Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Secretary

On Tuesday, February 7th, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as our new Secretary of Education. Her confirmation was not without controversy.

First off, this was not a landslide decision. It was a tie and Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the deciding/tie breaking vote. The resistance to DeVos came primarily because she has never worked in, nor attended, a public school. In addition, her children have never attended a public school. She is also a huge proponent of school choice, and this means - with the assistance of her amassed fortune of billions of dollars - she has spent the last thirty years advocating and supporting charter schools, school voucher programs, as well as for profit education.

My opinion of charter schools has been stated here repeatedly. While I agree with what they stand for (choice in education) I do not agree with the fact that too many are connected to corporate money. This, in my opinion, is having far too big an influence in the way we educate our kids.

During her senate conformation hearing Betsy DeVos was asked about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). It wasn't just about the questions asked, but the fact that they came from Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Hassan is well versed in the area of special education because her son has cerebral palsy. She brought a level of insight and understanding that Devos clearly lacked. In fact, throughout Hassan's questioning (which was insightful, heartfelt, sincere, and well stated) the glaze in DeVos' eyes grew thicker.

One topic Hassan chose to address was how some voucher programs make participants sign away their rights in order to qualify (she specifically sighted the McKay voucher program in Florida). This essentially means that students with special needs sign away their rights to access the services required through IDEA. These students typically end up leaving the voucher school due to poor or inadequate services - but that school still gets to keep the money provided for that student. The student now goes to a public school whose funding is being depleted through voucher and charter schools and she/he will not get the proper programming they're entitled to. Hassan's worry is that this practice will grow under the Trump administration. When pressed on this particular topic DeVos, again, was obviously clueless.

Right now 13% of the American public school population receives special education services. That means just over 6 million kids report to school every day and demand some type of special programming. To allow the confirmation of a woman seemingly clueless to the needs of these kids is mind boggling. Public education has experienced a paradigm shift due to IDEA - and this shift has changed every aspect of the way our schools are run (and I mean this in a good way). 

Betsy DeVos is going to make mess of it. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

And So It Begins

On the morning after Election Day my fourteen year old daughter woke up and, upon hearing Donald Trump was voted in as President, asked "Are we safe?". 

This is not supposed to be the response to a newly elected leader here in the United States - but this election was anything but normal. Donald Trump's campaign carried a tone that was simultaneously disrespectful and mean, while also being void of facts. In the wake of his election a majority of our media outlets have also forgotten how it was chock full of racism. 

Fortune magazine reported how, back in January, Trump re-tweeted a Nazi sympathizer, and then - a mere three weeks later - did it again. The same Fortune piece goes on to show how many within the Trump campaign either followed or re-tweeted white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers themselves.

In addition to the re-tweeting, Donal Trump's son, Donald Jr., appeared on a talk radio show with a white supremacist. In the wake of that interview, Jr. shook the blame off of himself and onto the "liberal media" claiming he wouldn't have made the appearance had he known about its racist affiliations. His excuse would've held up nicely except months later his brother, Eric Trump, appeared on the same radio program. All the while the Trump campaign feigned ignorance. This despite the fact that the now infamous white supremacist radio host received press credentials to a Trump campaign event. Said radio host has stated, amongst other things, that Martin Luther King Jr's. "dream is our nightmare" and "slavery is the greatest thing that ever happened to" African-Americans. In all of these instances Trump either shifted the blame to people outside the campaign or went to the old faithful move of blaming the "liberal media" for changing the narrative.

Again, this would all hold up nicely except that Trump hired Steve Bannon onto his campaign staff. Bannon is the editor of the website Breitbart News which is the outpost for the ultra conservative/Alternative right/white supremacist movement. Bretibart has published headlines like: There's No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews; Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield; Teenage Boys With Tits: Here's My Problem With Ghostbusters; Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and get the idea. The Southern Poverty Law Center defined Breitbart as a "white neo-nationalist propaganda mill". To make this all worse, Trump just appointed Bannon as his Chief White House Strategist and senior counselor. The people most excited about Bannon's rise: white nationalists, American nazis, and former KKK imperial wizards

So, I am not surprised with my daughter's response. While this election has proven we are divided over many things, it has also shown we are willing, and able, to overlook flagrant hate. How is this going to play out? Well when your President elect selects an individual who once described himself as a "Leninist" who wants to "destroy the state" and "bring everything crashing down" as one of his closest advisors? You tell me.


Friday, May 27, 2016


Now that Donald Trump has secured enough delegates to get the Republican nomination this summer, we can all officially begin to panic.

The rise of Trump has proven to be extraordinarily frustrating while also being confounding to many. But let's face it: this is not a coincidence. Trump is the bi-product of a number of things that have been boiling up in the American culture for decades now. If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.

The rise of right wing talk radio (RWTR) has produced an ill-informed populace that would rather believe crazed talk show hosts and their demagoguery than believe actual fact. The Wall Street Journal published a piece back in 2015 showing how RWTR essentially dictated the GOP Primary results. Their messages of "anti-establishment" and constant Obama bashing not only make for great ratings, but have shown where a majority of GOP voters are getting their marching orders.

A significant number of people listen to RWTR religiously and don't treat it as a source of entertainment, but a legitimate source of news and information. These "sources" constantly remind them to not read or believe what the newspapers say; and to not watch or pay attention to any other "mainstream media" TV or radio outlets because they're all liberally biased

This message of supposed bias extends into our public school system and its teachers, as well as higher education. A recent piece reported on the Bill Moyers website, shows how the message of RWTR has begun to affect what gets funded and what doesn't at Colleges and Universities - especially at the state level. As far as most of these RWTR hosts are concerned - everyone is biased except them. 

This message has a majority of people doubting science; embracing intolerance, and believing an underlying message that America is "under siege" from outside forces - be they political, cultural, or religious. Some high ranking GOP members have seen enough of the ignorance, intolerance, and lack of common sense and have jumped ship to the Democratic party

This mindset brought us the first version of Trump: Sarah Palin. Ms. Palin further spread the gospel of not believing the "lame stream media" as well as not reading newspapers or...anything really, and made it a piece of our national narrative. She set the table for the rise of Trump by condemning truth, knowledge, and overall critical thought.

54% of Donald Trump supporters believe President Obama is a Muslim. What's even more frightening is 29% of Americans believe he is a Muslim. This is startling when you consider a.) he isn't and b.) he's proven it time and time again. But remember, we now live an in an age where ignorance is bliss and stupidity is the national mindset.

Even more frustrating is how the media has been treating Donald Trump. They treat him more like a reality show contestant, and less like the man who - if elected - will make policy decisions that will affect them, their children, their neighbor's children, the rest of the world and all of us. Instead of asking questions of substance, they insist on laughing along with his ignorance and carnival barker showmanship - thus playing further into his Barnumesque narrative and used car salesman winks and nods.

Donald Trump is not "cute". He's a cartoon character who recently responded to a question of who he's speaking with regarding foreign affairs by saying: "I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain, and I’ve said a lot of things.” 

What potential US President speaks like that? Seriously? To make this all worse, Trump announced yesterday that after his Presidency, he'd like to have a statue of himself in Washington DC that he'd share with Thomas Jefferson. Ahh yes, two great American thinkers sharing a single pedestal to remind of us of how far we've come.

Thomas Jefferson: a great thinker, innovator, and writer. Was he flawed? Yes, but not in the context of Donald J. Trump. Jefferson was a man of letters who built and lived on his estate Monticello. He was a voracious reader capable of critical thought, and progressive ideas regarding our democracy. He was an ardent Epicurean who constantly questioned the role of religious faith in government.

If given the chance, I would ask Trump if he's an Epicurean. I know he doesn't even know what that means - and why should he? He is, apparently, what we Americans want: a misinformed, narcissistic, nut job who is under the very false impression that running the greatest country in the world is just an extension of The Apprentice.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Make America Great Again

I have spent the last few years writing on this page about the state of inner-city schools, violence in schools, and race relations here in the United States. These topics are inspired by my teaching of inner-city, at-risk and special needs students. I've taught in schools where the entire population was African-American. I've taught in schools where the population was all African-American and Hispanic. I've been in schools where the entire population was autistic and/or physically other words I've spent the last eleven years of my life working with kids of every age, ethnicity, culture, and ability or disability. 

We are in the midst of what can be defined as one of the more hate tinged presidential campaigns in our countries history. I've never seen anything like it in my life. Donald Trump has taken something initially seen as a joke and has become the Republican frontrunner. Now that he's won the primary elections in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina he could very well be the GOP nominee.

Trump has managed to do this by pushing a rhetoric of racist, sexist, and xenophobic hate. He directly referenced the size of his penis in a presidential debate; called opponent Ted Cruz a "pussy"; acted like an eight year-old school boy when speaking of Hillary Clinton's bathroom break; and referenced menstruation when complaining about questions from Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly. This is in addition to countless Trump rallies that have been the scene of violence - specifically against African-Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims. 

At one rally, a Hispanic protester was spit on by a Trump supporter. A young black woman was being escorted out of a rally and was pushed, shoved (by a veteran) as well as called a "ni**er" and other things all while Trump bellowed "GET OUT!". At another rally a young black man was sucker punched in the face by a white man, yet the black man was arrested. The man who punched him was proud and also threatened "next time we see him, we might have to kill him". Trump responded by offering to pay the man's legal bills, and also told supporters to "punch" protesters, and promised to pay their legal bills as well.

In addition to all of this, Trump initially refused to condemn an endorsement from former KKK Grand Wizard, David Duke. He re-Tweets quotes from neo-Nazis and Mussolini. He doesn't condemn KKK leaders but he does condemn Mexicans and Muslims. 

At high school basketball games in Iowa and Indiana, teams that were heavily Latino were greeted with "Build The Wall!" and "Trump! Trump! Trump!" chants by opposing fans - who were mostly white. One of the those targeted was a Catholic school and the chants caused an outcry from the local Bishop. But guess what - people are not only voting for Donald Trump en masse - his polling numbers continue to go up - a phenomena that even seems to baffle Trump himself.

The worst part is, Evangelical "Christians" love Trump, and his messages of hate and intolerance. This baffles me. How can you classify yourself a "Christian" and respond overwhelmingly to hate and intolerance? How can you support a candidate who uses fowl and disgusting language? What is "Christian" about this man?

We are at a massive crossroads in America right now. The rise of Donald Trump is representative of something terrible in this country: A message of overwhelming hate and anger that's been in place since the election of Barak Obama. It's scary but worst of all, it's anything but "Christian".

Friday, January 8, 2016

Oh Yeah...Them.

These past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about our kids. It would seem we currently exist in a world where actions are taken, words are spoken, and deeds performed all without care or concern for the youngest members of our communities. We've seen mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of people while they attended church and the movies. Children have been killed in school. When the President recently spoke specifically of Newtown, CT he shed tears of sorrow and disgust. His tears were not viewed in the context of a father and husband, but as someone who was "weak". Some even suggested he was faking them.

The fate of the environment is being discussed, young black men continue to be the target of police; and one of the leading candidates for president says horrifically racist and xenophobic things - yet receives applause and rises in the polls.

I would love it if reporters, as well as regular folks, would ask presidential candidates about our children. Are any of their decisions or statements made with them in mind? The same goes for the world leaders and people who lobby for more guns. The two sided question What kind of world do you see for our children and how are we going to get there needs to be asked ad nauseam. I think it should be hammered at politicians. I also think it should be asked of pundits. I'd be curious to hear their answers.

Has anyone given any thought to the tone of our discourse and what our children think of it? As I wrote earlier, some pundits stated the President faked his tears when speaking of the tragedies in Newtown. A few weeks ago a retired US military officer went on national TV and referred to his Commander and Chief as a "pus*y" live on the air. I have seen friends and family pick that up and post it on social media with pride and endorsement. If you tune into talk radio all you hear is hate, anger, and vitriol.

The great writer Marilynne Robinson talks about how we need to find the aesthetics in our discourse. She called it "the beautiful argument". I love that. I think it's time we begin to speak with more aesthetic value instead of this disgraceful tone we've seemed to embrace. We are the country that gave the world Hemingway, Whitman, Emerson, Hughes, Thoreau, Plath, and Dickinson. Former political leaders like Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln expressed and wrote their thoughts more like poetry and prose. It's time to bring that back. Maybe beautiful arguments will lead to beautiful answers and a better world for the people who truly matter most: Our children.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What You Call "Life"

I have taught music in a number of unique situations. I've worked in a true inner-city, urban school in Newark, New Jersey. I have taught in schools exclusively for children on the autistic spectrum, and where the population were all physically disabled. I have also worked in alternative education settings where the students were classified as having behavioral and/or emotional issues, and where the population was labeled "at risk". I've also worked in suburban schools where the students were classified as "typical".

When we hear the term at risk we don't think of upper middle class suburban kids. The sad part is, this is a new context in which that term is viewed. A recent study done by Arizona State psychology professor Suniya Luther was designed to zero in on inner-city at risk kids, and why they engaged in certain behaviors. While doing a comparative study between that population, and a typical suburban school, Luther discovered the suburban teens were engaging in more damaging behaviors (drugs, alcohol, internalizing problems) than those living in inner-city settings. The end result is the term at risk has become applicable to a wider range of young people.

I am not shocked by this. In the varied populations I've worked with I've seen an extraordinary amount of pressure being placed on young people. The world around them is changing at a staggering pace, and in every way possible - socially, politically, technologically, environmentally, and economically. The pressure is on them to not only go into this world, but go in and excel. This mindset has crept into every aspect of their lives - and not just academics. In upper middle classes, extra curricular activities are no longer "for fun", but are done to bolster college applications and/or earn a scholarship. Kids in our inner cities can't even fathom academic success when half their battle is getting to school, then getting home without getting beat down or shot. In addition, both populations have to navigate an adolescence made more complex by social media and a youth culture in a constant state of exposure and judgement.

The end result is an American public school population more complex than ever before. Our kids are more emotionally fragile than they've ever been. According to the CDC, children between ages 3 and 17 now suffer from attention deficit/hyper activity disorder at a rate of 6.8%. The same age group has a 3.5% rate of behavioral and conduct problems, 3.0% suffer from anxiety based issues, and 2.1% from depression. These numbers are unreal (consider that the rate of autism diagnosis in that group is 1.1%). We can sit around and shrug our shoulders - or we can take a step back and think about that in a not so distant future these young people will be out in the world trying to run it. How do you think that's going to go?

As adults we need to create a world, and systems, that encourage healthy youth. After all, our future is dependent on their well being. We seem to be in denial of that. What kind of a world are we creating for our kids...and do we care?

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people...and you can change it."
             - Steve Jobs

Friday, October 30, 2015

Sorry Kid, You Gotta Go

As I have written here before - the greatest thing about the American Public School System is that it legally has to educate every child who walks through the door. This is regardless not only of ethnicity, race, or economic background, but also ability or disability. If your child has been diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder, your district school doesn't only provide an education - it also provides the services, procedures, and protocols to ensure that your child will be educated properly. This includes, and is not limited to: speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills classes. Perhaps your child will be placed in a inclusive classroom along with an aide, so that she can observe and learn from, as well as amongst, typically developing children. Maybe she will be in a self contained classroom with aids and a specially trained teacher, because this is what the district feels is best. Your child would be evaluated at some point and perhaps moved to an inclusive room if she progresses.

The above would apply to children who may have physical disabilities as well as to those who have behavioral and emotional problems. Perhaps there are children with processing delays who need specific individualized education plans (IEP's) so they can grow and learn accordingly. The reasons our public schools do this are not only legal. Educating our kids is vital, not just to our communities, but also our society. I have seen many children with IEP's as well as varied diagnoses not only go onto productive jobs after high school, but also trade schools and community college. In other words: they become functional members of society. 

Today there's an article in the New York Times about a charter school in Brooklyn who created something called the "Got to Go" list. This was a list of students who displayed behavioral problems and rather than help them - the school threw them out. The school made some effort, but apparently got frustrated with repeated behaviors and rather than try to accommodate and educate, just let them walk out the door.

This is not uncommon in charter schools. In fact, it's policy. I know from firsthand experience. When I taught in Newark Public Schools we had many a student show up mid-way through a month or the school year who were behavioral nightmares. When these students were asked where they came from, the answer was always the same: "I was kicked out of a charter school." When people ask why do charter schools do better than public schools? the answer is easy: they can throw kids out...and they do. Rather than scuff up their almighty test scores, and invest money into special teachers and staff as well as programs and protocols, they just throw kids out. Why bother with them?

This, I believe, speaks volumes of what charter schools have come to symbolize. They don't want to educate all kids - they want to educate some. In many cases, they don't have a choice. The school is on a schedule and any student who may possibly slow that down is viewed as a nuisance. Nothing else.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: If I ran a school where I could throw kids out and only teach who I school would be better than any public school within 100 miles. The motto of any school should never be "Got to Go". It should be "Come to Learn, Stay 'til You're Done."