Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For education, against the test

    Jesse Hagopian is doing more than teaching history. He is answering history's call.

    With Hagopian in the lead, most of the teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School have made recent history's most important statement about what drags down public education in 2013.

    They have refused to give the test.

    In this case it is MAP, the Measure of Academic Progress. The teachers say it is time-consuming, costly and serves no true diagnostic purpose.

    Since Garfield teachers declared their boycott weeks ago, other Seattle teachers have joined the protest. The school district has threatened them with their jobs. Tellingly, however, it also has said it might re-examine the test.

    For all who value public education, let these teachers win their battle.

    As one who was educated in public schools, and whose children were as well, I cannot express sufficiently my impression that those who are most gung-ho about testing are least interested in true quality public schools.

     To the contrary, they are most interested in assailing those schools based on false comparisons, then promoting schemes like school vouchers and for-profit charters.

     In truth, and in their heart of hearts, these people don't buy into the whole concept of public education, and certainly not education in a classical, Jeffersonian sense. They want to treat schools like factories that dispense facts and spit out workers. It's all about keeping up with the smoke-belchers of China and Taiwan.

    Or maybe it's about stoking the burners of some of the most profitable factories on our shores: those dispensing standardized tests and curricula and test-prep materials. 

     The test in question in Seattle is developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. It uses interactive computer software to supposedly demonstrate student readiness. Seattle teachers don't get to see the results, but they are evaluated, in part, based on them.

    Administered in addition to Washington's mandated state test, MAP is different from many state tests because it is low-stakes, at least for the students. Their grades are not affected by the results, and they often give half-hearted efforts, though teaching careers may hang on them.

     Beyond that matter, what is affected, say the teachers, is the "astounding" amount of instructional time lost — five hours per school year for each student.

     Ah, yes. Time. How often have we heard policymakers talk about the need for longer school days, or more of them? How about less time spent on tests and test prep?

    A Texas grade school teacher told me that she lost the equivalent of 16 instructional days each year to state tests, locally mandated test-prep drills and benchmark tests.

     Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers did readers a service by focusing on the time and cost of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — FCAT.

     It reported on how school districts spend untold time and thousands of dollars on benchmark tests, called "testing of the test" — students as guinea pigs to see if the state's demands are or can be met by overtaxed teachers. On top of $62 million spent by Florida are unfunded demands  school districts assume to administer FCAT.

    Dollars and instructional times lost: None dare call it waste.

    The sad thing is that so many citizens salute this toilet-paper banner under the guise of "achievement" and "excellence." The fact is that no standardized test meant for everyone of every imaginable learning level can deliver on such pretenses. Is that so hard to understand?

    The teachers of Garfield High understand. They understand that what they are trying hard to achieve — true education – is being filleted with a long sword on the altar of standardization.

    So, horrors, instead of playing along, they have said, "We will remain at our posts and teach." What say, America? Off with their heads?

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Casting call: America's next McCarthy

    America needs to know:

    Whether Chuck Hagel has sold nuclear secrets on E-Bay.

    Whether he has a secret time-share sauna with Vladimir Putin.

    Whether he's been a broker for toxic Chinese trinkets.

    Whether he deals in marked-up black-market Persian rugs. 

    Don't stop now, Sen. Ted Cruz. So many beyond-the-pale, beyond-belief, totally shameless questions for you to raise about the defense secretary nominee. And so little time.

    None of the above is even a shred more "beyond" what the freshman Texas senator has trotted out in reality. He suggested without a whiff of evidence that Hagel might have received big bucks from "enemies of America." North Korea, perhaps? Iran? Al Qaida?The Galactic Empire? What true American worth his official Sarah Palin Tea Party Decoder Ring would blame Cruz for asking?

    Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both bent on putting Hagel on the rack for ritual partisan gratification, expressed mortification.

   Cruz has emerged quickly to claim the reputation as the least deliberative in the most deliberative body in the free world.

   The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus wasn't the only one comparing Cruz to Joe McCarthy: "He doesn't have the right to smear Hagel, with no supporting evidence, with insinuations." Indeed, Cruz doesn't need Marcus's testimonial. He appears to have earned the McCarthy parallel by acclimation, and is proud of it.

    But of course, he'll point out, he didn't say Hagel was on the take from America's enemies. He was just asking extremely leading and loaded questions based on the fact that Hagel worked in firms doing foreign business. Say what?

    It's the formula that kept Joe McCarthy in the spotlight in the '50s and now keeps Fox News in its lofty ratings perch. Choose your cable-ready GOP tempest: "Death panels." Black Panthers. ACORN. "We insinuate. You decide." Right, Senator?

   Cruz voted against Hagel, as he did against John Kerry for secretary of state, saying he didn't trust their commitment to America's defense. Funny thing: Both men were sufficiently commited to shed actual blood — Purple Heart recipients — in Vietnam. Cruz, by contrast, studied these matters at the Dick Cheney Academy of Hands-off Militance.

   Now, Cruz, whose upset of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP primary affirmed the fact that the tea party is the life force of a not-so-vibrant party, stands to be a national standard-bearer for recklessness.

   This may thrill citizens suckled on Glenn Beck's conspiracy theories and Palin's tweets, but it should frighten the GOP as an institution.

   A walking grenade like Cruz is just what the Democratic Party needs to regain legitimacy in a red state like Texas.

   Heady though his ascendance may be, he is vulnerability personified, along with the likes of failed tea party-backed nominees like Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. Were it not for these candidates, each flaunting hard-right ideologies, each losing, the GOP would have captured the Senate in 2010. Add Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012; in their extremism they helped the Democrats add to their hold on the Senate.

    Cruz needs to make rhetorical hay while he can. Based on his performance thus far, he'll be on the Senate's "most beatable" list when next he appears before voters.

     As for the senator's assault on Hagel based on nothing more than a desire for his clanging voice to be heard, it's a shame that Joseph Welch could not be there to say what he famously said to Joe McCarthy in 1954:

    "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

     To which Cruz could have uttered the word that most personifies the politics he and his brand have brought to the nation's capital:


    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Prevention — brother, can you spare an ounce of it?

    Nehemiah Griego was angry. He got angrier, and angrier, and then he got a gun. Or two.

    On Jan. 19, a day when firearms advocates staged "Guns Across America" events, the 15-year-old Albuquerque boy shot dead all five members of his family.

    Horrific, yes. But one thing: It could have been worse. Reportedly the teen contemplated shooting up a nearby Wal-Mart.

    Something happened. Maybe his girlfriend convinced him to confess. Maybe a kind word outside his family's church did it. It has a skate park, and in the hours after the shootings it provided hospitably familiar faces including a friendly security guard who spoke to the teen.

    Whatever the reason, he took authorities to his home, showed them the bodies, then showed them the murder weapons — owned by his parents — including a fully loaded .223-caliber semiautomatic.

     In the weeks since the Sandy Hook horrors, Americans haven't been able to agree about much. Wait. That's not true.

     Some conservatives and gun lovers have turned veritably evangelical about mental health.

     The same people who would look the other way at the dime's being saved when services are cut from mental health services now say, "This is where we should be looking for answers, not blaming guns."

     It's time for progressives, who have always urged more proactive approaches to crime prevention, to take them up on that.

     Let's say that when he was in middle school Nehemiah Griego had been in a program aimed at helping rein in adolescent anger, one that showed good success in helping  at-risk teens, and he was one of those. Would it have been worth it?

      More than we could ever imagine.

      Well, some good people have been imagining this across our land, and getting good results. And people ought to start listening, particularly policy makers who make budget decisions.

      Consider one player in Austin, the Council for At-Risk Youth — CARY. It works to get to angry kids just like Nehemiah Griego. It has a program called ART — Aggression Replacement Training — at five middle schools for disciplinary referrals, most commonly for bullying.

     After a two-semester program that involves service projects, parental involvement and a lot of anger management, it has shown pretty dramatic improvement in students' grades, attendance and discipline.

     A study found that 60 percent of middle-school bullies are destined to have criminal convictions by age 24.

     CARY didn't invent any magic it plies. Others know what works. Intervention does. What CARY does have is support from a city — Austin — and  a county — Travis County — both pitching in $200,000 apiece annually.

     CARY estimates that ART costs $750 per student. It cites a study estimating it costs Texas $125,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile.

     These advocates for at-risk students are calling on the Texas Legislature to set aside 1 percent of the $20 billion the state spends on juvenile and criminal justice and to replicate programs in schools that help young people manage their anger.

     Mental health? CARY has found that 20 percent of these children have emotional disabilities. School accountability? (Nothing seems to stir lawmakers like "school accountability.") These are our most likely dropouts, most likely classroom disruptions — oh, yes, and most likely killers.

     Amid the discussions about gun control and whatever else society might do to avoid more Sandy Hooks, more Auroras, more Nehemiah Griegos, CARY executive director Adrian Moore wrote President Obama urging a new look at intervention programs aimed at juvenile delinquency and anger management.

    "Too much of our direction fixates on capacity-building to 'help strengthen the juvenile justice system,' while not adequately addressing prevention and early intervention programs," he wrote.

      No truer words could be spoken. With all the verbiage sprayed in the air about preventing deeds like those in Newtown, Aurora and Albuquerque, surely we can agree on something like this, and find a few pennies to do it better.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado: Email:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

United States’ new separatists

     "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of — ah, the hell with it."

     "My country tis of thee; sweet land of — Obamacare? I'm walking."

      It's been nearly a century and a half since, in a courthouse beside a bloody battlefield, a severed union was stitched whole. If I read things correctly, in 2013 part of that whole has grown tired of cohabitation. It wants its own generals again.      

     A few weeks on the heels of petitions to secede from the union after Barack Obama's re-election, we are awash in warlike threats. Has someone secured Fort Sumter? 

    It didn't seem like a wartime speech the other day when our president, at his second inauguration, talked about the promise of the 21st century, calling for the nation to bridge the meaning of the founders' words about equality "with the realities of our time."   

    Unacknowledged by President Obama, however, was a threat to the space-time continuum: an opposition bitterly pining for a return to the '50s — the 1850s.

    Those were the good old days before Lincoln and the Union Army stepped in to enforce the founders' intentions for one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice even for slaves.

     And here we are in 2013, and in various points around the country, including statehouses, with rumblings that the union has grown untenable.

     Indeed, some state lawmakers have issued calls to turn the time machine back to 1832. That's when South Carolina announced it would obey federal law no more. The Ordinance of Nullification it was called. Before cannon balls flew, it was the Civil War's first shot.

    We know who won.

    The latest separatist retort is proposed legislation in states from Texas to Wyoming to Montana to Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina and Indiana, initiating efforts to "nullify" any attempts by federal authorities to enforce new gun restrictions.

     Before that: nullification-style efforts aimed at ignoring federal health care reforms such as health insurance exchanges to lower the cost health coverage, and federal assistance to expand Medicaid.

    In the meantime, we have a disconcerting split forming between two separate brands of law enforcement. On one hand, we have largely urban police organizations supporting steps to tamp down the proliferation of military-style guns and massive clips. On the other hand, we have mostly rural sheriffs saying they will refuse to enforce new gun-control laws.

     Epitomizing that brand of petulance in Texas is McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. The Waco Republican said he would enforce no law "I feel to be unconstitutional."

    Newly elected, McNamara apparently doesn't understand that courts decide those matters. His job is to follow what they dictate. But you know what a shiny badge and a horse not made of two-by-fours will do to one's sense of stature.

     One sheriff who isn't marching to that tune is Grayson Robinson. His jurisdiction is Colorado's Arapahoe County. In a recent letter, he compared statements like McNamara's to the actions of long-ago lawmen who served as judge and jury, with ropes and nooses.

     Robinson could also have mentioned the individual who, in his jurisdiction, took the law into his own hands in an Aurora theater last year and, after firing a spray of bullets, left 12 people dead and 58 wounded. Judge. Jury. Executioner.

    You tell me the difference ultimately between that one man, and another, albeit an elected sheriff, announcing, "I am the law."

   Once again, we reflect in wonder at the contrast: such a hopeful, uplifting presidential inauguration, and such militant resistance to what, based on the voters' wishes, shall emanate for four more years from the nation's capital.

   You're right, Sheriff. Maybe one country isn't big enough for the both of us.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: