Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's All About the (Corporate) Benjamins, Baby

People across the political spectrum are talking about getting corporate money out of politics. I've come to realize, though, that corporate influence is ubiquitous throughout American institutions--it's not just in politics. It can seem tricky to figure out who is funding what, but once we get past the misleading maze of independent- and beneficent-sounding organizations, it's pretty simple: the pool of wealthy people and companies have shrunk down to a few mega-conglomerates and uber-rich individuals. What's been more tricky for me to figure out is how my behavior as a voter, as a citizen, and as a consumer can counter this corporate takeover of American institutions.

A facebook friend recently posted this essay by Chris Hedges. Hedges states that, "There are no longer any major institutions in American society, including the press, the educational system, the arts, religious institutions, and our dysfunctional political parties, which can be considered democratic. The intent, design and function of these institutions, controlled by corporate money, are to bolster the hierarchical and anti-democratic power of the corporate state. These institutions, often mouthing liberal values, abet and perpetuate mounting inequality. They operate increasingly in secrecy. They ignore suffering or sacrifice human lives for profit. They control and manipulate all levers of power and mass communication. They have muzzled the voices and concerns of citizens. They use entertainment, celebrity gossip and emotionally laden public-relations lies to seduce us into believing in a Disneyworld fantasy of democracy."

Hysterical and doomsday-toned pieces like this often turn me off because they are dire to the point of making me feel utterly hopeless, i.e., we're all screwed, so why bother? I understand, though, that such a style can often demonstrate the actual direness of a situation and can light a fire beneath readers. No matter the style, I couldn't help but think that Hedges' piece had an enormous grain of truth to it.

Corporate takeover of American democratic institutions and the development of an American ruling oligarchy is one the defining issues of our democracy's time, if not the defining issue. With this as an introduction, I plan to write a series of blog posts about increasing corporate power over American democratic institutions. Let's just hope, although Hedges might claim otherwise, that it's not the final challenge to face our dying democracy.

(photo by flckr user PaDumBumPsh)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My Adventures with The Coffee Party

This is a tale I meant to tell months back, but the best laid plans. . .

Last spring, I joined the Coffee Party after questioning the effectiveness of my spending all day calling my representatives, signing petitions, and sending prefab e-mails developed by various organizations and non-profits. (And believe me, a person could spend ALL day doing this. I know because it's one of my top writing procrastination tools: I'll finish my novel after I stop the feeding of chicken feces to cows, prevent babies from being born with hundreds of chemicals in their blood, and help the nine tortured elephants that urgently need me.)

I participated in tele-training, organized a meeting at Ashland Coffee & Tea, tried to recruit people, suffered through my husband's dubiousness about the whole thing, and worked in earnest on starting a local Coffee Party chapter. There were six of us at the first meeting and I had received e-mails expressing interest from many more. We came up with our key issues which were: civil rights, health care reform, education, and too much corporate influence in our government. It was very exciting. I was part of something HUGE!

But then, during a second meeting, I got into a debate with an off-duty member of the Ashland Police Department (I actually know him from around town--we've compared notes on running workouts) about the veracity of Glenn Beck's "journalism," particularly as they surrounded the912project and claims of Obama's socialism. The CP representative for the state of Virginia interjected to say that we were both "right." I didn't think too much of that.

Then, during a tele-debriefing of that meeting I got told that I was being "too confrontational" and not focusing enough on the central piece of the Coffee Party platform: civility. (The lady from LA with the New York accent, talking about taking down Henry Waxman, however, supported me.) And that the best thing I could do was to tell Eric Cantor that I was here and that I was ready to be civil (oh yeah, that will make him change his tune). When I explained to the next CP higher up for the state of Virginia, who was very empathetic, that I didn't think that a non-political political movement would be effective, she responded that many Coffee Party people felt otherwise. "Some people think we should be political, but some people don't." "But aren't you a political, albeit, supposedly non-partisan movement?!?!" I wanted to scream. I mean civility is a worthy type of comportment, but it's not a stance.

The last straw was the CP's use of the pseudo-scientific "Coffee Sphere," which I had drafted my quantitatively-gifted and -trained husband to explain to them was an inaccurate and faulty crap-o-meter. You can read that exchange here. The Coffee Sphere remains in use as tool by the Coffee Party and claims to be "Reflecting America's views: the 15-minute issues barometer to ignite dialog and educated actions."

I continue to be in touch with some of the fabulous people I met at the initial meetings, and I hope that the Coffee Party is successful. Besides their use of the Coffee Sphere, I think they're doing good work, and I appreciate the way that the Coffee Party has gotten so many people to be politically active in a way they hadn't previously been before. But being a part of that organization just wasn't for me.

Since then, I have returned to firing off the prefab e-mails and receiving a daily piece of mail from Eric Cantor saying that I may be rest assured that he will keep my views about health care reform and the saving of the sea turtles in mind. Some of the organizations I think are doing great work are: Media Matters, MoveOn, CREDO, Bold Progressives, ColorOfChange,, Fix Congress First, American Rights at Work, DC Vote, Rethinking Schools, TrueMajority, Repower America, and Green America. Check them out!

Monday, September 13, 2010

From NCLB to RaTTT

Just as I love Mondays, I love back-to-school time with its promise of a fresh start, return to structure and routine, and feeling of possibility. Come Wednesday, and February, I usually feel otherwise, but that's a different story. My family is personally having a great return to school, but back to school for me also means back to writing and thinking about education, and I continue to feel discouraged by Obama's education policies.

One of my least favorite of the current administration's initiatives in education is Race to the Top, for which
eighteen states and D.C. were named finalists. A few weeks ago, nine of those states (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, and Florida) and D.C. were awarded a total $3.4 billion. Under Bush, we got NCLB. (No Child Left Behind), which I liked to call No Child Left Untested. There were some positive things about NCLB, for example, it forced school systems to pay greater attention to the education of ELL (English Language Learner) and SpEd (Special Education) populations, and it forced educators to document and pay more attention to achievement gaps among different groups of students, sorted, for example, by race. However, NCLB caused standardized tests to become the centerpiece of the public school curriculum, with much less emphasis on critical and analytical thinking and writing, scientific inquiry, rich experiences with literature, arts education, physical education, and conflict resolution.

Now, we have Obama's Race to the Top, which I like to call Race to the Flop or
RaTTT. There are several education academics who don't like RaTTT, either. For example, Dan Willingham, University of Virginia cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don't Students Like School? says it's a doomed bribery scheme, not much of a change from NCLB, and that it's based on ideas that fail to take scientific evidence into account. In these two blog posts, UCLA education professor Mike Rose talks about the flaws of RaTTT as a policy: Part I and Part II. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems like a good guy and I think he means well, but according to this New Yorker profile his background in education before working for Chicago Public Schools consisted of helping out in his mom's after school program. Really? Does that qualify him to run a major public school system and then to be secretary of education? Oh, I forgot, according to the same profile, Duncan was a good basketball buddy of Obama's, and he has an MBA, so those must be his qualifications. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Obama. He's a good man and the best president we've had in a long time. But he doesn't know squat about public education and he's outsourced the top education job in his administration to someone who knows only a smidgen more than he does.

The criteria for winning RaTTT funding includes allowing school districts to take over failing schools, improving curriculum standards, encouraging school innovation (meaning lots more charter schools), and retaining the best teachers possible. I don't disagree with these goals, or with the "ends" of Race to the Top. Mostly what I disagree with is the how, the "means."

I think we should have national standards, but they need to be thoughtful and superior to what they'd be replacing. So far, I don't see much evidence of that. Dr. Willingham says that
the new standards are solid, but that they neglect to include the crucial step of how they will be achieved. In these other Washington Post blog posts (Part I and Part II), Willingham talks about what else is missing from national standards.

I am not anti-charter school. I think it's good to have some public school alternatives for students who aren't successful in more conventional public schools. I have considered sending my own children to charter schools (and would in the future), and I have considered teaching in them. I can understand why people would want to form them if they feel that they can't get a decent education at their neighborhood schools. But most charter schools can pick and choose their students and can expel them easily, and often families have to provide their own transportation. We should really focus on improving our neighborhood schools first and ensuring that all children have a reasonably close neighborhood school option first.

I don't disagree that the model of teacher seniority and permanent job security needs reform. I, too, think that teachers should be laid off when there are budget cuts based on quality rather than seniority. And teachers should be paid more and be provided with better working conditions. I also don't disagree that many of the current evaluation systems are seriously flawed. But on what basis should teacher salaries be raised, and how should we measure teacher effectiveness? On what basis do you decided quality?
Furthermore, how do you classify a failing school? The answer to this, according to Duncan and the architects and supporters of Race to the Top is: test scores, test scores, and test scores. Dr. Willingham says this is a terrible idea and I agree. Test scores mostly tell you about the students who are taking the tests, and not much about who is teaching them. When I taught in public schools, there were certain evaluation criteria that I didn't make, like high test scores, but there were other ways that my administrators had of observing and giving me credit for being a decent and hard working teacher. Now, it seems like some of the new evaluations, such as IMPACT in DCPS, proceed just as the previous instruments did in that they contain arbitrary and ridiculous criteria, such as putting standards up on the walls, but they don't give administrators some space to get beyond the superficial and arbitrary.

This article in the New York Times describes how RaTTT has interacted with the institution of teachers unions. After reading this, I kind of thought, well, maybe these "reformers" have something, maybe I'm just being obstinate in my thinking, maybe I just have a bad attitude. And, yes, I guess that teachers and their unions should join 'em if they can't beat 'em. If this is the way the ship is sailing, maybe educators should climb aboard and make the best of it rather than give up. Maybe they should take a deep breath and understand that this is just a passing fad, hang on to their principles and their concept of quality education until leadership with smarter and deeper thinking comes along and puts our education system on the right track. I'll just hope for that. I'll hope that soon we can get back to focusing on the art, science, craft, and trade of educating, to reforms of quality and substance, that we'll get out of Arne Duncan's RaTTT race, out of the rat race that I, for one, went into teaching to get away from. Let's just hope that Duncan and his groupies don't do irreversible harm before it's too late.

(photo by flickr user Kate's Photo Diary)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fare Thee Well, Dear Summer

We went to day camp, art camp, theater camp, science camp, and had swimming lessons. We went bowling, roller skating, biking, and to the library. We played pick-up dodgeball, kickball, soccer, and baseball. We played legos and we read books and magazines. We wrote in our journals (though not as often as we should have). We played board games and we played cards. We went to the Carter Park Pool so many times that the mention merits its own sentence. We went to a Flying Squirrels game, and we visited the Science Museum, the Children's Museum, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. We went to Three Lakes Park and Nature Center and the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. We traveled to DC, Charlottesville, New Paltz, Lake George, Cooperstown. We witnessed and participated in the wedding of two of our very best friends. We drove all the way down and across the state of Pennsylvania. We hosted family and friends from out of town. We drank gallons of water. We frequented the produce stand and the farmer's market. We ate tons of tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, green beans, peaches, peppers, greens, and more tomatoes. We slept until 7:00 am, 8:00 am, and sometimes even 9:00 am. We said farewell to old neighbors and welcomed new ones. We lost a few teeth, scraped some knees, and suffered our fair share of mosquito bites. We turned 34, 37, 7, 7, and 3.5. Two very happy boys went to Kings Dominion for the very first time to mark the occasion.

We had a glorious summer, but now it's time to get back to the classroom and back to our other work. Camp Mama (and Papa, though he was fairly busy teaching and researching) is closed for the school year. We will re-open on June 17, 2011.