Friday, August 27, 2010

NCLB and the New School Year

(News-Herald, August 26) It’s time for school to start.
This fall many school districts will kick off the year with their own individual adventures, whether it’s a technological upgrade or continued attempts to settle a contract. But every school district in the country will have one challenge in common—further tightening of the anti-education vice that is No Child Left Behind.
Remember—every school district in the country has about three and a half years left to make sure that every last student is above average. Or to be more accurate, that every last student can get a high score on a single multiple-choice, bureaucrat-designed high-stakes test.
A change in administrations has not, so far, blunted the idiotic impact of No School Left Standing. All the Obama folks have offered is Race To The Top, a deal whereby individual states can sell control of their school districts to the feds for big bucks. This makes perfect sense because, clearly, a bureaucrat in DC is the best judge of how, say, third graders at Rockland Elementary should be taught.
NCLB creates a problem in professional ethics for all school districts. On the one hand, school districts in general and the people who lead them in particular face powerful penalties if they do not make their numbers. NCLB is the law, and education is filled with people who respect The Rules. On the other hand, stealing educational opportunities from a child in order to make him spend his days practicing taking a standardized test bears not the slightest resemblance to providing that child with an actual education, and there isn’t a person with an iota of sense who doesn’t know that.
Advocates of the testing will say, “No no no! Don’t teach to the test! Just learn them kids real good and they will naturally do well on the tests.” There isn’t enough room in this entire newspaper to show all the ways that we know that’s wrong.
NCLB creates enormous pressure on school districts to do things that we know are educationally unsound. And as we enter the end stages of this legislative disease, one more nasty side effect becomes apparent.
NCLB has the potential to turn the entire school-student relationship on its head. A student who couldn’t or wouldn’t or chose not to try to learn used to be just a challenge to schools. That student ought to be a customer, but instead that student is a threat.
Across the nation, you’ll still see districts that are led by people with vision and courage who say, “Let’s figure out how to give these students great educations and somehow take care of the test scores.” But you’ll also see districts led by people who simply say, “I don’t care what else you do—get those numbers up.”
The worst districts will simply become processing centers, unconcerned with whether students have been prepared to be citizens in the real world or not. As long as the paperwork is okay, the numbers are acceptable, and the kid finishes (because dropouts also count against a district)—well, what happens to him after school isn’t our problem. It’s just our job to process him on through.
Every school district has administrators, counselors and teachers who will continue to do their damnedest to give their students a quality education, even if there are days when it feels as if they’re working in a hospital run by people who have required that antibiotics be replaced with drano.
Those educators will keep fighting to do the job they signed on for, even though it will become more of a fight over the next few years. If you’re a parent, you’ll want to find these people and make them your allies, and they can use your help as well.
Why am I still in the biz if I think the picture is so grim? Because I love my job. All this NCLB mess reminds me that it’s not a chore, not to be taken for granted, and well worth working and fighting for. Sometimes things of great value cost a little something. Education is powerful, important, valuable, and exciting, and American public education, where everyone can come together and swim in that same exhilarating river, is even more worthwhile. I know there are some people who have forgotten it and others who never knew it. I feel a little bit sad for those folks.
But it’s time for school to start. And I can’t wait.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Heinz Stadium Opener

(News-Herald, August 19) Last Saturday I found myself in Heinz Field at the Steelers’ pre-season opener, despite my total lack of NFL fan credentials. This wasn’t just my first trip to Heinz Field, but the first time I’ve ever seen the Steelers play live and in person. We went down early, parked the car in a nifty garage, and strolled about before grabbing supper and approaching the stadium, where we were cheerfully admitted despite our shocking lack of black and gold clothing.
Heinz stadium is pretty awesome all by itself, complete with its view of the city skyline. The jumbotron shows all, though my game-viewing companion and I agreed that the special effect that involves ketchup pouring out of two giant bottles to cover everything in a thick red layer of what is probably meant to be ketchup, but could well be blood—well, that’s a teensy bit disturbing.
Of course, Heinz is only the most obvious product placement. On the big screen McDonalds kept insisting that they were loving it, “it” presumably being that last play. A bright display strip runs all the way around the stadium so that people who accidentally try to watch the game still have sparkling ad copy in their field of vision.
Not that advertising waits for the stadium. For blocks in every direction, folks selling black and gold paraphernalia compete for sidewalk space with more traditional beggars. “Game day hat!” “Veteran!” “Don’t pay full price inside!” “Need medicine for my wife!” My personal favorite: “Why lie? I want a beer!”
We had won tickets at the Barrow’s Casino Night for the fancy shmancy Club Level. Club Level seats are ordinary nosebleed seats, but through the door behind them one enters the Club Itself.
This area looks like a cross between an airport lobby and the food court of a large mall. There are a variety of food-selling spots, multiple bars, high-seated tables and big comfy chairs, with a television screen roughly every two feet; it’s a perfect place for people who want to go to the game without actually going to the game.
I was not going to leave without trying some stadium food, so we headed into The Club and promptly got in line behind the Worst Customer Ever. This woman and her two children arrived at the counter after what must have been a twenty-minute wait, but apparently it had not occurred to them to consider what they might order when the blessed moment of truth finally arrived.
So they proceeded to discuss their foodal options at length, with Mom assuring her charges that they should take their time to really think deeply about this weighty choice. At one point (I am not making this up), Mom sent the hapless counter person to fetch the bag that the nacho chips came in so that the family could peruse the list of ingredients.
By this time the rain had become serious and a few thousand people were pouring into The Club, but Mom was apparently determined to teach her children the life lesson that when you are trying to decide whether or not you want relish on your hot dog, other people shouldn’t mind waiting for you.
I may sound a bit ranty, but the couple behind us was ready to start throwing things, starting with colorful language. I consider it all part of what enhances the stadium experience and makes it superior to watching at home. Also, stadium fries taste like amusement park fries, which is good.
The unanswered question of the night was how the crowd would respond to Big Ben. We saw lots of 7 jerseys, but I have no idea how it compared to previous years. Opinion in our section was divided between a loud-mouthed guy who yelled, “We’ve got your back, Ben” and another loud-mouthed guy who that Ben was a [insert not very nice word here].
Getting into and out of the area was far easier than I expected (though at least a third of the 55,000+ people didn’t come back after the rain delay). I didn’t get to hang with any obnoxious drunks, though the Big Screen periodically gave us a number to call if other patrons were displaying “intolerable behavior.” The crowd was really loud, but not intolerably so.
Overall a fun outing, entertaining even if you’re not exactly a major NFL fan. Or as Ronald McDonald said as he was smothered in a sea of blood-hued condiments, “I’m lovin’ it.”

Saturday, August 14, 2010


(News-Herald, August 12) All people concerned about violence in schools owe it to themselves to read Dave Cullen’s book Columbine. Sure, everybody knows the story. Two socially outcast Goth kids who were tired of being picked on snapped and went on a shooting spree for revenge on the jocks who had tormented them.
But here’s the thing about that story that everybody knows—it’s wrong.
Cullen was one of the first journalists on the scene, and he prepared for this book with hundreds of interviews and extensive study of the tapes and documents that have become available in the decade since the attack. His book made most of the major lists last year, but it deserves more longevity than just one year’s hot read.
Here are some things you might now know about Columbine without this book.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not social outcasts. They had friends, dated girls, played some sports. They were both better than average students—brains. They were not gothic; there was nothing to see about them that would have suggested they were anything other than completely mainstream kids.
They were not members of the Trench Coat Mafia. That group had come and gone years before; they were not connected to those students.
They were not an interchangeable pair. Eric was smarter, sneakier, scarier. Dylan was less secure, louder.
There were plenty of signs of trouble, particularly with Eric, who was not above going after old friends who crossed him. The local police possesed (but concealed for months afterwards) previous complaints about Eric which they had not acted upon.
The attack that occurred was Plan B. The intended attack was far worse; Harris had built bombs intended to rip through the cafeteria and collapse the floor of the library just above it. The bombs were in place—the two simply carried them into the school in duffle bags. The only reason that hundreds more weren’t killed was that Eric had made some wiring mistakes. There was no “snapping” involved—the attack had been planned for months.
The attackers were not beaten down outcasts, and they definitely did not suffer from low self esteem. From his journals, it’s clear that Eric’s problem was the opposite—he felt that he was smarter and therefore better than all the other stupid useless sheep of the world.
Could the parents have stopped this? Eric did the bulk of the planning and preparation, and he was an accomplished liar, proud of his ability to snow anybody, including his parents (that was part of how he knew he was better than everyone else). His parents were not abnormal or abusive, but Cullen does make it clear that when Eric did get in trouble, they preferred to handle things at home, working to keep any blemishes off his record so that his college prospects wouldn’t be hurt. Generally he would fake remorse and promise to behave, and his father would run interference with the authorities.
Dylan’s parents were also “normal,” but hands off. Though Cullen doesn’t say it explicitly, one implication is clear—Eric Harris, probably a sociopath, was always headed for trouble, but had Dylan never met him, his fate might have been far different.
There are other lessons in the book. The press bungled Columbine badly, particularly in the way they used students as expert witnesses when many students only knew what they had heard from the media.
There’s also a lesson in how people will cling to fiction. Many folks have heard about Cassie Bernall, made famous as the girl who said yes when asked if she believed in God and was then killed for her answer. That story, based on one student’s scrambled memory of events in the library, turned out to be inaccurate fairly early in the investigation, but the Bernall family has clung to it as well as publishing a best-selling book about their daughter.
The real story is in some ways more inspiring than Cassie’s fictional martyrdom—Val Schnurr was the girl in the library who actually declared her faith, and Dylan spared her. Nobody has written a book about her.
Why read a book about events so far in the past? The police response provides that lesson. Police reaction has been criticized, but they did what they had been trained to do. Their response was appropriate for some other situation, just not the one they were actually facing. Understanding what really happened has helped police develop responses that actually help. It’s better for us to know what really happened.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Out in the Silence

(News-Herald, August 5) I finally watched Joe Wilson’s documentary, “Out in the Silence.” Today I’ll try to answer the question, “Should you watch it, too?”
Before I start, I should make full disclosure of the baggage I carry into this.
First, while creating and promoting the film, Joe has taken a lot of shots at the school where I work, and continues to accuse me, my coworkers, and my bosses of behavior that would be unethical, unprofessional, and even illegal. Several years of being on the receiving end of personal and professional attacks do not make me likely to join the Joe Wilson fan club.
Second, I’m a parent and divorced guy, and I’ve often said about both that if you haven’t been there, you just don’t get it, no matter how well-meaning you are. The same is true here; no matter how sympathetic a straight male I may be, I will never really get what it means to live as a gay or lesbian person in a small town.
Joe’s film jumps off from the point when the News-Derrick ran the announcement of his wedding to his husband and local letter-writers reacted as if the newspaper had shoved a hot poker up their noses. (Full disclosure: I thought the paper was right, the people who objected were wrong, and the people who launched into hateful attacks were really wrong.) From there the film goes on to follow three stories.
The most problematic is the story of the former FHS student who sued the district. This thread presents the young man’s view effectively; unfortunately, that’s all there is. Part of it is the nature of the setting. The school district and its employees are bound to silence when it comes to our students. If his story is completely accurate, we can’t say so. If he has left out large chunks of important information, we can’t say that, either.
But Joe doesn’t do anything fill in that gap. Joe doesn’t talk to any other gay students, any straight students, any other parents. It’s not simply a matter of balance; Joe seems to want to suggest that this is part of a larger picture, but we get none of that picture. Was he the only gay student at school? What do straight students have to say?
Considerably more affecting is the story of the women renovating the Latonia Theater. We hear a variety of voices and Roxanne Hitchcock and Linda Henderson (full disclosure: I’ve known Linda since 4th grade) are an articulate and touching couple on film, and the Latonia is a striking and compelling project.
This section is the most poignant; the two women are no longer together and the Latonia sits uncertainly because of it. I suspect that splitting couples and family spats have tanked more enterprises in Venangoland than economic troubles.
The gutsiest section of the film shows Joe reaching out to letter-writers who objected to his marriage announcement. One couple responds, and Joe’s interactions with Pastor Mark Niklos and his wife Diane is the most honest part of the film. Joe includes a comment of his own showing bigotry about small-town folks and allows Niklos to make the observation that stereotypes run both ways. He also gives Pastor Niklos the best line of the film: “There are people behind the issues that we need to be sensitive to.” Mark and Diane emerge from the film as models of Christian witness on the issue without sacrificing their conservative principles.
Oddly, perhaps for narrative simplicity, Joe leaves us with the impression that Franklin High School and the Barrow Theater are both located in Oil City and the city of Franklin does not exist.
More amazingly, Joe almost made me feel sorry for Diane Gramley. After sandbagging her on camera at various public events and getting her to speak, he follows her down the sidewalk after a church service. Having finally learned her lesson, she walks silently, head forward. On the narration, Joe accuses her of treating him like he doesn’t exist. It’s a cheap shot, and if he doesn’t know that, then he’s forgotten a great deal about small town life. For a moment I felt bad for Diane. Then I remembered the tactics the AFA have used through the years, and I got over it.
Gay and lesbian life in a small town is a worthy and potentially interesting subject. Joe captures his characters, but in 56 minutes very little of the flavor of the community comes through. The film is worth viewing just for the Niklos portion, but as a full, balanced picture of a complex issue, it doesn’t quite succeed.

From my Flickr