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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