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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.
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.


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?