Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Getting Teacher Assessment Right

In the last few weeks, the Times ran some pieces on teaching Evaluation. This is my response as it appeared in New Jersey Today this morning.

Improving The Assessment Of Teachers
Tuesday, July 19, 2011


By Stephen Preskill

How to improve the evaluation of teachers has become a hot topic. For one thing, the U.S. Education Department’s Race to the Top competition, which has added billions to reform efforts, demands more selective and rigorous teacher assessment systems. For another, public funds are so scarce that making sure schools recruit and retain the best people has become more urgent than ever. Additionally, a series of research studies about what contributes most to education improvement has consistently shown that good teaching is, by far, the most decisive variable.

So how do we come up with a system that supports and further develops excellent teachers, mentors struggling teachers toward greater effectiveness, fairly and efficiently eliminates the weakest instructors who don’t get better, and reflects the complexities of good teaching at its best?

If teacher evaluation is going to work, there is no doubt that good teaching needs to be defined carefully, that a comprehensive program of professional development to help all teachers improve needs to be in place, and that workable but fair procedures for eliminating weak teachers must be established. All of these are non-negotiables.

We also know that, according to studies done by the OECD countries — including the U.S., Canada and most of Europe — far too many school systems don’t even evaluate teachers on a regular basis. As a result, many of these teachers do not have a basis on which to gauge their own effectiveness. This must change.

But we can also be certain that teaching — and, therefore, schools — will not significantly improve until we take at least some of the pressure off the evaluation of individual teachers and apply it more systematically and creatively to evaluate how whole groups of teachers work together to help children learn.

School teaching, we now know, can no longer be regarded strictly as a private, individualistic, behind-closed-doors endeavor. Teaching is, in fact, at its best when it is a highly public, collaborative and communal enterprise. When teaching and curriculum development are openly and widely shared, and when colleagues know each other’s professional strengths and weaknesses well, it is unquestionably the case that teaching — and, as a result, schooling — gets better. Strong teachers become even stronger, and struggling teachers often blossom.

When communication throughout a school is transparent and free across subject matters and grade levels, educators are better able to work together to serve the children in their charge. They can plan and coordinate lessons and curricula so that they build on what has come before and anticipate what is to come. When a school creates a culture where teaching and learning are shared enterprises, the areas in need of improvement can be more easily spotted, and strategies for making change can be arrived at collaboratively. Such collaboration pushes everyone to perform at their best.

Of course, we will always need to evaluate individual teachers, and these individual evaluations will always figure prominently in any teaching assessment system. But because teaching is increasingly a public and a shared enterprise, all educators must be involved in assessing how every professional is contributing to a culture that is designed, above all, to help kids learn. Future systems of evaluation must put more far more emphasis on whole school effectiveness and improvement and on the role that individuals are playing in supporting teamwork, mutual accountability and responsibility for attaining shared goals.

The next step for evaluating teaching, therefore, must pair measures of whole school improvement with the assessment of individual performance. Only then will teacher evaluation begin to capture the complexities of K-12 instruction and begin to meet the challenges of 21st century school reform.

Stephen Preskill is chairman of the Education Department at Wagner College, a U.S. News & World Report Top 25 regional university located on Staten Island in New York City. You can email Dr. Preskill at stephen.preskill@wagner.edu.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Letter in the Times (web version)

While not in the actual paper today, here is a letter I wrote that appears in the web version in response to a David Brooks' column about Diane Ravitch and Ravitch's answer to Brooks:

To The Editor:
David Brooks maintains that Diane Ravitch’s attack on current school reform strategies lies in her belief that “poverty is the real issue, not bad schools.” In her May 31 Op-Ed article, “Waiting for a School Miracle,” Ms. Ravitch asserted, “If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved.”

But many children do not come from such environments. The question remains: What specifically can schools do to fill this critical gap? That’s what I’d like to hear from her.

New York, July 6, 2011

And here is what I actually sent to the Times before they edited it:

To the Editor:
There is no question that David Brooks exaggerates Diane Ravitch’s criticism
of testing. She says, and I agree, that assessments should be used to
improve teaching and learning and not to evaluate the quality of teaching
or to determine compensation.

Brooks maintains that Ravitch’s attack on current school reform strategies
lies in her belief that “poverty is the real issue, not bad schools.” In an
article from the May 31 issue of the New York Times she naively asserted
that “If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to
learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our
educational problems would be solved.”

But many children do not come from such environments. The question remains:
What can schools do specifically to fill this critical gap? That’s
what I’d like to hear from her.

Stephen Preskill
170 West End Avenue, Apt. 6S
New York, NY 10023

(The writer is chair of the Education Department at Wagner College on
Staten Island)

And here is what I wrote even earlier that the Times never acknowledged at all:

To The Editor:
In his July 1, 2011 column, David Brooks astutely critiques the
educational reform agenda of Diane Ravitch - the "nation's most vocal
educational historian” - by underscoring what she regards as the
irreconcilable tension between teaching's humane foundation and
testing's mechanistic orientation. Brooks concedes that tension but
shows that it can be reconciled by actually naming schools where
testing exists compatibly with a commitment to liberal education. He
seems to be saying that Ravitch’s knee jerk ideological reaction
against testing and accountability has blinded her to the possibility
that standardized assessment can co-exist with humane goals.

But what Brooks misses is the nuance in that tension. It isn’t simply
a matter of keeping tests, while remaining committed to a clear
mission and "an invigorating moral culture." Important questions still
remain: How much is testing emphasized? Which tests are used? And how
are they analyzed to improve instruction? Additionally, while it is
probably true that without some form of ongoing assessment, "lethargy
and perpetual mediocrity" result, when testing overwhelms other
activities and becomes the primary means by which success is measured,
what really matters is often forgotten. And what really matters, after
all, is supporting kids in becoming engaged, curious, effective
learners. Tests will capture some of this to be sure, but much of it
is still left up to educators who are passionate about what they are
doing and who model a love of learning.

Stephen Preskill
170 West End Avenue, Apt. 6S
New York, NY 10023
(The writer is chair of the Education Department at Wagner College on Staten Island)

And believe it or not, here is still another version of a letter I worked on responding to Brooks and Ravitch. Amazing, isn't it, how much work goes into generating one measly publishable letter.

To the Editor:
Yesterday, David Brooks focused his New York Times Op-Ed column on the reform agenda of the "nation's most vocal educational historian." This would be, of course, none other than Diane Ravitch. His take on Ravitch is not all that different from mine posted back on June 1, 2011, but his concise identification of what Ravitch considers to be the inherent tension in today's educational reform climate - teaching's humane foundation versus testing's mechanistic orientation - explains a lot. Brooks concedes that tension but then goes on to do something Ravitch rarely does. He actually names schools where testing exists compatibly with a commitment to liberal education. Ravitch, he seems to be saying, has reached a point where her knee jerk ideological reaction against testing and accountability blinds her to the possibility that such things can co-exist with humane goals.

I must say, Brooks is on solid ground with all of this. But what Brooks misses is the nuance in that tension. It can't simply be a matter of keeping tests, while remaining committed to a clear mission, recruiting a strong principal and maintaining "an invigorating moral culture." Important questions still remain and need to be given their due: How much is testing emphasized? Which tests are used? And how are they analyzed to improve instruction? Additionally, while it is probably true that without some form of ongoing assessment, "lethargy and perpetual mediocrity" result, the degree to which testing is allowed to overwhelm other activities and to become the primary means by which success is measured, can make all the difference between creating a healthy school culture and one that loses sight of what really matters. What really matters, after all, is supporting kids in becoming engaged, curious, effective learners. Tests can capture some of this, but most of it is still left up to teachers who are passionate about what they are doing and model a love of learning.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Real Lessons of the Declaration

I'm taking some liberties with my post today, as I really didn't find much about the Declaration of Independence in today's Times. Interesting, too, that I couldn't find a version of the Declaration in the online edition of the paper either. Usually, I read the Declaration aloud from the back page of the paper, but I have no paper copy these days, just the online edition and my iPad app.

As a result I went online and read the text of the original document and then ran into this piece from the Boston Herald by Jennifer Braceras. Calling her article "The Lasting Lessons of Independence," she begins by lamenting how few of us remember the reasons for celebrating the 4th and then goes on to enumerate its universal truths: "That all people are created equal; that our basic human rights derive from God, not government; that government exists for the purpose of protecting our God-given rights; and that government is the instrument of the people — not the other way around."

All good, as far as it goes, but I am also struck by her omissions. Jefferson also says this: "That whenever any Form of Government" fails to secure these rights, "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." Of course, you don't resort to such drastic action without first exhausting all possible alternatives, but when everything else has been tried with no success and fundamental rights are still withheld from the people, then it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government. This is radical stuff and it is one of the main reasons why, as Braceras herself indicates, that the Declaration and the Constitution should never be confused.

But the implication of this radical notion, perhaps now more than ever, is also strikingly relevant. If the standard for just governments is that the safety and happiness of all the people must be effected and that some reasonable level of equality must be maintained, then it is arguable that our current government is falling woefully short. It would be silly, at least at this point in time, to use the Declaration to advocate an overthrow of our current government, but we have reached a point where the degree of inequality is so outrageous, the extent of public safety so uneven, and the level of general happiness so diminished as to put our leaders on notice that unless significant change comes soon in the direction of greater equality, safety, and happiness for all, then a radical alteration of the current governing system must be regarded as a distinct possibility.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Future of Medicare

I count myself a long time admirer of the work of medical ethicist Daniel Callahan. For many years, he has been a voice of sanity and wisdom about the need to allocate our medical funding more judiciously and fairly. I am therefore reluctant to say that his comments in the Sunday Review's "Sunday Dialogue" strike me as just off enough to distort a serious issue: how to fund Medicare in the coming decades.

His 80-year-old, self-sacrificing tone, "our duty is more to those coming after us than to ourselves," sounds reasonable, but, ironically, it is too self-absorbed to be helpful. When he says that the death of people his age is "no social tragedy," I personally identify with this view, while severely doubting whether other 80-year-olds and their families will necessarily concur. In any case, I am skeptical whether this kind of abstract sacrificing of oneself to the next generation is even necessary, given what we know about the economics of medical care.

Of course, Medicare is wasteful in some of the ways Callahan identifies. Overuse of expensive technology and excessively high expenditures on drugs that extend life for only a few months are at the top of this list. The recent stories about Medicare agreeing to fund drugs like Provenge and Avastin are certainly part of the problem and may be what Callahan is particularly concerned about.

His far more radical and I think misguided view, though, is that we should not be too concerned about promoting the health and well being of older people who have, as he puts it, lived a "full life," which he defines as reaching somewhere between 75-80 years old. He especially is concerned that the current level of Medicare cannot be maintained, something about which he is almost certainly correct, and that this must be balanced against the ability of younger people to live a sustainable life. Here, I think he is far more alarmist than necessary, given that young people appear to be flourishing in EU countries where the tax burden is much higher than here and given that the amount of taxes needed to grow Medicare at a reasonable rate need not be that great.

In fact, let's get specific here. Medicare costs ordinary folks about 1.5% of their income each year. For someone making $50,000, that's $750. A lot but hardly a crushing burden. Increasing that by, say, 50% to 2.25% of income, especially on incomes over, say, $50,000 is very doable. That would mean that a person making $75,000 a year would see his tax burden for Medicare go from about $1125 a year to around $1875. Sure, it's a fairly steep increase, but I don't think it is life altering, whereas dramatic losses in Medicare funding could be.

In any case, this little analysis as inexact as it may be should remind us that the kind of glittering generalities Callahan employs in his Sunday Dialogue really don't help with serious problems very much. We need specifics about the amount of sacrifice involved and the degree to which medical costs can be reasonably cut. What we don't need is a framework that makes a leap to pitting young people against old, particularly when many of the solutions to our problems, such as implementing a relatively modest increase in taxes, are not nearly as challenging as they may at first appear.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Making Teacher Evaluation Work

For a number of reasons, there has been a lot of interest lately in how to improve the evaluation of teachers. First, the Education Department’s Race to the Top competition which has added billions to reform efforts requires that new systems of teacher evaluation be designed that are more rigorous and selective. Second, there is less money for public education and making sure that schools have the right people in the classroom has become more of a priority than ever. Third, a series of research studies about the factors that contribute most to education improvement have consistently shown that good teaching is, by far, the most decisive variable. It’s pretty clear good teaching makes a big difference for student learning and achievement. So how do we come up with a system that supports and further develops excellent teachers, mentors struggling teachers toward greater effectiveness, fairly and efficiently eliminates the weakest instructors, and reflects the complexities of good teaching at its best?

As recently reported by Sam Dillon in the New York Times, Washington D.C.’s Public Schools think they have an answer. Under their system, administrators and a corps of master educators share responsibility for observing and evaluating teachers using an agreed upon set of criteria that are linked to the research on good teaching. They also rely on student achievement test scores, but the observations are at the heart of the new approach. Unfortunately, some commentators have said that the system is much better at weeding out teachers than helping them to develop pedagogical expertise, and too often the master educators come across as more adversarial than nurturing.

A less touted but perhaps more promising model for evaluating teachers has been used for some time in Montgomery County, Maryland and was recently explored in an article for the New York Times by Michael Winerip. Called PAR – Peer Assistance and Review – this approach enlists hundreds of senior teachers as mentors to struggling teachers, not to evaluate them, but to help them get better. Teachers can only be discontinued when a PAR panel made up of an equal number of administrators and teachers is convinced that improvement has not occurred. This system emphasizes professional development at least as much as evaluation and enjoys district-wide support.

If teacher evaluation is going to work, there is no doubt that good teaching needs to be defined carefully, that a comprehensive program of professional development to help all teachers improve needs to be in place, and that better and more efficient procedures for eliminating weak teachers must be established. All of these are non-negotiables. Somehow, though, these ideas, despite their importance, miss a critical point about the realities of effective teaching, especially in K-12 schools.

School teaching, we now know, can no longer be a private, individualistic, behind-closed-doors endeavor. Teaching is, in fact, at its best when it is a highly public, collaborative and communal enterprise. When teaching and curriculum development are openly and widely shared and when colleagues know each other’s professional strengths and weaknesses well, it is unquestionably the case that teaching gets better. Strong teachers become even stronger and struggling teachers often blossom. When communication throughout a school is transparent and free across subject matters and grade levels, educators are better able to work together to serve the children in their charge. They can plan and coordinate lessons and curricula so that they build on what has come before and anticipate what is to come. When a school creates a culture where teaching and learning are shared enterprises, the areas in need of improvement can be more easily spotted and strategies for making change can be arrived at collaboratively. Such collaboration pushes everyone to perform at their best.

In the end, this is all a way of saying that although we will always need to evaluate individual teachers, an equally important indicator of excellence is the performance of the school as whole and how each individual educator is contributing to the ongoing betterment of that whole. Future systems of evaluation, then, must put more far more emphasis on whole school effectiveness and improvement and on the role that individuals are playing in supporting teamwork, mutual accountability, and shared responsibility for attaining shared goals. The next step for evaluating teaching, therefore, must pair measures of whole school improvement with the assessment of individual performance. Only then will teacher evaluation capture the complexities of K-12 instruction and begin to meet the challenges of 21st century school reform.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Praise of Not Knowing

A quite unusual op-ed piece managed to sneak its way on to the Sunday Opinion pages of the New York Times on Sunday, June 19. Called "In Praise of Not Knowing" and written by Tim Krieder, a writer and cartoonist who is preparing an essay collection entitled "We Learn Nothing," the piece celebrates the thrilling feeling which has become increasingly rare in the internet age of possessing knowledge of something that appears to be unknown to just about everyone else. The author recounts a time in the 1980s when he and a friend learned about an obscure contemporary classical music composer named Harry Partch and the delight they experienced in seeming to be the unique holders of this rarefied knowledge. This, of course, was before Mr. Partch could be googled and turn out to have, among other things, a lengthy Wikipedia entry to his credit.

In the end, though, what Mr. Krieder really wants to discuss is how rare it has become in an era of "instant accessibility" to enjoy the exhilaration of not knowing the answer to every question that can be posed. Not knowing, he argues, fuels curiosity and the drive to find things out. Having ready answers to everything, whether correct or not, actually deters the motivation to learn, to uncover life's greatest quandaries. More than ever, he seems to be arguing, we must work at keeping some of the available answers at bay. It follows, too, that we must value the questions at least as much as the answers, and devote more time to helping learners develop a sense of wonder and encouraging them to revel in what appear to be the unconquerable mysteries of life.

As Mr. Krieder says in his conclusion, learning to turn ignorance into mystery and not knowing into a sense of wonder may have become the most neglected of skills. "It turns out," Mr. Krieder affirms, "that the most important things in this life--why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us are things we're never going to know."

So, I say, let the not knowing begin. We have nothing to lose but a few answers that were most likely arrived at prematurely without a whole lot of thought or effort anyway.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sanitized History is Boring History

Here's a little something I sent to the NY Times a while back that did not get into the newspaper:

Op-Ed Contributor

Sanitized history is boring history


Staten Island, N.Y.

Results released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the gold standard of standardized tests, indicate that American students at all levels are alarmingly ignorant of the most basic facts of our own history. Sam Dillon of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, June 15th that only 20 percent of 4th graders, and a shockingly low 12% of high school seniors, showed proficiency on the history exam. The conclusion is inescapable that the vast majority of students possess virtually no knowledge of history.

As Dillon pointed out, most 4th graders could not explain why Abraham Lincoln was significant, and only a tiny percentage of students could identify what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case, was about.

As a long-time educator and follower of educational trends, I am not at all surprised by these results. They are exactly what I expect. There has never been a time when American high school students have done well on history examinations. And there is every reason to believe that the level of historical knowledge among the general public is just as abysmal. Over the years, the New York Times has reported many times how little our 17-year-olds know, but it has also shown — using its own specially prepared tests — that adults don’t know much more than their children.

I believe that James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” has the most plausible answer for why we don’t know our history: History is not retained or understood because it’s almost always taught in a boring way — and the reason it’s boring has everything to do with the half-truths and outright lies we tell about it.

Is it really surprising that students don’t know about the Brown case when so many teachers provide them with so little historical context for understanding what a dramatic step forward that case represented? Why should our students know about Lincoln when we so frequently withhold from them what a wily politician he was or how far he progressed in his understanding of slavery and race during the course of the Civil War? Unlike a good movie about real life that is often interesting because all the boring parts have been taken out, we tend to teach history in high school with all the boring parts left in and all the really fascinating material removed so as to not to offend anyone.

This has been true for decades. Our history text books bored students to death for most of the 20th century because everything controversial about American life — including the racism, the sexism, the cultural genocides, the overwhelming social and economic inequities — has been omitted.

If we ever find the courage to tell the true and often tragic story of American history, our students will sit up, take notice, and learn. In the meantime, don’t expect change any time soon. Social studies is famous for being the most boring subject in school, and so it will remain as long as its textbooks and its teachers are unable to face up to the gut-wrenching but arresting truths about that history.

Stephen Preskill is the chairman of the Education Department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Golf Summit

So golf is in the news a lot lately owing to Speaker of the House John Boehner's success in goading the President of the United States into meeting for a so-called political summit on the links. The "summit" has, at this writing, already taken place. Nothing momentous was decided, but apparently Boehner won. I hope they had a nice conversation and all that, but I have at least two related quarrels about this match-up.

First, why does the President once again allow himself to be put into the weaker position? We all know that Mr. Boehner is a really good golfer and that Obama isn't. And, of course, none of this really matters, but to the extent it matters at all, it simply makes the President look worse. I mean really, can you imagine what would happen if they played one-on-one basketball? It would be a total rout; Boehner wouldn't have a chance. So why no basketball? Partly because the President truly is such a gentleman that he doesn't want to let someone even as puerile as Boehner feel bad. Such a match-up, we and the President imagine, would surely result in tearful humiliation for Boehner. Something Obama, the prince of civility, with all good but sometimes misguided intention, cannot countenance.

But don't you think it's also true that this little summit is meant to send a message about who really matters in America today? It's not the kind of person who plays basketball, who tends to be a person of color, who is poor and who is young. Nope, we embrace the golfers, rich, sheltered, older men with plenty of time on their hands. If you think this is meaningless symbolism, I would invite you to think again. It speaks volumes about who matters these days in this country and who doesn't.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clara Luper - Pioneering Civil Rights Activist Dies

Where else but in the New York Times would the death of someone like Clara Luper be recognized, a true civil rights pioneer, whose fame, unfortunately, never transcended the boundaries of the State of Oklahoma? Nevertheless, her achievement was noteworthy. As an adult advisor to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Luper had the courage and strategic acumen to stage a sit in at an Oklahoma City lunch counter in August of 1958 to protest Oklahoma's legal statutes supporting racial segregation. This was a full 18 months before four Black students from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College received national attention for refusing to leave a Greensboro lunch counter.

Although not given national publicity, the sit-in campaign that Luper led to desegregate the lunch counters at the Katz's Drug Stories continued for years. It eventually led to the full integration of the chain's 38 stores scattered throughout the lower Midwest.

Clara Luper was also the first African American to earn a master's degree in history from the University of Oklahoma 1951. Born in 1923, she taught in Oklahoma City schools until retirement in 1991. Although she was proud of what she accomplished as a teacher, she also observed that teaching and preaching were the only vocations available to Blacks in the 1940s and 1950s. Teaching was her only real chance at practicing a profession. From 1960-1990 she also hosted her own radio program about efforts to promote equity and racial justice and she eventually wrote an autobiography called "Behold the Walls." In the later 1950s, she was so inspired by Dr. King's efforts in Montgomery, Alabama that she wrote a play about his campaign for nonviolence called "Brother President." This play, which was produced in New York City, helped to make possible a trip that Luper and her students took to Gotham in 1957. The experience of being in a city where there was relatively little overt racial discrimination led Luper and her students to launch a campaign in Oklahoma city to end public segregation.

At first, Luper and her students wrote letters to public officials and newspapers to express their opposition to segregation. But when all of the conventional ways of making change proved ineffectual, Luper and her students opted for something more dramatic: Lunch counter sit-ins. As Clara Luper herself put it in a television interview with Oklahoma Television, the point was "to do what I could do while I could - to eliminate segregation of all kinds." See this link for a videotaped interview with Clara Luper: http://www.oeta.tv/video/category/a_conversation_with.html?start=10

In an interview in a blog called StoriesinAmerica, Luper was asked in 2005 what it meant to her to be a Christian. Her answer could not have been simpler or more timely. She said plainly: "Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live." The wisdom of Clara Luper, Oklahoma teacher and activist, dead at age 88.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Elizabeth Warren Again!

In another column praising Elizabeth Warren's selfless commitment to helping consumers make sense of the financial products that some unscrupulous bankers want to pawn off on them, columnist Joe Nocera reminds us that Warren has become a great ally of the ordinary person. In establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she is simply trying to make sure that everyday people get all the information they need when conferring with bankers. This is a clear case of someone trying to look out for the millions of ordinary people who are often manipulated into purchasing financial products they neither want or need and that may even threaten their financial security.

Who wouldn't want to get behind such goals? Apparently, most of the Republican Party that continues to block her nomination as head of the new Bureau. They claim that placing her in this position could threaten the financial system. As Mr. Nocera puts it: "How, precisely, an agency that tries to keep financial consumers from being gouged threatens the system is something no one ever explains." And the reason they don't explain it is because these politicians are in the hip pocket of the Big Banks. Doing anything that might upset the Big Banks appears to be anathema to the Republicans. Yet none of this filters down to the ordinary person who continues to think that Republicans and Democrats are the same. When the reality is, in fact, undeniably obvious. Republicans will always opt to support the leaders of large, well established institutions over the needs and concerns of less privileged people. Big banks over individual consumers.

Somehow, this conflict needs to be reported for the revealing story that it is: A fight between bigness and smallness in which the Republicans seem to be opting, almost without exception, for bigness. In the meantime, as Nocera says, it is important for Obama to continue to support Warren, even if it means her nomination is not approved. Nocera, for one, seems to look forward to this eventuality, for if Warren's nomination did go down, then "Americans would be able to see, in the starkest way imaginable, who’s trying to help them — and who’s not."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mad Libs Creator Dies

Some sad news was reported in the Times today. Leonard B. Stern, a successful television writer and co-creator of the ___________________[adverb] successful children's word game called Mad Libs, died on Tuesday at the age of 88. Since the late 1950s, when Mad Libs first appeared, something like ___________________[number] million copies of the Mad Libs tablets have been sold. A seemingly endless source of amusement for children on ____________________[mode of transportation] trips or during any long period of _____________________[noun or gerund], these games also taught children __________________[noun] in a manner that was __________________[adjective] and _______________________[another adjective].

The story goes that the idea for the game dawned on Mr. Stern while writing a script for _____________________________________[name of TV show] when he needed just the right descriptive word. He turned to a colleague and requested an adjective. His colleague, the humorist Roger Price, gave him two: "clumsy" and "naked." When Mr. Stern ___________________________[adverb] laughed, the two men realized they had hit on a potentially ______________________[adjective] idea. Unable to find a publisher willing to take a risk on this venture, they published the books themselves. The rest is _______________________[noun].

Actually, Stern was an incredibly successful and _______________________[adjective] writer for television, but _______________________[adverb], Mad Libs would become his most acclaimed creation. It helped, though, to be a known commodity and to write ______________[adverb] for ______________________[noun]. Steve Allen, the noted variety show host, introduced the game on his television program in 1958 and sales _____________________[past tense verb].

Mad Libs continues to sell and the names of Leonard Stern and Roger Price _______________[verb] on. Rest in ____________________[noun] Mr. Stern.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What the Rich Want

Today I am struck by two articles in the New York Times, both having a connection to the lives of the rich and the privileged. One article is about the huge amounts of money (up to six figures annually) that wealthy parents are paying to have their children tutored for rigorous, challenging courses taught at places like the Riverdale Country School and the Dalton School. The second article, less obviously related to this theme, is Thomas Friedman's column featuring environmentalist Paul Gilding who argues that in a world of dwindling resources we all need to find ways to enjoy life more but by relying on far "less stuff."

I like Friedman's column, but it also has me thinking about who it is exactly that will be expected to get by on "less stuff." Consider the obscene amounts of money the rich are expending to ensure that their children perform well in a single class. Can there be any doubt that one of the reasons they do this is to maintain their position at the apex of the economic and social hierarchy? I can't help thinking that even as most of the rest of us are asked to jettison our superfluous stuff, a mighty elite will continue to joyfully expand their already mountainous pile of possessions.

This mounting inequity surely will be the cause of our decline if we don't do something about it soon. For every person who says, rightly, that we must get by on less stuff, I want somebody else to stand up and declare that we must begin with the very wealthy few who will agree to go first, not just as an example to others but also because their lifestyles, if not constrained, will yet sink the democratic ship of state.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Michael Winerip

Those of us who care about meaningful schooling and have become impatient with current trends in so-called education reform are increasingly finding a thoughtful and articulate ally in Michael Winerip, the author of the Times' On Education column that appears every Monday. As the work week begins, Winerip can be counted on to single out a school or a reform or a practice that he thinks merits analysis and that he ties skillfully to the larger educational policy landscape. Unfriendly to No Child Left Behind and inclined to support teachers' unions, Winerip also tries to avoid offering up easy answers or relying on predictable harangues.

In today's Times, he writes about PAR - Peer Assistance and Review - a program for developing struggling teachers that has proved quite successful in Montgomery County, Maryland over the last 11 years. PAR is staffed by hundreds of highly skilled instructors whose job it is to work with teachers regarded as low performers - whether young or seasoned - and to take responsibility for mentoring them toward greater effectiveness. A key part of the PAR Program are the 16 educators - 8 teachers and 8 administrators - who comprise the PAR panel. The panel reviews the documentation provided by the struggling teachers and their mentors and decides whether they should be retained or let go. According to Winerip, this program has led to the firing of 200 teachers and the decision on the part of some 300 others to resign rather than undergo the PAR review process. It has taken time and effort to make this program work and a tremendous level of trust had to be built up to make it sustainable, but it now enjoys nearly universal praise from teachers, administrators, and union leaders.

Despite this success, however, Montgomery County and its PAR Program are not eligible for the Education Department's Race to the Top Funds because there is no provision in PAR for assessing teaching effectiveness based on the state test results of students in classes taught by the teachers being evaluated. Such a provision is a hard and fast requirement to secure federal monies. Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, Jerry D. Weast, resists this demand and says that they will be turning down the money as long as this requirement stands. "We don't believe the tests are reliable," Dr. Weast observes, and then adds, "You don't want to turn your system into a test factory."

The upshot, as Mr. Winerip so brilliantly points out, is that Montgomery County is ineligible for federal funds despite an 11-year program that has shown itself to be a clear winner. Whereas the State of Maryland as a whole, not counting Montgomery County, IS eligible for this money even though its own plan, evaluating teachers for how their students do on state tests, does not even exist yet!

Is this what the world of education reform has turned into? Can it be accurately summarized as a world where you get something for nothing and virtually zilch for doing something really quite remarkable? Probably not. Sounds like too easy an answer or too predictable a harangue. But that must be the way it looks these days in Montgomery County.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Letter to the Times (Not Published)

Today I am going to include a letter I wrote to the New York Times back on May 29th in response to an article by Gretchen Morgenson that cited a financial expert who said debt was unusually high, especially in a time of peace. Except, of course, we're spending billions every day to maintain at least two wars, maybe three. The Times requires that letters not be published anywhere else, so I had to wait for their decision before copying it here. I think I can be pretty sure at this point that they won't print this letter. Pity. What could be more Orwellian than for responsible commentators to claim we are in peacetime when we are clearly at war.

To the Editor:
In her May 29th, 2011 column in the New York Times Sunday Business
section, Gretchen Morgenson, a usually reliable reporter on financial
issues, allows a dangerous and insidious error by Joseph E. Gagnon, a
much praised senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International
economics, to go uncorrected. At one point, Gagnon is reported to have
said: “It is unique in peacetime for so many countries to have so much
debt.” Stunned, I searched the article for a correction. None came.
Last time I checked the United States is spending billions of dollars
every day on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. This is hardly
peacetime for the United States. But perhaps it is not surprising that
Mr. Gagnon would make such a statement, as it has been the strategy of
American leaders at least since 2003 to wage war and risk thousands of
American lives, while exacting so little sacrifice from most of the
rest of the American people. The fact that Mr. Gagnon can claim we
live in a time of peace when we are plainly mired in multiple wars
shows how morally bankrupt our position has become. The first issue
that must be addressed in any discussion of the debt crisis is the
money being wasted in senseless conflicts. Everything else is

Stephen Preskill
170 West End Avenue, Apt. 6S
New York, NY 10023

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Losing Ida

As a pretty sophisticated Central Park Zoo polar bear and therefore as a regular reader of the New York Times, I just couldn't resist adding to what the Times had to say today about the passing of my beloved Ida who died yesterday at the very advanced age of 25 (quite old for polar bears).

The Central Park zookeepers finally put Ida to sleep because her liver cancer was incurable, while also causing her a great deal of pain. I had tried to get them to do this earlier, but they have always been rather reluctant to listen to me.

Most of what the Times had to say about Ida is true. She was born in Buffalo and did come to the Central Park Zoo at the age of 2. I was already there and we bonded almost immediately. We have been nearly inseparable ever since.

I don't know if you recall this, but years ago I was diagnosed with depression. The zookeepers never did quite figure out what was wrong with me, and, honestly, I can't remember myself what brought it on. I just know that I felt like I didn't want to live any more. But Ida was so gentle and so patient with me during this whole time. Because of her devotion to me, I fell in love with her all over again. For years afterward, my happiest moments were those many times when Ida and I cuddled together, a scene captured by thousands of photographers.

Now I have no one to cuddle with. Ida is gone and I am alone. A polar bear without a cuddling partner can't be fully himself. But now my fond memories of Ida keep me going. She was so special, a one-of-a-kind polar bear. Those who saw her often know what I mean. Those who never got a chance to see her will just have to imagine what a life force she was - for me and everyone who knew her.

Your Mourning Friend,


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting for Diane Ravitch?

That tiny sliver of humanity who, like me, actually follow what historians of education have to say about school reform, almost certainly were once again dismayed to read Diane Ravitch's latest op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

For the uninitiated, Ravitch has been writing about reform and the history of American education since at least the mid-1970s. Her teacher and mentor was the late Lawrence Cremin, a great scholar who won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1981 for the second volume of his 3-volume history of American education, a truly unique achievement, that even in her best moments Ravitch could never possibly match. Over the years, however, as a result of books like "The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980," "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," and, more recently, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," Ravitch has become the only historian of education who is even occasionally read by the general public. She was also, far more infamously, a leading member of the Federal Department of Education during the "No Child Left Behind" years of President George W. Bush. You'd never know, given how contemptuous she is of this law now, that she helped to spearhead its passage back in 2001.

At any rate, her column today entitled "Waiting for a School Miracle," draws on a series of examples from places like Denver, Chicago and Florida to show that claims of dramatic school improvement are invariably exaggerated by school officials. She concludes with this lesson: be skeptical of all claims of educational transformation. Such transformations are virtually impossible given the achievement gap that already exists between children from high income and low income families even before they actually enter school. She then meekly calls for better parental education and has the temerity to end with this: "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved."

Such a statement from one of the architects of "No Child Left Behind," a law which assumed from the beginning that the achievement gap could be overcome through educational reform alone, without doing anything to alter the socio-economic status of poor children, utterly takes my breath away. My fury is hard to contain when I read something like this. Where has Diane Ravitch been? How dare she make such an obvious yet absurd observation that if every child came from a stable home with a steady income, that the achievement gap could be closed. The entire history of recent education reform has pitted those who claim that great educational progress can be brought about without resorting to other social and economic reforms against those who argue that full-scale educational change is impossible without attacking poverty directly. How she can sashay onto the op-ed page of the New York Times to spew her half-truths about reform is beyond me. Just because she says so doesn't mean that dramatic educational transformation is impossible. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming (and is far more complex than 3 superficially explained anecdotes) that when the conditions are right such transformations do occur. But, even worse, not to concede she was dead wrong about her support of No Child Left Behind and is responsible for subverting efforts to foster educational change paired with vigorous efforts to promote greater economic equity, is intellectually dishonest at best.

It is time for her step out of these debates altogether. The confusion she has engendered with her constantly shifting opinions and the ways in which she has undermined genuine educational reform makes her a problematic figure to all sides of this debate. Step aside, Ms. Ravitch, so that others can take the lead unhampered by your poorly thought out and inconsistent recommendations. Your time has past. We are done waiting for your next unsupported and uncorroborated pronouncement about what educators should do next to usher in authentic reform.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brooks Again

OK, it's official. I am obsessed with David Brooks. His column in today's Times rubbed me so raw that I find I must say something about it.

Picking up in the middle of this column about this year's college graduates, I am first amazed by his deriding of the commencement speech themes to follow your passion, chart your own course, etc. He says these words mislead "on nearly every front." Why?

Because they don't help at all in the solemn work of "finding serious things to tie yourself down to" such as "a spouse, a community, a calling." But isn't this often part of the problem? So many of us exhort young graduates to pursue stability and security without reference to passion or calling. We urge them to pursue majors in business or pre-law even though they are so often, at best, indifferent to the courses required for these majors. An interest in teaching or working for a non-profit is condemned as impractical. A desire to study history or literature is characterized as too idealistic. And while commencement speakers may occasionally encourage us to follow our bliss, the overwhelming message from society is to prepare for a career that ensures a good income right away, even though we may hate the work associated with that career.

Mr. Brooks repeatedly refers to the notion of "calling," and to the idea that we are "called to a problem" first, through whose pursuit the sense of self is then shaped. But the evidence for this claim is non-existent as far as I can tell. A few very lucky and often privileged youth are called to a profession or career that they love, but virtually none of us is called to problems, because our educational system, as Mr. Brooks knows perfectly well, is not structured around problems, but around disciplines and professions that more often than not actually mask the problems that will eventually confront us.

Of course, Brooks' larger point is that we ultimately make a meaningful life by contributing to a task that is much larger than we are and that forces us to lose ourselves in the pursuit of this task. I more or less agree. What I disagree with most vociferously is that our passion, our dream, our bliss doesn't matter. In fact, it is ONLY through the finding of such a passion, a process that often takes a long time, that we develop the strength and the resiliency to dedicate the self to some greater cause. Indeed, let me go further. The problems we face have much more to do with the foreclosing of the search for one's passion, one's calling, than the other way around. The commencement speakers have it right; it's the rest of us that have it wrong. And the reason those commencement speeches that implore us to follow our bliss are so universally ridiculed has everything to do with the fact that just about every other societal influence is arrayed against such advice. It is at our peril that we continue to ignore it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Brooks Versus Krugman

I don't know, must be something wrong with me, too naive, I guess, but I continue to be flummoxed and frustrated by the ongoing differences between David Brooks's and Paul Krugman's visions of the world, particularly when it comes to the Medicare debate.

I assume that Krugman is right, that Paul Ryan's ideas about Medicare and all the other conservatives who seem to think that there must be radical change in the way Medicare is financed, are, well, just plain wrong. That all they're trying to do is privatize Medicare and if they get their way, by, say, 2030, the elderly will be left forlornly holding a very short healthcare stick. The Republican charge is that the Democrats are playing politics with this, but Krugman is absolutely convinced that there is nothing to the charge. He holds that Democrats are telling the straight-up truth about the holes in this Medicare proposal.

Brooks, on the other hand, keeps trying to play the middle man. Republicans have to be willing to tax the rich and Democrats have to halt spending, but most of all those nasty Democrats need to stop this demonizing of Paul Ryan because he's brave and thoughtful and certainly well intentioned.

The thing is, though, my sense is that Ryan is not any of those things, that he is, in fact, a kind of charlatan. But Brooks's support and admiration for Ryan pull me up short a bit. He knows what Ryan is up to. He's far better informed than I am. He must have some reason to believe that Ryan is a good guy. Or, could it be, is it possible, that because Brooks always has to be the guy to find the middle way, he feels compelled to identify someone on the right to pit against Obama, and the best he can do is Paul Ryan? But in reality, like all the other Republicans we hear about, Ryan is the Wizard of Oz, all full of polished bluster and seemingly impressive noises, with no ideas of any value whatsoever to contribute to this important discussion?

Monday, May 23, 2011

New York Public Library Turns 100...and so does my father!

One of the greatest libraries in the world officially turns 100 today - May 23, 2011. Yup, on May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft personally made the trip to Midtown Manhattan to dedicate the great lion-bedecked main building of the New York Library. As Clyde Haberman of the Times tells us, the original cost of the building in 1911 was a mere 9 Million dollars. How much is that in today's dollars? About 210 Million. Still a bargain, I'd say. First book checked out from this imposing structure? "Farm Management."

So are you imagining swarms of people descending on what is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (because Mr. Schwarzman donated 100 million of his own Wall Street-begotten money to offer the Library a helping hand)? Well, think again. The Building is not open to the general public today. Something tells me, though, that Mr. Schwarzman and his family and all their rich friends will be permitted to squeeze in a special visit.

As for my father, he is no longer alive, but we do celebrate his 100th birthday today. Yes, he, too, like the New York Public Library was brand new on May 23rd, 1911. Born in Chicago to two Lithuanian immigrants who at that time scraped out a living as harness makers, my father, Alfred Willis Preskill, was the first member of his family (he had a brother and sister at the time) to greet the world in a hospital. Apparently, when an automobile brought the new baby home a few days later, the entire neighborhood turned out for the historic homecoming.

Alfred went on to distinguish himself in school, while his father built up a very successful business as a hardware store proprietor. He skipped three grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15 before going on to the University of Chicago (by way of Crane Junior College because his family could not at first afford the tuition at the University of Chicago), graduating from UC with a law degree at the age of 21. Which meant, as it turned out, that he was destined to initiate the practice of law in 1932, just as the Great Depression reached its darkest and most dangerous phase.

He continued to practice law for many years, but never particularly liked it and when World War II ended and he and my mother (also a lawyer!) were looking for a place to live, they settled in the Chicago area where he landed a position in the mail room at an electronics start-up called Allied Radio, noted for, among other things, their ingenious do-it-yourself radio kits. While toiling in the mail room, he devised a clever new way to distribute the company's mail order catalogs more efficiently and quickly rose to the executive suite, eventually becoming Vice President of Operations and General Manager of this increasingly profitable company. See this link about the history of Allied Radio and its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s: http://www.alliedelec.com/alliedhistory.aspx

When Alfred wasn't making a nice living for his wife and three sons (for a long time he even went to the office on Saturdays!), he was writing poetry, singing the popular songs he so cleverly penned during the 1930s and 1940s, and joyfully attending just about everything the Chicago Opera and Chicago Symphony had to offer.

He was a cool, funny, playful guy who savored puns and literature and history and could have been perfectly happy if he hadn't worked a day in his life. Almost certainly, his happiest days occurred during a long and largely healthy retirement when his long walks and daily crossword puzzles took up most of his time and when his many trips to the West Coast to be with his grandchildren gave him untold pleasure.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

David Wagoner Wins Prize

The New York Times reports today that the poet David Wagoner was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with the Arthur Rense Poetry Prize given every third year for excellence in poetry.

I found myself getting a little emotional about this news, as Mr. Wagoner is one of "my poets," if you know what I mean. Well, in case you don't, I mean the sort of poet that isn't too well known and that you run across on your own without the help of a teacher or expert. And then when you read his stuff, you find yourself wondering why you haven't read him before. It should be noted that actually Wagoner is a famed poet, probably the leading writer of verse in the American Northwest. To give you an idea of why I like Wagoner so much, here is one of the poems I recall encountering when just leafing through a copy of the Atlantic. It is called "Lachrymals."

Some Roman women saved their tears in them.
They held flat narrow-necked heart-shaped delicate phials
Below their eyelids against each cheek in turn
And caught their tears. No one could shed enough
In a single spasm to fill that tiny hollow,
So the women stoppered them with glass teardrops
And waited. In the meanwhile, some wore them
Like pendants to have that smooth translucent glass
(The colors of changing light on the hills)
Nearby all day and all night: none could be certain
When grief or pain or a sudden abundance
Of sorrow might come welling into their eyes
Again. When they were full to the brim,
Some women carried them as charms
Of remembrance through their lives
And into their tombs, and some would pour them out
Into quiet streams or onto the bare earth
And walk away, and some would drink them.

This is a beautiful poem and an amazing set of images skillfully arranged for appealing lucidity and maximum emotional impact.

Here's another that I found in a volume of his poetry that I picked up in West Philadelphia near the University of Pennsylvania campus. The poem is called "Lost."

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

There is something so reassuring and comforting about this poem. Of course, we CAN be physically lost, but we often overestimate the extent of our separation from our surroundings and forget that those surroundings are to a certain extent part of who we are, part of what it means to be. To be at home in the world is sometimes to be lost, but also to know that it will not last too long and that you will learn something worthwhile from the experience.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Academically Adrift

I can't resist commenting on the op-ed in today's Times by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the authors of a recent higher ed best seller - "Academically Adrift." Their data show, based primarily on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a widely used standardized test of general knowledge for college students, that at many colleges and universities, students aren't learning anything at all. They found, for instance, that nearly forty percent of the college students taking this test showed no gains whatsoever from their freshman to their senior years. An absolutely shocking conclusion that when you think about it defies logic.

While I am sure it is true that college students are not being challenged as they once were, it is a bit much to expect us to believe that after 4 years of education, including at some very fine colleges, significant numbers of students have learned nothing. Maturity alone would assure them of some increases in knowledge.

So let's say, for the sake of argument, that the data are deeply flawed, that the CLA is not getting a true measure of what students have learned, in part, because there is no incentive for them to do well on the test. There has been occasional commentary on the limits of this test and the way it is administered, but really not enough has been said about its inadequacies and what it aims to measure.

Here are the areas of critical thinking, data analysis and writing ability that the CLA assesses:

How well does the student assess the quality and relevance of evidence?

How well does the student analyze and synthesize data and information?

How well does the student form a conclusion from their [sic] analysis?

How well does the student consider other options and acknowledge that their [sic] answer is not the only perspective?

How clear and concise is the argument?

How effective is the structure?

How well does the student defend the argument?

What is the quality of the student’s writing?

How well does the student maintain the reader’s interest?

The authors of the CLA are very proud of the fact that this test measures general knowledge, the sort of knowledge that so many colleges profess to be concerned with. But that has not been my experience. Most colleges, and certainly most college teachers, want students to acquire knowledge in a single academic discipline more than they want them to be proficient in the realm of general knowledge. The reason for this is obvious. That is what professors value, that is how they themselves were trained.

So when authors like Arum and Roksa tell us about the problems of higher education - too many adjuncts, not enough rigor, overreliance on student evaluations, etc. - we should take them seriously while also remembering there is another reason embedded deeply in the culture of higher education. It has everything to do with our love of the specialist and our contempt for the generalist. Future studies should spend far more time on what higher education does best: prepare students to think, analyze, and write in their academic major. Now, whether that's a good goal or not for higher education is a different question entirely. But, to be fair, that is by far what colleges have come to care about most and should be given its due.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ethical Reading

The other day in a Wagner College discussion group, I confessed that the books I am most drawn to are the ones that seem to be striving to teach me, however indirectly or unintentionally, how to live. Reading the Times Book Review today, I noticed that two of the books reviewed, one about a father who cares for his profoundly disabled son and another about a woman reared on a remote utopian farm, grapple with this very question of how to live and how the attempt to find answers shape our values and exhort us to make the most of our days.

I am now almost finished with a book that offers a wealth of wisdom about how to live. I found it on a public library bookshelf last Saturday and have been reading it aloud with Karen, with frequent pauses for sobs and laughs, most of the week. It is called "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy" by Priscilla Gilman, and it, too, is a book about a parent who struggles to raise her mysterious but extraordinary son.

A Yale Ph.D. in English and for a while a Professor of Literature at Yale and Vassar, Gilman's life is turned entirely upside down by the birth of her distant, aloof, but remarkably gifted son. Reading before the age of 2, but seemingly cut off from those around him, her son Benjamin whom the family usually refers to as Benj, is eventually diagnosed as having hyperlexia, a form of high functioning autism in which a precocious ability to read words is paired with difficulty understanding spoken language and abnormal social skills.

The story that she tells about her struggle to find help for Benj is incredibly inspiring, but it is the changes that occur in her that especially intrigue me. Her profound insight that there is no hard dividing line between normal and abnormal and that there is a continuum of behavior on which all of us can be found comes across with striking clarity and power in her narrative. Additionally, she brilliantly develops the insight that our quest for high achievement and recognition is far more dependent on luck and chance than we usually concede and that such a quest often carries with it a heavy burden that is not always worth the cost.

Her final chapter, which develops these themes and many others with far more wisdom than I can capture here, is truly a meditation on how to live a different kind of life than Americans, in particular, are used to hearing. The life she describes does not disdain high honor, but also avoids overdoing it, endeavoring instead to more deeply appreciate our unique constellation of abilities and limits. As she says in this last chapter, "In my experiences as first a high-achieving student, and then as a professor of high-achieving students, and later as a mother navigating the intensely competitive New York City private-school admission circus, I've had to confront artificial benchmarks of progress and achievement over and over again. And while on the one hand, I've often been saddened to learn that Benj is falling short of a norm, on the other I've often felt a strong resistance to the idea that he must conform to that norm."

Quoting the German poet Heine - "What the world seeks and hopes for has now become utterly foreign to my heart" - Gilman rejects the race for prestige and distinction and embraces the everyday sort of loving relationship that her son Benj and his brother James have been able to build together. It is paying attention to these relational milestones that now more than ever give her life new meaning and purpose.

The story Priscilla Gilman tells is the life of a single American family and it is unique to that family. But how she tells this story and the way in which she explores its impact on her own life offers me and, I am sure, many others a glimpse of how we can begin to live our own lives a little more compassionately and appreciatively.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Education reform

The topic today is school reform, building on Joe Nocera's op-ed column from April 26th and the letters this column prompted that appear today. Nocera's essential point: regardless of how much schools improve, increases in student learning will always be limited by poverty, inequitable funding, parental neglect, and a variety of other forces outside the influence of schools. Today's letters largely support Nocera, though one of them, while perhaps agreeing with Nocera, argues that his argument may be beside the point. No matter how poor or abused some kids may be, teachers have to teach them as if their potential were unlimited, as if by virtue of their teaching, they could turn these kids into geniuses. Seems right to me, actually, but what we must not do, and what none of these commentators quite touches on, is hold these teachers exclusively accountable when their students don't progress as much as we had idealistically hoped. Which doesn't mean there isn't accountability; it just has to be right kind that takes into account how great the challenge truly is of bringing these learners up to grade level in, say, a single year.

Part of this complexity has to do with the actual details of the challenges faced by the children in one of those teacher's classrooms. For instance, as one letter writer points out, what can you accomplish with the student who was in a mental hospital for 2 weeks? Or the two who ran away? Or the one who has no way to get to school? Or the three who have been suspended for drugs? Too often, school reformers show no regard for these very specific and very real issues.

How then do we hold educators accountable, while also recognizing there are many factors beyond their control that foil improvement? My admittedly inadequate answer is by telling more stories - as many as we can find really - about the nature of these many challenges, so that policy makers and law makers can begin to see that if we want true improvement in schools, it must be a united effort. Such an effort must hold schools at least partially accountable, while also insisting that much, much more be done to help kids get to school and stay there. This often huge challenge of ensuring that kids can get to school - a job schools cannot do alone - could make a huge contribution to better schooling and better learning.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


The excerpt from the new book about Stanley Ann Dunham that appears in the Sunday Times Magazine section gives me an excuse to get something off my chest about one of the meanings of the Obama Presidency. Ms. Dunham was, of course, the President's mother, and as the profile in the Times and in the upcoming book suggest, she was a remarkable person who left an indelible impact on the President's character and outlook. The final paragraphs of the article are largely quotations from an interview that the author, Janny Scott, conducted with the President and they are powerfully revealing.

The President praises his mother as resilient and persistent, but also characterizes her as poorly organized, someone who could not have accomplished what she did without the assurance that her parents would provide a stable home for her son and his sister. Obama's concluding remarks simply affirm that the greatest gift his mother gave him was the unconditional love that he never doubted he could count on.

What I want to add is a kind of non sequitur, I guess, but, in any case, it is simply this. I think the Obama Presidency is, among other things, a test for the American people of their ability to face up to this country's shameful racist past and to learn something that will begin the process of healing the wounds this past has wrought. It also holds up a mirror to the American people's ability to confront everyday racism. So far, the results are not promising. I attribute a significant part of the controversy regarding Obama's birthplace, his personal history, his current policies to the persistence of racism.

A friend told me recently that a relative of his believes that Obama is a Muslim AND a terrorist. He said there is no persuading her otherwise; this is just part of what she is convinced is true. And this is not some white supremacist, neo-nazi we're talking about. Just a relatively ordinary, middle-class, white American, who believes, among other things, that the President of the United States is intent upon destroying the very country he ostensibly serves. Seemingly crazy?! Of course. But my point is that the Obama Presidency has brought out into the open the depth and breadth of American racism. This is scary, to be sure, but it also could be healthy over the long run for this country to see more clearly than ever how much race shapes Americans' thinking and actions.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Self Portraits

Somewhere, deep in the Friday Arts section of the Times, an advertisement for a detail from a Rembrandt etching appears called Self Portrait, Frowning: Bust, 1630. Here is a copy of that particular self portrait:
Farther down is another, perhaps more famous, self portrait from the same year that Rembrandt completed at the age of 25. Both of these self portraits were part of a series he did during this period to capture different expressions and emotions. As you can see, it is great fun and utterly arresting, even today.
I have always been drawn to self portraits of any kind, as they represent a kind of visual journal or pictorial autobiography of artists' lives and development. In the case of Rembrandt, his self portraits, particularly those from a much later time when he had passed through a period of prosperity and happiness to one of impoverishment and despair, are among the great works of art ever created. His ability to show how the face can be drawn to reflect all the hardships that human beings endure is one of the great miracles of European art. Like other giants such as Shakespeare, Beethoven, Tolstoy, and Fred Astaire, his art is inexhaustible.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fact-Free Texas

The inimitable Gail Collins writes about abortion and the reproductive rights debate in Texas and how untethered from the world of evidence and reasonableness the anti-abortion forces in the Lonestar State have become. The experience of one State Legislator, Mike Villarreal, is instructive. When he proposed that information communicated under the State's abstinence-only sex education program be medically accurate, his suggestion failed to progress to the full legislature when a pediatrician, who represented the swing vote, said no.

This is what Collins refers to as the fact-free zone. She adds that "We’re currently stuck with a politics of reproduction in which emotion is so strong that actual information becomes irrelevant." Her best example: Senator Cornyn's apparent endorsement of Senator Kyl's staff follow-up to his remark that nine-tenths of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions. When this claim was shown to be utterly baseless, Kyl's staff answered that the Senator never intended to make "a factual statement." Senator Cornyn, for his part, who had a chance to denounce such anti-intellectual claptrap, defended Senator Kyl and asserted that he wasn't so sure his colleague had "screwed up."

Which means what exactly? That in spite of all the factual evidence, we should perpetuate lies so that ignorant people will continue to believe them? Remind you of anything? Like maybe the 25% of the population that continues to think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Obama was born somewhere other than Hawaii?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Seen and the Unseen

One of the enduring miracles of New York City, undiminished by repeated visits and prolonged lingering, is Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1858, The Central Park, as it was called then, very quickly became, at least by 1870, exactly what Olmstead and Vaux had in mind: a place for all the people of New York, regardless of their wealth or station, to interact, mingle, and to learn to be together.

What we tend to forget and what a new documentary about Olmstead's Legacy focuses on, according to a review in the New York Times today, is the breathtaking vision and ambition of this project. Arguably bigger than all the highways and parkways promoted by Robert Moses, the Park had no obvious benefits or advocates. It didn't appear to assist commerce or to advance transportation opportunities. It was just a scrupulously planned park that truly was an attempt to improve on nature. After all, what Olmstead and Vaux were proposing, among other things, was adding thousands of trees to an area that only a few years earlier had been prepared for development by eliminating trees! The Park didn't have an obvious use even then. But the visionaries behind it knew it would make the City far more livable and help to democratize it at the same time.

As the documentary points out, the genius of the Park can be found most strongly in its unseen, constructed beauty. Just about everything that makes it a glorious place to visit is unnatural and human-made. Despite all the praise it has received, it remains still one of the underestimated products of the human mind. We New Yorkers, especially those close enough to enjoy it daily, can never forget how much we owe Olmstead and Vaux for helping to make this enormous urban landscape one of the most humane cities in the world.

Central Park is one of the few places I know of that can be described as inexhaustible. For this, as well, we have Olmstead and Vaux to thank.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Serious After the Fact

I have a new way to judge the seriousness of politicians and political candidates. What do they choose to do after their political careers are over? In the case of President Bush, as revealed in a recent interview with Laura Bush, the ex-President's focus right now is almost entirely on the well being of his fish. As Mrs. Bush recently indicated in a New York Times interview, her husband is "always worried about our small lake that is stocked with bass, because he loves to fish. There’s always some concern: It’s too hot. It’s too cold. Are the fish not getting enough feed? That’s what he worries about." Kind of amazing, don't you think, that in a world wracked by war, famine, natural disasters, and nuclear catastrophes, this is what Mrs. Bush puts on the record as her husband's primary worry?

And then we have the current preoccupation of the Republican and arch-conservative former Senator from the State of New York - Alphonse M. D'Amato. The Senator, it turns out, is the chief lobbyist for the internet poker industry. Senator D'Amato, who has proudly represented and promoted such august companies as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker, recently learned that the heads of all of these outfits have been charged with fraud and money laundering. Mr. D'Amato who has apparently garnered millions as a lobbyist for these groups and has contributed huge sums from his earnings to other arch-conservative politicians in New York, has boldly declared, "Online poker is not a crime and should not be treated as such." Right on, Senator. How bold you are.

Should examples like this influence our judgments about the seriousness of current politicians who seem intent on controlling a budget process that could set this nation's social priorities for decades to come?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passionate Curiosity

Close followers of this space know that I admire Adam Bryant's "Corner Office" column that appears every Sunday in the Business section of the Times. Each Sunday, Bryant interviews a CEO of a corporation or the head of a non-profit to find out how they lead. It frequently offers insights into organizational leadership that you don't get anywhere else. Over the past year, I have probably saved four or five of these interviews because they were so good.

Now, not surprisingly, the lessons learned from these interviews have been synthesized in a new book by Bryant called..."The Corner Office." In a piece in the Times today, "Distilling the Wisdom of CEO's," that is adapted from the book, Bryant summarizes the five qualities that all of the leaders he interviewed apparently share. They are: 1) Passionate Curiosity, 2) Battle-Hardened Confidence, 3) Team Smarts, 4) A Simple Mind-Set, and 5) Fearlessness.

All of these strike me as both very important and really quite rare, and when I measure my own rather feeble attempts at leadership against this list, I am dismayed by how much I fall short in pretty much every category. Of course, there is always room to improve and I hope to use Bryant's findings to upgrade my own leadership. But at the risk of distorting what Bryant has to say by singling out only one of these qualities, let's briefly look more closely at Passionate Curiosity.

Implied right from the beginning in Bryant's own treatment of passionate curiosity is that strong leaders are humble people, willing to talk about their mistakes and failures and to learn from them. I am deeply drawn to this attitude, as I am to the next theme that Bryant highlights: the desire of such leaders to know people's stories, to understand what they do and what makes them tick and how they themselves rebound from adversity. Bryant goes on on to say that what especially marks such leaders is their "relentless questioning," their uncompromising commitment to finding out why things happen as they do and how better outcomes can be achieved. Nell Minow affirms that this particular combination of qualities - passion combined with curiosity - results in a person who is "alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more."

Accordingly, Bryant concludes, while top leaders are often said to be worth their salaries for having vast stores of knowledge and insight, they are probably most valuable as incisive questioners who use this capacity to "push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees."

A couple of years ago, Stephen Brookfield and I wrote a book about leadership called "Learning as a Way of Leading" in which we said that one of the key learning tasks of such learning leaders is to develop the ability to ask helpful, energizing, formative questions. It is deeply satisfying to find someone I respect saying the same thing about the leaders he profiles.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

An American Family

When the cinema verite documentary "An American Family" aired for the first time on PBS in 1973, I became one of its biggest fans. Living alone and struggling through my first year of public school teaching, I found the trials and tribulations of the real-life Loud family somehow reassuring. I watched each week with increasing interest and trepidation. I can still recall when Lance Loud revealed to his mother that he was gay, and remember with striking vividness the moment when Pat Loud told Bill Loud, her husband of at least 20 years, that she wanted a divorce. (Many years later, by the way, they reunited.) The Louds were a sensation. Plastered on the cover of news magazines and discussed voluminously in op-ed columns, they became the poster children, if you will, for the dysfunctional American family. They also became very famous, however fleetingly. As Lance Loud, a former pen pal of Andy Warhol, affirmed, the series allowed Lance and the rest of his family to live out "the middle class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are."

Now, 38 years after the documentary first hit the airwaves, the Louds are back, only this time not as themselves, but portrayed by an ensemble of accomplished actors, led by Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud. But the new film called "Cinema Verite" is less about the impact of the documentary and more about the conflicts behind the scenes between the producer and the filmmakers and how their disagreements regarding their treatment of the Louds influenced the end product. There was much talk then about how a reality-based series can distort people's lives through selective editing and a widespread feeling prevailed, at least among members of the family, that the series ultimately offered a very skewed view of their lives.

So many years later, it doesn't feel that all this matters very much. But they probably wouldn't be making this movie if there weren't considerable interest among the American public. So why now? Something about the power of media to influence our lives, to shape how we see the world. And since that now matters more than ever, perhaps the story of the Louds and how their lives got portrayed on television can shed some light on the role of media in distorting our experiences and convincing us of one thing when almost the exact opposite is closer to the truth. As you can tell, I am confused. But fascinated, nonetheless, that somehow the Loud Family is still news.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Clash of Ideologies

A fascinating ideological battle is being waged before our eyes on the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The battle is between David Brooks and Paul Krugman and it has everything to do with America's economic and social future and what budget course is most likely to be supportive of this country's long-term growth.

Not surprisingly, Brooks is an unabashed admirer of Congressman Paul Ryan and his belief that slashing the federal budget while maintaining tax breaks for the rich is the only way to ensure long-term economic growth. Brooks has called Ryan smart, courageous, admirable, and genial, but especially courageous for taking on the Washington D.C. bureaucracy's addiction to what he feels is unsustainable deficit-spending. To be fair, incidentally, Brooks also admires Obama for possessing many of the same personal qualities as Ryan.

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, remains a reluctant supporter of Obama and a no-holds-barred critic of Ryan. He derides the claim that Ryan is a courageous and "SERIOUS" legislator and has referred to his budget plan as a "sick joke." He also calls Ryan's cuts "savage" and insists that the supposed cost savings are "pure fantasy."

So, how do we make a judgment about who to believe? Who makes the better case? At first blush, it seems to be Brooks because he tries so hard to be balanced (praising both Ryan and Obama) and temperate (avoiding Krugman's harsh rhetoric). Brooks must be right, it at first appears, because, well, because he comes across as so reasonable. So score one for Brooks...maybe.

But take a good look at their respective columns today. Brooks employs large strokes and big claims that are based largely on various people's opinions. Krugman, on the hand, being the skilled progressive economist that he is, relies on specific budget data to make his case. Check out what he says about Mr. Ryan's 200 billion dollar error in his own budget proposal or the ways in which Ryan distorts the current prescription drug benefit that is part of Medicare. Or notice how Krugman attacks the Medicare Advantage Program that is strikingly similar to what Republicans propose and yet costs 12 percent more per person than traditional Medicare.

In the end, Krugman develops and backs up an argument against Ryan's proposal, whereas Brooks largely bases his support for Ryan's proposals on what he thinks is Ryan's outstanding character. Brooks trusts Ryan's figures because he's a good guy, but Krugman does an analysis of those figures and demonstrates how much they are wanting. Sure, Krugman is a little harsher in his characterizations, but it's pretty obvious to me that the pundit we should be relying on in establishing the course for the future is Krugman, not David Brooks, for all his good intentions.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Remembering the Civil War

In an Op-Ed piece in today's Times, author Edward Ball reminds Americans that how they remember the Civil War still makes a huge difference in how they see ourselves today. For instance, as Ball says, the desire to regard American history as a fairly steady path toward freedom and tolerance and the refusal to come to terms with the War's essential tragedy "presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge" and blinds us to the real legacy of the Civil War.

Even progressives tend to look to the Civil War as a tremendous collective sacrifice that resulted in a resounding new birth of freedom. The only problem with this view is that it almost completely conflicts with the facts. The War led to a brief period of Reconstruction in which ex-slaves enjoyed a fleeting taste of freedom, only to be crushed once again by 100 years of retrenchment, bitter injustice, and unparalleled oppression. As Ball says, the South lost the War and won the peace by demanding, often with force, that white supremacy prevail.

Until the country as a whole learns to confront this history more forthrightly, racial injustice will remain its greatest challenge. Even a second presidential term for Mr. Obama, however unprecedented that would be, cannot "redeem the tragedy at the core of American history." Only Americans' shared willingness to acknowledge and learn from this tragedy can do that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sidney Lumet, Front Page Obituary

Hey, everybody, remember the New York Times front page obituary game? Oh, c'mon, you know, the one where you have to gauge whether a celebrity is famous enough to warrant a front page death notice? Well, to my surprise, Sidney Lumet, the great film director, who died on Saturday morning, April 9th, made it! In today's Times, on the bottom, right-hand corner of the front page, Mr. Lumet, best remembered for such films as "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The Verdict," and "Network," is reported to have died in his Manhattan home at the age of 86. The cause of death was Lymphoma.

My guess would have been that Lumet was not renowned enough to enjoy this kind of attention. For instance, as the obituary by Robert Berkvist indicates, Lumet never won an academy award, despite being nominated 4 times. I'm glad I was wrong, though, as at least a handful of his films, including "12 Angry Men," "Network," as well as "Long Day's Journey into Night," "Fail-Safe," and "The Pawnbroker" will endure. There wasn't anything showy about Lumet's direction, but he could be extremely subtle in how he used the camera and was a master at getting excellent performances from actors. I'll never forget learning from Lumet's own book "Making Movies" (one of the great books about the craft of directing films) that to convey the sense that the jurors in "12 Angry Men" felt trapped by their situation, he employed progressively longer lenses as the film proceeded, while also gradually lowering the orientation of the camera so that in the end the ceiling and the walls seemed to be closing in on the men. This is the perfect example of what Lumet himself called "good style" which is unseen. "It is style that is felt."

I don't know if you could say that Lumet was one of the last members of a dying breed of director, but it is certainly true that we will not see his like again. Despite Lumet's own demurral, Manohla Dargis was right to call him "one of the last great movie moralists," which, in part, meant that he saw film as apt terrain to dramatize some of our most daunting social problems, ranging from criminal justice to nuclear war to the holocaust to media sensationalism. How he approached these issues and shed light on them through film remain his major legacy and his great contribution to helping all of us understand our own culture better. That's a noteworthy accomplishment and helps to explain the Times' decision to acknowledge him. In the end, though, the best way to remember him is to sit down with a friend or two and to slide a disk of one his classic films into your media player. You may not love what you see, but you will be surprised, provoked, and challenged. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Educating Against All Odds?

There is a gorgeous piece of educational journalism by Jonathan Mahler in the Times Magazine section this week about principal Ramon Gonzalez and the public middle school (not a charter) he runs in the South Bronx. What makes this article so great are the insights Mahler provides into the struggles of an outstanding inner city school head, and the detailed profiles he offers of teachers like Garrett Adler, the inexhaustible Emily Dodd, and the KIPP-trained master teacher Silvestre Arcos. Particularly striking is Gonzalez's reliance on Teach for America alumni who apparently can be taught to teach better but whose total commitment to supporting poor kids remains rare and an essential prerequisite to success.

Perhaps the most moving part of the article focuses on Saquan Townsend, a chronically absent 7th grader, whose intellectual gifts Emily Dodd quickly discovers, while going to great lengths to bring him to school in the morning. Her efforts pay off and he begins to thrive academically while also starring in the school's version of "West Side Story," (directed by Dodd) and becoming a fixture in the Principal's after school book club.

The future seems to be bright for Saquan, but his homelife is so unstable, including time in a homeless shelter, that his family eventually moves away from the school and he ends up being unable to sustain his desire to attend, in part, because of a long commute. Regarding Saquan's situation, Mahler writes eloquently about the tension between a reform movement that insists poverty should not get in the way of higher school achievement and the reality of how hard it is for a youth hounded by poverty, homelessness, and a mother who works around the clock, to stay focused on school.

Gonzalez has the last word however and insists that what gets him up in the morning are children who need his help most. May his school, MS233, thrive for a very long time to come.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

More Corporate Larceny

On the second page of the business section of the New York Times in a brief but surprisingly feisty article, Christopher Swann and Peter Thal Larsen report that Transocean, the company that owned and operated the rig that resulted in the tragic BP spill last year, awarded its executives $250,000 each for maintaining such a terrific safety record in 2010, oh, that is, except for the 11 workers who died in this 2010 disaster. This decision was regarded as so outrageous and produced such a loud public outcry that Transocean finally decided to give the money to the families of the 11 victims. What I love about this short piece is the way it begins: "Wall Street Banks have recently been in a league of their own when it comes to rewarding executives despite poor performance," and then goes on to say that Transocean has taken corporate greed to a whole new level, beyond even what Wall Street could conceive. And accordingly concludes with this: "Transocean has achieved the rare feat of making Wall Street bankers look relatively restrained on pay."

So where does such feistiness come from? Well, I don't think it's the New York Times. It turns out that this is one of two short pieces about business that the Times has snared from the Reuters News Service. I find that fascinating. That tone, that insistence on holding the most privileged the most accountable, is almost unheard of in American newspapers, but not overseas. Leave it to Reuters, the European news service, to tell America the way it really is.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Real "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"

The New York Times reports today that among the treasures to be incorporated into the audio archives of the Library of Congress is a 1908 recording of the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" that includes the song's rarely heard second verse. But even this doesn't tell the whole story. Turns out that the only part of the song we ordinarily hear is just the chorus. The whole song actually has TWO verses and tells the story of a woman who is baseball-mad and would rather attend a baseball game than do anything else. There is also a 1927 version, but that is simply too much information to absorb. Here, then, is the 1908 version of the song in its entirety. You will have to go to Wikipedia to get a feel for the melody and to learn why the verses shown below have been completely forgotten and are, thankfully, very rarely ever sung.

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev'ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she'd like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said "No,
I'll tell you what you can do:"

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

[repeat Chorus]

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Clueless Chancellor

The New York Times reports today that Cathleen P. Black, the recently appointed chancellor of the New York City Schools, enjoys a 17 percent approval rating among adult residents of the City. To put that in perspective, even on the eve of Richard Nixon's resignation from his Watergate embroiled Presidency, his approval rating was considerably better than 17 percent. Even as George W. Bush presided over the second worst economic crisis of the past 100 years, a crisis that could have produced a full-fledged depression, his approval rating stayed well above 25 percent. I think if I were Chancellor of the New York City Schools, I could get a higher approval rating than Ms. Black. Now it's true that the percent of people who had never heard of me would be much higher than Black's 23, but I think I could break the 20 percent approval ceiling just by inhabiting the office. So why is she, or perhaps more exactly, why is Mayor Bloomberg's appointment of her so despised by the general public?

Unfortunately, the Times' article is not much help in answering this question. Her gaffes about recommending birth control to families where school overcrowding is occurring, of course, made things worse, and the fact that she is largely kept under wraps, making brief appearances with programmed remarks and limited questioning from the press also contribute to the sense that she remains poorly informed and largely disengaged from her chief responsibilities.

My guess, though, is that all of this has something to do with the ways in which New Yorkers' patience with Mayor Bloomberg and his outlandish belief that he can do anything he wants has become strained almost to the breaking point. His own approval rating has plummeted to 39 percent, though please note that this remains a far cry from 17. But most likely it is the combination of Bloomberg's arrogance in thinking that he could appoint anyone he wanted regardless of her qualifications and Black's own unwise decision to say yes, despite knowing absolutely nothing, really zilch, zero, breathtakingly bupkis, about public schools and their challenges.