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My Letter to President Obama & Congress Re Torture Under the Bush Administration April 24, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.
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Dear President Obama and Members of Congress:

It is the legal duty of our Justice Department to investigate serious allegations of torture, to prosecute ALL those reasonably suspected of such atrocities, and to punish those who are found responsible.  And it is your duty, as our leaders, to encourage, not hinder, such an investigation.  President Obama’s statement that ‘this is a time for reflection, not retribution’ is a statement that, in my mind, does not pass muster. For, bringing criminals to trial is not retribution, rather it is justice.   The legitimacy of our criminal justice system rests on the principle that NO American is above the law. President Obama’s rational for neglecting the duty to launch an investigation, here, is not one he or any other well-trained lawyer would ever use toward an ordinary citizen believed to have committed heinous crimes, and I believe that he is seriously misguided and disingenuous to use it as a rationale for neglecting his duty to uphold the laws of our country in this instance.

In making this statement, you, President Obama, make a mockery of our criminal justice system which is in place to seek and bring  justice and, thereby, to negate the need for wronged individuals to seek retribution.   In promising  justice to all, it serves to discourage and, where necessary, to  punish retribution.

Further, if we are to be, and be seen as, a just country, it is imperative that we investigate ALL charges of illegality regardless of the social standing or power of the accused. To do otherwise brings disgrace on you as our leaders, brings the disdain of the world upon us, and undermines our belief in the fairness of our justice system.

Moreover, we would not tolerate such a statement on behalf of other world leaders, particularly if their countrymen had tortured Americans.  Rather, we would demand that those who refused to meet their duty to see that justice was done be themselves prosecuted for their neglect.

As an American citizen, an American trained lawyer and one of your supporters, President Obama, I fully and completely reject your exceptionally flawed reasoning here.  You are abdicating responsibility and furthering the idea of American exceptionalism.  I am utterly shocked and dismayed that would ever utter such a statement.

According to the recently released bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report, the Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush distorted the meaning and the intent of our anti-torture laws.  The administration then went out of its way to rationalize the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.  Because substantial evidence exists, it is your duty to see that an investigation of these allegations is made.

I agree with Amnesty International that our leaders must ‘establish and support a non-partisan, independent commission of distinguished Americans to investigate this matter.’  This commission must examine Bush Administration actions and policies regarding  the detention, treatment and transfer of detainees after the 9/11 attacks.  It must also deeply consider the consequences of those actions and policies and provide a comprehensive report on its findings and its recommendations for making future policy in this area.  I agree, too, that this commission must be ‘independent, backed by the full force of law, and adequately funded.’  Do not forget that it is our government’s  legal obligation to uphold the laws of our nation and to prosecute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

Finally, I reiterate Amnesty International’s request that President Obama’s Administration make public all relevant policy memos that argued for, documented, and/or established the basis for detainee treatment, including their subjection to coercive interrogation techniques under the  Bush administration.  In order to fulfill your promise of transparency in government, President Obama, you must see to it that the truth is made known about the abuses that were committed in our names.  We have the right to know.


Suzanne Robinson

Below, I add a partial response I made to one of our readers:

Your comment regarding your desire to see those who sanctioned waterboarding receive a little of their own medicine is so poignant because there are many Americans who share your sentiment – that those who were culpable should experience that which they had a hand in bringing upon others. That’s why I find another statement made by President Obama – that it is time for us to move on, to heal – so entirely maddening and, frankly, more than a bit frightening.

Moving on – in a way that is healthy for our country, for democracy, for our peace of mind – necessarily includes the regaining of some sense of right and wrong, some sense of a limit to otherwise unchecked and dangerous power.

While no one can undo what has been done, our government can and, I think, must demonstrate for us and for the world that in America these atrocities do not go unanswered. It is only then, I think, that we may truly heal. It is only then that we can move on with any faith that our government will, acting on our behalves, uphold our values and our laws.

For me, one bottom line is this. If a democratically elected government does not meet this duty to its citizens – the duty to severely punish torture at the hands of those entrusted with the power of public office – we are left with nothing but to live in fear of our government.

Thanks to condron.us and alpha inventions, two great resources for bloggers!

In Support of Gay Marriage (By Elizabeth Burke) May 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.
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To quote The Princess Bride, “Mawwage is what bwings us together today.”  Now if you have never seen this movie, drop everything and rent/download/steal and watch it. You will thank me. Or watch this part:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sbqv3MwwVd8. But, back to mawwage, or marriage, if you will.  

The majority of Americans claim that they have nothing against homosexuals, they just don’t want them to get married. See, according an unnamed source, that privilege is reserved for “one man and one woman.” The reasoning is that this most sacred of sacraments, this gift bestowed by God, is not something that should be shared with the gay population. The “Protectors of Marriage” claim that this has been ordained in the Bible… like slavery and the selling of daughters.

Now, if you ask these Marriage Protectors, they’ll all tell you that they are in favor of equal rights for homosexuals that extend to the same rights in housing and jobs. Gays should have equal access to government benefits. Gays are entitled to equal protection of the law – but only to an extent.  Because when you ask about the most personal right, the right to get married, their definition of “rights” gets a little inconsistent.

They reason that if we let homosexuals get married, well where does it end?  Next thing, we will have to allow Beastiality! Bigamy! Incest! Marrying Children! And, of course, adding Gay Marriage to the Grade School curriculum! 

In reality, gay marriage has been legal in Scandinavian countries for many years, and, yet, they have introduced no other type of marriage legalization outside one human marrying one human, nor has their been a clamor for it.

The argument that gay marriage will de-value straight marriage falls flat when one sees that the values gay couples exhibit in their daily lives are indistinguishable from those of their straight neighbors. They are devoted, monagomous partners. They value and participate in family life, are committed to making their neighborhoods safer and better places to live, and honor and abide by the law. Many make valuable contributions to their communities, serving on school boards, attending houses of worship, volunteering in charities, and trying to be good citizens.  In doing so, they take full advantage of their  familial relationships not only to make their own lives better, but those of their neighbors as well.

But it is the hypocrisy of the Marriage Minders that makes me the angriest. The incredibly irrational reasoning that granting gay couples the right to marry will somehow destroy marriage is so ridiculous that I find it difficult to accept these people really believe this nonsense.

Straight couples have had centuries to bring marriage to its knees.  We now have double-digit divorce rates, quickie, sometimes meaningless, sometimes multiple weddings in Reno and Las Vegas.  How is getting married in a drive-thru window or by an aging Elvis impersonator honoring this sacrament?  How is marriage as a hobby healthy?

I have a good friend “Mary,” and I really adore her, but she has now been married five times.  And she is 40 years old.  FIVE TIMES!  Explain to me how it’s absolutely acceptable for her to marry every few years while another couple I know, “Joe” and “Bill,” who have been together for over 20 years and who are raising three children, are told they will destroy the fabric of society if they dare to commit legally.

Now, the Marriage Wardens like to bring God into the equation.  But marriage is not a legal contract with with God.  It is a legal contract with the State.  You don’t go to the church when seeking a divorce.  You have to hire legal representation and petition the State to grant you a dissolution of the Marriage Contract.  Besides, God is subjective and does not exist for everyone.  Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.  Are all the marriages by a Judge or Justice of the Peace any less valid because they were not conducted in a house of worship?  Religion is purely personal, and marriage is legal.  So let’s please leave your particular God out of this.

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. Exodus 21:20-21

According to the Bible, beat your slave, just don’t kill him.

Over the millenia the Bible has been used to defend bloody crusades and tragic inquisitions; to support slavery, apartheid, and segregation; to persecute Jews and other non-Christian people of faith; to support Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust; to oppose medical science, and in some cases, science in general; to condemn interracial marriage; to execute women as witches; and to support the violent racial devisiveness of the Ku Klux Klan. Shakespeare said it this way: “Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” When you pick and choose what verses you want to use to bolster your anti gay argument, you lose credibility.

The favored argument seems to be that Marriage is between one man and one woman. Who says what marriage is and by whom it is to be defined? Straight people?  Isn’t that kind of like allowing a banker to decide who is going to own the money stored in his vaults?

It is said that the majority of Americans are against Same Sex Marriage.  Since when can the “majority of Americans” be trusted to do the right thing?

Marriage between mixed races was illegal in the US until Loving v. Virginia, 1967, the landmark Civil Rights case in which the United States Supreme Court declared Virginia‘s anti-miscegenation statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924“, unconstitutional, ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. This happened while the majority of Americans were still against mixed-race marriage.

This struggle for equality is the claasic struggle for all Americans, a Civil Rights struggle.

This struggle separates who can make medical decisions for loved ones, turning over life-and-death decisions estranged distant family members over lifetime partners.  Upon death, in many cases, even very carefully drawn wills and durable powers of attorney have proven to not be enough if a family wishes to challenge a will, overturn a custody decision, exclude the surviving partner from a funeral or deny them the right to visit a partner’s hospital bed or grave.

As survivors, estranged families can, in nearly all states, seize real estate property that a gay couple may have been buying together for many years, quickly sell it, and stick the surviving partner with all the remaining mortgage obligations on a property that partner no longer owns.

As for civil unions – beyond the comedy of asking the one you love “Will you civil union me?” they do not offer the legal protections of marriage. A civil union granted in Vermont carries no legal status outside of Vermont. A civil union does not extend outside the state where the Civil Union took place – with the limited exceptions of DC and New York.  Further, the federal government does not recognize civil unions – couples so joined are not be able to file joint-tax returns nor are eligible for tax breaks or protections the government affords to married couples.  A married United States citizen can sponsor his or her non-American spouse for immigration into this country.  Those with civil unions have no such privilege.  And company health benefits are not always available to the “civil unioned.”

Honoring civil unions creates a separate and unequal status for some of America’s citizens. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court ruled that creating a separate class for gay and lesbian citizens is not permissible, and that is why they have voted that only marriage equals marriage.

The precedent set with Brown v. The Board of Education regarding segregation in public education arrived at its 50th anniversary when Massaachusetts passed its ruling honoring gay marriage, driving home the point that the United States Constitution guarantees equality for all.

This is the document we all can agree on. You can’t claim “partial” equality, it’s all or nothing.

A citizen’s fundamental rights should not be subject to referendums or popular approval.  If that were the case, President Obama would still be sitting in the back of the bus, unable to vote.

It is time for New York State to join Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont New Hampshire and Maine in standing up for the rights of all its citizens.

Last month, the New York State Assembly passed the Landmark Marriage Equality Bill.  In just a few weeks, it is up for a vote in the State Senate.  Please, look into your hearts, see how marriage for all will benefit the community and state as a whole.  See how creating happy families, secure children, and loving homes can only make society stronger, happier and richer in every way.

For more information on how to contact your New York State Senator, please go to http://www.broadwayimpact.com/ and make that call, send that email, and help get this Bill passed. Your gay child will thank you.


Pirates! Danger!!! High Seas Adventure! (By Elizabeth Burke) April 23, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.

Ahoy Matey! Shiver me timbers, pirates are in the news again.

For the first time in 200 years, pirates boarded an American ship. The ship, called the Maersk Alabama, is actually Dutch-owned, but it carries US Government cargo and, as such, must be registered as American and travel with an American crew.

When attacked, those feisty, tough American sailors disabled the ship and turned the tables on the scaliwags after an aborted hostage swap. “Captain Awesome” Richard Phillips, from Underhill, VT, gave himself up to secure the lives of his crew. He was immediately taken hostage, lowered into a lifeboat (later to be found disabled) and ferried out into the ocean with guns pointed at his head. America, hungry for the ripped-from-the-pages-of-a-Tom-Clancy-novel-tale, sat on the edge of its collective seat.

With the US Navy racing to the rescue in the US Destroyer Bainbridge, circling the Mearsk Alabama like a giant steel shark; the P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft flying overhead; Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, the FBI all involved in the stand-off (!), I kept waiting for Tom Cruise to come dangling off a Black Hawk Helicopter, scoop up Captain Richard Phillips from the tiny lifeboat bobbing in the ocean and hand him safely into the arms of his weeping and grateful wife. Roll Credits!

Certainly, this was my take on the high-seas madness unfolding earlier this month.

Two worlds – this one and my theoretically pacifist one – diametrically opposed, collided as I read the paper on my daily subway ride , taking in every detail of the latest Somali pirate attack.

Make no mistake, these modern day pirates of the Somali Coast are very armed and very dangerous. They act like a pseudo high-tech militia and often dress in military fatigues. They operate GPS systems and satellite phones to coordinate attacks from small, fast speedboats attached to a larger mothership.

The pirates use rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank rocket launchers and automatic weapons to capture large, slow-moving vessels like the 17,000-ton Maersk Alabama, which was carrying food aid from USAID and other agencies to help malnourished people in Uganda and Kenya.


For God’s sake, they attacked a ship on a humanitarian mission bringing food to starving people.

Have they no shame?

This isn’t like the Saudi oil tanker they got last month. This is a ship with a heart, doing good deeds, keeping people alive. I have no doubt the pirates missed that irony.

But perhaps the biggest irony, completely missed by these privateers, is the name of the very tanker that was their ultimate undoing. The USS Bainbridge is named after Commodore William Bainbridge, a naval officer who played an important role in eliminating the pirates that plagued shipping off the African coast over 200 years ago.

According to the watchdog group the International Maritime Bureau, since January 2009, pirates have staged 66 attacks, six in just one week, and they are still holding 14 ships and 260 crew members as hostages. There were 111 attacks in 2008, and more than half that number have already occurred in the first four months of this year. Hauls from those attacks covered payment for that Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship loaded with military tanks, both of which were later released.

The stakes are high. Last year, pirates made off with about $80 million in ransom money, making this the most lucrative industry in Somalia. There is very little risk to the pirates, as most ship owners are more than willing to shell out the cash in exchange for the lives of the crew.

It’s simply good business. What merchant marine is going to sign up to work for a company that would allow them to be killed over cargo? Yet, daily, ships need to sail. Goods need to be delivered. And crews are needed to run the ships. For those involved, it’s just another day at the office. These companies would rather pay out a few million than risk losing business because they can’t get a crew to sail.

Except the Americans. We are having none of this. You attack one of ours, and IT IS ON! Americans do not make deals with kidnappers, and we do not make deals with pirates. Payoffs would only stand to fund further thievery and kidnapping .

The pirates did not expect the heroic crew to fight back and re-take the ship. They did not expect the Captain to offer himself up.   A sailor who spoke to the Associated Press said the entire crew had been taken hostage but managed to seize one pirate and then successfully negotiate their own release.

Yay! I love American moxie and that kind of take charge, EFF you spirit. The crew pretended to surrender, a family member told CNN. When the pirates let down their guard, Big Mistake, the Americans jumped them, overpowering them with sheer force and tricks learned from the ship’s second in command, Captain Shane Murphy – whose father, Captain Joseph Murphy, just happens to be a pirate-attack expert at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. What luck!

The Captain, truly heroic, offered himself as a hostage to secure the safety of his 20-man crew, whereupon he quickly found himself in a boat with 4 heavily armed, battle-tested pirates, adrift and out of fuel. Unlike the captain, these men had nothing to lose.

Because the waters off the Somali coast are infested with these roaches of the sea, NATO already has five warships in the Gulf of Aden and is planning to deploy a permanent flotilla to the region this summer. According to the Huffington Post, the Navy said it would take 61 ships to control the shipping route in the Gulf of Aden, which is just a fraction of the 1.1 million square miles where the pirates have operated. A US backed international anti-piracy coalition currently has 12 to 16 ships patrolling the region at any one time.

Along the Somali coastline, an area roughly as long as the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, pirate crews have successfully held commercial ships hostage for days or weeks until they were ransomed. In the past week, pressured by naval actions off Somalia, the pirates have shifted their operations farther out into the Indian Ocean, expanding the crisis.

This expanding pirate territory will make it even more difficult to patrol, and with US legal authority limited in International waters, it is unclear how much we can actually do to prevent these attacks. That is why we had to strike hard and fast. I’m no pirate-fighting mastermind, but what choice did we have?

It’s the US Freaking Navy for crying out loud. We have all those sexy Navy Seals and *sigh* Army Delta Force men swarming the decks on the US Destroyers itching to get in the fight. I could only imagine their muscles twitching under their tight black t-shirts, crew cuts all a-bristle, ready for action. Ahhh….

Then, with 3 perfectly aimed shots, in the dark of night, on bobbing water, it was over.

The Pirates fatally underestimated the skill, patience, and pure nerve of three Masters of the (my) Universe, the US Navy SEALs! Not only did the FBI successfully negotiate to allow the tiny doomed lifeboat to be towed by the Bainbridge, the boat was surrepticiously towed even closer so my new He-Men Heroes could have a better chance of safely taking the pirates out without causing the death of Captain Phillips.

Unbelievable! Really! This was the shot in the arm we all needed. Something this whole country can feel good about. You would have to be truly black-hearted to see any criticism of the Administration, the military or the choices made to use killing force.

Finally, the Maersk Alabama, with the crew on board, but still missing their Captain, got on its way to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, its original destination, to fulfill their humanitarian mission of feeding starving nations.

While the crew continued their mission in Kenya, the high seas negotiations got underway. And as we all know now, it ended in mythic, movie-like purity: 3 shots fired, 3 pirates dead, and 1 pirate on the way to New York City for the first pirate trial in well over 200 years.

Stung by the ease in which we got our ship and crew back safely, the Somali pirate community has called for an all out war with any ship hoisting the US flag. So the stakes are now higher than ever.

On Tuesday, April 14th, the Liberty Sun, a US flagged cargo ship bound for Mombasa, Kenya, was attacked by Somali pirates, according to a NATO source with direct knowledge of the matter.

And, following the tough stance the US has taken with the high-seas hijackers, it now seems the rest of the world has decided to stand up to these brutish invaders and fight back.

According to CNN reports, Canadian and British vessels are on NATO patrol to prevent a second hijacking of a Norwegian ship that the Pirates captured after a seven-hour chase, but then released. There is currently no formal procedure for HYPERLINK “http://topics.edition.cnn.com/topics/NATO” NATO personnel to follow once they have apprehended pirates. Their weapons are confiscated and they are then typically given provisions and released. But it’s a start.

As more countries decide not to play into the greedy hands of these despicable people, the tensions and level of danger will be raised.

So, this story has not ended, nor has my fascination. I will be coming back to these tales of high seas hijinks in the coming months. Meanwhile, my thoughts and prayers are with the heroic Captain Phillips, his family and the entire Kick ASS American crew of the Maersk Alabama. And also, of course, with those unnamed Navy SEALs who will be playing a starring role in my dreams for nights to come.

Welcome New Readers, Sorry For Our Absence, Some Updates And A Bit On Prejudice!! April 18, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.
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We’ve had so many new visitors over the past couple of weeks, and I want to say welcome to you all!  Welcome!  Unfortunately, this new burst of readers coincided with some difficulties on the blogging end of things, and I apologize for not getting up new material for the past two weeks.  We generally post every Friday, and I will work hard to maintain that schedule going forward.

I want to touch base about a couple of things.  First, I will put up new posts Monday (both mine and Liz’s).  We had the misfortune of being hacked just before Good Friday!  Can you believe it?  Before the holy holiday? Anyway, the misguided soul blocked my access to the Word Press server, and I couldn’t even get access to make Liz the administrator so she could post for us.  My apologies to Liz, who worked very hard and fast to write a timely piece, only to have it sit in my inbox for over a week.  It is out of date now, but she is making it current again, and you will see it Monday.  I wrote a piece especially for Good Friday, and I will hold it until another appropriate time.

From time to time I may be absent, but I will try to make that as infrequent as possible.  After being hacked, which was bad enough in itself, I had to contend with a more serious issue.  I have a terrible back and a relatively small accident left me in more pain than I’ve suffered in years.  So instead of writing, I’ve been going from doctor to doctor, getting all kinds of spinal injections and other fun things…  I’m starting to feel better, though, and it doesn’t often get so bad.  My doctors and I are considering several options to address the problem long term.  Send wishes that they don’t strongly advise another surgery, as I really do not what to take that route, and I will likely decline in any event.

But enough about my woes!  I have been contemplating adding new writers on a regular basis, but I am putting that idea on hold for now.  I am turning much of my attention to writing a book.  I know… can you believe it?  Just a few months ago, I was terrified of writing for the consumption of others, now I’m taking on a huge project, and I am very excited.  

I will write about African American politics from the time of the American Revolution through the Civil War era.  And, guess what lucky readers… I will begin to share some of that work with you here.  Now, stop!  I see you out there… my sister is sitting in the front row rolling her beautiful eyes, saying, ‘OMG, I don’t want to read history.’  But it’s really fascinating.  Just you wait.  For example….

This week I will tell the stories of two fights.  One a rite of passage; the other, a fight for life.  One involves Abraham Lincoln; the other, Frederick Douglass.  I’m sure you can guess which is which.  Had the outcomes been different, these two physical encounters could have changed the course of American history.  

I often say that reading history, especially when you focus on a few historical figures, is like watching the West Wing (only you have to read it and they have horses rather than cars… details!).  But the people are every bit as interesting.  I read about their public lives, yes, but I also read about their private lives, and I read all I can find about their inner lives.  I will try to keep it interesting.  

I will still write about today’s politics.  Sometimes I will link history to the present, sometimes I will stay in the present.  Either way, I’m having great fun, and I hope you will too!

So, again, welcome to all our new visitors.  And a big thanks to our regulars.

Before I move on, I would like to encourage everybody to leave comments.  I want this to be a learning experience for me, and you all have valuable perspectives and knowledge that I don’t.  So help me learn and keep things lively!

… So now to prejudice.  It’s such an awful thing, and we’re all susceptible to it, try as we might not to be so closed minded.  I was reminded of it this week when a friend posted a video from ‘Britains Got Talent’ on Facebook.  Susan Boyle stepped on stage to sing for the judges and a large audience in the audition phase of the show.  When they asked her how old she was and she replied that she was 47, the crowd and the panel reacted rudely because she looks a bit older than her age.  She then got rather sassy, which brought more tortured faces (and lots of applause, some of which may have been in her favor, but some was decidedly not).

Now, she could look younger with just a few changes as part of what made her appear older was her hairstyle and her clothes.  Still, she is a little overweight (which puts her in the majority in today’s world, right?).  And she could benefit from some strengthening and toning exercises (again, who among us could not?).  But, what, really, does that have to do with her ability to sing?  Are physical beauty and talent intertwined?  Well, those present evidently thought the two connected, and scoffed at her before she even began to perform… you can see for yourselves.  Suffice it to say, I think this should remind every one of us to be less hasty in our judgements.  


Happily, she won every one over within seconds, and everybody there seemed genuinely happy for her.  We are, I think, at our cores, good spirits.  So let’s remember and honor that part of us (and, yes, I’m talking to myself, too).  

I’ll close here for now.  Please come back Monday, and check in each week for new posts!  In the meantime, have a wonderful weekend!



Celebrities Gone Weird! (by Elizabeth Burke) April 3, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Celebrity.
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OK, now that you have read all of Suzanne’s incredibly researched, well written, thoughtful blogs on the state of education, the President, Commerce picks, etc, after you perused the amazing poetry and continued to read the other exceptional articles her guests have written, it’s time for a little LizTime®!  

No politics this week. I am too aggravated over actions of certain celebrities/actors/performers.  As a classically trained stage actor (ahem ahem), I find it especially infuriating to read about the latest round of vacuous attention-whoring.

I spent years of my life, OK three years, where I did two things:  work full time and attend the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts full time. I had very little free time, was broke and tired ALL the time, and I thrived. I truly believe to be an actor is a calling, an art form of which to be proud.  I work hard to be taken seriously in my craft – only to feel pulled down by the few big names behaving like over- indulged narcissists. 

Enter Gwyneth Paltrow.  Who won an Oscar at 26 for a movie that was, well, not great.  Her parents are famous – her mother is Blythe Danner, star of stage and screen and a truly brilliant actress, and her father Bruce Paltrow, Producer and Director of several TV hits. Her Godfather is Steven Spielberg. 

(And, no, this is not sour grapes because she was practically delivered on stage. The late, great, and sorely missed Natasha Richardson was born into British Stage Royalty. I loved everything she did and never ceased to be mesmerized by her raw talent and beautiful spirit. Not so much Gywneth.)  

Lately, this over-indulged, over-applauded, actress has been very busy marrying her Rock Star, having 2 oddly-named children and shouting to anyone who will quote her about the fabulosity of her life. She needs everyone to know how great it is and how important her “work is.” So much so that she scorns the idea of working at all. 

“I don’t really understand the concept of having a career, or what agents mean when they say they’re building one for you. I just do things I think will be interesting and that have integrity. I hate those tacky, pointless, big, fluffy, unimportant movies.” 

Ha Ha! Me too Gwynnie! “I just have no more bad habits to give up.” God I hate you.  Isn’t she lucky not to have to care about agents, her career, or making worthless crap like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Oh, and Gwneth? I’ll take your meaningless agent.

So while the rest of us marinate in the mundanity of the recession, this Paragon of British Living has created (or her people did) a website called GOOP. Her initials is seems. How funny! Isn’t Gwynnie clever? The theme is “nourish your inner aspect.” WTF does that even mean???  Honestly, where does she come up with this gibberish? Did one of her yoga/trainer/macro foodie friends call her up and say “OMG! I had a spiritual journey in my dream last night after I drained the soybeet juice from the solar fridge and here is your new theme!!”  It’s all such HYPERLINK “http://thesaurus.reference.com/browse/affected”affected and HYPERLINK “http://thesaurus.reference.com/browse/artificial”artificial cleverness that I am a little embarrassed for her. 

With GOOP, you too can enter Gwynnie’s Realm of Perfection. I tremble a little, am I good enough? Skinny enough? Blonde enough? Full of s**t enough? YES I AM! Except for the blonde part. In we go…

Make. Go. Get. Do. Be. See. These are the pages within this magical world and I can barely wait to start nourishing my inner Aspic. When you enter “Get” Gwyneth breathlessly tells you all about her fab everyday uniform. Now I assume, these are the looks our new BFF thinks every gal should own. 

Gwynnie recommends every girl have a pair of Guiseppe Zanotti Booties, an uber high-end brand where the sandals(!) start at $595. I can only imagine what the Booties go for. My rent? Probably. Her plain black Shift Dress by Shell Kare is a mere $545, $610 with a belt! I cannot continue in “Get” because you know there are more inanities and I simply cannot travel down a road where spending $600 on the simplest of shifts is deemed necessary for a woman’s wardrobe. 

Clicking on “Do” her chipper voice tells us: “Do dance cardio five times a week for at least 30 minutes and by summer you will see a change you will be proud of!” Well that and not having to work full time, take care of the kids (gasp! No nannies?), feed the family (no chef), clean the house (no maid), pay the bills (no business manager), sleep with the husband (well, have you seen most husbands??) …and so reveals the totally out-of-touch, self-absorbed narcissist.

As I got sadder and more insecure in the knowledge I will never be cool or rich enough and neither will my friends, I can only muster up the energy for quick bites. 

“See” is where her preposterously faux-literati “friends” show us how stupid we are by explaining Serious Literature to us. An example of a friend’s pick: “My mom is reading this book right now, which reminded me of how provocative and exciting it is. One of my favorites, The Life of Pi is a fantastic discussion igniter about religion and other important stuff.”) Okaaay…Next is “Make” which makes me feel HYPERLINK “http://thesaurus.reference.com/browse/inconsequential”inconsequential because I can’t gush at how lucky I am to eat at my fab famous chef friend Mario Batali’s house!! Lastly is “Go” When in Paris stay at the Ritz, eat foie gras, and throw those Zanotti’s at the peasants. 

This reality-deprived, spoiled adult does not seem to have any idea that in February alone the number of unemployed persons increased by 851,000 to 12.5 million, and the unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has increased by about 5 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.3 percentage points. 

We leave the clueless one thinking it absolutely normal to spend what amounts to my rent on a pair of boots that will likely be worn about twice, to turn our attention to Gwynnie’s one time mentor, Super Freak Numero Dos. Madonna. 

Now, while Gwyneth and her Marie Antoinette-ish attitude merely irk me, this crazy old Cougar infuriates me. Why she feels this need to adopt more innocent children from Malawi is beyond me. Her nannies must be overwhelmed as it is.

I don’t mean to make light of adoption, but this psychopathic egoist actually believes she will mother this new child. When exactly? Between her toyfriends? Husbands? Tours? Gratuitous photo shoots? Kabbalah worshipping? Various Photo Ops? Recording new (unasked for) albums? 

The gym alone must take 8 hours a day to create that string cheese look of her arms. Don’t tell me that little boy, David Banda, she adopted last year feels like she’s his mother! My sister has 2 children and is a stay at home mother. I see how hard she works, how involved she is with her kids, their friends, activities and school, all the while looking fabulous, organizing charitable events, keeping her house beautiful and her husband happy, all by herself. Trust me, her kids know damn well who their mother and primary caregiver is.

I cannot comprehend the level of selfishness you have to have to buy another child only to hand them off to a nanny to raise.  Although, by all accounts, the Material One will make the journey so she can show how much she cares. But what then? She isn’t finished with her Sickly Sweet tour or her latest romantic conquest, the young and pliable Jesus. So what, she drops the new kid off at one of her homes into the hands of an overworked nanny? This is a four-year-old child. Not a baby who nurses and sleeps. This little girl, ironically named Mercy, will feel scared, different, lonely, and confused without the comfort of familial love to keep the scary things at bay.  

Save The Children has asked Her Materialness to please refrain as they say international adoptions are unnecessary, some feeding the criminal “adoption industry.” They said that, barring exceptional circumstances, children should be kept in the care of their extended families or within their communities. 

In essence, children are not items to be crossed of your to-do list. But as we all know, The Musically Challenged one knows better than us common folk and will continue to do whatever she wants to whomever she wants.  Even though this child has living relatives, including a grandmother fighting for custody, I have no doubt that this adoption will go through and the family’s desires will be overruled so Mercy can have a seemingly better life.

 I wonder how much money changed hands. Seriously, how much does a little African child cost? A school? How many boxes of David’s used baby clothes, like those she sent to his village a few months ago, did it take?

Malawian law requires an 18- to 24-month assessment period before adoption. But not for Her Momminess. Apparently, this law is only for people like me. Yet, Austin Msowoya, legal researcher with Malawi’s Law Commission, played down concerns that a second adoption by Madonna would violate any laws. 

Msowoya said the best interests of the child needed to be considered, whether this was staying in an orphanage in Malawi or getting “an education with Madonna.” Huh? Does he imagine this AARP pop star spending time home-schooling her new addition? Really? 

This is the most transparent violation of a law to appease a famous celebrity and it really makes me angry. Being a celebrity these days is like living on Mt. Olympus. You are impervious to any laws, be it US or International. Drink too much and crash your car? No jail time! Beat up your girlfriend with the pictures to prove what a monster you are? Not Guilty! Buying children from poverty stricken countries? Come on in! 

Maybe this is what happens when your star shines bigger and brighter than most of the people in the world. Maybe one forgets where they came from (Detroit, Madonna, not London.) Maybe the fawning, sycophantic assistants and employees that surround them give a surreal sense of reality.

Imagine you have all these people surrounding you, assuring you how special, important, talented, beautiful and most of all how Right you are.  Maybe even cynical me might just start believing my own press. 

Until I get to test that theory on my own, it just makes it harder for me and my fellow performers to answer the question “What do you do?” Because of the outlandish, self involved, and plain stupid behavior of some performers-cum-celebrities, I feel self-conscious saying I’m an actor. Because you get the look, the raised eyebrow, and the immediate feeling like you were just judged and it didn’t go well.  It is embarrassing to say ”I am an actor,” and just know the person in front of me is thinking, “weirdo.” 

Education Reform: Is this a Joke? (Part lll of lll) April 3, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Obama.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remember when Dennis Miller was a liberal and went on his truly hilarious rants.  Well those days are gone, and nothing you will read here if even remotely funny, but I’m going on a rant!

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times: Obama to Push for Merit Pay in Education Speech: There is little doubt that Lynn Sweet is an uncritical Obama fan. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a strong supporter.  But I think that our friends owe it to us to tell us when they think we are off track.)  Anyway, as usual, here she quotes the president favorably, citing as a ‘key proposal from the White House’,

“The President will increase teacher quality by dramatically (italics mine) expanding successful performance pay models and rewards for effective teachers, scaling up federal support for such programs in up to an additional 150 school districts nationwide.”

What she doesn’t do is ask any questions. How will the administration determine who is an effective teacher? By standardized tests that are widely criticized by teacher after teacher and virtually every school advocate on the left as not measuring true learning, but only rote learning and memorization? Tests that are graded differently in different states so that the results are virtually meaningless? In fairness, the president did promise to revamp the tests to measure things like analysis and critical thinking and to set a national standard to get rid of regional differences. But there is still much to be done before teachers can be judged by the same criterion. I’ve spent the last week reading everything I could find about Arne Duncan, and, in doing so, I’ve read the comments of 117 school teachers in Chicago. Not one spoke favorably of Duncan, and there are common themes of which we are all already aware, but of which we do not speak. At least not in Washington, including in the current administration. One teacher, who left the profession after only a few years, tells a common story.

In Teaching’s Revolving Door, an article by Barbara Miner which appears on the Rethinking Schools website, a teacher named Eiaine moved, at her own request, from “a suburban school so well funded that she taught with science books that weren’t yet available on the market” to an urban school. She asked for the transfer because she felt a calling to help students in an African American low-income neighborhood. Here, she found that her science textbooks were more than 20 years old, that some had entire chapters missing, and that there weren’t enough, even of those, to go around.

My guess is that the students in this school aren’t performing so well – that this would probably be considered a “failing” school, and, according to President Obama’s stated approach to education reform, would be shut down. It would be shut down without ever being provided the resources that are a prerequisite for learning. Can we truly expect great success stories from schools in such dire circumstances? And a lack of books wasn’t all she found. She also reported that, because the school was so poorly funded and because her students had a late lunch period, “by the time they got to the cafeteria, sometimes the food was gone.” In the winter, she said, “the boiler routinely broke and there would be minimal heat.” And, besides a lack of resources, she reports that there was virtually no support from district administrators. Does her students’ failure to score well on standardized tests make her a “bad” teacher – one that should be fired? Are teachers to be held accountable for these indefensible injustices? With all the talk of holding teachers accountable, why no mention of accountability on the part of policy makers – on those who allocate money to schools? Why do we accept Republicans’ (and now, neoliberal Democrats’) nonsensical ramblings about liberals “just wanting to throw money at the problem.” Well, when children don’t have school books or food or heating, I would strongly argue that their school needs more money. Should we really shut down our public schools without ever giving them the opportunity to succeed? President Obama hasn’t committed himself otherwise.  He never speaks of the unjust ways in which schools are funded.  He never mentions that some kids have no books.  He never asserts that this is unfair… that it is discrimination wrapped in the ridiculous rhetoric of ‘bad’ teachers.  Why is this?  I wish I had an answer… as I’m do those who give their all, despite their lack of resources, to help our children learn and flourish.



Our Children

Our Children



Now it is true that the president has promised to provide more training for teachers, but he has not provided any details. For how many teachers? Enough to make a difference? And what teachers? How will he determine who gets training and who gets the axe? I’m sure there are bad teachers out there. There are bad workers in every field. But his assault on them is outrageous. Can we count the times he has referred to bad teachers? As if their morale wasn’t low enough already. The teachers who ask to be placed in an urban school, with all the problems that come along with the move, deserve higher pay, but their pay is lower. They deserve more training in how to deal with problems that don’t arise in many well-funded suburban schools, but they get the least. They deserve to be credited with their choice to face these conditions – the choice certainly doesn’t come from pursuing their own self-interest. Rather, they want, more than anything, to help children who need it the most. So how can we look them in the face, acknowledge their lack of books, training, institutional support, computers, even pencils and call them bad teachers because their students don’t perform as well as their counterparts in affluent areas? I am angry this week, and I think rightfully so. It is a disgrace.  President Obama speaks of past heros like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But President Bush’s team are the ones who think highly of his Education Secretary.  I am angry.  I am hurt.  And I feel betrayed by this man who asked us to hope.  I did hope, but I never hoped for this.
In all fairness, President Obama, in making a promise to pay “well-performing” teachers more did also promise to base their evaluation on student progress, rather than basing them solely on test scores. But, even with this promise, he is attempting to put out a forest fire with a garden hose. For he has promised funding to increase teacher pay in 150 school districts. One hundred fifty! We have 14,900 school districts in this country. And by his own count, the student drop-out rate is worst in 2,000 of them. Given these numbers, I do not hold out much hope that increasing the pay of some teachers in 1% of our school districts will turn around our public schools. A far bigger commitment is necessary. But he has not made that commitment. Nor has he uttered a single word in support of equitable funding. He’s worked in these neighborhoods. He knows what’s going on. So where is his commitment to the principle of equality?
Take Elaine. After just a few years, she left teaching. And, as the author points out, multiply her decision thousands of times and you get an idea of one of the most serious problems facing schools. Her research reveals that school districts must hire about 270,000 new K-12 teachers every fall to replace those who have left the profession. And, she found that “the problem of teacher turnover is especially acute among new teachers, with as many as half of new teachers leaving within five years.” Not surprisingly, the problem is worse still in urban districts where it takes only three years for half of new teachers to leave. This is especially bad for kids in urban districts who are already less likely to have continuity in their lives. Imagine they find a teacher who inspires them, who motivates them, who simply shows that she believes in them. And then she leaves. Do we have to guess the effect this has on those students? I think not.
I have come to support the idea of charter schools under certain circumstances. But the circumstances under which Arne Duncan operated in Chicago leave me saddened and angered. First of all, he shut down small community schools rather than huge urban schools. Smaller schools, I think, provide the better environment and are most likely to be turned around with the proper tools. Adding insult to injury, reports are that the student whose schools he closes are often not the students who get to attend the new Ren10 schools, often charter schools. Rather, their neighborhood is being gentrified along with the school closures, new, more affluent families move in and send their kids to the new schools, while the children who once lived there (or even some who still live there) are often sent off to other ‘failing’ schools. I said, last week, that I would report back on his admirers and his critics. Well, critics are much easier to find. The only folks who speak well of him are corporate interests and folks from the Bush administration. Hope? I’m finding it hard.

But don’t take my word for it.  Consider this report from the Christian Science Monitor.
“Chicago students have shown some strong gains under Duncan. The percentage of elementary students meeting state standards increased from 38 percent to 65 percent during his tenure. But results at high schools give less to cheer about: Test scores have stagnated, with just under 30 percent of students meeting standards, according to Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine that reports on education reform. A change in testing procedures, moreover, has muddied the year-to-year comparisons…
The district closed, replaced, or overhauled the management at more than 60 low-performing schools. But Catalyst found that, early on, only a small percentage of students displaced by school closings ended up at the new and improved schools. Many landed at other schools that were on academic probation.”

Or see Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling on the Truth Out website.

“Far from a genuine call for reform, (attacks on public schools) largely stem from an attempt to transform schools from a public investment to a private good, answerable not to the demands and values of a democratic society but to the imperatives of the marketplace. As the educational historian David Labaree rightly argues, public schools have been under attack in the last decade “not just because they are deemed ineffective but because they are public.
Right-wing efforts to disinvest in public schools as critical sites of teaching and learning and govern them according to corporate interests is obvious …. The hidden curriculum is… that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized.

Duncan’s neoliberal ideology is on full display in the various connections he has established with the ruling political and business elite in Chicago.  He led the Renaissance 2010 plan, which was created for Mayor Daley by the Commercial Club of Chicago – an organization representing the largest businesses in the city.  Chicago’s 2010 plan targets 15 percent of the city district’s alleged underachieving schools in order to dismantle them and open 100 new experimental schools in areas slated for gentrification.  (Do we think this was accidental????)
As a result of his support of the plan, Duncan came under attack by community organizations, parents, education scholars and students. These diverse critics have denounced it as a scheme less designed to improve the quality of schooling than as a plan for privatization, union busting and the dismantling of democratically-elected local school councils. They also describe it as part of neighborhood gentrification schemes involving the privatization of public housing projects through mixed finance developments.   (Tony Rezko, an Obama and Blagojevich campaign supporter, made a fortune from these developments along with many corporate investors.) Some of the dimensions of public school privatization involve Renaissance schools being run by subcontracted for-profit companies – a shift in school governance from teachers and elected community councils to appointed administrators coming disproportionately from the ranks of business. It also establishes corporate control over the selection and model of new schools, giving the business elite and their foundations increasing influence over educational policy. No wonder that Duncan had the support of David Brooks, the conservative op-ed writer for The New York Times.
  One particularly egregious example of Duncan’s vision of education can be seen in the conference he organized with the Renaissance Schools Fund. In May 2008, the Renaissance Schools Fund, the financial wing of the Renaissance 2010 plan operating under the auspices of the Commercial Club, held a symposium, “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education,” at the exclusive private club atop the Aon Center. The event was held largely by and for the business sector, school privatization advocates, and others already involved in Renaissance 2010, such as corporate foundations and conservative think tanks.

SIGNIFICANTLY, NO EDUCATION SCHOLARS WERE INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE PROCEEDINGS, although it was heavily attended by fellows from the pro-privatization Fordham Foundation and featured speakers from various school choice organizations and the leadership of corporations. Speakers clearly assumed the audience shared their views.
 Without irony, Arne Duncan characterized the goal of Renaissance 2010 creating the new market in public education as a “movement for social justice.” He invoked corporate investment terms to describe reforms explaining that the 100 new schools would leverage influence on the other 500 schools in Chicago. Redefining schools as stock investments he said, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve the portfolio.”

 What Duncan and other neoliberal economic advocates refuse to address is what it would mean for a viable educational policy to provide reasonable support services for all students and viable alternatives for the troubled ones. The notion that children should be viewed as a crucial social resource – one that represents, for any healthy society, important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests – appears to be lost in a society that refuses to invest in its youth as part of a broader commitment to a fully realized democracy.
It is difficult to understand why Obama would appoint as secretary of education someone who believes in a market-driven model that has not only failed young people, but given the current financial crisis has been thoroughly discredited. Unless Duncan is willing to reinvent himself, the national agenda he will develop for education embodies and exacerbates these problems and, as such, it will leave a lot more kids behind than it helps.”

I think this says it better than I – I hope my readers who are less radical than I return, but I feel justified in my anger, and, worst of all, helpless to do much about a situation that calls for all of us who care about educating ALL of our children to stand up and be heard.  I hope you will join me.

and, thank you condron.us

Nomenclature (by Coral Ruppert) March 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in love, poetry.
Tags: , ,
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for Scott

The sum of


in my mouth

I find impossible.

Your greatness

does not belong

to any word.


Now, us

this naming of you and me

that in spite of faith or fear

will evolve or dissolve

without us.


Before you, 
the us, 
was me, plus one, 
in mere intercourse.


Now I find 
this common pronoun





You tease me

with substitution:
“How about… you and I…”

Confuse me 
with avoidance:
“That would be fun for… two people.”

Deny me
with contractions:
“Let’s go there next time.”


I have to ignore my education

which tells me

this rediscovery

in simple pronouns

must be cliche,

too easy to conjure, 

not so different

from “love” or “boyfriend” or even

that common name of yours.


Besides, to Google for poems

about the significance of “us”

would turn up millions…

Who has the time,

for such self sabotage?


There is little in this world

to be made new again.

Naming begins


lets comparison, 

lets regimen,

lets ownership, 

all those evils in. 


Let us remove

how we arrived here.

Let us be anonymous.

Let us remain 

this free-form

stream of


me with you,

aimless, and


Education Reform: Part II of ??? March 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, Obama, politics.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I sat down today (now, as I post,  yesterday) to edit what I intended to be the second of a two part post on education reform.  I needed only, I thought, flesh out a couple of ideas, add a few sentences to tie the sections together, make final edits, and call it a day and a project – one close to my heart – finished.  The first half of part II was to be entitled INNOVATION and would look at new teaching models – or rather a renewal of innovative teaching models of days past.  The first sub-section was to be entitled ‘Social Justice as a Learning Tool.’

I first encountered the Social Justice Teaching Method when I read about a Chicago high school called the Little Village Lawndale High School.  The school consists of four small schools on one campus, one of which is called the Social Justice School.  The Social Justice School teaches students through the lens of the struggle for justice and the hope for peace.  I was drawn to the methodology because it offers a means through which to teach poor and minority students in a way that speaks to their lives, and I thought that, given that the school was built in Chicago during Arne Duncan’s tenure,  it would also provide a lens through which to view his work.

The Social Justice Methodology aims to provide a a place where students can learn the basic and crucial skills that all our schools aim to teach, but in a different way.  For example, teachers teach critical thinking skills through projects centered around race, gender and economic equality – the things that touch these students, 98% of whom are minority students from low income families,  lives everyday.  Advocates tell stories of once alienated students becoming enthusiastic about learning, excited by the opportunity to explore concepts like their own identity, racial stereotypes, how advertising influences societal views about different groups, and what it is that makes a community.  Adam Doster tells this part of this story in his article ‘The Conscious Classroom’ in The Nation.   He tells that this concept of marrying learning to social justice and activism is being adopted by a growing number of educators across the country.  Where other reform efforts have failed, a growing number of educators and reformers say, this methodology, which grows from previous alternative methodologies of the 1960s, is engaging urban students who were previously alienated by mainstream teaching methods.  According to Stan Karp, an English teacher and editor of the Milwaukee-based education reform magazine Rethinking Schools, “Taking kids’ lives as a point of departure and bringing the world into the classroom really does seem to give a context and a purpose that is very motivating.”

While some conservatives denounce the movement as indoctrinating students with left wing ideology, advocates insist that teachers teach the same basic skills taught in mainstream schools, but do so in a way that helps students appreciate the need to learn.  Take math.  How many times have you heard students say that they don’t NEED TO KNOW MATH, that is has no impact on them. And while parents and teachers tell middle-class students that math is important in today’s technology economy, the Social Justice teachers can make clear math’s relevance to their student’s lives and do so in a way that makes the subject interesting.  One example Doster uses to illustrate the increased learning fostered by this method is that, “a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling.”  Now that brings the power of math home to students who know these evils all too well.

And the method is spreading.  Since 1992 the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has run modern freedom schools in cities nationwide, with a model curriculum focused on five components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, physical and mental health.  More than 64,000 children (and their families) have been taken part in this program in the roughly the last decade.  

Frustrated teachers of poor and minority students across the country are coming together to discuss ways to bring social justice issues to their classrooms, drawing on the works of those who have long studied the problems of urban schools, such as Johnathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace – books that bring the realities of these schools to life in a way that breaks the heart and frustrates the mind.  Teachers who are terribly frustrated with the reform efforts of the Bush years, which many believe have only heightened the inequalities in public education, feel it is necessary to ‘speak frankly’ with their students about fairness, about justice, about the hope of a peaceful life.  And these students, who see injustice and violence before them every day, appreciate that this new way of learning is relevant to them, that it takes them into account.

It all makes sense to me.  And while there remains a lack of research on the benefits of this methodology because it is so new, studies that have been conducted do show a significant increase in learning in relation to students, particularly low income students, who have not had the benefit of this new way of engaging students in real life learning.  But this methodology, while it is making inroads in several cities, hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream conversations about school reform.  And so I was excited to read about this new school in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

Then tonight, because I didn’t have a clear view of Secretary Duncan’s thoughts on this new way of teaching some of the students under his charge who need the most help,  I did a bit more research.  And the story, I think, is worth telling.  It is a provocative story that demonstrates well some – but only some – of the challenges we face in education today.

This story began when a group of Latino mothers on the west side of Chicago came together to demand a better school for their children.  Studies illustrate time and again that given school’s educational quality often reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its district.  That unfortunate circumstance is the catalyst for this story.  Educators call for parents’ involvement in their children’s education.  This is a story of dedicated involvement.  It is also a story of racial and socio-economic discrimination – on the part not just of the powerful, but of some of the folks in every faction involved in this saga.  It is a story of a continuing struggle, an intransigent bureaucracy, an allegedly racist CEO on his way out, a story of hope even in the face of overwhelming resistance, of vision, and of a new CEO who gets the school opened.  It is a story of strong advocates, poor administration and a dishonest principal with good intentions, of symbolism and determination and belonging and not belonging and gang violence and hope and despair.  And this story all takes place before the school at the story’s center graduates its first class of students.  The school remains a place of hope, as it should, and – as much as anything – it demonstrates well the vast difference between a theoretical vision and real life implementation because, like life, it is nothing if not messy.

In 1998, parents in the Little Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago – mostly first generation Mexican immigrants who live in the most densely populated part of the city –  came together and petitioned the local government to build a school in their neighborhood because their big city high school was overcrowded, underperforming, rife with gang violence and the accompanying metal detectors and police, a drop-out rate of nearly 40%, and students, perhaps the lucky ones, being bused all over the city.  And these parents didn’t just want any old school, rather they wanted a school that taught the students about about the struggle for justice so relevant to their lives (including the struggle that the parents had to undertake to get the school built).  The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to build the Little Village Lawndale High School.  But the school did not come into existence easily.  CPS promised to begin work on three new schools, two  ‘selective enrollment’ magnet schools in the more affluent north side of the city and the Little Village school.  Work began on the two North side schools, but CPS did not begin work on the school promised to this neighborhood, rather district representatives told the parents, when they went back to ask why their school wasn’t being built though the others had been,  that there was no longer any money to build their school.  Rather than take any responsibility, CPS advised the advocates to lobby their state legislators.

The parents didn’t give up.  After two years of struggle and broken promises, a group of community organizers, parents, grandparents, teachers and students went on a 19 day hunger strike to force the issue.  They set up a tent city, which they referred to as ‘Camp Chavez,’ on the school site and waited for Paul Vallas, then the CEO of the CPS to take them seriously. According to Jaime de Leon, one of the hunger strike organizers, when the strike began, Vallas refused to come to the site or acknowledge the strikers.  In fact, he allegedly said that he did not want to come to Little Village ‘to meet with a few women who are refusing to eat.’  But the media began telling the story and, within a few days more than 500 people were living at Camp Chavez.  CEO Vallas buckled under the scrutiny and pressure and, on the sixth day of the strike, he made a visit, but he did not commit to building the school.  The strike ended out of concerns for the strikers’s health.  Just a few months later, in August 2001, CEO Vallas resigned, Mayor Daly appointed Arne Duncan to fill the post, and Duncan pledged to fulfill CPS’s promise to build the school.  According to an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education on Education Week‘s website, Duncan says he would have made sure Little Village got a new high school even if there hadn’t been a hunger strike.  “It was the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “It’s a community with a growing population. I saw tremendous need.”  Duncan said, too though, that prevalent view in Little Village that the school system has discriminated against Latinos is wrong. Rather, he said, “the district constantly faces the challenge of providing new schools in areas of the city where there is overcrowding, and “that is frequently in the Latino community.”  But this doesn’t explain the building, without need for community action, of the two schools built in more affluent areas while the Latino community was shut out.  Still, he lived up to his promise and the Little Village school was built at a cost of $61 million, more than has been spent to build any other school in Chicago’s history.  The school was so expensive to build because it houses more than just a high school.  The campus is open at nights and on the weekends and offers many resources for the community, such as a health clinic, an adult education program, and a distance learning facility.  And the cost was not born solely by Chicago tax payers.  La Raza and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed generously to its construction.

As David Stovall, Assistant Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the design team for Little Village,  writes in an article on the ‘Rethinking Schools’ website, CPS under Duncan’s leadership included parents in the planning process (though they, of course, fought hard for this inclusion every step of the way).  The result of their collaboration is one campus containing four distinct schools, with each school operating autonomously, while sharing after-school programs and other services vital to their community.  There is a school of math, science, and technology;  a visual and performing arts school; a world languages school; and the social justice school. 

But, at the time the school was being planned and built, the then CEO of the Chicago Schools had instituted what he termed ‘Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) guidelines, which required that all proposals from the community go through another ‘bureaucratic maze,’ the Transitional Advisory Council (TAC), which, in turn, would make recommendations to CPS.  Matters were made more complicated, he notes, as CHSRI (the redesign initiative) was incorporated into a new Renaissance 2010 Project, a project implemented by Arne Duncan that aims to close 60 Chicago public schools and reopen them as 100 new ‘performance schools,’ which are public charter schools, though many will be privately operated and will lack union representation.  As Stovall, who has been involved in the school project from the beginning, explains it,  

“Performance schools are managed and funded by the district under a five-year ‘performance agreement’ that provides ‘greater autonomy’ in exchange for meeting certain performance targets like test scores.  Under Renaissance 2010, ‘performance schools’ are funded under a different formula than the CHSRI small schools, resulting in a significant decrease in funding for programming and institutional support.”

 Pauline Lipman, Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education, University of Illinois-Chicago, asserts that the goal of Ren10 is to “reshape the educational geography of Chicago by aiding the gentrification of particular neighborhoods and, in effect, increasing educational inequality.”  And many in Chicago agree.  The community insisted that theirs was not a Ren 10 school, that its genesis preceded the implementation of Ren10, and that their school grew out of community efforts.  CPS resisted.  The parents fought back.  Finally, concerned about the demands and funding cuts as well as a fear of gentrification, the advocates requested a meeting with the new Chicago Schools CEO, Arne Duncan.  Stovall reports that Duncan told them they were ‘misinformed about Renaissance 2010’s relationship to gentrification.’  Displeased with the meeting’s outcome, the Little Village community organized public hearings to express their concerns.  In the face of strong community opposition to their status as a Ren 10 school, CPS reinstated the Little Village school’s status as a ‘neighborhood small school,’ but the school is still listed on the CPS website and in its ‘new schools development directory’ as a Ren 10 project. 

Stovall maintains that under Duncan’s leadership, CPS continued to say one thing while doing another and, in 2005 – the year the school opened its doors, he wrote the battle on the ground is far from over. “This struggle, he said, to maintain our vision for a neighborhood school demonstrates the importance of using community action to hold school authorities accountable in the battle for quality, inclusive education.”  

Because CPS required that the school be at least 30% African American, black students from the neighboring North Lawndale neighborhood joined their Latino neighbors in the school.  Stovall argues that this inclusion will serve a catalyst for much needed cultural, ethnic and racial collaboration, but there is a darker side to the story.  Though 30% of the students come from the predominately African American North Lawndale neighborhood and the school is officially called Little Village Lawndale High School, the sign in front of the school reads simply Little Village High School, and admission controversies have changed the school’s meaning for residents of both communities.   “To those who are denied access, the impressive spire and $61 million campus represent what their children are not able to receive,” writes  Joanie Friedman in her informative essay Contested Space:  The Struggle for the Little Village Lawndale High School, which appears on the website Area Chicago: Art/Research/Education/Research, and was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of Critical Planning, the UCLA Journal of Urban Planning.  Where racial collaboration was the goal, the scarcity of educational resources has driven, instead, more racial tension.  But the goal remains, as students from the two communities come together in their new school.  

So how are things going at Little Village Lawndale High School?  Surprisingly, this information is the hardest to find.  The city’s Office of New Schools holds the school out as a shining example of success.  Student attendance and achievement are up, but I am having a hard time finding numbers.  The Social Justice School recently won an award for its work in developing a strong sense of  ‘civic engagement’  in its students, topping all the other schools in the city.  And, it seems to offer a good amount of transparency, with a website that even includes the day’s assigned homework.  

Unfortunately it has not escaped the problem of gang violence that is too prevalent in Chicago’s schools, particularly in the Lawndale community.  The new year brings bad news of more gang violence, which in February required that the police be brought in, the school be shut down for a week, after school activities cancelled, and talks will soon be underway about heightened security on campus.   There is good news, here, too, though.  The students at the Social Justice School hosted a forum attended by nearly 500 Chicago students, mostly African American students, on how to decrease gang violence in their neighborhoods.  There were few adults in attendance, and their leadership is impressive, suggesting that the Social Justice school really is training leaders.  The decision to have four separate administrations and four separate principles, though, leaves four different approaches to student discipline, which, as the recent outbursts make clear, must be addressed.  

The worst news comes from the adults in the school.  There is already too little continuity, though I have yet to find how teacher turn-over rates there compare with other schools city wide.  The principal of the Math and Science school is leaving at the end of the year to join Secretary Duncan in Washington. And Rito Martinez, the principal of  The Social Justice School is being fired because he lives outside the district, which the Inspector General’s office evidently discovered by hiring a private detective to follow him for three months (he claimed to live in the Little Village neighborhood).   

I am struggling at the moment with websites that I can’t get to load, and am frustrated because this is critical information that I want to know and to share. The CPS website offers little information about any of its schools, and I am experiencing problems with the State Department of Education’s website.   I will keep at it today and update this post this information as I find it.  It looks, though, as if the students are doing well.  

This story and others I’ve read about about Chicago schools under his leadership, leave me with a mixed opinion of Secretary Duncan.  He did uphold the school district’s promise to the Little Village community.  And he does talk of supporting social justice in learning.  But talk is just talk, and it is also clear that he favors a corporate model of schooling, preferring, among other things, private charter schools free from teacher’s unions.  He argues, first, that the role of schools is to provide employees for America’s corporations, and works hard to bring corporate methodologies into our schools.  This is at odds with my vision of excellent education that brings, in addition to business skills, a breadth of knowledge to its students and an informed citizenry to the public arena.  And I am confused by the president’s choice to surround himself with so many corporate types.  It wasn’t so long ago that, in the story I’ve tried to tell here, he would have played the role of the community organizer, fighting for the right of parents to have a school that embraced their values.  Arne Duncan is not that man and, I think, does not fully share that man’s vision.  And I question how much of what President Obama cites as Duncan success stories are really stories of success.  For example, while President Obama cites as one example of Duncan’s stellar leadership the declining drop-out rates that occurred every year Duncan ran Chicago’s schools, he does not indicate whether graduation rates rose correspondingly.  My fear is that they did not.  Many criticize Duncan for simply kicking ‘difficult’ students out of the schools,  leaving them no opportunity to quit on their own.  In a scathing article on the Truth Out website, Kenneth Saltman, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago and author, most recently, of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,”  who is certainly not alone in his criticism, writes that,

“Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, (and) advocated a growing police presence in the schools….  A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”

I have so much hope for our president that it colors my vision.  Had President Bush appointed Secretary Duncan, I have no doubts that I would have quickly ripped him to shreds for abandoning our children, gotten a good night’s rest, posted my blog on time and be out shopping for a new bicycle right now. Yet, time and again I find myself searching for ways President Obama the benefit of the doubt.  The choice of Duncan is another that I do not like, yet I find myself restrained in my criticism, actively searching for indications that he will do well by our children.  President Obama is a deliberative man who does not speak in particulars until he is sure of what he wants to say.  He is undoubtedly familiar with the criticisms voiced by many Chicago residents who disdain Arne Duncan as a neoliberal reformer who will destroy our public schools as he moves toward the privitization and corporitization of schools.  Yet he chose Duncan to lead the nation’s schools.  The choice, like others he has made, leave me feeling confused and saddened.  I never thought for a moment, that as president,  Barack Obama would adopt an ultra-progressive stance.  He cannot.  He is restrained as the leader of all Americans.  But neither did I think he would embrace a capitalist model of education.  I am deeply disappointed and skeptical as I write today.  But I will be back next week, looking at other issues that we face in our efforts to improve education and educational opportunity.  And I will have looked more closely at some of the criticisms about Secretary Duncan as well at the writings of some who praise his efforts.  I hope that I have some good news to report.

Restraining Your Inner Fourth Grader! (by Elizabeth Burke) March 19, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in politics.
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I am a grown woman, but I have to admit that as soon as I read an article last week on Politico.com about the website,  ImSorryRush.com,  I could not on it click fast enough. It was as if my inner Fourth Grader was busting to get out and poke fun of the perceived “loser” in the class. The website is set up like the old Mad Lib game where you fill in a silly word or phrase for each Mad Lib indicated – and the topic is the recent rush (pardon the pun) of Republicans apologizing to Limbaugh for negative comments made about him in other arenas.  Now you too can crawl on your knees to the Altar of Rush.  

It seems that in the past few weeks, the most astonishing thing has been happening. The otherwise calm, cool and collected GOP seems to be eating themselves alive. First there is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s disastrous response to President Obama’s speech and the collective impulse to shove him under the bus. Then there is the daily iteration from the far Right in the visage of Rush Limbaugh, repeating his desire to see this Administration fail; the multiple verbal Michael Steele gaffes; Senator David Vitter (R-LA) (of the caught-with-a-prostitute fame) once again caught acting out, this time at an airport berating the airline staff for not letting him thru a security door to board a plane about to take off. Up North, the continuing morality play of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston just went pfft and turned into a trash-talking “he-said-she-said” cat fight straight out of People magazine! 

And of course, drug-addicted, obese, thrice-divorced, arrested-for-prescription-drug-fraud, currently-living-in-sin, malcontent conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, (yes 2 mentions!) being anointed the titular head of the Republican Party. There is more, but I think you get my point.

Common sense says that the Democrats should Leave Well Enough Alone. We have the White House, most of Congress and sadly soon, one more seat on the Supreme Court. We should be gracious and thoughtful.  We should QUIETLY – with focus – take the high road.

Quite frankly, the GOP is doing an excellent job of self-immolation. All the Dems need to do is pull up a log and toast some marshmallows over their fire. The latest attempts by the Left, to smugly point fingers and laugh through cupped palms at the auto-cannibalism of the GOP, needs to be stopped. It reeks of pettiness and bad sportsmanship and undermines the actual progress the Democrats have made in uniting the country in a time of economic crisis. 

But as a barely restrained Fourth Grader at heart, I know how easy it is to poke fun at the weak!  Let’s take the case of the brand new Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele. Just one day after he publicly decried Rush as ‘incendiary” and “ugly” he had to get on his knees and grovel for the big guy’s forgiveness.  He then made, what I believe to be truthful, comments on his belief in a women’s right to choose, and his assertion that homosexuality is how one is born and not a choice (comparing it to being born Black, imagine that!) And before you can say “Please Rush don’t hurt me” Steele is backpedaling so fast, I got whiplash just reading about it! In just over 2 months, the GOP knives are sharpened and there is already infighting about his possible impeachment. Impeachment!! Even Conservative David Frum said he was sickened by the attacks on Michael Steele for saying abortion was an ‘individual’ choice. The Right eating the Right is wrong.

Indeed, there are rumblings within the GOP to have Wisconsin’s Norm Coleman replace Steele. But, well, it seems Coleman is currently under FBI investigation. Word leaked only a few months ago that the FBI was looking into allegations that the former Senator’s family received $75,000 in secret payments from a longtime friend and benefactor. Those payments went unreported on Coleman’s financial disclosure form, leading some congressional ethicist to draw parallels to the corruption case that ultimately took down former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Oh for God’s sake.

Now for an example of a GOP rising star totally missing the point, let’s talk about Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC.) Just last week in response to a comment by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Sanford warned that the recently-signed stimulus bill could spur a Zimbabwe-style economic collapse:

“What you’re doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don’t have, send it to different states – we’ll create jobs… If that’s the case why isn’t Zimbabwe a rich place?”…”why isn’t Zimbabwe just an incredibly prosperous place?” 

Sanford has said that he will reject a portion of the stimulus money that would expand unemployment benefits, which now hovers at about 10.4% in SC. He has also promised to turn down $700 million meant in large part for education programs if he is not granted a waiver to instead use the money to pay down his state’s debts. If your house is burning, do you take the buckets of water, put them aside and save them in case this happens again, or do you take the water and PUT THE DAMN FIRE OUT?! 

A conservative South Carolina newspaper, The State, penned an editorial on Sunday blasting, (ripping to shreds) Gov. Mark Sanford for his political grandstanding. The best part? Republicans in the South Carolina State Senate are currently laying the groundwork to accept the stimulus funds Gov. Mark Sanford is promising to reject. Defying their own on their own! “Without the stimulus funds, teachers would lose jobs, prisons would be closed, and inmates released early,” Dan Cooper, a Republican state representative, told the Associated Press. 

Even totally inconsequential Congressman Phil Gingrey (R-GA) went to the Altar to seek His forgiveness for daring to criticize His Holy Loud Mouthed One. All he said was this: “I mean, it’s easy if you’re Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or even sometimes Newt Gingrich to stand back and throw bricks. You don’t have to try to do what’s best for your people and your party.”  Of course within days he was tripping over himself to say “As long as I am in the Congress, I will continue to fight for and defend our sacred values. I have actively opposed every bailout, every rebate check, every so-called ‘stimulus.’ And on so many of these things, I see eye-to-eye with Rush Limbaugh.”  So sad. I assume his constituency all have jobs, homes, health care and didn’t need any of that money.

And of course, amidst all the outrage (!) this week focused at the AIG psychopaths, a pitchfork wielding Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) suggested that these hookers-without-a-heart-of-gold commit suicide in the honorable old tradition of Japanese Hari Kari. Of course barely minutes later, scrambling to explain his comments, he inadvertently had a verbal malfunction “From my standpoint, it’s irresponsible for corporations to give bonuses at this time when they’re sucking the tit of the taxpayer,” Grassley explained.  Look, when they make it this easy, what’s a girl to do?

That said, as a self-described Lefty McLiberal, lover of all things green, pursuer of clean energy, hugger of those less fortunate and crier at State sponsored torture, I find it embarrassing that there are some in the White House that are actively working to tie the GOP to Limbaugh and his ilk.

What works in a guest blog post does not necessarily fly as party policy. 

Formalizing these behind-the-hand whisperings and deep-in-the-tubal-interweb musings is really adolescent and amateurish, a “distraction” as the President was so fond of saying in the days of his campaign, when he spoke of a new kind of politics that would transcend partisan pettiness.  And while it appeals to everyone’s inner 4th grader, I’m still an idealist who believes that Obama’s promise to be better than this is something we all can and must strive towards.

I don’t believe the Democratic National Committee should be spending one dime to hold a contest to find a new theme in their ongoing campaign to portray Rush Limbaugh as the true leader of the Republican Party. The slogan, “Americans didn’t vote for a Rush to failure,” will be splashed across a billboard in Limbaugh’s hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, and printed on T-shirts, a Democratic National Committee official told CNN. My Fourth Grade self inwardly laughed and clapped her hands with glee while my rational adult side sighed deeply and shook her head. 

It’s easy to attack the GOP while is at it’s weakest in over 40 years, as they struggle to fight its way out of political inconsequence, searching for a message that doesn’t encompass the ugliness that we have seen through festering mouthpieces like Ann Coulter, Hannity, Rush and the entire Fox news channel.  


It makes for a stronger statement for us, the Democratic, to show restraint. Both parties have made huge errors recently, most notably taking out the legislation requiring Executive pay limits from the stimulus bill.  

This image of high ranking Dems hunched over, rubbing their hands in glee, jumping on the bash-wagon like rats jumping on a well-stocked-ship needs to stop. We need to let the Republicans find their own way, make their own mistakes, fall all over themselves trying to out-conservative each other, threaten each other, and destroy their party all by themselves.

These are scary and uncertain times for the rest of us. I want a rational hand steering the ship, and we have that, and the crew better stop acting like 4th Graders and focus on getting the country back on it’s feet or they will be out on their asses in less than 4 years, with little left to crow about.

President Obama Calls For Education Reform, Part I March 19, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, politics.
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President Obama this week announced his plans for education reform, which many in the MSM hailed as courageous, as calling for sweeping change….  Wait a minute.  I think I missed something.  While he called for some reform, like lengthening the school day and/or the school year (but maybe only for those students who ‘need’ it) and doing more to support early childhood education (for which I applaud him) his message fell well short of a transformative vision.  He wants to hold teachers accountable, link pay to performance (as measured by student testing), close failing schools, and promote charter schools.  All of this sounds like President Bush were still in office.  

He wants the ‘best and brightest’ teachers, yet he did not call for paying teachers as though they are professionals.  Average teachers’ salaries range from the mid $20s to the upper $40s, depending on regional differences in the cost of living.  That is not the pay that will attract the ‘best and brightest.’ That’s not to say that many of our teachers are not the best and brightest, but the best and brightest who choose to teach in the public school system must also be something more.  They must be strongly dedicated to giving back to their community.  The best and brightest can find their first jobs, straight out of college, that pay beyond the median American income, in the mid $50s (and even more in expensive parts of the country).  And those with advanced degrees, as many of the best and brightest teachers have, can find jobs that pay far more (or at least they could before this economic crisis was brought upon us).  In addition to the low salaries teachers receive, they are under-appreciated, and are too often blamed for every failure in education, though so many problems in our educational system are far beyond their control.  

Teachers are expected to teach classes of 25 – 30+ students, even though, as I will flesh out in more detail below, most researchers believe that providing classrooms with 20 or fewer students is the single most important reform we can make to enhance learning.  Yet President Obama uttered not one word about decreasing classroom sizes.  

The best teachers are filled with innovative ideas, but are strapped by the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, which should be scrapped, but which he will keep.  To his credit, he did say that he wants to replace NCLB’s rigid multiple choice exams with tests that measure real learning – analytical ability, problem solving and the like.  While this will be a vast improvement, it alone is not enough.  Children must be provided with the resources they need to learn in order to score well on any test.  And too many of them aren’t.  

President Obama was elected on a platform of change, and he claims a strong commitment to education, but he failed to provide a transformative agenda about which progressive educators and advocates of reform can get excited.  

President Obama Announces Secretary of Education Pick, Arne Duncan

President Obama selected Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education, a controversial choice.  Hailing his great success in Chicago, the president said,

“For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book – it’s the cause of his life. And the results aren’t just about test scores or statistics, but about whether our children are developing the skills they need to compete with any worker in the world for any job…. In just seven years, he’s boosted elementary test scores here in Chicago from 38 percent of students meeting the standards to 67 percent. The dropout rate has gone down every year he’s been in charge…. He’s worked tirelessly to improve teacher quality, increasing the number of master teachers who’ve completed a rigorous national certification process from 11 to just shy of 1,200, and rewarding school leaders and teachers for gains in student achievement. He’s championed good charter schools – even when it was controversial. He’s shut down failing schools and replaced their entire staffs – even when it was unpopular. 

And Duncan said, in accepting the post, 

“Whether it’s fighting poverty, strengthening the economy or promoting opportunity, education is the common thread. It is the civil rights issue of our generation and it is the one sure path to a more equal, fair and just society. 

But neither the president nor the education secretary addressed the vast inequalities that exist in our educational system.

Duncan, of course, has his fans and his critics.  Rod Paigs, President Bush’s Education Secretary, whose Texas reforms were the model for the hated NCLB,  called him a “budding hero in the education business.”  Is public education a business?  I suppose it makes sense, then, that Duncan was the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ of the Chicago public school system.  

But others, like Chicago education activist Michael Klonsky think that under Duncan we will see “more standardized testing, closing neighborhood schools, militarization, and the privatization of school management.”  

On the other hand, according to MSNBC’s report, Obama Education Pick Sparks Conflict, some teacher’s unions like him, saying he is willing to reach out to teachers in collaboration.

So, the jury is out.  President Obama did credit him with providing teacher training and certification on a grand scale, and he has lowered the drop out rate in Chicago schools, but I wish I’d heard more about his ideas for decreasing class sizes and ‘advancing educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas.’  I am skeptical, and I will keep a close watch, but for now I will try to be hopeful.

Class Size Matters.  As I mentioned above, most researchers agree that class size is an important factor in education.  Studies show that, while small reductions in class size have little effect,  students benefit substantially when class sizes are cut to around 20 students per classroom, particularly in the early grades, but also in grades 8-12.   Yet NCLB removed funding for cutting the size of classrooms. 

A consensus of research indicates that for K-3 education, class size reduction to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students leads to higher student achievement that many believe lasts throughout the child’s education.  The Public School Parent’s Network, a resource and information website for parents, reports that the research data from The US Dept of Education’s publication Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?,  indicate that if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students to below 20 students, the average student moves from the 50th percentile to above the 60th percentile.  And, for disadvantaged and minority students the effects are even larger.

A study commissioned by the US Department of Education analyzed the achievement levels of students in 2,561 schools, as measured by their performance on the national NAEP exams.  The sample included at least 50 schools in each state, including large and small, urban and rural, affluent and poor areas.  After controlling for student background, the only objective factor found to be correlated with higher student success as measured by test scores was class size. (Class Size Matters.org)  

A study from the Public Policy Institute of California shows significant improvements in test scores for all groups of students in smaller classes (with no changes in curriculum or instruction).  In California’s six largest school districts (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Fresno), class size reduction substantially raised the proportion of students  who exceeded the national median, after controlling for all other factors.  

                                                    Math        Reading        Language    

Los Angeles                            13.9%            9.5%            14.5%

Next 5 Largest Districts        10.5%           8.4%

LA High Needs Students        27%             19%               28%

100% Black Population         14.7%          18.4%


Also note that:

(1) This study looked only at 3rd graders who spent just one year in a smaller class;

(2) Gains improved the longer students remained in small classrooms;

(3) Even larger gains were found in schools with a higher percentage of poor students; and

(4) Studies show that parents are more involved in schools where their children are in small classrooms.

(Relationships Between Class Size Reduction and Student Achievement, Research Brief, Public Policy Institute of California)

These findings are consistent across states.  Studies from Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere show that students in smaller classes from grades K-3 do better in every way that can be measured: they score higher on tests, receive better grades, and improve their attendance.  And, again, students who need the most help show the most improvement.   Indeed, Alan Krueger of Princeton estimates that reducing class size in early grades shrinks the achievement gap by about 38%.

Class size reduction changes many features of the classroom which lead to higher student achievement.  Perhaps most importantly, the teacher has more time to give each student individualized attention, allowing the teacher to know each of their students better, to know how they learn, and to keep track of how each student is progressing.  As such, the teacher can intervene more rapidly and effectively to help  each student.  Furthermore, the research shows that students develop better relationships with their teacher and classmates in small class settings.  We all know that learning is enhanced by classroom participation, and in smaller classes, each student has more time to – and is more likely to – speak while others listen.  There are also fewer students to distract each other, and researchers report fewer disciplinary problems.  These findings are significant and should be a part of meaningful school reform. 

In 2007, the average class size in California (not including independent study and other self-contained courses) was 20 students in K-3 and 28 in grades 4-12.  Class sizes in Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi and many others were similar in 2006 and 2007, especially in grades 4-12, while K-3 classes were generally somewhat larger. Georgia law allows for 32 – 35 students in grades 9-12, depending on the subject matter.  

So it is unfortunate that in February, the NY Education Department issued a report that found the average number of children per class increased in nearly every grade this school year.  And now comes new that, in New York and California at least, there will soon be even more students in each classroom due to state budget gaps.  In one California district, budget shortfalls have already increased the size of kindergarten classes to 33 students per teacher.   Unless class size is made a priority and funded as such, given today’s state of affairs, the outlook here is bleak and the impact on student achievement is too great.  


School Financing Matters.  President Obama did not address the widespread disparity in spending among school districts and states.  Underprivileged children often attend the worst school, though they are generally the students who need the most help.

The US Department of Education reports that current expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools will be about $519 billion for the 2008-09 school year. According to the its website, he national average current expenditure per student is around $10,418, but this provides little information.  Rather, they simply tally up spending, divide it by the number of students, and voila, there you have average spending.  But this information is close to useless because we know that is not the way spending occurs.  We do not spend the same amount to educate every child.  Rather, as I outline below, there remain vast differences in spending.  The information they provide does not even tell us the mean or the median.  It doesn’t tell us how much is spent on instruction, how much on administration (we know some districts have bloated administrations, wasting taxpayer money).  It does not tell how much disparity there is among school districts.  Over the past couple of decades, many states have made gains in funding schools more equitably, but sizeable differences remain.  Yet it is difficult to find data that will allow us to be informed consumers of education.  To take an example for their reporting on class sizes, the US Department of Education website tells us that classes are much smaller than reported by the Departments of Educations in the individual states.  This lack of transparency is inexcusable, and often the information they do provide is misleading.

It is difficult to ascertain how funding is apportioned among school districts across the nation.  The data provided by the Department of Education is too broad to be useful, other available data is too old to be useful and, where financing per district is available, it is not coupled with the average income per district, leaving one only to speculate how money is apportioned among wealthy, middle class, and low income communities.  For example, according to South Carolina’s General Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2008-2009South Carolina spends an average of  $11,480 per student, but spending among districts ranges from $8,659 to $18,081.  

And according to SF Gate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s websitein 2006 funding per pupil in California schools ranged from $4,806 to 34,279.  These are vast differences that must be addressed if we are to make a commitment to all our children.  Yet neither President Obama nor Education Secretary Duncan spoke to this issue.

New York spends the most money per pupil of all the states except Alaska, but we know that many inner-city schools have crumbling infrastructure and lack basic resources.  

The Washington Post reports that while the number most widely stated as per pupil spending in the Washington D.C. is $8,322, total spending is actually closer to  $25,000, about the same as the cost of an education at Sidwell Friends, where the Obama children attend school.  It asks, then, “So why force most D.C. children into often dilapidated and underperforming public schools when we could easily offer them a choice of private schools?”  My question is, if D.C. public school districts receive equal funding as some of the most expensive private schools, why do they have dilapidated school buildings?  Where does the money go?  We know that teachers at prestigious private schools earn more than their colleagues in the public sector, that private schools offer a broader cirriculum, including art programs and physical education that have been cut at many public schools, and have more resources for the students, such as science labs and computers, so this data is hard to reconcile.  

But it gets more complicated.  The Census Bureau reports that per public spending for D.C. students is $13,446, but adds that funding per pupil from local sources is $16,195 (it adds this information to clarify that local funding is high relative to other school districts across the nation because other districts, unlike those in D.C. also receive state funding).  Add to this that D.C. schools also receive about $81 million in federal funds, and the picture is pure confusion.  How much does Washington D.C. spend per pupil?  I can’t say with any certainty.  But it is clear that transparency in public school funding and expenditures is necessary if parents are to make informed choices about where to send their children.

Making matters worse, as some states were just beginning to make gains in a more equitable distribution of funding, school budgets are now being slashed as a result of our present economy.  While, as many argue, ‘throwing money at the problem’ isn’t the entire solution, all schools must be sufficiently funded to provide the basic necessities for learning.  It is a disgrace that some students do not have text books, that some go to school in unsafe buildings, that many do not have adequate facilities to learn science.  President Obama must call for equitable funding for our public schools or we will continue to leave far too many students with enormous potential behind, depriving them of the promise of opportunity and us of the benefit of their knowledge, both as citizens and as participants in our economy.

Conclusion, Part I.  Linda Darling-Hammond, a former teacher, expert on teacher quality and professor of education at Stanford and an Obama advisor writes in  The Nation   that the US should adopt some of the practices that higher-achieving countries have been using over the past twenty years “as they have left us further and further behind educationally.”  She reports that the US ranks twenty-eighth of forty countries in mathematics and graduates only about 75% of students, though other top performing countries graduate more than 95% of their students.  She tells us that most high-achieving countries fund their schools centrally and equally, then provide additional funds to the neediest schools.  They also have  better-prepared teachers whom they pay competitive salaries and provide with high-quality teacher education, mentoring and ongoing professional development. These are exactly the reforms we need if we are to recruit and keep the best and brightest teachers.  President Obama should heed her advice if we are to build and maintain an educational system that provides a world-class education for our students, all our students, even the disadvantaged who we too easily leave behind.

Education Reform, Part II.  In the second part of this piece, next week, I will discuss many other issues surrounding education, including student testing, merit pay, charter schools, innovative teaching methods, single-sex classrooms, and the US Supreme Court’s ruling on what right to education is guaranteed us by the education and the importance of that ruling’s being reexamined in light of the requirements of today’s world.  I hope it will shed even more light on what is going on in our classrooms, including the vastly different approaches some pioneers in teaching are taking.