The Riff

Pedro's Scars

| Fri Jan. 21, 2011 4:00 AM PST

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: "Yes, I made an aspiring astronaut cry. But then she returned the favor."]

I'm feeling drained after my conversation with Natalie, but I run into Pedro* on my way home and stop to say hi. "Do you want to see my scars?" he asks me suddenly. He puts his skateboard down on the ground before I can answer and lifts his shirt to show me two deep, long, purple scars—one near his shoulders, another near his lower back. "Gangbangers stabbed me three years ago at Dolores Park," he tells me matter-of-factly, the way I talk about my tiny knee scar. Except that my tiny scar is from falling off my bike once as a kid in a safe, Soviet neighborhood, where no one I knew ever got stabbed.

What do you say in a situation like that? What do you tell a sweet boy who knows you're a reporter, whose school you've hung around for a month, when one day he decides to pull up his shirt and show you where gangbangers stabbed him and he almost died?

When I got home, I couldn't write a word. I thought about how different the same Mission High kids look to me after a month immersed in their lives.

Natalie—with her actress looks, stylish clothes, and classroom confidence—seems like an "easy" student at first, someone on a smooth track to graduate on time and go to college. On the surface at least, there's nothing about her that signals psychological trauma to me, no reason to suspect she's been kicked out of two charter schools.

And Pedro? For a month, to me he was the guy who liked skateboarding and guitar, the one who knew the answers in class most of the time, and if he didn't know the answer, still had something witty and smart to say. Only after seeing him four times did I notice some bumps in his temperament. Some days, he just shuts down.

Or take Benton. In my first two weeks at the school, Benton was the classic "challenging" student—someone who texts in class, disrupts lessons, and doesn't listen to teachers' requests. Until I saw him last week—engaged, thoughtful, and even polite.

Later that night I had dinner with a visiting friend, an experienced investigative journalist from Latvia. I told her about Pedro's scars, Natalie's depression, Benton's favorite class. "Be careful," she warned me. "The first thing I learned in journalism school is that you're responsible for those who get attached to you. Don't get too close."

"I know," I told her, as I picked at my salad. I should be more distant, maintain neutrality. Care a little less about these students. Right? And then I lamented how much more traffic a short blog post about Jared Loughner or the latest tea-party news item gets, when other pieces like this one, this one, this one—or the one you're reading now—take days of immersive reporting to develop. As we waited for another drink, I checked my Twitter account in silence. But all I could think of was Natalie's trembling lip, as she sat alone in Ms. Bowman's class.

*Names changed.

[Next Mission High dispatch: Is Darrell going to flunk this test?]

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Does Islamophobia Increase Hate Crimes for Others?

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 4:07 PM PST

In a new interview with Katie Couric as part of her 1-hour @KatieCouric show, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that incidents targeting Muslims on on the rise in the US. "I think Islamophobia is on the rise, and I think the best way to counter it is communication," said Abdul-Jabbar. "To let people know who we are and what we believe in."

Abdul-Jabbar, who has been a public face for American Muslims at events like the Rally to Restore Sanity, is right about the lack of education surrounding Islam. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans were more confused about the faith: In July 2005, 23% of Americans said they didn't know what their opinion was of Islam, a figure which rose to 32% in 2010. The number of Americans who say they know nothing or very little about Islam (55%) remains about the same as it was in 2007. Perhaps one of the best examples of American misinformation is the increasing number (nearly 20%) of Americans who believe Obama is Muslim.

Despite these misconceptions, and the increase in blatantly anti-Muslim campaign ads, actual crimes targeting Muslims haven't gotten worse in the past few years: they've just gotten more press. The jump in anti-Muslim attacks is real, but it happened 9 years ago. According to the most recent FBI data, before 9/11 there was an average of 30 anti-Islam hate crimes a year. Right after 9/11, that number jumped 1600%, but now the yearly average is reliably 100 to 150 attacks per year. That's still more than three times the pre-9/11 average, but there are far more hate crimes against African-Americans (about 2,500/year) and Jews (around 950). The numbers of crimes against black people and Jews have also remained remarkably (some would say disappointingly) stable since 2003.

Though relatively stable, hate crimes against African-Americans rise and fall at very similar rates as crimes against Muslims, while crimes against Jews or Catholics do not. So it stands to reason, I think, that if this trend continues, increased anti-Muslim attacks would be reflected in a corresponding increase in crimes against black people, either by fostering a climate of hate or by people associating African-Americans with Islam. Who can forget this incident, when folks protesting the Park51 Islamic community center mistook an African-American WTC construction worker for a Muslim and quickly made him a focal point? Someone in the crowd tells him, "Run away, coward" and another yells "Muhammad's a pig! Muhammad's a pig!" The object of their attention, a union carpenter named Kenny, had some constructive advice for the anti-Muslim protesters. "Y'all [expletive] don't know my opinion about [expletive]," he said. "Someone want to know about me? Ask me about me."

Education Quote of the Week: Arne Duncan on No Child Left Behind

| Thu Jan. 20, 2011 1:03 PM PST

Here's Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the widely expected overhaul of the nine-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, formally called the Education Elementary and Secondary Education Law, as quoted by AP:

"Everyone I talk to really shares my sense of urgency that we have to do better for our children. We're fighting for our country here."

What's he talking about? AP reports:

"Duncan has worked with lawmakers of both parties over the past two years to lay the groundwork for a rewrite." The new law "[W]ould ease many testing requirements, put a new focus on teacher performance and the lowest-performing schools, and replace proficiency requirements with loftier goals of boosting college graduation rates."

Now that Republicans control the House and have more power in the Senate, some observers are saying that education reform might be among the few areas where Obama can accomplish something this year. That's because unlike immigration, tax reform, or climate change legislation, most Republicans actually support Obama's education reform ideas (except for tea partiers, who want the Department of Education eliminated outright).

Obama is expected to outline his education reform plans in his State of the Union speech next week. Fasten your seat belts.

Education Buzzword Explainer: What the Heck Is Social Capital?

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 12:00 PM PST

Let's face it: Jargon happens. And in education circles, it happens a lot. Curious what an education buzzword actually means? Or how a seemingly unrelated business concept migrated into discussions about kids and schools? Let MoJo's education team research it so you don't have to. We welcome buzzword suggestions in comments for our next primer: Help us decide what lingo to look at next.

This week's education buzzword: "SOCIAL CAPITAL."

What is social capital? It's not about money. At its core, social capital theory holds that "relationships matter" and that "social networks are a valuable asset." If human capital is about individual resources (i.e. the importance of skilled people), social capital is about social resources (i.e. the importance of skilled social networks). Some research also shows that increasing social capital (and trust among individuals) requires face-to-face encounters. In other words, it's not what you know...it's who you know and what they know, and possibly how often you see each other in person.

How does social capital relate to education? Simply put, schools with a lot of social capital often have an easier time getting what they need to educate students effectively, so even super teachers can't sustainably improve a school's academic outcomes without family, community, and state involvement. University of Pittsburgh professor, Carrie Leana explains:

"Why are some schools better than others?" A human capital answer would say that some schools are better because they have the best-trained teachers. A social capital answer would say there is something about the way those teachers are interacting that influences the school as a whole and results in a level of shared performance that you can't get from individuals alone.

Outside of school, social capital in the community can compensate for its absence in the family. In one case, researchers compared the drop out rates of high school sophomores. They found that kids who had one sibling, two parents, and a mother who expected them to attend college were much less likely to drop out than sophomores with four siblings, one parent, and a mother who didn't expect them to attend a university. (PDF) However, while studying social capital's relation to school drop out rates, sociologist James Coleman also found that a strong adult community could keep teens in school regardless of family situation. And even The World Bank recognizes that social capital alone can't substitute for financing education.

Where did the term "social capital" come from? The first known reference appeared in Lyda Judson Hanifan's 1916 article "The Rural School Community Center," in which he wrote that "the individual is helpless socially, if left entirely to himself." In 1988, James Coleman contributed the first solid evidence of a relationship between a school's social capital and academic drop out rates.

How can a school increase its social capital? More face-to-face interaction with parents and local community members is probably a good start. "The schools can't do it by themselves," as a South Carolina neighborhood outreach leader told The Beaufort Gazette. "That's the reality."

The Loughner Double Standard

| Wed Jan. 19, 2011 10:00 AM PST

Guest blogger Beth Winegarner writes about teens, culture, and music.

In one of a handful of videos Jared Lee Loughner posted on YouTube, a man cloaked in brown burns the American flag while Drowning Pool's "Bodies" blares in the background. As reporters pull together descriptions of the man who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, it's not surprising that many mention which band Loughner picked as his soundtrack. What is surprising is that most reporters aren't blaming Loughner's taste in music for the attack.

"Since Columbine, much has changed," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers tweeted Saturday night. "Then, the focus may have been on Jared Lee Loughner's past as a rocker. Music no longer embodies menace. Other demons/scapegoats do."

Instead, the media's focus on 22-year-old Loughner's mental instability implies a painful double-standard in how such sprees are covered. When shooters are children, cultural interests—such as video games, goth, or heavy-metal music—are cited as causal factors, which distracts from any underlying mental illness. But when mass killers reach the age of adulthood, media focus frequently turns to untreated mental-health issues. As a nation, perhaps we're just not ready to admit that some teens are in serious mental trouble.

In the hours following the Columbine High School shootings, reporters around the world lit upon the notion that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's interest in angry music and violent video games must have prompted their killing spree. And after some classmates (and teens pretending to be classmates) claimed that the shooters were Marilyn Manson fans, the musician himself became a media target. Photos of Manson decorated a new National School Safety Center-issued checklist of "danger signs" that a teen might be about to bring a gun to class. (Some danger signs: mood swings, cursing, and antisocial behavior.) Kansas Sen. Samuel Brownback even wrote a letter to Seagram's—the owner of Manson's record label—requesting that the corporation "cease and desist profiteering from peddling violence to young people," and drop the band from its roster.

Years later, after painstakingly combing through Harris' and Klebold's journals, academic and personal histories, and behavior patterns, Columbine author Dave Cullen found more likely motivations for the massacre that the teens had spent months planning. Cullen concluded that Harris was a psychopath, while Klebold was a depressive who romanticized suicidal figures.

Despite Powers' comment, the age-based reporting double standard hasn't changed drastically since 1999.

In March 2005, when 16-year-old Jeffrey James "Jeff" Weise went on a killing spree in Red Lake, Minnesota, he took nine lives and wounded five other people before killing himself. He had a history of creating disturbing art pieces—and attempting suicide at least once—but media reports focused on his black trench coat and "obsessive" interest in Horrorcore rapper Mars.

Meanwhile, when Seung-Hi Cho, 23, killed 32 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in April 2007, there was nary a mention of his hobbies or personal interests. Not only were Cho's favorite songs not blamed for his killing spree, we don't even know what they were. Instead reporters dutifully detailed Cho's mental health history, including a 2005 evaluation in which he was found "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization." 

It's not as though the Virginia Tech story changed how journalists report on mass shootings. In October of that same year, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, 18, shot and killed eight people at Jokela High School in Jokela, Finland before ending his own life. He was prescribed antidepressants in the year before the murder-suicide, but reporters still made plenty of the fact that he used KMFDM's "Stray Bullet" as background music for a YouTube video announcing his plans to attack the school. After all, it was a song Eric Harris apparently also liked. (Despite the title, the song is about ideas that cause sudden, radical shifts in belief.)

Media coverage improved slightly in 2009 after Tim Kretschmer, 17, shot and killed 15 people in southwestern Germany. While reports noted that Kretschmer was an avid player of the first-person shooter Counter Strike, one commentator also noted that "game addiction is a symptom of something wrong, and not a cause." And there was something wrong with Kretschmer—in the year before his spree he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, undergoing treatment for depression, anger, and violent urges.

Journalists include these details because readers are often hungry to know more about these boys who commit unthinkable acts of violence. But these same points can create the dangerous impression that shooters' media interests somehow led them to pull the trigger. Worse, they distract readers from the very real problems these young men faced: extreme rage, suicide attempts, and untreated mental illness.

Why, as a culture, do we insist on ignoring the mental-health issues at work in our teen population? Are we unable to admit that teens are capable of suffering the same yawning mental abysses (or, worse, the chilling sociopathy) that often fuels adult rampages?

When we hold teen and adult shooting sprees side-by-side, we can see a pattern of instability in both populations. Perhaps society could learn to intervene before troubled boys become gun-toting, politically charged conspiracy theorists.

Gov. Bentley's Christian Brotherhood

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 6:08 PM PST

All Alabamans are apparently not equal, at least not in the eyes of new governor Robert Bentley. Bentley told an audience at a Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor that he was "color-blind" but also that non-Christians were not his "brother and sister." According to the Birmingham News, Bentley told the congregation: 

''There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit... But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."

The Anti-Defamation League is the first to jump on the indignation wagon, issuing a statement reading that "It is shocking that Governor Bentley would suggest that non-Christians are not worthy of the same love and respect he professes to have for the Christian community... His comments are not only offensive, but also raise serious questions as to whether non-Christians can expect to receive equal treatment during his tenure as governor." Bentley said that he wasn't trying to offend, and his communications official said he governs all Alabamans.

I'd have to agree with the ADL that Bentley is walking a tight line between professing his faith and protelyzation. Bentley has been up front about his love of Christianity: he's known to be devout and once said that he felt he had been put in the position of Governor by divine will. He told the Birmingham News that "I don't feel obligated to anyone except the people who voted for me." So, far, though, Bentley has seemed more preoccupied with Alabama's economic condition than that of its heathen souls, something the 9% of the state's workforce that's unemployed, regardless of faith, will surely appreciate. 

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Photos: Cops Take Baby Doc Away

| Tue Jan. 18, 2011 1:20 PM PST

Earlier today, Haitian police led former strongman Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier out of his hotel in Port-au-Prince. They wouldn't say if he was under arrest, but took him to the city courthouse, where he's currently still inside. MoJo photo editor Mark Murrmann was there as Duvalier (in suit and tie) arrived at the courthouse and sent these photos. Check back here for updates or follow Mac McClelland on Twitter, where she's reporting live from the scene as protesters set tire fires and a crowd waits to find out what's happening: "We're all waiting for Baby Doc to come out the courthouse door he went in."

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier being lead into the Port-au-Prince courthouse. Photo by Mark MurrmannJean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier being led into the Port-au-Prince courthouse. Photos by Mark Murrmann

Masked police officers outside the courthouse.Masked police officers outside the hotel where Duvalier was staying.

Duvalier waves from the balcony of his hotel before being taken into custody.Duvalier waves from the balcony of his hotel before being taken into custody.

Duvalier supporters react as police take him from his hotel to the courthouse.Duvalier supporters react as police take him from his hotel to the courthouse.

As a motorcade takes Baby Doc away, supporters run alongside.As a motorcade takes Baby Doc away, supporters run alongside.A supporter holds a photo of a younger, more powerful Baby Doc.A photo of Baby Doc in happier times.

WATCH: 10 Music Videos for Martin Luther King Jr.'s B-Day

| Mon Jan. 17, 2011 4:30 AM PST

Happy Birthday, Dr. King...

1. U2, "Pride (In The Name of Love)

2. And John Legend's version of the U2 song…

3. Public Enemy, "By The Time I Get To Arizona"

4. Nina Simone, "Why (The King of Love is Dead)"

5. Ben Harper, "Like a King"

6. Queen, "One Vision"

7. UB40 "King"

8. Eddie Velez, "Let Freedom Ring"

9. Common and will.i.am. "I Have a Dream"

10. Patty Griffin, "Up To The Mountain"

And can't forget this old favorite... Pete Seeger, "We Shall Overcome"

Education Roundup: Huck Finn, Textbook Errors, and Resegregation

| Fri Jan. 14, 2011 2:00 PM PST

Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow The Miss K Files on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

What if alleged Arizona gunman Jared Loughner had sought mental health help when he first started to spiral down? MoJo education blogger Kristina Rizga explains how bureaucratic red tape and budget woes get in a troubled high-schooler's way.

Meanwhile, it could take Washington state 105 years to close the gap between black and white students in fourth grade reading, according to a 40-state report by the Center on Education Policy cited Tuesday by Education Week. On Tuesday, Education Week also posted a report by the US Government Accountability Office: Family job loss, foreclosure, and homelessness may be why 13 percent of American students transfer schools four or more times. Worse, the same transfer students frequently have lower standardized reading and math test scores and higher dropout rates. According to the GAO report, these students are also disproportionately poor and African-American.

Why are Black and Latino kids in Texas performing one to two grade levels higher than their peers in California? Washington Post columnist Kevin Huffman argues that California has a systems problem; schools and social safety nets are behind the success in Texas.

In North Carolina, a tea party-backed, largely Republican school board has voted to abolish school integration policies, WaPo reports. Daily Kos has the details on the school board's new superintendent, Brig. General Anthony Tata—a former FOX news commentator whose Facebook "likes" include Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. In an effort to stop the reassignment of thousands of black and Latino students, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has filed a civil rights complaint. 

Speaking of institutional problems, this week Tom Horne, Arizona's newly elected attorney general, officially declared that Mexican-American studies programs violate state law, The New York Times reports. Other ethnic studies courses remain untouched.

Also this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that he wants to eliminate tenure for public school teachers and install a system of five-year teacher contracts instead. Districts can then renew these contracts based on merit, reports the Wall Street Journal. Now also clamoring to join the anti-teacher tenure camp: Idaho, Ohio, and New York.

On Sunday, 60 Minutes broadcast the news that there were 140 errors in a fourth grade history book used in Virginia public schools. One example is the assertion that a number of African-Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Read The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates for a primer on why that's false.

And speaking of slavery, would you teach Mark Twain's Huck Finn in a high school level American Literature class? This week I sat down with a black English teacher at Mission High who explained why the racial epithet alone wouldn't keep the book out of his classroom.

Mother Jones' Portlandia Cameo

| Fri Jan. 14, 2011 10:53 AM PST

When I was growing up in the Portland suburbs, the city was pretty much like it is now: a bunch of hyperliterate nerds wearing flannel and Doc Martens, riding their bicycles to go read in coffeeshops because it was too freaking cold/rainy/depressing to do anything else. The city is still largely the same: when I visited for Christmas, I ate lunch in a cafe across from the city's public library, and there were more people there than at Macy's. After that I went to Powell's, the city's Jurassic Park-sized independent bookstore, which had a checkout line an hour-long. So yeah, it would be fair to say Portlanders like to read.

The new IFC television series Portlandia gets the city's reading addiction right, and a recent promo even mentioned Mother Jones. In the clip below, two Portlanders start checking each other's literary chops. It starts off easy, with the softball question: "Did you read that thing in the New Yorker last month about golf being an analogy for marriage?" Then it starts to get tougher, name-dropping McSweeney's and Mother Jones. "Did you read that thing in Mother Jones about eco-chairs and eco-ways to sit?"

I'm glad the show's writers associate Mother Jones with environmental coverage, because we do make it a priority. But eco-ways to sit? Okay, okay, we get it, you think we're a bunch of hippies. Well, I'll have you know I went to Starbucks this morning, and I felt only the briefest flash of guilt when I realized I'd forgotten my reusable ceramic travel cup. But then again, I am typing this blog post on a biodegradable corn-plastic computer powered by the sun during the day and gases from organic compost at night.

After the Mother Jones mention, the "did you read?" questions fly fast and heavy. SpinWall Street Journal? BoingBoing? Oh yeah? What about Willamette WeekSF Weekly? The Seattle Stranger? It's well worth 113 seconds. Portlandia starts January 21, but I don't know if I'll have time to watch it. I might be busy reading.