6 posts

Academic Experts Discuss the Talking Pineapple Test Question

New Yorkers this week are increasingly perplexed by a reading passage appearing in a standardized state exam for eighth-graders that at first glance appears to be an Aesop’s fable haphazardly rewritten by a 12-year old with ADHD. Yet despite the best efforts of Jeopardy winner Ken Jennings to answer the questions, his analysis was woefully limited in scope and failed to consider the far-reaching ramifications of the answer choices in the context of all available knowledge. Thus, we asked our fictitious team of self-proclaimed legal and economic experts to address the questions in greater depth, let’s call them Bill and Ted. The following discussion did not ensue: Continue reading

In Defense of Affirmative Action

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case on affirmative action in university admissions. This case, like the landmark 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, involves a white student who applied to a public university and was denied– and, according to the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, minority students with lower scores than hers were admitted. In Grutter, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of quota systems for racial minorities in public university admissions was unconstitutional, but it also held that admissions committees may use race as one of a myriad factors that go into the admissions process– not unlike the way admissions committees favor students who are legacies or those who hail from Barrow, Alaska (so that they can claim in brochures that they attract students from all fifty states–and Guam!)In other words, race might be a factor that gives your application a little nudge toward the top of the pile, but it can’t be the sole determining factor in an admission decision. Continue reading

On Being Bullied

Author’s Note:
I’ve added some links throughout this post to bring a little levity to a serious subject.

There has been much in the news in recent times regarding the increase in bullying in schools. My heart goes out to the children of this generation, because with text messages, Photoshop, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (among many others), the possibilities for being tormented have drastically increased since I was in high school. This is my recollection of being harassed and intimidated in a time before technology made life utterly unbearable for the bullied.

When I was fourteen, I attended a progressive high school in New York City for my freshman year. While I loved the unusual format and variety of the classes, I was something of a social outcast and a hermit. When I did interact, I usually hung out with other socially inept nerds who were also good students. But mostly, I ensconced myself in self-imposed isolation.

Unbeknownst to me, I had a stalker, a girl in my grade who would follow me around and try to make friends with me. My intuition said to avoid her, but I quickly learned that this was not appeasing her at all. Stacey got progressively more aggressive as a result of my ignoring her, to the point where she scrawled “Witch! 666!” all over my hall and gym lockers. She repeatedly tried to take pictures of me undressing in the locker room.  I received several late-night phone calls from her where she would whisper in sinister tones that I, the “stuck-up bitch” was going to “get what I deserved.” Things came to a head in gym class, when she hurled a basketball at my stomach with such force that I spent the rest of the day under observation in the nurse’s office.

Fortunately for me, my mother became aware of what was going on. (I was too mortified to tell anyone.) She made an appointment with the Assistant Principal and calmly informed her that she was going to sue the school system if my tormentor was not expelled. My mother’s ire was effective, and Stacey was indeed expelled. I later learned that her entire motivation for trying to get my attention – including her extreme tactics – was because she had an unrequited crush on me. I had been completely clueless that this was even a possibility.

As a result of the trauma I’d endured at my Brooklyn high school, I moved in with my grandparents to their house in Sullivan County (roughly 75 miles north of NYC).  For my sophomore year, I enrolled at the local school, which — given the much smaller population — was a combination of junior and senior high school, which encompassed grades 7 through 12. Given the lack of stimulation of the rural area, many of the students entertained themselves with drugs and promiscuous sex. It was tremendous culture shock to be around so many decidedly non-serious students. One of my 10th grade classmates, a charmer named Butch, was eighteen years old at the start of the school year.  He would routinely serenade the class by pounding on his desk and singing the chorus of “White Lines”, a cautionary song about cocaine abuse.  (Butch had clearly missed the cautionary part.)  His disparaging nickname for me was “Goody Two Shoes.”

I befriended my teachers and a couple other nerdy/smart kids in my class, and I thought I was doing fine.  In fact, I was doing fine, until I encountered the wrath of a classmate who appropriately shared a name with the killer car in the Stephen King novel. Christine was a pretty and popular but less-than-bright girl who hated me on sight. She scorned my big city background, my large vocabulary, my comparative innocence — I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs or have sex — and my fondness for the lone Asian kid in our class (who was one of only a handful of minorities in the entire school). In addition, Christine openly mocked my favorite light pink hooded sweatsuit that I wore to gym class. This quickly earned me my second nickname: “The Pink Panther.”

One day, in the soccer field during practice, she kicked the ball and deliberately hit me in the face, resulting in a déjà vu visit to the nurse’s office. The gym teacher chalked it up as an accident, but I knew it definitely hadn’t been one. It wasn’t until Christine pushed me down a flight of stairs that the administrators finally acknowledged there was a problem. (Thankfully, they were stairs with a landing in between floors, so I was bruised but not seriously hurt.)

My grandparents took me out of school, since expelling Christine only solved part of my problems with the school.  My teachers helped me out by arranging a home-school program for me to finish out the school year. In the summer, I returned to Brooklyn, and I nearly kissed the ground there when I arrived. The experience taught me that it was far better for me to live in a challenging but intellectually thriving place than to try to retreat to rural isolation. After that point, I was fortunate in that I never had another problem with bullies or mean girls.

I have tremendous compassion and empathy for all the kids who have to deal with unprovoked attacks on a regular basis just to get through the school year. I hope that some of these children are fortunate enough (as I was) to have parents and family members who are advocates and supporters. To any of you who’ve dealt with similar difficult circumstances, I hope that it’s helped you and in some way made you a stronger person.  As always, you are welcome to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

In closing, the following clip is a beautiful, gently cathartic song designed to raise your self-esteem. (You may be crying by the end of it.)

“How could anyone ever tell you
you were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
you were less than whole?”

Michigan’s Budget Emergency Measures Create Hardship

Last Wednesday, Michigan’s Senate passed a bill that would allow the state treasurer to appoint emergency financial managers to municipalities and school districts that are in danger of failing. The bill was passed with a 26-12 vote and would permit them to fire local officials, dissolve union contracts, seize and sell assets, and eliminate services such as police and fire departments. The bill is now being handed over to a conference committee which will reconcile differences with the one passed by the House in February and then is expected to be signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

While the debate for this bill has been linked in the media to Wisconsin’s fight to keep union collective bargaining rights, the real issue here is the fact that Michigan can appoint these managers who, while able to undermine the role of unions, are not elected and can wield powers normally given to elected officials, effectively nullifying their role.


The emergency manager must have at least five years experience. They also must have experience in business, finance, and local or state issues. State Democrats tried to add amendments requiring that managers must have at least some background in education and whose salary must be capped at the rate of the governor, about $159,000. The Republicans struck it down.

The emergency manager’s contract, salary, and financial plan must be publicly posted as well as expenditures of $5000 or more. They would have the power to take over public services such as utilities like water and electricity. Furthermore, they would also be able to dissolve entire municipal governments as they see fit, dismiss public officials as well as destroy union contracts. By appointing these officials, they are effectively handing “taxpayer money, services and powers to private companies”.

An illustration of the role emergency managers can play is the Detroit’s public school district, which has an emergency manager, Robert Bobb, already in place. The district is projecting a $327 million budget deficit and several proposals have been made including closing half of the district’s 147 schools which would push classroom sizes up to possibly 60 kids per class. It would replace individual school principals with regional ones and would cut all general bus service. Personally, I would wager that it would NOT push class sizes up to 60 kids because given the economic situation in Detroit, I doubt most school kids are going to be walking the vast under-populated blocks to get to a school by themselves, if they don’t get picked up first.

“It takes every decision in a city or school district and puts it in the hands of the manager, from when the streets get plowed to who plows them and how much they are paid,” said Michigan State AFL-CIO president Mark Gaffney. “In schools, the manager would decide academics or if you have athletics.”

Source: Flikr

The takeover of local services has already begun. Recently the emergency financial manager of Pontiac, one of three other cities with appointed managers, has fired the local police chief and liquidated its union contract. It is now being served by the larger Oakland County Sheriff Department which will begin May 1. Previously, due to layoffs, the city had been underserved with less than 40 officers.

So, not only is this bad for unions it’s bad for our entire electoral system. Our governments are handing our voice over to a few people that we did not elect which is what one can define as a “government takeover”. It is electing a governor to elect people for us. It also gives elected officials a huge disincentive to do the job they are paid to do. Where does it stop? Who determines if these emergency managers will ever go away? If a municipality became financially solvent, it is hardly unreasonable to expect that these people will be asked to stay on to “insure” that things keep running well, increasing more people on the tax payrolls.

Rick Snyder, a Republican, was elected last year succeeding the outgoing governor, Jennifer Granholm and has been billed as a “nerd”. He has taken a page out of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s playbook, by being a multimillionaire and then foregoing the standard gubernatorial salary for $1 a year. He has declined to participate in debates with opponents opting to go directly to the people with his message. He is a former executive at Coopers and Lybrand and was CEO of Gateway computers, which went from 21,000 workers in 2000 to 7,400 workers in 2003, some of which were shipped overseas. After Gateway, he subsequently moved on to found two investment firms, Avalon Investments and then Ardesta.

There has been some controversy over the upcoming budget proposals for the state in that he has divided the entire $45.9 billion budget into two bills: one designated for education and one for “everything else”.

The fact that there are few specifics of how the budget will be allotted has been worrying since it doesn’t aid in the transparency of government finances. If the state is not held to task for defining where its money is going, it can be assumed that it is a forewarning of what we can expect from these emergency financial managers.

The governor said he isn’t trying to make the state’s spending plans murkier or take away lawmakers’ budget oversight. But he wants to be held accountable on whether his administration is able to improve Michigan residents’ health, education, safety and quality of life as measured by the Michigan Dashboard he has set up rather than whether he has spent money on programs lawmakers favor. “You’re still held accountable,” Snyder told The Associated Press.

It seems that to Snyder, this is more of a global approach. In reality, it just signals that anyone can do anything they want with taxpayer money.

Notes from an angry teacher – Part II

For those of you who read my last column, I apologize for any confusion. I don’t call my students whales and I’m not happy that they get deported. I was trying to come across bitter. Those of you who know my commenting style are aware that I have a twisted sense of humor. That sense of humor sometimes helps me get through the chaos I encounter at work. To be honest, the kid who was deported hurt because I worked with him for several weeks after our incident, trying to connect with him and had people from various culinary arts schools in the area come in and talk to him because he was interested in cooking.

I will try to write from now on with a little more of that honesty rather than the portrayal of a bitter teacher. I still pray for the future of this country based on my experiences. And I’m not a religious person. I teach high school English.

– Often teachers come across students who lie to them to get out of work. It happens frequently and usually I’m able to dismantle excuses. However, it’s hard to teach classes that include writing elements, when students can’t read cursive. I found this out last fall, when I handed out sample short answer essay examples to my students and they couldn’t read them. They were written examples of how to respond to question prompts from students who took our state accountability tests from previous years. As I was handing these out, students began to look at me in confusion, until one girl raised her hand and said, “I can’t read this. It’s in cursive. I have no clue what it says.” The cursive was very legible. My response to her and to 75% of my other students who similarly couldn’t read it: “It’s in English, try to guess, and I’ll help if you have any questions.” When students have any sort of excuse not to do work, they will do NOTHING and later complain to someone that the assignment was unfair.

I graded their assignment that day and talked to a number of other teachers who said I should’ve know better than to give those examples in cursive, because they don’t teach those skills anymore at the elementary level. I was later told by an assistant principal that all assignments and directions written on the board should be in general text and I had to remove the grades from my gradebook for the assignment. I understand that the students can’t read cursive and we’ve failed them as far as educating them in it, but to me, it’s not an excuse for not doing work or an alternative assignment. Of course, when parents complain to dickless administrators, the teachers get thrown under the bus. And the students win.

– The cursive thing shocked me, but something that has also been shocking is the number of students who can’t read or decipher clocks. We have old-fashioned clocks in our classrooms, with SECOND HANDS and everything, and a good chunk of my kids don’t understand how to tell time using them. Often, when students fill out bathroom or library passes and they have no idea what the clock is reading, so they have to ask me. It’s sad. I’d say about 1/3rd of my students have no idea how to use basic clocks.

– One of the fun things about being a teacher is professional development days, when you get to work with the other teachers and sit through workshops. It’s always fun because you get to talk with people you often don’t get to speak to. For the most part, the workshops are huge wastes of time and often there is an elephant in the room. The elephants are the administrators (superintendents, principals, assistant principals) who cannot control a room full of teachers to give their presentations and lectures. And it’s funny to the teachers, because we are always asked everyday and critiqued by these people based on how well we can control 35 teenagers for an hour.

A few weeks ago, during one of our meetings, an assistant principal started screaming at us for being too loud following her lecture. She actually stopped us and said “Okay, it looks like I won’t be giving out any more information because you guys aren’t mature enough to handle it.” It was awesome!!!!

I will try to write columns weekly as an outlet for some of the madness. I have so many student stories, some of them are very unsettling. I’m considering leaving teaching this year because of the stress and issues our state is facing with funding and the uncertainty that comes with it. Everyday I feel like I’m making a difference, but it’s a huge fight with students, parents, and administrators.