Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Amy Goodman On Saying Goodbye

In a wonderful interview by Laura Flanders of Amy Goodman, Goodman talks about the five things that are important to do when saying goodbye to a dying loved one.

1. Thank you

2. I forgive you

3. Please forgive me

4. I love you

5. Goodbye

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hosing Mother Earth

Last week ended in the disastrous Copenhagen Summit where Obama in a dramatic, last minute effort to salvage an international climate agreement not only failed but reinforced the perception that is is no more in touch with the international community than George W. Bush was.

On PBS, Ray Suarez ends his summary of the talks by implying that only the big countries need negotiate climate change controls - that too many voices only result in chaos.

And yet, the drama of all of these political machinations seem hollow after listening to Fareed Zakaria interview Nathan Myhrvold.

The first order of business is to start the cooling process so that the island nations aren't sacrificed, so that Africa does not become a wasteland, and so that the cold weather species survive.

The second order of business is to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by making it useful.

None of this requires much more than an investment in technology and imagination. The Obama administration needs to get on it and stop the grandstanding. Our kids need a planet to live on after graduation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Kill the Bill, The Liberal View

There is a lot of disinformation about why a Liberal might want to kill the health care bill. We are told the democrats must pass it or be embarrassed. In that case let us embarrass ourselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that the passage of this bill is a toxic recipe for fiscal and political carnage. American workers can hardly afford to spend their income on junk insurance provided by ruthless and unrelentingly greedy insurers. There will be no swift or compassionate regulators to correct inequities.

And it is clear that a nation challenged by runaway unemployment and diminishing wages will be even harder pressed to afford quality education funding. This bill is a cynical gaming of the system and the wholesale plunder of the incomes of every American with an income.

The obstinate buffoonery of what passes as the Republican party in Washington only compounds the matter and obfuscates the fact that Liberals want to kill the bill to get it right not to gut it.

But getting it right means that the Obama administration needs to stop treating Liberals as if they are insignificant and inconsequential. Krugman says Liberals projected their values onto Obama who was an obvious conservative.
There’s a lot of dismay/rage on the left over Obama, a number of cries that he isn’t the man progressives thought they were voting for.

But that says more about the complainers than it does about Obama himself. If you actually paid attention to the substance of what he was saying during the primary, you realized that

(a) There wasn’t a lot of difference among the major Democratic contenders
(b) To the extent that there was a difference, Obama was the least progressive

Actually, my problem is not that I mistook Obama for a Liberal or Progressive but that I believed what he said. And now I know that his rhetoric is as empty as the cost controls in the health care legislation.

Jame Hamsher in writes the ten reasons this bill must be killed;

1. Forces you to pay up to 8% of your income to private insurance corporations - whether you want to or not

2. If you refuse to buy the insurance, you'll have to pay penalties of up to 2% of your annual income to the IRS.

3. Many will be forced to buy poor-quality insurance they can't afford to use, with $11,900 in annual out-of-pocket expenses over and above their annual premiums

4. Massive restriction on a woman's right to choose, designed to trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court

5. Paid for by taxes on the middle class insurance plan you have right now through your employer, causing them to cut back benefits and increase co-pays

6. Many of the taxes to pay for the bill start now, but most Americans won't see any benefits - like an end to discrimination against those with preexisting conditions - until 2014 when the program begins.

7. Allows insurance companies to charge people who are older 300% more than others

8. Grants monopolies to drug companies that will keep generic versions of expensive biotech drugs from ever coming to market.

9. No re-importation of prescription drugs, which would save consumers $100 billion over 10 years

10. The cost of medical care will continue to rise, and insurance premiums for a family of four will rise an average of $1,000 a year - meaning in 10 years, your family's insurance premium will be $10,000 more annually than it is right now.

The link provides documentation of the claims.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kill the Bill, Start a New Party

Last night I listened to Democracy Now's Amy Goodman interview environmentalist Sunita Nurain in a brilliant conversation that begins to crystallize some things about the Obama administration that are disconcerting.

Both Goodman and Narain grope to understand why Obama, from whom so much was expected, is failing in leadership quality on the order of George W. Bush. Narain describes Obama's improvement in terms that if Bush was a kindergärtner then Obama is no more than a first grader in terms of climate change policy.

Narain's most brilliant prose is in the phrase that the world's problems "are all in small stories". That describes the issues in the United States as well.

As we triangulate Obama policy across other issues we find the same pattern.

Marcy Wheeler at FireDogLake warns us of the dire consequences that will result in the passage of the Lieberman emasculated Health Bill [please follow the link to the entire argument - it is compelling and important]:
I believe that if the Senate health care bill passes as Joe Lieberman has demanded it–with no Medicare buy-in or public option–it will be a significant step further on our road to neo-feudalism. As such, I find it far too dangerous to our democracy to pass–even if it gives millions (perhaps unaffordable) subsidies for health care.

20% of your labor belongs to Aetna

Consider, first of all, this fact. The bill, if it became law, would legally require a portion of Americans to pay more than 20% of the fruits of their labor to a private corporation in exchange for 70% of their health care costs.

Consider a family of 4 making $66,150–a family at 300% of the poverty level and therefore, hypothetically, at least, “subsidized.” That family would be expected to pay $6482.70 (in today’s dollars) for premiums–or $540 a month. But that family could be required to pay $7973 out of pocket for copays and so on. So if that family had a significant–but not catastrophic–medical event, it would be asked to pay its insurer almost 22% of its income to cover health care. Several months ago, I showed why this was a recipe for continued medical bankruptcy (though the numbers have changed somewhat). But here’s another way to think about it. Senate Democrats are requiring middle class families to give the proceeds of over a month of their work to a private corporation–one allowed to make 15% or maybe even 25% profit on the proceeds of their labor.

It’s one thing to require a citizen to pay taxes–to pay into the commons. It’s another thing to require taxpayers to pay a private corporation, and to have up to 25% of that go to paying for luxuries like private jets and gyms for the company CEOs.

It’s the same kind of deal peasants made under feudalism: some proportion of their labor in exchange for protection (in this case, from bankruptcy from health problems, though the bill doesn’t actually require the private corporations to deliver that much protection).In this case, the federal government becomes an appendage to do collections for the corporations.

Mind you, not only will citizens be required to pay private corporations. But middle class citizens may be required to pay more to these private corporations than they pay in federal and state taxes. Using these numbers, this middle class family of four will pay roughly 15% in federal, state, and social security taxes. This family will pay around $10,015 for their share of the commons–paying for defense, roads, some policing, and their social safety net share. That’s 15% of their income. They will, at a minimum, be asked to pay 9.8% of their income to the insurance company. And if they have a significant medical event, they’ll pay 22%–far, far more than they’ll pay into the commons. So it’s bad enough that this bill would require citizens to pay a tithe to a corporation. It’s far worse when you consider that some citizens would pay more in their corporate tithe than they would to the commons.

And, finally, while the Senate bill does not accord these corporate CEOs a droit de seigneur–the right to a woman’s virginity the night of her marriage–if Ben Nelson (and Bart Stupak) get their way, it would make a distinction in this entire compact for how the property of a woman’s womb shall be treated.

Single payer for the benefit of corporations

And for those who promise we’ll go back and fix this later, once we achieve universal health care, understand what will have happened in the meantime. The idea, of course, is to establish some means to get people single payer coverage (before Lieberman, this would have been through a public option or Medicare buy-in) and, over time, expand it.

In fact, this bill will move toward single payer, too–though not the kind we want. For the large number of people who live in a place where there is limited competition, this bill will require them to get health care through the oligopoly or monopoly provider. It’ll work great for the provider: they will be able to dictate rates. But the Senate bill allows these blossoming single payer providers to keep up to 25% of the benefit in profits and marketing costs, and pass little of that benefit onto citizens. If we make private corporations our single payer, how are we going to convince them to cede control when we ask them to let the government be the single payer?

The reason this matters, though, is the power it gives the health care corporations. We can’t ditch Halliburton or Blackwater because they have become the sole primary contractor providing precisely the services they do. And so, like it or not, we’re dependent on them. And if we were to try to exercise oversight over them, we’d ultimately face the reality that we have no leverage over them, so we’d have to accept whatever they chose to provide. This bill gives the health care industry the leverage we’ve already given Halliburton and Blackwater.

Howard Dean's arguments are equally compelling:

And we find the same pattern in education policy where Arne Duncan's Race to the Top is an educational cure that is worse than any disease education may have.

It is time to begin looking for alternatives to this train wreck of a presidency. For Liberals, progressives, and Libertarians the empty Republican party vessel may be worth retrofitting into a party that incorporates the best candidates and ideas of such a coalition to contend in 2010 and 2012 with Presdential, Senatorial and House candidates worth voting for.

It looks as though Schools Matter is making the same case.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Betrayal of a Nation

Obama seems to be using a page from the Bush family playbook. When George W. stole the 2000 election, he governed as though he had won a landslide victory. the only thing that mattered was the exercise of unrestrained power in the single-minded pursuit of a personal, not national, agenda.

An article in Salon magazine by Glenn Greenwald called White House as helpless victim on health-care calls into question whether Obama's administration is just the next all too familiar such runaway political machine.
Of all the posts I wrote this year, the one that produced the most vociferious email backlash -- easily -- was this one from August, which examined substantial evidence showing that, contrary to Obama's occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it. From the start, assuaging the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was a central preoccupation of the White House -- hence the deal negotiated in strict secrecy with Pharma to ban bulk price negotiations and drug reimportation, a blatant violation of both Obama's campaign positions on those issues and his promise to conduct all negotiations out in the open (on C-SPAN). Indeed, Democrats led the way yesterday in killing drug re-importation, which they endlessly claimed to support back when they couldn't pass it. The administration wants not only to prevent industry money from funding an anti-health-care-reform campaign, but also wants to ensure that the Democratic Party -- rather than the GOP -- will continue to be the prime recipient of industry largesse.

As was painfully predictable all along, the final bill will not have any form of public option, nor will it include the wildly popular expansion of Medicare coverage. Obama supporters are eager to depict the White House as nothing more than a helpless victim in all of this -- the President so deeply wanted a more progressive bill but was sadly thwarted in his noble efforts by those inhumane, corrupt Congressional "centrists." Right. The evidence was overwhelming from the start that the White House was not only indifferent, but opposed, to the provisions most important to progressives. The administration is getting the bill which they, more or less, wanted from the start -- the one that is a huge boon to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry. And kudos to Russ Feingold for saying so:

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), among the most vocal supporters of the public option, said it would be unfair to blame Lieberman for its apparent demise. Feingold said that responsibility ultimately rests with President Barack Obama and he could have insisted on a higher standard for the legislation.

"This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place, so I don’t think focusing it on Lieberman really hits the truth," said Feingold. "I think they could have been higher. I certainly think a stronger bill would have been better in every respect."

Let's repeat that: "This bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place." Indeed it does. There are rational, practical reasons why that might be so. If you're interested in preserving and expanding political power, then, all other things being equal, it's better to have the pharmaceutical and health insurance industry on your side than opposed to you. Or perhaps they calculated from the start that this was the best bill they could get. The wisdom of that rationale can be debated, but depicting Obama as the impotent progressive victim here of recalcitrant, corrupt centrists is really too much to bear.

In short, Liberals specifically and Democrats in general are being played for rubes and fools while those who have driven the country into bankruptcy continue to fiddle away in Washington with no regard for the people who worked so hard to elect them.

For educators, this is a clue that the policies coming out of Washington will be sugar-coated with platitudes about "what's good for kids" but are raising eyebrows in the progressive education community [Diane Ravitch, EDWeek, Bridging Differences - Race to Nowhere:].
I don't know about you, but I am getting sick of the rhetoric of the Race to the Top, as it implies the very opposite of "equal educational opportunity." But "equal educational opportunity" is so...yesterday, so now we shall all "race to the top," to see who can get there first. Who can privatize the most schools? Who can close the most public schools? Which district can replace the most public schools with charter schools? Who can compel their teachers to focus intently on those pesky math and reading test scores? Who can boot out the most teachers whose students didn't get higher scores than last year? Who seriously believes that this combination of policies will produce better education?

We try not to be New York City-centric, but so much is happening in this city that it is hard not to see it as a bellwether. After all, NYC not only was a faithful representation of No Child Left Behind, but it is now outfitting itself to be a faithful representation of the Race to the Top. This is not a hard transition because NLCB and the Race to the Top are really the same, except that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's "Race" has nearly $5 billion as a lure to persuade states to climb aboard the express train to privatization.

In the past few days, Chancellor Joel Klein has announced that he is closing nearly two dozen public schools. Some of these schools are the anchor in their communities; some have long histories as gateways for immigrant children. In recent years, the Department of Education decided that it does not like large high schools, so it has been closing them down and sending their lowest-performing students to other large high schools, which then have lower scores and more disciplinary incidents. Some of the large high schools were beyond saving, but most could have been improved by a thoughtful plan of action, including smaller classes, better supervision, and the kinds of resources that hedge-fund managers pour into "their" charter schools. Unfortunately the data-driven MBAs at central headquarters know nothing about instruction and curriculum or about any strategies that might improve a school. They have no school-improvement strategy. What they know best is how to shut down schools, and in this they will find funding and encouragement from the Obama administration.

As soon as the central administration decides to close a school, it is a fait accompli. New York City has a rubber-stamp "board" of 13, with a majority appointed by the mayor, serving at his pleasure; it approves every executive decision, with only a single dissenting vote (the heroic Patrick Sullivan, a public school parent). Public hearings are pro forma; no decision is ever reversed. Parents and teachers may protest 'til the cows come home, and they can't change a thing. Their school will be closed, the low-performing students will be dispersed, and either new small schools or charter schools will take over their building. Some of the schools that will close are, funnily enough, small schools that were opened by Bloomberg and Klein only a few years ago.

Does anyone believe that this sorry game of musical chairs will improve education? Does anyone in Washington or at central headquarters grasp the pointlessness of the disruption needlessly inflicted on students, families, teachers, principals, and communities in the name of "reform"? Do these people have no shame?

Shame is for those who have the audacity to feel shamed. Obama seemingly has none.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Virtue of Blogging

I've been a long-time blogger and advocate of blogging at least at the high school level. so it comes as no surprise to me that the virtues of blogging are getting recognized by the scientific community.

In a recent article in Scientific American entitled Blogging -- It's Good for You by Jessica Wapner the therapeutic value of blogging is explored.
Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

And recently, the New York Times in an article called M.I.T. Taking Student Blogs to Nth Degree by Tamar Lewin reported that MIT and many other prestigious undergrad and graduate schools are embracing blogging.
Dozens of colleges — including Amherst, Bates, Carleton, Colby, Vassar, Wellesley and Yale — are embracing student blogs on their Web sites, seeing them as a powerful marketing tool for high school students, who these days are less interested in official messages and statistics than in first-hand narratives and direct interaction with current students.

But so far, none of the blogs match the interactivity and creativity of those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they are posted prominently on the admissions homepage, along with hundreds of responses from prospective applicants — all unedited.

Not every admissions office has been so ready to welcome uncensored student writing.

“A lot of people in admissions have not been eager for bloggers, mostly based on fears that we can’t control what people are saying,” said Jess Lord, dean of admissions at Haverford College, which posted student bloggers’ accounts of their summer activities this year, and plans to add bloggers this spring to help admitted students hear about campus life. “We’re learning, slowly, that this is how the world works, especially for high school students.”

M.I.T.’s bloggers, who are paid $10 an hour for up to four hours a week, offer thoughts on anything that might interest a prospective student. Some offer advice on the application process and the institute’s intense workload; others write about quirkier topics, like warm apple pie topped with bacon and hot caramel sauce, falling down the stairs or trying to set a world record in the game of Mattress Dominos.

Posting untouched student writing — and comments reacting to that writing — does carry some risks. Boring, sloppily written posts do nothing to burnish an institutional image, college admissions officials say, and there is always the possibility of an inflammatory or wildly negative posting.

The MIT Bloggers page link.

A college blogger site called CollegeBlender aggregates the blogs of college students from around the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Balloon Boy Presidency

I just finished watching President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. I don't know that I've ever witnessed a sadder event that didn't involve human tragedy.

In accepting the prize, Obama compellingly argued that he neither deserved it nor understood it nor felt any obligation to its earthly intention. For the months leading up to his election, we shared Obama's campaign of HOPE and believed his rhetoric to signify a significant political intellect.

In Oslo, Obama's speech could have been delivered by the Orwellian errand boy, George W. Bush. Obama's message justified and romanticized war as our only comforting peace. His references to mankind extended no further than the borders of the United States and his historical context for action was no broader than the experience of an entitled black man empowered through his vicarious associations with actual civil rights activists.

This year's award of the Nobel Peace Prize is a hoax no grander than that of the balloon boy whose family's dream was to live life on a reality show. Obama too wants us to believe that the war he wages affects the television reality where humans observe the world instead of engaging in it. Obama's idea of Peace is getting re-elected and not giving the perception of being weak.

Like the boy who was never in the balloon, Obama was never in the movement that elected him. Tonight the Obama that was hiding in the barn in Kansas arrived like a Jerzy Kosinski character walking into a situation that he had no context for being in. The Peace Prize could have just as well been given to a General or Comedian or a barnyard animal.

His speech was awkward and disturbing. I felt as though I was watching the wrong channel or that maybe a conservative group had invented an anti-YES men and had fooled the audience.

The air of HOPE has leaked out of Obama's balloon. He tells us WAR is PEACE, that insurance companies can tax citizens, and that we are Racing to the Top for education.

This is not the man I voted for and he's not the man the Nobel Peace Prize committee thought he was.

What we are left with is yet another empty suit.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Refining Educational Terror One School District at a Time

About a month ago, I wrote a satiric entry called Why Torture Doesn't Work at Guantanamo but Works in Public Schools.

Today I received a comment to this entry that transcends and legitimizes the assertions of the original post (OP).
The Hillsborough County, Fla., public school district has introduced a ninth-grade "reading" course that actually is an SAT-prep course that grades high school freshmen on their ability to improve on SAT practice tests.

Not only does this strike me as highly unusual, but the grading scheme makes little sense.

Children must score higher on each practice to get an A. If they score high and repeat that but don't improve it, they get a B. No matter how high their score, if the score drops next time around, they get a C.

Thus, my straight-A daughter, who is taking challenging courses and has always scored highest in reading-related subjects, is flirting with a C grade that will affect her grade point average. I am curious as to whether other public school districts are doing something similar.

The theme of this should be familiar. It is the punishment the Greek Gods bestowed upon Tantalus whose name is the origin of the English word tantalize.

The punishment is described in the Homer's Odyssey, Book of the Dead [Robert Fagles translation].
And I saw Tantalus too, bearing endless torture.
He stood erect in a pool as the water lapped -
parched, he tried to drink he tried to drink, but he could not reach the surface.
no, time and again, the old man stooped, craving a sip,
time and again the water vanished, swallowed down,
laying bear the caked black earth at his feet -
some spirit drank it dry. And over his head
leafy trees from high aloft,
pomegranates and pears, and apples glowing red,
succulent figs and olives swelling sleek and dark,
but as soon as the old man would strain to clutch them fast
a gust would toss them up to the lowering black clouds.

And so as educators who know better continue to eternally raise expectations like the fruit above Tantalus' head and remove the access to recess, art, phys.ed. and all the things children crave more than the next test, we need to ask ourselves what we've become and why our educational policy reads like a recipe book for torture written by the gods.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

There Is No Future [God Save the Teen]

Detroit, this nation's urban crisis epicenter, just got it's NAEP test results back. Here's what Marisa Schultz of the Detroit news reports about the test results.

"These numbers are only slightly better than what one would expect by chance as if the kids had never gone to school and simply guessed at the answers," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts. "These numbers ... are shocking and appalling and should not be allowed to stand."

The test results are so concerning to the welfare of Detroit that Casserly flew to the city to brief the media, along with DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb, ahead of their release. Unless the community takes action to fix these urgent academic problems, "this city has no future," he said.

"Only a complete overhaul of this school system and how students are taught should be permitted at this point, because the results ... signal a complete failure of the grown-ups who have been in charge of the schools in the past," Casserly said during an interview with The Detroit News.

The test scores, Bobb said during a press conference Tuesday morning, further demonstrates the district faces an "an academic emergency" and needs an overhaul of its academic plan. And while Bobb indicated the scores were an indication of a systemwide failure, it was clear he placed much of the responsibility at the feet of the Detroit School Board.

These results are no surprise to me nor to anyone who teaches in Michigan. The kids whose answers are so wrong as to defy random guessing are no more ill equipped to handle math than the politicians and bureaucrats whose knowledge of educational reform is equally blissfully wrong. To be surprised is nothing more than an admission of ignorance or malicious indifference.

The test scores are a measure of poverty, despair, and urban decay - nothing education can magically remedy.

The adults will point fingers, spend money, huff and puff about higher standards and accountability and raising expectations - they'll provide all the easy rhetorical excrementation that the public loves to shower in. What they won't do is ask the right questions, examine the science, or actually solve any problems. This is all a well-known and familiar soap-opera that's played out in Connecticut for most of my life.

The so-called reform advocated for schools these days is largely a moronic exercise that raises drop-out rates, reduces teaching to a pet training rigor, and further entrenches public schools in losing and self-immolating education testing strategies.

The Obama administration's Race to the Top is a bigger fraud than Bush's No Child Left Behind disaster largely because it will involve flushing billions of dollars and what remains of the American taxpayer's goodwill toward education away for a pocketful of lint.

The urban crisis has obfuscated the educational needs of this nation thoroughly. We no longer care about learning or educational veracity. We are caught in a vortex of trying to solve the issues of poverty with the wallpaper of testing our children into intellectual submission. And the result is an educational cancer that is dragging the best schools into the gutter while the worst schools are abandoned faster than passengers fleeing the Titanic.

The public school system may never recover from the Obama administration and the country will regret the loss assuming its smart enough to notice.