Tuesday, July 24, 2012

NRA fantasies and fallacies

    If the gun lobby is to be our guide, he exercised his Second Amendment rights in ways our founders intended — using arms to keep an invasive government at bay.
   His weapons did just that, until law enforcement disarmed or removed all the explosive devices James Holmes rigged up in his Aurora, Colo., apartment.
    You say the weapons in his apartment weren't guns, so what's point?
    Point: For some odd, oppressive reason, society has prohibited the weapons Holmes had wired to explode in the privacy of his apartment when police came knocking. The type of weapon you can haul to a crowded movie theater, walking up the aisles administering rapid-fire death? Not only legal, but sacred.
   A weathered textbook on my shelf gives a rundown of logical fallacies and propaganda. It cites the "slippery slope" argument. It's one the National Rifle Association has mastered. You know: If they ban one kind of mass-killing device, the next thing they'll do is ban all mass-killing devices, or even those used just to kill one person at a time — one's neighbor, or lover, or the dark-skinned stranger walking through one's gated community.
    Well, I'm coming to fully appreciate the "slippery slope" argument:
    Let's say that we hadn't the spine to battle the gun merchants and the National Rifle Association, as reasonable people played dead in the aisle for almost 20 years, indeed, even allowing policy makers to emasculate minimalist guns laws. In that vacuum, imagine that we arrived at the side of the slope where, say, a 24-year-old would be able to kill 12, wound 58, and fire over 100 rounds, most of which he bought over the Internet.
    Yes, we can only imagine — imagine that when it happens we'll have leaders who don't dare mention the weapons but who simply mourn the victims, as if they were killed by a typhoon or a fissure in the Earth's crust. Wrong place, wrong time.
     What a crock. What a cop-out.
     Consider: After six died and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 12 others were wounded when a man fired 31 rounds into a crowd,  Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.,  proposed a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips. Of course, the bill went nowhere.
      Lautenberg said he would file it again in wake of the Aurora massacre, where the assailant's AK-47 carried a 100-round drum magazine.
      What possible civilian use is there for a such high-capacity device? Maybe for hunting fireflies or moonbeams? The justification for such weaponry can't be found in the founders' words but only in the minds of merchants and gun lobby. 
      You may consider that rationale wholly logical and laudable. Most Americans do not. That's what's become of this debate, though, as with so many.
      How can society's camouflage wing block what we all know to be reasonable — limiting the availability of certain weapons? Congress voted to do it in 1994 with a ban on a class of assault-style weapons. Ten years later a Republican Congress let the restrictions lapse.
      The state of gun policy today, says Bill Moyers, is that "toys are regulated with greater safety concerns than guns."
       Military-style assault weapons in anyman's hands? Nothing we can do about that. That's ridiculous.
       The problem: Most Americans are ambivalent about the extent to which firearms should be regulated. The absolutists, on the other hand, have the money, and the phone banks, and the absolute certainty.
      So, tell me, America. What is the difference between the banned death devices James Holmes rigged up at home and those he took to the movies? What would the founders say?
      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.              

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ablaze over Olympian blazers

  Jerry Seinfeld was gold — gold, I tell ya — when he said, in effect, all sports fans do is root for laundry.

  Whatever the sport: We may hardly know the players, but what stirs us to song is the colors they wear.

  So, what song emanates when the laundry is Chinese, yet to be worn during the opening ceremonies in London by the U.S. Olympic team?

  Sound waves fit to shatter eyeglasses quickly bounce from the nightly news to the halls of Congress, which assembles for declarations and ceremonial finger point.ing Thus supplanted: such vital matters as baseball stars sticking needles in their hindquarters, and the election-cycle rush to designate the bison our national mammal.

   The latter may seem frivolous until we consider what grand herds of American buffalo had (and have) in common with the once-indomitable force that produced durable goods "Made in the U.S.A." Both have found themselves at extinction's brink.

   Actually, the bison are doing better than U.S. manufacturers. After all, the federal government set out to protect them.

    Though of little big-picture consequences, the tumult over the Olympic evening attire serves as a usefully screeching, wailing reminder of what's become of our economy.

    It's why Mitt Romney's defense of Bain Capital's outsourcing activities can be summarized as, "I was off running Massachusetts at the time."

    It's why when critics assailed President Obama for the purchase of a campaign bus whose shell was Canadian-made, the administration scrambled for a defensible claim that the finished product was assembled in Tennessee.

   For too long we have soft-pedaled the whole issue of the hollowing out of American manufacturing. The Bain capitalists want us to believe it's all good, as overseas goods are cheaper and overseas labor means higher profits for American corporations that exploit it.

    But is it all good? And is benign neglect defensible as a policy matter?

    Recently I wrote about the manufacturing anomaly that is Halloween — principally the  odd contrast between who makes what ends up in the trick-or-treat bag and what's worn by the goblins soliciting treats. Virtually all the candy on U.S. shelves is American-made. Meanwhile, virtually all the disguises, the plastic doodads and props — made in China, made in Taiwan.

   What is the logistical difference (don't say "labor unions") between dollops of chocolate or gummy critters rolling down a conveyor belt and plastic spiders and plastic fangs? It therefore defies logic that American manufacturers can't compete in the doodad market.

    Here's what really defies logic: that favorable tax policies would grease the skids for jobs that get shipped overseas by American firms.

    A recently introduced measure by congressional Democrats would give companies that return operations and workers to the United States a 20 percent tax credit. It would pay for the credit by closing tax loopholes for companies that export jobs.

   Republicans oppose this, having been those most enamored by the corporate love affair with globalism and outsourcing.

   With the notable exception of Bill Clinton, Democrats as well have been much too pliant on these matters. Now President Obama is making it a campaign issue, and good for us.

   We have all let the so-called virtues of globalization and bigness mesmerize us into believing that economic Valhalla is in the discount aisle. No, it's not.

    Chinese-made blazers? Thank goodness a matter related to a fundamental economic defect has finally scraped up some good old populist umbrage. So, it's root, root, root for American laundry.

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'Raising the bar' sounds smart, but . . .

   Alyssa Sturgeon had me at "metaphors."

   I teach college students to appreciate analogy. Sometimes it's like yanking out a molar with rubber hose.

   Alyssa gets analogy. She's in fourth grade.

   She wrote a letter to thet editor of the Vero Beach Press Journal to wonder how the state could have flunked so many on the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — FCAT.

   It turns out Florida couldn't explain it, either, except for it had bought into the folly of "raising the bar" on standardized tests.

   Alyssa's letter:

   "We prepared by writing essays almost every day this year. We made sure to learn all the ways to write similes and metaphors. We studied so hard and still got poor scores."

    Statewide, 73 percent of Florida fourth-graders got failing marks on the writing portion of a new, "improved" version of FCAT. Wow. What a classroom disaster.

    But, wait. One of those failing grades went to this impressive fourth-grader. I demand a recount on Alyssa's behalf. 

    "I know that they made FCAT hard," she wrote the newspaper. "But this hard . . . ? There must be something wrong."

     Indeed, she was right. The Florida Board of Education was forced to modify the grading standards to avert a crisis.

     Sorry that we had to do this to you, Alyssa, but three cheers for anything that sheds a light on the nonsensical underpinnings of the cult of standardization that drags down your education.

     Your school may be great, but what the state does to it is not, and certainly not when it "raises the bar," as so many states have done. What they do is further immerse children and teachers in the scalding oil of "accountability."

     Almost nothing is good when policies are driven by the belief that standardization is education and competence is excellence.

     The cult of standardization serves almost no one, except for companies like Pearson that make the tests.     

      Overemphasis on testing narrows the curriculum. Students above grade level are dragged into the monotony of test-prep drills they don't need. Students below grade level find themselves imprisoned by a drumbeat on sore core subjects, at the expense of all else most of us consider to be education. Those in the middle are simply bored.

     The overriding problem with the system as executed in most states is that "accountability" isn't about helping the students but about hammering the schools and teachers. It is wholly punitive, a continuous firing squad. And, "They're using kids as the ammunition."

     Those are the words of Alyssa's father, Jaime Sturgeon, who also happens to be a history teacher, and who spoke to me by phone.

      What's sick about what happened in Florida is what the daughter told her parents when her writing test score came out: "I thought I might write someday, but I'm just not cut out for it." Multiply that stress and frustration by thousands.

     Faulty pedagogy underlies what is happening in state after state.

     As pioneered by Texas, what states have been doing under No Child Left Behind is called criterion-based testing, meaning testing on criteria for which demonstration of competence is required of all. But by the very nature of the human mind, not all learners are created equal.

      Fixated on test scores, policy makers have a faux dilemma — how "basic" or "advanced" to make the tests, and how high to set thresholds for passing? And does a "higher bar" benefit all? Answer: no.

    The kind of high bar for students like Alyssa is the stuff of honors, Advanced Placement classes or SAT and ACT.

    The fact is that students like Alyssa don't need the state's intervention at all. They never did. All they needed was caring and competent teachers. The barkers of testing think standardization can serve all students. No, it can't.

    The deceit behind "raising the bar" is the attempt to make criterion-based testing what it is not, something that can serve everyone's needs. Norm-referenced tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or SAT — challenging to everyone — can do that, because they truly stretch students in showing their respective aptitudes.

    But, then, a state can't build a test-based, fear-based curriculum around something that reaches out into the realm of academic possibility.      

     What states need to do, rather than "raising the bar," is acknowledge the limits of testing. Instead of making the tests tougher, they should set reasonable basic thresholds, put the assessments online (in diagnostic formats that help with learning), let students test multiple times to show competency if necessary, and back off.

    It couldn't be more wrong that some faceless individual would set a bar so high as to convince Alyssa Sturgeon she can't write. I'm betting it won't be long, and maybe the day is already here, when she can write that faceless individual under the table.

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

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Executioners of neighborhood schools

    Two disasters blackened the blast-furnace summer of 2011 in Texas. Against one, man was defenseless: the duo of drought and fire. The first took almost half a billion trees. The later, nearly 4,000 homes. 

    It was horrific, but only marginally worse than what the Legislature did to Texas schools. That disaster was man-caused.

    Something similar was happening to schools in Arizona, Florida and Georgia. Indeed, the forecast remains dire wherever red-state values put blue-sky budgeting above children's needs.

    This is felt in many ways — prekindergarten programs squandered, teachers fired by the thousands, larger classes awaiting those remaining (along with stacks of costly new state mandates).

    As with a fire scene, it's hard to find what loss feels most damaging. But I'm going to pick one.

    In recent months, to save teachers' jobs amid millions in budget cuts, the Waco Independent School District board voted to close nine schools. That includes my sons' grade school, Meadowbrook Elementary.

     Nine schools. That's a ton of disruption and heartbreak, not just for children, but for their neighborhoods.

     Dallas is pondering something similar as it looks at its own stark budget numbers.

     Last year was the first since Dust Bowl days that Texas had an actual cut —  $4 billion — in school spending. What had been "budget cuts" heretofore were reductions in the rate of growth. The difference is significant, and staggering, because state population continues to grow, as does enrollment (1.5 percent per year).

     Maybe Texas shouldn't feel so bad. In Arizona, over the last four years the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut per-student funding 22.8 percent. One result: a wave of school closures and consolidations.

    The irony is that this budget devastation is crashing up against an idea long promoted by Republicans: neighborhood schools.

    My old haunt, Waco, certainly bought into the concept when it built several small inner-city schools in the 1990s. Since then it made major investments in all of its schools with a succession of bond issues. The place that used to be our neighborhood school was one of several that got new gymnasiums. And now: the wrecking ball, courtesy of the budget wizards in Austin.

   A nearly Great Depression (set in motion by smarter-than-y'all guys from Texas?) was cited as the reason for the decline in revenues that necessitated these budget cuts in state after state. That's true to a degree, but it lets red-state leadership off too lightly.

    In Texas, so-called school finance reforms in 2006 — a new business tax that didn't come close to canceling out deep property tax cuts — created a budget hole felt almost immediately by schools. That helped make matters cataclysmic when the nation's economy was tanking in the blackened summer of '11.

     Wayne Pierce of executive director of the Austin school-funding organization Equity Center, called the budget cuts bearing down on Texas schools "catastrophic," with no comfort to be seen down the road from lawmakers.

      "From all indications, they don't have any intention of stepping up and doing what's right for children. They are going to lowball education."

       In Arizona, business tax cuts didn't stimulate the economy to the extent legislative barkers said they would. Instead, what came with them: deep, deep budget cuts.

    "You cut your school budgets by 22 percent. That's a lot of real money," said Tom Powers, superintendent of Greenlee County in southern Arizona. "The ones who are putting that 22 percent in their pockets are the fat cats."

     Iisn't that the way it always works? "Trickle-down." "Grow the pie." "Guv'mint is the problem, not the solution."

     Well, let's grant credence on that one count. These glad-handers were right about the problems faced, and deepened, when "guv'mint" came into their custody.

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