Sunday, December 28, 2014

The New Smart

Yes, I know it's the holiday break and students and teachers across the country are off, but really, this is just the calm before the storm. There are only two more months until the new PARCC tests are administered. Then there's a 6 to 8 week break. Then more PARCC tests will be administered.

These tests will wreak some serious havoc on school district calendars and teacher's lesson plans nationwide. They will cause anxiety across the student population and will result in hand-wringing and head-shaking amongst the parents and caregivers. In many states, the tests will determine, artificially of course, who is an effective teacher and whether schools are doing all they can to teach students the 21st century skills they'll need to succeed in college and work.

But the biggest effect of the tests is that they will redefine smart for a new generation.

Prior to the Common Core and the new tests, it was enough for smart students to be able to read, memorize, manipulate and give back facts on an examination. The educational model was based on teachers giving students information or coaching them through their learning as the local curriculum dictated. There were some major modifications in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, but most of them addressed how the information was imparted to students, such as cooperative learning, differentiated instruction and directed learning, that was based on the corporate model of education and teamwork that was then in vogue in the working world.

Even the modifications that teachers were legally required to implement to satisfy students who had classifiable learning disabilities, such as giving out notes, providing word banks, redirecting students who had trouble paying attention, or modifying test questions, were only meant to address content delivery. The skills that students needed remained the same.

That's all changed now. The new Common Core standards require that students know how to read on a more sophisticated level and to master themes rather than discrete facts. They require that students explain how they arrived at an answer, either in written or verbal form, in order to justify and support their thinking. The new standards reward students who can analyze a reading excerpt, any excerpt, and identify the main idea and bias behind the writing. If a student can't do these things, then they will not do well on the tests.

Many students who have been doing well in school will find that their skills are not valued anymore. Others who had trouble memorizing and recalling, but could spot larger themes and issues, will be rewarded. I suspect that this was the real intent of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan's unfortunate remarks about why people are opposed to the Common Core. He didn't help himself by saying that “white suburban moms who realize — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” The truth, though, is that many parents will find that their child doesn't respond well to the new standards because they ask the children to manipulate information in different ways. Students will need to be taught how to do that, and once they are, many will succeed. For the first year, though, scores will not be what some people expect them to be. And even if the PARCC tests went away tomorrow, the Common Core standards won't, so students would still need to master the new academic skills. We're not going back to the old ways. Bank on that.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Barack: Hack Attack Lacks Tact, but Raoul Is Cool

As I said before, it really doesn't feel like the holidays, and with the events of the past week I would guess that others are wondering where the spirit went. Or when it's really going to arrive.

The Sony hacking is certainly a wake-up call for anyone who doubts the severity of our online, privacy-free, abc123 password-protected culture. That a foreign government, and one that we consider to be a running joke, could inflict such pain on us and our free time is disturbing and frightening. Sony employees are rightfully feeling exposed, not to mention that, evidently, Hollywood backstabbing culture is still alive and well as evidenced by the hacked e-mails from company executives.

Honestly, though; did the creators of The Interview really have to use actual names? One of the first rules of comedy, or at least the ones I learned, was that funny comes from imagination and suggestion, rather than always bashing someone on the head with facts. I'm not in favor of naming any world leader and then killing them on film unless that's what actually happened to them. It would have been more funny if the film's creators had made up a country and a leader, given him the same hairdo, so that, yes, even American audiences would have recognized who the character was supposed to be, and done the film that way. Killing a real name? Bad form, no matter who it is.

President Obama has promised a proportional response, but I'm not sure what that means in this context. A proportional cultural action is not really possible given North Korea's film industry, which seems to consist of one person with a camera following Kim Jong-un around all day. We could also hack into their e-mail and read more messages that promise a fiery death to America. That's comedy.

And while we're speaking of hermit countries who whine over Olympic sanctions, President Obama's Cuba gambit is everything that absolutely drives the Republicans nuts about the man. Just when they think they have him humbled by the terrible results of last month's congressional elections, the president comes out and reminds everyone that the executive is an equal branch to the others and has certain powers at its disposal. And make no mistake about his announcement; this is a big deal that will reshape the hemisphere in the short term and the world in the long term.

Raul Castro can say all he wants about how Cuba is going to stay a Communist country. In 10 years he might be gone and Cuba will have a capitalist economy and, I'm thinking, democratic reform. Yes, I know that many pundits are saying that Cuba will be like Chine or Vietnam--one party states that allow their people to get wealthy while repressing them politically.

I'm, guessing otherwise. My sense is that proximity to the United States will work in freedom's favor by blunting foreign adventurers who want to gain some favor on the island. Vladimir Putin might want to play the history card, but we will never stand for that. And it's likely that we will do all we can to blunt China's influence too. In fact, our main competitors in Cuba will be other Latin American countries who already see a compatriot waking up and wanting to join the region's economic system. No, Cuba will be different. There will be growing pains, but it will be different.

Back in Congress, Obama had masterfully put the Republicans back in their Cold War box. By opposing his opening to Cuba, he's reinforced the idea that the right has no new ideas on what to do about the island and would continue the embargo for another 50 years if they could find a way to win a presidential election during that time. Senator Marco Rubio's fiery response is exactly the wrong message at a time when economic and cultural engagement are what's needed.

Besides, it wasn't that long ago when the right wing was lauding Vladimir Putin and his shirtless foreign policy that seemed to compare favorably with Obama's more composed, measured approach. That's what always backing the hare in a marathon will get you. Putin is lording over an economy that is tanking, while the United States has seen steady growth for the past six years, and now with an added bonus of rising wages. Gas prices are sharply down. The XL pipeline might become superfluous if they go any lower. The US is a major contributor to a landmark climate agreement. Things can turn around quickly in this world.

Gee, maybe it's feeling holidayish after all.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Wealth, Inequality Rules

So I'm perusing through the news and I see this article about a Pew Research study on median wealth in the United States and how the Great Recession impacted household worth.

It is a stunning indictment of our fiscal, social and moral progress as a nation. If there's anyone out there who needs a basic primer on why we are facing some months of unrest, then they need to take a look at this. What's happened is that the wealth of white households has grown to 13 times that of African-American households since the end of the recession. In 2010, the gap was 8 times the wealth. For Hispanic households, the gap between their wealth and whites grew to 10 times the wealth, from 9 times in 2010.

In plain numbers, the results are even more shocking. In 2013, the median net worth of white households, which includes real estate, savings, stocks, bonds, etc., was $141,900, while that of African-Americans was $11,000, and the Hispanic household average was $13,700.

Linger over those numbers. How is it that we can address any kind of racial, ethnic or economic tensions when large groups of people in the United States have so little and fewer opportunities than whites to avail themselves of large parts of American society? These numbers are not well-publicized at all, but they need to be. Send them around social media. Put them on a poster. Talk to your friends.

But do something.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is It Just Me?

Is it just me, or does it still not feel like the holidays yet? Perhaps the warmish, wet weather we've been having here in the Northeast is partly to blame, or maybe it's that the calendar has jammed the buying season into one less week this year because of a late Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, Chanukah, for once, is neither early nor late, which is rare for a Jewish holiday, but I think there's something more than this going on in the country that's partly clouding the season.

We have other things on our minds. Ferguson. Staten Island. ISIS. Oil prices. Wages. Equality issues relating to gender, age, sexual preference and orientation. Supreme Court arguments over worker disability rights and whether someone can post noxious, threatening dreck on Facebook, call it rap, and never mind the effect on the intended target. Even sports won't let us relax and enjoy, what with players being suspended, unsuspended, arrested, concussed and, heaven forbid, involved in some of the aforementioned social issues. Why can't they just me like Mike and play the game?

It seems as if the country is a bit more serious than normal this holiday season, weighing the price of our freedoms against the responsibilities that come with them. We're looking at race and wondering why we still have problems and why whites and African-Americans still have such differing perspectives on how they are treated by police, the courts, storekeepers and mall security. We're looking at income inequality and wondering why companies that make billions can't lead by example and pay workers what they are worth, which is a wage that allows them to live a decent life. We're looking at who is an American and how we can make sure that people who live here and contribute to their families and communities can stay here without the fear that the government is going to deport them because of a long-ago action. In short, we're looking at justice and trying to make sure that everyone gets it because more than any other freedom afforded us, justice must be applied equally at all times.

In the end, I think this makes us stronger, and makes the season of giving that much more important. When we discuss, protest and even engage in some civil disobedience, we are reminded that we have given ourselves the greatest gifts of all: to live in a free society where we can air our concerns and make others realize that many groups in the United States are uncomfortable and unwealthy and insecure, and that each of us is responsible to make sure that every citizen is safe. That way, we can give other gifts, the material ones, knowing that we have done our part to make this a better country. The holidays we are about to celebrate are religious, but we need to remember that our national religion is democracy, and as such, we must all practice it.

So although it might not feel like the holidays just yet, I'm a little more optimistic that this season will see us do more good for ourselves and our neighbors.

Is it just me?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest