Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The War of Error: NY State's Misguided Attempt To Publicize Teacher Evaluations

Article first published as The War on Error: NY State's Misguided Attempt To Publicize Teacher Evaluations on Blogcritics.

In a convoluted effort to showcase NY State's emphasis on teacher accountability, legislation had been advanced to release teacher performance evaluations to the general public. This drive to "accountability" was indubitably tied to $700 million in federal funds from President Obama's Race to the Top program originally designed to improve instruction. Unfortunately, this became a political nightmare that pitted the state's powerful teacher's unions against legislators, making a situation that was supposed to enhance education something less than a teachable moment.

Complicating matters was the involvement of media organizations that championed the release to the public. Their point of view was that parents and students had a right to this information, especially in light of some abysmal numbers on state assessments. The goal here is painfully obvious; reveal poorly performing teachers in hopes of eventually improving their outcomes or removing them from the classroom at some point if students' scores do not improve.

There are many problems inherent with this kind of thinking. While there is no question that we need to improve instruction, public humiliation of teachers should not be part of the equation. The thinking is that they are public employees and this previously confidential information should be made public; however, we do not see the same call for revealing reviews of police, firefighters, or even state legislators for that matter. This has more to do with the federal funds than anything else, and this will indirectly affect students in ways that have nothing to do with enhancing the classroom experience.

Fortunately, Governor Andrew Cuomo got involved in the process, and he crafted an alternate plan in which the evaluations would be revealed only to the parents and guardians of students currently in the teacher's class. This bill passed the Assembly and then the Senate, and it is a tremendous (if temporary) victory for the governor and the unions. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said, “Finding the balance between students’ needs, parents’ rights, and teachers’ rights is what this bill does.”

Still, the most worrisome aspect of these evaluations is that test scores will be used (along with formal observations) to gauge teacher performance. The state assessments are dubious instruments and are insufficient means to a frustrating end for educators. Only this spring a ridiculous reading selection on the state's 8th grade English exam regarding a talking pineapple caused students, teachers, and parents to question the validity of the entire test. Students had no idea how to answer the questions, and the state eventually said that the questions would not count towards students' grades; however, the test is still inextricably linked to those teacher's evaluations. If you are wondering why you are not alone.

The answer is fairly obvious; besides the Race to the Top money, New York State is heavily invested in these state assessments. It has a five-year $32 million contract with Pearson, which means these tests are going nowhere. Apparently, the teachers and students are headed in the same direction as well. This is New York State's War of Error, and it sadly is going to be as long a slog as the war that still drags on in Afghanistan, with a conclusion that will be way short of satisfying for all involved.

If you are wondering where all of this started, it began with George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind and has been exacerbated by Mr. Obama's Race to the Top. If every child is expected to learn, every child is expected to pass the tests. Unfortunately, for a teacher with a low performing class the likelihood of that happening is almost impossible. Therefore, his or her evaluation (and thus level of "success") will be directly affected by the questionable assessments. How many "talking pineapples" do we need to make it apparent that this is an ineffective way to evaluate teachers?

Teacher accountability is essential, and I am all in favor of clear, precise, and equitable ways to assess teacher performance that involve a combination of informal and formal observations, professional development, and instructional planning. As a school administrator for many years, I can walk into a classroom and know within five minutes whether or not a teacher is effective. I do not need to see standardized test scores and, in fact, in my experience, low tests scores have never reflected the quality of the teaching in a particular classroom. When I witness a dynamic classroom environment where the teacher is guiding the students who are actively involved and engaged, I know everything I need to know.

Conversely, teachers have to face the reality that these tests are not going away, nor is the public clamor to see their performance evaluations. They need to realize these truths, but I fear that this will sway many teachers to do the thing we educators (at least those who truly care) fear most: teach to the test. Make no mistake, this is already happening in schools all across the state. With the pressure of accountability tied to these abdominal test scores, districts everywhere are press doing the unthinkable.

A very good friend who is a New York City teacher revealed so much in confidence. She said she spent most of the year getting her fourth graders ready for the state math and English tests in April, and then every day after that getting ready for the state science exams at the end of May and beginning of June. This revelation, while not surprising, confirmed my worst fears and should send shivers down the spines of anyone who cares about education in this state.

So later this year, parents will be able to see their children's teachers' evaluations. They do not get a copy but will be allowed to make notes. Will this lead to parents comparing teachers on the same grade level? Will it complicate matters for principals if everyone wants Ms. Smith because they know her scores are better than Mrs. Jones? You do not need a crystal ball to see where this is going. Teachers, we are indeed moving to a place where the future of education is more than uncertain.

For now, Governor Cuomo is seen as the savior of teachers in this state. Sadly, I see him more as the a guy who did the right thing but only for the moment. I picture him as the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dyke. Yes, he stopped the flood for now, but what will happen later is not promising, especially once Cuomo is gone. He may as well borrow the famous line from King Louis XIV of France who said, "Apres moi le deluge." Teachers had better get out the life vests and prepare the boats and paddles for the inevitable.

Photo Credits: Cuomo - nysgov.org; pineapple - nydailynews.com

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sandusky Guilty But It Is Far From Over

Article first published as Sandusky Guilty But It Is Far From Over on Blogcritics.

In the world of courtroom tales on TV and in the movies, when the guilty verdict comes in it usually seems like the story is over. The bad guy is going to jail for a very long time, the lawyers shake hands, and the victims seem to have some catharsis. Maybe we get a scene on the courthouse steps or something else along the lines of closure. Viewers accept the ending and we move on to next week or the next film we are going to see; unfortunately, the Jerry Sandusky (former assistant coach to Joe Paterno at Penn State) trial occurs in the real world, and while his guilty verdict gives some consolation to the victims and their families, the story is far from over.

Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 counts against him. Many of these charges carry minimum sentences, so it seems a given that Sandusky is going away for the rest of his life. Knowing this cannot ease the pain and years of trauma inflicted on the victims, all young boys at the time who accused the retired coach of sexual abuse that came to light in graphic detail during the trial.

Lead defense attorney Joe Amendola indicated that there will be appeals and, of course, this is the real world part I mentioned before. Yes, Sandusky's bail was revoked and he was taken away in handcuffs, but the agony will continue in a process that could go on for years.

Eight of Sandusky's accusers testified at the trial, giving accounts of the self-appointed "Tickle Monster's" violations which included massages and anal and oral sex. The defense weakly tried to portray the victims as financially motivated and that the police rushed the case and coached the victims to give the damning accounts.

Whatever shadows of doubt the defense wanted to build up in the minds of the jurors had to have been shattered by former graduate assistant Mike McQueary's testimony about actually observing Sandusky raping an approximately 10 year old boy in the shower. McQueary's original account is credited with causing legendary coach Joe Paterno to be fired and brought this case into the public eye.

We can hope that this case becomes something that will change business as usual in colleges, universities, and other schools. A guy like Sandusky was put in a position of privilege and power, and it is obvious that there were no checks and balances for him. If McQueary hadn't stumbled upon that horrific scene, Sandusky might still be destroying the lives of young boys.

The victims and their families must feel relief, but there is the stark realization that none of this makes reality go away. This is not TV or film happy ending stuff by a long shot. They will suffer the effects of this abuse no doubt for the rest of their lives, even as Sandusky rots in jail. For them there is no Hollywood ending because the story goes on and on, so this is far from over because in truth something like this is never over. Never.

Photo Credit: AP

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day: Do Dads Ever Get What They Really Want?

Article first published as Father's Day: Do Dads Ever Get What They Really Want?< on Blogcritics.

Okay, some of you probably have already opened the box, looked at the tie, and thanked the wife and kids. A similar scene no doubt is played out in many households on Father's Day. Oh, there can be variations: golf balls, tennis rackets, team clothing, or maybe a new shaving set. All of these things are nice, but are they really what we dads want?

Of course, if you have kids in school they tend to bring home the Father's Day project. One year my daughter brought home a construction paper tie with her picture on it. Needless to say, that still hangs in my home office on the wall next to my desk. My son made something in pre-school but forgot it on Friday, so I am wondering what it will be (I did have to send a picture of us in to school, so I know that will be involved somehow).

Father's Day comes at a tough time of year. The retail stores like to publicize "Dads and Grads" in their advertisements, but let's be clear that Dads get less of the attention. Besides graduations, we have anniversaries and weddings to contend with this month. June is the month of brides more than of their daddies. It is just the way it is.

Mother's Day comes in May when school is still in full vigor and teachers are more creative. My daughter and son have brought home great Mother's Day projects (flowers, vases, and picture frames), but by the time we get to the third Sunday in June, the teachers are either out of ideas or running on empty. Mother's Day gets the most attention (and I'd say deservedly so since I loved my Mom too), but Father's Day can be a bit neglected sometimes.

So, what do Dad's really want? I did an unscientific survey among friends. Since the Mets are playing a home game today, that seemed to be the most popular thing: "Go to the game with a friend or alone." Other things dads wanted included playing golf, going to a movie (again, alone), read the newspaper in peace, or sit out in the yard and have someone else fire up the barbecue.

Now, while all those things sound appealing, I can't shake the look on my kids' faces when they give me those little presents. Since it is Father's Day, how am I supposed to go do something without involving them? How do I not be Dad on Father's Day? So, as I do every year, I am going to spend time with the kids. I will play with them in the yard, take them to see my Dad, and have a nice lunch with them.

Since there is school tomorrow, I will check my daughter's homework tonight. I'll play with my son for a while, and then it will be off to bed. The day will end as all days end around here (whether it's Father's Day or not). I suppose that I wouldn't have it any other way.

Photo Credit: dazzlejunction.com

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Swastikas in Brooklyn: Hate Crime or Just Stupidity?

Article first published as Swastikas in Brooklyn: Hate Crime or Just Stupidity? on Blogcritics.

It is 2012 and it has been 77 years since World War II ended, yet the image of a swastika still shakes us to our core. Associated with Germany's Nazi Party and the hate it perpetrated, the swastika to many is a symbol of evil and intolerance. Someone who uses it conjures up all the passion and anger connected to the Holocaust, when millions of Jews died because they were deemed an enemy due to their faith.

So when a swastika appears in Borough Park, Brooklyn (an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood) today, the outrage is understandable. When one of these symbols is painted on a synagogue, it is apparent the persons doing this knew what they were doing and it was purposeful and hateful. We immediately think that these persons are sick, twisted, and racist, but is there another possibility?

I heard people talking about this in a local store (in Queens) this morning. One older man said something about it being stupid, not racist. "It was just kids being stupid" he noted. The man he was talking with (who was wearing a yarmulke), responded, "Stupidity is no excuse for racism."

If kids have a can of spray paint in their hands, chances are something is going to get hit. No matter what they splatter, it is obviously vandalism, but think of all their choices as to what they leave behind. It could be some kind of tag to let others know they were there. It could be their names, their favorite teams, their gangs, or whatever else that lets the world know they were there. If these kids choose to leave a symbol of hatred like a swastika, are they truly realizing the weight of this action? Can a sixteen year old kid have any clue as to what this means to an old man who may have numbers on his arm and had spent time in a concentration camp?

The symbols found in Brooklyn were on the synagogue, a Jewish grocery store, a Jewish restaurant, and on three other places not obviously connected to Jewish people. The NYPD's hate crimes unit is investigating this, and I heard it reported on the radio that surveillance images captured two of the perpetrators in the act. It is possible that these people will be caught soon, and then what will happen? Will they be charged with a hate crime?

Years ago I traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem. It is impossible to explain the transformative experience that is for an American. Even with everything I learned in school, seeing this sacred place shakes you to your core. I have also visited the former concentration camps in Europe, but perhaps the most moving place I have ever been was the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Here I saw the power of love that subsumed all the hate around it. Anne wrote her diary despite a cruel world outside those walls, and the image of Anne is hauntingly familiar and yet new again. The Nazis may have killed her and most of her family members, but they could not destroy her enduring message of love and hope.

Anne wrote "In spite of everything, I think people are still good at heart." All these years later, that message overwhelms the stupidity and hatred of the swastika symbol. Are these goons who painted these things in Brooklyn good at heart? You'd have trouble convincing some people, but they may just be kids who weren't thinking, or they could be purposeful on a mission of hatred. The investigators will no doubt get the answer.

Until then, we see swastikas and shake our heads. It's 2012 and people should know better, but they do not. We have to wonder sometimes if they ever will.

Photo Credit: annefrank.org

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ridley Scott's Prometheus: Origin of the Species

Article first published as Ridley Scott's Prometheus: Origin of the Species on Blogcritics.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: yes, Prometheus is definitely part of the Alien franchise. Coming from the man who gave us the original film in 1979, we would expect no less. Some viewers are going to be miffed that the film takes so long to get to the connection, but that is part of the journey. This film is definitely as much about the getting there as being in the moment of awareness. You're going to either love or hate that depending on your appreciation of the film maker's craft.

This highly anticipated film is extremely well-crafted. You can see the artisan's attention to detail in every frame. This is something I learned from Ingmar Bergman's philosophy of film; each frame should be an individual image that is like the painting of a great artist. You can see Scott achieving that here, from the opening on bubbling and erupting new earth, to the twisted rocks of the alien planet, to the interiors of the ship Prometheus and the alien lair.

The story centers on Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (a luminous Noomi Rapace), a cross wearing scientist who along with her colleague (and beau) Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), convinces zillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) to fund their project into outer space based on cave drawings found around the world. The logic is that all these similar drawings point to one planetary system, and from here the "engineers" came to earth and helped create human life. The fact the Weyland is old and dying motivates him to seek the origin of the species, with a hidden agenda (as in all Alien films) that we discover later on.

Other important characters are David (played impeccably by Michael Fassbender), an android who is Weyland's right hand "man" on board, Meredith Vickers (an icy Charlize Theron) who is the company representative who comes along to make sure things go according to plan (again, being an Alien film, the plan itself is dubious from the start), and Janek (Idris Elba) the ship captain who references Stephen Stills and decorates a Christmas tree. This little moment seems insignificant as Shaw's cross, but it comes to represent much more later in the film.

It is difficult not to give away spoilers here, so let it suffice to say that Shaw and company should have remembered the old "Be careful what you wish for" saying. They are looking for origins (one character even mentions Darwin) and when they find something to prove their thesis (the engineers in question have human DNA) it is not enough. When Charlie tries to tell Shaw that she should stop wearing the cross because of finding the engineers, Shaw explains that she chooses to believe because someone had to make them too.

The film itself is a bold statement of faith against the cold reality of science. All the explanations of the origin of human beings on earth mean little or nothing if those engineers were only using us. The cave paintings depict seemingly loving "gods" pointing to the stars, but when their children come seek them out to ask why they were left orphans, the answers are not going to be what was hoped for.
Shaw's wearing of the cross is more than just a device; it defines her character. In the shadow of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from the Alien films, Rapace has created yet another powerful woman, one who longs for motherhood (though she cannot bear children) and is forced to perform surgery on herself that is a grizzly moment to add to the bloody charnel file of film history. She survives this and moves toward a final confrontation that is reminiscent of Weaver's battles in the previous films but goes beyond that.

The captain's Christmas tree and Shaw's cross are glimmers of hope and warmth in a sterile world of despair and faithlessness. Scott uses these things as reminders of where we came from, even on a distant world, and that beyond the planetary systems and galaxies is an undiscovered country. There is indeed more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy; Shakespeare knew it and apparently Scott does too.

Prometheus may not be the film you wanted to see, but Ridley Scott has created something that can stand on its own but does pay homage to the previous films, especially the first one. If you ever wondered about the story of the huge human skeleton with the blown out stomach from Alien, you're in luck, and you will also understand that this film that is ostensibly an Alien prequel leaves the door open (in true Alien tradition) for a sequel.

Go see Prometheus and hold onto your popcorn; this film proves beyond a doubt that in space someone can definitely hear you scream.

Photo Credit: screencrave.com

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bad News on My Doorstep: Mourning the Loss of the Phonebook

Article first published as Bad News on My Doorstep: Mourning the Loss of the Phonebook on Blogcritics.

I came home today to find my new phonebooks waiting for me on my step. The disappointing part of the whole thing is that they are like a quarter of the size of the old ones. There is no heft to them, no pull on the arms as I brought them indoors. They look like ordinary books masquerading as phonebooks; alas, this is a sad excuse for something that used to be so grand.

Now, I'll admit, there is really not much use for a traditional phonebook anymore, just as its cousin the phone booth is now sadly antiquated. People are no longer interested in paging through a monstrosity of pages and pages of advertisements when they can accomplish the search in seconds online. While I used to like to look through the ads, cut out coupons for special deals, and search for something new, it is all for naught now. I too have succumbed to using the Internet because of the time factor.

There were other very good uses for the old big fat phonebooks that had nothing to do with making phone calls. Over the years I used them to balance furniture, prop up TV sets, act as bases for flower pots, to even out my stereo speakers, to hold down glued items, and (as a teenager) to fill in rusted out side panels in my car trunk. I also liked to stand on one to change light bulbs, placed paint cans on them to keep rings off the floor, and even put the baby seat on one in the dining room chair to get the right height.

These new ones that came today are basically good for none of those things, and they aren't much good for their allotted purpose either. I imagine that less and less people are advertising in them for one thing, making them thinner out of practicality. I suppose it is just a matter of time before the phonebook goes the way of the eight-track tape and the rotary dial phone. As it stands now what is left of the phonebook is a sad remnant of a once great old concept that brought information to the public.
When I saw those pathetic books on my step I couldn't help thinking of that Steve Martin movie The Jerk. He plays Navin R. Johnson, a fellow so clueless who is adopted by a black family and never realizes that he is white. My favorite scene involves Navin seeing his name in the phonebook and thinking he is now famous. That scene would never have the same impact today; besides, "a jerk" such as he would probably not be able to use an iPad much less find his name on it.

I have to say that I never even took the wrapping off those puny new phonebooks. I just dumped them right into the trash for recycling day. I sat in my chair, looked at the BlackBerry on the table, and thought about those good old days when I could let my fingers do the walking. These days it's all done by typing a word in and getting 10 million results in three seconds. It's really efficient and time saving and I know it's the way to go these days, but it still doesn't feel the same and I doubt that it ever will.

Photo Credit: urbachletter.com

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Santana Pitches First No-Hitter in NY Mets History

Article first published as Santana Pitches First No-Hitter in NY Mets History on Blogcritics.

The great American writer William Faulkner wrote "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." This could be the Mets's mission statement. The past has been a series of things fans would say never goes away, and the truth is the current Mets even playing in a new stadium cannot escape it. The ghosts of Hodges, Stengel, McGraw, and many others hover over the field, with every game being as much about what has transpired as what is going on at that moment.

So last night Mets fans everywhere were smiling because the past no longer mattered. The disappointments, the wait until next years, the arrogant Yankees fans, and all the Letterman jokes were meaningless. All of this is courtesy of Johan Santana, the best lefthander who ever pitched for this team. On this night Santana not only achieved what no Mets pitcher has ever done, but he exorcised the demons of the franchise in the process.

It seems only fitting that the night began being all about Carlos Beltran, now a St. Louis Cardinal. It was his big return and the buzz was that he was going to hurt his former team. On the mound was the infamous Adam Wainwright, he of Game 7 in the 2006 NLCS who in the ninth inning threw the third strike past Beltran who stood like a statue with the bat on his shoulder. Game over. Cardinals go to the World Series and the Mets go home and more skeletons are in the collective closet. Now Beltran and Wainwright are teammates and staring across the diamond together as Mets history is accomplished.

Santana has been a revelation since returning from his surgery and becoming the pitcher the Mets knew he could be. He is cut from the mold of a Tom Seaver or a Jerry Koosman. He is all class and all about work ethic and team spirit. He goes out there and pitches and never complains, and on this night he realizes the dream for himself and for the fans.

When it came down to it, to the final out, there was only Kevin Freese standing in the way. If Tom Seaver was watching somewhere, he was probably thinking of Jimmy Qualls, who broke up his no-hitter in the ninth a long time ago. I kept thinking Freese is no Qualls; Freese is no Qualls. I bet everyone who remembers that old game was thinking something like this. But there was no single to center field. The mighty Freese struck out and there was joy in Metsville. The greatest joy we have had this season.

There were a couple of close calls in the game. One oddly enough came off the bat of Beltran, but his ball was ruled foul. The replays show it barely touched the line, but the umps thought not. I think this in no way tarnishes the no-hitter. We can never know how many of the 249 no-hitters in MLB history before this one had a close call like that one.

The other was a rocket off the bat of Yadier Molina that kept going into the night until Queens native Mike Baxter in left field crashed against the wall to catch it. This heroic grab enters the history too, going down in the books with Cleon squeezing that final ball in 1969 and Orosco throwing his glove in the air in 1986. No, this wasn't the World Series, but boy it felt like it was as important as that.

In truth maybe it was more important than anything that has come before. This legitimizes the franchise in ways unimaginable. The 29-23 Mets have been playing way beyond expectations, yet a crowd of only 27,000 and change got to see this gem thrown by Santana. Maybe the next time he pitches we get a capacity crowd; maybe not. But something really good is brewing in Citi Field and the fans have to get out there and taste it in person.

Terry Collins is one great manager and, like Gil Hodges before him, he is not complaining about having lemons; he is making lemonade. This was a great night during a great season so far. The Mets beat the World Champion Cardinals and they did it in style. There are more people than ever walking around town in Mets gear. The tide is shifting and the Mets are in a Renaissance. This could be 1968 or 1985 all over again, when the talent was gelling and getting ready for that big next year.

Or this could be 1969 all over again. The ghost of McGraw has me saying "Ya Gotta Believe" a lot these days, and after watching Santana throw that no-hitter, it is the best day after a regular season game ever for Mets fans. Enjoy it and bask in the glow of Santana's glory. He deserves all the praise, but true class act that he is said that he did it for the fans. The ones who were chanting "Johan! Johan!" and the feeling is that the past isn't past and never will be forgotten but more overcome because now the Mets are moving forward into a new era that honors that past, lives that past, and destroys all the negatives as it moves inexorably toward a positive light. That's "Ya Gotta Believe" and then some.

Photo Credit: cbsnews.com