The Riff

Education Roundup: More Segregation, Science Fails, and the State of the Union

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:00 PM EST

[UPDATEBlackAmericaWeb.com reports that Kelley Williams-Bolar will get to keep her public school assistant job, despite having two felonies on her record. Meanwhile, bloggers are asking whether Williams-Bolar is the "Rosa Parks" of education and a Change.org petition is demanding that Gov. John Kasich pardon her. What did Kelley do? Read on.] 

  • Would you lie to get your kids into a better school? Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar did, and was jailed for nine days for using a false address to send her two daughters to a better school. Colorlines and HuffPo sum up the racist undertones of Kelley's case, and the public outrage that's resulted.
  • Also sparking some outrage is McCaskey East High School in Pennsylvania, which since mid-December, has segregated students by race and gender to boost academic results, according to Education News. The separation occurs for six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month and, it only applies to black students.
  • Those nationally-lauded New York City charter schools are spending more than public schools, receiving $10,000 per student from private donors, but they’re not getting better performance results, according to a study by the National Education Policy Center.
  • Hey, here's one reason why US students aren't learning science at internationally competitive rates: only 28 percent teachers in the US teach evolutionary biology in their classrooms, MoJo's Julia Whitty reported.
  • In his State of the Union speech this week, Obama devoted eight minutes to education, more than doubling the amount of air time US schools received last year. The US Department of Education's transcript of those minutes are here. Education Week analyzed what the edu-proposals Obama mentioned actually mean, while Eduflack's Patrick Riccards called the speech a "Chinese menu of education issues" that left average folks still scratching their heads about what to do to improve education. And author, blogger, and educator Diane Ravitch called out Obama’s plan to replace No Child Left Behind with a Race to the Top approach. Both programs, Ravitch says, miss the mark by focusing solely on reading and math test scores to evaluate what students know.
  • The president definitely got it right when he said, "The quality of our math and science lag behind many nations." On Tuesday, the Nation's Report Card on science dropped, and while 29 percent of white high school seniors scored below national basic proficiency, 71 percent of black students fell short. The reason? Check out The Hechinger Report's excellent investigation on the need for science education reforms. Here's a taste: No Child Left Behind left science behind by threatening to withhold funding from schools if only math and reading scores didn't improve. Also, US students are taught to memorize facts while international students learn foundational concepts.

 

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Closing the Achievement Gap, One 'A' at a Time

| Fri Jan. 28, 2011 2:00 PM EST

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 all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: When a kid suddenly pulls up his shirt to show you scars from a gang-related stabbing, what do you say?]

Early Friday morning Darrell* cracks open the classroom door for a second time here at Mission High. Darrell's nervous. He's been making progress and getting steady B's lately in Robert Roth's Honors History class, but today there's an hour and a half long history test. He's arranged to spend extra time with Mr. Roth this morning reviewing the material.

"Hi Darrell! I'm ready for you," says Roth, who hasn't yet had breakfast or coffee. Darrell nods and takes off his music headphones as he enters the room. Dressed in a Mission High T-shirt, he towers over his teacher. He takes his usual spot in the back of the class, gets his notebook out of the backpack, and looks for the right page.

"OK, what's the Monroe Doctrine?" Roth begins. "The US policy in early 19th century that established, hmm ... Latin America as its sphere of influence," Darrell responds in a calm voice. "That's exactly right!" Roth responds and smiles at Darrell. They keep going. "Who was Lili'uokalani?" asks Roth. "The Queen of Hawaii that was overthrown at the end of 19th century," Darrell replies. "You are going to ace this test!" Roth tells Darrell after an intense 15-minute drill.

The bell goes off and about 26 students shuffle into class. They pass by a white dry-erase board where Roth has written in large, blue letters: "There will be an essay. I didn't want it, but an evil spirit took control of me and made me do it!" As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

As students take their seats, I realize that this is the most racially integrated class I've seen so far at Mission High.

Mikesha, a young student I met in Mr. Hankle's class last year, comes in with tears in her eyes. Roth puts his hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?" he asks. "Do you want to go to the Wellness Center?" Mikesha wipes tears from her eyes. "No. I'm here today to take the test," she says. Roth walks Mikesha to her desk.

"Any last-minute review questions?" Roth asks, as he passes out the tests. "Why was the crushing of the Philippines so brutal?" one student asks. "Great question! Anyone in the class wants to tackle that?" Roth asks. Many hands go up. "Remember: don't summarize, analyze," Roth reminds students, as the testing clock starts ticking. Students hunch over their papers; quiet scribbling takes over the room for a while.

Then the ear-piercing screech of an ambulance siren invades the room. A student next to me calmly stretches his wrists. A young man gets out of his chair, stretches out his slender frame, and walks over to the electric pencil sharpener. The sound of the pencil sharpener blocks out the siren, for a moment.

Vana has a question and raises her hand. Roth walks over and they talk in a low voice for a while. Jaime is scribbling something on the back of his classmate's chair. Roth spots him and walks over to him next. "Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up," Roth whispers into my ear. "I just have to work hard not to intervene too much. Not to mess it up."

"Test taking is a tenuous process. Students can get stuck on little concepts or the spelling of a complicated word. If you completely disengage, they trip and fall, and many don't get up."

Another ambulance flies down the street. Mikesha drums her pink-colored nails against the wooden desk, then lowers her head and keeps writing.

Vana finishes first, and proudly walks over to Roth with her test. "Congratulations," he says, as he staples the pages together. Vana is standing at the front, behind Roth's desk, quietly dancing and beaming at the other students.

The bell rings an end to this hour-and-a-half-long test. Some students get up and hand their tests to Vana to staple. The sound of quiet scribbling speeds up. "Mr. Roth, how do you spell Guantanamo?" Mikesha asks. Roth writes it on the board. A student gets out of his desk and jumps around in a quiet celebratory dance. "Mr. Roth, you need to make this test shorter next time," he says as he drops off his test.

"Will you have to grade these all weekend?" Vana asks. Roth responds. "I know! That's what I'm freaking out about right now," he says.

Twenty minutes past the bell, there are two students still left in the class scribbling furiously, occasionall shaking out their wrists. Roth takes a third bite from his morning bagel. "Mr. Roth! I wrote two pages for an essay and now I don't have time to conclude," Marco says, looking stressed out. "I often worry that I don't know enough, and so I write as much as possible to make up for that," he explains. "That's interesting," Roth says, as he make a note of that at the back of Marco's test. "That's OK. Let's talk about that soon."

Marco leaves class with his right hand raised in a salute. Darrell is the last student left in the room. "Can I have another piece of paper?" he asks Roth. "Darrell is going for the world record this time!" Roth tells me. "I think I'll do pretty well on this one," Darrell says, with a deadpan look on his face, and keeps writing.

*All student names are changed. P.S. Darrell got an A- on this test.

Zaire Paige and Others Who Roughed Their Way to Hollywood

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 3:00 AM EST

In Hollywood, it takes a gangster to play a gangster. Zaire Paige, the 21-year-old who recently scored a role alongside Richard Gere and Don Cheadle in the new-release Brooklyn's Finest, hung out with Crips members during his adolescent days in Brownsville—New York City's "most murderous" neighborhood. Paige auditioned for the role in 2008 at the urging of a friend who was hired to consult on the film's "street authenticity," as the Village Voice reports. Director Antoine Fuqua was sold immediately. "He is a kid who obviously comes from a violent world...He just fit the bill," Fuqua later said of Paige. "He had no fear in his eyes."

Bryan Fischer, Basketball Analyst

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 1:00 PM EST

American Family Association issues director Bryan Fischer is what we in the blogging business like to call a "generalist." In just the last year, he's called for the public stoning of a killer whale, labeled grizzly bears an existential threat to America, warned that the Congressional Medal of Honor has been "feminized," and suggested that all Muslims be deported. Take any topic, no matter how remote, and Fischer will manage to find a hidden message of impending doom.

Now, in what amounts to a stay of execution for America's wildlife, Fischer has broken his lengthy silence on the subject of Utah high school girls basketball. Last week, Christian Heritage Academy edged West Ridge (a school for at-risk youth), 108-3, prompting some folks to suggest, somewhat delicately, that a 105-point victory might be a little much. Bryan Fischer is not one of those people, and he has dedicated an entire column to making his case.

As Fischer explained, "If it's a choice between grizzlies and humans, the grizzlies have got to go" running up the score is the Christian thing to do. "[I]t's an insult to an opponent not to give your best effort just because you're sitting on a huge lead. Your opponents deserve the respect of facing the best you have to offer, and it's up to them to rise to the challenge." Christian Heritage, Fischer says, "should be praised not condemned."

So there you go: Bryan Fischer has weighed in. And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming about how anti-discrimination laws turn housing complexes into "hunting grounds" for gay people.

Compton's "Parent-Trigger" Update: Read the Compton School District's Letter to Parents

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 9:33 PM EST

Last night, I asked Parent Revolution to send me a copy of the letter that the Compton Unified School District mailed out to parents of students at McKinley Elementary School. Compton Unified printed the letters on Wednesday, Jan. 19th, and sent them to parents who requested that this chronically low-performing school be turned into a charter:

"As part of the District's responsibility to evaluate the Petition, we ask that you come to McKinley Elementary School on January 26 or 27, 2011, between the hours of 7:30am-9am or 3pm-6pm (on either date) to sign a form verifying your signature on the Petition. Please make sure to bring photo identification (such as a California driver's license) as you will be asked to show identification before being provided a signature verification form."

(See full letter below.)

Why such extremely narrow window of time? The Compton District officials know that most Compton residents are low-income parents, often working two jobs. Do they open their mail every day? I don't. Will parents be able to get time off from work on such short notice? I can't. Not to mention that the district requests that all parents come with photo IDs, which will surely be an issue for some undocumented parents in this predominantly Latino school.

Then the letter says that the signatures of no-shows will be disqualified.

This gives me serious pause. I've been working with the San Francisco Unified District since November, where I report on a high school with test scores similar to McKinley's, and I haven't seen anything like this in SF.

To be fair: Parent Revolution doesn't seem like a fair player in this political fight either. The signature gathering process was done under the radar; Louis Freedberg over at California Watch rightfully calls it a "stealth campaign." The district, the school, and even McKinley's PTA didn't know anything about it in advance. As state PTA president Jo Loss told California Watch, the Parent Revolution's petition gave parents only one option: to turn this school into a charter, even though the law provides three other choices.

If nothing else, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Compton District's extremely narrow window for verifying signatures of this most controversial and important petition in education reform was unprofessional at best, deliberate at worst. Ron Suazo, Compton School District spokesperson, didn't want to comment on the phone when I called this morning. He told me he'll email me the official response by the district explaining their rationale later today. I'll post it as soon as it comes in, but it's 6:30 pm PST and so far, nothing.

[Update on Jan. 27: Good news for parents who signed the petition, after two days of calling and emailing by MoJo, the Compton Unified sent in a statement from Acting Superintendent Karen Frison:

"We understand McKinley parents/guardians may not be able to attend our signature verification process, so we will offer a make-up date the following week, and we will also contact them if they have been unable to meet with us. The district is open to developing other ways for them to participate in an effort to accommodate their work schedules. The signature verification process is designed to protect the voice of McKinley's families, regardless of their position on the parent trigger law."]

Read the Compton Unified School District letter to parents:

Compton's "Parent Trigger" Education Fight Heats Up

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 3:27 PM EST

Looks like the "parent-trigger law" debate is heating up between Compton' pro-charter parents and the Compton Unified School District.

If you haven't been following the news out of Compton, last month I blogged about how parents of kids attending LA's public McKinley Elementary School are trying something new: Shutting down the chronically struggling institution and demanding that it be replaced by a charter school. And yes, they can do that—thanks to a new parental option called the "parent-trigger" law, which allows parents to force big changes at the state's lowest-performing schools, if they can gather signatures from 51 percent of the parents whose kids attend a failing school. McKinley parents and advocates gathered the signatures they needed, but now Compton Unified wants them verified. Last month, there were some reports of alleged intimidation tactics while these signatures where gathered.

A press release I received says that McKinley parents are meeting right now to decide their next steps:

"Every parent who wants change at McKinley must now show up at the school on either Wednesday or Thursday of next week, endure a mysterious five-minute interview with district employees, and declare their support in this interview for change. In addition, they must present photo identification at this interview, a requirement that even supersedes the requirements to participate in state and federal elections in California and would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on a community of people of color and immigrants. ... Any parent who is unable or unwilling to complete this process for any reason—such as being sick or unable to get out of work on such short notice—will no longer be able to count towards the 61% of parents who have demanded change under the Parent Trigger law, regardless of whether they have already met the legal requirements to do so under the Parent Trigger and the State Board."

LA Weekly reporter Patrick Range McDonald has been following this case, and will post an update when he returns from the meeting. Here's what he blogged before he ran off to the press conference:

"President Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan backed the Parent Trigger effort in Compton, but as things have gotten more and more tense, the feds have been publicly missing in action .... despite the fact that Compton parents have filed complaints with the feds.

Governor Jerry Brown has also been nowhere to be found, although Compton Unified officials are undertaking questionable tactics that could undermine a state law. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has been absent, too.

Since state and federal politicians seem unwilling to ensure that Compton Unified authorities abide by the law, maybe former President Jimmy Carter, who's been known to observe democratic elections in various parts of the world, needs to come into town and play sheriff."

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Sam Cooke's Wild Side

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 11:36 AM EST

Sam Cooke
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
RCA

Eighty years ago last Saturday, Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He started out as a gospel singer, and when he switched to recording secular music his smooth style made him an instant success. In the short 33 years before he was killed by a motel manager in Los Angeles, California, he wrote and recorded 29 Top 40 soul hits. In 2008, Rolling Stone ranked his voice as the fourth-greatest of all time, behind only Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley. But Cooke didn't always stick to the polished sound that made him famous. As his often-overlooked album Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 reveals, there were two very different sides to Mr. Soul.

RJD2 is Not Guilty

| Mon Jan. 24, 2011 6:30 AM EST

On stage, Ramble John Krohn (a.k.a. RJD2) has an ability to entrance his audience into a sea of synchronized hand-waves and head-bopping. The vinyl-scratching, mass-Tweeting, Ohio-raised DJ started spinning in 1993, when he decided to buy a pair of turntables from a friend. He's since produced 20 albums, 28 singles, and dozens of other collaborations, mix tapes, and remixed tracks.

We recently caught up with Krohn, who abides by the music-making philosophy of not giving "a s*** as long as it sounds hot." He fuses explosive elements from hip-hop, brass-band, and metal rock with soul-funk and electronica, churning bad-ass beats that make you want to jump into a 1970s high-speed car chase. He's even sampled sounds from KFC-commercials. His loyal following of hip-hopping/skateboarding/hoop-shooting/plaid-wearing crowds love him anyway, as do commercial heavyweights like the NBA, Levi's, Adidas, and the TV series CSI-NY, all of which have featured his songs. A preview of his latest EP, "The Glow" remixes, is available here.

Mother Jones: What’s your favorite recent release in your genre?

Ramble John Krohn: This is a bit slippery, as I'm not sure what genre I belong in, but I guess I'd say Big Boi's album [Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty] at the moment. It's somewhere between a weirdo funk record, a hip-hop record, and an electro record. I absolutely love it. 

The Onion News Network: Cable News Gone Rogue

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 5:39 PM EST

Does the world need another inane, dubiously sourced, and paranoid cable news channel? Yes, please! In what began as occasional fake news riffs online, the Onion News Network promises “9 billion viewers across 811 countries, and cameras watching over 80% of the world’s population.” The show premieres tonight on IFC as a half-hour weekly show, promising to be just as salacious as its cable companions. The show’s main vehicle is the “FactZone,” a fake real-news show that’s a mashup of Nancy Grace, Stephen Colbert, and Fox-News fearmongering all rolled up into a laser-packed collection of slick graphics and manufactured mayhem. In one episode pundits debate the merits of Kim Jong Il’s proposition to exchange nukes for a starring role in the next Batman (“risky…but we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that Kim Jong Il could be fantastic as Batman”), and a political analyst talks about presidential hopeful Sarah Palin’s newly released Choose Your Own Adventure book where “she could change the drinking age to 14, annex Mexico, or…”


When did cable news shows become a parody of themselves? The Onion's foray into makeup under the hot lights suggests that Fox, CNN, and friends jumped that shark long ago; The Onion's just taking the joke to a new satirical high. The show is sensational, insane to the point of hilarious, and totally full of malarkey, in other words, classic Onion. From its focus on dumb news (missing tire, found!), to entertainment plugs (Suri Cruise’s time-traveling kidnappers), to fear-based reporting (most everything else), ONN can break the news with the best of them. And viewers know what they're in for, nothing but untruths, no foolin'. How refreshing!

Education Roundup: Armed Teachers?

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 6:00 AM EST

This week's roundup is brought to you by the buzzword "social capital." Click here to learn what it really means.

Guns in Los Angeles schools permeated education news this week. Why? Well, first two students were shot in an LA classroom after a gun discharged in a third student's backpack. Then, in a separate incident, several LA schools were put on lockdown after an unknown assailant shot a police officer near a local high school.

Would armed teachers help keep schools safe from shootings? One Nebraska senator thinks so, and introduced a bill this week to allow school administrators, teachers, and counselors to carry concealed handguns in schools. Click here for Huffington Post Education's take on the bill, or find out how teachers and parents responded in Education Week's forum.

Speaking of school shootings, MoJo education blogger Kristina Rizga reports this week on Natalie, a new "star" Mission High student who says she got kicked out of her previous school for botching a writing assignment related to a school shooting death. It's a gripping dispatch; don't miss it.

More news:

  1. A Florida state legislator filed a bill requiring teachers to grade parents on their school involvement Orlando Sentinel reports.
  2. Our failing educational system is botching national security, the San Diego Union-Tribune opines, citing The Education Trust's report that one in four high school graduates failed the military's basic exam for math, reading, and problem-solving skills. 
  3. US News & World Report and the National Council on Teacher Quality announced that they're grading the quality of teacher training programs that educate and produce more than 200,000 teachers every year. The first-ever review will be published in 2012.
  4. Why does it take more than 100 days to removing tenured teachers accused of crimes or malfeasance? It shouldn't, according to a proposal funded by the American Federation of Teachers (PDF). Education Week has more details.
  5. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized for schools chancellor Cathie Black's "joke" that birth control would solve school overcrowding, reports HuffPo.

Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow our education reporter on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.