Wednesday, September 28, 2011

School reform’s magic bullet(s)

A few years ago back in peacetime — yes, way back then — I jokingly wrote that we needed a war to distract policy makers from their chronic top-down meddling in public schools.

George W. Bush had just ascended to the presidency. His flight-deck mission then: to become the nation's school superintendent. After all, he'd "done" education in Texas.

Congress took the bait, as had state legislatures. To hear the rhetoric, collectively we had assigned school reform the moral equivalence of war. Egad.

I was wrong to think a real war would be the stick of chewing gum that would take reformers' salivary attention off of schools, with the overkill and misery they engineered.

I'd seen how flavor-of-the-week changes bombarding my sons' Texas schools did nothing for them. Indeed, test-heavy "accountability" was the worst thing ever to happen to their educations.

War "over there"? No matter. The school reformers kept firing their carbines, each time advertising a new magic bullet. Meanwhile, teachers had to duck, cover, and hand out worksheets to comport with each new military-style edict.

Magic bullet: merit pay. Raise test scores, make more money. School districts that tried it have found it barely nudged the needle. Then they yanked any incentive when times got tight.

Magic bullet: combat pay, or the equivalent of it. Send teachers into the "worst" schools for more wad. But, then, teachers value job stability over lucre, especially lucrative offers that collapse when a school doesn't produce the numbers desired.

Magic bullet: "new management." This has proven especially specious when handing schools over to private firms that showed up with whole ammo belts of magic bullets. But many reformers had pressed on with the notion of blowing up the system in favor of suspect charter schools and for-profit contractors.

Magic bullet: increasingly strict dress codes. They're advertised for their stain-fighting power in school discipline. We are to believe lack of discipline to be the root of all scholastic ills. However, when educators point out that the best way to manage a class is to have a manageable number of students per class, the reformers change the subject.

Just the other day another magic bullet was found to be of the dummy variety. A study published in the journal Science asserted that the push for single-sex classrooms and campuses, promoted by No Child Left Behind, offers little educational benefit, and may do more harm than good.

The bottom line, according to the study: Though schools and teachers may vary in quality and approach, segregating students by sex is no game-changer. What matters? Highly involved parents who supply really good students, of course.

This brings up the most ballyhooed of all school reform magic bullets: "choice," code for school vouchers.

If truly authoritative evidence supported the scholastic efficacy of vouchers, we'd hear about it every day from school reform warriors.

That evidence doesn't exist, for the simple reason that wherever a student goes (or wherever the student stays in the "failing" public school), his or her parents come along. That variable doesn't vary.

Private schools are better schools? No evidence supports it, certainly not when factoring in the family units with which exclusive schools get to work. Believe what you wish. Nothing supports voucher "magic."

I'll tell you about magic. It came in the petite form of a third-grade teacher who taught both my sons, Mrs. Evans. She loved to thrill her students about science — until told that she needed to devote science time to math time, as state test scores dictated it. She's out of the profession.

Along with the generally amazing raw material presented to schools on Day 1 in the form of generally smiling, enthusiastic children, the only magic that can change lives inside the doors is that supplied by teachers. What has more than a decade of peacetime/ wartime school reforms done to help generate that magic? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Paper trail (green) out of Texas

    Wacky, bewitching Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy is melting, melting, actually has offered something of substance to voters just before she becomes a vapor.

    She's called the hand that has suddenly doused her campaign with her own tea-steeped brew, the hand of Rick Perry. So doing, she's made a very important point.

     It deals with Perry's controversial directive that all Texas girls be inoculated against cervical cancer. Bachmann's point-worth-making, however, has nothing to do with her irresponsible claim that the widely used vaccine causes mental retardation. For that, she should have her literary license revoked.

     However, Bachmann's citing Perry's relationship with Merck, maker of the vaccine, is very much on the mark. If Team Obama isn't taking notes, it isn't as smart as advertised.

    Back in 2006, Merck was putting on a full-court press to get legislatures to mandate use of the serum. It had no luck until Perry decided to circumvent Texas lawmakers entirely and issue his order. A firestorm ensued, particularly among Perry's core constituents of the religious right. He yanked his order.

    Thanks to Bachmann, the back story: Part of Merck's campaign in Texas was to use its political action committee to funnel $28,500 toward Perry's re-election. For a while, this looked like money extraordinarily well spent.

    Perry feigns indignation at the assertion that his influence could be bought. No, Governor, we know that's not possible. The problem, of course, is the appearance of you being bought. Forgive people for wondering. We all know that anyone who looks so good in a suit and tie is above said reproach.

    One might wonder why this cozy matter with Merck wasn't an issue in Perry's re-election campaigns. The explanation is this: They took place in Texas.

    Now, you probably have a low estimation of campaign ethics as practiced in Washington. Whatever you estimate, understand: Disregarding their respective charms, on campaign ethics, Washington is Plymouth Colony compared to Austin, which is Mogadishu.

     On campaign spending, Texas is the Land that Watergate Forgot. Hence, you have someone like homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation) having donated $2 million to Perry since 2001. (Bob Perry was one of the big guns behind the "Swiftboaters for Truth" campaign against decorated war veteran John Kerry on behalf of Air National Guard no-show George W. Bush.)

    San Antonio religious-right scion James Leininger has spent millions to elect Republicans in Texas, none benefitting as much as Rick Perry. He got a $1 million loan from Leininger at the last minute in his razor-tight win of the lieutenant governor's post in 1998. Three years earlier, Perry bought 2,800 shares of stock in Leininger's medical equipment company — just before an acquisition effort drove up stocks and made Perry $4,487 in one month. Sweet.

    Many have wondered how Perry, a career public servant born of humble origins, reports a net worth of $2.8 million. Smart investing, naturally.

    Anyway, these are the kinds of questions few ask in Texas, where the prevailing questions tend to be about guns, God and gayness, and you'd better not straddle any of these issues.

    Running to be the leader of the free world, his past laid bare before the nation's press, Perry will have a paper trail that would make many Americans blanch — and not just related to policy. That's frightening enough. What will make eyes grow wide will be the paper trail of lucrative sweetheart relationships with big business, and Perry's nonstop back-scratching fiesta with major contributors.

    Those money sources are one reason why, as with Bush, Perry could towel off from a morning coyote-killing run and launch a presidential campaign from a standing start.

    Follow the money, folks. Be amazed. If you thought Washington is corrupt, well, to phrase it in a way Perry would write himself, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If geese are talking about climate

     Do the geese talk all the way? It's work enough — winging from Canada's marshes to America's heartland — without also flapping one's bill nonstop. That appears to be the case, however.

     All I know is that when the Canada geese are over my head in in Colorado, south-bound now, they are talking. And I presume it's not my head they talk about.

     They could be discussing strange doings in our climate. Enough weirdness is happening in it to dominate a conversation across time zones — not that you'd think so if you listened to conversations on the ground. By the silence, one would believe the human species to be oblivious.

      We are completing one of the most scorching summers ever, on the tailwinds of a year — 2010 — that tied with 2005 as the warmest on record. This despite a colder-than-normal winter in many parts of the country. 

      Where I live, I expect another extenuated autumn. It was beyond spectacular last year — the colors exploding like an end-time fireworks display. That was caused, however, by something unsettling and not healthy: the fact that winter did not want to come. That's  just what pine beetles like to hear.

      Climate change is helping turn the Rockies brown as the pine beetles eat with vigor. Only extreme and prolonged cold snaps in the high country, the norm generations ago, will stop them. Not now.

     In my old nesting ground of Texas, August began in May this year temperature-wise, and never left. A stunning aspect of photos of fires in Central Texas that have destroyed hundreds of homes is the  ground vegetation that hasn't burned. It isn't just brown. It is February brown. The question now: When will actual winter come to offer relief?

     The fact is that seasons are growing seriously out of kilter, and no one senses it better than geese and other migratory birds.

     A 2007 study found that climate change increasingly was disrupting migratory patterns for birds, who rely on temperature to tell them when to take flight. The longer they hang around a locale — and the concern is that some migratory species will become "residential" — pertinent food supplies become depleted, with species at risk.

    As Reuters environmental correspondent Alister Doyle writes, migratory creatures are the "most visible indicators of dramatic change" in Earth's climate. That's saying something, considering the droughts, heat waves, shrinking glaciers and monster storms now emblematic of a climate in flux.

    The only thing not changing regarding our climate is our political system's response to it.

    It doesn't matter at all what the vast majority of climatologists say. Politicians are backpedalling furiously from the truth, and the evidence. Some of them, like information scavengers, seek any point of contention in the scientific community to assert that, "See? No agreement on this matter. So, we'll keep doing what we do. False alarm."

    It is starting to look like the mere discussion of climate change, as with any meaningful discussion or action about the proliferation of guns in this country, is a nonstarter in Washington, for the simple reason that discourse is dictated by lobbies and the next election cycle.

    Speaking of discussions, the National Academies of Sciences had an extensive one recently and said this:

    "There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world's climate. However, there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring." Additionally: "It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities."

      That sounds authoritative. You can hear what you want out of those quite assertive words, but you can't ignore them.

      Why are the geese talking, and not those of us with higher-order communicating skills?

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What nationality would Jesus dump on?

   It's a dirty shame that the Pew Research Center, in seeking a head count of extremism among Muslims in the United States, didn't seek the same of extreme Christians.

   You might have noticed the story — the polling organization, at 10 years post-9/11, getting a sense of what American Muslims are thinking.

    In what ought to be news to no one, Pew found that the vast majority of Muslims reject extremism — with as many as 96 percent saying they see support for it waning among their kind.

     Yet in a sign of a disconnect with that reality, Pew found that 40 percent of the general U.S. public perceives "a fair amount" or "a great deal of" support for extremism among American Muslims.

     What I'd like to know is how many of those 40 percent are Christian. Pew didn't ask. That's a pity.

     Now, it's possible that the predispositions of the atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Taoists and Wiccans among would skew such a tally of misunderstanding to myth-understanding. Doubtful.

    A better indication of the "core constituency" for said myth comes in what passes for some of the lawmaking being driven by the passions of conservative — extreme? — Christians.

    Consider what happened in Tennessee, where the General Assembly passed a bill equating Shariah law with promoting "the destruction of the national existence of the United States." Tennessee is one of several states considering laws to ban official recognition of Shariah, thereby decreeing an official stigma toward many Muslim Americans.

    This being a nation where religion is of one's own choosing, and where what one thinks is not government's business, laws like this couldn't be more un-American. But they are good politics when appealing to a certain core constituency.

     Since 9/11, that core has sought to construct and salute a "them vs. us" template, with Muslims in general as "them." How many times over the last 10 years have we heard people, generally conservative Christians, preach that the essence of the Muslim faith is a command to kill infidels?

     If that's the case, the vast majority of peaceful Muslims aren't — Muslims, that is.

    Ah, reality be damned. Hysteria is much better at packing the pews.

    This same dynamic is at play in ways that viciously marginalize another segment of our society. Consider the bill pushed by Republicans to repeal the language assistance provision of the Voting Rights Act — which requires ballots in foreign languages when "a substantial" number of voters in a precinct need them.

    Proponents assert that this awards sloth and anti-Americanism. After all, new American citizens must learn English.

    Two key points are ignored in this spiel.

    First, according to the 2000 census, three quarters of those who need this kind of assistance are native-born. They aren't newcomers at all. Do they speak English? Yes, but: As pertains to many bilingual Americans, there's a big difference between the "proficiency" for the language required in citizenship classes — or shopping for groceries, or comporting one's self in an English-speaking culture — and the fluency needed to read and understand a ballot.

     Literacy tests were among the most abominable and oppressive features of Jim Crow. This proposal is a means to the same evil end.

     So, what is it about a core Christian constituency that would be so quick to choose these routes to oppress fellow Americans?

     What do you imagine Jesus's response would have been about an Islamic community center being built within blocks of Ground Zero? I don't think most of those who so readily invoke his name really want to know.

    What would Jesus be saying and doing about the undocumented shadow population in America that effectively washes the white man's feet — or, more literally, buses his tables and changes his bed sheets? 

     His message would be about love and understanding, not about finding ways to disenfranchise and marginalize one another.

     "You profess to believe that 'of one blood God made all nations of men to dwell on the earth.' . . . yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred!) all men whose skins are not colored like your own."

     That was Frederick Douglass, a slave once, wondering aloud about a propensity among Christians to be less than Christ-like.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: