What you Need To Know

Opinions expressed in my articles are my own, and opinions in the articles and comments section written by others are strictly those of the author or commenter and not me.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Tis the Season...

Tis the season to be jolly...oh really. Well, let's see. We are in six wars. Yes - six. Iraq (still), Afghanistan (still), Pakistan, Yemen, The Horn of Africa (which includes about a dozen African countries), and Colombia (yes we have military troops there too). The economy is still in the tank. The real unemployment rate is near 22%. 50 million people are still without health insurance. More people including 1 of every 5 kids is living in poverty. Foreclosures of homes are on the increase, the housing crisis is headed for a 'double-dip'. All but two states are reporting multi-billion dollar deficits that they must close due to balanced budget requirements - meaning they are put in the position of being forced to lay off workers and cut important safety net programs.

The Pope says that pedophilia is okay with Church teachings. O'Reilly and others of his ilk believe there is a war on Christmas between Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus. Bigotry in all its ugliness is on the rise against all marginalized groups. The Republican party in all its vaingloriousness has shown that the only American People it cares about are the really really wealthy among us. A letter-writer to Dear Abby reported that her niece's hand-made cards were thought of as "cheap and tacky" and one person sent her a check so she could buy "real" cards next year. We are told that even though there is only one job available for every six people looking for one, that the unemployed are lazy, drug-addicted spoiled bums who don't deserve to be 'paid for doing nothing'. Sick people are cut off from organ transplants because it is 'cadillac health care' and the money is used instead to put a new roof on a sports stadium. And for lack of a $75 fee, a family's home burns to the ground while the fire department stands there and watches.

The good news? Well, the banksters on Wall Street are making money hand over fist again. As are the automakers. As are the oil companies - including BP. And the politicians are feeling no pain - whining about having to work for a few more days before the holidays. DADT got passed, the new START Treaty, the Food Safety Bill, and some other pieces of legislation and a few appointments - all of which had been languishing for months if not years due to the obstructionist tactics of the Republicans mostly in the Senate. Oh, and the richest 1% of people in this country got a giant tax cut.

But there really is some better news. I talked to my daughter today. She has a young son, not quite three. When he is asked what he wants for Christmas he replies "a present". He doesn't have a wish list of must have gifts. His mother doesn't let him watch TV all the time. He is involved in activities with his parents and other children his age outdoors and in structured play groups. How refreshing. My daughter has been reading "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" to him. She reminded me that the real lesson of that book is not what a mean thing the Grinch was, but how the Whos in Whoville managed to get up on Christmas morning with no gifts and still celebrate and be happy and realize the true meaning of the season.

(Just in case you think my daughter is a rich soccer mom, no. Her husband is currently unemployed due to the recession. He is working odd jobs and trying to finish his education. She just recently finished an AA degree and is working as a web-designer. They are struggling to pay an underwater mortgage on a house they bought about six months before the housing crash - and as I said, they have a toddler to take care of.)

Maybe we all need to go back and re-read that precious story and celebrate with the denizens of Whoville. Skip all the presents and just be - be with family and friends. Go outside and appreciate the beauty of nature around you. Be thankful for all that you have - because even if all that you have is not very much, it still is way more than most people in the world. Think of ways in the coming year that you can be more thoughtful, more kind to your neighbors, your co-workers, your family members and your friends. Give a few hours to a local charity. Write a letter to the editor or to your congresscritter. Write a letter to a shut-in relative - better yet go visit. Turn off all your electronics and revel in the silence. Talk to someone - face to face. Hug them. Smile at a stranger.

And on earth, Peace...

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Oh, The Dems Lost and They Deserved It and They're No Different from The Republicans Anyway.

Oh yeah, blame the Democrats for everything. They deserve this. They don’t have any plans. They could just wave a magic wand and fix what the Rethugs have been doing for the last 30 years in just 18 months. Riiiiiight.

So – all of you really great knowledgeable people – just once I would like an explanation of just what the Republicans plans are….

Still waiting…..

All I have heard for the last 3-6 months is this:

1) Give tax cuts to the richest 1% of millionaires and billionaires so they can play the casino-stock market some more.

2) Roll back the pitiful few regulations the Dems did manage to pass and get rid of the few regs that were left over so we can have a truly free market – after all the free market rules!

3) Repeal the Health Reform bill. I know you don’t l9ke it. But there were a few good things in there. It was a place to start. But never mind – they’ll get rid of it – one way or another. After all, all spending bills must start in the House – and they now have control so it’s dead. Happy now?
(By the way – there is a really good long-term-care insurance provision that most people have never heard of – I need that and so does my disabled sister – both of us really really need that but now it’s probably up in smoke thank you very much.)

4)Repeal every single piece of legislation that was passed during the 111th Congress. This will be done by de-funding, and since the Republicanss now hold the Constitutional purse strings in the House – they will do this.

5)They will hold hearings. They have already announced their intention to have Kathleen Sebelius and other cabinet secretaries spend the entire next two years testifying before their committees every single day – effectively removing them from office. They plan to try to impeach the President. They plan to try to impeach our two newest SCOTUS justices. They plan to try to impeach Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They plan to hold hearings on every action the administration has taken since Day One. This will result in a slow-motion shut-down of the government. It won’t be like last time – Social Security recipients will still get their checks but everything else will come to a slow grinding halt.

5)They will try to gut Medicare. They will try to cut Social Security – by raising the retirement age and by cutting benefits and they have the weapon to do it – the catfood commission recommendations. Thay have already succeeded in getting massive cuts in Food Stamps in future years for unemployment benefits now. And they will hold that (The Dems had hoped to restore it before we got there). And as much as they have been yelling about their concerns with the deficit - pay-go will go out the window - just as it did whey they got control under Bush 43. They don't believe that massive tax cuts add to the deficit. They do of course.

6)They will pass stuff to kill Roe v Wade. It will be buried in a “Defense Spending Authorization Bill”. They will keep DADT and DOMA. The DREAM act will disappear just like CardCheck and a lot of other stuff we wanted.

7)They will shut down the EPA. There will be zero climate legislation - in fact they have announced a hearing on the "hoax of climate change".

8)The new START treaty will not be ratified because it “impinges on our sovereignty”. Never mind that securing loose nukes and reducing the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons is in OUR best interest - our best NATIONAL SECURITY interest which they are so fond of touting. Besides - it also saves money!

I don’t see anything in there about providing jobs, fixing the economy, reforming Wall Street, providing better health care, cleaning up this financial mess, doing something about the disaster in the housing market. Just “back” to more of the same crap that got us into this horrible situation in the first place – only more of it piled higher and deeper and further right wing and far more dangerous.

Oh, and we will be going to war with Iran.

But there is no difference between the Dems and the Republicans. They are both the same. The Dems didn’t do everything I wanted right when I wanted them to so I hate them and I’ll never vote for them again they are stupid and so I don’t care if the Repubs get in. It doesn’t matter.

Well, we’ll just see about that won’t we. Unfortunately, those of us who understand that every time this rationale has been used – and it has been used several times in the past and in the same predicaments (bad economy, disappointed Dems, etc) the urge to punish the Dems by voting in the Repubs has always resulted in disaster. And it will this time too. Too bad the smart ones among us who know this will have to suffer right along with the rest of you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Campaign Misogyny?

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the midterm elections. There are a large number of women candidates running for high offices - Senate and US House of Representatives along with State Governorships. This normally would be a major cause for celebration. Right?


Many of these candidates have compared themselves or been compared to Hillary Clinton or alluded to her "eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling" as if they are the natural heirs to her legacy. I would submit that they are not. And it is not because they are mostly running on the Republican ticket.

First, let me qualify myself by saying that while I find much to admire about Hillary Clinton, I was not a political fan of hers, and did not vote for her in the primary. What I did and do admire about her was her willingness to go out and stand on her issues - and stand on them she did. She did not stand behind her husband, although that would have been very easy to do since he was not only a former President but a very charismatic campaigner. She did not cower behind her campaign staff and hide from reporters. She did not refuse to face her opponents, and although her supporters often called out sexist attacks on her she mostly did not and she especially did not when the opponent was attacking her policy positions.

And in this campaign season that is exactly what is wrong. Any attack on one of these women candidates is immediately decried as a sexist attack. Even if it is a criticism of a policy position. These candidates refuse to debate. Or they refuse to face reporters. They refuse interviews unless they can control everything - the questions, the timing, even who gets to ask questions. They hide behind their men - both significant others and staff. And in the end - what do we really know about any one of them? We don't know where they stand on most major issues. We have no idea what they propose to do about the big problems facing our country today. All we know are the "crazy" things. Or that they'll tell us everything after they get elected. What???

We need more women in politics. For a supposedly advanced Western democracy - we lag behind every single other country in representation by women in our legislatures both nationally and at the state and local levels. We have fewer women in our court systems, in our corporate governance and in any other systems of power and influence than any other country. We have yet to elect a woman as President. We need more women in positions of power and influence - I cannot say that often enough. But we also need women who are truly standing on their own two feet - as Hillary did and still does. Women who have ideas about how to do things and are not afraid to express and defend those ideas to their opponents and to the press and to the public they are asking to vote for them. Women who don't hide and run away. Women who earn and demand our respect.

I'm sorry, but all these Tea Party candidates are not those women. I don't know what their motivations are, but they are not good for other women with their anti-choice platforms, their anti-education, anti-child (abolish school lunches, WIC programs, Head Start etc rhetoric) and such, they are not good for families with their anti-unemployment, anti-Social Security, anti-Medicare/Medicaid and anti-VA Healthcare for veterans positions, they are not good for the country with their anti-EPA and anti-bank regulations. They are also not good for the country with their pro-corporate stances on trade, on regulations, on energy, and all the rest. They claim they are worried about the deficit - but they want to continue tax cuts for billionaires with no idea how to pay for it, and cut corporate taxes for corporations that already pay no taxes at all. They scream and yell about subsidies for wind and solar power but also don't want to get rid of subsidies to oil companies that have posted the biggest profits by any corporation in the history of the world ever in the past few years. They also claim they want smaller government. But at the same time they advocate for a government that spies on its own citizens in their bedrooms, in their doctors offices, reads their emails, listens to their phone calls, monitors their location on their cellphones and their car gps systems, pores over their library books, mines the databases of their credit card purchases and facebook postings and now wants the authority to force their internet providers to cough up every internet search page you have ever visited. That's smaller government?

I wonder if these women candidates are being used without their knowledge to trick the voters into thinking the Tea/Republican Party is somehow more "progressive" or if they are willingly going along for the ride. Either way - it is a dangerous proposition to fall for the trick.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

When Did Subsistence Farming Become A Dirty Word?

Well, two words actually. Anyway, I just read an article in the Smithsonian Magazine's 40th Anniversary Issue. The issue was filled with "40 Things You Need To Know About The Next 40 Years". Number 17 was titled "In the Fight Against Starvation, One Weapon Will Be the Ancient Grain Fonio". The interviewer was Amanda Benson of the Smithsonian. The Interviewee was Rosamond Naylor of the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University. Ms. Naylor is an economist by training.

Both of these people seem to think that solving the problem of hunger in the world has to do with more technology. Solar powered drip irrigation systems. GMO crops. Figuring out high-yield crops and which markets to get them to. Discovering price strategies. What?

These approaches are actually what has driven millions of people in this world today into hunger and starvation. Using more of them is not going to solve anything. In order to address the problem - we need to be really clear what created the problem in the first place.

So. What caused the problems. There are a huge myriad of causes but the over-arching one that I see is the first-world drive for resources. This took the form of empire and colonization in the 18th century. It included land grabs, slavery, plundering natural materials and agricultural products, forced unequal trade practices and the like. As the third world gradually shrugged off the colonial yokes, the financial ones remained in place. These poor countries depended on the richer ones for support in the form of unequal trade agreements, exploitation of their natural resources for pittances and payoffs, massive corruption instigated in order to procure these favorable resource agreements and so-called development loans.

And finally, in the late 20th century - the institution of the IMF/World Bank Development Programs in which more "loans" were given to these already debt-ridden countries in return for 'austerity' programs that included changes to their agricultural sectors. These changes were a disaster for the food security of the populations since the people were forced off their land, food crops were replaced with 'money' crops like tobacco and cotton so that the nation would be able to repay the new debts, and the people were forced into the cities to find other employment. The jobs available were low-paying, and put the people in a position where they were unable to purchase the wheat in the market - wheat from the US market (subsidized by the US government) that was too expensive. And so the people starve.

At various times, we (the first world, mostly the US) have instituted programs that are supposed to help. Witness the so-called Green Revolution. We convinced the third world that growing wheat, or corn, or rice (the big three) was how to grow crops. These three are all very water dependent, fertilizer dependent, and the way we grow them, machinery dependent as well. Notice anything? Lots of money required for seed, water delivery, and machines. Enriching Monsanto, Caterpillar and John Deere, and further impoverishing the third world. In the process, we convinced them that native crops like amaranth and fonio and all the other stuff they used to grow were nothing but weeds that needed to be eradicated. We sprayed them with weed killer, combined their farms into giant mono-culture fields (gee - kinda like communism dontcha think), sold them tractors and stuff, sacks of expensive seeds and fertilizers, and then left.

The tractors are now rusting in the fields, the 'weeds' are back, the people are gone, the fields are now covered with cotton or tobacco, and no one is being fed.

One of the grains that is put forward in the Smithsonian article is Fonio. It is a type of millet and has been around for thousands of years. It thrives in poor soil, is rich in amino acids and makes a good base for bread, porridge, pasta and yes, beer. The problem with it is - wait for it - the seeds are tiny and we have to figure out how to harvest it. Oh yeah - we have to figure out how to harvest it with a giant combine so we can grow it in giant monoculture fields and make a gazillion bucks off it. So what happened to letting individual families grow it in their garden patches or a small plot and harvesting it by hand like they have since ancient times. It is, after all, an ancient grain.

Then there is the Golden Rice. This is the GMO candidate. According to the article - the scientists have put a daffodil gene in the rice so it will have more beta carotene (vitamin A precursor) and it will presumably prevent blindness in kids in the third world - a pernicious problem to be sure. A laudable goal surely. Unfortunately, I had heard about golden rice before - and not in a good way. So I looked it up again. According to The Golden Rice Hoax , not only will golden rice not prevent blindness in kids - it has the potential to actually make it worse:

In order to meet the full needs of 750 micrograms of vitamin A from rice, an adult would have to consume 2 kg 272g of rice per day. This implies that one family member would consume the entire family ration of 10 kg. from the PDS in 4 days to meet vitaminA needs through "Golden rice".

In addition, Dr. Vandana Shiva, the author of the above article, says that if the traditional family gardening practices in India were encouraged, plants like Amaranth would provide enough beta carotene to do the job without the GMO golden rice. He gives a complete list of plants that were usually found in a family garden - now mostly missing because of this reliance on mono-culture money crops. Amaranth is a very interesting plant - it has a grain seed-head, the leaves are edible as a salad, and the roots can also be used. The seeds are a very high-protein content, and as Dr. Shiva says, the leaves contain a very high vitamin A content. Robert Rodale wrote an entire book about this remarkable plant called "Save Three Lives" and the Rodale Institute has set up an entire research center to provide more information about it.

Dr. Shiva concludes:
The reason there is vitamin A deficiency in India in spite of the rich biodiversity base and indigenous knowledge base in India is because the Green Revolution technologies wiped out biodiversity by converting mixed cropping systems to monocultures of wheat and rice and by spreading the use of herbicides which destroy field greens.

The final challenge we face going forward in regards to agriculture is of course global climate change. As the climate warms, agriculture will face multiple challenges, mostly as traditional growing areas become warmer and drier. The Smithsonian article responds by suggesting more irrigation and more GMO crops. Since one of the problems we will be facing will be severe water shortages, irrigation should be last on the list of things to be doing. We need to be looking at growing crops where they can grow without irrigation. Why are we trying to grow crops in deserts when they need rain? Grow them where there is rain! We are already using far too much water for irrigating deserts to grow crops when we should be growing crops where there is rain. Secondly, instead of using GMO crops - which are unstable, and can cause potentially deadly harm to humans, why not use already existing drought-tolerant crops that already exist?

A case in point - indigeneous corn strains - called landrace corn, which exists in small pockets of cultivation in Mexico's mountainous regions are already drought and heat tolerant. They have been bred over hundreds of years to exist in a lot of different climates. These landrace corns are stable, healthy, and genetically diverse - as all good crops should be. Right now they are in serious danger of contamination from Monsanto's GMO corns that were forced into the Mexican markets by NAFTA. We need to protect these landrace corns from contamination and preserve their genetic diversity from any pollution by GMOs of any kind. Then we need to begin propagating them using standard farming methods as used by the Mexican farmers to discover the ones best suited to microclimates in different parts of lots of different countries. And stop feeding all the corn to cattle. It is too important and it needs to be used as people food.

By the way, these landrace corns are raised along with beans, a kind of squash, and a native grass that is the original stock from whence the corn/maize originally came. The grass has medicinal uses, and the beans and squash provide nutrients that make the maize and vegetables a very nutritious diet. So don't just grow corn. Grow all the stuff that comes along with it. That is what subsistence farming is all about.

Subsistence farming is about raising all the food you need to feed your family - plus a little bit more to trade with your neighbors for things you can't make or do for yourselves. We used to be proud of doing this - that is what pioneers did. Why is it a dirty word now?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Modern Feminists???

I just read a post on AOL News about Anna Wintour. The author was gushing about what a great feminist Ms Wintour is because after you spend a year interning for her she will help you launch your career in almost any field. The author gave a couple of examples of people whose careers were supposedly launched by Ms. Wintour's able assistance.

For those of you who don't know, Ms. Anna Wintour is the inspiration for the book and subsequent film "The Devil Wears Prada". According to the author of the AOL article, the actual Ms. Wintour hates fat people, curly hair, and any kind of comfortable shoes. She dislikes employees to be in her "direct line of sight". In the book/movie, this boss from hell treats her first-year interns like lesser slaves, demeans and belittles them, expects them to dress like high-fashion models on a salary of around $30,000 per year, and basically be at her beck and call 24/7. If you don't want to perform like a trained seal you are told "a million other girls would just kill to get this job". The interns are expected to pick up her dog at the vet, sort her dirty laundry, fetch her coffee from Starbucks a dozen times a day while at the same time never leaving the phone unanswered, find information and carry out tasks after being given very little to no information and not allowed to ask questions under threat of being fired, and then being told that Ms. Wintour had the information at her fingertips the entire time.

Ms. Wintour is also cited as some sort of icon due to her status as the editor of a high fashion magazine because of her "hard work" and other such drivel. Never mind that the hard work is done by the scores of underpaid and vastly overworked young interns and "clackers" as they were called the "The Devil". But for her providing some help along the way to a few of her long-suffering employees we are supposed to believe that Anna Wintour is somehow deserving of our praise?

I think not.

For one thing, it is entirely possible to work hard, rise to the top, make something of yourself, and do this without destroying the lives, self-esteem, and careers of the many people who work with and for you along the way. You can rise to the top and treat the people who work for you and with you with respect and dignity along the way.

The fact that this woman goes out of her way to advance the careers of women who have managed to stick it out in her "service" for a year says that she is not unaware of their sacrifices and humiliation. And that, for me, makes it all the more horrid. This woman who has accomplished much in her chosen field, who also can chose to be so nasty and petty to her employees, knows full well what price she is exacting on those employees, and at the same time is holding out a prize at the end of the experience - a plum job offering - usually at another firm - where the pain and stings of the price Anna Wintour has exacted can be washed away with the gratitude for the new job.

Anna Wintour is no feminist. She is a plain out-and-out bitch. She ought to be sued by every person who has ever worked for her for hostile work environment. The corporation Ms. Wintour represents should terminate her employment immediately. And she should go crawling back into the medieval hole she crawled out of.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

When is a Mosque Not a Mosque? Updated

Most religions have some sort of sanctification ritual to make a church a real church, a synagogue a real synagogue, or a mosque a mosque.

It is kind of like the non-denominational chapels that are found in hospitals everywhere in this country. They are places for private prayer, contemplation, meditation or just to be there. No one thinks they are a church. Not even when they are in a Catholic hospital. In fact, if a Catholic priest decides to say mass in one of these chapels - he brings a portable altar with him that is "sanctified" to turn it into a church - but only for as long as the altar is there.

The Park51 community center is NOT a mosque. It has a prayer space in it. Kind of like the chapels in the hospitals. No more. No less.

The big difference here is only that it will be used more often. In fact five times per day. For daily required prayers. Muslim prayers, as we should all know by now require the individual to ritually wash face, hands and feet, and then prostrate themselves face down on the ground. A dedicated, clean space for prayers is only natural. So why the big fuss?

It seems that there are a lot of people in this country who equate a bunch of 19 criminals with the 1.3 billion other people who practice Islam. Whether these 19 thugs actually practice the religion of Islam is very open to question, in my humble opinion.

The 19 criminals are equivalent to Timothy McVeigh. Did we hear that all Christians are thugs and criminals because Timothy McVeigh was a "Christian"? No we didn't. We classified him as a criminal, tried and convicted him and put him to death. End of story.

And this is exactly why anyone who disapproves of this community center should sit down and shut up. Including people who want them to "move it somewhere else". The very fact of calling for moving it means we DO equate those 19 terrible criminals with the peace-loving Sufi adherents who are trying to do something good.

By the way - I haven't heard any objections to the sex shop that IS directly across the street from Ground Zero.

UPDATE: I recently discovered that the Park51 Community Center will also have prayer spaces for Jewish persons and Christian persons along with its prayer spaces for Muslim persons. Boy, some mosque.

UPDATE 2: Keith Olbermann reported that if you want to complain about mosques at Ground Zero maybe you should start with the two ACTUAL MOSQUES that were in the two WTC buildings when they were demolished on September 11, 2001. One was a complete mosque in WTC2 and the other was a more informal one set up in a stairwell (can you believe this? a stairwell?) in WTC1 outside the Windows on the World Restaurant for use by the workers and patrons for daily prayers.

The people who destroyed the WTC towers apparently didn't mind bombing two actual mosques when they did their little attacks. So why all of a sudden are people in this country so "sensitive" we are calling for no mosques even near Ground Zero? What about the Muslim families of those lots on 9/11 who were Muslim? What about the mosques that were already there?

Hypocrisy, thee knows no bounds.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

UPDATE: Ill Fares The Land

Mr. Tony Judt has passed away at an entirely too young age, he will be sorely missed.

In his book he talks about using new words to have discussions - since the old ones have been demonized and their meanings changed.

I like the method of Melissa Harris-Lacewell. An example of her doing this was recently on the Rachel Maddow Show. The discussion was around women’s reproductive rights and the tea party's various radical positions. Melissa never used the “a” word, instead she spoke of 'termination of a problem pregnancy'. By avoiding the “a” word – she also allows us to actually hear her arguments instead of jumping to the normal knee-jerk framing we ALL have around that word.

We need to replace a lot of other words like that: liberal, socialism, etc with words like “people centered” and “good of the community” and so on.

Gotta start with each one of us individually – so maybe make a pledge not to use the “a” word anymore, or the ‘L” word, or the “s” word…

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Race to the Bottom

This past week we received the news that 200 teachers were being fired in Washington, DC because they were "failing to perform".


So the next time you are looking for teachers to work in those poor, inner-city, low-functioning schools you are going to find them where?

The problems with Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind are multitudinous. Let's just start with the kids.

In both cases, these programs assume that all children are ready for school at age 5. They assume that kids will have been read to, have books in their homes, and parents who value education. It assumes that these children live in homes where the parents are not doing drugs, fighting constantly including with physical violence, gang members, prostitutes, or serving time. These programs also assume that these kids have enough to eat every day, a warm and safe place to sleep, and clean clothes and a way to keep themselves clean as well as a stable, long-term place to live.

Unfortunately, for a lot of kids in inner cities and poor rural areas too, kids live in the kinds of homes described above - not in some Mr. Rogers neighborhood.

So what happens when these kids come to school? First off, pre-school experiences (being read to, having their own books, having parents who value education) mean children are either very well prepared for school, or they are simply not. The work that has been done before a child reaches the school classroom cannot be underestimated when looking at educational outcomes.

Kids who are not fed are not able to learn. They are hungry, sleepy, distracted, and they just cannot learn unless they are well nourished. That is the main force (and science) behind school lunch and even more importantly, school breakfast programs. The nutritional status of kids goes even beyond the day to day in that if their mothers were not well-nourished during their pregnancies, it can result in the lost of IQ points for the child, and even more drastically if the child is born prematurely or underweight. Or drug-addicted.

And finally, children raised in homes where there is constant fighting and violence do not do well in school for several reasons. First, they may not be getting adequate sleep due to fears for their own safety or the safety of siblings or even the safety of their parent(s). Violence in the home causes PTSD-like symptoms in young children, resulting in kids who are withdrawn, paranoid, fearful, or who act-out, are irritable, etc. In the latter case, many of these kids are wrongly diagnosed with ADHD/HD and medicated to make them more calm. ADHD/HD medications create their own obstacles to learning.

Funding for Head Start and Early Head Start has never been adequate to the task since it is funded on a block-grant basis. What this means is that even though a child may be eligible - only about 50% of kids actually receive funding to participate. In recent years both these programs have been under intense attack because by the fourth grade the Head Start kids are no different from their peers. Which is the exact result you should be expecting - but the conservatives have decided that somehow these kids who start out behind the starting line should not only catch up but actually sprint ahead of their peers. That was never the expectation, and the science simply does not back that up as an outcome. Never has. Parity was always the goal.

So at this point we have huge numbers of children entering school in DC. The school system there has its own set of special problems. Since DC is the capital of the US, and is not part of any state, its funding does not have the state property tax flow of all other school districts in the country. Instead, DC must rely on funding when and if Congress gets around to it. And the Representative, Eleanor Norton, has no vote. She is just there to speak (if they let her) and then observe if anyone chooses to do anything. As we have all seen recently, expecting Congress to do the right thing is an exercise in futility.

As a result, the schools are crumbling around the ears of the students and faculty alike. There aren't computers in the classroom. Most of the kids don't have books to take home to help with their homework. In many cases they don't have pencils, paper, or any of the other "normal" supplies kids need to do their work. So the schools rely on donations from local merchants, parents who have no money, or the teachers buy the stuff out of their own pockets. What a way to help kids learn.

The next thing that happens with these so-called school reform programs is the Orwellian "accountability" provisions. Some commission that has no educators on it has set standards for achievement for every school in the entire country. No adjustments are made for poverty or wealth, for regional differences, for culture (Native American springs to mind), or for language. (Let's not get into the immigration wars here - in some communities with LEGAL immigrants like San Francisco, there may be as many as 50 different languages spoken as the primary one for kids in some districts). And perhaps even more importantly, there is no account taken for where the students are/were on Day One of these programs.

I'm sure you can see that if the students in Burlingame California (one of the wealthiest districts in the entire country) are at level 80 on Day One, and the students at the Five Valleys District (on an impoverished Indian reservation) are at 25 on Day One, the likely outcomes when you set the bar at 85 for the end of the first year are going to be quite different. The kids at Burlingame will make the new goal with ease - having to only achieve 5 points on the test after a school year of excellent instruction by teachers with MS and PhD degrees, each child with their own set of books and supplies furnished by the school, their parents encouraging them to do their homework, and a computer on every desk.

On the other hand, that goal is impossible for the Indian kids. Even if they double their previous scores (from 25 to 50) with teachers who have a BA, no books, no supplies, no computers, and with all the other problems living in poverty causes, the school is still deemed to be failing. So it gets put on probation. At that point, all the parents in the school are offered to have their kids bussed to a different school that is performing better. So the kids whose parents are concerned about their education (usually the smart kids) will opt out of the school district. This has the effect of depressing the overall scores even further since the poorest, and the poorest performing students are the ones left behind. Oh, forgot one thing. The underperforming school district is required to pay the transportation costs of the students who are leaving the district.

And then....wait for it...the standard is moved up from 85 to 90 for the next year. The cycle repeats itself, and now the Five Valleys School receives a huge cut in its funding to "punish it for not doing better". That's all it takes to make it do better - right?

And in the third year, Five Valleys School can expect to have all of its dedicated teachers and the principal fired. Now the school will be taken over by the State, or turned over to a private company to run. The teachers and administrators are now on unemployment on a reservation where the unemployment rate is already over 80%. Due to the history of the school, and the distance it is from other towns in the area (45 minute drive in the summer, roads impassable due to downed trees and landslides in winter) how do you recruit teachers? Any teachers? And no private corporation wants to take over a school like this where they can't make money off it.

What to do?

In this case, what the Five Valleys School District did was admirable. But most inner city districts don't even have this option. The local Tribal Council voted to set up a casino. They used the casino money to offset ALL federal and state funding and told them both to take No Child Left Behind and stuff it.

Then they cleaned up the school, raised the salaries of the teachers, and implemented a number of cultural programs, like teaching the kids their own language, and traditional arts and crafts. They set a goal of having each individual student make 10 points of progress each year. If they didn't, tutors and other mentors were brought in to help these individual children. And guess what - the school is doing much better. They still aren't at 95% (where the bar is today) but they are above 50% now. And that's quite an achievement.

If these mass firings, cuts to funding, privatization and other schemes such as this continue, we will have no more public schools. Millions of kids will be left behind - illiterate and completely unemployable. Is this what we really want?

President Obama says that education is an economic issue. That is correct. But the simple cost-benefit analysis does not work for education. How do you measure the value of a child learning to love learning? How do you measure the value of a child enjoying a finger-painting class? (Those disappeared along with all other art, music and physical education classes). How do you measure the value of kids who don't know how to understand critical thinking? (Not taught in K-12 under either regime) There are hundreds of positive aspects of a well-rounded, positive education that simply cannot be measured in dollars and cents. And basing teacher firings on test scores on tests that do not measure a child's true learning - or their potential for future learning is not helpful in the least.

Arne Duncan is really pushing hard for charter schools. The verdict is in on them. Some are better, some are worse, and most are the same - just like public schools in general. And charter schools are unaccountable, discriminatory, in a majority of cases, religious. Where the real advances are is in Magnet Schools. These schools are accountable to the voters, are run by public school districts, and achieve far greater results with their focus on real-world application-type learning. Magnet Schools are by almost every measure - far better than regular public schools and charter schools alike.

I don't know what the best way is to reform our schools. But the way we are going now is only going to ruin everything. In this Race, far too many of our children are truly being Left Behind.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Ill Fares The Land

I just finished reading Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt. I know I and many of the folks I talk to constantly wonder how we got into the state we're in. The country that is. Judt has done a great job of explaining that it was perhaps inevitable that we would wind up here. Our country was founded on suspicion of government - it has just taken a completely sinister turn from mere suspicion to downright hostility in the last couple of decades.

As for what to do...that he doesn't do such a good job at explaining. He talks about how we need to have discussions - but the trick is how to do that when the words we normally would use have all become demonized and distorted and discredited.

Take the word socialism for example. This word is now a desccriptor of evil incarnate - at least according to the far right wing. The issue is that we already have socialism in this country. Every country does. It is how the country, state, or community does things that no single individual could possibly do on their own. Think freeways, fire departments, police, airports, water and sewer systems, and so on. Socialism is how individuals join together to do projects FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Of course, common good has become another of those demonized terms. Judt discusses the phenomenon of gated communities where the residents feel they are enclosed in safety, completely self-sufficient and not really part of the larger community in which they are located. However, the gated community is not any safer than the open community - in fact, if something happens, the private security personnel must often call upon the official police department or sheriff's office to actually deal with crime. If a home catches fire - the 'outside' fire department will respond. The roads on which they drive in and out of the gates are paid for by all of the rest of us too - and they get to use them. Their water comes from the same place as the rest of ours, and their sewage winds up in the same place.

One point Judt makes about our society is worth considering seriously, and that is the idea that people want their government to make moral choices. This is not the same as religious values. The idea that people should not kill or rob each other is not a religious value, it is a common moral value. The same applies to government. Moral choices, like the one to provide some sort of assistance to people unable to work, are not necessarily cost effective in an economic sense. But Judt argues that economic efficiency is not always the best choice.

Judt uses the example of railroads (passenger) to demonstrate that although they usually are never profitable, there are clearly high values of a non-monetary sort to be gained by the government subsidizing trains as a means of transportation surely, but even more importantly, as a link between more rural and poor areas with the rest of the country. This link is important for building a sense of community - and even though in the US we prize individuality above all else, we cannot survive without our communities supportiing us. There are really almost no persons in this society that are completely self-sufficient. And the supports often come from the government whether we want to admit it or not.

I highly recommend that everyone read this book - it is a really good starting point for a conversation. And we really need to start having this conversation - even if we have to make up new, untainted words to describe what we want!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

January 2 - What Are The Questions

Before we can really make changes, we must learn to ask good questions. If we want to do (or undo) something, the question should be "why". And then why again. And again, until we find the deep and true reason that has been buried in our hearts.

The next question is how. The self-help gurus say to write lists of goals and steps and timetables. For some of us, this doesn't work. We use the steps and deadlines as weapons to beat ourselves up - or to pretend that we're in control.

Well, we're not in control. The Universe is - and that is precisely why we get sidetracked so easily. So we're back to one-day-at-a-time. Eat healthy just for today. Exercise just for today. Do whatever chore just for today. Or don't smoke just for today. Don't tell a lie just for today.

Yesterday is over. We cannot change it. Tomorrow isn't here. We can't do anything about that either. So, just for today I will...

January 1 - What's Next?

It is a time for new beginnings. They say that each new day is the first day of the rest of your life. It's true. But at times it seems as if the endless starting over can almost become self-defeating. So we solve that by symbolically starting over only once each year. We make resolutions - most of which are given up by the end of the first week.

Then we choose Monday as a starting over day. But Mondays are fraught with their own perils. So by Wednesday we are defeated again.

What's next?

We all know the things we'd like to change in our lives. We make lists and post them on the refrigerator or on the bathroom mirror in an attempt to remind ourselves to do or be or don't or whatever. How long until we look right at these lists and don't even see them anymore?

I think for this next space of time I will take a page from the twelve-stop programs and start living my life one day at a time. I will decide when I wake how I will be and do and don't and whatever. Just for today.

And tomorrow I will decide again.

It's Been A While

My health issues caught up with me again, along with a bout with depression. So I took a sabbatical from the news and blogs and all that.

I've decided to retrain my focus a bit here and hope to be posting more regularly. Hope you all had happy holidays and that your New Year will be a good one!