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.

Please be civil, it adds nothing to the conversation to engage in name-calling.

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!