously focused on test talking, we will never develop our next generation of leaders, educators and entrepreneurs.  That is sad for our children and our country.”

Collins continued to urge parents and educators to raise awareness of Common Core and push for changes to its implementation, if not full repeal.  Parents with questions about Common Core are encouraged to contact Congressman Collins’ office.

Well there it is. It wasn’t so much to let parents vent concerns as much as it was an opportunity for some guy from a libertarian think tank to propagandize to a conservative constituency. Was there a principal from a school in the district on the call? Was there anyone there who wasn’t there to promote an agenda, but had actual practical experience to offer? Was there anyone there with an advanced teaching degree? This less than a year after the school district that covers Collins’ own home underwent a brutal and painful budget process last year – one that saw tons of young, dedicated educators unceremoniously fired and myriad programs cut. Chutzpah is the word. 

Who got to participate in the call? I’m not on Collins’ mailing list, despite having subscribed at least twice. So, yesterday, while my wife and I were at work, we got this call: 

http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/collinscall.mp3

Well, I wasn’t at home. I was at work working. Even though I knew about the call ahead of time, thanks to some local media reporting, I couldn’t participate because I was at work working on work so that I can bring home an income and, among other things, donate money to the school foundation set up to help fund programs that were cut last year. 

Common Core may be susceptible to demagoguery because it sounds ominous, is new, and because the state of New York’s implementation of its standards was as abrupt as it was inept. Tons of kids came home last year having been tested against standards that weren’t taught during the school year, and they got bad scores. But when I talked to my youngest’s school principal and teachers about the new standards, they were universally enthusiastic about it. The new standards will not only ensure that the right things are being taught, but they will have an ability to track how kids are doing in real time, and divert extra help where it’s needed. 

This isn’t about rolling back Common Core. This is about outlawing public education in this country. This is about codifying a fundamentally unfair, tiered education system whereby the poor and middle class receive vouchers enabling their kids to attend de-funded, decontented, tertiary quality schools; the upper middle class might be able to kick in extra for parochial or second-quality private schools; and the millionaire class can afford whatever they damn well please, and have their precious snowflakes’ private educations subsidized by the poor and middle class. It is the very definition of class warfare – by the wealthy against the not-wealthy. This is about the slow dismantling of every progressive goal this country has ever achieved – public K-12 education, social security, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Medicare – anything designed to help average people and the elderly enjoy life. This is a war being waged by millionaires and billionaires against you and me. 

It is a war against the American Dream itself. 

So, if people were hosting a genuine conversation about Common Core and its standards and implementation, that would be great. But that’s not what Collins was doing. He timed the “discussion” so that working parents could not participate. He did not advertise it nearly well enough. He did not have a balanced discussion, but instead propagandized with the help of libertarian school choice advocates (read: public school opponents). 

An Education in Education

4 Jun

Speaking of education, here are a few things I learned over the past few weeks. 

1. When Clarence’s school board decided to submit an above-cap budget for 2013-2014, it could only be passed by a 60/40 supermajority. The practical effect of that is that my yes vote is worth only about 5/8th of a no vote. That’s not “one person/one vote” and that’s not fair. There is a bill in the Assembly to right this wrong

2. Elections that are governed by the election law, which includes races for school board, are barely regulated and shadowy groups using untold amounts of money can operate with absolute secrecy. If, for instance, you want to spend more than $25 towards the election of another person who is running for a school board, you’re prohibited from doing so. But the penalty for breaking that law is non-existent. For an ultra-right wing group that wants to take over a school board or defeat a school budget, unlimited people can spend unlimited money to do it. In Clarence, that’s happening right now. 

3. There are no exceptions to the tax -cap legislation to allow for, e.g., paying court orders and school safety.

4. The Annie E. Casey Foundation is based in Maryland and was set up by one of the founders of UPS to, “build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families in the United States. The primary mission of the Foundation is to foster public policies, human service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families.” Frankly, the sort of things a government should be doing. AECF ranks states in terms of the quality of the education children there receive. New York is number 19.  Clearly, there is work to do. 

5. The United States spends over $600 billion on educating its next generation every year. By contrast, our elective war in Iraq cost over $2 trillion.  The difference is that no one got to vote in a referendum on the tax levy for the Iraq war. Using 2007 numbers, the United States spent less than only Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries per pupil. 

6. In a recent ranking of education quality, the United States came in as “average”. The top countries are Finland and South Korea. This has an adverse affect on kids’ abilities to compete in a global marketplace where their peers abroad are simply educated better. 

When it comes to education, “rah-rah US is #1” is untrue and just as jejune as allegations that kids can do well in school regardless of the quality of teachers or class sizes if they come from the right home in the right neighborhood with the right family makeup with a nice income. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement; especially if you live in a place like Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, or Nevada. The report which ranks education quality country-by-country comes up with these conclusions

  1. There are no magic bullets: The small number of correlations found in the study shows the poverty of simplistic solutions. Throwing money at education by itself rarely produces results, and individual changes to education systems, however sensible, rarely do much on their own. Education requires long-term, coherent and focussed system-wide attention to achieve improvement.

  2. Respect teachers: Good teachers are essential to high-quality education. Finding and retaining them is not necessarily a question of high pay. Instead, teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are, not as technicians in a huge, educational machine.

  3. Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes.

  4. Parents are neither impediments to nor saviours of education: Parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision. On the other hand, parental input and choice do not constitute a panacea. Education systems should strive to keep parents informed and work with them.

  5. Educate for the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly.

Clearly, there is work to be done, and each side in the debate in the US have at least one point, but we’re missing the bigger picture because it’s difficult and time-consuming. Note that American teachers are paid wages below the world average. 

The solution, however, is not to cut teachers or to treat them like fast-food workers. It is not to cut programs that encourage learning, fitness, or creativity. We can work for systemic improvement while not sacrificing the quality of education that kids are receiving now. Testing and more testing isn’t the answer, nor is pitting teachers’ unions against everyone else. 

I don’t know whether Carl Paladino’s baseball bat or AFP’s decimation of public schooling are precisely the right solution.  But one thing I do know – I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having not paid closer attention to these things before, especially as it relates to my own town.