Sunday, October 25, 2015

@DmitriMehlhorn who's really being uncivil in the ed 'reform' debate?

Venus, Jupiter and Mars weren't the only planets aligning in the sky this month. For the past couple of weeks, Jersey Jazzman has been engaged in a debate on the merits of charter schools with Dmitri Mehlhorn, venture capitalist, education 'reform' blogger and co-founder of Michelle Rhee's ed 'reform' lobbying group StudentsFirst. 

Last week, former news anchor turned education 'reformer', Campbell Brown posted a piece on her ed 'reform' website, The Seventy Four, in support of Britain PM David Cameron's call to end public education in his country titled, Britain's Education Reboot And Why America Needs A David Cameron. Brown's husband is on the board of StudentsFirst. She is a vocal opponent of public education, tenure and teachers unions, and accuses them of coercing suburban parents into opting out of CCSS-driven standardized tests even though the opt-out movement was started by parents. Then Jeff Bryant wrote this scathing piece in Salon about how dangerously out of touch Brown and the ed 'reform' movement in general are about labor unions.
My colleague Dave Johnson at the Campaign for America’s Future recently came across a new study conducted for the Center for American Progress, which found in places where union membership is higher, low-income children, in particular, benefit from “economic mobility” and “intergenerational mobility.” In plain English, this means union strength correlated with low-income children being more apt to rise higher in the income rankings — and for their children in turn to be better off. 
Reporters at the New York Times looked at the study as well and noted, “There aren’t many other factors that are as strongly correlated with mobility” as the presence of unions. “A 10-percentage-point increase in the rate of unionization in an area coincided with a rise of an additional 1.3 points on the income distribution as the average child becomes an adult,” they wrote. 
Combating unions is not only a strategy unlikely to result in good outcomes for low-income kids, it also seems completely out of step with the political zeitgeist of the times.

So, when Brown tweeted out her post about Cameron and privatizing America's public schools, I tweeted this meme:

And I've continued to do so every day since. I don't have billionaire backers to finance and spread my message the way Brown does, but I do have social media. 

So, after one of my tweets, Dmitri responded with this, which Brown 'liked':

I read Mehlhorn's link. You should, too. There are some contradictions in there that had me scratching my head. But this quote in particular stuck out:
If we want a civil debate, we should first and foremost strive to be civil.
He uses the example of Vladimir Putin's ruse of pacifism and civility to justify his invasion of the Ukraine, then goes on to say that "in education policy, although some genuinely seek productive discourse, calls for civility often serve as cover for nasty personal attacks."

And that's where his hypothesis derails. He immediately attacks Diane Ravitch for being uncivil:
While Ravitch was attacking Rhee for lack of civility, she was receiving financial payments from the teachers unions that were funding a secret campaign to personally demonize Michelle Rhee.
Those financial payments are speaking fees, no doubt the same ones that Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown receive when they speak in front of education 'reform' groups who attack public education on a daily basis. But I never hear either woman publicly denouncing the vilification of public school teachers that they regularly pump out.

Personally, I knew nothing about that website until I read his post. And I certainly can't speak to whether or not Diane knew about it. That said, if in fact AFT did create a website that mocked Michelle Rhee, then shame on them. That's a low blow. Shame on NJEA members who mock Gov. Christie for his weight. Shame on any education professional who puts personalities before principles. But, Dmitri, you must admit, there's plenty of uncivil behavior to go around. Do I need to recount all the horrible things Gov. Christie has said about teachers? Look at this picture. Is this a man with whom educators could sit down and have a 'conversation'? 

"I am tired of you people."

How about Campbell Brown's outlandish accusation that the New York City teacher's union harbors sexual predators? What about the NRA blaming teachers for the Newtown massacre because they weren't carrying guns? Are you aware that while he was working for then NYC Schools Chancellor, Rupert Murdoch, former NJ Education Commissioner and current Newark Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf was spying on Diane Ravitch and Parents Across America founder and education activist, Leonie Haimson? Don't you think it's uncivil to blame tenure for 'failing schools' as Campbell Brown does, despite the fact that some of the nation's leading legal scholars find no basis in that claim, nor have there been any long-term studies to support it? Don't you think it's just a tad disingenuous when newspaper reporters and editorial writers don't even bother to do their homework about education policy, relying instead on baseless talking points from 'reformers' to spread their propaganda? Don't you find it mind boggling that there is a mountain of research like this showing how poverty affects children's brain development and their ability to learn, and yet it is summarily dismissed by education 'reformers' and elected officials on both sides of the aisle who do nothing but hold teachers responsible? Don't you find it hypocritical that Governors like Scott Walker, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rick Scott and Rick Snyder—to name just a few—have done all they can to destroy labor unions in the name of helping the middle class despite the fact that strong labor unions help lift low income earners out of poverty, and provide the middle class with more financial stability? Don't you find it downright mean and cruel that Michelle Rhee fired an educator with cameras rolling? How would you feel if you were an educator and you saw this? 

The woman in this picture does not want to have a 'civil conversation' about 'fixing' America's schools. Any third grader looking at this as a writing prompt could figure that out. I'm sorry, I know she's your friend, but can you walk a mile in my shoes for a minute and see how this image sends the wrong message?

I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. These are attacks, plain and simple. They are not 'conversations' and they certainly are not 'civil'. They are not even debates. If education 'reformers' such as you think you unequivocally know what will 'fix' education, why not sit down to a 3-hour debate on national television with leading education experts? I would pay good money to be in the audience for that! Unfortunately, I doubt that will ever happen because the facts are on our side. But Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Foundation, ALEC, StudentsFirst and many other anti-public education 'non profits' have boatloads of money which is used to buy up the media and politicians, and thus control the message. 

And if you think I'm off my rocker, then please tell me why organizations like the Broad Foundation are pouring millions of dollars into local board of education races in states all across this country? 

No, there was never any plan to have any type of civil discourse. Bill Gates simply showed up at America's public school doorsteps and declared, "This is what I'm doing because I believe it will work." He never sat down with educators to hear our expert views on education in America. He has treated public education as another novelty on which he can focus his vast wealth. He manipulates it, shapes it and molds it to his liking, then moves on when he tires of it. We're not real to him; we're just his lab rats scurrying through his mazes, unwillingly helping to carry out his grand scheme to turn public education into a system to which he would never send his own children. No, his children, along with many other 'reformer' children, are educated in elite private schools that would never stand for this nonsense. Education 'reform' isn't for his children; it's for everyone else.  

Now, I know what you're thinking: See? That's just what I'm talking about. You're not being civil; you're attacking. But we've tried—really, really tried to no avail. Anthony Cody, bless his heart, is still the most civil educator out there debunking 'reform'. He tried to engage Bill Gates and members of the Gates Foundation in civil discourse about ed 'reform'. He even wrote a book about it: The Educator and The Oligarch. But not all of us are blessed with his time and patience. And when somebody is standing over you kicking you repeatedly in the gut and blaming you for starting the fight, it's really hard to be civil. When a billionaire tells an oncologist she's got to treat her patients with cotton candy because he believes that's the cure (and said billionaire coincidentally owns a cotton candy factory), would you blame the oncologist if she acted just the teeniest bit incredulous?

There are a lot of people in this country who have lined up to grab their piece of the $700 billion public education pie. But those people have already eaten their way through the entire bakery— banking, real estate, the military, prisons, healthcare—and left the rest of us scrambling for crumbs. The only thing left is public education. And most teachers are just too nice, too polite to fight back. As for the rest? Well, some think that if they bog us down with so much extra, meaningless work, we won't have time to fight. But that's backfiring.

So, excuse me if I'm not polite. Excuse me if I don't know my place. Excuse me if I don't genuflect at the altars of the super rich and powerful who have brought this country to its knees with greed and selfishness as they plow through one economic sector after another leaving a wake of death and destruction as they toss aside the foundations of our democracy like over-indulged children at Toys-R-Us hell-bent on the next immediate gratification.

I am not becoming a better teacher because of the Common Core, Race to the Top, standardized testing, defunding of public schools, the expansion of charter schools, and the demonizing of my profession. I am working longer, harder and getting less results and personal satisfaction from the work I do. But I am becoming stronger. And every educator who becomes stronger, empowers others to become stronger, too. 

So, if you don't like my snark, I'm sorry, but as the saying goes, "You don't bring a knife to a gunfight."

So, in answer to your question: 'Has Ravitch said anything else we need to keep in mind?" Yes. Here's a sampling:

Poverty is the greatest handicap to the academic performance of students today, not “bad teachers.” 
The problem with turning public education over to the private sector is that they don't know anything about education. 
American Education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so? 
We are now reducing corporate taxes, reducing taxes on the richest people in this country and cutting the budget of public education. This is crazy. 
Bill Gates is wrong. American education is not 'broken'. Federal education policy is broken. Testing children until they cry is a bad idea. It is educational malpractice. 
Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves? 
Our schools will not improve if we value only what tests measure. The tests we have now provide useful information about students' progress in reading and mathematics, but they cannot measure what matters most in education....What is tested may ultimately be less important that what is untested... 
Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.

Oh, and fyi... parents are more powerful than educators. Remember, the Opt-Out movement was not started by the teachers unions. It was started by all those white suburban moms Arne Duncan accused of daring to have an opinion about their child's public education. Hell hath no fury like a mother of an over-tested child. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Congress, stop the bloodshed NOW!

"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them without doing anything." 

~ Albert Einstein. 

UPDATE #2: 6.20.16: Since the massacre in Orlando just 8 days ago there have been 9 more mass shootings, most of which have not been reported by the mainstream media.

UPDATE #1: 6.20.16: Click here for the complete list of mass shootings in the US for 2015

UPDATE 12.2.15: Today there was another mass shooting. This time at a developmental center in San Bernadino, CA. At least 14 people dead. See link below.

Since I first posted this piece, there have been two more school shootings and, no doubt, many others that didn't even make the news. That said, I will re-post this piece every time I hear about such an incident. Today, November 1, 2015, I added Colorado Springs.

Unfortunately, there are far too many mass shootings occurring in this country on a seemingly daily basis to update this list myself, so look for 'UPDATES' above with links to the Gun Violence Archive.  

I started writing this post right after the terrorist attack at the Emanual AME Church in Charleston, SC, but then remembered the rhetoric of extreme gun rights advocates that says we shouldn't talk about gun violence in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting because it politicizes a tragic event. So I waited a few weeks to see if any of them would start talking about it. But then there were more mass shootings, so I waited again. It seemed that every time I tried to finish this piece, another shooting occurred, the latest of which happened Thursday in Oregon. So, to hell with it, today I'm talking about gun violence. 


According to data* compiled by Mother Jones Magazine, since 1982

  • 572 people have been killed by mass shooters
  • 510 have been wounded 
  • Of the 70 shooters
    - 55 obtained their gun(s) legally
    - 43 were White
    - 11 were Black
    - 6 were Asian
    - 4 were Latino
    - 3 were Native American
    - 1 was unknown
    - 2 were listed as 'Other'
    42 are listed as having a history of mental illness- 17 have no confirmed history- 11 are listed as 'unclear' or 'unknown'- All but 2 were male

    (Emphasis mine)
    * This data does not include any data from the Oregon shooter going forward)

No matter what social, religious or ethnic classification, be it on US soil or a newspaper office in Paris or an embassy compound in Lebanon, people who commit these acts are terrorists and mentally unstable.

When a tragedy like this occurs, the natural reaction is to find a way to stop it. The simple fact is that if there were no guns, there would be no gun violence. But we have a second amendment, and this nation has many responsible gun owners who should not be denied their rights because of the actions of a few deranged souls. But the reality is the only way to stop this killing is to toughen the requirements for obtaining a gun. If fewer mentally unstable people have access to guns, there will be fewer mass shootings. As John Farmer writes:

Some gun control advocates see hope in something like the Australian approach. The Aussies, stunned by the mass murder of 35 people in a cafĂ© in 1996, took on their gun lobby and won, with detailed background checks, a waiting period for all gun purchases and a program to buy existing guns from private owners. 
The result: The rough-and-ready Aussies have one of world's lowest gun-related death rates. But we're probably too far gone down the gun-loving road for something that comprehensive. 
Mass murder in American is primarily the product of too many guns (300 million), too easily acquired, with too little gun regulation. To deny that is to lie. But it's a lie we seem able to live with.

Unfortunately, he's right. The NRA, one of the most powerful and influential lobbys in the US, pulls out these talking points whenever one of these tragedys occurs: 
  1. Instead of new gun laws, we should be enforcing the many that already exist
  2. We need better mental health laws 
  3. Criminals don't follow laws anyway, so enacting new ones won't change anything
I freely admit I am no expert on the history of gun legislation and enforcement, but I am sick and tired of hearing about innocent people—especially children—being gunned down—especially in school. This must stop. In researching this piece I found some sources that raise a lot of questions and provide a few answers. Read for yourself and decide. 

Let's take these talking points one at a time, shall we?

Instead of new gun laws, we should be enforcing the many that already exist.

Until I actually started digging, I assumed the NRA was just blowing a smoke screen with this one, but it turns out they're right—at least on the second half of that statement. And party politics doesn't seem to matter. Democrats and Republicans alike have been equal opportunity offenders. This piece by CBS's Dick Meyers from 2003 is astonishing. Two years after 9/11, we were here:

Everybody says they favor tough enforcement, they always have. But if it were true, it would have happened.

He presents a lot of disturbing statistics, so please do check out how your tax dollars were not being spent.

Congress and President Obama have failed to properly fund the NRA-supported National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), increased mental health screenings and Project Exile which imposed harsh prison terms for people who committed crimes with a gun. But while the NRA and the White House agreed on those initiatives, the lobbying group dug its heels in when it came to passing common sense legislation that is supported by an overwhelming majority of its members including preventing terrorists on the FBI watch list from purchasing guns, and requiring mandatory background checks.

It seems the only way we can have meaningful change is through executive order. And we all know how well that goes over with right-wing extremists. 

So, if there is common ground, why isn't the NRA leading the charge? Where's the massive ad campaign? Jeeze, it seems every day I see all sorts of TV ads trying to convince me that—among other things—the Iran deal is horrible, Koch Industries is wonderful, and BP cleaned up the Gulf Coast and everything is fine and dandy (except stay away from those 3-headed shrimp). You mean to tell me the NRA can't cough up a few mil to run an ad campaign to put pressure on Congress and the White House to take some action? If they really, truly were interested in being part of the solution, no expense would be spared. After all, they spare no expense when it comes to electing pro-NRA candidates up and down the political ticket.

Which leads me to talking point #2:

We need better mental health laws

Look at these maps. See all that green? That's all the NRA money that's controlling this country. Granted, this is from 2012, but many of these elected officials are still in office. Click here to see just how much money the NRA has donated paid to your present and/or former representatives to represent you prevent the passage of meaningful gun legislation

The House
The Senate
According to the NY Times, more than half the members of the 113th Congress have been given an A rating—and money—by the NRA. Some are Democrats, most are Republicans. How many of these NRA-endorsed representatives are/were also hell-bent on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act? In the past 5 years, the House has voted 55 times to repeal and replace the law, with the latest vote this past February. Here's how they voted by party: 

The NRA and its minions are symptoms of a much larger problem: rampant ignorance. Writing in Psychology Today about the Charleston shooting, David Niose brings the big picture into focus:
In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.  
In considering the senseless loss of nine lives in Charleston, of course racism jumps out as the main issue. But isn’t ignorance at the root of racism? And it’s true that the bloodshed is a reflection of America's violent, gun-crazed culture, but it is only our aversion to reason as a society that has allowed violence to define the culture. Rational public policy, including policies that allow reasonable restraints on gun access, simply isn't possible without an informed, engaged, and rationally thinking public. 
What Americans rarely acknowledge is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking ... many Americans seem to honestly believe that their country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom, that the quality of life here far surpasses everywhere else in the world. 
But it doesn’t. International quality of life rankings place America barely in the top ten. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf most of the rest of the developed world, as does its incarceration rate, while its rates of education and scientific literacy are embarrassingly low. American schools, claiming to uphold “traditional values,” avoid fact-based sex education, and thus we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. And those rates are notably highest where so-called “biblical values” are prominent. Go outside the Bible belt, and the rates generally trend downward. (emphasis mine)
We are becoming imprisoned by our own ignorance, and that ignorance is turning us back on a path headed straight for the Middle Ages. Need proof? Look no further than the Miss America Pagent GOP presidential debates. Many on the far right, including the Republican presidential candidates, are more concerned about what goes on inside a woman's uterus than the pressing issues of the day, including gun violence, which The American College of Physicians designated as an epidemic twenty years ago

Deny people access to quality public education, affordable secondary education, quality, affordable health care, housing, high-paying jobs with opportunities for advancement, and you keep massive numbers of Americans in check, perpetuate the decline of critical thinking and control the message. And this is part of the message:

Criminals don't follow laws anyway, so enacting new ones won't change anything

This argumet is just plain stupid. Let's abolish all laws. Let's abolish prisions, the courts and law enforcment because criminals don't follow laws anyway, so why have them? This argument defies all logic and reasoning and it blows my mind that anyone in this country buys into it.

The time to talk about gun violence is now

I watched Hard Ball with Chris Matthews last night and they aired clips of the GOP candidates' statements on the Oregon shooting:

Donald Trump: "You have very strong laws on the books, but you're always going to have problems. I mean we have millions and millions of... sick people all over the world."

As usual, lacking any real substance.

Marco Rubio: "I always find it interesting that the reflexive reaction of the left is to say we need more gun laws. Criminals don't follow gun laws... and there's just no evidence that these gun laws will prevent these shootings. But it would prevent law abiding people from being able to defend themselves."

Hey Marco, ever hear of a little thing called the Brady Bill
Since February 28, 1994, the Brady law has blocked more than 2.1 million gun purchases, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That is 343 purchases blocked every day. More than one million of those attempted purchases were by felons. Another 291,000 denials were to domestic abusers. And, 118,000 gun sales to fugitives were blocked thanks to background checks. 
“It is clear Brady background checks work. Lives have been saved by the Brady law as we have seen the undeniable evidence showing gun homicides have decreased since the law took effect 20 years ago,” said Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We need Congress to expand Brady background checks to make it harder for criminals and other dangerous people to get guns online, in classified advertisements or at gun shows.”
Just sayin'.

Carley Fiorino: "One of the first things I think we can do is prosecute those folks who have guns and are not supposed to have guns. So, before we start calling for more laws, I think we ought to consider why we don't enforce the laws we have. I found the president's comments last night premature at best, and at worst, a really unfortunate politicization of this tragedy." (emphasis mine) 

Yea, Carley, you're running for president, so how are your comments not political? 

Mike Huckabee: "What stopped that shooter yesterday? He was continuing to shoot. What stopped him? It was a police officer with what? A conversation? A reading from a book? It was a cop with a gun that stopped him."

Sounds eerily familiar...

Statement made after the Newtown massacre
The police officer who killed the Oregon shooter did nothing wrong. He did his job, he saved lives, he stopped a maniac, he put himself in harm's way in service to others. He is a hero and he deserves enormous thanks and praise. But he committed an act of violence just the same, and that's part of his job. Sometimes violence needs to happen, but it shouldn't be—and isn't—the only way to stop an act of violence. We must stop them before they even start.

Jeb Bush: "We're at a difficult time in our country and I don't think that more government is necessarily the answer to this... Look, stuff happens. There's always a crisis, and the impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."

Yea, Jeb, "stuff" happens. Realizing, I guess, that his remarks were shockingly lame and out of touch, he later tried to clarify: "Sometimes you're imposing solutions to problems that don't fix the problems and takes away people's liberties and rights. And that's the point I was trying to make."

So, Jeb, when it comes to public education, it's perfectly okay with you to impose solutions to problems that don't fix the problems, but take away people's liberties and rights. But we shouldn't dare try to fix a problem like gun violence, 'cause... well... that might rob some people of their liberties and rights. 

And then there was the voice of reason...

Robert Reich"No other advanced nation has the kind of gun permission and gun laws we do that allow people to go around and basically use guns with no safety checks, no background checks. No other nation does that, and no other nation has the carnage that we do over and over and over again... You have the United States, the outlier, where everyone can get guns basically very, very easily and there's 'shoot 'em up' kind of Wild West every two months, and the rest of the world kind of looks at that and says this is nuts."

Another day, another shooting in America. Meh. As long as those in power can convince the public that this was just a random crazy person, nothing changes. But the real crazy people are those who are controlling this message.

Jon Stewart summed it up best immediately after the AME Church massacre: 

By acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won't do jack sh--.
We invaided 2 countries and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives... all to keep Americans safe. Nine people shot in a church. What about that? 'Hey, whaddya gonna do? Crazy is as crazy does.'
I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it.
If innocent children being shot to pieces in the one place where they are supposed to be safe when they are away from home isn't enough; if adults being executed in their house of worship—a safe and sacred space—is not enough; if any of the horrendous killings of innocent people going about their lives isn't enough to galvanize Congress to take immediate and aggressive action to drastically reduce gun violence, then nothing will change. America is doomed. We are being held hostage by blood money paid to our elected officials by the very people who hold up the US Constitution as the symbol of liberty and freedom. 

Thoughts and prayers will not stop gun violence. Candlelight vigils and memorials will not stop gun violence. "A good guy with a gun" will not stop gun violence. The only way to stop gun violence is for elected officials to make it a priority, and right now, it's not. With every day that passes, with every mass shooting that occurs, more and more blood is on their hands.