Friday, February 26, 2010

Good Standards don't necessarily mean Good Policy

Response to "Alabama using new formula to measure dropout rate", AP wire on T&G online,
Alabama's "on-time graduation rate" is a better standard for schools to measure their success by. But the problem with benchmarks and standards is that they can distort decision-making and have unintended consequences. Measuring schools' performances honestly and working at improving them is good and necessary. The problem is that setting rigid limited goals and then trying to terrorize the teachers into meeting them doesn't really make them better.

Right now under NCLB the schools have a limited set of "capital goals" to meet, and failing to meet them can result in "capital punishment" - firing all the teachers or closing the school. Graduation rate is now one of those goals. The Alabama definition is more honest than the one we are currently using, but because it is stricter and more limited it will result in more distortion, and more decisions that are bad for the children and the schools.

Take another example of this problem. Schools are struggling to meet annual yearly progress on math and English scores, with the survival of the school and the teachers' jobs at stake. They often throw history, languages, music, shop and gym under the bus to get more time and staff focused on math and English. This ends up turning the school experience into a deadly bore for many students. Bored students make trouble, don't pay attention and skip school or class more often, so in the end putting too much time and pressure on math and English can make things worse.

The danger with adopting the Alabama graduation-rate measurement is that when inevitably some students fall a year behind - for whatever reason - then if the school's survival depends only on the "on-time graduation rate", it no longer has an incentive to get the delayed students through anyway, and it will tend to lose interest in working with those students.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Organize to Defend McGovern!

There are warning flags flying for Rep. McGovern.

◆ Brown won by an overwhelming margin in McGovern's district outside Worcester, and now the right wing money-bags, the Republicans and the Tea Baggers smell blood in the water. With the recent "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision we can expect to see a flood of national right-wing corporate money and national Republican "strategists" (a.k.a. dirty tricksters) into Massachusetts. Brown's campaign was almost certainly just a first taste of what is in store for us.

◆ My Google news and blog alert on Rep. Jim McGovern regularly turns up reasons to remind me why I strongly support him. But in recent months there has been a steady stream of blog posts, both national and local, fingering him as enemy number one and targeting him for defeat in 2010. These cite among other things his leadership role on ending the Afghan war, on immigration reform and on lifting the siege of Gaza. The number one issue on voters minds however is JOBS. McGovern has a lot to say about jobs and a lot to show, but if the Republicans can put the focus on his foreign policy positions and distract attention from jobs, they win - unless we can help the voters connect the two issues - Jobs Not Bombs, Health Care not Warfare - and help them see that ending the wars is also a jobs issue.

◆ Perhaps Deval can squeak out a win in a three-way race, perhaps not. But the thing to look at is that if Patrick is the nominee, absent a sudden economic recovery and a sudden change in his m.o., there is going to be a great outpouring of "Throw the Bums Out" voters. This will put everyone down-ticket at risk, and we will have serious work to do defending McGovern's seat - and the seats of all of our progressive state legislators. Even a Patrick squeaker in a three-way race still leaves a lot of people coming out to vote against a Democrat.

◆ The polling data on the Massachusetts Governor's race isn't encouraging on this. The Rasmussen Poll from last November highlighted that his "strongly disapprove" rating, at 37%, was more than three times higher than his "strongly approve" rating of 11%.

A Globe poll from January 11, before the Brown election, showed Patrick with 30% to Baker's 19% and Cahill's 23%, with 72% either undecided or saying they could change their minds. His un-favorability rating was 52%, 56% among the un-enrolled who make up more than half the voting population.

◆ McGovern won election the first time in 1996 with a great grass-roots organizing campaign. But in American politics today these grass roots campaigns for a particular candidate blow away like last year's grass in the wind when the election is over. Moreover, McGovern's district is substantially different now from the one in which he ran that campaign. What McGovern has gained in its place is the web of personal relationships that he's built with his constituents. But if the Republicans can stir the waters and get a high turnout, then the infrequent voters who are less likely to have interacted with him will be voting.

◆ The Democratic Party structure, seen from the perspective of electoral work, appears to be a hollow shell with almost no direct contact with the voters. My door to door work talking to neighbors convinces me that even for the most frequent Democratic voters, identification with the Party is shallow, based on sentiment, tradition and liking for particular office-holders. To the extent that the voters do identify with "the Democrats", frequent evidence that the label has little real meaning for many office-holders is dismaying.

My suggestion is that - whomever the Democratic Gubernatorial nominee is for November - we should be talking urgently about rebuilding the Democratic Party from the ground up.

We should be looking at flooding the Ward and Town Democratic Committees with volunteers (and organize Precinct Democratic Committees,) and use the Committees as a base for organizing a real grass roots campaign of neighbors talking to neighbors to spread the word and get out the vote.

This will of course only succeed if a great many of us personally commit to doing the work of going door to door to talk to our neighbors, build political relationships with them and get them to the polls. The hardest part of this is risking the disapproval of friends and neighbors, but once people get used to doing this it becomes enjoyable and intensely interesting. Beats the heck out of phone-banking!

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray's initiative in organizing the Worcester County Democratic League is a useful step in this direction, and Worcester's new mayor Joe O'Brien has given some strong indications that he may be thinking along these lines.
Finally PDA's national monthly Brown Bag Lunch initiative - taken up in CD-03 by the Worcester Chapter, Progressive Democrats of Greater Worcester (PDGW) under the leadership of Elizabeth St.John - can play an important part in organizing support for McGovern. I urge you all to read your messages from PDA about these, and participate!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Class, Caste and Math Education (long)

Consider three families living on the wages or salaries they earn, selling their labor power and forced to accept the working conditions that are imposed on them there.

One family is mostly "educated" people in "professional" jobs. These are known as professional, "white-collar" or "middle class",

One family is a family of hard-people who hold steady "regular" jobs involving more work with their hands and less "brain work". They are known as "working class" or "blue collar".

The third is of people just barely hanging on, working short-term jobs, playing loose with the law to survive sometimes in and out of jail, sometimes homeless or drifting from place to place following the work. These are the "working poor", poor or "under-class".

These differences are strongly re-enforced by employer practices, school practices, police practices, promotion of official and unofficial beliefs and doctrines, the unspoken "real rules" about what is whose place, imposed by police, prosecutors, judges and juries, and folk beliefs. These castes are further fractured by religion, ethnicity and most especially race. And they carry a heavy stigma. The poor are branded failures in life, dummies, wastrels, people who brought their own troubles on themselves by not trying hard enough, and they are blamed for society's troubles.

Objectively all three families are working class. Subjectively however they usually regard each other as different classes of people.

One of the key mechanisms for maintaining these caste divisions is the schools. And no curriculum in the schools is more used to sort people into winners and losers than mathematics.

The math that is being taught, no matter what we do to sugar-coat it, is dull, confusing and relatively pointless for most people - a towering, hoary 2300-year-old edifice of rules and procedures for constructing "the right answer" - where no normal child would see a legitimate question worth asking in the first place. A system built on a set of arbitrary axioms that in fact make no sense. Often it is claimed that math is a science, but it has far more in common with religion. It is a system resting not on observations and modeling of the properties of the real world but on authority and doctrine.

Generations of kids have been telling us that math makes no sense - and it turns out that they're right. For generations the schools have been crushing the ones who speak truth to power, and elevating the ones who submit as tomorrow's civic leaders.

The parents play a key part in how this system works to perpetuate the caste system. "Middle class" parents regard that success in math as so essential to the future success and social status of their children that they will apply any degree of pressure on their children to succeed, no matter how painful or distasteful. (Mine dropped the nuclear option on me: no love at home without better math scores!) "Working class" parents typically put enough pressure on their children to get them to get by and graduate. Their kids feel like dummies, but they muddle through. Poor parents are generally not able or willing to expend enough energy to force their children to do something which is distasteful, boring and (they admit) apparently stupid. Their kids understand best what is really going on, and get branded losers for it.

The ever-growing pressure of the math tests mandated by NCLB is part of a drive to privatize the public schools of the poor and the middle group; but it is also intensifying the struggle over which children will be able to cross over the caste divide, indeed raising this struggle into a national obsession. The goal of all children escaping from the working class is patent nonsense, but very potent. This obsession - nay, panic - has further closed off any discussion of what we really want to be achieving in a math class, squeezing out any remaining space for breaking out of the pointless pursuit of mastery of the narrow set of skills being taught.

In the current global crisis, those who have paid their dues to escape from the middle and lower castes now find the good jobs at good pay increasingly unavailable. This is causing profound disorientation, anger and bitterness among those who believe that their long hard years of jumping through hoops entitles them to something better. Such people can move toward working class consciousness, or they can move toward the false consciousness of the tea-baggers and libertarians. Their loyalty is up for grabs.

The project I am engaged in of putting mathematics on a scientific, materialist foundation thus has potentially profound social consequences, and to the extent that it contributes to a workforce where everyone possesses the tools of thought and analysis that once were the domain of the "middle class", this can contribute mightily to a coming together of all the people who work for a wage or salary. A society where all children, and eventually everyone, has higher-level thinking skills, will be a profoundly different - and for some, unsettling - place.

Education - and the schools - can be transformed. But not by any top-down reform. It has to come from and be done by the teachers, with the participation of their unions and with the support of professionals who make available expert knowledge and scientific understanding. Teachers in turn - given the power and organization to do so - will gravitate to curricula that not only produce measurable results but enlist the enthusiasm and participation of the children. It will be driven by the discovery of the possibility that math class can be exciting, engaging - and fun! And it will feed into a much greater movement to transform our society

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Joe O'Brien and Poolz

Response to Rosalie's editorial in InCity Times
Is Joe O'Brien who he says he is, or is he what his connections and alliances say he is? That may be what we are going to discover, but more likely that is up for grabs - and up to us. This first move doesn't bode well, but a lot can happen in two years.

Joe's on the inside now, where the sausage is made. The Mike O'briens and Joe Pettys have his ear, and a whole web of arguments and pressure points. We need to go on organizing, bringing issues to him forcefully with lots of his constituents behind them. We need to keep pushing him to be the Mayor he promised to be - and perhaps always wanted to be.

Our pressure will give Joe some freedom to choose who the Real Joe O'Brien is going to be - but in the end he will have to choose, and he will be making his choices under fire. Which way he chooses to jump will have a lot to do with what is really inside him.

But Joe, if you're reading this, you should know that if you choose to be mostly the insider - rather than one of us on the inside - history will leave you behind. Soon.

If however you remain the voice of the people, and truly respect, listen to and support the activist base of Worcester's democracy, your star will keep rising.