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Thursday, December 19, 2013

If it looks like a duck...

When "owning your own sexuality"...

...looks exactly like the commercial exploitation of sexuality...

...what exactly is the point?

Perhaps you're not actually "owning your own sexuality" if you're not thinking outside that box?

I elaborated a while back, here.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

School Reform or Reform School?

I’m old enough to remember the threat of reform school. Not that it was ever really used as a threat against me personally, but it was a thing I heard about. "If you don’t behave, we’ll send you to reform school." I didn’t know anyone who actually got sent to reform school. For that matter, I wasn’t entirely sure reform school actually existed. But one thing was certain: It was somewhere you didn’t want to go. It was supposed to be a terrible place where kids had to march in straight lines, no talking; where you had to memorize a lot of stuff and lessons were boring; where you never had the fun classes like music and art; where everyone was scared of being punished all the time.

Reading this open letter to students at a no-excuses charter school reminded me of the mythical reform schools of my youth -- the places you knew you never wanted to be in. No-excuses charters are for kids who have committed the crime of being poor and minority. No doubt there are significant differences between these real schools and the reform schools of my young imagination, but there are disturbing similarities as well. They're places for kids who can't be trusted with freedom and autonomy.

Where does the no-excuses charter movement come from? Who thought it was a good idea to go back to such a strict school environment? It seems to have started when people (mostly white people with power and money, I expect) noticed a problem -- or more accurately, bothered to notice it again: Kids living and attending school in racially segregated pockets of poverty have low test scores, low graduation rates, and low college-attendance rates.

One possible solution: Integrate those kids into schools where the kids aren’t all minorities living in poverty, and where lots of kids do well on tests, graduate, and go on to attend college. If you want to get really crazy, you could maybe even do non-school related things in order to break up the pockets of racially isolated poverty, like creating jobs, requiring towns to build affordable housing, and strengthening the safety net for people in need.

Of course, that would require all kinds of legislation unpopular with more affluent white voters, and it would involve using tax dollars to help people, and it might even lead to a (gasp) tax increase.

Hence, plan B: Send all those kids to reform school no-excuses charters. It doesn’t actually solve the problem, because a whole lot of kids who wouldn’t have done well in conventional urban public schools don’t do well in reform school no-excuses charters either; they just drop out and go back to conventional urban public schools, rejoining the kids from the very poorest, most uninformed and possibly dysfunctional families who, having never gotten (or having chosen to ignore) the memo about the new magic-bullet school in town, never jumped on the charter-lottery bandwagon in the first place. But for the kids who stick out reform school no-excuses charters despite the lack of enrichment, and despite all the soul-crushing test drilling and snapping and tracking, and despite the indignity of being presumptively treated as a bad kid, there might be college at the end of the tunnel. Then the powerful, affluent people who promoted the whole reform school no-excuses charter idea can pat themselves on the back and keep their taxes low.

Not that they would ever send their own kids to those schools, of course. But then, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? To make sure their kids have art and music and enrichment and freedom and creativity -- and don’t go to school with those kids?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Another Open Letter to Arne Duncan

Dear Mr. Duncan,

By now, you’ve no doubt been inundated by a wide range of irate responses to your comment that opposition to the Common Core standards is all about "white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- (discovered that) their child isn't as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."

You’ve probably heard from non-white suburban moms, and non-white urban moms, and white urban moms, and maybe even a few dads and grandparents and aunts and uncles. The one thing they all have in common is resentment toward your dismissive, insulting characterization of opponents to the Common Core.

I’m just one more voice in the chorus. I don’t mean to imply that my story is typical, but I sure as hell do mean that you should consider it before making stupid generalizations -- just as you should consider all those other stories you’ve been hearing. You’re the secretary of education. The least you could do is refrain from simplistic, insulting, reductive, sweeping statements about the families you’re meant to serve.

I am a white suburban mom. I have three kids. They all attended public school from kindergarten through 8th grade. They’re all in high school now -- but not in public school.

My husband and I wanted our kids in public school because we believe that it is one of the most important institutions in creating a cohesive society and a functional democracy. We were lucky: The schools in our town were both diverse and high quality. We wanted our kids to understand and appreciate the different cultures and experiences of others in their community. We wanted them to view education as a shared value so they would come to see the social contract as a benefit, not a burden. We wanted them to make friends with their neighbors so that their town would be not just the place where they live, but the community where they belong. And of course, we wanted them to get a great education.

For a long while, that’s more or less what they got. We found in our local public schools many wonderful, dedicated teachers who helped our kids thrive and become top students. We found a program that offered them a reasonably wide curriculum. When they were old enough, all three became involved in the instrumental music program, which quickly became an important part of their lives, as did the gifted education program. Some of the teachers in those programs were the ones who had the greatest impact on them, motivating them to strive for excellence.

But even early on, there were signs of trouble. This was already the era of No Child Left Behind. My kids’ elementary school was designated a school “in need of improvement,” for the most part because the many LEP (limited English proficient) and special education students didn’t score as well on standardized tests as their native English-speaking and non-special ed counterparts -- despite the fact that they were making good progress. (Under NCLB, every individual subgroup must score well, not just the school as a whole. LEP and special ed students are subgroups.) Having volunteered as a “parent reader” in the special ed classroom, I had firsthand experience with those students and their teachers, and I knew that it was an excellent program where kids received a huge amount of personal attention. But as far as NCLB was concerned, nothing mattered but the test scores. We parents knew that the “in need of improvement” designation would have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of helping those kids, it stigmatized and punished the whole school, while other neighborhood schools in the area that served more uniformly affluent, native-born populations essentially got a free pass. The tension level at the school about testing quickly ratcheted up, and the kids all sensed it. The amount of time dedicated to test prep went up and up.

Middle school was a mixed bag. We found more great teachers; a high-quality accelerated math program; more music opportunities. But at the same time, test prep was increasingly eating up time. More and more resources seemed to be devoted to teaching to the middle -- the effort to nudge as many borderline-proficient kids as possible above that arbitrary “proficient” mark on the NJASK, New Jersey’s standardized state test. When I volunteered to tutor kids at the school who needed extra help, I was saddened to learn that only students who were considered borderline proficient were eligible for the tutoring; they didn’t even bother with the lowest performers.

There were other problems, too. Writing was being taught in a mechanistic way, clearly aimed at producing acceptable NJASK essays. Literature was more often than not treated as an exercise in reading comprehension rather than as a window into great ideas. And despite all the lip service paid to the importance of STEM subjects, the science program was downright anemic. (Up until 2008, NCLB did not require any science testing, so schools deemphasized science. It’s called teaching to the test.) One of the last straws came when we learned that the middle school would be firing one of its three instrumental music teachers, despite the fact that more than half of all students participated in the program. (He was later rehired part-time in response to parental outcry.)

My husband and I were torn. We did not want to abandon public education. But each kid only gets one shot at being a kid. As much as we wanted our children to be part of the grand project of public education, our number one priority was to make education a rich and engaging experience for them.

By this time, I’d been following Common Core for a while. Like a lot of parents, the idea had appealed to me at first. All the talk of analytical skills and high academic standards sounded good, and I figured it might be a way to defang the efforts of the right-wing extremists on school boards around the country who periodically tried to put creationism in the biology classroom and American exceptionalism in the history textbooks.

But when it became apparent that Common Core was being commandeered by those who would profit from selling tests and aligned materials, my tune quickly changed. It was clear that Common Core would be more of the same: ever-increasing high-stakes testing, with the added disastrous component of state-mandated test-based teacher evaluation. Teaching to the test and narrowed curriculum were bound to be the results. This was not what we wanted for our kids. So my husband and I did what so many of the so-called education reformers themselves do: We found an excellent private school that gives no standardized tests, but offers small classes and a rich, varied curriculum, and we transferred our kids there. Not without some guilt, mind you. We knew that we were lucky to have the option, and that if top students leave public schools, the problem only gets worse. But we also knew it would be the best thing for our kids.

To be absolutely clear: Never once did we have the slightest concern that our kids would do badly on Common Core-aligned standardized tests. Never once did we worry that our kids wouldn’t do well in an academically rigorous environment. They are all high achievers, even in the most competitive of environments. And yet Common Core made us run for the hills -- not in fear of failure, but to escape the oncoming tsunami of standardized testing and all the deadly dullness it would bring. We were not afraid that Common Core would show us that our public school was bad. We knew that Common Core would make our good public schools worse.

Well, that’s my story, Mr. Duncan. My kids may not be in public school any more, but I am still a taxpayer, and I want my tax dollars to support robust public education that’s all about learning and not testing. The Common Core Standards you’re promoting, despite what you say, are all about testing. You want to convince us otherwise? Do away with the tests. Until you kick the for-profit testing companies to the curb, your credibility on this matter is severely lacking.


A White Suburban Mom

(Here's more information on what Arne Duncan said about white suburban moms' fear of Common Core.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Strangest Shabbos Tradition You’ll Ever Hear Of

Up in Washington Heights, in the neighborhood where I grew up, there’s a place called Audubon Terrace. If you ever stumble across this collection of luxe Beaux Arts Buildings on 155th and Broadway, you’ll find yourself wondering what the bloody hell it’s doing there. It was just as out of place in the 1960s, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Kids take the New York hodgepodge for granted.

Apparently, at the turn of the last century, when the area was still pretty rural, the idea of building fancy cultural institutions to attract city folk for the day made some sense. One of the first to open there was the Hispanic Society of America, which I assumed, given the neighborhood, had something to do with Puerto Ricans. Turned out I was wrong. It housed works by Goya and El Greco. Also at Audubon Terrace were the American Numismatic Society and the American Geographical Society. I don’t recall ever setting foot in those places (though I loved this pathetic image of Don Quixote outside in the plaza).

The one museum there that held endless fascination for my brother and me as children, the one that brought us back over and over again, was the Museum of the American Indian. It’s not there any more -- the collection moved to the Smithsonian. But for something like three-quarters of a century, the greatest collection of Native American art and artifacts was in Washington Heights, where just about nobody ever went to see it.

But we did.

Ask any Orthodox Jewish kid if time is a universal constant, and you’ll get a resounding “No.” Orthodox kids know that, once a week, time slows to a crawl, and minutes become hours. It’s called Shabbos afternoon. No TV, no electronics, no riding in cars or spending money. Absolutely nothing to do.

Unless you happen to live near a free Museum of the American Indian. (Did I mention it was free?)

So my brother and I spent countless Shabbos afternoons gazing at spectacular, unique, priceless Indian artifacts. You might think we were extraordinarily sensitive children with exquisite taste who appreciated the aesthetics of a culture so different than our own. But you’d be wrong. Mostly, we rushed past all the fancy beadwork and pottery (though I did slow down a little for the papooses -- they were cute).

We were heading straight for one thing, the thing that fascinated us endlessly, week after week: the shrunken people.

Real shrunken people. Right there in a glass case for all the world to see -- or all the world that bothered shlepping this far uptown.

That was our Shabbos tradition: visiting the shrunken people. I have no idea how old I was when I first saw them; too young to remember, anyway. I was ten when we moved out of Washington Heights, so our Shabbos visits lasted for years. We didn’t go every week, but we went often enough so that I can still remember it vividly.

Sure, now I know that the display of human remains stolen from an indigenous South American culture that shrunk them for some unknown reason of their own was highly sensational, insensitive, and disrespectful. But at the time, I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. It was gorgeously macabre, simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. I remember standing in front of that case, wondering how it was done, why it was done, who had done it, and whether they were still doing it in a deep, dark jungle somewhere. I remember telling my friends about the shrunken people and them not believing me, or insisting at the very least that they couldn’t be real. (Well, they lived downtown; they probably didn’t believe the whole museum was real.)

I remember my brother coming home one day with a new prized possession, a postcard of the shrunken men, purchased at the museum during a rare non-Shabbos visit. Unbelievably, 40-plus years later, I still have that postcard, and here it is.

Shabbos afternoon visits to see shrunken people in a gorgeous Beaux Arts edifice housing the world’s greatest Native American art collection in a gritty uptown neighborhood.

Only in New York.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fifteen Outrageous Quotes from NJ Asm Michael Patrick Carroll (Republican, LD25)

Election day is tomorrow TODAY!, and we in the 25th Legislative District of New Jersey have a real shot at tossing out the state's most right-wing, extremist legislator and replacing him with a reasonable, moderate independent (Rebecca Feldman).

So please, share this list with everyone you know, in or out of the district. These quotes were gathered by me over the years on my Facebook page, NJ District 25 Against Michael Patrick Carroll. The more attention in the final run-up to the election, the better!

(Note: Many of these quotes were copied verbatim from a blog Carroll kept for years, most of which he deleted in March 2011, when Governor Christie nominated him to be a Superior Court judge -- a nomination that was quickly withdrawn.)

UPDATE: It is with a mix of sorrow and disgust that I report this morning that Michael Patrick Carroll handily won re-election. I'm embarrassed for my community.

1. "If slavery was the price that a modern American's ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one's knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid."
January 2008, quoted by the AP

2. "Perhaps the huge expense associated with the Katrina rebuilding effort constitutes a good time to raise the issue of personal responsibility....Government does not exist to bestow charity. Would that more of our representatives understood that."
March 2006, MPC’s blog, now deleted

3. "While folks with pre-existing conditions may make a good, sympathetic case, one thing they are not is unfairly treated by insurance carriers. Because the service they seek is not insurance – which is all about setting rates based upon the risk of certain events transpiring – but welfare: getting someone else to pay your existing bills.
September 2009, MPC’s blog, now deleted

4. “Advocates of stem cell research, unhappy with being restricted simply to embryonic stem cells, now propose to use FETAL stem cells. Securing those cells requires pregnancy. This means deliberately cloning human beings, implanting the eggs in a woman, and starting a pregnancy. Perhaps immediately before birth, the pregnancy would be (VERY CAREFULLY) aborted and the child's parts harvested for use by its adult clone.”
November 2005, Letter sent by MPC to constituents

5."If Newark can't afford to spend as much as Princeton or some other wealthy town, too bad. That's the nice thing about living in a wealthy town and the downside of living in Newark."
January 2005, quoted in the Trenton Times

6. "An armed and vigilant citizenry, ever on guard against abuses of governmental power and encroaching tyranny, is America’s greatest virtue."
April 2009, MPC’s blog, now deleted

7. "The Left wears kids like fashion accessories. Given how many of them are childless, they exhibit no little chutzpah in purporting to care so much more about kids than those who actually bear and raise them."
October 2007, MPC’s blog, now deleted

8. "The biggest threat to our freedom comes not from a lone wacko, or even from the occasional criminal, but from government....Government, however seemingly beneficent today, simply cannot be trusted to remain that way....An armed society is a free society."
April 2007, MPC’s blog, now deleted

9. "Minimum wage laws...benefit the working poor essentially not at all, unless a suburban teen with a gas payment to support counts as 'poor.' And they indisputably destroy jobs." January 2007, MPC’s blog, now deleted

10. "As a matter of policy, the question presented is: what benefits do gay couples offer to the state sufficient to compel it to recognize their unions? To which, the only legitimate answer is: nothing....Limiting marital rights to those couples which may presumptively produce biological children makes perfect sense."
October 2006, MPC’s blog, now deleted

11. "Illegals in NJ urban zones cost the taxpayers a bloody fortune. Even a hard working, otherwise law abiding couple with three kids sets the taxpayers back a cool $75K or so, just in educational costs. That’s one hell of a price to pay for a cheap short order cook."
May 2006, MPC’s blog, now deleted

12. "Eliminating departments such as Black Studies, Africana Studies, Women and Gender studies, etc., and replacing them with real scholarship – as opposed to "Introduction to Victimology and Political Correctness 101" – could save millions while, at the same time, ensuring that people who attend college actually receive an education."
March 2006, MPC’s blog, now deleted

13. "Clearly, 'public' education, defined as a system of governmentally operated schools is, to a great extent, an expensive failure. Why not get government out of the education business, in effect contracting out this social responsibility to private enterprise?"
July 1991, MPC-penned letter to the editor of the New York Times

14. "Leftists see government as an engine designed to ‘spread the wealth around’, as our chief envycrat (referring to President Obama) opined during the late campaign."
February 2009, MPC’s blog, now deleted

15. A New Jersey resolution apologizing for slavery "panders to and encourages an unfortunate sense of racial oppression, (and) encourages wholly inappropriate anger over historic grievances. Far from ‘comforting’ anyone, it would simply encourage that culture of victimization."
January 2008, MPC’s blog, now deleted

Friday, October 18, 2013

When bad people ask good questions

This poetry slam video has been making the Facebook rounds among my Jewish friends. In it, a young man named Ethan Metzger defends his Judaism against the charge that his faith is the result of brainwashing.

Before anything else, let me just say that I have nothing but respect for this young man. His idealism does him credit, as does his creativity. It takes guts to get up and speak about your core beliefs in front of strangers, and he is articulate in his defense of his moral vision.

But here’s the thing: The Judaism he defends is all about respect, tolerance, integrity, love, faith and character -- all elements of Judaism, but all low-hanging fruit. These are the humanistic ideals widely shared by people around the world, of many different faiths and of no faith at all. In fact, if you bleeped the references to Judaism and edited out the yarmulke from this video, the religion or moral system in question wouldn’t even be identifiable.

The Judaism of Ethan’s piece is the stripped-down, modernized version that has easy, universal appeal. It’s a version that focuses on values and general principles, not on laws, traditions, rituals and practices. It’s all about “ben adam l’chavero,” the aspects of Judaism that deal with human relationships to each other, not “ben adam la’makom,” the aspects that deal with the human relationship to god. The whole “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” thing is pretty copacetic all around, while the whole “I am the lord your god” thing -- and for that matter, a “jealous and vengeful god” -- is a much harder sell.

It would naturally offend any young person of faith to be accused of having been brainwashed. But would Ethan’s response be so effective if he brought other aspects of Judaism into it -- aspects that are more problematic and also more particularly Jewish (which is not to say that they are more essential to Judaism -- just that they are more identifiably Jewish)? I’m talking about beliefs like biblical creation, divine revelation at Sinai and the parting of the Red Sea; milk and meat must not be eaten together; Sabbath is a day of rest that precludes lighting a fire but does not preclude walking 20 miles; god demands animal sacrifice; menstruating women are impure and must be set apart for seven days; god requires fewer mitzvot of women because of their domestic obligations; god told his people to utterly destroy every man, woman and child of a particular nation; the Jews are god’s chosen people.

For that matter, does Ethan believe all these things himself -- and if not, why not?

It’s’ not my intention to argue the validity or invalidity of belief in these things, but to point out that they do not lend themselves to quick-and-easy, gut-level acceptance by a mass audience. I’m pointing out that Ethan’s defense of his Jewish education is facile. In a world where most people at least pay lip service to such values as kindness and integrity, Ethan’s audience is of course going to get a feel-good rush in response to his passionate defense of feel-good Judaism. But Judaism is much more than those things, or at least, that is what a traditional Jewish education teaches.

As Jews, we have to grapple with the whole picture, not just the easy parts. In a world where science contradicts Torah; where women are free to move well outside traditional boundaries; where assimilation is not just possible, but likely; where we are free to walk paths of our own choosing; where most Jews at least question, if not outright reject, some aspects of their tradition; the question of what we believe and why we believe it is much bigger and thornier than Ethan acknowledges in his piece.

Just because the person asking whether you’ve been brainwashed is a jerk and a bully doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid. But I feel pretty certain Ethan Metzger, along with many other good, smart Jewish kids like him, will continue to confront the difficult questions. As they get older and gain perspective, the answers may not seem so simple -- which is as it should be.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Carrie, mikvah and me

Not too many people, upon hearing of a Carrie remake hitting theaters, think immediately of mikvah. If that association is perfectly logical to you, then you’re probably a female Boomer of the Tribe (or Jew of my generation).

The original Carrie blew my 14-year-old mind when it came out in 1976. I didn’t fully understand why it disturbed me so greatly at the time, but in later years I came to realize that its premise -- that female puberty carried with it a toxic combination of shame and the potential for destructive supernatural power -- is an assault on any thoughtful teenage girl, let alone one who has just taken a class in taharat hamishpacha (literally, “family purity”; Jewish law governing ritual impurity associated with menstruation -- a required class at Ramaz, the Upper East Side Jewish day school I attended).

Carrie made explicit what our modern culture has buried deep beneath the surface: a primal terror of the once-mysterious female procreative capability, represented by that most metaphysical of symbols associating female sexuality with death: blood. Carrie played that for all it was worth; no one who saw that movie will ever forget the blood.

Lately, I’ve read a couple of things about how Jewish women are trying to bring the tradition of mikvah into the modern age, making it meaningful in a contemporary context. Mikvah is a ritual bath; under Jewish law, a woman is niddah, or ritually impure, as a result of menstruation and cannot be touched by a man until immersion in the mikvah purifies her. I know this because I took taharat hamishpacha. We even had a field trip to a mikvah, where we were told all about how, once married, a week after our periods end we’ll have to come to the mikvah, strip off everything (including jewelry -- they made a big point of that), and immerse ourselves completely before we can be touched by our husbands.

Even back then, when I was still pretty gung ho about Orthodox Judaism, I was horrified.

I have never gone to mikvah.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doubts that the laws of niddah and the tradition of the ritual purification of mikvah have their origin in the same blood-and-death superstition that drives cheesy horror films is deluding herself. And anyone who thinks that that association can be redeemed through reinterpretation -- that modern revisionism will wipe away the stain of the original intent -- is also deluding herself. No matter how badly you want to make the traditions of your religion dovetail with your modern sensibilities, some traditions cannot weather the elements that batter them, like science and egalitarianism; they are built on unsound foundations and will not stand. You should not resort to slapping a fresh coat of paint on old symbols and rituals that will always reveal their underlying form and function.

Why not? Because symbols and rituals influence the way we make sense of our world. That’s why they exist. They serve as constant reminders of the belief system that created them. They influence our thinking by permeating not just the culture around us, but the most personal spaces of our lives. If symbol and ritual were not so effective, they wouldn’t be ubiquitous in every culture that ever existed.

What harm can antiquated ideas about female fertility possibly do in our own age of information? Plenty. The sex-and-death association is all about casting female sexuality as a dangerous force; it’s a myth that supports a male-dominated power structure. Much ink has been spilled on why men seem so desperate to control female sexuality: the male need to control the blood line; the threat of female sexual autonomy; the association between female sexuality, hostile natural forces, and even the devil himself. The notion that women, in their pubescent stage, and more generally in their sexual, reproductive role, are unpredictable, aggressive, unreliable, flighty, destructive, mysterious, emotional, and dangerous permeates our culture. The logical extension, that women must be controlled, humored, infantilized, objectified, and fetishized, persists as well. The definition of femininity that to this day prevents women from taking their rightful place in public life; from acquiring true agency over themselves; from escaping the narrow confines of being defined by their sexuality; in many places, from their very liberty and human rights -- that definition of femininity is rooted in everything of which mikvah was created to remind us.

No doubt there are many who say that, whatever their origin, these ideas about femininity, pernicious as they are, now live on independent of any connection to ancient rituals and symbols. I would argue otherwise; I don’t think any girl, when first told that her period makes her impure and untouchable, fails to connect a whole lot of cultural dots, consciously or otherwise. But even if these ideas no longer root themselves in ancient symbols and rituals -- even if they have broken loose and become free-floating, received ideas that must be battled head-on -- why hold on to the rituals and symbols as if they mattered? Why be attached to the historical representation of ideas that have caused so much misery and oppression?

I really can’t see mikvah reinvention as a positive thing. Making a mikvah look like a high-end day spa strikes me a bit like putting Carrie in a prom dress; it’s just not that easy to hide the taint of Original Sin. Carrie’s vicious schoolmates hadn’t actually changed their spots by making her prom queen; they were incapable of seeing past the blood, and it was excruciatingly naive of Carrie not to recognize that. Similarly, mikvah will always be about blood. There is no magic wand-waving -- no amount of limestone tiling, fancy bath products and skylights -- that can erase that fundamental, historical truth. Nor should it. The danger of revisionism lies in whitewashing hard truths about the past.

Symbols and rituals matter. Among all the truths that get lost in our materialistic culture, that one is so lost, no one even thinks about it. But perhaps we should.

The biblical source of the laws of niddah:

Leviticus 15: 19-30 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even. And every thing that she lieth upon in her impurity shall be unclean; every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean. And whosoever toucheth her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. And whosoever toucheth any thing that she sitteth upon shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. And if he be on the bed, or on any thing whereon she sitteth, when he toucheth it, he shall be unclean until the even. And if any man lie with her, and her impurity be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed whereon he lieth shall be unclean. And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days not in the time of her impurity, or if she have an issue beyond the time of her impurity; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness she shall be as in the days of her impurity: she is unclean. Every bed whereon she lieth all the days of her issue shall be unto her as the bed of her impurity; and every thing whereon she sitteth shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her impurity. And whosoever toucheth those things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even. But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting. And the priest shall offer the one for a sin-offering, and the other for a burnt-offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the LORD for the issue of her uncleanness.

NB: Yes, I know men go to mikvah, too. It has mostly to do with nocturnal emissions. Hey, nobody said sexually repressed societies only target women. Just mostly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Five Things We Should Stop Doing to High-Ability Students

Now that my kids have all made it through public elementary and middle school, I’d like to get some things off my chest: the things we really need to stop doing to high-ability students.

But first, a word about words. “Gifted” is often used interchangeably with “high ability.” I think that’s very unfortunate. Talk about a word that reeks of elitism. "Gifted" is like saying, “The heavens opened and dropped blessings upon my child, but not upon yours. Sorry.” That said, I do think there are kids who should rightly be called “gifted.” The young Mozart and Einstein. You know -- prodigies. I don’t know what exactly got dropped on their heads, but it certainly isn’t what got dropped on mine or my kids'. “High achieving” describes kids who consistently master grade-level material with ease and quickly move beyond, and I’m sticking with that.

And now, back to --


1. Group projects. For some reason that passeth all understanding, the Powers On High seem to have decided that group projects are SO GREAT that kids need to do them all the time in every class. This is not exaggeration. I have been told by middle school teachers that they have explicit instructions from the administration: They MUST do group projects in every class. Now, I have nothing against the occasional group project, but here’s a news flash: They’re highly problematic for high-ability kids. Teachers want the groups to be “balanced” so that they all have an opportunity to succeed. This means they usually put high-ability kids in groups with some or all low achievers. Now let’s put the message in realistic kid language, from the high-achieving kid’s point of view: “Do all the work or get a sucky grade.” Or in other words, “We are punishing you for being a good student by giving you extra work.” (This is kind of an ongoing theme. More on that later.)

2. Crappy differentiation. “Differentiation” is education jargon for giving individuals or groups of kids in the same classroom different work based on their ability and achievement level. It’s a very difficult thing to do well, because it means that the teacher has to prepare multiple lessons that truly tackle material at different levels and can be completed semi-independently. On top of that, the teacher must then manage a classroom where not everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, moving among students in a way that provides enough time and instruction to each to be useful, but also divides his time fairly. What usually happens instead is the teacher gives everyone the same worksheet, and the kid who does it with great speed and accuracy gets....another worksheet. Or an extra reading assignment. Or told to help a kid who’s slower. In other words, “We are punishing you for being a good student by giving you extra work.” (See, I told you this would be an ongoing theme.)

3. Contests instead of curriculum. In our school district, we actually have a special program for high-ability kids (more or less -- see number 5 below), with dedicated faculty, so we’re luckier than many. But there’s no specific curriculum. Should Quest kids be delving more deeply into academic subjects? Independently researching topics of interest to them? Accelerating through the standard curriculum? Given highly specialized instruction? There are no guidelines. It seems to be entirely up to the teacher. The teachers did come up with some great ideas (which often involved group projects -- see number 1 above and 5 below). But a shocking amount of the Quest curriculum was dedicated to participation in contests outside of school: debates, spelling bees, mock trials, model UN, and, God help us, ENTREPRENEURSHIP. (The latter is rendered in angry, yelling CAPS because this contest was run by the right-wing Foundation for Free Enterprise, dedicated to teaching youngsters that money is good and government regulation is evil; the whole endeavor offended me mightily. "Non-political" my ass. But that’s another post.) Yes, the kids learned something in preparation for these events, but the truth is, these competitions were being used in place of a curriculum rather than as complements to one -- because, WHAT CURRICULUM?

4. Ignoring their achievements. And don’t try to tell me school administrators don’t, because they do. Schools give shockingly tepid recognition to high academic performers, as though it would somehow offend the Gods of Democracy to publicly praise a kid for doing well in the arts, humanities or sciences (as opposed to, say, running fast with a ball). Yeah, these days you get a little recognition when the jazz band or the math team does well, but only when teachers and parents push, and only out of a grudging sense of political correctness. The truth is, to get football-team-level attention, an academic high-achiever has to get national-level acclaim. Working ten times harder to get the same recognition. What does that sound like, I wonder? (“You want recognition? If you’re so smart, DO MORE WORK.” There’s that theme again.)

5. Low standards. This problem affects kids at all achievement levels, but we tend to consider it only as it affects low achievers. We talk about the problem of social promotion, where standards are set so low that kids move from grade to grade, and ultimately graduate, without having become truly proficient. But we rarely talk about the effect of grade inflation on the high achiever, who may have mastered material well above grade level, but gets the same A as a kid who is proficient at grade level. We don’t acknowledge how demoralizing it is when a high achiever is placed in an honors class, or even a Quest class, only to discover that the class is moving slowly because so many kids in it are not really ready for accelerated work. A few highly self-motivated kids will grab the bull by the horns and seek out opportunities commensurate with their abilities. But far more will simply conform to expectations, producing mediocre work that meets the standard they’re given, whether or not it’s the best they can do.

It’s hard for parents of high-ability kids to get up and talk about this stuff, because frankly they’re worried about sounding immodest. Like, “Excuse me, but my kid is too smart for your stupid school.” Of course, that’s not what this is at all, any more than the parent of a kid in need of remedial learning is saying, “Excuse me, but my kid is too stupid for your smart school.” We’re all just saying, “Please give my kid a program that meets her needs, is geared to her level, and helps her advance at the rate of which she is capable.”

Of course, that’s a pretty costly proposition, all that differentiation and individualization. It might cut into the standardized testing budget.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Small world

You know how your parents tell you stories, and you grow up believing them, but then as an adult you find out that some of them were greatly exaggerated, so then you wonder if any of those stories were true? This morning, I was able to confirm that one of my family legends was true -- or quite likely, anyway. It’s not much of a story, mind you, but it’s a neat little bit of my family’s history that has a connection to the bigger history of the nation.

I was watching Face the Nation -- the topic was the anniversary of the March on Washington -- and Colin Powell was on. I was reminded of something my mother, who died four years ago, used to tell me: that as a teenager, Powell had worked in a baby furniture store next door to my grandfather’s grocery store in the Jewish Bronx neighborhood where my mother grew up. I always thought that seemed mighty unlikely, but out of idle curiosity, I Googled.

Sure enough, Snopes says the story about Powell working in a Bronx baby furniture store in the 1950s is true -- in fact, he apparently learned some Yiddish from the store’s Jewish owners. Even better, the source Snopes cited gives the location of the store: corner of Westchester and Fox.

Turning to Google maps, I quickly found the corner of Fox Street and Westchester Avenue -- and saw that the next street over from Fox was Tiffany, which I remembered my mother telling me was the street where she lived.

View Larger Map

So now the story was looking way more likely than it had seemed at first. But was my grandfather’s grocery really next door to the baby furniture store, or was it just in the same neighborhood, another example of an exaggerated family legend? Just as I was mulling that question, the phone rang. It was my father.

After chatting for a few minutes (he, checking up on my cold; I, checking up on his sore leg -- such is the scintillating conversation at our stage of life), I said, “Dad, do you happen to remember what street Grandpa’s store was on in the Bronx?”

“Fox Street,” he answered without hesitation. “Funny how I remember that. I haven’t thought of it in years.” (Truth be told, he remembers things he was told half a century ago far better than he remembers what he was told ten minutes ago.)

So there it was. Mom’s story was probably true. Young Colin Powell did work in the store next door to Grandpa’s, or at least, very close by. And here I was, some six decades later, listening to him, now a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, speaking on Face the Nation about the state of race relations in America. That was kind of neat.

Of course, I’d like to believe that, if Powell had ever had any contact with my family all those years ago (which now seems very possible), it was a positive experience that contributed to his optimism about race relations. I’d like to believe that, but it really depends a lot on whom he talked to. My grandpa was a sweet-natured man who, I believe, would have treated everyone with kindness. My grandma -- not so much. Of course, I knew her in her later years, but from what my mother always told me, the peppery personality I called Grandma was not a late development. How peppery? I never quite recovered from one particular day, maybe 15 years ago now, when I was riding the crosstown bus with her. We were sitting in more or less companionable silence when she blurted out, for no apparent reason and at the kind of volume only achieved by the hard-of-hearing elderly, “I read that Jews are marrying schvartzes! It’s terrible!”

This is what Colin Powell said on Face the Nation: “This country’s come so far....I think we should be very proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we should not say, ‘All done.’”

I’d say that sounds about right.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On education, money, and feeling like a total asshole

How do you talk about the differences between pricey private school and public school without sounding like a total asshole?

In 1991, very soon after the fall of the Communist governments of the former Soviet bloc, my husband and I spent nine months in Romania, he as a physician working in the infamous orphanages, I as a freelance reporter and all-around logistical support. (Bear with me. This is relevant to my original question, I promise.) The culture shock we experienced was profound. Some of the weirdness could be chalked up to developments during Romania’s Communist years; the rest was just part and parcel of the Romanian national character.

“How much money do you make?”

That question was asked of us repeatedly, from the moment we arrived. As Americans, we were taken aback. It was rude. It was shocking. It was, more than anything else, unanswerable. Ask yourself: Could YOU bring yourself to tell someone who probably makes $45 a month what you make?

But in Romania, salary information is not treated as sacrosanct. I don’t know if this developed during the Communist years, when everyone earned more or less similar amounts (at least, on the books), or whether Romanian society has always had different ideas about money and privacy. Probably some combination of both. At any rate, we quickly took to answering the question with, “Sorry, in America we don’t talk about that.” This answer seemed to confuse Romanians and probably sounded as rude to them as their question sounded to us, but it did the trick, and the topic was generally dropped.

But it’s actually a damn good question -- not just good, but IMPORTANT. As we all know from personal experience, if you don’t know what other people make, you don’t know if you’re being underpaid, how much the company values you, or whether you’d be better off in another department, an entirely different industry, or for that matter, another country. The taboo about discussing salary is the employer’s ace in the hole; something he knows that you don’t. We all know our employers benefit from this power, and yet we all play along, because we are so deeply uncomfortable talking about what we make. If we earn more than the next guy, telling seems like boasting, or at least like very bad form; if we earn less, we don't want anyone to know because it makes us feel inferior, or at least vaguely embarrassed, or possibly just pissed off and resentful.

Ever since transferring my kids from public to private school, I’ve felt the same way talking about education (other than with a couple of very close friends). How do you tell public school parents that the smaller class sizes, absence of standardized testing, broad curriculum, and excellent facilities make this school a better learning environment than the one my kids had in public school without sounding like a total asshole, or at the very least like someone who is oblivious to issues of privilege? For that matter, how do you tell private school parents that, while the overall quality of teaching in private school is high, the best teachers in public school are better than the best teachers in the private school they're shelling out tens of thousands for?

It is absolutely true that the private school my kids now attend is expensive as hell, and many (though by no means all) of the kids who attend come from families who can afford to pay. And yes, the school accepts only about 30 percent of an already highly self-selected applicant pool. So, yes, many issues faced by public schools are simply absent in this privileged private school environment. And, while my kids’ private school can boast of diversity, it’s not the same all-comers-welcome diversity of which public schools are so rightly proud.

But if we can’t open a dialogue about differences between private and public education, don’t we parents hand politicians, school boards, boards of trustees, administrators, etc. an ace in the hole similar to the one employers get because of the taboo on salary discussion? If parents can’t compare their kids’ school experiences, aren’t we more likely to just accept whatever we’re handed, without even knowing what possibilities are out there?

Despite the obvious differences, some comparisons are valid and worth making; at least, some questions are worth asking. For example, is it best to focus on AP classes, or will high-achieving students get more out of independent study and research? Does arts education contribute to a student’s critical thinking skills? What role should physical education play at different stages of development? What’s the right balance between education theory and subject expertise in teacher training? How does class size affect learning?

In the past year, I have on numerous occasions bitten my tongue in conversations about such questions for fear that my, “Well, at my kids’ school...” will come out sounding like, “Well, at Fancy Shmancy Academy, the sun shines out of every teacher’s ass and there are unicorns and rainbows in every classroom; too bad for your kids that you can’t afford it.” (To be totally honest, I have met private school parents who, I swear, do think this way. It's pretty horrifying.)

And what about the other way around? What should Fancy Shmancy Academy be learning from its public school counterparts? What messages are not being heard by the private-school crowd because of false assumptions about public schools? Like, say, messages about job security and benefits that would allow teachers to make a go of teaching as a lifelong career, so kids can benefit from master teachers who have honed their art over a lifetime? Or how to prioritize spending to create opportunities for more kids rather than prestige opportunities for the institution? How do we get that dialogue going?

The plain fact is, in America, talking about money makes us queasy because of the fundamental tension between our shared democratic ideal and the obvious financial inequality among us. The public-vs-private education tension is a part of that. But if we don’t find a way to bridge that gap, we all miss out on valuable dialogue that can, over the long haul, create more equitable and effectively better school systems for all.

And that’s the thing we really have to remember: There is nothing magic about private school. Yes, resource levels vary between private and public schools, but they also vary among different private schools -- and, for that matter, among public school districts. Per pupil spending is a key issue, but not the only issue. How do we get the most out of the resources at our disposal? Which educational philosophy benefits kids most? How should schools be organized? Who should be making the decisions? We can find the right answers if we look at what works, but we can only do that if we talk -- and listen -- to each other.

Bonus track: Here's something that should be part of the dialogue about the intersection between money and education: Taylor Mali's brilliant "What Teachers Make."

Adding a related story of interest: Recently, actor Matt Damon has been attacked by the right as a hypocrite for sending his own kids to private school. Why? Because he has very publicly supported the anti-reformy public education movement -- those who are trying to stop so-called reformers who push high-stakes standardized testing, using student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, abandonment of poverty-mitigating measures, and, yes, the mishmash of charters, vouchers and other privatizing measures commonly known as "school choice." The right's simplistic attack says, "So Matt Damon wants choice for his own kids, but not for poor kids." In fact, what Matt Damon and so many others are saying is that he wants progressive education for all kids, including his own. The kind of education reform that pushes testing, school closings, and privatization of public institutions is actually killing progressive public education by narrowing the curriculum, defunding public schools, demoralizing teachers, and increasing segregation. As a result, those who want progressive education must turn to private school to get it, if they can afford to. That's what we've done as well.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Peter Capaldi and my blue hair

So Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor. This reminds me of something I’ve been meaning to blog about:

Part of my hair is now bright blue. This is not the non sequitur it seems to be.

No sooner was the announcement made that the actor taking over the lead role on Doctor Who is 55 (four years older than I -- gasp!), than we started to get comments like this one from the website Den of Geek: “Having an older actor in the role arguably switches the focus of the show once again. That's not to say it won't still be frenetic and action packed, but Capaldi brings something different. It presumably cuts out the romantic hints and tinges between the Doctor and his companion for one, going back to the first appearance of the character as more of a father/grandfather figure....”

Because, y’know, the shift to a more sexualized Doctor couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with an overall relaxing of decency standards on British TV and a seismic shift in the culture since 1963. It’s all down to the actor’s age.

It’s a case of straightforward ageism. Fifty-five is old, and old is asexual. Old is grandfatherly. Old is icky. (If you think this overstates the case, just spend a few minutes searching Peter Capaldi on Tumblr or Twitter, if you dare. I assure you, “icky” is mild. Though to be fair, by now, most of what you'll find online is backlash against the ageist backlash.)

By the way, this is Peter Capaldi.

Which brings me to my blue hair. A few people have wondered why I did that, given the fact that I made a big deal about not dying my hair anymore. So, to explain:

I don’t object to dyed hair. I object to the notion that grey hair must be eradicated. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to color your grey hair, as long as it’s a choice. But as long as we live in a society that treats it as a requirement, it’s not a choice, and it won’t be a choice until enough people choose not to. I jumped on that train.

Part of battling assumptions about grey hair is pushing back on the terror of aging and concomitant youth worship that characterize our culture. In fact, we go to such lengths to hide our age that the whole topic makes us intensely uncomfortable -- hence the fact that very, very few people ever even commented on my grey, despite the obviousness of the change. You have to ask yourself, what are the subconscious assumptions people make when they see grey? Could it be, for example, the absence of sexuality? (Hello, Den of Geek and large swaths of Who fandom.) A lack of vigor? The death of fun?

So that’s what the blue hair is about. It's meant to signal that my sense of fun is not dead. My enjoyment of life is not over. Granted, it’s a pretty simplistic -- one might even say, juvenile -- response. As rebellions go, it's pretty weak. But it makes me happy, at least for now. It gives me a fairly obvious way to defy at least some of those offensive expectations. I don’t think I’ll keep it forever, though. It’ll probably be gone by the time Peter Capaldi hits my TV screen in Doctor Who. Or not. Time will tell.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Embarrassing Rash on My Head

Apparently, the gray hair on my head is more like an embarrassing rash than hair.

I got a haircut about a month ago. The observant among you may have noted what’s missing from that statement. Just a cut. No color.

I’m 51 years old.

So here’s the thing: Not one person -- NOT ONE -- has mentioned my now-very-apparent gray hair.

Over the years, I’ve changed my hair in sudden and noticeable ways many times. I’ve always enjoyed the startled look on people’s faces when they see me for the first time after going super-short, bright red or platinum blonde. And every single time, some people have commented on the change. Not everyone, but at least some. Even subtle changes are always noted. “Did you change your color?” “Is that a new style?” “I like your hair.”

But this time -- nothing.

The whole thing didn’t start as a social experiment, but it quickly became one when I realized that no one was saying a word about my hair. I kept waiting for someone to say, “Interesting choice,” or, “Wow, that’s different,” or just a straightforward, “Why did you stop coloring your hair?” I wasn’t really expecting to hear, “It looks good,” but I guess I hoped just a little.

Instead -- nothing. Dead silence on the matter of my gray hair.

And it dawned on me slowly: People were ignoring the obvious because they felt they were being tactful, as though I had an embarrassing condition, like a nasty rash or a cold sore. Nothing bad enough to be painful and demand sympathy, like a broken bone or a laceration; just bad enough to be in that awkward gray area (if you’ll pardon the pun) where everyone knows it’s there, but no one feels comfortable drawing attention to it.

I can hardly blame them. I wouldn’t mention it, either. In fact, I didn’t. When an acquaintance recently stopped coloring her hair, I never said a word to her, even though I sincerely thought she looked beautiful. I’d like to think I would have said something if we were better friends, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would. It’s awkward. It seems like any compliment would have the subtext, “I admire your courage in staring steadfastly into the face of your own mortality.” Okay, maybe not quite. But sort of.

My acquaintance was inspiring, but the idea definitely didn’t start with her. I’ve been thinking I should stop coloring my hair for years. Well, since I started, really.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me when I say that I lean toward the old-school feminist when it comes to matters of personal appearance. I think so much that keeps women down can be traced to early socialization that makes us insecure about our appearance and causes us to internalize the belief that it’s more important to look good than to do good -- and when I say do good, I really mean do anything. When I see women suffering absurd levels of discomfort and inconvenience in order to conform to some societal expectation about feminine beauty, it makes me angry. High heels, makeup, Botox, Brazilian waxing -- don’t even get me started on plastic surgery.

Yes, I get that there actually are women who wear heels and makeup to please themselves and not because of societal pressure to conform to an unrealistic ideal of beauty or because they see themselves through the filter of the male gaze. A few. But most women who say that? They have about as much credibility as the heavy drinker swearing she can quit anytime she likes. (Taking a pause here to give the third wave a moment to rant at me. Okay? Moving on.)

Worse than anything else, I always thought, were all the potions and procedures women used because of their deeply rooted terror of aging. I think it’s tragic that we’d rather look young and stupid than old and wise. Yes, stupid. The obsession with youthful appearance goes hand in hand with the camouflaging of intellect by playing dumb. It’s all about infantilization. Men can wear age as a badge of honor. In middle age and beyond, they can look distinguished, dignified, authoritative, even powerful. But middle age women? The best we can hope for is to look younger than we actually are. (Oops, sorry. I think the third wave may need another minute here.)

Which brings me to my hair. I started coloring it when I was in my 20s, and it really was all about having fun, or so I told myself. I had not a trace of gray, and I went through periods where I changed my color wildly on a whim, and then went natural again when I got bored. I was never concerned about whether my dyed hair looked natural -- why should I be? I was absolutely certain I was coloring my hair for my own entertainment. I even made a mental deal with myself: I’d never dye for the primary purpose of covering gray, and when I was 40, I’d stop altogether. This was especially important to me after I had kids. I knew my daughter was growing up in a world that would beat her senseless with messages about youth and beauty, and I wanted to model for her a comfort in my own skin -- my own hair -- that contradicted sexist hype.

Forty came and went, and still I colored. There was less whimsy about it, too. I had a color and I more or less stuck to it, with only slight changes. Some highlights here, some more red there, but nothing major. I began noticing when my roots showed -- salted with gray -- and calling the salon to make an appointment when they did. I pushed the guilt down. What’s the big deal? Everyone does it. I’ll stop when I’m 50.

Fifty came and went. My roots were clearly more than half gray now. It was getting harder and harder to ignore the truth: I didn’t have the courage to show my gray. I told myself I just needed to get through my twin boys’ bar mitzvah pictures. Fifty-one came and went. I told myself I just needed to get through my daughter’s bat mitzvah pictures. Last month, I told myself I just needed to get through my niece’s wedding pictures.

And then I told myself, “Bullshit. You’re a coward.”

So I went into the salon and got a haircut. No color. My stylist did her best to be supportive, but clearly it didn’t come easy. (Well, why should it? My personal grooming choice was going to take a toll on her bottom line.) Because I wear my hair very short (part of the whole easy-is-better ethic), the gray was very obvious at the temples, but I still had plenty of color up top. Still, there it was. Gray hair, out there for all to see.

I have to admit, the first week wasn’t easy. I kept looking in the mirror and thinking, to my own chagrin, “I look old.” I’m not sure if I was more chagrined about looking old or about being embarrassed by it. A little of each, I guess. In public places, I found myself looking around to see if anyone even close to my age was showing any gray. The answer, of course, was no. In the last several weeks, I’ve only spotted a couple of people under 70ish showing their gray -- and not very many more over 70ish. They say 75 percent of American women color their hair. I suspect the other 25 percent are under 30.

It’s getting easier now, even though my hair is growing and I’m getting grayer by the day. I imagine the next haircut will involve some more chagrin. Pretty much all the dye will be gone then. I hope that, a week after that, I’ll have more or less stopped giving a damn about whether I look older. (Note that I said “whether.” I’m sure many will argue that of course I will look older. My hair will be gray. But I'm not convinced dyed hair really looks as much younger as we all like to think it does. I suspect it's a lot like a face lift. It doesn’t really make you look young so much as it makes you look less old, but not in a natural way. It signals that you’re trying. You’re not “letting yourself go.” It’s more a sign of youth than youth itself.)

To everyone who has tactfully avoided mentioning the embarrassing rash on my head: No worries. I truly do appreciate the difficult position you’re in, and I’m grateful you have my feelings at heart. Maybe someday we’ll all get to the point where we look at a gray-haired woman and say, “You look great,” without meaning, “That took courage.” But we’ll never get there as long as there are no gray-haired women around.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Comforting words from the Xerox Corporation

Yesterday, after blogging about Xerox’s Ignite software, which turns photocopiers into machines that evaluate student work (including writing), I tweeted this:

To my surprise, I actually got a response from Xerox:

Isn’t that reassuring? The soulless data produced by mechanized evaluation would NEVER replace the human touch. It only makes the teacher’s job easier by identifying problem areas. Then the teacher can better meet student needs!

 Wait a minute...that sounds kind of familiar. Isn’t that exactly what they used to say about standardized testing? The testing companies reassured us that the tests are tools to help teachers gauge student progress and identify learning gaps. That’s all they’re designed to do. They would NEVER use the tests for other purposes. Evaluate teachers and schools based on these tests? That would be crazy! I mean, my goodness -- next thing you know, teachers will be teaching to the test! Pearson wouldn’t want that, now would they? And Pearson would NEVER attempt to drive education policy toward higher stakes testing in order to sell more of their product, now would they?

 So when Xerox says their student-evaluation photocopier upgrade is just a helpful tool for teachers that would never become an automated grading system that every school would be required to purchase, of course we believe them.

 Imagine a world where teachers not only teach to the test -- they teach to the photocopier’s scoring of the test.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Brave New World of Data-Driven Education Reform

What’s driving education reform in America? Money. Specifically, the making of it by big business. Why the obsession with data and testing? Because it opens the door to new sources of profit.

Think this is the raving of a paranoid, business-hating socialist?

Below, you'll find a promotional video created by Xerox for its Ignite software. Ignite turns a photocopier into a grading machine. It “helps” teachers by reading handwritten tests and generating reports, grades, data, etc. It even reads “constructed responses!” (That’s what they call student writing these days.)

And what is it that opened the door to this wonderful innovation, from which the Xerox Corporation hopes to get even richer? In their own damning words:

“State and school systems are requiring more data and more testing. Educators are under a lot of pressure....As Xerox researchers, we started with a simple question: How can we help?”

It’s downright chilling, the way they come right out and say it. Requirements for data and testing means a big opportunity for Xerox. Of course, when they say “How can we help?” they mean “How can we profit?”

Because having the photocopier evaluate your kid isn’t disturbing at all. Right?

Here’s what Diane Ravitch has to say about this.

Why shouldn't a  Xerox machine grade student papers? It does such a good job with photocopies.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Five Reasons to Hate Disney Princesses

You’ve probably already encountered the Merida dust-up. You know, the ire aimed at Disney over the new, glamorized, sexualized image of the Brave protagonist that was released in advance of her induction into the Disney Princess pantheon -- a very different image than the more adolescent, down-to-earth version featured in the film.

Apparently we feminists, with our righteous indignation and our metaphorically, if not literally, hairy legs are scary enough to have cowed Disney into backing down. Nevertheless, the whole thing reminds me of just how much I despise Disney Princesses. I don’t know if they’re single-handedly responsible for the early heteronormative hyper-feminization of every little girl in America, but they’re a damn convenient target.

Five Reasons I, as a Mother, Hate Disney Princesses

  1. Disney Princesses are the most nasty infectious disease ever. The Black Death was nothing by comparison. Your daughter may have never seen a Disney Princess movie, never set foot in a Toys R Us, never watched the Disney Channel, and still somehow she is infected. How do you know? Halloween. You cannot get out of the store without buying that motherfucking Cinderella costume.
  2. Pink. It doesn’t matter that some princesses don’t wear pink. The association between princesses and pink is inevitable, and if not pink, pink’s slightly buck-toothed, knock-kneed cousin, purple. Hop on over to the Toys R Us website and search Disney Princesses. See what colors come up. Even the toy Merida bow and arrow set is purple. (Purple. Not pink. Because Brave was the feminist movie.) It doesn’t matter that you painted her room green, or that you dressed her in yellow and blue, or that you gave her the orange sippy cup. Disney doesn’t give a flying fuck about your concerns regarding gender socialization. Disney wants her in pink (or at least purple) because it helps them sell more Princess crap, and so you either draw a line in the sand and deny your little girl her heart’s desire for reasons she is wholly incapable of understanding or caring about, or you buy everything pink.
  3. Makeup. You tell yourself that pink is not so bad. So what if everything is pink? It’s just a color. She’ll grow out of it. But then she comes home from a friend’s fourth birthday party with a loot bag containing Disney Princess Glitter Makeup. She’s four, and despite your feminist ideology, she now believes that she looks better with makeup. Oh, you tell yourself that she doesn’t really believe that. That you still have more influence over her than her friends or TV or fucking DISNEY. But deep down, you know you’re lying. You know, because you remember the insecure middle school years, when, in an effort to understand how to be accepted and normal and just like other kids, you turned to makeup. Maybe you only ever experimented. Maybe you started wearing it just sometimes. Or you painted your nails. Or you tweezed your eyebrows. Not, you told yourself, because you HAD to. Just because it was fun. But you know that now there’s a good chance your little girl, your perfectly-wonderful-just-the-way-she-is little girl, will someday dig deep in her own psyche and recall that preschool birthday party when she had glitter makeup on just like all the other girls, and she felt like she really, really belonged. Yes, Disney marketing has THAT kind of power.
  4. The marketing of passivity. Yes, the movies have changed. Princesses DO more and wait for Prince Charming less. But when the flick ends, the marketing begins. And the marketing is all about how you look, not what you do. Sure, they’ll make anything pink and slap a Princess on it -- roller skates, pencils, fishing poles -- but it ain’t about skating, doing math or fishing. You know it, and your daughter knows it. Just look at the whole Merida thing. They can’t sell frilly dresses and glittery makeup around a character like Merida, so they change her. But I’m willing to bet that the unchanged Merida, if that’s what we get in the end, will be relegated to the clearance shelf. She does not, in all her original homeliness, serve the Greater Disney Cause.
  5. No matter what Disney says, they don’t believe all the Princesses are equal, and neither do little girls. Oh, sure, there are some outlier Mulan fans, and Pocahontas and Jasmine have their share of followers. But Cinderella, Ariel, Belle and Snow White (Aurora; whatever) are clearly leading the pack, with Cinderella way the hell out in front. Little white girls mostly want to be like white princesses. As a white mother, I will refrain from speaking for families of color, but everyone, please feel free to chime in. Who’s your daughter’s favorite princess?  Tiana? I don’t mean that as sarcastically as it sounds...well, maybe I do. And I don’t know if I can blame Disney directly for the enormous cultural pressures that come down on a kid from every side regarding race, but -- oh, what the hell. Sure I can. Try this. Go to the Toys R Us website and search Mulan. Five items come up. Two are DVDs. Pocahontas? Just two DVDs. Snow White? Ninety-seven items. But here’s where it gets really interesting. Search Cinderella, and you jump directly to the front door of the whole Disney Princess store. So who’s the REAL Princess?
A final note: I know that most girls survive the Princess phase and go on to live happy, fulfilled lives. My daughter seems to have recovered nicely. But despite Disney. Not because of them. And yes, some of the seeds planted by the Princesses become poisonous growths we keep having to beat back over and over again.

UPDATE: Now Disney is claiming they never intended to redesign Merida. "A Disney rep tells EW that there’s no cause for alarm: Merida’s seemingly sexier image was only created for the heroine’s official induction into the Disney Princess Collection and was always planned to be phased out within a few months of the coronation." Mmmm-hmmmm.

Friday, May 10, 2013

No One Wants To Think About That Cleveland Story

I’ve noticed that, despite media saturation with the hideous story of the decade-long imprisonment, torture and rape of three women in Cleveland, people around me aren’t talking, blogging, Facebooking or Tweeting about it. It’s not even mentioned in passing, unlike so many other high-profile crimes in recent memory. I think this one is just too horrible to allow one’s mind to dwell on. I know it’s been plaguing me, and I keep trying not to think about it. But there’s something I think really needs to be said, and no one around me is saying it, probably because they can't stand thinking about it, either.

This is an extreme case of behavior that is actually horrifyingly common and emerges every single day, all over the world, in thousands of instances of domestic abuse and rape. In America, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day. Estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend to 3 million women who are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year. (Source.) Almost 18 million women and almost 3 million men in the United States have  been raped. One of every six women has  been raped at some time. In a single year,  more than 300,000 women and almost 93,000 men are estimated to have been raped. (Source.)

It’s really easy to say that Ariel Castro is a psycho and leave it at that. But what about all the thousands and thousands of others? The biggest difference between all those incidents and this one is duration. Yes, it takes a special degree of evil to keep up the lie for a decade, but not a special kind. The kind of evil committed by Ariel Castro is occurring all around us, every day--mostly, though not entirely, committed by men.

I’m sure there are many, many contributing factors we need to confront as a society. I’m no expert. But I’m pretty damn sure we will change nothing if we can’t even stand talking about it.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Education Is None of Our Business

Business-model education reform is not just wrong about education. It’s wrong about business.

The idea is that, like a business, we should measure outcomes in schools (using test scores) and hold workers (teachers) responsible for meeting stated goals. There are lots and lots of reasons why public schools are inherently different than businesses and therefore shouldn’t be run the same way. To name a few: all data is not equal, and test scores are qualitatively different than profit and loss figures; no business tries to serve every single person in a community, while public schools are required to; the ability of workers to influence outcome is quite different when you’re talking about teaching children vs manufacturing widgets; etc.

But beyond all that is the plain fact that businesses aren’t run the way business-model education reformers say they are.

The education reforms of the past decade have schools giving lots of standardized tests to students in order to obtain data on which to base decisions, including extreme measures like closing schools, and now, firing teachers as well. Every kid throughout the state takes the same tests. Every kid is held to the same standard. Some presumably non-arbitrary score is deemed proficient for everyone. Business-model education reform claims to treat test data like businesses treat sales and profits.

But is that how businesses are run? When Starbucks opens a store in Times Square, another in a suburban town, and a third at the Jersey Shore, do they set the same sales goals for the three stores? Do they expect the same level of profit? Do they even charge the same price for a latte? No, because that would be absurd. Times Square is booming every day, all day, and people are willing to pay top dollar in New York; a suburban town might be slow and steady, with lower prices; a Shore town is seasonal, with slow business in winter and booming sales in summer. In other words, the customers have different habits, lifestyles, disposable income, and needs, and the business plan accommodates those differences.

So why do we expect schools to be any more uniform? Because, I hear you say, education is not coffee. We must not accept that poor kids, children of color, or urban kids routinely fail where affluent white kids in the suburbs succeed.


People don’t have to have coffee, but children have to have education. Education is a fundamentally different endeavor than business.

The business model that is being pushed on schools today is stupid and wrong-headed. It holds all kids to the same testing standard, despite the incontrovertible evidence that test results vary based on a variety of factors, some of them to be found inside school, but far more, outside school. So should we change to a more accurate business model like Starbucks, which accepts worse results in historically low-performing areas? Obviously not. No business model accounts for the reality of education--the striving for the best possible results for every kid, every time, despite very different circumstances and very complex human factors.

The fundamental problem is the business paradigm itself.  It is a model that will not do for education, because it assumes a whole range of things about education that are simply untrue or unacceptable: that kids’ circumstances outside of school do not influence them in school; that test scores are accurate reflections of achievement; that competition always produces the desired outcome; that opening and closing schools is as easy or advisable as opening and closing stores; that uniformity is not only possible, but good; that money is the best motivation for workers; and on and on.

Of course we must aspire to a world where all children succeed (not to mention a world where childhood poverty is eradicated). But we will never get there by reducing children to data points. Testing everyone using uniform standards is not even a smart business model, let alone an educational model. It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t even enlighten us as to the nature of the problem. It doesn’t show teachers how to teach better, or students how to reason, comprehend or create. And it certainly doesn’t address underlying issues of poverty that contribute so much to negative educational outcomes.

The plain fact is, no business model, no matter how distorted, works for education because education is a complex human system involving a web of interrelationships, not a thing that’s created and traded on a supply chain. Some aspects of education may indeed be measurable in limited ways, but to assume that you have a clear picture of the whole endeavor based on those measures is foolhardy in the extreme. Beyond that, education is something we as a society have deemed a right, not a commodity. Rights are non-negotiable, never to be bought and sold on the open market.

So why is this business-model data-driven reform so popular? Because there’s one thing in this whole picture that IS a measurable commodity subject to the laws of business and economics: the tests themselves. They are products bought and sold in the marketplace, and it’s a very lucrative business. It’s in the interest of the testing companies to convince the rest of us that the metrics we gain from their tests are meaningful. They’ve done a frighteningly good job.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Flogging the NJASK

With my daughter facing the start of the middle school NJASK, I made an amusing little animation about the ill effects of high-stakes standardized testing (using Xtranormal - I’m no animator). Well, I thought it was amusing, anyway. The point is, after I posted it, I got to wondering if other people had made similar videos.

So I went to YouTube and searched “NJASK.” What I found were dozens of videos, not criticizing the test, but designed to motivate students who are about to take it. Apparently, that is a thing schools do. Perhaps you know about the pep rallies many schools hold before the test. Many seem to just record the rally and put it on YouTube--I guess with the optimistic assumption that kids will want to relive the glory again and again. But many schools go further, creating special videos which, I assume, are shown at the pep rallies, in classrooms, etc.

 And these....boy. These videos just smack of fear and desperation -- fear that bad results will lead to sanctions, firings, closure, etc., and desperate willingness to try anything, no matter how embarrassing or misguided. Please understand: The schools and teachers involved have all my sympathy. They really, really do. But nothing demonstrates so forcefully just how pathologically test-obsessed our public schools have become, or explains so clearly why so many kids are getting very stressed out about something that should be so fleeting and insignificant in their lives.

 Here's the video I made:


And now, a selection of the various other NJASK videos I found. But first, a disclaimer. I understand that everyone involved in the making of these videos is just trying to do the right thing. There are no bad guys here, only bad situations and bad choices. In fact, many videos feature students, so I just want to say that I have no desire to mock kids who should actually be applauded for participating in what they are led to believe is a useful and positive project, and for showing pride in their schools. So kids, hooray for you and hooray for your schools. As for the teachers and administrators involved -- well, you have my sympathy, too. I know you mean well.

My favorite first. I'm giving this one the award for Most Bizarre and Disturbing, With Extra Gold Star for Mentioning Barfing:

This musical number gets two awards: Worst Overdub and Most Inexplicable Repetition of a Big Word Kids Don't Know (Metacognition):

The award for NJASK Motivational Video With Most 60s TV Clips (and Anti-NJASK Subtext) goes to:

Award for Most Realistic Portrayal of Test Prep Your Kids Suffer Through (also known as the Teaching to the Test Award) goes to this: a 45-minute video of a teacher modeling a persuasive essay about why kids should or shouldn't be allowed to chew gum in school. Really. And, no, I didn't watch the whole thing. But your kids have no choice.

This one gets the God Bless You for Trying, But Teachers, Your Kids Don't Even Know This Song award:

And last but not least, Most Gratuitous (and Boring) Use of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi:

That's all for me, but if you find your own winners, feel free to post them in comments.