Saturday, September 17, 2011

THE HIDDEN AGENDA OF ENDING SOCIAL PROMOTION

In my blog “Ending Social Promotion” (12 Sep), I claimed that Governor Martinez had no plan “to deal with the estimated 12000 students held back each year: no extra classroom space for the additional students, no additional funding, no specially trained personnel to intervene, no specially defined curriculum or instruction to improve reading—nada, nothing, zippo.”

Senator Fischmann emailed a response, “Michael, Read the bill! It's 8 pages long, and in many ways it is not what you think.” From an elected official, I always appreciate a courteous response and a Tea-Party-type “read the Constitution” rebuttal. Actually, the bill is 10 pages long, the disparity matters, for pages 9 and 10 really matter.

The issue about the effectiveness of this approach appears in Fischmann’s mincing words with me about whether the bill does or does not have some of the things which he says it has and which I say it does not have. For him, the bill has student-specific plans, parent-teacher conferences, reading specialists, testing, and summer school. For me, the bill offers those things, though I did not say so; what I did say was that it offered nothing “special,” just more of the same, more of what has already failed. Fischmann thinks that multiplying by zero gets a value more than zero; I do not.

Nevertheless, Fischmann writes that he likes the bill and tells me that he would vote for it except for one flaw: its lack of funding. Good objection: the bill imposes an unfunded mandate on school districts. I know that he realizes what an unfunded mandate would mean for them. Without additional funds, school districts would have to shift funds from their regular programs to additional efforts to remediate deficiencies—in short, do more with less—after estimating their share of 12,000 failing students and budgeting for them. This shift in funds could have the perverse effect of undermining student proficiency in regular programs and require even more remediation for more students—a downward spiral doing little to improve public education. (School districts would pay for summer school for K-8- grade students and for K-9-grade students if the state decides that their parents, who would otherwise pay for it, are indigent. Did anyone consider the effect of parental payments for summer school on the high-school dropout rate?)

Except for this little objection, Fischmann believes that the bill has educational promise. But the track record of such remediation programs elsewhere—is what fails elsewhere more likely to succeed here?—suggests that the program defined by this bill, however funded, will not only fail, but also harm students educationally, emotionally, socially. Their track record shows lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

Re-reading the bill, I discovered a provision not mentioned in the bill description at the start but placed at the very end (I refer to pages 9 and 10, after page 8, which also state major exceptions to or loopholes in the overall policy to end social promotion): it creates second-class students. It says that students not academically proficient the first time through and, after remediation, not academically proficient the second time through get removed from the regular school program and enrolled in a program with other students who have also failed to achieve academic proficiency—a two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. Fischmann assumes, I assume, that they will get a “separate-but-equal” education from teachers inspired to teach classes of students identified as academically deficient (without, he assumes, I assume, emotional, social, or disciplinary problems).

Fischmann and other supporters of the bill—sponsors are John Arthur Smith and Nora Espinoza—must know that removing students who have failed to achieve academic proficiency from regular programs and placing them in alternative programs stigmatizes them. (I do not know about the others, but Fischmann earlier supported stigmatizing entire schools with letter grades.) Worse, on a larger scale, without a word of discussion thus far, and with some effort at concealment, the bill’s provision to segregate students by academic ability begins the erosion of the long-established and widely accepted educational policy of mainstreaming.

As I have written many times before, elected and appointed state officials, many of whom have never taught in the classroom, are passing laws dictating what state-certified professional educators should be doing in the classroom. With this obscured provision to begin the surreptitious dismantling of mainstreaming, they are also deciding in Santa Fe which students should be in which classrooms. Fischmann was right; the bill was not what I had thought. But either Fischmann should read with care the whole bill, including pages 9 and 10, for, in many ways it is not what he thinks it is. Or he should come clean about his positions on public education, for, in many ways, they are not what he has led others and me to think they are.

Monday, September 12, 2011

ENDING SOCIAL PROMOTION

Ending social promotion at the end of the third grade year has a lot of appeal to those who play politics with public education. People with no classroom experience—Governor Susana Martinez, perpetually interim Secretary of Education Hanna Skandera, and Paul Gessing, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Foundation—advocate the idea to advance a reform which has successfully manipulated scores without improving education in Florida.

People knowledgeable about education know that students learn to read through grade four, not grade three, and read to learn thereafter. The question is why aficionados of everything Floridian prefer third grade. The answer is that holding back poor students in third grade limits testing to good students in fourth grade and thereby boosts tests scores. Whatever else might be said about social promotion, this proposal is a deceptive political stunt. This crowd wants to grab headlines by claiming that it has improved education when it has merely manipulated test data.

The proof that this proposal is not a serious educational one is the Governor’s claim that interventions for those held back will be so effective that no Plan B is necessary—a presumed belief in its magical perfection. If the Governor knows that such interventions will work, why does she not urge their adaptation in grades K-3 to ensure proficiency in the first place? Indeed, the way to end social promotion is to improve education in ways which make it unnecessary.

Worse, the Governor lacks even a Plan A to deal with the estimated 12000 students held back each year: no extra classroom space for the additional students, no additional funding, no specially trained personnel to intervene, no specially defined curriculum or instruction to improve reading—nada, nothing, zippo.

Of course, under these circumstances, it is likely the some of these 12,000 students held back one year will still not achieve proficiency. The question is whether to continue to deny them social promotion (for some, for how many years?). And I have not until now even mentioned the effects of ending social promotion on graduation rates, future academic performance, student behavior, and truancy and dropout rates.

Talk about waste, fraud, and abuse—this is it. Watch the positions and votes of your state senators and representatives on this one.

(I ask that those of you concerned about the Governor’s proposal forward this comment to your associates and others. Thank you.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

OPEN LETTER TO GEN MITCHELL, OF THE LAS CRUCES TEA PARTY

Gen,

Your letter begins with a common Tea Party refrain: “I am willing to bet (and I am not a betting person) that Jerry Eagan and other doubters of Tea Party goals and desires have never attended a meeting.” The assumption is that attendance at a Tea Party meeting would persuade doubters about something or other, it is hard to tell what. Sorry, Gen, but you would lose your bet; to know you—I speak, of course, of your party, not you—is not to love you.

(Let me digress on one point. If you claim “we [Tea Party members] have the same desires as most Americans do,” then you would not differ from the American majority who elected a Democratic president three years ago. But your claim is false; you do not have the same desires. Most Americans desire democracy to prevail through a process of discussion and debate, including respectful disagreement with opponents. Many on the Right, especially most Tea Party members, prefer the political rhetoric of disrespect and demonization; labeling the majority-elected president a “Liberal/Progressive/Socialist,” as you do is typical. Most Americans do not approve of the tactics of derogation and division, threats of armed resistance, or talk of possible secession (from the governor of a state which once did attempt to secede). So they are not going to find attendance at Tea Party meetings comforting or appealing.)

Now for the really bad news. Debbie White, to whom I gave some encouragement in her failed run for office and some advice on educational issues, invited me to attend one of your recent meetings. I did so, but I went unnoticed, so no one was on their good (or bad) behavior on my account. But for one excision, I copy the 9 August email which I sent to Debbie the next day.

Debbie,

If I had not left town for a rare weekend away with my wife, I would have written sooner to thank you for inviting me to the meeting of the local Tea Party.

One benefit is that you have given me cover from the criticism that I have never been to a Tea Party meeting. Apparently, the critics believe that if I just knew some party members, I would find them warm, fuzzy people—a fact which would change my mind about its positions, etc. I keep it a secret that I know the chapter president and offered her educational advice and moral support during her campaign for office—a fact which might make your life more complicated!

The meeting itself was like most chapter meetings of advocacy organizations—mostly boring…. The demographics confirmed what I knew generally; of the 45 or so people, all but about nine seemed over 60, and all but two or three seemed to be white. I do credit the interest in getting more young people involved and your personal welcome to the young Hispanic man there. Though the demographics are typical of the national profile, they seem more skewed in a city and country lop-sidedly young and Hispanic.

As for the discussions, I thought that you ran a good meeting and your secretary—did I understand correctly that she is a candidate for city councilor for District 1 (mine)?—was right on top of things. Some of the exchanges between members and some speeches by one member showed a surplus of anger or irritability which, I think, many people associate with the Tea Party. I was surprised to hear Jim Harbison associate the origins of the EPA with Agenda 21, since the EPA was a 1970 creation of the conservative Republican administration of Richard Nixon, and disappointed that a membership old enough to know better apparently did not or preferred not to correct the error.

Which brings me to a related point. You well know that I am a severe critic of Tea Party positions or members’ opinions. (But give me credit for being an equal opportunity critic; I have been a severe critic, one of the first and fiercest, of President Obama and, it turns out, right from the start). I am not surprised that local members are angered by my criticism and talk back. But, as one who believes in, and tries to practice, respect and honest rhetoric in the exchange of views, I am dismayed by what passes for responses to my criticisms. Indeed, I think that there must be a Tea Party playbook for responding to critics, with four major steps:

1. Use labels and call names to denigrate or demonize the critic.
2. Misrepresent the critic’s positions.
3. Impute unworthy positions to the critic.
4. Ignore the criticisms addressed by the critic.

A recent letter, in disregard of the fact, falsely labeled me a Democrat. It claimed that I “castigated” a Tea Party member without even stating my reasons for my criticism: manipulation of the Constitutional text to make an argument—an evasion which I see as, one, indifference to dishonesty and, two, an ends-justifies-the-means principle. Other recent letters from Tea Party members are of the same kind and character.

I can take of myself, of course, and I often respond. But I would like to see the Tea Party take a reasonable and responsible approach to engagement with its critics. After all, if its positions are sensible, members should be able to advance them on their merits or rebut criticisms as stated; they certainly cannot advance their positions by personal attacks on those who disagree with them. Indeed, after a while, people realize that Tea Party attacks on critics are actually a sign of weakness, not strength.

I am reminded of another radically angry group from my youth, the Black Muslims. In my experience with the few whom I knew, members conducted themselves with dignity and discipline in their exchanges with whites, whatever their feelings toward them. In my much broader experience with other blacks, many of whom were also angry, I noted the same personal deportment. I could talk with them, they could talk with me, and the exchanges, however heated by disagreement, were never ugly or unpleasant on either side. Of course, the Black Muslims did not prevail in the discussion of civil rights, but, despite white fear and loathing, they made a positive contribution to the general discussion and played a constructive role in black communities.

I offer these impressions and suggestions—think of them as constituting an outside audit—for whatever worth they may be to you as the president of the local Tea Party.
Thanks again for inviting me. I do not promise, but I may, drop in again.

Michael

I omitted from this letter some other details worth mentioning here. Jim Harbison’s calling the mayor “stupid,” even though Harbison claimed it was not behind-the-back bravado, was more of the typical Tea Party name-calling indicating attitudes towards those who disagree. His talk about the UN’s Agenda 21, with unquestioned agreement by members, reflects the same sort of unfounded fears about one-world government which go back to the 1940s and the founding of the UN.

There you have it: a visit by someone who had not previously attended a Tea Party meeting, who attended, and who escaped unscathed—and no differently disposed toward it or its members. If you want to understand why the Tea Party is losing public approval and credibility, you might want to re-read what I have written. Its fate is to become a cranky political cult inveighing against democracy as we have known it in its challenging imperfections and its lofty aspirations of “liberty and justice for all.”

Saturday, September 3, 2011

GOVERNMENTS' BROWN FARM FIASCO

A joint county- and city-made fiasco at Brown Farm, city-owned and –operated county land between El Camino Real and Spitz Avenue, north of Cedardale Loop, features government mismanagement from top to bottom. Everything about this floodwater control project explains growing distrust of, and anger at, government for failing to manage resources and projects to serve the public. In this case, the county wasted $75,000, the city about $7,500; degraded conditions on 25 acres of public land by ignoring and thus violating relevant laws; and increased heath risks to thousands of county and city children and adults.

In 1991, the county prepared a flood-control plan for this area but shelved it for lack of funds to implement it. Later, the city bought the land. In 2011, when it received funds, the county pulled the plan off the shelf, secured right of entry from the city, and implemented the plan to enlarge berms and holding ponds.

In a modern-day inversion of the story of Rip Van Winkle, who awoke to a changed world, county and city acted as if nothing had changed in 20 years. In 1991, neither development on adjacent land south of Brown Farm nor West Nile Virus existed; by 2011, they did. But no one in county or city government consulted nearby residents, reviewed or revised the plan, or considered whether changed circumstances rendered the plan obsolete because of the risks of storing so much water, capable of breeding mosquitos, so close to so many people.

Indeed, no one in county or city government knew the magnitude of the risks: how many residents live, work, or drive, and what city or county facilities lie, within the three-mile radius of mosquitos’ range from their hatch. According to the 2010 census, 68,000 people live within this area; probably tens of thousands more drive every day into or through this area. In-range facilities include several elementary and middle schools, Mayfield High School, health and senior centers, and, ironically, City Hall. Yet no one in city or county government considered that larger holding basins and a later additional one perpetuated and augmented a known health hazard.

But everyone in county and city government considered preventing flood damage to property but not protecting citizens from disease or death. Of course, in the usual double-standardism of government, the city has a law on West Nile Virus which requires citizens to eliminate standing water in, among others, flower pot saucers and birdbaths, or face a penalty of up to $500 and 90 days in jail. But it does not enforce the law on identified violators.

County and city crews incompetently executed on-site work despite taking short-cuts contravening applicable laws. The plan called for a 60-foot-wide berm; the county built an 80-foot-wide one—wasting effort, time, and money; and requiring on-site excavation of a large, shallow basin for the necessary soil. The county strip-cleared the land, destroyed vegetation, ruined habitat, killed wildlife, and created a dustbowl and an eyesore. It neither planned nor budgeted for land restoration or reseeding. The city, in widening two trenches connecting holding basins, made them run uphill; after returning to correct the grade, it left them still running uphill. No one supervised any government or contractor work.

(The pictures below, from top to bottom, show one "before" and two "after" pictures. The two at the top show much the same ground from roughly opposite angles; the one at the bottom shows one of the trenches running upgrade.)







Responding to complaints by nearby residents and after negotiations with them, the city agreed to reconfigure the site to make all water flow northward and to restore the site. Acting in bad faith, it funneled some water into a vegetated channel which runs uphill and stores water closer to more people, and directed the rest into the existing system. The city thus made an additional, entirely unnecessary, and harder-to-treat holding basin and wasted more money.

So the county and city created more problems than they solved. They increased risks to people; lied to, or dealt in bad faith with, citizens; wasted money; and turned green fields into a tan wasteland.

In another meeting, now with councilors and managers, the city agreed to promptly develop and implement a plan addressing residents’ concerns, ensuring their involvement, and establishing two-way communication. No resident not involved believed that the city would keep its word, do the right work, or do the work right. Three weeks later: no word, some work.

Distrust of government extends beyond residents witness to this fiasco, for good reasons. First, City Council spends too much time debating policies or laws, too little time ensuring their efficient implementation or enforcement. Second, city managers and department directors do not ensure efficient implementation or enforcement. Between erratic compliance with policies and laws, incompetent performance, dishonest communications, and avoidance of citizen participation, city government fails to serve the public interest. Citizens are justifiably distrustful, and many are righteously angry.

Whether the city remedies the Brown Farm fiasco, reforms its approach to public service, and rectifies its attitude toward the public remains to be seen. But, as the election approaches, candidates should address the issues of honest government and efficient management.