Superman’s Already Here

Public education has been the cornerstone of democracy in the United States of America for more than a century. It has served as the pathway for all American citizens to the American dream of financial success and social freedom. It has been the place where we all learn to get along with one another despite different backgrounds, where hard work leads to the disintegration of socioeconomic divisions.  
Today, it is facing its most serious threat: privatization.
 
The much-touted film “Waiting for Superman” argues that the only way to save American education is to fire teachers and principals and hand the future of our children to private education companies and charter schools.
 
The film distorts reality, misrepresents charter school performance, and neglects to mention the dauntingly inflated salaries of charter school leaders, who take home more than twice as much as some of the highest paid superintendents in America. It fails to explain that private education companies are profiting by using tax dollars to hire teachers at half the salaries they earn in public districts, and that a good half of those profits go to politicians’ campaign war chests.
 
Top education leaders such as Diane Ravitch, who served as the Deputy Secretary of Education under Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush, have already spoken about the dangers of believing the film’s claims. Once a charter school and voucher advocate herself—one of the most powerful in the nation—Ravitch has recently changed her position. In her 2010 book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she explains that 30 years of research shows that charter schools actually do more harm than good: only 17 percent of students who move to charter schools show improved achievement, whereas 37 percent do worse. The remaining students show no change at all.
 
Using the simplistic business model of firing teachers and closing underperforming public schools to “fix” public education is failing in every city where it has been employed. In Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee fired hundreds of teachers and saw no improvement. A University of Chicago study conducted over the past 20 years has shown that neither site-based school management nor the implementation of charter schools improved academic achievement in Chicago. And don’t ask me to even go into New York City’s debacle, where students and their families gather nervously hoping against hope that they will be lucky in lotteries that determine whether they will be in “good” or “poor” schools (based on test scores, of course) and thousands of them go home disappointed, believing they will now have no chance of success.
 
However, more sophisticated business models that have been proven to work in America’s most successful corporations can lead to school district reform that works.
 
Eighteen years ago, Dr. Gerald W. Kohn, prior superintendent in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was one of four superintendents of top-achieving school districts in Massachusetts invited to participate in a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Business. He worked with Professor Peter Senge and others to identify best business models that were critical in leading to their districts’ success. These superintendents discovered the common denominator—district leadership that operated like the best corporate management in America.
 
Just as on-going training of highly valued employees leads to business success, developing the professional capacity of teachers is the number one strategy of improving students’ academic performance. Teachers who are valued and provided the supports they need become highly motivated professionals who are invested in the overall success of a district. It is they who transform schools.
 
Furthermore, Americans are evaluating schools using the wrong methods. Standardized tests measure students’ ability to perform basic skills, not their level of preparation for success in the 21  Century—skills like critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, oral and written communication, and information analysis.
 
Standardized test results are not predictive of future success in college or beyond. Plus, they correlate to nothing except the family income of students. On average, the children of middle to high income families achieve high test scores, whereas low income families’ children score much lower. Why? Many reasons, with a powerful one being that lower income students arrive at kindergarten already behind in vocabulary and social skills, and even with good (and expensive) intervention, never truly catch up.
 
For these children, high-quality preschool is essential.
 
Dr. Kohn and his team implemented a model in Harrisburg, and it was working. Of course, these programs require extra funding, but the funding is out there. Pennsylvania and many other states offer grants for PreK. And if Congress has any sense (oh, dear, big if), they’ll make federal monies available for it, too. Research shows that every dollar invested in preschool results in $10 of savings later in juvenile justice and many other areas. Successful students become good citizens who pay taxes and contribute to their communities.
 
In addition, dear PA Governor Corbett, PA Senator Piccola, and all the rest of you voucher proponents, good try, but vouchers don’t work. Economically disadvantaged minority students are not served well by suburban, middle-class districts. Their scores lag well behind those of similar students taught by well-trained teachers in urban schools like Harrisburg.
 
Like in business, in education, real sustainable reform and improvements take time. We must appoint good leadership, allow them to do the work they’re trained to do, develop teachers’ capacity, give them the supports they need, and be patient.
 
Remember the original “Superman,” and the naive kids who received Superman capes and believed the cape gave them superpowers? Naive, right? Even dumb? I mean, you wouldn’t jump out a second story window in a cape, believing you could fly, now, would you?
 
 Believing that a quick fix like private education programs, vouchers, or charter schools will cure America’s education ills and inequities is just as much a fantasy as is the power of a costume. And if we buy into the propaganda, we’re going to be in a horror film of our own–soon coming to your neighborhood, too.

 
Dr. Gerald W. Kohn contributed to this piece.

 

 

 
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Banana Waste

What happens to the rolls that remain in restaurant bread baskets?

Shouldn’t the wait staff hand diners Ziploc baggies to take them home? Or better yet, distribute them to the homeless?

I tried to give a homeless person half a veggie burger once when I was in Harvard Square. He rejected it, saying he preferred beef. But rolls–who does’t like rolls?

Anyway, while some of my friends simply enjoy lunch while chatting, and other of my friends calculate the profit margins of the restaurant, I wonder about things like wasted food.

It’s not just in restaurants that perfectly good food is routinely tossed into garbage cans, of course. For example, how many pounds of bananas do Americans throw out each year? Is there federal grant money available to study this question and draw attention to the scandal?

Perhaps finding this answer is left to investigative reporters. They don’t seem to be doing much of anything else these days, as true reporting hurts advertising. I should know, having edited a publication.

Yet in the liberal elite media, of course read only by the liberal elite, and thus a sermon to a choir, occasionally, such burning issues as bananas do receive attention.

Reading a a recent New Yorker article, I learned that in 2008 Americans consumed more than 7.8 billion pounds of bananas, all Cavendish (one of 1,000 varieties that exist).  “We eat as many Cavendish bananas as we do apples and oranges combined,” writes Mike Peed.

No, I did not make up the reporter’s name.

But prepare yourselves, America. The New Yorker, which I admire for breaking the Abu Gharaib story as well as regularly taking on the far right Foxes, has now broken the banana plague story.

This is an important story. Since reading it, I’ve been warning others about the looming shortage, to no avail. As they don’t believe me, I figured I’d post about it online; then, it becomes fact, right?

But perhaps people don’t want to imagine the pain they will experience when yes, we have no bananas? 

A disease called “Tropical Race Four” is destroying Cavendish plants, and thus, life as we know it — or at least breakfast and high potassium snacks.

The American way of life is so fragile. One little banana plant germ and suddenly millions of underpaid workers are unemployed in Latin American countries, and worse, we can’t eat bananas at breakfast.

I don’t know what it is, but something like this crisis must occur before we figure out that everything has a ripple effect that affects us overprivileged few. Because I tell you, very few people in this country are paying attention to the cost to all of us of a poverty rate among our children that is higher than anywhere else in the civilized (I use that term loosely) world.

No, we are not Nigeria, where young girls are routinely raped and murdered so that oil companies can have access to the black gold under their villages (the rape part surely is unnecessary …). But we are America! Land of the Proud! Land of the Free! And yet we have starving children.

Plenty of rape, too, both literal and figurative, but that’s a different blog entry.

I write of the poverty issue often, mostly in terms of how it affects learning in what is supposed to be an equitable American public education system but is in fact more inequitable than it was pre-Brown v. Board of Education. I’m sure I become tiresome to many. But here’s the thing. Our kids are the workers losing their jobs. We’re just the ones shaking our heads at the breakfast table, over the newspaper. And then, like with bananas, we substitute a different fruit.

I eat well–even in restaurants sometimes–because I am privileged to have had parents who, while relatively poor, were rich in the conviction that public education would bear fruit. It changed my life. It should be ending poverty.

Yesterday, I looked at those rolls on the table that don’t go home in Ziplocs, and I wondered if they do go to a homeless shelter. I bet they don’t. I looked at the five or six types of protein on the buffet and I wondered just how I could get prime rib to inner city kids.

So, I write of it. I’ve tried other methods, too, but I believe writing is my most powerful tool. It’s what I do. And I hope my words change things. And most times, I doubt that they do … yet I continue …

Occasionally, I despair, but I try to have faith that my words won’t die on the vine.

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Spam about Spam

I just received an email from Norton about how to purchase a program that will reduce the number of junk emails in my inbox. My personal inbox has been invaded by a corporation, just like my personal future, and the futures of my children, have been invaded by the spam called Fox News.

But it’s deeper than that.

All children’s futures are being invaded by the corporate underpinnings of our current government. By depriving the schools that most need funding of federal dollars, politicians can then point out these schools as examples of failure. The measures suck, because the lower the family income, the lower the standardized test scores/only measure used. Standardized tests, just like SATs, are meaningless as predictors of lifelong success, but that’s just an important aside. Politicians can then hand these schools over to private education companies, who in turn will purchase ridiculously overpriced textbooks and teacher training from huge corporate publishers. Private companies will determine what our children will learn, and what the textbooks say.

The Biggest Lies of 2010 will be nothing compared to what our children will be taught.

And one of the biggest lies of all is that our President and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are trying to save our public schools. They’re not. They’re out to destroy them. Then, the private education companies can start writing even larger checks to candidates.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon …

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Born Again

Let’s put the Osiris back in Christmas.

Tonight I attended the contemplative service at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, where we sang traditional Christmas carols and lit candles one from another in a symbolic act of the individual’s connection with the universe and all those within it.

I was intrigued by the associate minister’s explanation of the pre-Christian historical significance of the date December 25th, so came home and, with my homemade invention of the Eggnog Frappe (2 scoops low-fat vanilla ice cream with 1/2 cup low-fat eggnog whirred in blender and then sucked down with great gusto), I investigated it … where else … on the Internet.

It’s fascinating. Lookee here:

Egyptian Pagan Religion: Osiris is a savior-god who had been worshipped as far back as Neolithic times. “He was called Lord of Lords, King of Kings, God of Gods…the Resurrection and the Life, the Good shepherd…the god who ‘made men and women be born again’5 Three wise men announced his birth. His followers ate cakes of wheat which symbolized his body. Many sayings associated with Osiris were taken over into the Bible. This included:

bullet 23rd Psalm: an appeal to Osiris as the good Shepherd to lead believers through the valley of the shadow of death and to green pastures and still waters
bullet Lord’s Prayer: “O amen, who art in heaven…
bullet Many parables attributed to Jesus.

Worship of Osiris, and celebration of his DEC-25 birth, were established throughout the Roman Empire by the end of the 1st century BCE.

The Babylonians celebrated their “Victory of the Sun-God” Festival on DEC-25. Saturnalia (the Festival of Saturn) was celebrated from DEC-17 to 23 in the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Aurelian blended Saturnalia with a number of birth celebrations of savior Gods from other religions, into a single holy day: DEC-25. After much argument, the developing Christian church adopted this date as the birthday of their savior, Jesus. The people of the Roman Empire were accustomed to celebrating the birth of a God on that day. So, it was easy for the church to divert people’s attention to Jesus’ birth.

 From http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmas_sel.htm

Tonight I was part of a celebration going back to the beginning of history, a commemoration of the hope inherent in every birth.

My first child, now an adult, sat beside me through the service. Once, when she was about three years old, she insisted on holding a Christmas Eve candle, grasping for it with curiosity and desire I hadn’t the heart to deny. Within seconds, she set several strands of her long blond hair on fire. Tonight, as she lit her candle, she did the classic head toss and said, “I’m keeping the candle away from my hair this year.”

The decades conflated.

She is the only one of my three who has been taken by organized religion and continues to attend Unitarian Church even on her own in New York City. As I snuck looks at her throughout the service, I knew that her blaze of still blond hair is just as symbolic of light coming from darkness as is the Star of the East.

 Why must we limit ourselves to one symbol? The world is rich with many.

I lived many dark years and have only relatively recently left the shadows behind. At 18, I went out into a world I didn’t know, a world that awed and frightened me. At 50, I began the long journey back to the self I once was, the self who joyously embraced the moment. The child who never hid.

 

Powers beyond me moved within me and the child in me has been reborn.

As I remember many beautiful, happy things from those years in and out of depression and the mad search for that one last achievement that would define me forever, I hold before me always the vision of the three lights who were given to me over those years. What a miracle life is!

As I sit admiring our Christmas tree, bedecked with twinkling multicolored strands, I reflect on the origins of the tradition.

O, Tannenbaum … Du gruenst nicht nur in Sommerzeit, nein auch im Winter wenn es schneit … Oh, Christmas tree, you aren’t only green in summer, but in winter, too, when it snows …

Our seasons come, our seasons go, but the light of birth continues. So, this day, light the candles, trim the tree, raise high the brilliant star of hope!

Where there is darkness, let me bring light.

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Don’t Drink the Water

It was reported by national news services today that most American cities’ water has “Erin Brokovich Chromium” in it.

I read the report aloud, while making Christmas cookies with  my daughter. She was drinking tap water at the time. She paused. “Now this water tastes like cancer,” she said. 

Is there a spring somewhere nearby, close enough to walk to, with my water  jug on my head? The exercise would be good; I can save on YMCA fees. In the summer, I can bike.

I’m unpaid despite the fact that I put in hours and hours of work every week. I can’t drink my water … I’m feeling more and more in touch with the women of the Third World.

There is a lunar eclipse tonight. In another time, the people would stand in shock and awe and wonder what we have done to provoke the gods.

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Crumbs

This morning I baked crumb cake. It’s a low-fat recipe, but tastes rich to me!

Judging by my personal finances alone, one could conclude that I am on the brink of homelessness. In Dickens’ time, I would be on the way to debtors’ prison. But in the days of debt consolidation and reduction, and with the support of a very generous benefactor (remember the Medicis?), I am riding the wave of financial survival. Fortunately, I never had the funds to invest in derivatives. See what I mean?

I read online today a list of the many things on which Americans waste money. Predictably, the top nine the editors of the site chose are: Bottled water, Energy drinks, Overpriced coffee, Super gasoline, Oil changes every 3,000 miles, Cigarettes, Extravagant children’s birthday parties, Brand name products, and Eating out at lunch.

I don’t buy bottled water because of the plastic waste; always trying to reduce my carbon footprint, in my own small way, helping the environment. Plus, I obnoxiously lecture those who do. However, in the regions in Pennsylvania in which natural gas is being extracted, the water table is becoming polluted. There are reports of being able to light a glass of water on fire. That is alarming, as is the recent election of a Republican Industrialists’ Pawn as Governor. Again fortunately, I don’t live in one of those regions. I can remain proud of drinking from the tap. I even do it when traveling, although not being Angelina Jolie, I don’t frequent Mexico, South America, or Africa. I bet Angelina drinks bottled water even when in California.

Energy drinks are just marketing in a bottle. Doesn’t take a whole lot to see how Madison Avenue has controlled our buying over the past 50 to 60 years.

I do occasionally like a Starbuck’s or Cornerstone latte, just for fun. Hey, we have to support our local entrepreneurs. Starbuck’s is a franchise, isn’t it? And Cornerstone’s owners are quite dear and were there before Starbuck’s. But I just discovered that Wegman’s sells its own brand of ground coffee for $1.99 per pound, so my prior habit of buying overpriced coffee at the supermarket is now cured.

And speaking of name brands, so I stopped with the Dunkin’ Donuts and New England coffee. But no more Mott’s applesauce for Peter? Undecided. But that doesn’t apply to chocolate, does it? Or Thomas’s English muffins? I’m sorry. Store brand English muffins don’t have pockets. Gimme a break here. And Amber, my cat, would put her nose up at anything other than 9-lives Super Supper. Guilty as charged.

For a few years, I owned a VW Touareg, into which I had to pour entire tanker trucks of high grade fuel weekly. I came to my senses and my Subaru loves Regular at $3.29 a gallon, with the Giant Foods Bonus Buy Customer discount. Sometimes, I save 40 cents per gallon! No lie! How about that? Okay, so it doesn’t pay for college tuition for my daughter. But it sure as hell covers the Thomas’s. Is that illogical thinking? No. It’s not a frozen dinner I don’t need because I cut the coupon. It’s melted store-brand butter in pockets.

I was able to quit cigarettes when I was rudely and somewhat illegally “terminated” from my job because I didn’t fit in with the new political powers. So I lost my income, but I saved on therapy co-pays and nicotine–at least, after I finished with the smoking cessation packets, which do, surprise, surprise, come in generic.

My children’s birthday parties are finished with, as they’re grown and/or nearly grown. However, I admit, they did involve lavishly over-frosted clever Disney-styled cakes (“There’s a snake in my boot!”) from the Pennsylvania Bakery, and still may involve Cookie Cakes (cookie cake lover, you know who you are). I spoil my off-spring with things like winter coats and needed shoes on their birthdays and holidays. Name brand. So shoot me. I knit the accessories that keep them warm, and here and there, even a sweater.

Getting to the end of the list.

I’m “unemployed,” which means I’m a writer who doesn’t, at the moment, get remunerated for her work, although I have in the past. Choices being what they are, I now write in my kitchen. The refrigerator is within reach of the table. No, I do not lunch out. I don’t miss it. Neither do I miss working straight through lunch and then frantically grabbing my cigarettes off the desk. Sometimes, “unemployed” is just where a person should be–assuming she has a safety net, which I am blessed to have.

And that brings me to it! That safety net. No, I’m not talking about federal legislation Specter and Casey will vote “Yea” on today or tomorrow to continue my unemployment checks. I mean those who love me and help out with the bills. Those who are willing to stay in and play a game or watch an On-Demand movie because it’s more affordable than the theatre. Those who accept that I’m on the right path.

If those are crumbs, then Marie Antoinette, your advice is metaphorically sound. Let me eat cake!

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From Last to New

For years, I thought of myself as the last Paige, the youngest child. A monthly column I wrote was even entitled “Last Paige.” But, world, it’s time to change all that. For, as the paperweight my sister recently gave me states: “Begin Again.” Not over, but again. I begin again every day, and recommend it highly.

A poetry blog (with a few essays) I wrote for a couple of years appears elsewhere, but I’m not writing poetry these days … I’m composing a life. I guess that means I’m writing creative nonfiction. Right?

So, I invite you to come along with me on this new journey, the crisp sunny day that follows a blizzard. Everything is white, like on a Blank Paige.

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