• Despite delusions of past academic grandeur, it turns out that the United States was never that great at math, reports Education Week. "The United States never led the world," states a new report by the Brookings Institute. "It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests for that matter." Brookings then delivers this crushing blow: In the First International Math Study, conducted in 1964, we ranked 11th. Out of 12.
  • Speaking of history, on Monday a South Dakota legislative panel endorsed a plan that would ban the state from using national standards for teaching the subject, reports The Daily Republic. "History is one area of study that is most subject to interpretation and debate," says the bill's main sponsor, Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton. "What is taught and what is left out in history is crucial."
  • Thought that was scary? Only 28 percent of teachers teach evolution in biology classes. And now a New Mexico bill wants to protect public school educators who teach evolution or climate change as "controversial scientific topics," Wired reports.
  • Spike Lee and Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined forces at the historically black Morehouse College to call for more black men to do the right thing by going into teaching, HuffPo reports. GOOD's Liz Dwyer asks where this pool of qualified black males is supposed to come from, considering the achievement gap.
  • Worse, less than half of the students graduating from New York public high schools are ready for college or jobs, The New York Times reported Monday. But firing NY high school principals doesn't solve that problem; apparently there aren't enough replacements. Nor are charter schools the solution, writes MoJo's Kevin Drum: New stats show that they're not magic, either. 
  • Meanwhile, if Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal gets his way, businesses in that state will start their own charter schools where they'll get to be on the school board and reserve 50 percent of the space in the classrooms to the children of their employees, Shreveport Times reports. Think Citizens United: School Edition. Yikes!
  • And remember the Pennsylvania school that’s experimenting with segregation to boost test scores for black students? NewsOne took to Harlem to ask black people how they felt about the issue.
  • So, what would the Founding Fathers say about the tea party desire to kick the federal government out of public education? HuffPo Education's Jack Jennings provides a primer on the feds' role in public ed.
  • Speaking of the DREAM Act, only an estimated 20 percent of undocumented students enroll in college. MoJo’s education reporter Kristina Rizga covers what happens when one of those students gets an invitation to fly out to Harvard University for a college interview. 
  • In other news,  Harvard University just dropped this bomb: Four year colleges aren’t for everybody. Or as, Rishawn Biddle at Dropout Nation put it: "Harvard Ed Profs to Poor and Minority Kids: You Don't Deserve College Prep Education."
  •  Former US Education Secretary Rod Paige argues Texas public school teachers should be paid based on their performance not their seniority, reports The Houston Chronicle. Edutopia agrees.
  •  Dana Goldstein covers news of Wisconsin teachers' union battle with GOP Gov. Scott Walker over tying teacher tenure and performance ratings to student test scores.
  • Meanwhile, the entire GOP has set its sights on eliminating or at least scaling back teacher tenure, Slate reports.
  • Rizga reports on the difference one star student's absence makes in a classroom. 
  • The religious right is taking aim at anti-bullying efforts in California schools (Minnesota's already been hit) by labeling events like "No Name-Calling Week" as "homosexual propaganda," Right Wing Watch reports.
  • And a Pennsylvania mother was jailed for not paying truancy fines for her son’s school attendance problems, CBS Pittsburgh reports. 
  • Finally: want President Obama to speak at your public high school? Here’s how.

Joanna Lin over at the CaliforniaWatch.org highlights the latest findings on the rise of autism among California's schools. Nationally, the rates of autism have been on the rise as well, although they vary from state to state. We still don't know what causes autism, but as Kevin Drum has argued here, and here, we do know for sure that vaccines aren't it. Meanwhile, in California, Lin writes:

"Special education students with autism in California have more than tripled in number since 2002, even as overall special education enrollment has remained relatively flat, according to an analysis of state education data.

More than 680,000 students—11 percent of all California public school students—are enrolled in special education. The number of students diagnosed with autism climbed from 17,508 in 2002 to 59,690 in 2010, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health found.

Students with autism represented 8.8 percent of all special education enrollment last year, up from 2.6 percent in 2002. Other health impairments—defined by the state as "limited strength, vitality or alertness, due to chronic or acute health problems," such as a heart condition, asthma, epilepsy or leukemia—are also on the rise, comprising 7.9 percent of disabilities among special education students.


According to French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, Chileans really know how to butcher Spanish. "Every culture has their own slang, but I think in Chile specifically we speak very bad," she says over the phone. "So we have a lot, a lot of slang."

Despite this, or maybe because of it, Tijoux has an incredible way with words. Even if listeners don't understand her Spanish, they will sense the graceful fluidity of her style, which often relies on unusual syncopations and internal rhymes. Tijoux, who spent a childhood in France after dictator Augusto Pinochet forced her parents into exile, says she's "always been fascinated by the aesthetic of words." As down-to-earth as they come, she manages to make use of quotidian conversations, minor details, and yes, plenty of "slahng" (as she pronounces it), to render the world in poetry.

Amadis Velez, a history and English teacher at Mission High School, is in the middle of a heated Spanish conversation with one of his students when I arrive. Apparently his student, Lourdes, has just received an invitation to do an interview with Harvard University. But she doesn't want to go. "How is that possible?" I ask Velez.

It turns out that Lourdes is an undocumented student—one of at least eight undocumented teens in Velez's class, and roughly 2.5 million undocumented minors in the US. She lives with the daily fear of being deported. (PDF) In San Francisco, and in this school, she can temporarily tune out that anxiety, Velez explains. In Cambridge? Maybe not. "Harvard and Stanford are the only two places I know of where undocumented students get a full ride," Velez tells me later. Will Lourdes give Harvard a chance? Velez doesn't know for sure. In fact, only an estimated 20 percent of undocumented students enroll in college. (PDF) Velez is famous at Mission High for his dedication to sending more undocumented high school seniors to college.

In today's class, as in every other class Velez teaches for seniors, he will go over important deadlines for college applications and scholarship deadlines first. But before he gets started, he has an announcement.

"Eman* got accepted to the State University of San Francisco, everyone!" he says, pointing to a student near me. Eman's wearing a blue Hijab with silver stitching around the edges and smiles shyly as the class erupts into applause and who-hoo-ing.

I recognize another student near me from choir, a teen who moved here from the Philippines a year ago, and ask her if she applied to college anywhere. "Yes! I applied to eight UC campuses, the University of San Francisco, and the University of Southern California," she tells me. She's hoping to get into USF. "I heard they have a great nursing program," she says.

Next, Velez spends 10 minutes talking to class about the Meritus College Fund, a local scholarship fund that awards $12,000 college grants to low-income students from San Francisco. "Maria, how many hours would you have to work to make this much money at your job at Hot Topic?" Velez asks. "One year," Maria says. "See! And you can make this in two hours of your work doing this application. Now, that's a really good deal," Velez says. This gets everyone's attention.

"Do they need letters of recommendations?" Jakob wonders. "Three of them," Velez responds, and Eman clasps her face in panic. "One of them can't be from your teachers." "Where am I going to get that?" Jakob looks upset. "Think of anyone who knows you really well: club advisor, coach, someone in your church." "Can my bus driver do it?" a student from the back yells out, and everyone bursts out laughing. "Jakob, he comes to the bus every day on time," Jacob responds and laughs.

As Mr. Velez finishes reviewing the application process, I think about how Velez reminds me of Manuel Gonzalez, the community college history professor who changed my life. "Manny" was my Mr. Velez when I moved to the United States from Latvia in 1994. Back then I worked full-time as a property manager and went to a community college in the evenings. By 22, I had finally saved up enough money to go to community college classes full time. "Every single one of you can transfer to a UC," Manny told us in his class almost daily. "I'll teach this class in the same format as they do at UC Berkeley, so you'll be well prepared and ready to hit the ground running when you get there."

Manny—like Velez for some of his students—was the first person in the US who said I should go to the best schools. He worked our asses off in the classes: challenged us to ask a lot of questions, defend our views in public even though most of us had thick accents and often didn't use the right words, made us rewrite our papers until he said they were as good as those at UC Berkeley. He also praised us constantly and took us out for pizza. When the time came, he helped me write my college applications and personal statements.

Suddenly Velez turns to me. "Kristina, you are an immigrant," he says. "What do you think about the rules in this country?"

"Well, the most useful advice I got from my counselor at UC Berkeley when I arrived there as a starry-eyed community college transfer is to 'Never take 'no' for an answer no matter what they tell you,'" I recall. "For every five people who say 'no,' there is one who'll say, 'yes,'" he told me. Human beings are flexible."

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Previous Mission High dispatch: What happens to class dynamics when the star student stays home?

Should you worry about your privacy when joining an online dating site? I answer this question in my latest online etiquette column, Dear @nna. Here's an excerpt:

Generally, posting information on online dating sites isn't any more worrisome than posting it on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter. Most of the same rules apply, except for a few no-brainers which I will post anyway, because I don't have very much faith in humanity. Don't be a dumbass and share your full name, your address, phone number, credit card, or anything else you wouldn't give to a stranger unless they were really hot.

Plenty of people are vague on dating sites about what they do in order to protect their identity, while still getting the points of their personality across. For instance, if you're an investment banker, you can just say "soulless." Don't list your company, obviously, and limit the number of photos you share. You have to post at least one photo though, or people will think you are Nick Nolte and then you'll never find true love....

Read the rest of my online etiquette column at SF Weekly.

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

1. The Riddle of Jimmy Carter | Nicholas Dawidoff | Rolling Stone | Feb. 3, 2011 | 63 minutes (15,821 words)

How does it feel, more than 30 years after leaving office, for your name to still be synonymous with presidential disappointment? Jimmy Carter, his wife Rosalynn, and his former aides submit to a thorough exploration of Carter's influence on the world and the presidency. It's complicated:

"When you talk with people like [former speechwriter Hendrik] Hertzberg about Carter, it's clear that they think of him as a flawed leader, but such an intelligent, determined, decent and compelling person that they want him to have been a great president. Only 44 men have been president. What was Carter missing that Lincoln and FDR possessed? At the Winter Weekend, I decide to ask Carter what he thinks are the qualities necessary to be a successful president. In the hours I spend with him over the course of five formal interviews and other casual interactions, his answer is the most revealing thing he tells me."

"At first, citing Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Carter says, 'successful service in a time of crisis.' But this isn't answering the question. 'I don't draw a distinction between personal attributes and political attributes,' he says. 'Personal attributes can be described as tenets of major religious faith. I worship the Prince of Peace. All the great religions stand for peace, justice, the alleviation of suffering, telling the truth. Those are all measures of an academic teacher, in business, the medical world.'

"He pauses. 'I'm fumbling around,' he concedes. 'I don't really know how to define it. I look from a subjective basis. Another measure of success is to get re-elected, no doubt about it.'"

See also: The 1976 Playboy Interview with Jimmy Carter

2. 'Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister' | Gerry Garibaldi | City Journal | Feb. 1, 2011 | 19 minutes (4,701 words)

Provocative, beautifully written teacher's account of the teen pregnancy problem at a Connecticut high school—and why no politician will go near it. The essay follows other recent longreads (see below) criticizing school reforms that focus too singularly on data-centric measurements like teacher performance and student testing, and ignore larger social problems.

"Here's my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch."

See also: How Billionaires Rule Our Schools (Dissent Magazine)

3. Why Reality Shows Failed on Russian TV | Peter Pomerantsev | London Review of Books | Feb. 3, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,204 words)

Programs like "The Apprentice," "Big Brother" and "Next Top Model" have been hits all around the globe—but not in Russia. Pomerantsev, who joined a production team that imported the shows for Russian audiences, quickly found out why:

"For the Russian version of 'The Apprentice,' Vladimir Potanin, a metals oligarch worth more than $10 billion, was recruited to be the boss choosing between the candidates competing for the dream job. Potanin goaded, teased and tortured the candidates as they went through increasingly difficult challenges. The show looked great, the stories and dramas all worked, but there was a problem: no one in Russia believed in the rules. The usual way to get a job in Russia is not by impressing at an interview, but by what is known as bat—'connections.'"

See also: Alex Pappademas's 2010 GQ profile of "The Situation" from MTV's "Jersey Shore"

4. Shaken-Baby Syndrome Faces New Questions in Court | Emily Bazelon | New York Times Magazine | Feb. 2, 2011 | 33 minutes (8,175 words)

Parent's worst nightmare, further complicated by new medical questions about the symptoms—and timing—of shaken-baby syndrome. When prosecuting caregivers and parents, it's no longer as simple as determining who was with the baby at the time:

"The child may be lethargic or fussy or may not eat or sleep normally for hours or days, while the subdural hemorrhage and other injuries become more serious, ending in acute crisis. This has made some doctors wary of pinpointing the timing of a child’s injury — even when they are sure that abuse occurred—lest the wrong adult take the blame. 'The police want us to time it within one to three hours,' says John Leventhal, a Yale pediatrics professor and medical director of the child-abuse programs at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. 'But sometimes we can only time it to within days.'"

More Emily Bazelon: What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? (Slate, 2010)

5. Show the Monster| Daniel Zalewski | The New Yorker | Feb. 7, 2011 | 49 minutes (12,168 words)

Hollywood can be the "Land of the Slow No," even for established directors like Guillermo del Toro. Zalewski follows del Toro's progress (and setbacks) with high-profile, creature-filled projects like "The Hobbit," "Frankenstein" and H.P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness."

"The meeting at Universal, he said, was at ten-thirty: 'I've never been this nervous going to a meeting. This invested.' He added, 'There are certain rules to dating a movie. You try to fall in love when it’s a reality, and try not to be completely head over heels on the first date. But I’m hopelessly in love with the creatures.'

"Del Toro indicated that he would not be willing to make radical adjustments to his vision. 'I don't want to make a movie called "At the Mountains of Madness." I want to make this movie. And if I cannot make this movie I'll do something else.” He paused. 'It'll be horrible.'"

See also: How Harvey Weinstein Got His Groove Back (Bryan Burrough, new Vanity Fair)

Got a favorite Longread? Share it on Twitter (#longreads) or email it: mark@longreads.com

[Update: A Los Angeles judge just issued an order temporarily restraining Compton Unified School District officials from requiring signature verification from parents of McKinley Elementary School students. The Court scheduled a hearing on Feb. 24.]

The "Parent-Trigger" saga at Compton's McKinley Elementary School continues with a new twist today. From Parent Revolution's press release:

"McKinley parents—along with pro bono lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis filed a lawsuit against Compton Unified School District for Compton Unified's illegal infringement upon the constitutional rights of McKinley parents and children.

The legal complaint against Compton Unified (Murphy et al v. Compton Unified) details not only violations of the Parent Trigger law itself, but violations of the constitutional rights of parents and children by the Compton Unified School District. Having already denied the children of McKinley their constitutional right under the California Constitution to an "equitable public education," the school district has subsequently infringed on the federal and state's constitutional First Amendment rights of parents to petition their government to remedy this violation of their children's rights "by crafting an onerous and burdensome process" intended not to verify their signatures, but to simply throw them out."

From the summary of the lawsuit against Compton Unified by the parents of McKinley Elementary (Murphy et al v Compton Unified School District):

"[Compton Unified has] consistently exhibited bad faith in their dealings with the Plaintiffs. CUSD refused to respond to emails, letters, and phone calls by the parent and failed to provide basic information about the verification procedure to parents until less than a week before they implemented a verification procedure."

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times editorial board came out against the current version of the "Parent-Trigger" law and some of the tactics used by Parent Revolution to organize this campaign. From their Jan. 29 editorial:

"The first parent trigger petition, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, offered an example of how the process shouldn't work. The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents' options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn't understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures. Meanwhile, the school district has set up a process for verifying the signatures that is harder on parents and more intrusive than is reasonably necessary."

I Have A Scheme

If you think that race relations in your urban hipster enclave have much improved since the 1950s, you probably haven't seen Clybourne Park, a hilarious, devastatingly spot-on play by Bruce Norris that has been making audiences squirm in New York, London, and Washington, DC. At moments during Clybourne Park's West Coast premiere in San Francisco last week, some people laughed and others scowled, as one would expect from a play that mercilessly shreds Obama-era pretensions to social enlightenment.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Moscone at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Clybourne Park juxtaposes two scenes in the same Chicago townhouse across the span of a half century. In the first, a war-scarred white family is selling the house, which looks like the set to a cheery postwar sitcom, to an African-American couple over the objections of the all-white neighborhood's Rotarian booster (theater buffs will notice this as a re-imagining of "A Raisin in the Sun," a famous 1959 play about race). The second act shows the same house bare and mouldering as two white bobos (Steve and Lindsey), who want to replace it with a modernist tower, square off against black neighbors (Kevin and Lena), who view themselves as defenders of the neighborhood.

That's when things really get interesting. The PC blather deployed by both sides—the acknowledgements of past injustices, the oblique claims to victimization, the emphatic repetitions of "I hear you"—thinly veils the same jurassic territoriality of the '50s. A rhetorical arms race has complicated and in some ways deepened the old divisions, with matters of "taste" substituting for race and class in an an ostensibly post-racial world.  

Even the well-educated, well-off, obviously liberal San Francisco theater audience had trouble navigating these shoals at times. There were jokes about deaf people, gay people, black men, and white women that may or may not have been funny. (Why are white women like tampons? "They're both stuck up cunts!"). There was the moment when several people in the audience cheered as Steve tried to find common cause with Kevin by condemning the War in Iraq, only to learn that Kevin's minivan was plastered with three "support our troops" magnets, one for each of his relatives fighting overseas (statistically, African-Americans are overrepresented in the armed forces). But in other ways Kevin is a classic latte liberal.

Clybourne Park ends by suggesting that neither side in the gentrification wars really pays enough heed to the true nature of the history that it enshrines. I hear you, Bruce Norris. I totally hear you.

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see more of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: Will Darrell flunk this test?]

There's a spring in my step as I walk to Mission High School this morning. I can't wait to tell Natalie—the aspiring astronaut who was "kicked out" of two charter schools—that my NASA friend has agreed to meet with her and give her some college advice.

But when I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay? At least Pedro's here, I notice.

When I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay?

Bowman begins class by writing the mnemonic "EMPIRE" on a white dry-erase board for a review of the motivations behind Imperialism. Each letter of EMPIRE stands for a key concept: "E" for economic interests, "M" for military bases, "P" for patriotism and nationalism, "I" for ideology of Social Darwinism, etc.

"I want to answer the ideology question, please!" says Pedro, the sweet skateboarding kid whose T-shirt hides gang-inflicted knife scars. He has already answered the first two questions and seems to have a hard time staying still today. "Just a minute, Pedro," Bowman responds. "I want to allow others to participate in our discussion." "A body of beliefs!" Pedro yells anyway.

Pedro starts chatting with his friends in a loud voice. Bowman first offers him the choice of moving over a few seats. He refuses, promising to stop talking, but doesn't follow through. Bowman then asks Pedro to read out loud the four rules she has written near the classroom door: "Be respectful, no cross-talk, step up, and step back."

Pedro reads them out loud, then continues to joke around with his friends. Nearby, a girl is reading a Bible with a pink cover, ignoring the other students. Last week she participated in collective discussions. This week, she seems annoyed by Pedro and protests with silence. "Pedro, could you come with me for a second?" Bowman asks in a calm voice. The two walk outside the classroom for a minute. Bowman walks back in without Pedro and keeps teaching. Three minutes later, Pedro reenters the class, sits down, and starts working calmly on an exercise with the rest of the class.

As the students write in silence for a moment, it hits me: This class feels completely different from last week. It's not just Pedro's behavior. The students are still learning, but there's more tension, more cross-talk, less engagement as a group.

"Class dynamics change constantly. It's a constant work in progress."

After class I talk to Bowman; she agrees. "A part of it is not having Natalie in the class today," she muses. Since Natalie's always very engaged in class discussions, it's possible that her participation balances out Pedro's desire to be the center of attention, and other students benefit. But Bowman doesn't seem too worried. "Class dynamics change constantly," she says. "It's a constant work in progress."

I now have heard many teachers at Mission High school refer to these small, frequent cultural shifts in a classroom as little bumps. Skilled teachers feel them right away and know exactly how to smooth them out.

Speaking of pot, the charming little stoner film embedded below brings $300 worth of special effects to a plot just a tad more absurd than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Though sadly lacking in Neil Patrick Harris cameos, it's still worth a watch, if only to see what $300 will get you these days in the way of ninjas and giant robot effects. (Answer: A lot.) Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow sums it up thusly:

Lazy Teenage Superheroes is an extremely funny, extremely well-executed 13-minute rude little superhero movie, made by Michael Ashton for a mere $300. It's full of cussin', lewd speculative scenarios involving the private lives of slacker teen supes who are mostly interested in using their powers to get loaded and/or laid. And there's ninjas and herpes jokes.

Watch LTS below:

But wait: What could possibly be better than a $300 action film about superheroes who use their powers only to get high? You guessed it: Robot Bollywood. Alas, no Neil Patrick Harris in this clip either, but the lo-fi special effects are still pretty darn awesome. Watch it below:

Top image: Lazy Teenage Superheroes.