Nel's New Day

January 4, 2014

Government, Culture – Pro & Con

This week has seen some peculiar positions on the law and cultural beliefs, both pro and con government positions.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials caused the horrifying destruction of 13 musical instruments after the agency identified them as “agricultural products.” Canadian citizen and U.S. resident Boujemaa Razgui, who was returning from visiting family in Morocco, had his luggage taken during a layover in New York on his way to Brockton (MA). When his bags were delivered to his home the following day, he was missing the flutes that he had made himself. The professional musician had intended to use the flutes in a performance in Boston. It appears he has no recourse for the loss of his livelihood.

Ohio now recognizes same-sex marriage but only after one of the couple is dead. Judge Timothy Black has ordered the state to recognize LGBT marriages on death certificates. The ruling came from a gay couple married in Maryland shortly before one of them died. Without the recognition of their marriage on the death certificate, the man who died could not be buried in the survivor’s family cemetery plot. Black said that the state cannot “discriminate against same-sex couples … simply because the majority of the voters don’t like homosexuality (or at least didn’t in 2004).” Black also wrote, “Once you get married lawfully in one state, another state cannot summarily take your marriage away.” Perhaps that will someday hold true for living same-sex couples in Ohio.

With 18 states and the District of Columbia recognizing marriage equality, Utah is in a quandary. Just two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that same-sex couples could marry in that state. The appeals went back and forth until the most recent one landed on the desk of SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She is assigned to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to handle motions such as emergency requests. She can either rule independently or refer the matter to the full court.

Same-sex couples are able to get married in Utah because acting attorney general Brian Tarbet didn’t file a pre-emptive stay against the marriages if the court found against the state’s ban on marriage equality. His failure meant that couples could marry between the time of the court’s ruling and the hearing of an appeal. The state is arguing that allowing same-sex marriage causes irreparable injury to the state and that the inability to be married in Utah causes no injury to gays and lesbians.

Yesterday, lawyers filed a request urging Justice Sotomayor to permit same-sex marriages to continue while the 10th Circuit Court considers the state’s appeal. There is no time limit in her issuing a decision. Meanwhile, same-sex couples are still marrying in Utah. During the first six days after the decision, over 900 same-sex couples received marriage licenses, including Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis.  

The argument about the Roman Catholic nuns in Colorado has gone to bizarre extents as they claim that the federal government is infringing on their freedom of religion. The crisis peaked on New Year’s Eve when Justice Sotomayor declared an injunction until the situation is settled. There’s no timeline.

The background: Little Sisters of the Poor objects to providing contraception insurance because of its religious beliefs. No problem—they don’t have to if they fill out the paperwork to say that they don’t want the insurance to include contraception.

Their current objection, however, is to completing the short form certifying their religious objections. The Affordable Care Act has already eliminated the requirement for religious groups to provide contraceptive insurance. Employers can provide a health care plan that doesn’t cover the medication, and then the employers’ insurance company creates a separate policy to cover contraception. The woman gets free contraception, and the employer is not paying for this part of health care. Paperwork from the employer, however, is required to start the process.

Even if the Little Sisters complete the form, the employees may not be insured for contraception. A district court in Colorado moved to dismiss the case, ruling that it lacks authority to require a “church plan” to provide contraception. The insurance plan is administered by the Christian Brothers Employee Benefit Trust, exempt from ACA enforcement. Thus Little Sisters filed a federal lawsuit, refuses to sign any paperwork, and has no part in any requirement to provide contraception that most other women will receive.

When I read about Justice Sotomayor placing the injunction, I wondered why it was her responsibility. Further research shows that each Supreme Court justice is assigned to a circuit court. An appeal for emergency assistance goes first to the assigned justice. If the response is unsatisfactory, an appeal can go to another justice and, as a last resort, then to the entire court. [Map of the 13 circuit courts and their assigned justices]

  • District of Columbia Circuit: John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice
  • The First Circuit: Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice
  • The Second Circuit: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice
  • The Third Circuit: Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Associate Justice
  • The Fourth Circuit: John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice
  • The Fifth Circuit: Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice
  • The Sixth Circuit: Elena Kagan, Associate Justice
  • The Seventh Circuit: Elena Kagan, Associate Justice
  • The Eighth Circuit: Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Associate Justice
  • The Ninth Circuit: Anthony M. Kennedy, Associate Justice
  • The Tenth Circuit: Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice
  • The Eleventh Circuit: Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice
  • The Federal Circuit: John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice

The Koch brothers, who control many GOP state legislators through ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), have decided that they can do the same to Rachel Maddow on her MSNBC show. After her story about the brothers’ part in lobbying for state laws mandating drug testing for welfare recipients, they sent her a letter demanding a retraction and providing her with a script. This is Maddow’s response:

“I will not renounce or retract reporting that is true, even if the subjects of that reporting don’t like it. Being a political actor means being subject to political scrutiny. If you don’t want to be known for it, don’t do it. Don’t just complain when people accurately describe your actions. Your actions are what we are reporting on and we will do that on our own terms – as a free press. If you want to control the words that are used when your actions are discussed, then speak for yourself. I will renew my invitation now. Mr. Koch, or the other Mr. Koch, you are welcome on this show any time.”

In good news, Idaho has learned its lesson that privatized prisons don’t work: the corrections department is taking back operation of the biggest privately-run prison in the state because of the past decade’s mismanagement. This move shows that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter may be reversing his strong support for privatization after lawsuits about gang activity, contract fraud with Corrections Corporation of America, understaffing, and massive violence.

Because of a new law in California, 36-year-old Sergio C. Garcia, a Mexican immigrant without a green card, may be licensed as a lawyer. The legislature passed the law because the state Supreme Court had denied him licensing. Federal law keeps undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional licenses unless state governments denies the ban. Garcia can practice law free of charge, but the court questioned whether he could charge fees. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote:

“We conclude that the fact that an undocumented immigrant’s presence in this country violates federal statutes is not itself a sufficient or persuasive basis for denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, admission to the State Bar.”

Garcia was brought to the U.S. when he was 17 months old. He returned to Mexico with his parents when he was nine and came back to the U.S. illegally at the age of 17 with his father who has permanent resident status. His father requested his green card at that time. The federal government approved the application the next year, but Garcia has still not received the green card. After earning his law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, he passed the bar on his first attempt. He has waited four years for his law license. Two similar cases are pending in New York and Florida.

We’ll finish with an insane approach toward evaluating teachers. In 2009, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the D.C. public schools who is still widely appearing on talk shows, announced a numerical scale to either fire teachers or give them huge salary increases. During her term, there were allegations of cheating in schools where scores increased, only to fall back after security measures were employed. Despite the problems, schools across the nation have started to use the Rhee method.

“A very small typo” in the programming code last year led to mistakes in firing one teacher, keeping three teachers from receiving bonuses, and providing inaccurate job evaluations for another 40 teachers. After discovering the problems month later, the district tried to rectify the problems. The question is how many other mistakes in programming have destroyed teachers’ careers.

Idaho and California—becoming sensible; education—needs to focus on teachers for evaluation; religious groups—should get reasonable; Customs—pay for the destruction; Ohio—value the living as the dead.

September 21, 2013

Danger of Common Core Standards

Teaching styles represent a history of repetitive trends on a circular basis. Anyone who stays in education will see an abandoned system of teaching return in a few decades. A decade ago, the federal government decided that all states should be required to follow No Child Left Behind, but that system has been left behind for “the next big thing” in education reform called Common Core State Standards. Thus far the system has been accepted by at least 44 states.

Although the word “state” is in the headline, the standards are actually national ones, developed by Gates-funded consultants for the National Governors Association (NGA). The purpose was to avoid federal restrictions on a national curriculum. States accepted the Common Core in order to get federal Race to the Top grants and waivers for No Child Left Behind mandates.

Claims for Common Core is that it:

  • Represents a tighter set of smarter standards focused on developing critical learning skills instead of mastering fragmented bits of knowledge.
  • Requires more progressive, student-centered teaching with strong elements of collaborative and reflective learning.
  • Equalizes the playing field by raising expectations for all children, especially those suffering the worst effects of the “drill and kill” test prep norms of the recent past.

The goals are well-meaning for those who want a standardized method of testing across the nation. Part of the fault with No Child Left Behind is that states could set up their own testing levels. Students in some states, particularly in the South, appeared to excel because the tests were easier than in those required in the Northeast and Northwest.

Yet the Common Core program has serious problems:

  • Academics and assessment experts—many with ties to the testing companies—have written the materials. K-12 educators were mostly used to tweak and endorse—and legitimize—the results.
  • Standards have not been implemented and tested in schools anywhere. No research or experience exists to justify the claims that all students will graduate from high school “college and career ready.”
  • New tests are considerably more difficult than current state assessments, leading to sharp drops in scores and proficiency rates. Because there is no relationship between the testing of the present and the past, schools cannot assess any progress.
  • The standards are tied to assessments still in development that must be given on computers many schools don’t have.
  • The tests are rife with mistakes, and the computer systems lack enough memory to allow test-taking without interruptions. Sometimes students had to take the same tests several times because of computer glitches. When Pearson Inc. scored tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs, 13 percent of K-3 students, qualified for these programs, were wrongly rejected.
  • The corporations encourage new standards and new tests to make money. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates implementing the new standards will cost the nation between $1 billion and $8 billion. Nearly all the profits will go to book publishers and test creators like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill.
  • Bilingual students have to take tests in English before they have mastered the language which requires five to seven years. Students with special needs are also required to take these tests with few accommodations.
  • Students with Pearson’s textbooks have an advantage on the Pearson’s tests.
  • Students are required to take additional tests for corporation research without being paid for the testing.
  • Tests use product placement, including corporate brands Mug™ Root Beer, IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™.  Eighth-grader Isaiah Schrader wrote about how he “found the trademark references and their associated footnotes very distracting and troubling.” Schrader argued that even if they weren’t paid, Pearson should not advertise to children, who are especially susceptible to advertising.  Now that’s critical thinking!
  • Tests reflect questions that many educated adults cannot answer. Charlotte Danielson, a highly regarded mainstream authority on teacher evaluation and a strong supporter of the Common Core, said, “If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees.”

No Child Left Behind mandated testing every student every year in every grade from 3 to 8 in order to keep federal funding. In its ten years, the program created a sense of failure and attempts to “fix” schools that laid the entire blame on the teachers. At the end of this time, more than half the schools in the United States were on lists of “failing schools,” and the rest were close behind. No one considered that these test scores reflected the inequality existing in the nation’s schools. Separating out the scores showed the long-existing gaps in outcomes among student subgroups, but the system was set up to label schools as failures without providing any resources or support to improve them.

The tests from the last decade indicated that millions of students were not meeting existing standards, but the solution from Common Core sponsors is “more challenging” standards. If students couldn’t accomplish what was expected by earlier tests, then Common Core would merely create more difficult tests. The new reform fails to target the inequalities of race, class, and educational opportunity that past test scores show. Common Core unintentionally plans to copy the past decade of public school failure.

Hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent to create not only these tests but also heavy-handed, top-down policies to evaluate educators. Race to the Top, for example, ties test scores to teacher evaluations. Thus teacher choose to put classroom learning aside so that they can teach to the test, decreasing student creativity.  A 2011 teacher survey revealed that 66 percent of teachers said the testing focus on reading and math led to reduced time for art, science and social studies.

Many administrators solve the problem of lower test scores by cheating, documented in more than 37 states. An El Paso superintendent is currently serving jail time for cheating and forcing low-scoring students to drop out of school, and Atlanta (GA) had a scandal involving 35 educators from the superintendent on down.

Costs of tests will take funding away from education, and failing scores will exonerate officials who close public schools to open more privatized charter and voucher schools. Yet these schools won’t accept low-scoring students. Students with disabilities, bilingual students and students with various behavioral issues are routinely denied access to charter schools for fear of lowering the schools’ test scores, which charters rely on in an attempt to appear superior.

Corporations are profiting from standardizing teachers as well as students. Pearson’s new assessments, already adopted by seven states, requires a written examination and a 20-minute video of the person teaching at a cost of $300. Anonymous current or retired teachers or administrators will be paid $75 to evaluate these videos. From its profits, Pearson helps fund Jeb Bush-funded conservative educational policy advocacy organizations, Foundation for Excellence in Education and Chiefs for Change, that are writing state laws benefiting corporate funders.

Last spring students, parents, and teachers in New York schools complained about tests’ length, difficulty, and inappropriate content. Pearson Inc., which developed the tests, included its logos and promotional material in reading passages. Students met the tests with shock, anger, tears, and anxiety, and administrators asked how to handle tests students had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out.

The history of No Child Left Behind represents education’s problem from the dismantling of public education in urban areas and the growth of inequality and concentrated poverty. Because of Common Core, teachers no longer have any control over teaching and learning in their own classrooms. Distant bureaucracies have taken the decisions from educators and schools. Corporations preparing standards have revised history, politics, and culture into a sanitized version that reinforces official myths.

Failure in the schools because of Common Core will drive students into charter schools because of the myth that they provide a better education. Pearson is a good example of that. The company selling its testing materials to 18 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also owns Connections Academy, the company that runs for-profit, virtual charter schools. A five-year contract with New York for tests materials gets Pearson $32 million; Texas is worth $500 million. And Pearson current owns the GED program although competitors are creating cheaper alternative tests.

Even more damaging is the school-to-prison pipeline. A new study shows that students who fail high stakes testing exams are 12 percent more likely to be incarcerated.

The right-wing opposes Common Core standards because they promote critical thinking and communication. I oppose the standards because they stop the very skills that they purport to teach. A decade of testing students has not increased the nation’s standing among other countries or produced a more intelligent set of citizens. We need to stop testing and start teaching.

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