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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What's with the weird blog name?

A few months ago, I renamed this blog, “Smoking Toward New Jersey.” When I was a teenager in Manhattan, "Smoke toward New Jersey" was what I said when someone blew smoke in my face. It was the late ‘70s. Kids smoked a lot. 


Back then, New York was an incredibly exciting place to be young, what with the heady rebelliousness of the punk scene, the downtown clubs that never carded, and the freedom of movement provided by a 24/7 mass transit system.  Jersey, on the other hand? Bridge-and-tunnel New Yorker wannabes whose mommies and daddies had to drive them to the station, and who didn’t know the difference between Sid Vicious and Adam Ant.
“Smoke toward New Jersey” pretty much summed up my attitude toward the Garden State at the time: a filthy, polluted, industrialized waste of a place where people were either too stupid or too uncivilized to do the only sensible thing - move to New York.
Now I live in New Jersey. Call it Karma.
I’ve discovered that, like most things in life, the truth about New Jersey is far more complicated than I’d once thought. I was wrong about a lot of things - and right about others - and ignorant of a whole lot more. 
So it turns out the whole state does not consist of foul-smelling refineries along the Turnpike. In fact, it’s quite a mixed bag. Some parts, like where I live, are actually quite pretty, with lots of open space and quaint old towns. Farms, even. But much of New Jersey is suburban sprawl - towns with no beginning, middle, or end, just a patchwork of housing developments and strip malls that can’t even really be called towns. The only way you know you’ve left one is when you pass a sign welcoming you to the next one. There are cities, too. Turns out Newark is not just an airport. What it is, I’m not altogether certain. I’m not proud to say I’ve never been. Well, except for that one Miley Cyrus concert at that big nameless arena, where every cop was on duty to protect the suburban families as they ran for their cars.
Which reminds me - the car culture for which I had such disdain in my youth? I’m 100 percent a part of it now. I’ve fallen into that cesspool of fossil-fuel consumption, and I can’t get up.  I’m not proud of it, but I’m sadly unmotivated to do anything else. Every once in a while I tell myself I’ll start riding my bike to run errands or get to work. “This time I mean it,” I tell myself. I am such a liar.
Other things I treated with contempt in my youth I have discovered to be pretty wonderful. Backyards, for instance. As I type, I’m looking out the kitchen window at the bird feeders; I see a downy woodpecker, a cardinal, a titmouse, and and a nuthatch. I know this because I keep the Peterson Field Guide of Eastern Birds on a shelf right by the window. This is a far more entertaining, educational, and calming activity than watching pigeons in the air shaft outside my New York apartment window. Or listening to the breaking glass of the looters in the street. Well, that was only during blackouts.
So what about the people? That’s where age and experience really kicked my ass and taught me a thing or two. Somehow, at 16, self-delusion was way easier. I put on a leather jacket, spiked up my hair, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and convinced myself that I was part of a radical counterculture scene despite my affluent Upper East Side private religious school, Ivy League college plans, and - oh yeah - living with my parents. So much for nostalgia.
To tell the truth, Jersey people ARE more or less what I expected. Most stick to the narrow world they know, looking very little beyond popular trends in fashion, music, politics - everything. My area is pretty affluent, and with that comes the usual bourgeois lifestyle of conspicuous consumption combined with circle-the-wagons-cuz-the-socialists-are-a-comin’ politics. But of course that doesn’t describe everyone, and even those whom it does describe sometimes have a lot more to say for themselves if you bother to scratch the surface. Sometimes. Not always.
Then again, when I go into the city these days, it’s the same there. A 50-story glass-and-steel high rise filled with 2 million-dollar apartments is just the urban version of the McMansions I see right here, across the street, built the year after we moved to what is now the "poor" side of the street. Manhattan streets are lined with Gaps and Starbucks and Victoria’s Secrets and Barnes & Nobles, without even the comfort of climate-controlled corridors in between. Yeah, I admit it. If I’m gonna buy the same cookie-cutter crap you can get in a mall, I prefer to stay warm and dry doing it.
I’d like to think that some of the gritty liveliness, the rebellious excitement of the New York of my youth wasn’t imaginary. But even if it wasn’t, it’s mostly gone now, anyway. Jersey, meanwhile, turns out to be not so bad. No worse than the rest of the country, anyway.
But that’s not saying much.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One parent's story of one school district not having a crisis. Yawn.

Yesterday was a national Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform. Yesterday was also Start Cooking for Thanksgiving Day. Hence, this entry, a day late.
_______________
There’s this story going around. It goes like this:
American public schools are in crisis. They are filled with stupid, lazy, greedy, teachers whose agenda is to protect their jobs at all costs while ignoring the needs of children as much as possible. Buildings are crumbling, gang wars erupt in the hallways, and no actual education occurs. Kids graduate without being able to read or do math - if they graduate at all. All of this goes on because powerful teachers’ unions are holding politicians by the short and curlies. And the taxpayers are getting screwed.
That’s the narrative you get from the media as well as from the latest crop of education “reformers” who are pushing ideas like school privatization, mayoral control, education vouchers, etc. Here in New Jersey, that’s the narrative we get from our right-wing Republican governor, who has slashed school funding and wants to create more charter schools, institute standardized-test-based merit pay for teachers, abolish tenure, and hand out vouchers for private schools. On another day, I might go into a 1,000-word rant on why wealthy philanthropists, hedge fund managers, politicians, and the media keep telling that story and proposing this particular set of “solutions.”
But not today. Today I’m getting personal and I’m changing the narrative. I’m talking about what’s worked well for my three public school kids. I know there are deeply troubled school districts that resemble the doomsday scenario much more closely than ours does - but I wonder whether, even there, the situation is as totally irredeemable as it’s made out to be. I’m asking people, before we bring out the wrecking balls and the bulldozers: First, look at what you’re being urged to destroy.
I know my list of Things That Work is narrow and leaves out a lot of important stuff, because it’s based on the experiences of just one family. I hope others in my district and others around the state and the nation will come forward and share what works for them - as well as what doesn’t - so that we can build a more realistic picture of public education in America, and a more reality-based plan to improve it.
THINGS THAT WORK IN THE MORRIS SCHOOL DISTRICT
Diversity: If our school district is anything to go by, diversity isn’t just a PC watchword - it’s effective education policy. Our student body represents the nation’s population pretty closely. The census data is pretty old at this point, but in 2000 we had 8,354 people under 18 in the district: 1,435 Latino; 1,049 African-American; 321 Asian; 6,273 white. Socioeconomically, we range from rich to poor: Our state District Factor Grouping (an index of socioeconomic status) is GH on a scale of A (really poor) to J (rolling in dough).
And here’s the thing: Everyone benefits. It’s not just about less-advantaged kids reaping the benefits of going to school with more-advantaged kids, though there is that. My white, Jewish kids have learned firsthand about our multicultural society; that achievement isn’t measured in dollars; that authority figures don’t all look like them;  that everyone has something to contribute; that everyone matters.
Research shows that poor kids concentrated together is an almost certain predictor of poor outcome.  The Morris School District offers evidence that the opposite is true as well: Diversity works. Diversity creates good schools for everyone, schools where those who need extra help can actually get it, and where those with high ability can truly excel.
Teachers: Yes, there have been a few we could have done without. But there have been so many wonderful teachers - caring, thoughtful, hard-working individuals whose efforts on behalf of my kids went far above and beyond the call of duty. There was the first grade teacher who recognized that my son’s love of dinosaurs went way beyond the usual childhood infatuation, and brought in books from her personal library she thought would engage him; the fourth grade teacher who, unasked, saved my daughter's work and compiled a comprehensive portfolio in support of her application to the gifted and talented program; the seventh grade algebra teacher who poses math questions that blow his students’ minds; the band teacher who pushes hard and makes kids feel the pride one gets from being better than one has any right to be; the teacher who built a gifted and talented curriculum from scratch because no one - not the state and not the district - provided her with even a rough outline. The list goes on and on.
Administrators: Hard to believe these folks are on the list, but yes, there are some good ones. When my daughter started kindergarten, she was already reading very well. I approached the principal to find out if she could be grouped with other kids reading at a similar level. Much to my surprise, the principal arranged for her to be evaluated by the reading specialist for a week, after which we were offered the opportunity to move her into first grade, which we did. No battles, no appeals, no threats. And then there was the administrator who dealt with the school bus bully who had targeted my kids. The fact that the bully didn’t fit the usual stereotype made no difference; he was disciplined swiftly and surely, and the teasing stopped. These are administrators who care about influencing kids, not just pushing pencils.
Music: This was a huge shocker for me. I attended an exclusive, small private school that didn’t even have an instrumental music program. I had no idea what I was missing. Now, having watched my kids pick up instruments in fourth grade and make music an important part of their lives, I realize not only that music is vital, but that, no matter what’s on my resume, I am an undereducated musical illiterate.
As part of their public school education, my kids have all learned to read music well and to play one or more instruments each. And they’ve gotten what private lessons alone could never have given them: the opportunity to play in a large orchestra or band. For those who want to reach for even higher goals, there are groups like concert strings and jazz band, where the kids are really challenged.  I am inexpressibly grateful to each and every music teacher who has given my kids this incredible gift. These opportunities are open to every kid - I know of kids who couldn't afford instrument rental, who were provided instruments free of charge, and who have excelled in the music program. 
Gifted education: New Jersey mandates it. No funding is provided. No curriculum is specified. No standard of identification is offered. And yet, through the district’s reasonably robust Quest program and a few dedicated teachers, my kids have researched, debated, created, explored, and designed, in fields ranging from business to architecture to ancient history to literature. In the current environment of standardized testing and shrinking budgets, in which the needs of gifted students who usually test well are often ignored, we’ve got staff and budget dedicated to the needs of high-achieving students. I consider this a small miracle.
Community: Being part of a neighborhood school connects us with our community in a fundamental, concrete way. It reminds us that, no matter who we are, where we come from, and whom we voted for, the shared needs of our children transcend those differences. It makes us - parents and kids - realize that all of us have to stand behind the ideal of a quality education for each and every child, and that our community is weakened when the needs of some are not met. So many parents pitch in with time, money, whatever they can, to make the schools better. Our kids see that and learn an important civics lesson about participation and volunteerism that will inform their choices for the rest of their lives.
Tolerance: Okay, I have a little confession to make. You know those painfully long, dull, out-of-tune holiday concerts we all sit through every year when our kids are in elementary school? They choke me up - every single year. Despite the fact that I don’t believe anyone should be singing even remotely religious songs in public school. Despite the fact that the Hanukah songs are way more lame than the Christmas songs. Despite the controversial origins of Kwanzaa. Despite the fact that, by 5th grade, the kids think the whole thing is pretty dumb. So do I. And yet, my innate cynicism is no match for my emotional response to that display of respect for cultures not one’s own. When those public school kids participate in an event that explicitly refuses to presume the universal Christianity of their community and their country, I choke up. I just do. So there.
 The 3 R’s: Yes, even those. Basic education. It happens.
I want to emphasize: I’m talking about suburban schools which, though not homogeneous, serve a more affluent and stable community than many schools in poor and urban areas. I am not deluding myself into believing that the status quo is acceptable everywhere, or for that matter, anywhere. But I do believe that the media, encouraged by right-wing think tanks and high-profile reform advocates, has created a grossly exaggerated view of the widespread decay of public education in America. Parents who know better, who have personal experience of a very different reality, need to stand up and tell their stories. We need to let our elected representatives know what our schools do and do not need - and we need to listen to parents in other districts whose needs may be very different.
Public education has been a good thing for our family. Will it continue to be? I have my doubts. So many changes could chip away at the things that work: over-emphasis on standardized testing; budget cuts; devaluing teachers; de-emphasizing the arts; de-secularization of the curriculum. That's why I scour the news every day to find out what legislation is being proposed; who's defunding what; which reform faction is ascendant at the moment. Lately, the news hasn't been good. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that calm heads prevail and we don't throw the baby out with the bath water.


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Click here to read more blog posts written for the Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Fix Our Military - A Parody

Let’s face it - our military is a mess.
The war in Iraq hasn’t gone very well. Sure, we ousted Saddam Hussein, but ever since then, the Iraq effort has been in decline. People keep dying, and what do we have to show for it? The streets are unsafe, the people have not learned what we came to teach them, and we can’t claim victory despite repeatedly lowering our standards. And now, despite the fact that the Iraq War is officially over, we’re still paying soldiers to work there! Those are tax dollars coming straight out of your pocket!
And Afghanistan? Even worse! We keep throwing more and more money at the problem, but nothing ever changes. It’s still all about warlords and opium, while our important lessons of freedom and democracy go entirely unheeded.
So who’s to blame? The answer is obvious. Who’s over there, drawing their salaries on the taxpayers’ dime, getting outrageous benefits like free health care, free meals, free housing, money for college, paid vacations, and even the use of government-owned vehicles? 
The soldiers, that’s who. Clearly, the failures of our military are the fault of bad soldiers. And did you know that, as long as a soldier keeps showing up at the war and following orders, he or she never gets fired, even if we’re not winning? (Unless they’re gay, of course.) It’s like having job security for life! People in the real world don’t get that. So why do soldiers get such a sweet deal? Because they’re protected by an entrenched leadership committed to supporting its members and shielding them from outside interference. Can you imagine?
So - what can we do to reform our military? Here are a few easy, intuitively correct answers:
1. Cut military funding. Hey, these are tough times. Why continue to spend all this money if we don’t get clear-cut victories? Sure, soldiers might have to make do with fewer perks like reliable weapons, decent food, and body armor, but hey, it’s all about shared sacrifices. Lots of us have given up our SUVs and our timeshares in Boca. Besides, if they really need all that stuff, they can spend their own money on it.

2. Create charter armies. The military has been a government monopoly for far too long. You can’t expect excellent results with no free-market competition. We need to create  a market-driven military with multiple, privately owned and operated armies that are liberated from the burdens of government regulation and public oversight. Only then will we see some real military innovation! There are hedge fund managers champing at the bit to get a piece of this action. We must not let the willing philanthropy of such selfless patriots go to waste. Yup, charter armies will be the salvation of our nation’s military.

3. Merit pay for soldiers. It’s easy to judge who is an effective soldier: Who kills the most enemies? Sure, there are different jobs  in the army, and some of them do a lot less killing than others, but really, we all know what the bottom line is when it comes to war. So imagine how much more effective our soldiers will become when we pay them based on a rating that relies heavily on standardized kill results. And let’s go one better: Publish the ratings in newspapers, so that everyone knows which soldiers are doing the best job. Hey, these guys work for us - we have a right to know!

4. End guaranteed job security. If a commanding officer is dissatisfied with a soldier’s performance, why shouldn’t that soldier be let go? Just imagine how much more efficient our  military will be when every crying mama’s boy, every redneck maggot, every whiny little puke, every lowest form of life on Earth, and every pathetic jug-f*&%er gets fired! No doubt they’ll be quickly replaced with MIT graduates willing to work for nothing but sheer patriotic pride, daily verbal abuse, and a pair of boots.
By following these clear, simple steps, our military will once again make us the most powerful, feared nation on Earth, and we will quickly mop up little problems like Iraq and Afghanistan despite centuries of religious and tribal conflict.
Oh, and feel free to use this little manifesto to get the national dialogue going. Oprah, are you listening?
______________________

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's in a name?

When my twin sons reached fifth grade, they started telling me about something that was new in their lives: the way kids tease each other at school. Their peers had started going through that phase where kids try to enhance their own status by humiliating others.
That came as no surprise. But what struck me as really weird were the two insults my kids told me their peers used most often: “racist” and “gay.”
Think about that a minute. When you use “racist” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for showing intolerance toward people who are different.  When you use “gay” as an epithet, you’re putting someone down for actually being different. They are, in a sense, opposites. How could those two insults coexist in the same schoolyard among the same group of kids? Was it that the kids could believe two contradictory things at once, or did the words simply have no meaning to them at all?
The answer, I think, is a little of each.
There is a constant tension between the outward forms we use - the language and symbols we employ to represent things - and the core beliefs we have actually internalized. The white kid who uses “racist” as an epithet is not necessarily free of racism himself, but he’s internalized the taboo against appearing racist - he’s been raised in a culture of political correctness where he’s been carefully socialized to believe that the outward signs of racism - like using the “n” word - is to be avoided at all costs.  This, despite the fact that, if his lunch money disappears, he may suspect a black classmate first.
Meanwhile, the kid who uses “gay” as an epithet does not necessarily think about the morality of same-sex relationships - in fact, in fifth grade he may have only the haziest idea of what homosexuality is - but he’s internalized the taboo against behaviors culturally associated with homosexuality or, more generally, a lack of masculinity. 
In other words, the kids don’t fully understand the epithets, but they have a very clear idea about the words’ social implications. 
So what does that translate to in fifth-grade culture? For one thing, anyone who shows any awareness of the existence of race - for example, identifying someone as a “black kid” or a “white kid,” or for that matter using the words “black” or “white” in any context whatsoever (no, I’m not exaggerating) is liable to be called “racist.” And any kid who sets a toe outside the tight boundaries established for masculinity - the boy who is studious, artistic, or simply uninterested in sports - is liable to be called “gay.” 
For an epithet to be effective, it doesn’t have to be true or even probable. It just has to do one thing successfully: push the shame button and humiliate the victim. Successful insults rely on shared cultural cues about what is shameful. TV, movies, peers - they’re all important sources of those cues, but most important are parents.  That doesn’t necessarily mean parents are tossing these words around at the dinner table; it means that they’re sending cues which kids, like the intelligent, imitative primates they are, learn to interpret at a very young age. And kids have exquisitely finely tuned sensors for what embarrasses their parents. Pointing out someone’s skin color in a public place? Embarrassing. Seeing junior dress up in tutu and tiara? Cringeworthy.
Flash forward a few years, when the child reaches the stage where he believes that humiliating others enhances his own status, and “racist” and “gay” make perfect sense in the same schoolyard, among the same kids, because they both have the same effect - they call up a visceral shame.
For a while, anyway. Over time, one of those epithets seems to fade away, while the other becomes more common, and more cruel.
When puberty hits and the entire topic of sexuality becomes an intense, hot-button issue strewn with all kinds of personal and social land mines, a kid’s social life begins to revolve around one urgent need: to avoid embarrassment by seeming normal, with normal very clearly defined as heterosexual. And voila, “gay” becomes the epithet of choice,  because it becomes the word with the most power to do harm.
My boys are in seventh grade now. I never hear anymore about people being called “racist,” but “gay” is bigger than ever. And now, there’s a dawning understanding among their friends of what the word means beyond a general lack of masculinity. Seventh graders have, to varying degrees, begun to learn what sex is, and they’ve begun to be interested in it themselves. It’s that age when sex is simultaneously the most fascinating topic in the world and also the most excruciatingly embarrassing; the need to fit neatly inside the boundaries of what your peers see as normal is intense.
All of a sudden, the epithet “gay,” which was bad enough before, is now brutally distressing, whether or not it’s accurate. Just knowing that your sexuality is being disparaged can be devastating. Sadly, recent media coverage of teen suicides has been a shocking reminder of just how devastating.
So if parental and social cues serve to teach kids how to embarrass each other,  you have to wonder exactly what cues all those kids are getting on homosexuality. Many, no doubt, hear explicitly anti-gay statements at home. But even among those who don't, the message comes through loud and clear. At best, they may sense some grudging tolerance - a kind of awkward, bare-bones acknowledgment that gay people exist - they're out there, but we don't like thinking about it. To the average 12- or 13-year-old boy, the translation is: "Don't act like one, don’t hang around them, and for God’s sake, don’t EVER become one."

As long as people, especially parents continue to cringe at what they perceive as homosexual or unmasculine behavior, kids will continue to use “gay” as a weapon to wound. Schools can and should adopt anti-bullying policies; they can and should discipline kids who harass others in any way. But does anyone really believe that schools can make this problem go away on their own?
Every time a kid loses his life to the unbearable humiliation of being called “gay,” every parent should ask  him or herself, “What have I done to give that word its power to wound - and what can I do to take it away?”

Friday, October 15, 2010

This could kill me

You have to feel sorry for kids with parents of my generation. Well, a certain kind of parents, anyway. Our kids have it way harder than we did.
When I was a teenager in the ‘70s, it wasn’t terribly difficult for a kid to shock her parents. Our parents were products of the ‘50s, and even though they’d lived through the ‘60s, they still cringed at acid-soaked, psychedelic music. They knew with the certainty you only get from watching network specials about the drug problem in America that pot leads to hard drugs as surely as Mary Tyler Moore leads to Bob Newhart. When they walked past the midnight show of Rocky Horror, saw the boys in line dressed in corsets and fishnet stockings, and realized where we’d been going all those Saturday nights, their faces took on a really satisfying look of revulsion. And when punk rock came in - well, we were like kids in a candy shop of horrors.
Since then, we’ve been through everything from slam dancing to Beavis and Butthead, goth to South Park, grunge to David Lynch. By now, we’re jaded old folks who just can’t work ourselves into a froth over Lady Gaga’s bondage videos, celebrity beaver shots on the Internet, mindlessly misogynistic rap music, or Jackass 3D. We may not like it, but we’re not delivering that deliciously clueless, self-righteous rage that teenagers naturally crave. Sure, there’s politics to get worked up about, but despite its name, the Tea Party is not THAT kind of party and holds very little appeal to the average teen.
Which is why, a while back, my kids and I found ourselves brainstorming a new pop trend that would actually drive parents of my generation completely insane; something that we simply would not be able to tolerate with equanimity. I don’t know which of them came up with it, but here it is:
Clown.
Imagine this: Your kid latches onto the latest music/fashion/pop culture trend. One day, she comes home from the mall wearing a purple, green, orange, and black patchwork top with a giant red ruff around the neck; “matching” baggy pants held up with wide red suspenders; and fat black shoes twice as long as her feet. Her face is covered in white greasepaint, with a wide red grin painted around her mouth. Her head is shaved down the middle, with two enormous tufts of frizzy hair sticking out on either side, dyed fire-engine red, a tiny hat with a plastic flower perched on top.
And then there’s the music, because every youth trend has to have a soundtrack. Imagine Clown has become a genre on the charts, just like rock, pop, and rap. It consists of loud, raucous circus music played in power chords on electric guitars, with the addition of a newly popularized instrument - the electric hurdy-gurdy. The vocalists all sound like Krusty on meth, and the lyrics are about lions biting the heads off tamers and the Flying Wallendas plunging to their deaths.*
The possibilities are endless. Dance style? Tripping over your gigantic shoes. Club decor? Circus tents filled with sawdust and elephant poop. Catchphrase? “Hi, boys and girls!”
And think of the subgenres that will give Clown kids that important opportunity to split up into high school cliques, each convinced that their version is the one, true Clown: Hobo; Pierrot; Rodeo; Harlequin; Mime; Jester. Each will see the others as commercialized sellouts. 
Before long, Old Navy and Target will be selling sanitized, middle school-sized versions of Clown fashion, complete with T-shirts bearing phrases such as:  “Downtown Clown;”  “Jester’s Best;” “Hoboner;” “Mime Time;” and the ever-popular, “Bozo for President.”
Yup, Clown might just about do me in and turn me into my mother. I might even find myself at the breakfast table snapping, “Get a haircut!” or “Go upstairs and change right this minute!” When the kids come home late, I’ll be checking them over carefully for stray streaks of greasepaint and searching their pockets for red rubber noses. Next thing you know, I’m in a pink sweater set and pearls, speaking at schools and churches about the moral decay of our youth.
Come to think of it, please don’t show your kids this blog.

________________


*Note: After I finished writing this, I did a little extra Googling and discovered that the Drive-By Truckers actually have a song called The Flying Wallendas (video here and lyrics here). Only it sounds more like the Grateful Dead than the Dead Kennedys, so some Clown band will have to do a hardcore cover.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

You know what they say about absolute power? Yeah, that.

Louis Black’s education rant on the Daily Show last night included this: “Some cities are trying charter schools, which offer a better education, but only accept a few kids, a process highlighted in the new documentary, Waiting for Superman. And I'm all for it - so long as we make the selection process as public and cruel as humanly possible."
Leaving aside his assertion that charter schools “offer a better education” (he obviously didn’t do his homework on that topic), Black points out a glaring question raised by the film: Why the hell would you design a selection process to be “as public and cruel as humanly possible?” (The film follows several children who must sit through an excruciating public lottery that determines whether they’ll be admitted to a charter school. The emotional impact of the film, or so I’ve read, because I haven’t seen it, derives from the anguish of these kids and their families as they pin all their future hopes on this process, which, they are led to believe, will rescue them from the fate of a lousy public school education.) 
Couldn’t they do the number-picking in a private setting and then just send people letters with the results? You know, the way they do it when you enter a contest or get chosen for an audit by the IRS?
One possible explanation comes to mind: In such a high-stakes situation, perhaps they want to make the process as public as possible in order to reassure people that it is being done fairly; that the people in charge - public officials and school administrators - aren’t rigging the results in some way, like, say, admitting students based on race, socioeconomic class, political affiliation, or even personal connections.
You know, the same kind of unfair practices that teachers’ unions were created to protect teachers from. The reason why tenure, with its due-process guarantees, was instituted - so that teachers couldn’t be fired arbitrarily or unfairly. And the reason why unions negotiate contracts that establish standards for evaluation, pay scale, benefits, work conditions, grievance procedures, hiring, and firing, rather than just leaving it all up to management to decide based on their good will.
Yeah, maybe the charter school lottery needs some rethinking, as do union contracts. But there’s a fundamental truth underlying the need for both: Power, when it is all on one side and it is wielded without transparency, is not to be trusted. Things like transparent, public processes and collective bargaining are designed to level the playing field and serve as checks against the kind of power wielded by administrators and officials. Sometimes those checks create unintended consequences and need to be re-examined, as when families are subjected to undue stress by an admission lottery, or when collective-bargaining agreements create fiscal difficulties because of an unexpected economic downturn.
Maybe, instead of making kids run a gauntlet for school admission, the charter schools could hold a lottery with a small, representative group of parents in attendance to ensure a fair process; maybe teachers need to renegotiate their contracts to bring them in line with the tighter budgets necessitated by a bad economy.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, as the anti-union charter movement aims to do when it touts the benefits of a non-union teaching staff. Will our schools be better learning environments when, without the benefits of collective bargaining, underpaid teachers with no job security walk into the classrooms? When teachers with more experience and higher pay are fired because it’s cheaper to bring in a younger person willing to work for less? When teachers feel pressured to present to their students only material deemed acceptable to their bosses? Will our kids get a better education when the tenor of the school is determined entirely by the personality of the administrator running it, because he or she has absolute, unchecked authority? And in the case of charter schools, which are not subject to the same oversight as public schools to begin with, what will happen when administrators are responsible not only to produce high test scores, but also a profitable bottom line?
Think I'm exaggerating what might happen if we were to allow an institution so central to the well-being of our society to be run autocratically, with no external checks? Imagine if you will what would happen if, say, regulators told the investment banks, which control most of the nation’s wealth, that they could go ahead and regulate themselves instead of being subject to the checks of a transparent, robust regulatory system in which the interests of all parties were protected.
Oh, wait. We tried that. Never mind.

(NB - I am not a teacher. I am not in a union. I’ve never been in a union. But my parents were both in the AFT, and my grandma was in the ILGWU, and my family certainly owes a lot to the union movement. Oh, and I’m not planning to see Waiting for Superman.)
(For an interesting read about the ups and downs of organized labor in American public education, check out “The Consequences of NCLB:  The Demise of Labor-Management Partnerships for Reform and Hopes for Renewal,” published in the journal Perspectives on Work.)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Waiting for Superman: Not the movie. The poster.

A whole lot has been written about the education documentary Waiting for Superman and the debate it’s engendered. I won’t try to restate it all, but for those who just came out from under a rock, here are a few links to bring you up to date.
You can watch the film’s trailer here.

There were lots of glowing reviews, like this one from USA Today, which says, “It's hard to deny the power of Guggenheim's lingering shots on these children, waiting on a superhero who isn't going to come.

And this one from the New York Times, which says, “By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.”

And then there were a few negative reviews, like this one from the Village Voice, which says, “But Guggenheim's insistence on not engaging with the injustices that children of certain races and classes face outside of school makes his reiteration of the obvious—that ‘past all the noise and the debate, nothing will change without great teachers’—seem all the more willfully na├»ve.”

We saw Big Media jump on the “Waiting for Superman” bandwagon, including Oprah, who devoted two shows to the movie and its message, and NBC, which produced a weeklong “event” called Education Nation.

And of course there were lots of educators refuting many of the arguments presented in the film, as summarized in this Washington Post blog.

For the record, I fall solidly in the camp of those who are horrified by the way the film lays blame for all the failures in American public education at the feet of “bad teachers” and their unions while willfully glossing over the fact that, as a society, we have created shameful poverty, especially among urban minorities; we’ve refused to create a strong safety net for our most vulnerable citizens; and we’ve systematically pulled the plug on whatever shreds of a safety net used to exist - and then we pretend that all that has nothing to do with education. I also believe that the magic bullet proposed by the film - charter schools - reflects a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine public education by privatizing it.
Also, I freely admit to you now, before anyone asks, that I didn’t see the film. I read a hell of a lot about it, but I didn’t see it, nor do I plan to. I’m sure if I did, I’d cry for the poor kids sitting through that hellish lottery - but it wouldn’t change my opinion.  A film can succeed at being emotionally manipulative without offering anything helpful or useful in the way of analysis or debate. It just means it’s good propaganda - in this case, propaganda for what Diane Ravitch calls The Billionaire Boys’ Club, a group of ultrarich white guys who want to throw their money at privatizing education without knowing anything about actual schools.
Those of you who feel the need at this point to vent their rage at my expressing an opinion about a movie I haven’t seen, please go right ahead. I’ll wait.
Done? Okay. Moving on.
There’s one aspect of Waiting for Superman that really disturbed me, about which I’ve seen little discussion: the poster. That’s what I really want to talk about here - and I’m qualified to do so because I did see the poster. And you can, too, right here.  Take a long, hard look. You can click on the image to make it bigger.

I’m frankly amazed that more hasn’t been said about that poster and its messages, subliminal and overt. It’s a pretty impressive piece of visual propaganda, really, which packs a great, big emotional wallop. And, like a lot of great propaganda, it manages to suggest multiple ideas that are intellectually contradictory but serve a single agenda: to promote the notion that the educational apocalypse is at hand - but so is reformist salvation.
Let’s start with a point made by blogger Duane Campbell at Choosing Democracy: “Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, then a little white girl sitting at a desk is dropped in the midst of it. The text: ‘The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.’" Campbell goes on to ask some excellent questions, including: Who declared this war? And when did that fourth-grader become a soldier in it?
But those questions barely scratch the surface of this apocalyptic image.
Like, for example, what exactly IS that battlefield where the blonde-haired, blue-eyed cutie sits? On the one hand, as the poster’s blurb says, it represents education itself as an international battlefield on which we as a nation must struggle for world dominance, or for that matter, simple survival, lest the better-educated foreign hordes overrun us with all their lethal math scores and hostile multilingual communication skills. Lock ‘n load, kids. The Chinese are gunnin’ fer us.
On the other hand, that wasteland is, paradoxically, the blighted disaster zone of our own school system (note the chalkboard lying amid the rubble), an apocalypse of our own making to which we subject our precious, vulnerable children. You knew things at school were bad, but you didn’t realize how bad, did you? Think nuclear holocaust. In fact, think the end time, that vision of the biblical apocalypse that heralds the second coming which, in these bizarre times, drives the politics of so much of the Christian right, the same Christian right that would really love to make some...adjustments...to a public school system that clings tenaciously to the value of church-state separation. Reinforcing that subliminal end-time association, there’s even a ray of light descending from the heavens, a sign of the divine promise of educational salvation illuminating that sweet, innocent little white girl.
Which brings me to the next point. When we talk about blighted schools, we all know that we’re really talking about inner city schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods from which white people fled decades ago. You know, the kind with all the graffiti and broken windows and barbed wire and metal detectors. So what’s the poster girl for the Aryan Nation doing there? Why not just show us the population we’re really talking about here - black and Latino kids who are subjected to what we all agree is a pretty harsh educational environment (and who are, in fact, the primary subjects of the film)?
There’s the obvious answer: Show a white kid to draw a white audience. (And in pragmatic terms, you can’t really blame them; it works.)
But there’s a less-obvious and far more insidious answer: the implication that, if we don’t stop the blight in “their” (inner-city minority-populated) schools, it will soon spread to “our” (white suburban) schools. You know about “our” schools: the ones with the adorable, towheaded, freckle-faced schoolgirls, dressed in white button-down blouses with Peter Pan collars, pleated suspender skirts, white tights, and Mary Janes - escapees from 1950s TV shows that portrayed American families as they never were. But those idealized families - and the schools they attended - are entrenched in our communal unconscious as a nostalgic ideal, and it’s that ideal the little girl in the poster represents - and that ideal that is threatened by the creeping decay of urban blight.
The jarring juxtaposition of Norman Rockwell’s American childhood with that bleak, scarred wasteland is designed to make white, middle-class America feel directly endangered; to ratchet up the hysteria about the dire educational crisis; and to make it an issue that threatens the white majority. What a perfect (and emotionally manipulative) way to create a sense of urgency - even panic - that prepares the audience to accept whatever prescription the movie has to offer, without subjecting it to much critical thought. Privately run charter schools, made possible by the death of the bad-teacher-defending unions? Bring it on! The end is nigh!
Of course, there’s one little problem: Charter schools aren’t conventional public schools, and at the moment, our country is littered with old-fashioned community-based schools with names like “Woodrow Wilson” and “Springfield Elementary,” not “North Star” and “Promise Academy.” How do we pull off the switch? What to do, what to do?
The answer to that, too, lies in the poster. Those bad parts of the public school system are already a devastated wasteland; there’s really nothing left to salvage. When the Woodrow Wilsons and the Springfield Elementaries have been reduced to smoldering piles of rubble, we get to build them anew - start from scratch! Yes, ladies and gentleman, the free market sees an upside to everything! We’re all about the opportunity! And when we rebuild those schools as small, privately run charters, little blonde girls will be able to raise their hands in safety and security once again, assured that our supremacy over the big bad Asian hordes is guaranteed. 
Think that’s a little extreme? Consider this: As part of its Education Nation event, NBC announced a discussion panel entitled, “Does Education Need a Katrina?” The name recalls a remark made in January by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.'” 
Yup, that’s right. Not only is wholesale destruction an opportunity - it’s actually a valuable tool for educational reform! Without Katrina, those ignorant black folk down in the Big Easy didn’t even realize they “have to do better!” Lucky them - a killer hurricane turned up just in time to show them the light.
Even after the Education Nation panel was renamed (because the network was deluged with protests about the insensitivity of that title), it still described the subject of the discussion as “the advantages to the New Orleans school district of starting over post-Katrina.” Are we really talking about the advantages of living through a (semi)natural disaster that caused suffering the magnitude of which we’d never before seen in this nation? An event that illustrated just how little we really care about poor, urban, minority communities? 
Yes, we sure are. As Nancy Flanagan says in her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land: “It strikes me that a lot of the Famous People who are ‘speaking out’ on education...are precisely the people who drive past public schools and other unpleasant realities on the way to their real lives. Pretty much the same way emergency rescue teams and Heckuvajob Brownie went right past the 20,000 miserable human beings huddled in the Superdome six years ago.”
Put yourself in the shoes of an African-American parent in New Orleans who’s been reading these comments about education “needing a Katrina.” You see this poster - a city in ruins, an educational system reduced to rubble, not unlike your own home and your kid’s school. And there, sitting unscathed, ready to pick up the torch of education, is - not your kid. Instead, there’s a picture-perfect little white girl, looking all smart and eager, lit by a ray of light shining down from the heavens, ready to soldier on in the battle for American educational supremacy.
Well, what would you think? At the very least, you’d be pretty damn sure that you are not the target audience of this film.
The Waiting for Superman poster serves up a noxious stew of fear-mongering and emotional blackmail designed to sell its agenda - the replacement of traditional public schools with a new, unproven, free-market education model. The one remaining question: Will America fall for it?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Five true things about education reform

Five true things you really must know about desperately needed education reform in the United States:

1. Bad schools are bad because of all the bad teachers who can’t be fired because they have tenure.

It’s just amazing how all those bad teachers drag all those schools down only in poor neighborhoods. Yup, obviously there’s a central office somewhere that sorts out all the new teachers and sends the very worst ones to the very poorest schools. And then those bad teachers spend a few years in those schools very cleverly and deviously pretending to be good teachers, so the administrators are fooled into giving them tenure, at which point all their terrible badness emerges full force. And all those procedures for firing tenured teachers are *gasp* totally unenforceable because the magic mojo of teacher badness makes it take too long for any administrator even to bother, because administrators can’t possibly be expected to undertake a procedure that is time consuming and hard. This is so widespread that our entire educational system is crumbling because of it. So here’s what to do: Everyone break the glass on the case that says, “In case of bad school, use this axe on every teacher you see!” Bonus points for axing an entire school’s teaching staff all at once. Now THAT’S reform!

2. Teachers unions exist for the purpose of making it impossible to fire bad teachers.

See, a really long time ago, the nation was full of really good teachers, mostly women (because even back then men thought teaching was really gay), who were allergic to money and eating and keeping a roof over their heads. These women were wildly happy to teach school for some beads, a used tissue, and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. But then along came some mean, nasty, vicious, conniving, sneaky, Commie pinko union organizers, who rounded up all the good teachers and threw them in a bottomless well. Then the union organizers went deep into the forest, where a tribe of very stupid, lazy child-haters lived, and they rounded the tribeswomen up to become teachers (because even tribesmen living deep in the forest, far from civilization, thought teaching was really gay). The union people dressed these women in polyester pants suits and made them join the union, pay dues, accept higher wages and benefits, and sit in overcrowded classrooms cracking their gum and doing crossword puzzles while their students fell off their chairs from sheer stupidity. And that continues even unto this day.

3. Poor parents must accept responsibility for their kids’ education.

After all, the affluent among us are such good role models for values like personal responsibility, discipline, and sacrifice! We keep the economy humming along by taking out second mortgages on our McMansions to pay the bills on the maxed-out credit cards that bought the home theater systems and the 3,000-bottle wine cellars and the 12-mpg Cadillac Escalades and the Manolo Blahnik blue satin pumps we saw on “Sex and the City.” So you people over there in Newark, as soon as you get home from that third minimum-wage job with no benefits at 2 AM - check your kids’ homework! We do! (Or we will, just as soon as we down a fourth mojito.)

4. You can’t fix the education system with money.

And here’s why: We already spend a lot on public schools, and they still suck. Not like those really excellent charter schools serving poor neighborhoods, like Harlem Promise Academy in the Harlem Children’s Zone. The kids there are all little Einsteins and Van Goghs and, more importantly, score highly on state standardized tests, all at a cost of 12 dollars a year and a pack of gum. Oh, wait. Make that $19,200 per pupil per year, attending school in a $42.5 million building, plus another $5,000 spent on each and every kid in the Zone per year, all provided by an outfit with a $75 million budget, two-thirds of which comes from private donors (according to Forbes). Whatever. The point is, IT’S NOT THE MONEY.

5. Market-driven private enterprise is exactly what our education system needs.

Because it’s worked so very well for the military and the prison system.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Church/state separation under attack? Not news. By Jews? Bad news.

I believe in the separation of church and state.

I spent most of my life thinking that wasn’t a terribly controversial stance. Later in life I learned that, in some parts of the country, it was, or at least my interpretation of it was. When the news started filling up with stories about people in the Heartland who wanted to see prayer and “intelligent design” in public schools, spend tax dollars on “faith-based” social programs, ban abortion (but not capital punishment) for religious reasons, and of course burn homosexuals at the stake - um, I mean, ban gay marriage - I consoled myself with the notion that those ideas were restricted to fringe right-wing Christians between the coasts.

Then I heard about Hebrew charter schools, and my comfortable world view crumbled.

Message to my tribe: bad idea.

And then I heard that there’s a proposal - strongly supported here in New Jersey by certain Orthodox Jewish communities - to spend tax money on vouchers for private religious schools.

Another message to my tribe: ARE YOU INSANE?

At the risk of stating the obvious: The separation of church and state is why America has been very, very good to us, for the most part. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re a minority here, along with all the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus and Buddhists and, yes, even the Mormons. Using tax dollars to fund schools that, face it, are seen as cheap alternatives to private religious schools, or worse still, to fund private religious schools directly, is a huge step toward breaking down the wall.

Yes, I know that Hebrew charter schools  (the latest, Hatikvah International Academy, opening Tuesday in East Brunswick) admit kids of all backgrounds and purport not to teach religion - they say they teach Hebrew language and culture.

C’mon. Many articles on the topic quote members of the Jewish community who view the Hebrew charter schools as alternatives to costly religious schools. Hebrew charters even offer after-school, optional religious education.  These are clearly quasi-religious institutions. As to teaching Hebrew culture, how is that not synonymous with Jewish culture? Do you know any other Hebrew-speaking people?

Yes, all culture everywhere is to some extent religious. But when Sara Berman, chairwoman of the board at Brooklyn’s Hebrew Language Academy, says “that learning about Hebrew and Israeli culture was no different from learning about Bastille Day and baguettes in French class,” I’d argue that she’s either seriously delusional, doesn’t read newspapers, or is willfully misleading the public. Hebrew existed only as a language of religious prayer and texts for a millennium or two, and it only emerged as a living, spoken language as a result of the twentieth-century establishment of the state of Israel, itself a direct result of the persecution and genocide of Jews. French? Not so much.

I know most of my old Yeshiva friends are going to hate me for saying this, but there are two ways modern Israel is generally discussed: with a Jewish bias, or in a manner that tends to piss off Jews. (I like to believe there could be a third way, but that’s a subject for another post.) Good luck treading that line on a daily basis in a way that would be truly acceptable in a secular public school.

And then there are the vouchers. Here in New Jersey, the legislation under consideration, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is strongly supported by, among others, the Lakewood Haredim (aka ultra-Orthodox). This bill doesn’t only provide tax money to move kids from failing schools into private schools - it also provides money for kids already in private schools, including religious schools. It’s not surprising that the Haredi Yeshiva crowd is all for that, but I find truly disturbing the cynical lack of compunction about diverting funds away from poor urban school districts, where education so desperately needs improvement, in order to gain some bucks for a private religious school system long supported by a strong network of community-based philanthropy.

(This isn’t the first time the Lakewood Jewish community has tried to game the system, either. Some years ago, the New York Times reported that state education officials discovered that the Lakewood Jews managed to send all their special-ed kids to an all-Jewish private school (at public expense), while other kids (mostly black and Hispanic) were sent to public schools.)

All this blurring of the church/state line in public education? Slippery slope. NOT GOOD FOR THE JEWS.

News flash: We Jews are not the largest, most powerful religious force interested in gaming the system. Anyone follow the Texas School Board social studies curriculum controversy? You know, the right-wing Christian extremists who hijacked a state school board and worked really hard to make sure Texas public school students are taught all about our Christian constitution and our Christian founding fathers and our Christian values? Once the church/state wall is broken, THOSE are the people who will be lining up to create new charter schools and vouchers and whatnot to fund THEIR kind of education.

When huge chunks of tax money that used to support truly secular public education are diverted to charter schools that teach intelligent design and feature after-school Christian fundamentalist education - or even directly to Christian schools that teach creationism and American exceptionalism - it will fundamentally change our society.

This nation that made Jews feel safer than we’d felt anywhere else in a very long while, where our religious-minority status seemed at worst a surmountable obstacle and at best a constitutionally protected freedom, will suddenly feel a whole lot less welcoming and comfortable. Society as a whole will acquire a far less tolerant character. The societal presumption of Christianity - the idea that Christianity is the preferred, normal state of American-ness, and that everything else is vaguely suspect (or explicitly, as Muslims have been experiencing of late) - will return full-force. And the irony will be that we Jews will have helped put the nation on the path toward the Christianization of public institutions by compromising a core American value - the separation of church and state.

And we’re supposed to be the smart ones?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On New Jersey's failed Race to the Top application - cue the Internationale

So New Jersey isn’t getting a Race to the Top grant, and there is much general wailing and gnashing of teeth over an error on the application that caused the state to lose a few points - an error which seemingly made the difference between winning and losing. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read about it here.)

Yeah, it was an inexcusable screw-up - and an incredibly ironic one. I mean, people filling out nitpicky forms and applications and - oh, say, test answer sheets - ought to be more careful than that, right? These things are important! A $400 million education grant  could hang in the balance! Or a teacher’s merit pay - right, Chris Christie, oh great proponent of test-score-based teacher evaluations?

Which brings me to my real point: As entertaining as it is to watch Trenton chasing its own tail in its eagerness to lay blame for this debacle (Schundler! Christie! Some outside contractor who was handling the whole thing for us! Because we all know that the private sector is more efficient and reliable, right?), the hysteria is obscuring the actual educational issues raised by the whole Race to the Top grant program and the application New Jersey submitted.

Rather than re-examine the education priorities of their predecessors, the Obama administration has simply picked up the same baton and kept running in the same direction, only with even more vigor. Standardized testing, teacher merit pay, privatization via charter schools - it’s all in there. You want to win a chunk of the Race to the Top money, you’ve got to prove that your state is going to be front and center in adopting these particular education reforms. This, despite the evidence that much of it doesn’t work especially well while draining resources from the existing public education system.

Case in point: Merit pay. We’re talking about handing out bonus checks to teachers on the basis of their students’ standardized test scores. Never mind that this is, as they say in the medical biz, an off-label use for standardized testing. Never mind that a school may not be the place where you want to disrupt team spirit by having individuals fight over a pot of gold. Never mind that schools in poor areas tend to produce lousy test scores while schools in affluent areas tend to produce high test scores. Never mind that, when the Commie pinko teacher’s union holds out for more money for people who work hard, they’re evil, but when right-wing Republicans propose higher pay as an individual incentive, it is capitalistically good and right. And never mind that respected experts in the field warn that test-score-based teacher evaluations are a crock. (If you haven’t read about the Los Angeles Times’ little foray into this area, I’ll throw another link at you.)

Anyway, back to New Jersey’s Race to the Top application. Lost in all the “clerical error” brouhaha is the fact that state education commissioner Bret Schundler, knowing that the Race to the Top program rewards buy-in from teachers, negotiated a compromise on merit pay with the NJEA (or, as the media likes to say over and over, “the powerful teacher’s union"). Much to my frustration, that compromise is repeatedly referred to in news coverage as a weak version of Christie’s more robust reforms - in other words, Christie’s own propaganda is being reported as accepted reality. Just a few days before the Race to the Top application was due, Christie tossed the version that contained the compromises Schundler and the NJEA negotiated and insisted that this own version be submitted instead. Somehow (and at this point, who cares how exactly?), in the hectic process that followed, the fact that the wrong year’s budget data was included in the application was missed, and that’s where the infamous clerical area comes in.

So what was in that weak, watered-down compromise on merit pay? This is from the Star-Ledger:

According to the state’s latest application, student achievement will account for 50 percent — not 51 percent, as originally proposed — of a teacher’s evaluation and include not just test scores, but other measures of learning such as portfolios of students’ work, NJEA spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner said.
The original application included a "bonus pool" of money from the state for strong teachers. The funds would be split between teachers or teacher teams and their schools.
The new application proposes a merit pay pilot program that districts could opt to join. Instead of individual merit pay for teachers, half the money awarded by the state as bonuses would be used for schoolwide programs, such as technology upgrades or teacher training, Hiltner said.
A school’s staff would decide how to award the rest of the money. It could go to individual teachers, or divided among the entire staff, or used for a school program, Hiltner said.
"Our feeling on merit pay is, teaching is a collaborative effort," Hiltner said. "This helps people in schools work together, instead of pitting teachers against each other because they are vying for a bonus."

Real Commie pinko stuff, right? I mean, all this talk about sharing and training and collaboration, right?

So here’s my chuckle of the day. I was curious to see what Commie pinkos other than that infamous, obstructionist bunch at the NJEA might subscribe to this idea of team bonuses, so I googled “team bonus pay.” The second result? An article from the Federal Times, a publication for managers in the federal government. The article is written by one David M. Fisher, director of another infamous Commie pinko organization: the Defense Department's Business Transformation Agency.

Here’s what he has to say on the subject:
While the GS [General Schedule] system also provides some incentives for outstanding performance via annual bonuses, this is the area in which the best of NSPS [National Security Personnel System] should be employed within the GS system. There is a way to make this bonus portion of compensation both objective and transparent, while also gaining added benefits by incentivizing entire teams to achieve shared objectives.
We use this sort of incentivizing bonus system at the Business Transformation Agency, where we have established quantifiable metrics that measure the agency's performance as a whole. The size of our agency bonus pool is directly tied to our collective performance against those goals.
Specifically, we establish measurable agencywide targets at the beginning of the year, focusing on our highest-priority initiatives. Our average score against these targets at the end of the year determines the size of our bonus pool.
The fact that these are shared targets that require collaboration further focuses behavior not only on individual performance, but also on working as a team to generate desired results. If we perform well collectively, we are rewarded collectively. If we don't, then this portion of our compensation falls. Instead of "hidden" pay pools where lack of trust fueled discontent with NSPS, this approach is transparent with metrics reported every month. Pay pools are replaced by bonus pools that identify performance targets and participants, which could be an entire agency, a program, a unit — whatever grouping makes most sense for a collection of shared, measurable objectives.

Yep, the weak, watered-down compromise struck between that ratfink Schundler and those Commie pinkos at the NJEA looks remarkably like the system in use at another infamous Commie pinko organization - the Department of Defense.

And so, let us wave the Stars and Stripes proudly, hum the Internationale, and sing the praises of that all-American institution - collectivism.

Take that, Christie.