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Political Sausage

leaner

I admit it; I know very little about how political sausage is made. I actually don’t want to know how things do or don’t get done. Ten years of administrating in higher education is about all my soul can withstand. But the drawback of averting my eyes is I’m often left with so many things that make me go hmmm. The most recent of those hmmms involves the impending changing of the guard in New York City. The mayoral race, which at times seemed more like an energetic walk, spurred little enthusiasm. The two viable candidates are both relatively agreeable chaps (and yes, they were chaps, white Christian chaps.) But neither had the charisma, pedigree or star power to really excite. Of course who beside another billionaire (or perhaps a fourth reinvention of Alec Baldwin) could have captured the imagination of New Yorkers? Even forced reveals about private family issues failed to yield much public excitement. Let’s face it if you’re not a little man with a lot of money or a big man with a lot of media attention (and featured prominently in a reality show about Newark) it’s hard to enliven the crowd.

The election is over and this (predominantly) democratic city elected a democratic mayor. Bill de Blasio ran a campaign based on opposing several Bloomberg initiatives. It’s not clear if any of these talking points will result in actual change. (Somewhere there’s a doctoral thesis about how many campaign promises actually come true.) The most discussed of these initiatives involve: taxation, policing and education. There are concerns, stoked by de Blasio’s opposition that tampering with policies in any and all of these areas is tantamount to buying a one-way ticket to the 1970s. Without a crystal ball or a finely tuned sense of paranoia, it’s hard to say. Before I jump on the bandwagon, or perhaps more aptly; the Datsun B210, I need just a bit of edification. I don’t need to see the whole sausage in the making perhaps just the vienna sausage or maybe a snausage.

While it’s true that de Blasio opposes stop and frisk policing tactics, it’s not clear to me that there aren’t equally successful methods of crime deterrence. Many stop and frisks happen to people who live in less safe neighborhoods. Are there other ways, perhaps involving employment and community centers to deter criminal behavior? Nobody voluntarily wants to pay more taxes (unless you count those who play the lottery) but they do know that there is a deep economic divide in this city. If raising taxes can mean more affordable housing, many would happily grab their checkbook. But does it mean that? Or will higher taxes simply fill budget gaps left by business leaving or not being courted by a business superstar mayor? Funneling more money into the school system is a sentimental favorite; “it’s for the children!” But do increasing teacher’s salaries and/or extending the kindergarten day really improve education? Is that why so many kids graduate high school barely able to read and write? When did teachers’ salaries, which are the same as police officers in NYC, equate to teaching skill, meaningful curriculum and competent administration? Of course teachers (and police officers) should be handsomely rewarded for a job well done. Everyone should. But the notion that what is wrong with our education system can be fixed with higher salaries and longer kindergarten days is baffling. But it’s surely not as simply as that. Somewhere there are serious conversations taking place involving 10-point plans and advisory committees.

It’s very early days and if history is any indication many of these questions will be answered, as we get closer to the inauguration. All we know right now is that things will change and hopefully for the people who need it the most they will change for the better.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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A Tough Act To Follow

pinstri[e

There’s an election headed our way and depending on how you feel about your state/city/town it could be exciting. Here in New York City we’re poised to have our first new mayor in 12 years. Whether you’re relieved at that prospect or leery, the fact remains that change is never all that easy. Neither of the two viable candidates has anywhere near the celebrity status that Mike Bloomberg had/has. Mayor Bloomberg has the star power that comes with great wealth. He is able to exert influence on a national if not international level. That power impacts the local constituency if in no other way, than in that of confidence. A mayor that can buy his way in and out of just about anywhere and anything is not likely to be told to drop dead by any leader anytime soon.

There are New Yorkers who felt Bloomberg as mayor was a bully or at least too paternalistic for their taste. Some felt him too liberal (anti-gun) or too conservative (pro-business.) It’s probably safe to say that he is all of those things and a bit bombastic to boot. He stuck like super glue to his convictions/beliefs and if you happen to agree with those beliefs that was good. Some of his best moments have been fighting to preserve the separation of church and state. NYC is filled with many different cultures and religions and it would be ridiculous to even suggest that they all get along or want the same things. Each religion is defined by how it differs from other beliefs and those beliefs sometimes make their way to City Hall. You may remember the brouhaha over the Muslim Cultural Center built on the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory. Mayor Bloomberg supported the center and its message of religious tolerance, amidst fear based propaganda and bigotry. The Mayor has been on the side of inclusion but shied like an abused horse in the face of preferential treatment. He has resisted several requests from religious groups over his tenure, presumably in an attempt to keep religion out of government and vice a versa.

It’s unlikely the next mayor will do the same. There is already much being made of the candidates’ positions on religious issues. Those issues most cited are; Muslim holidays included in the school calendar, ultra-orthodox circumcision practice, and churches using schools for worship. On the surface this appears to be a nice little trifecta. These are the religions most discussed in the media (though not necessarily an accurate representation of NYC residents.) We’ve got a Muslim issue (check!) a Jewish issue (check!) and a Christian issue (check!). Of course ultra-orthodox anything is by definition not representative of the larger religious group and Christian anything rarely includes Catholic something. But never us mind. It makes for a nice little “we are the world” media package. Any religious holiday that precludes a student or teacher from working should be included in the school holiday calendar. There is no religious reason for anyone to not attend school/work on Christmas, but public schools have always been closed on that day. There are many holidays outside of Christianity that are to be spent in religious worship. That should be the determining factor. Many religious festivals and holidays allow for work, they should not be included in the calendar. It’s that simple. The orthodox (or fundamentalists) of any religion enjoy a certain degree of autonomy. They intentionally live outside society but often avail themselves of societal services. If a religious practice causes harm to anyone (herpes in the case of ultra orthodox circumcision) it should be regulated. As a society we believe in protecting the health and well being of others. There are ways to regulate the procedure (no need to get graphic here) that would limit exposure to disease.

These issues, though somewhat novel are not that complicated. They address equity and health and don’t infringe upon anyone else’s freedoms or beliefs. (A mohel or two might be bent out of shape, but they’ll come around.) However holding religious services in a public school infringes upon the rights of just about everyone except the worshippers. Imagine just for a moment that it was a collective of imams wanting to hold Muslim prayer services in the public schools. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying; “eh what the hell, the school is empty anyway.” Public school is just that: public. It is in theory a safe haven and a place in which everyone is presumed equal. Being part of a minority, which in America is anyone who isn’t Christian, is challenging enough. No kid, or teacher needs to be reminded that Christianity is normative. Seeing your local school used as a church is disheartening. We attach an awful lot of importance to the buildings in which children learn. We even tear them down when something awful happens within the walls. To transform a school into a church can be alienating and even feel threatening. On top of the very real emotional response is the fact that schools are government buildings and have no business being used for religious practice.

It is not clear, from anything they’ve said, that either mayoral candidate sees the church and state issue at play. Granted there are actual life and death issues at stake in NYC with which a mayor must contend. But how we regard religion and walk that line between inclusion and separation says loads about us. How we view and treat each other is at the heart of almost everything else that there is and ever will be.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Christmas Greetings!

holly

Dear Person for whom I have an address but don’t have anything to do with throughout the year,

Merry Christmas!!! It’s been a busy and fruitful year for our family and I’m simply bursting to share every minute detail. But first things first; you’ve undoubtedly noticed that I’ve dropped “Happy Holidays” in favor of the hopelessly old-fashioned “Merry Christmas.” You may be thinking to yourself; “Hmm, I had thought she was more PC than that!” And you’d be right! Don’t you worry; we’re still recycling, sending money to disaster victims and rescuing ferrets. But it’s been brought to my attention (thank you Rochelle!) that there is no tradition of sending Channukah Hannuka Chanukah letters. I don’t know much about Kwanza but plan to learn (hip hip hooray for New Year’s resolutions!) So I’ve returned to our “roots” and am sending a Christmas letter.

Since you last heard from us Lionel has retired! That’s right, after 40 dedicated years Lionel has left the exciting and demanding world of mergers and acquisitions. It was a rather sudden decision but the severance package and security escort were just too much to ignore. Three cheers for Lionel! He’d be sharing this with you himself but has plunged head first into an all-consuming reinvention. He still leaves everyday at 8:25 but now heads for the basement instead of the train station. It’s not clear what he actually does on the computer until 6:20 but he seems more relaxed than ever before. The transition was not an easy one of course as our darling daughter Candace had been calling the basement home. But with a little shuffling, a little ingenuity (ahem; that would be me) and a mid-sized camper in our driveway, everyone’s happy. I don’t mean to suggest the neighbors are pleased, but Candace and her daughter Toronto are snug as two bugs in a can. That’s right; Lionel and I are grandparents!!! Seeing as we’re not Facebook friends you’ve missed all the wonderful photos chronicling the miracle of our expanding family. For that reason I’ve embraced the true meaning of Christmas and paid for custom postage stamps. YES that’s our darling Toronto on your stamp! I bet that’s the first time Canada has been on a U.S. stamp! Treasure this gift and please don’t feel obligated to reciprocate. (Rest assured her head is much more rounded now. If you were a Facebook friend you would have seen that she was crowning for a considerably long time. Hooray for video!)

Older brother Brent is ecstatic at being an uncle. He and his roommate Gerald were by Candace’s side throughout it all. They even threw the shower! They have converted Gerald’s room into a nursery for when Candace comes to visit, which will happen as soon as that camper is up and running! In the meantime Brent is doing extraordinarily well. As you might remember from last year’s letter, Brent has taken a sabbatical from his studies. His father and I are thrilled; seven and a half years of graduate school seems more than enough. He’s one smart cookie our Brent is and it’s high time he had a break. He’s joined his roommate Gerald in the hospitality industry. In just one month he mastered the milk foam heart swirl. That’s our Brent!

Christmas is such a wonderful time of year to reflect on our lives. Lionel and I never would’ve dreamed of all the twists and turns life has brought us. We are so humbled by Brent’s creativity and lack of materialism. We are so fortunate to have our daughter and her daughter in our driveway. All of these blessing do come at some cost however. Since Lionel is focused on his Internet pursuits it’s up to me to lend a helping hand. What are mothers for?! You may remember that I’m simply a whiz at organizing? Well guess what? It’s time to share my gifts with the world. Starting in 2014 I will be offering closet organizing/life coaching/college essay tutoring for a very reasonable price. For just $75 an hour I will put you (and/or your friend’s, colleague’s, family’s) life in order. I’ve enclosed 10 cards for “Lucinda’s Getting Your Life Write” and am happy to send more.

Wishing you and whomever you care about a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And may we resolve this year to get our lives write!!!

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Holiday

 

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I Got Another Puzzle For You*

geneandjack

Software has been developed to assist school principals in policing the online behavior of students; online behavior outside of school facilities and hours that is. Pointing out the folly of such a pursuit or the obscene waste of resources of such an endeavor is disheartening. As our public education system is eroding in rigor and well roundedness, do we really need yet another distraction? At what point are we Willy Wonka warning of yet another bad decision with hushed weary intonations of; “No. Stop. Don’t”?

The notion that a child’s behavior outside of school is the school’s business/problem is absurd. Unless the school is part of an orphanage it is not the school’s problem. The very idea that there could ever be any software program that could police all the children, in all electronic realms is simply science fiction. Children do stupid stuff. Kids can be mean. How they do this stuff is beside the point. Generations ago principals did not police finished basements, railroad tracks, bowling alleys and soda fountains. No doubt some principals at some point have cleaned graffiti off a bathroom wall, but they didn’t crouch in a corner ready to pounce upon the scribe (or at least I hope they didn’t.) Most of us of voting age were either bullied, a bully or a mix of the two at one point or another. It’s what kids do. Siblings torment siblings, classmates tease classmates, and kids terrorize neighbors (Boo Radley anyone?) It’s not nice, it’s nothing any adult is proud of, but it is part of growing up.

The issue is how children and the adults around them respond to such goings on. Bullying and extreme response to bullying both come from the same place; insecurity. Children are trying to find their way in the world and to feel some sense of control. A bully feels better about him or herself when they lord over someone. Being bullied feels crappy but should not feel like the end of the world. It becomes the end of the world when the bullying is unrelenting and perpetrated by many OR when the bullied is fragile. Fragility can take many guises but should be recognizable to parents. A fragile child does not have close (age appropriate) friends, reacts disproportionately to disappointment, and demonstrates excessive anxiety or (inward or outward) rage. Children who have trouble connecting to their world around them can be devastated by the sense that their world hates them. Children, particularly fragile children, are best served by having their world expanded. Multiple social networks (e.g., scouts, dance class, religious school, relatives, etc.) are an insurance policy against ostracization. Feeling good about one area of his/her life can be the light at the end of the tunnel for a bullied child.

The very idea that a principal should spend money and time trying to police the (often elusive) behavior of children is absurd. If there is that kind of time and money available perhaps we could get the arts back into the school? For decades arts, particularly theater, has been used with vulnerable populations to explore issues of empathy and self-esteem. Prisons and juvenile detention centers have changed lives with their theater arts programs. Children engaged in writing or visual arts projects learn about each other and find common ground. A school experience not based on physical agility or extroversion creates a more realistic environment for children. (Few adults have to make their way through every weekday by being popular.) Bullying and extreme response to bullying is about a response to lack of control. Adding more external control (which has no hope of being effective) completely misses the mark. Strong children are not built with surveillance systems. Strong children are built by a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Schools can play a part in that but to do so they need to focus on education not on in loco parentis.

*Oompa Loompa Song (1971) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Pulling Back The Curtain

man

In August President Obama called for a college rating system. College costs and student loan defaults have risen dramatically while the job market has increased its demand for baccalaureate degrees. More people attend college now than ever before. Means of obtaining a baccalaureate degree have expanded and diversified. Yet the entire enterprise has remained quite opaque. Calling for meaningful metrics to ascertain value is a very good thing. But before you can apply measurement you must know what it is you’re measuring. Is the value of a 4-year degree in the recipient’s lifetime earnings? Is the value of a specific degree the speed in which one can earn what was spent/borrowed? Is the knowledge accumulated in four years measurable (and how do we allow for varying disciplines and institutions?) Certain things are quite measurable, such as attrition and graduation rate. But there is nothing about a dropout rate that indicates a subpar education, it does however suggest an issue with the admissions process and students services. Should a college rating system take into account more than education? The argument could be made that vigorous student services have as much to do with higher education than job placement.

We may think that college is nothing more than job training for the majority of participants; we’d be wrong. There are still many people who major in the liberal arts. There are English, Mathematics, History, Religion and Biology majors graduating every year with no plans of attending graduate school. These (presumably) well-educated people will (hopefully) enter the workforce with or without debt. How do we rate how well their college served them? An undergraduate degree in Mathematics most likely will not produce the same income as the equivalent degree in Engineering. And what of the Fine Arts majors? Will we measure the income or job placement of an artist? Do we take into consideration why the budding artist chose to attend college (versus a conservatory or institute)? Clearly there are far too many variables at work to come up with a meaningful rating system. What if instead of a rating we demanded transparency? What if we eliminated all tricks of admissions (e.g., early admission, early decision, early action)? What if we made it crystal clear exactly how it all worked? What if front and center on every piece of admissions propaganda was the exact price of everything? Listed alongside was the true percentage of how many students pay the list price. By eliminating the new car lot/airline travel smoke and mirrors from the get go, people have a better sense of what they’re getting for their money. The next step would be all financial aid officers to be legally obligated to inform students of all options. For example, an officer would have to inform a student that he/she could (a) attend a community college, transfer in and save almost 50%; (b) complete his/her degree in 3 years and save 25% (c) apply for grants, research assistantships, and awards. Most undergraduate colleges/universities ask students to officially declare their major. Before a final declaration is made a student should be provided with timely and accurate information about areas of study and what can typically be expected from those majors. A student should be aware of all the different paths to a career as well as all the different careers that can result from one path. They need to hear from faculty and alumni about their own academic and career choices. Each department would be held to a standard of transparency and informed consent when approving a student’s choice of major.

Beyond transparency lie two less manageable realities; in the end people will pay more than they should for things they cannot afford and the workplace will continue to demand college graduates until they provide a meaningful alternative. This is the darker side of the issue. It’s far easier to point our fingers at the costly culprit that is college, than to admit that our K-12 system has eroded. There was a time in which a high school diploma was a ticket into meaningful (white-collar) employment. Today more than one-third of college students need remedial courses. There’s no reason to assume that college has maintained any semblance of rigor, so one can only imagine what the real state of education actually is. Bringing a high school diploma back to what it was is a complicated and daunting prospect. It would appear to be much easier to just consider a baccalaureate to be the new high school diploma. The ethics of pawning off a public obligation to a (mostly) private enterprise is questionable. We can (slightly) mitigate that failing by making the entire process as transparent as possible.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Education

 

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