Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Xs, Os — and sexual orientation?

     When the almost all-black Texas Western team shocked an all-white Kentucky squad in the 1966 NCAA men's basketball championship, the announcers did not report, "A stunning victory for the negroes."

     No, they remarked on a stunning team feat.

     When Emily Neimann hit her fifth of five majestic three-pointers to help Baylor University win the 2005 NCAA women's title, likewise the announcers did not intone, "That's three more for the lesbian."

     No, they commented on a jaw-dropping performance off the bench for a stocky sophomore.

     Which is as it should be. Talent is talent. Teamwork is teamwork. Dedication is dedication. Sexual orientation is no one else's business.

      Yet because of her sexual orientation, Neimann decided she couldn't, or wouldn't, finish her playing career at Baylor, the nation's largest Southern Baptist university. (She transferred and married her partner, Ashley Taylor. They now share the last name Nkosi.)

      Because of their sexual orientation, innumerable women athletes like Nkosi, and some of their coaches, must live a lie.

      Such is the issue in a penetrating report recently in ESPN The Magazine — that several women's college programs recruit by asserting indirectly or directly that competitors are populated by homosexuals.

      You don't want that? Do you, Mom and Dad?

      Ironically, the magazine reported that when Baylor recruited his daughter, Nkosi's fundamentalist Christian father asked coach Kim Mulkey point blank if she had lesbians on the squad.

     To her credit, the magazine said Mulkey wouldn't play that game. She said she had no idea what her players did away from the gym. Were that so with Baylor itself, which proudly drives young people like Nkosi into the shadows and to other venues of higher learning.           

       As for other programs? Suffice it to say, either in code or in outright assertion, that many try to sway recruits and their parents by saying everything in their program is on the straight and narrow, as opposed to those of some competitors.

    The code phrase they often cite, about running a "family program," yanks me back to that bacchanalia of intolerance, the 1992 Republican National Convention. For those who don't recall, it was a "culture war," "traditional family values" yap-a-thon. It inspired no one but the festival goers floating on the Astrodome ceiling, high on their own virtue.

     Lesbians in college athletics? Imagine that. Can't be. Or gays in the military all these years, either.

     We hear about the injustice that is the under representation of blacks in coaching ranks. Now consider this: In all of Division I women's basketball, only one coach is openly gay, Portland State's highly successful Sherri Murrell. That doesn't mean she's the only lesbian coach. She's the only one not living a lie. And when she was with another program, Murrell admits she lied to keep her job.

    No one should have to do such a thing. One's sexuality is no one else's business unless it comes into play in uninvited ways, and that applies to those straight as well as those not. A letch is a letch. A groper is a groper.

     What is abominable is the apparent whisper campaign conducted by institutions of higher learning. It implies that if a program has lesbians playing on the team, one's daughter cannot be safe from their advances. It's the old, "Does the black rub off on you?" concern from Jim Crow days.

     Let's face it. Underlying the assault on the human rights of human beings who are homosexual is the back-to-the-dunking-pond-days claim that associating with gay people will turn one gay. The ballyhooed "gay agenda" we are told we must fear is nothing about seizing power. It's about legitimizing casual contact with people who are different than a perceived norm.

      But, of course, each of us associates with gays and lesbians on a daily basis. Each of us depends on them in countless ways, as good citizens, productive workers, friends of mankind and occasionally as a long-distance markswoman when basketball glory is on the line.

      Nobody in the stands cared about Emily Nkosi's sexual orientation that glittering night, and it's a travesty that anyone should care, or know, about it now. 

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Backward march into future

     Dwight Eisenhower puts all of his political capital on the line to advance an audacious notion: a national highway system. He is rebuffed when states refuse to play along. They complain that even if the federal government pays 90 percent, these will be their highways to maintain, with costs associated. They want no part of it.

    That, of course, didn't happen. The states understood the benefits of this initiative to lift the nation, and regional economies, into better days — post-frontier days, post-Dust Bowl days.

    Fast-forward to the new governor of Florida, who recently pushed the "pause" button on comparable progress.

    Rick Scott turned down $2.4 billion contained in the federal stimulus bill for a high-speed rail project from Miami to Orlando. Scott's principal argument: The railroad system would be unlikely to pay for itself and would require state subsidies ultimately. (Like  interstate highways, possibly?)

    Scott's decision drew huzzahs from the tea-bag core by which he secured a razor-thin victory in November. It also frosted off some fellow Republicans in Tallahassee who know the jobs and economic activity now will go elsewhere.

    Admittedly, Scott's position is easy to peddle to any interest not along the proposed rail line. What use is it to them? And you wonder how Eisenhower made the pitch to those who wouldn't have an I-40, I-35 or I-10 facilitating speedier traffic their way.

    High-speed rail? Audacious. But those who dismiss its potential, even if it requires subsidies as do airports and superhighways, are trapped in their own conventions. They are trapping society at the same time.

    Scott's hard-right constituents called his rejection of the stimulus dollars brilliant. The person looking smart now, however, is Fareed Zakaria.

    His piercing essay, "Yes, America is in decline" in the March 14 Time magazine assailed the rush to climb into our shells regarding public investment.

    One wonders where we would be today if a Republican like Eisenhower curled up in a shell instead of building for the future.

    One thing that the interstate highway system did was truly link states into a whole. Time illustrated Zakaria's commentary with an American flag diced into red, white and blue tatters. One could say the same about long-range communal considerations such as infrastructure and education.

     "We are cutting investments and subsidizing consumption — exactly the opposite of what are the main drivers of economic growth," Zakaria writes.

      Gee, FDR, we can't tax-cut and toll-road our way back to prosperity?

      One can think of few fiscal moves that would be harder on a region's economy than to shut down community colleges. Yet that's what Texas was about to do until an uproar caused state budget writers to say they will tap one-third of a $9 billion "rainy-day" fund to keep four community colleges open — Odessa College, Frank Phillips, Brazosport and Ranger College. How anyone could have see such a move as preferable to tapping an emergency fund, or otherwise finding revenue to continue these colleges' operations, bespeaks a dark, backward state of mind that afflicts us.

      Unfortunately, policy makers aren't thinking of the greater good, but of individual pangs and angsts. "American politics is now hyper responsive to constituents' interests," writes Zakaria. "All those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future."

     The battle today pits the impulses of tax cuts and insularity vs. infrastructure and education, and it's a rout. The nation will be poorer for it. 

     "Together, the unifying forces of our communication and transportation systems are dynamic elements in the very name we bear — United States. Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts." That was Eisenhower promoting the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our insatiable, abominable testing culture

   Damn the evidence. Full speed ahead.

   Damn the costs. Full speed ahead.

   Nothing — not legitimate questions about efficacy, not staggering costs amid general budget bloodletting — will stay the maddening march toward more standardized testing for America's school children.

   In Texas, school districts brace for $9.8 billion in budget cuts which could result in 100,000 teachers losing their jobs. And so?

   Oblivious to the budget pressures it now exerts, and to the costly mandates it otherwise layers on its schools with such vigor, the state is moving ahead with the next generation of stifling standardization, the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.

     STAAR is to replace the current state test as Texas again "raises the bar," acting out the misbegotten gospel that standardization is education and competence is excellence.

    Texas' next system will cost untold billions, to what ends? Even with the "higher bar," students who are above grade level will squirm at the restraints that slow them down. Students who are below grade level will be forced into classroom concentration camps where increasingly scripted instruction will direct their attention to the testing objectives where "new emphasis" is needed. Those in the middle will be misled into thinking that passing means excelling.

   The bottom line of this sordid quest: We have deluded ourselves into believing that somehow if we assign the same academic pursuit to all students we'll get a uniformly educated student population. But of course, that is a joke. People learn at different speeds, have different aptitudes and interests, different influences at home.

    One of the most brilliant minds I ever knew, a liberal arts legend at the university level who has passed from the scene, bemoaned states' gesticulation before the god of standardization, particularly the pagan deity of algebra.

     He could do all the math he needed math. He couldn't do advanced algebra, or at least knew it to be irrelevant to his professional life, as it is to many or most of us. He found it criminal that a once-vibrant public school system was being twisted and contorted, straining under the chains of arbitrary "standards" decided by — whom?

    This all goes back to Texas in the 1980s asking Ross Perot what his idea of education was. The rest of us followed it right into a cramped pink cubicle of homogeny.

    So, how are we doing, excellence-wise? Not well, though billions and billions of dollars are spent on tests and pedagogical regimentation. Standardized tests as enforced by the states do not in any way prepare the college-bound for college. Meanwhile, the cyclops of test prep for those at the low end mean they endure less true education as teachers narrow the curriculum to focus only on what's tested.

    Knowing adherents of this charade now tell us that testing will focus on "growth models" to show student improvement. And through these growth models we supposedly will be able to determine if teachers are worthy of keeping their jobs or getting raises.

     Last year the Los Angeles Times used an analysis based on California's "valued added measurement" system to rate elementary teachers. The system was seen as bolstering the merits of "merit-base" policies. Recently two University of Colorado researchers challenged the ratings for failing to take into consideration variables including student demographics and outside influences. Any teacher could tell you that these factors must be considered. But, hey, that's just not neat and tidy.

      Gary Ravani, president of the California Federation of Teachers' Early Childhood/K-12 Council, says that although he is quite concerned about how a questionable method would be used to rate teachers, the overriding concern is what these systems do to teaching itself.

      "Experts agree that tying more teacher accountability to these tests drives more teaching to the tests. This has led to a dangerous narrowing of curriculum. Particularly in distressed communities the teaching of science, history, music and art has been eliminated."

      Unfortunately, if the testing culture doesn't gut the essence of what education is, state-by-state budget bludgeoning will. People who care about real education should not suffer this silently.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

'Pottery barn rule' revised

    Observe now the touting of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for president.

    Many who can't find the Muscatatuck River on a map will wonder. Mitch who? But Daniels is no nobody. As a poly-sci entity, he is much known. He was George W. Bush's first budget director in Washington.

     As president, Bush had a nickname for everybody. He called Daniels "The Blade" for how he could cut government spending. So, how did that go?

     Over two years under Daniels' guidance, the $236 billion surplus that Team Bush inherited became a $400 billion deficit.

     Apparently this is a route to icon status. Deficits by design, after all, meant canonization for Ronald Reagan.

     These days we hear much talk about imposing performance standards for public employees. Watch what you wish for, GOP. If we did, it might bar many who served in the Bush administration from all but flagging for road crews.

     None, to be sure, would present himself as a fiscal savior.

     Right now, however, odd circumstances present themselves. The party that got the nation into its horrific economic straits suddenly is getting a chance to do things it fantasized, and specifically because it messed things up so terribly.

     When the nation invaded Iraq, a grudging Colin Powell spoke of the pottery barn principle: If you break it, you buy it. He couldn't have been more prescient.

      An odd thing now, however: The economy that free-market, laissez-faire, dereg, let-it-ride policies left in shards is in the laps of others, most notably Barack Obama and the Democrats, and millions of unemployed Americans.

      And now, after a soured-by-the-economy off-year election, who is in a position to push for more of what they have always craved? The Republicans. This is the weirdest performance incentive in the history of human resources.

      Witness this logic: Because GOP national policies so caused state economies to tank, and voters to fume, newly empowered Republican governors are exacting blood oaths against public employee unions.

      Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker believes that the state's dire straits give him a mandate to yank collective bargaining powers away from teachers, health and social workers, and more.

       In Colorado, on the pretense of saving tax dollars in the bad economy, one of the most Republican school districts is proposing school vouchers.

      Offered as delivering on the imperative of school choice, the vouchers are actually a backdoor means of a wealthy district getting wealthier for doing nothing. The district would dish out 75 percent of what it gets from the state for a voucherized student, this to incentivize his or her bolting from the district. And it keeps 25 percent.

      By review: This is done on the pretense of addressing a bad economy. But, understand: That economy is really an excuse to do what conservatives always fantasize. And by review: The economy was done in by conservative fantasies run amok.

     In November, Republicans seeking to take over Congress railed against the president for anemic job numbers. Here's a number to consider: House Speaker John Boehner says the Republican budget will cut 200,000 jobs. This is the solution for a crippled economy?

     Actually, if you are keeping track, we should assume that a job-killing bill is exactly what the GOP wants. Look at how economic doldrums have made for high times for fear-mongering reactionaries in state after state. Jobs? Heck, no. Drive that economy deeper into the tar pits. This tack can only be good for those who blame government for all things bad. Their strategy so far has worked in stunning fashion.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.