Sunday, May 29, 2016

Pirates of the 'Hood'

Make no mistake: I detest and reject the romanticizing of pirates by novelists and Hollywood. The truth is that they were the terrorists of their age.

Yep, the Jolly Roger was no sign of sexy hijinks but that one’s life was about to be cut short.

Pirates had a deadly purpose in what they did: rob ships and their passengers of their ‘portable property’ (as Dickens would say in Great Expectations) to finance their illicit lifestyle.

They would fly false colors to lure a ship into complacency as they appeared upon the horizon until they drew close when they would run up the Skull and Crossbones, a human skull that hovered over an X of armbones upon a black field.

Their purpose was clear: ships that surrendered without a fight were plundered but the passengers’ lives were spared. Ships that tried to run or fight—crew and passengers were murdered without a twinge of conscience.

Striking terror into their targets was a deliberate policy that made their job easier and, without a fight, less likely that any pirate would die.

Nevertheless, a pirate’s life was brutal and short. Apart from the golden age when the crowns of Europe authorized their deprivations to advance their wars (privateer vs. pirate), pirates were hunted by the authorities and, whenever captured, hung.

What then attracted men to piracy?

In the 1600s and 1700s, as Europe moved from feudalism into modernity, the prospects of the ordinary man were few. They lived lives of futility upon the few acres of the land of their birth, completely controlled by the local nobleman, or they escaped into military service, another nightmarish world where the slightest infraction was met with severe discipline such as flogging.

A pirate, though, thumbed his nose at the crown head, the authorities, and the society that despised him. A pirate lived a life of freedom. A pirate did as he pleased with his shipmates, and though he chose a life of debauchery and pillage, it was his choice. That was exhilarating to men whose life’s courses were otherwise determined by the status of their grandfathers’ births.

They were free! Although that meant that their only means of support was robbery and that they made poor lifestyle choices, throwing themselves into drunkenness and squalor, promiscuity and disease, yet—it was their choice. That made all the difference.

Is it any different today in our poorest, most desperate, urban neighborhoods? Places where there are no prospects, no means of holding a job because there are no jobs, and no opportunities to do anything else than hang out on the street corner?

Life can be brutal and short. Authorities look for the slightest infraction and though we no longer use hanging, these young men are tossed into prison for long stretches of their lives, long enough that all meaning has gone by and the most basic of human desires—that of producing the next generation—is thwarted.

It is a life where life is not guaranteed. An encounter with the authorities is a crapshoot—one may live or one may roll snake-eyes. The choice to obey and you will live is not given to the pirate in the ‘hood. When you look at the world through their eyes, their choices are not surprising after all.

When there are no jobs, the only choice is to be an entrepreneur. What business opportunities exist in the neighborhood? Ones that require no capital outlay (for they have none)? The opportunities may be illegal and invoke the wrath of authorities, but that’s only a cost of doing business. It’s all they have.

Don’t preach at them about education, these city pirates. Even if you assembled a group of 100 superteachers, who rescued their schools, and they spent their K-12 years learning, walking out with a diploma, what good is that when there are no jobs for them, their neighborhoods disintegrate, and they struggle to survive?

Look at the world through their eyes and the ones who drop out, the ones who check out, seem smarter than the ones who hang in.

And for a few brief years, only a few but enough, they live lives of freedom. Free to do as they choose, free to raise a finger (you know which one) in the face of society, free to compete for supremacy with no rules, free to be the best they can be in their world, even if that world involves violence, murder, and emotional turmoil.


Addendum: What happened to the pirates?

Once the authorities became serious and united in wanting to suppress them, military operations against their strongholds and towns that supported them grew comprehensive and more effective.

But there are always plenty of places in the world to hide. What really did the pirates in was that the world changed around them.

As colonies expanded and prosperity grew, as opportunities for merchants, craftsmen, and small farmers meant that an ordinary man could find the means to earn income and support a family, the allure of piracy faded and then died out.

These changes also took place in the homelands of Europe.

It is no different today and it is time our society got on with it—creating and expanding opportunities in our poorest and most desperate neighborhoods so that our young <ahem> entrepreneurs would find other avenues in which to invest their energy and their lives.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Empty House

Something is missing.

What is a dog anyway? In comparison to our lives, they share but a few years.

We pamper them, exercise them, pet them, sleep with them (yeah, try to keep a dog off your bed unless you shut the door and can tolerate the scratching or you crate them and can tolerate the whining) -- even when you don't allow them up, they only wait for you to fall asleep before joining you on the mattress ...

My dog died Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

The house is empty.

There is no mad face shoving the window slats aside as I come home, barking like a lunatic, until she hears my voice and knows that it is me.

There is no warm body throwing itself upon my lap, demanding attention, as I check Facebook and email on my computer.

There is no gulping from the water dish or crunching of food from the meal dish.

A personality has been subtracted from the atmosphere of my home and I notice the absence. I have an empty house.

No dog to chase a ball, chew on a bone, demanding better of me than I really am and making me rise to her expectations ...

An empty house.

When two beating hearts live in a shared space, they sync with one another. Even when she laid in a back room and ignored me, her life force filled my space. But now, I have an empty house.

An empty house.

When I realized she was dying, I made her comfortable. I allowed her to be outside (dogs separate themselves from their society when they know it's their time), I made sure she had water, I held the dish to her lips so she could drink, I covered her so carrion flies could not begin their awful but necessary work too early, I made her comfortable. She was not in pain, she did not cry out; there was no need to cut short her time upon our planet. I gave her everything she was entitled to.

Now she's gone. The house is empty.

It's not only the time saved on morning walks before I leave for school or the evening walks for exercise when I get home. It's not that I no longer have to check the daily forecast to decide whether she can be in my air-conditioned-less house during the days as the temperatures warm up or should she be outside--what are the chances of storms? It's not the lack of daily ritual to empty the water bowl to fill it with fresh water and to put out food, only enough food, as I need to monitor her weight ...

It's not that the rituals are over. Something else is missing.

When I finished the burial and came back to the house, I realized something sticky was on my shoes. I had to grin as I thought: Got me for the last time. (You know what I mean if you have ever had dogs.) It's not that.

It's that when I come home, when I wake up, whenever I am at home, something is missing. She filled my soul with her presence. But now ...

The house is empty.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Mirror of Testing

The Mirror of Erised

                “So,” said Dumbledore, slipping off the desk to sit on the floor with Harry, “you, like hundreds before you, have discovered the delights of the Mirror of Erised.”
                “I didn’t know it was called that, sir.”
                “But I expect you’ve realized by now what it does?” . . .
                “It shows us what we want . . . whatever we want . . .”
                “Yes and no,” said Dumbledore quietly. “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts . . . However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what is shows is real . . . .”
                                                                      --J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Common Core testing, in whatever flavor it comes, is the Mirror of Erised as described by J.K. Rowling in the first book of her brilliant fantasy series that singlehandedly revived an interest in reading among middle and high school youth.

It is that time of year. The tests are drawing to a close and soon results will be released by the testing consortiums through the states that sponsor them. Already Florida has the 3rd grade reading results and has made them public.

Everyone who looks into the results sees something different—the same as Harry saw his lost and dead family, Ron saw himself the most successful member of his family, and Dumbledore saw himself with a pair of socks (he was lying).

What everyone sees is the desire of their hearts—what they want the tests to say. Everyone sees something different.

The State Board of Education looks into the Mirror of Testing and sees vindication for their policies. “It’s working!” is the usual narrative of the early summer press releases.

Legislators look into the Mirror and see failing public schools and teachers rotten to the core. They draft new legislation to continue their drive to privatize all education in the state.

Investors look into the Mirror and see opportunities to profit from the garnering of public school tax dollars.

Opt-Out parents look into the Mirror and see the abuse of their children through over-testing and confusing schoolwork that cause their children to burst into tears and declare, “I hate school!”

Superintendents look into the Mirror and see many things: propaganda for the press that their reforms are working, bad teachers who must be punished over Value-Added Measurements, and schools in danger of takeover by the state.

The American Statistical Association looks into the Mirror and sees an invalid use of statistical measurements and their profession through the adoption of Value-Added Models to rank teachers.

Bill Gates looks into the Mirror and sees the failure of every improvement idea he has had. But he won’t stop trying because he also sees every child parked in front of a Microsoft computer overseen by a teaching robot.

Eli Broad looks into the Mirror and sees all the superintendents dancing on his puppet strings as well as a certain presidential candidate.

Teachers look into the Mirror and see the death of their profession.

Principals look into the Mirror and see themselves in agony: chomped at from above and below, they have no job protection. If the Mirror does not return the needed results, they are fired.

Arne Duncan looks into the Mirror and sees . . . Moms to insult.

John King looks into the Mirror and sees a Congress with no power. (Better look again, John.)

“The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into the mirror and see himself . . .”

J.E.B. Bush would look into the Mirror and see himself. He thinks his reforms are perfect.

“Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real . . . .”

The Mirror of Testing: does it show what is real? It is driving all of us mad.

It shows us nothing more or less than how well students pass the test. It does not give us knowledge or truth about what students have really learned or what they really know.

This year’s Algebra 2 test: a student calls me over. He is really bright. He pays no attention to my teaching, preferring to read the book and solve the problems on his own. He gets everything correct on the first go. “The question says to enter my solution. Do I put in ‘y equals’ and my answer? Or only my answer?”

I looked at the problem. I had no idea either. With a sad smile, I told him I wasn’t allowed to give him that help. First of all, because I didn’t have a clue either of what was supposed to be entered, but also because if I had said something, I could be accused of cluing the answer to a student.

“This Mirror gives us neither knowledge nor truth.”


“Sir, Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?  . . . What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

I see myself finding the Philosopher’s Stone because “only one who wanted to FIND the Stone—find it, but not use it—would be able to get it, otherwise they’d just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life.”

Testing offers the promise of a long, prosperous life but all it brings is unendurable agony to students, who find neither success nor college/career readiness in it. I want to find the source of this nonsense, but not use it; rather, I would destroy it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Fresh Eggs

Random whimsy on a Friday the 13th:

Here’s another dozen random thoughts tossed out for your breakfast omelet:
1.       Happy Triskaidekaphobia! Having enough trouble teaching 9th graders how many sides a dodecagon has, I will leave your word alone.
2.       Rahm Emanuel has one purpose: he makes the Clintons look good.
3.       Law of Averages: a thick-skinned Donald Trump will succeed the thin-skinned Barack Obama. How else can you explain his obtuseness toward his hypocrisy in about everything he proclaims, yet he rides high in the polls?
4.       New Twitter game: attract the Donald’s attention and get your very own personal insult.
5.       Hmmm, hope he doesn’t read this and think it’s a swell fundraising idea.
6.       Jacksonville teachers need to organize with parents for the next Walk In to School Day.
7.       Every 8 to 10 years, change out the political party in power. Otherwise, they grow arrogant and stop listening to the voters. A longer post is coming on this one.
8.       I don’t like snakes either, but the black indigos? They’re the good ones. Don’t kill them; keep them around and the poisonous ones will stay far way.
9.       Lenny Curry clipped the wings of John Keane in reducing his obscene pension through executive action and now I am willing to listen to his argument to increase taxes to solve Jacksonville’s pension problem. He could grab more of my attention by replacing the Pension Board that authorized the illegal pension in the first place, funded it 100% by diverting contributions from the rank and file’s pension, so that they remain funded at only 48% or thereabouts, and tried to keep it secret.
10.   We’re not Chicago, but we’re trying?
11.   We’ve had too many motorcycle deaths in the last week. Yes, bikers, we should look out for you but could you police your ranks and insist that riders wear helmets and obey traffic laws? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

12.   When the old owl goes to hooting in the early hours of the morning, the dog slinks under the bed. Some days, we want to join her, don’t we?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Quality Education for [Some]: Collateral Damage

Quality Education for All: what about the collateral damage?

I’m talking theory only here. Nothing I say should be taken as a disparagement of any teacher or group of teachers. I’m only going with the district’s premise.

Offer bonuses of 50% of base salary and attract the highest-performing teachers to move to the lowest performing schools. Who could argue with that, especially if the bonuses are being funded privately by the city’s millionaires?

However, to move these great teachers into QEA schools, the ‘bad’ teachers (I put that in quotes to indicate I do not agree with the label) had to be moved out.

The vacated positions in the great schools, the successful schools? Everyone wants to transfer there. They could pick the best.

Where did the others go? You know, the ones no one wanted: to all the other struggling schools in the city with vacancies. To the schools where the principals were told not to hire new teachers because these surplused ‘bad’ teachers would be put into those positions.

If the bad teachers were really responsible for the struggles of the QEA schools, then they would ruin the schools to which they were sent.

Again, we’re talking theory.

QEA even as conceived and designed could not solve a problem. If its many premises are correct (they are not), all it could do is transfer the problem.

If you live in a Westside or Arlington neighborhood, you should be really angry now.

Quality Education for All (an audacious experiment)

JACKSONVILLE, FL: Quality Education for All, the privately funded program that sought to get the best teachers to transfer to our city’s worst-performing schools (according to state tests), has been in the news. In a John Kerryesque moment (‘I actually voted for [it] before I voted against it.’,) the school district told 273 teachers (out of 952 in the program) that they had earned a partial bonus ($5000) before they told them they hadn’t.
Naturally, these teachers were unhappy. They focused on a discrepancy between their contracts, in which they were led to believe that their performance would be based on calculations for QEA schools only, and the MOU, memorandum of understanding, between the teacher’s union and the district, which specified that their performance would be based upon calculations for the district as a whole.

As a math teacher, that got me thinking. What would change?

First, these performance calculations are based upon student growth, not proficiency; more specifically, upon a teacher’s Value-Added Measurement (VAM), which is suspect in itself. Setting that aside, why would the VAM average for the QEA schools be less than the VAM average for the entire district? That is what these teachers are saying: if they were only measured against other QEA schools, they would have qualified for the bonus.

I’m not sure of that. The district has lots of struggling schools (as measured by state or district tests, which is how they determine these things) beyond those in the QEA group. 103rd Street? Jefferson Davis MS, JEB Stuart MS, Ed White HS, Westside HS? All struggling. Arlington schools: struggling.
This is a growth measurement, not a proficiency measurement.

The school district could shut this down in an instant if only they would provide these teachers with calculations based upon the QEA schools only and show that they wouldn’t have qualified anyway.
But that’s not DCPS style. You don’t question God. (Actually, anyone who has read the Bible knows that God gets questioned a lot.)

What can we learn from this debacle?

1.       Teachers working in QEA schools have the growth potential to achieve results. They shouldn’t want to be measured against one another; they should demand a criterion-referenced performance standard, not a norm-referenced standard regardless of whether it is QEA only or the entire district. In the Folio Weekly story,,15231, the 3rd-grade reading teacher describes the progress she made with her children. That in itself deserves a reward, not a comparison with other teachers to determine a reward.
3.       VAM should not be used to measure the success of these teachers.
4.       DCPS demanded a 3 year commitment from these teachers; it should have made a 3 year commitment as well.
5.       Student learning, correct that--student performance on the tests, correlates to zip code; that is, to the socio-economic status of the neighborhood in which they live. The whole premise of this program, that teacher quality is the only factor that matters, is false. I anticipated that many highly-performing teachers located in neighborhoods with high levels of income would not meet the performance goals in these neighborhoods with low levels of income.
6.       Performance on state and district testing alone is a poor way of measuring student outcomes.

7.       Quality Education for All: an experiment conceived with good motives, but doomed to fail. The devil is in the details. (And if you don’t believe it has failed, why has the Superintendent recommended converting the worst of the schools (as measured by tests) for magnet conversion after only ONE year? (Northwestern MS; A. Jackson HS).