Thursday, May 29, 2014

Their Very Own Master's Degree

One of the blessings of the birth of our daughter was that we were suddenly spending a lot more time with her grandparents. My father-in-law was the retired head of the literature department at a major university, a man I'd gotten to know fairly superficially through periodic family events over the preceding decade. He was now a person with whom I was spending many hours a week, usually as the "guys" in the background as mother and grandmother bonded over the baby. He was the most conversant human I've ever met on all sorts of literature, but he specialized in the 18th and 19th century English novel.

Since my own reading from this era of the novel's greatest blooming was limited, it didn't take long before I was inspired to start asking him for recommendations. He started me with Tom Jones, giving me permission to skip the dull essays, and I was on my way toward my informal masters. Week-after-week for years we sat together as I asked questions or told him what I thought about the great novel I was reading, he would listen and nod, then basically share with me what he'd been sharing with decades of students. As time went on and our knowledge gap (or at least the familiarity with the material gap) closed a little, we began playing games that involved, say, putting together lists of the top 5 novels of any 50 year period, taking particular pleasure in trying to figure out which contemporary authors folks would still be reading 200 years from now. It reminded me a lot of how I once played with my baseball cards, another subject matter into which I'd once gone quite deeply as a course of independent study.

I don't watch a lot of television, but I can't look away when the more-erudite-than-most game show Jeopardy is on. I enjoy trying to get the answers, in the form of a question, before the official contestants. It wasn't long before I began to notice that I was increasingly able to get the correct answers, even in subject categories in which I'd thought I knew nothing, usually by referencing what I learned from all that novel reading. For instance, I might be able to take an educated guess at a question on fashion by employing what I knew about, say, the attire of Jane Austin's characters, or a question on Victorian era politics because of a dilemma from Thomas Hardy. My brain was getting "bigger," not just in terms of the English novel, but in every direction. I don't suppose that this phenomenon is limited to literature either: I suspect that pretty much any subject matter into which one freely delves and plumbs will lead to this general increase in intellectual capacity, be it architecture, cosmetology, or modern dance. As long as there is an intellectual curiosity to be satisfied, and the opportunity to satisfy it, the brain will continue to get "bigger."

Years ago, for reasons of my wife's profession, I was finding myself at a lot of cocktail parties, chatting with people I'd just met and who I was unlikely to meet again. I grew bored with asking people, "What do you do?" and instead switched to asking, "What are your hobbies?" Oh boy, is that a more interesting question, at least if your goal is to actually get to know someone. Some folks react as if  confused, treating it almost like a "too personal" question, stammering around, not sure, I suppose, that they even have a hobby. But everyone has a hobby be it sports, fashion, food, movies, or collecting bottle caps, and there, more often than not, is where you'll find a person's passion. It's once you get onto that topic that you can finally have an interesting cocktail party conversation, one from which you might walk away inspired and edified: or better yet, having met a person who you wish to meet again.

This is one of the ways a play-based curriculum works. We've all seen children who bring their fascination with dinosaurs or princesses or outer space or volcanos to bear on pretty much anything they undertake, losing interest when space is not allowed for their "hobby," their passion for the day or week or year. That boy who wears his cape every day, that girl who carries her Hello Kitty doll into every game, that child who turns everything into a "what else can this do?" kind of experiment, those are children who are "going deep" in their freely chosen subject matter, growing their brain in every direction, while cobbling together their very own master's degree.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Chinese Really Are Beating Us

The leading scare tactic used by our elected representatives and corporatists who support the kind of drill and kill educational reform exemplified by high stakes standardized testing and curricula, longer school days, more homework, larger classes, and burger-flipper teachers is the bizarre notion that The Chinese are beating us!  It's fear-mongering based almost exclusively on standardized tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that purports to compare the educational achievements of 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science, from some 65 nations. 

Chinese 15-year-olds have achieved the top marks over the last couple testing cycles, while American kids have produced middling results. The Bill Gates-lead "reformers" have latched onto this, especially when it comes to math scores, to launch into full-on Shock Doctrine mode, attempting to evoke Cold War style xenophobic, commie-behind-every-tree competitiveness to grease their corporate take-over of public schools

Of course, as I've written before, the Chinese themselves, including parents, students, and even the government, are not as impressed with their "achievement" as we seem to be, coming as it does at the high cost of students who are stressed out and depressed over lives crammed with homework, rote drilling, and test prep. Indeed, as Yong Zhao, one of our nation's leading experts on the Chinese educational system, is reporting, China is considering a complete withdrawal from PISA testing.

"Shanghai does not need so-called #1 schools," said Yi Hougin, a high level official of Shanghai Education Commission. "What it needs are schools that follow sound education principles, respect principles of students' physical and psychological development, and lay a solid foundation for students' lifelong development."

Meanwhile, the other PISA superstars, the 15-year-olds of Finland, do not attend the kind of pressure-cooker schools bemoaned by China and aspired to by the US. While Finland's schools largely eschew high stakes testing, have little homework, design curricula based upon the developmental needs of children, and have well-paid, highly-respected teachers, our political and business elite have cast their lot with the romanticized misery of China's authoritarian model, creating illusory "achievement" based upon rote learning and memorization, that can be "sold" to the electorate and the world with, "We're #1! We're #1!" which is apparently America's true motto.

Education is not a competition and comparing nations as diverse as China, Finland, and the US, based upon the test-taking abilities of 15-year-olds, is ludicrous on its face. And China now appears to be learning what Finland already knows:

The new evaluation system deemphasizes the significance of test scores . . . The new evaluation system will measure student motivation and engagement, student-teacher relationship, and physical fitness.

Oh no! How can we compete with that? Now the Chinese really will be beating us.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

From Worry To Joy

I have spent my adult life trying to figure out why parents and society put themselves into a race -- what's the hurry? I keep trying to convey the pleasure every parent and teacher could feel while observing, appreciating and enjoying what the infant is doing. This attitude would change our educational climate from worry to joy. ~Magda Gerber

It seems to me that the greatest gift we can give to other people is to let them know we love them just as they are. That we've all heard this before in some version or other makes it no less profound and no less precious.

I think that's what we do when we simply let ourselves be with young children, without that sense of possession or protectiveness or responsibility that too often attends our interactions. It's in those moments of two humans simply being together that we convey this vital knowledge of unwavering love to even the youngest children, who themselves are then permitted to be, without the obligations that come with being possessed, protected, or a responsibility.

I've been educating myself about the ideas of Magda Gerber, with the help of such incredible blog-o-sphere guides as Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury and it's this idea of sincerely and carefully observing (what I think I have previously understood incompletely as "waiting") that resonates the most with me. But this observation is an essentially academic act, I think, without our own appreciation and joy in what the infant is doing or what we are doing together. Not only do we ourselves come to a deeper understanding of the child, but it's only through this heartfelt appreciation and joy that we actually convey to children the unconditional love that is our gift.

It may seem strange, I suppose, for many of us to understand that we, at best, stand on the planet as equals with all the other people, including young children. We are each fully formed, fully valid, fully functional human beings no matter our age. Naturally, we have different lots in life, different blessings and challenges, and are on our way to different places, but we always remain, most of all, worthy of being loved for being exactly who we are.

Parents and teachers traditionally see our role as helpers, instructors or guides; agents for moving young children through the world from point A to point B along their developmental track, ticking off milestones in baby books or report cards like we might a shopping list, taking pride in each "accomplishment." We can't help but look ahead, to anticipating the next destination, worrying about the next bumpy patch, feeling guilty about our failings when we lose our way or fall behind schedule. It makes us impatient, lead-footed, prone to live outside the present moment as we move relentlessly toward a future. We forget to just be with our children as they are right now. That future child does not exist: this is the real child, the one before you right now, and she is perfect.

We are, in fact, at our best when we manage to successfully override those urges to help, instruct, or otherwise guide a young person and instead give him the space and time to struggle, to practice, to come to his own conclusions. This, not our superior experience or intellect, is the great gift we have to give to children: to stop, to really see who they are right now, and be with them in appreciation and joy, loving them just as they are.

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Monday, May 26, 2014


"#YesAllWomen because I shouldn't consider every man I pass when walking after dark potentially dangerous." ~Twitter

On Wednesday mornings, I prepare for class as a Toastmasters group meets upstairs. Every Wednesday as the meeting upstairs breaks up, a woman comes downstairs by herself to use the restroom. We are alone together down there, two strangers, a woman and a man. The first time we encountered one another I saw her hesitate in a posture of caution. I smiled and said "Good morning," attempting to show her that she had nothing to fear from me, and she bought it enough to briefly raise her eyes to mine before putting her head down and moving quickly past me to the women's room.

It's been a weekly encounter now for at least nine months. Obviously, she's decided that I'm not a threat, at least not in these circumstances, although she's still frugal with eye contact and her clipped, "Good morning" in reply is clearly a message that this is as far as she wants our relationship to go. In other words, I remain suspect simply by virtue of being an unknown man alone with a woman in a relatively isolated place. And I don't blame her.

Before becoming a preschool teacher, I think most women who knew me would have described me as flirty. Looking back, I'm sure that it made some women uncomfortable, but I think I usually knew where the line was, and no one ever told me to knock it off. Even as a married man, with my wife's approval, I enjoyed engaging in silly, slightly racy, usually harmless banter with women, but I recognized that if I was going to succeed in my chosen profession, I would have to unlearn those habits. The idea of a male preschool teacher was challenging enough for some folks and the last thing anyone needed was another reason to feel uncomfortable. This is why I'm torn between the urge to say to this Wednesday morning woman, "Hey, I'm Teacher Tom! No worries," and the knowledge that, of course, that's exactly the sort of thing some creep would say.

I don't like being suspect, but understand it, even accept it. And then it pisses me off that I have to accept it. I don't harass women. I can't say that I'm entirely without prejudices because I am, after all, at least in part a product of my society, but damn it, I try to be a good, then better, man. I hate that anyone, woman, child, or man, is suspicious of me: I don't want to be the source of fear and caution, of heads bowed down and feet hurried. That's not who I am, but sadly it is who men are.

Of course, all men are not misogynistic jerks and rapists. Indeed, most of us as individuals are all right and, while mistake prone, both willing and able to learn to be better. But we are all suspect, until proven otherwise.

As the father of a daughter, I understand the suspicion of unknown men. One sunny day, when she was 12, I took her downtown with a couple friends. I loitered about a half block behind them as we walked, wanting to find a balance between their need for freedom and my need to protect them. I was appalled at the number of men my age who whipped their heads around to check out these high spirited little girls in their summer time shorts. I fought the urge to call them perverts or worse, but recognized the urge in myself to look at attractive women, albeit, I hope, more discretely. At the time, I imagined the girls where oblivious, but knew it wouldn't last. 

What a frightening and confusing thing it must be to be ogled, to be crudely or aggressively hit on, by strange men your father's age, or any age for that matter. Or to have your body or clothing or face critiqued by obnoxious strangers who feel somehow that you, by virtue of being a woman, owe him his twisted standards for feminine beauty. What a horrid thing to feel constantly threatened in this way, even while walking down a crowded city street, not to mention finding yourself alone in a basement with a strange man. I don't know how women do it, to be honest, which is why it's so crushing to me when I contribute to this undercurrent of fear simply by virtue of being an unknown man.

I've written before about the Superhuggers, a performance art group with which I've been involved for a long time. We turn up at community events and hug people in an effort to spread joy and love. It's a female dominated group and most of us are north of 40, people in the middle of their lives, experienced in the ways of the world. It's not been discussed, but I'd reckon we all identify ourselves as feminists. At the end of the day, every one of the women have stories to tell about men who were inappropriate, who fondled or molested them, who did things that just might get them a sock in the nose had they done them to me. Yet these women shrug it off, almost as if it's too old hat to really even mention, coming back year after year to be a Superhugger in spite of it. And that, to me, is even sadder than their outrage: the fact that these incredible women, in order to spread love, have decided to put up with this crap. I'm humbled that women, all women, must summon so much courage, or at least set aside so much fear, just to go through their day to day lives; just to walk down the street, just to hug some people, just to go to the freaking bathroom.

Of course, I'm thinking about this today because of the latest chapter in the endless story of mentally ill people and guns in America. This time it was a perpetrated by a guy in Santa Barbara who apparently believed that women either owed him sex or they must die. It doesn't take much imagination to see this as merely the extreme end of the continuum upon which ogling, wolf whistles, and rape appear. I've spent many hours these past couple days reading the #YesAllWomen Twitter posts, which ought to be mandatory reading for all Americans, men and boys in particular.

Anger is too simple and ultimately impotent. Education is essential, but too, too slow. Resignation is both not an option and often the only option.

I want to come to the end of this post with an idea for how to make things better, but all I can come up with is to say that I'll try to be better myself, I'll call other men on their misogyny, and I'll understand when you avert your eyes, bow your head, and quicken your step, even as it breaks my heart for all of us.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

A Place Beyond Our Comprehension

If you take all the colored cubes in the box and lay them end to end, they will reach from one end of our classroom to the other.

The discovery will make us cheer for ourselves, for one another, for the proof of our suppositions, for accomplishment, for knowledge.

Our cheer won't necessarily be loud or sustained, but it will be a genuine expression of how we feel about ourselves, markedly missing the phony "Good job!" or "You're awesome!" or "Super Star!" found on those stickers at the top of worksheets.

We might call out to the nearest adult, "We used all the blocks!" or "We made it across the whole room!" but please don't mistake it as a cry for validation. We already know what we've done. We're just sharing a little good news. It's not the first nor the last time we will do it on this day.

This is not the only time this discovery has been made at Woodland Park or, I imagine, at any preschool that has a box of colored cubes and the time and space to explore. But it is the first time for these children who, when finished, took that moment to celebrate then moved on, in the spirit of a journey. They had protected their efforts, sometimes fiercely, from the encroachments of others, but now the fruits of their labor are left to the whims of the travelers who come after them.

Every generation worries about the one that comes after it; worries that they will somehow become lost in their journey from here to there, that they will wind up in the wilderness, abandoned and alone. And the truth is that they are headed for the wilderness and there's really nothing we can do to prevent that, nor should we even if we could. It's their job. It has always been the responsibility of the young to explore the unknown places as the old timers fret. 

We see them lining up those colored cubes the way we once did our playthings and, because it looks familiar, we assume they are following in our footsteps, but make no mistake, they are on a journey like no other in the history of mankind, heading to a place beyond our comprehension.

Face it, no one knows where they are going. We choose a direction and start taking steps, hopefully in the company of others, wending and winding our way as circumstances and whims guide our feet. Every now and then we look around and let out a little cheer for where we've found ourselves, then we start taking steps again, always heading in the direction of the wilderness.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Bright Sunshiny Day

Bright, sunshiny days are a precious thing in these parts, especially in the spring, coming off our long, dark winter. It didn't feel any wetter this year than normal, although they tell us we broke rainfall records in March. In any event, we've had a run of clear skies here on the site of a former rain forest these past couple weeks, and no one reacts more joyfully to the sun than we do.

My family moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 70's from Athens, Greece, by way of Columbia, South Carolina, places where sun is like the wallpaper. We now found ourselves in a place where people never saw the sun, but talked about it all the time, especially when it hid behind our classic low hanging, wall-to-wall, drizzly cloud cover: a damp duvet of drizzle, alternating with slant-y rain, that tends to envelop us for a good nine months of the year. I don't really notice it any longer, but back then it seemed like I was in a conversation about the sun a dozen times a day, even amongst my cohort of middle schoolers, who seemed to speak endlessly of the sun they once saw in Hawaii, or joking about the strange UFO they caught sight of between some clouds, or talking about summer plans which always involved just "being" in the sun, a concept that blew my mind.

And when the sun did come out, Wow! I didn't know there was so much skin in the world. Even when the sun isn't accompanied by warmth, bare legs and arms and toes and shoulders emerged like the sun itself, often blindingly, due to the large population of families of Scandinavian decent.

Perhaps most stunning, a thing that still gets me, is that people here eat in the sun. That's right, they'll drag their table into the full sun, even on hot days, and sit down to a plate of food.

When the sun is out, every office worker who can get away with it, from the lowliest secretary to the CEO, will miraculously have a lunch meeting scheduled "out of the office and too far away to make it back, so I'll see ya' tomorrow."

This is all by way of emphasizing that sunny days, especially during the school year, are special and there is a lot that kids from other places have probably known since they were infants that we're still figuring out. For instance, the kids didn't believe me when I told them that magnifying glasses could be used to start fires, so I had to demonstrate last week, not getting all the way to flames, but even the thin wisps of smoke were convincing. And, of course, we're forever reminding children that their irritability might be cured by standing in the shade or drinking a little water or donning a hat with a brim.

Last week we had some of our more plentiful resources out on the workbench -- wine corks and old CDs -- along with glue guns. I'd put them out as building materials largely because we have lots of them and it's the end of the year. It was a sunny day and our workbench sits in the nice deep shade of a couple large cedars so it wasn't until the kids emerged into the sun bearing their creations that they began to notice the reflective properties of the CDs, a thing of great fascination. They began calling their creations flashlights, standing at a distance, then bouncing reflections of the sun back into the shadows to "light up" the shady work area. 

Or they became lasers we could use to carefully target one another in a slow motion scene from Star Wars.

There was a lot of excited conversation about why and how it worked, tips on where to stand and how to angle the reflective surface, children teaching one another, passing along their newly discovered knowledge one to the next as their friends emerged from the shadows to find that they too held a flashlight in their hands.

I imagine this is all old hat to children who live where the sun is wallpaper, but for us it is pure magic and joy, the kind that only comes from a bright, sunshiny day in the Pacific Northwest.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014


When I spied him assertively clambering around in the branches of the lilac amongst the remains of our tree house, I moved closer.

I didn't say anything, but he replied anyway, "Don't worry, Teacher Tom. I won't fall."

"I'm good at falling."

"If I start to fall, I just grab a branch and then I don't fall. I even like falling . . . because I'm good at it."

I said, reciting the idiom as I'd learned it, "It don't hurt you when you fall, son, only when you land."

He responded, "It doesn't even hurt me when I land because I land on my feet!" With that he let himself plummet before grabbing a branch with one hand, hung there for a beat, then twisted his body to land on two feet on the steep slope, all in one fluid motion. "See?"

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I See Heartbreak In Their Future

Your own happiness doesn't necessarily teach you what you want to know.  ~The Who

Awhile back, I pissed off one of our parents at the school when I wasn't particularly fast in responding to some unsavory behavior by a group of kids. They weren't actually hurting anyone, but the optics, and the fact that the behavior is certain to emotionally hurt someone in the future if allowed to continue, made it troublesome. Her own child, although currently unaware of it, was the "victim" in this game and I wasn't immediately acting to stop it, which, understandably, made her mad. 

This is a hard part about being a cooperative preschool. I wasn't thinking about the fact that this was her child, but rather standing back until I was sure I understood what was going on. I would have been mad at me too, I reckon, but I needed a few minutes to process what I was observing, to make sure my response was appropriate. I do it wrong more often when I don't take a moment to think.

She asked me, urgently, "Why don't you teach them how to act?" by which I think she meant for me to step in and make it stop, then to, perhaps find a way to explain to the kids what was so wrong about what they were doing. The problem is that none of the kids thought anything was wrong -- they were all just having fun, including her child. I know what to do when someone is upset, when someone wants the game to stop, but this . . .

It reminded me of a time when I was a cooperative parent. Another father and I were watching some kids play when one of our fellow parent-teachers stepped in and "fixed" the problem. It was like a sitcom moment when she then left the scene, leaving us momentarily speechless as we looked from the kids to one another, before bursting out in laughter.

He asked, "What just happened?"

I now understand that this other parent saw, or thought she saw, something coming; a conflict or rudeness or whatever that would, if allowed to continue, have emotionally hurt someone, and stepped in to prevent it.

If a child is about to run into traffic, we step in to prevent it. If a child is going to jump off the roof of the garage, we step in to prevent it. If a child raises a long stick with the apparent intention of bringing it down on someone else's head, we step in to prevent it. But what about when we believe we see hurt feelings in the future, do we automatically step in to prevent it? Or do we let the feelings get hurt before stepping in, the way we might with a minor physical injuries, as a way for children to learn through natural consequences?

I know how the pissed off mother felt about it: this was her child, currently distracted by other things, and totally unaware of the potential heartbreak in his future. Of course she wanted me to help her protect him. I get that. At the same time, there were all these other kids, who were completely unaware that they were on verge of breaking someone's heart. Indeed, they thought they were having a ton of fun pretending to menace a "victim" who did not know he was a victim. If I stepped in to "fix" the problem, wouldn't they be left like the two of us cooperative fathers: "What just happened?"

This was an outdoor "game" that involved lots of running. I wanted to be physically close so that I was in position to act the moment someone showed any sign of being upset. Then I would know what to do: interrupt them by saying, "You look scared," or "He said 'stop'," or "He's crying" or whatever informative statement I could make that would cause all the children to pause and think. I tracked the game like this for several minutes, waiting for my opening, my heart sick from seeing a "victim" who did not know he was a victim, his mother, justifiably worried, following me. This was hard for me and harder for her.

Finally, I broke, and asked her son a question, "Are you having fun playing this game?"

Everyone stopped for a moment. He answered, "Yes, I'm hunting for diamonds," a response that let me know for sure that he had no idea what the other kids were doing. He thought they were all running with him, following him, when in fact they were chasing him.

I turned to the other children and said, "Is that the game you're playing?"

"Oh, he's not on any team. He's playing the diamond hunting game. You could play diamond hunting with him."

One child stayed to hunt for diamonds while the rest ran off and it was over, at least for that day, no one really having learned anything, probably asking themselves, "What just happened?" Still, I think I did the right thing, asking questions that provided everyone involved with more complete information. But still, I see heartbreak for all of those kids in the future and I'm helpless to prevent it. Please don't be mad at me.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Charter Schools Are Failing

During the Iraq War the US Department of Defense hired some 25,000 private contractors paying them six figure salaries to perform such jobs like driving trucks, doing laundry, and serving food, roles that had traditionally been filled by soldiers making less than $20,000 per year. There is a lot to dislike about this mercenary practice, but from a purely economic perspective it makes no sense, especially since, as private citizens with no military training, they became liabilities to be protected when things got hot, rather than foxhole buddies who could be relied upon to watch your back. This was done in the name of what is called "privatization," the entirely discredited idea that the private sector can always do things more efficiently than can the public sector.

"Privatization" was one of the centerpiece buzzwords from my years as a junior business executive during the go-go 80's. Neoliberal economic theory was on the rise, brought to us by Ayn Rand and the Chicago School of Economics via the election of Ronald Reagan, the backbone of which was faith in the iconic "invisible hand" of the market place. Privatization, like most of the tenents of this economic theory, has always been, and remains, a tenent of faith more than science, one of those ideas that exist beautifully on paper, under the hand of a careful cipher or the fictions of a novelist, but that never performs as expected when unleashed in the real world. I've written before about why the real people living in the real world always thwart these "trickle down" plans and why they inevitably lead to financial and social success for a few, while making life worse for the majority, hence the ever-growing income gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Today, I want to focus specifically on privatization as it applies to charter schools.

Let me begin by challenging my readers, especially those who favor neoliberal economics (e.g., trickle down, supply side, laissez fair, Friedmanism, Chicago School, Reaganomics). I can find many examples of how privatization of formerly public services has made a small group of individuals wealthy, but I can find no instances in which privatization has lead to better products, services or lower prices for citizens. None. Yes, there are a few cases in which there was a surge of improvement, but that was always followed by the predictable crash and burn as greed, which is the immoral driving compulsion of economic competition, invariably wins. This New York Times piece from last year strives to portray a balance, but in every instance their privatization "success" example turns out to be nothing more than a bright moment before things go dark. The classic example being the oil giant BP, which Margaret Thatcher's government privatized during the 80's. Investors were happy as profitability rose, but it was paid for by the British people and the world in the currency of thousands of jobs, higher prices, destroyed eco-systems, and dead human beings. This is pretty much how privatization always goes.

If the private sector is really more efficient, then why are they so afraid of competing against single payer healthcare? It's because they can't: the public sector would eat their lunch. "The government," as it does in most of the rest of the industrialized world, will deliver a better product at a lower price and they know it. There are some goods and services the free market can provide efficiently, but when it comes to those things we all need and use, the private sector fails because of it's mandate to turn a profit and pay high executive salaries. Not to mention the "cost cutting" private businesses pass along to taxpayers, like cleaning up their pollution, using our publicly-funded police, fire and military to protect their private business interests, and the loss of productive citizens through workplace injury or death as cutting costs so often means cutting safety. 

Often when I write about the push to privatize our public schools, people misunderstand and think I'm being critical of private schools in general. This could not be further from the truth. My own child attends a private school, a choice we made 12 years ago because we had the wherewithal and because it was the best choice for our child and our family. Private schools have always existed alongside public schools, primarily serving certain socio-economic classes, religious requirements, or children with special needs not well-handled by public schools. Privatized schools, such as today's charter schools, are essentially private schools that are paid for by money that would otherwise be used for traditional public schools. This means, like we did with mercenaries in Iraq, the private sector gets the money, but without the rules, accountability, and transparency a democratic society must have from its public institutions. This is done based upon the faith-based crock of an idea that "competition" will lead to better education. And sure enough, we are now witnessing the BP phenomenon unfolding before our eyes: a few benefit, while the rest of us get screwed.

Guess who the highest paid government worker is? Nope, not the president, not even close. That dubious honor goes to Ron Packard, CEO of the online virtual charter corporation K12, founded by junk bond king Michael Milken, who has been taking home nearly $4 million a year. Oh, and by the way, NCAA universities recently announced that they would no longer accept credits from many of K12's "public schools," because of the poor quality of the education. And guess who's probably going to be sued by parents upset over their child receiving a subpar education? That's right, the taxpayers, while the private sector folks get to walk away with another $4 million in their pockets as they once again externalize the cost of their abject failure. This is how privatization always works: wealth for a few with no accountability except for profits, executive salaries, and over-priced crap for everyone else. 

Or what about this: Muskegon Heights, Michigan (which I've written about before) is now officially without a public school system. It seems that the for-profit charter operator, Mosiaca, that was placed in charge of their entire school district two years ago has just closed up shop, deciding there isn't enough money to be made, what with annoying expenses like teacher salaries and building maintenance. Of course, as is typical of the supply-side faithful, the problem can't be with their model, so the city is now shopping around for another for-profit charter chain to take over. Screw the kids, who have already lost two years of their educational life and are likely to lose even more. Oh, and just wait, the faithful, still unable to see the flaw in their system, will soon turn to blaming the parents, you know, for being poor and lazy.

When profit is the motive, all sorts of bizarre and sordid things result. Look what happened in Indiana when a charter school run by a deep-pocket political donor was about to receive a "C" on its accountability report card due to low algebra scores. Magically, after a few emails, the grade was changed to an "A," because, you know, in a for-profit enterprise, "accountability" means accountability to profits, not education. The privatization evangelist superintendent who appears to have authorized this corruption, has now moved on to Florida where he has been hired to work similar magic down there. Good luck Florida.

Of course, all charter schools are not for-profit, right? That's technically true, and from what I understand, the state of Maryland may have come up with a model closer to the great Albert Shanker's original idea for charters, although they are still positioned as "competition" to traditional schools rather than the allies as they should be. Keep in mind, however, that many of the so-called non-profit charters still pay comparatively huge executive salaries, lower teacher pay, ban unions, and affiliate with for-profit sister companies that provide such things as over-priced text books, supplies, and curricula. I understand there are a few charter schools out there operating with the children as their main focus, but that will not last because if the gospel of free markets has taught us anything, it's that one of the inevitable outcomes of a battle between for-profit and non-profits is that the non-profit must be destroyed.

No where is this disaster more disgusting than in New York's public schools, where hedge fund managers, lobbyists, and education corporations rule. Not only are these schools failing in their efforts to better educate children, they have created a corrupt, mercenary environment of educational apartheid,   and class and racial warfare, with the clear end-game being the outright take-over of public schools.

The privatization movement is a hoax, not just in education, but across the board. It is snake oil being sold by the lie that our public schools are failing, and the companion lie that charters produce better results. Competition might be the best way to produce and sell widgets, but when something more important than profit is at stake, when it's about something we all need, it is never the best way to go about creating quality and equality. In all honesty, I'm not even sure if privatization's neoliberal adherents even believe in it any longer, because it's hard imagining that anyone would be that much of a fundamentalist. No, it's becoming increasingly clear that children don't even come into the equation except as unpaid workers slaving away in the test score mines. There may have been a moment when charter schools held some promise, but it's quite evident that today's privatizers are cynically in it for the money, which is what we've come to expect from hedge fund managers, lobbyists, corporations, and their damned imaginary efficiencies.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

We Didn't Go Anywhere And We Didn't Do Anything

We try to take at least one field trip a month with our older classes, going to cool places where they make stuff like chocolate factories, breweries, and farms, or where we're exposed to new skills and ideas like School of Rock, the Center for Wooden Boats, or a museum. Whenever possible, we try to use public transportation, usually the bus. The following day, we always discuss our favorite part. Invariably, most kids put the bus trip at the top of their list, so the idea for yesterday's field trip was a "day of transportation." One boy, in particular, was blown away by this concept. It seemed to boggle his mind in a good way. We had a series of conversations throughout the morning. This was just one boy. There were 22 other versions of this happening simultaneously, all asking different questions and noticing different things. It's why we take field trips.


"We have to get going or we're going to miss our bus."

"Where are we going, Teacher Tom?"

"We're going to take a bus to Seattle Center, then we're going to take the monorail to Westlake Center, then we're going to take a trolley to South Lake Union, then we're going to eat a snack, then we're going to take a bus to get back to school."

"What's a monorail?"

"It's a kind of train."

"What's a trolley?"

"It's a different kind of train."

"So, we're going to take two trains?"

"And two busses."

"Two trains and two busses."


"Is this the first bus, Teacher Tom?"


"This is the first bus, then we're going to take two trains, then another bus."


"Where are we going now?"

"Seattle Center."

"What are we going to do there?"

"Find the monorail station."

On the way to find the monorail station, around the interior side of Key Arena, in the shadow of the Space Needle, we found a skate park devoid of skate boarders, so we took it over.


"Teacher Tom, is this the monorail?"


"We were on one bus, now we're on a train, then we're going on another train, then another bus."

"That's the plan."

"I've never been on a monorail before."

"I think it's pretty cool."

"I think it's pretty cool, too . . . When do we get our snack?"

"When we get to South Lake Union. Are you hungry now?"

"No, I'm just making a plan to eat snack when we get there . . . So, one more train and one more bus, right?"

"Yes, and snack in between."

As we waited for the trolley, with the monorail from which we'd recently disembarked passing overhead, we watched a worker use a special kind of power washer to clean the sidewalk.


"I like the trolley!"

"It's cool. It goes right past my house."

"Your house?"

"My apartment. I'll point to it when we go past."

"What's an apartment?"

"I live upstairs in a big building with lots of other people."

"Do you ride the trolley to school?"

"No, I ride my bike."

"You should ride the trolley."

"It doesn't go to our school."

He thought about that for a moment, then answered, "I've never seen any trolleys by the school."


"What is this place?"

"It's South Lake Union. It's a park."

"This is where we're going to eat our snack. I know, let's sit at those tables."

"Good idea."

"After we eat our snack, can we go in that building?" He was pointing at the new Museum of History and Industry.

"That's a cool place, but we don't have time today. We still have to catch a bus."

He counted on his fingers, "We went on one bus and two trains. Then we have to ride one more bus."

While we were biding our time between our snack and our scheduled bus, we rolled down grassy hills, steered around goose poop, took a walk along the moorage to have a look at the vintage boats (including a yacht, a ferry, a light ship, a tug, and a fire boat), made our way across the footbridge to a little beach where we waded and threw pebbles into the water, then had a close-up look at some goslings.


"This is the last bus. We're going back to school now."


"We took a bus, two trains, and another bus. And now we're going back to school."

"What was your favorite part of the field trip?"

He thought before answering, "Right now."

"Me too."

Back at school I opened the gate and stood counting the kids as they filed past, doing one last check to assure myself that we were returning with the same number with which we left. He paused just inside the gate to talk with me.

"We went on two busses and two trains."

"And now we're back at school."

"We just rode busses and trains. We didn't go anywhere and we didn't do anything."

"That sounds about right."

He nodded as if we'd just made an agreement, then ran off to play with his friends.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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