The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The Book of the Week is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch, published in 2010.

This book appears to argue that the great American school system is moving closer to death.

Ms. Ravitch discusses how testing and accountability have “become the main levers of school reform… In the trade-off, our education system ended up with no curricular goals, low standards and dumbed-down tests.”

With the imposition of more standardized testing than ever before, education has been narrowed to only the subjects on the tests– literacy and mathematics.

The goal of some school districts, in implementing reform, has been to close the racial achievement gap.  For decades, students of certain ethnic groups (such as blacks and Hispanics) have shown lower test scores than their peers (who are whites and Asians).  There may be many causes for this (such as economic and demographic changes, to say nothing of test-question wording), but politicians think they can solve the problem through a formula. Ms. Ravitch provides an anecdotal example of this thinking in San Diego in the late 1990’s.

Teachers were resistant to “get with the program” due to the way in which it was forced upon them.  The outside educational coaches hired to work with the school personnel, were viewed as enforcers, rather than as collaborators.  The teachers were supposed to utter inane phrases, such as “I am a reflective practitioner.”  They were to spend a specific number of minutes on teaching a prescribed subject, and then move to another, even when the changeover was disruptive. Stress-related illnesses among the teachers, skyrocketed.

Ms. Ravitch covers a host of other issues, such as “No Child Left Behind,” controversies over standards, school vouchers, charter schools, use of private monies to fund education, the power of the federal and state governments concerning education, teaching-credentials, and a choice of schools for the students.

Politicians believe they are improving education by providing parents with an array of schools which their children can attend. The thinking is, choice will foster competition in the district.  This is a misguided notion, to say the least.

Ms. Ravitch states, “Julian Betts of U.C. San Diego questioned whether choice was even a successful strategy because his own studies found that choice had little or no effect on student achievement.”

Some charter schools accept students via a lottery system; other schools hand-pick their students. Even when unlucky students or those who require extra help are offered it– through extra school hours or free tutoring– it has been the tutoring companies that have profited handsomely.  There has been no quality-monitoring of the tutoring, so there has been no way to judge for sure whether students have shown any improvement.  One way to see, might be through standardized test scores, but scores’ validity and reliability have been questionable of late, for various reasons.

In many districts, there is grossly unfair funding allocation among schools.  A colossal amount of monies from billionaires (private sources) have been poured into charter schools and education reform initiatives that provide lucky students with special resources, while public schools have had to make do with scant taxpayer dollars and have had to go without, during times of severe budget cuts.

As for accountability, there is none. Ms. Ravitch writes that politicians have collaborated with nonprofit foundations because the latter are contributing megabucks to schools.  Consequently, they have acquired overwhelming power and influence.  “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one… they are bastions of unaccountable power.”

RIP, quality American education.

Square Dancing In the Ice Age

The Book of the Week is “Square Dancing In the Ice Age” by Abbie Hoffman, published in 1982.

This book is a compilation of essays from the most famous American Hippie of the 1960’s.  Hoffman’s name was best known because he engineered attention-getting stunts and advised his followers to engage in acts of protest that would infuriate law enforcement.  He also revealed the secrets to obtaining free merchandise and the details behind irreverent behavior.

In one essay, he pointed out instances of code language for cocaine in movies, such as the words “snow” and “blow.”  He also wrote that frequent visits to the dentist among people in Hollywood indicated that they were cocaine addicts.  They would have the drug rubbed in their gums for a faster high.

In another essay, Hoffman gloated about a prank he and his girlfriend pulled on 54 prestigious restaurants in Europe for six months between 1977 and 1978; some several times.  He wrote a well-crafted referral letter, forging the signature of Playboy Magazine’s Articles Editor, while purporting to be a restaurant critic for the magazine.  He showed the letter to the head chef in each restaurant, and was treated to thousands of dollars of fancy food, free of charge.  In the book, he reprinted the letter, a list of the ten restaurants he thought best, and Playboy’s reaction upon learning of the ruse. Read the book to find these out.

Testament of Youth

The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934.  This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.

Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.”  She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI.  She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University.  Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.

Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses.  Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war.  One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well.  All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war.  In the next two years, all four young men died.

Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had.  The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”

The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist.  In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war.  Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education.  Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.

After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations.  She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her.  She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.

Colors of the Mountain

The Book of the Week is “Colors of the Mountain” by Da Chen.  This is the autobiography of someone growing up in China during the middle and later years of the Cultural Revolution under Communist dictator Mao Tse Tung.  Since Da, born in 1962, was the youngest of several brothers and sisters at a time when Mao was reversing China’s education policy toward one of competitive college-entrance exams, Da became his family’s only hope for a better life.  The siblings unfortunately, were doomed to a life of backbreaking toil on the farm, under Mao’s reign.  Da, on the other hand, was provided with the opportunity to take three days of the extremely extensive “regurgitation” exams.  He rose to the occasion, studying with his friend for hours and hours every day for months on end.

His friend, who smoked big, fat cigars, was a nonchalant sort under much less pressure. He could afford to goof off. For, the friend’s family owned a lucrative tobacco farm, and failing his exam would mean merely entering the family business, which was not such a bad consequence.  That is what happened to the friend.

Da’s hard work paid off.  He achieved the highest test scores in his region, an exceptional triumph, since he was from a rural area where students received test preparation inferior to that in urban areas.  He had heard that learning English was very important if one wanted to study abroad.  However, it was rumored to be very difficult for Chinese people to learn to pronounce English with an accent that was comprehensible to people in English-speaking countries.  But learning English was important for increasing one’s options for a better life. Da was treated to a tuition-free university education and learned English.  Read the book to learn how he fared thereafter.

Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?

The Book of the Week is “Why Can’t U Teach Me 2 Read?” by Beth Fertig, published in 2009.  In this book, the author followed the lives of three learning-disabled adult students for approximately two years in New York City, in their belated attempts to learn to read.

For various reasons, all stayed illiterate through grade school and continued living with their parents thereafter.  This blogger opines that mentioning their ethnic group would bias readers, so it will not be mentioned.  However, suffice to say, their home environments were rife with television rather than books, and their parents came from large, low-income families.

Ms. Fertig pointed out that most literate people take reading for granted; “Yamilka,” “Alejandro” and “Antonio” had trouble with the simple verbal activities of daily living, such as reading a subway map or directional signs, purchasing items in a store and reading labels on medicine bottles.  This greatly hindered their ability to work at a job, and certainly, to drive.

Post-high-school age, they discovered they could enlist the help of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Children to sue the school system so that they could be awarded free tutoring by private companies (which would normally cost $80 to $100 per hour) to teach them to read.  The three students won their cases; meaning, for instance, they could get 1,500 hours of tutoring within a two-year period, compliments of New York taxpayers.

Yamilka was a 23-year old female who required speech and language therapy.  She had poor short-term memory and trouble with neural processing the sounds of spoken words.

Antonio’s social skills were inferior to his classmates’ and he was easily distracted. Nevertheless, he attempted to return to the high school he had quit, after legal negotiations with the principal.  His classes included the lowest level math, photography, history and reading classes for the learning disabled for his age.

Antonio told the author, “Seeing other kids being successful in class makes me jealous.” This may have been why he had a poor attendance record. The principal expressed his disgust with Antonio when he told the author that a disproportionate amount of time had been wasted on Antonio, as it could have been spent on another, more responsible, harder worker of the school’s 350 special education students.  Antonio “… didn’t know how to reconcile his conflicting desires for a paycheck and more education.”  He delayed collecting the documentation required for acquiring a state ID so he could get a job.

Alejandro did his tutoring. However, his reading and math skills were below the level required to pass the GED, so he also attended no-charge pre-GED classes at a community college in the Bronx.

Read the book to learn what happened to Yamilka, Antonio and Alejandro by the time the book went to press.

Johnny’s Girl

The Book of the Week is “Johnny’s Girl:  A Daughter’s Memoir of Growing Up in Alaska’s Underworld” by Kim Rich, published in 1993.  In this book, Ms. Rich described her unusual childhood in Alaska, a place to which organized crime figures such as her father fled, to hide from the authorities.  Her mother, an ex-stripper, was in and out of mental hospitals.  Ms. Rich came of age in the 1960’s, about which she had this to say:

“Life was a trip… The one sure way to fail was not to take the trip… out of the middle class, away from the lives your parents had led… The idea was, you would end up a happy, fully realized human being only if you took some risks.  Taking a risk could mean joining the Peace Corps or hitchhiking across Europe, dropping acid or dating a black guy, becoming a vegetarian or chanting ‘Hare Krishna’ or quitting a job to go to New Hampshire to campaign for Gene McCarthy.”

Read the book to find out what kind of trip Ms. Rich took.

Just For Fun

The Book of the Week is “Just For Fun” by Linus Torvalds, published in 2002.  This is the autobiography of a computer geek who fell into fame and fortune.  He hails from Finland, where internet access is extremely widespread.  While in graduate school, he created the kernel for a new computer operating system he named after himself, “Linux.”  It is based on the existing system, “Unix.”  Linux is “open source,” meaning, a community of computer users can change the system’s source code to improve it.  Theoretically, any user who wishes to, can volunteer to work on the code. If it is imperfect, others will correct it.  Also, the system can be downloaded free of charge.

Torvalds’ family lived in a region of Finland where the people were Swedish-speaking, and reticent.  Besides, Torvalds fit the stereotype of the computer geek; admittedly he “lacked any social graces whatsoever.”  One day in the early 1990’s, he started a project on which he was to work around the clock, for nine months straight.  It was “just for fun.” He explained that computer programming requires the simultaneous tracking of many ideas and lots of information when one is in the thick of it.  Of course, many people helped him with Linux, which was introduced just at the time the open source movement was becoming widespread among computer hobbyists.  He accepted donations through his website, to keep the project alive.

Surprisingly, Torvalds got married.  Unsurprisingly, he went to work for a tech firm in California, where he made some money from stock options (before it was too late).

John Purroy Mitchel

The Book of the Week is “John Purroy Mitchel, The Boy Mayor of New York” by Edwin R. Lewinson, published in 1965.

Previously a young attorney, co-Commissioner of Accounts and President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City, Mitchel was elected Mayor in 1913 on the Fusion Party ticket.  However, he was inept as a politician because both his speech-making and political-machine-building skills were poor. Like Mayor John Lindsay, Mitchel had good intentions, but did not get much done. He was brutally honest and never took action for the purpose of gaining the popularity of his constituents.

Like Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Mitchel’s economic concerns overrode all others, and his administration operated under a veil of secrecy. Mitchel rubbed shoulders with the Rockefellers, and thus acquired a reputation of favoring big-money interests. However, he wanted to keep the then-46 members on the Board of Education, rather than have the power to appoint only 9 members.  If he had such power, those 9 men would be difficult to find, in that they would be “required to give all their time.”  The only people who could afford to, were millionaires, “and they are the very worst type to put in control of the schools.” Further, “The tendency of mayors is to respect the aristocratic voice of the community and to forget the democratic.”

The irony of the Mitchel administration was that, although he was pro-education, he was more interested in saving money than providing New York City’s children with a decent education. The mayor was not a narcissist out to acquire power and appoint his cronies. Nevertheless, the Board of Estimate was a penny-pinching entity, and engaged in petty squabbles over money, with the Board of Education.  Estimate refused to spend money to build much-needed schools. Mitchel wanted Estimate to control the wages of Education’s employees, which included teachers.  Besides, during his entire time in office, Mitchel’s public relations was non-existent with teachers and parents.

In 1914, Mitchel and other city officials visited Gary, Indiana to observe an education experiment, and decided to introduce “The Gary Plan” to New York City’s schools. The Board of Estimate favored the plan because it saved money and saved school-building space. Not surprisingly, teachers and parents opposed the plan. Under the plan, students could opt to start learning a trade in middle school. The schools superintendent published a two-year progress report showing poor performance among students in the two “Gary” schools in New York City.  The plan was abandoned in 1917, after 35 participating schools experienced negative results.

In 1917, Mitchel ran for re-election because he wanted New Yorkers to support the United States in World War I. He accused others of being unpatriotic if they did not support the war. He himself attended a military camp while still in his first term. When he lost the mayoral election to John Hylan, he joined the Air Force, which was at that time part of the U.S. Signal Corps, and was sent to San Diego, then to Louisiana for training. Although he was 38, he wanted to fight in the war.

In July 1918, Mitchel did not have his seatbelt fastened when he died in a solo-flight accident in Louisiana.  More people paid their last respects to him than did people who attended New York’s 4th of July celebrations just a few days before. He was highly praised for his “bravery, patriotism, his integrity and his ability as a public official.”   Mitchel Field, an airfield just finished on Long Island, was so named in his honor.

Stand for the Best

The Book of the Week is “Stand for the Best” by Thomas M. Bloch, published in 2008.  Thomas M. Bloch is the son of the founder of H&R Block (“Block” in the tax-advisor chain is spelled with a “k” so people do not mispronounce the name). Bloch made a career change in mid-life, becoming a teacher.

Bloch taught at a Catholic school, then co-founded a charter school in a low-income area of Kansas City, with a super-rich friend of his. He approves of private money donations to schools, but admits he is an idealist when it comes to closing the racial achievement gap. The school founders experienced a long, frustrating learning curve, although they thought they knew what they were getting into.  They started with middle-school students, but learned that starting with the early grades and adding older students later, would have been a better approach.  For, students’ problems multiply as time goes on.  In an urban area, in addition to a high dropout rate, gangs, drugs, and disruptive behavior, there may be multiple ethnic groups who must get acculturated.

Bloch relates the quote, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”  This is not just the lament of a modern teacher, but of an Assyrian sufficiently educated to write on a clay tablet, living in 2800 B.C., proving once again, that there is nothing new under the sun.

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.