Friday, November 29, 2013

Why Common Core Will Fail

You've likely heard or read about Common Core by now. The latest in educational "fixes," promoted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governors Association, and the Obama administration, the Common Core initiative was developed "to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce." And it will fail to improve our failing schools, wasting time, resources, and money in the process.

There are lots of critics around who can explain the problems with Common Core and how the standards were developed. But I have a different issue with Common Core: it attacks the wrong problem.

I've been thinking about this for a while, but it was brought to the fore for me last week when I attended Social Innovation Summit 2013 at Stanford University. Among two days of presentations, ranging from a panel on "Unleashing Green Chemistry," to a speech from Robert Swan, OBE, Arctic Explorer, there were several that touched on innovation in education with examples that work.

Beth Schmidt was a new 10th grade English teacher who was frustrated when only 5% of her inner-city students turned in their writing assignment. The problem, she soon realized, was that the research assignment she gave them had no relevance to their lives. When she tied the assignment to their desires and interests - to their passions - 85% turned it in.

The problem wasn't that she or her students didn't have access to uniform, national curriculum standards. The problem was that the "achievement gap" between her school and successful ones in her region was a direct result the hope and opportunity gap that low-income kids face when thinking about their future.

Today, Ms. Schmidt is the founder of Wishbone, a crowdfunding site that helps low-income high school students to pursue their passions through attending extra-curricular camps and other programs, redefining their future, and opening up new opportunities.

At Roosevelt High School, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Grammy winning recording artist's foundation has partnered with College Track to give kids not only the tools to go to college, but to finish college. After-school programs combine the students' passions with practical advice and strategies to pay for school and stick with it.

According to Enrique Legaspi, Chief of Staff of the Foundation, Roosevelt has 2,600 kids, a 50% dropout rate, and only one college counselor. Contrast that to Taft High School in Woodland Hills, where I graduated from many years ago. Taft currently has 2,700 kids and a 12% dropout rate. Both schools are within the LA Unified School District. Both are in California, which already had high standards before the Common Core.

The difference was that, at least when I attended Taft, there was an expectation that we all could and would graduate, and that most of us would go on to college and have reasonably successful careers. The middle-class was the lowest rung we were expected to shoot for. Not so in Boyle Heights.

Ask the kids dropping out from either school if the lack of unified national curriculum standards was at fault. I doubt that's the reason they'll give. Lack of relevancy or hope for opportunity is far more likely. Kids in failing schools need more than a new textbook; they need someone to show them a realistic path to a good life. As said to us (via satellite), "Athletics shouldn't be the only thing that gets kids out of the ghetto."

Microsoft's TEALS program (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) puts engineer volunteers (not just from Microsoft, but other tech companies as well) into classrooms in districts that could not otherwise afford technology programs. Sometimes this is in person, but frequently they teach virtually, and so can reach places mostly forgotten by the rest of America.

At the Social Innovation Summit we saw a short video focusing on the effect the program is having in a small, rural community in Kentucky, where the TEALS volunteers are giving hope where there was none before, showing the children of coal miners the possibility of a rewarding career that does not carry the risk of black lung disease, and giving them a reason to pursue a college education. (Computer programing is not part of the Common Core, in case you were wondering.)

The examples above are from a single two-day conference. One came from a frustrated teacher starting a nonprofit organization, another from an entertainer/philanthropist giving back to his old neighborhood, and the third from a corporation concerned about training their next generation workforce.

Each very different players, with different approaches and resources, but all focusing on the individual passions of the children and creating opportunities for them to succeed. Each takes local circumstances into consideration. None of them are top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches. These are just a few of the hundreds of examples of successful programs out there.

For schools that are already succeeding in sending kids on to higher education and professional careers, Common Core is an annoyance at best, and at worst a distraction that will keep them from giving needed attention to the few students who are failing. For them, transitioning from one set of curriculum standards to another is just so much fixing what ain't broke to begin with.

For schools that have high dropout rates and low hopes for their students, Common Core may provide a temporary lift, as new grants, materials, and teacher training become available. But in the long run, this too will peter out, as it will do nothing to address the lack of economic opportunity available to low-income kids, and nothing to change either their expectations, or the expectations of those around them.

You say you want to close the achievement gap in education? Then work to close the opportunity gap in the economy. Hope requires more personal attention than just a modified curriculum.

(Note: this is cross-posted on both, my personal and work blogs, as it is relevant to the general voting public as well as nonprofit professionals.)

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Break the Window?

Just before 8 PM last night, my wife and I were returning to our car after dinner. We were parked in a lower-level, covered parking area, and I thought I heard something odd. "Do you hear something, like either a dog whimpering or maybe a baby crying?" I asked. She'd heard it too.

We waited a moment, then heard it again. We decided to walk around the parking garage to see if we could spot the origin of the odd, muffled howling.

It only took a minute or two before we came across the source: a beautiful pup in the back of a car with the windows completely sealed up. Other than the occasional howling, she didn't bark at all. Her breathing seemed okay at the time, although she had some spittle on her chin that showed she'd been panting.

What to do? Do I just smash the windows right then and there and rescue the pup? Or do I "do the right thing" and call the authorities? Which would you have done?

Seeing the memes on Facebook all summer long warning about the dangers of leaving dogs in parked cars, even for a few minutes, I would have thought I'd just smash the window. But, when real life faces you with these questions, you give the authorities a chance to do right first.

I called 911 at 8:01 PM. Seven minutes later an officer arrived. Not an actual police officer, but a community service officer in a car labeled "Volunteers in Policing." A very nice man, and concerned about the dog, he first checked all the doors to see if any would open. Shining his flashlight in the car we looked for a bowl of water or anything to identify the owner. He then radioed in the license number of the car. We learned what town he was from, and that his record was clean, but still had no way of contacting him.

He radioed in again, asking for assistance and guidance. At what point are we legally allowed, or even obligated to break in? No "real" police were available at the moment, as there was a burglary alarm going on a few blocks away, there were reports of gun shots (probably fireworks from a nearby fundraiser), and a group of teens had taken over a vacant mansion and were tweeting out about the party of the century in the next suburban enclave two miles away.

Around 8:20, my wife got animal control from the nearby major city on the line. They had somebody in the area for another call, and would be at our location as soon as possible.

While waiting I see that the pup's breathing is getting more strained and that she's drooling a little more. I informed the officer that if she faints or closes her eyes, I'll be breaking into the car. I say, "You can arrest me if you need to, but please let me save the dog first." He nods.

I think about going out to the street to look for a rock, then realize that the handle from my car jack will do nicely. I can use my t-shirt from my gym bag to wrap my hand and forearm to protect myself from broken glass. Forget waiting for the dog to pass out, I give myself a deadline of 9 PM.

Animal Control arrived at about 8:35. He has a thermometer that measures the temperature in the car at 89 degrees. He says that's "not that bad." He had an incident earlier that day where it was 115. I'm not convinced that 89 is "not that bad."

The pup has moved closer to the window, so he's now able to get the owners phone number off of her tags. He radios in to his dispatcher who places the call. We get notified a minute or two later that he's on his way.

8:56, the owner and his (girlfriend? wife?) finally arrive. He stands like an idiot for another minute while the Animal Control officer lectures him before finally opening the door. The puppy is happy to see him, but is looking to see where we've gone off to.

As the Animal Control lecture continues ("I could write you a ticket for $250...") we quietly thank the first Community Service officer and go back to our car, not to get a jack handle to break windows, but to drive home and try to rest.

I'm glad the dog will be okay, but don't trust that this idiot will not lock her up in the car without air or water again. I'm glad I didn't end the night in jail, tweeting out "Who's got bail money?" but frustrated that it took an hour to get a suffering pup rescued.

What will I do if this happens again? Will I break the window next time?

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Proposal

Enjoying the coolness of a misty day at Seascape, walking out to get the ocean breeze, I shot this photo not realizing what I'd captured till later.

In the lower right, follow the path I'm on to the little view area overlooking the beach. Sitting on the low stone wall is a beautiful young woman. In front of her, on one knee is her boyfriend. It is a moment that neither will ever forget.

I have no idea who they are. I am embarrassed that I accidentally intruded on this private moment. And yet, the beauty of it compels me to share.

She said yes. There were tears. There were kisses and hugs. He called over his friend who came running up with a camera to get the official shots.

But this photo wasn't posed. It just happened that way.

(cross-posted to cowbird)

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Restore the Fourth

This Fourth of July, I stand by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and against mass, warrantless spying on the American people by the NSA.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I join with Restore the Fourth, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and in support of their open letter to Congress, calling on them to to immediately and publicly:
  1. Enact reform this Congress to Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, the state secrets privilege, and the FISA Amendments Act to make clear that blanket surveillance of the Internet activity and phone records of any person residing in the U.S. is prohibited by law and that violations can be reviewed in adversarial proceedings before a public court;
  2. Create a special committee to investigate, report, and reveal to the public the extent of this domestic spying. This committee should create specific recommendations for legal and regulatory reform to end unconstitutional surveillance;
  3. Hold accountable those public officials who are found to be responsible for this unconstitutional surveillance.
"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Benjamin Franklin

Sunday, June 09, 2013

New Books, Old Friends

A couple of months ago I told you all about one of my oldest friends, JD Chandler, publishing his book, Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon. Well, now another old friend, Rich Samuels, has gone and put out a new book of his own, My Life at the Bottom of the Food Chain.

I'll be honest with you, Food Chain is not a book I would have picked up if it were not from an old friend. It is aimed at the "Young Adult" market, meaning teenaged kids, and it's been quite a long time since I fit that demographic. Still, I promised Rich I'd read it, so I did, and I loved it. But this is not the book review. My official review is over at Goodreads.

No, this is my blog, so it's for personal reflections. And reading a book about awkward teenaged boys written by somebody you knew years ago when you were each awkward teenage boys can stir up some memories.

Not that any of us needed to be quite so paranoid of bullies as Alexander is (the kid in the book), but still, there were some quite relatable scenes.

At one point in the book, Alexander and his friends meet at a favorite place to share massive orders of French fries. It brought back when Rich, JD, Crazy Tom, and I were taking a Super-8 film production class at the nearby University one night per week while we were still in High School. Following the class, we'd always stop at In-n-Out Burger and split a couple of orders of fries while discussing what we'd learned, and what we'd film that coming weekend.

When JD, Crazy Tom, and I started the class, and the fries tradition, we'd each take turns buying the fries. Once Rich joined the group, it seemed like it was always his turn to pay (I blame Crazy Tom for coming up with this idea). Rich never complained. A year or two ago, I finally confessed my pent-up guilt over this French fry scam to Rich. He claimed to have never noticed.

Reading Rich's book, many scenes like this came back in view. I wish somebody would have given me a book like this when I was an awkward teenager going to Junior High in a new town, trying to make some friends while navigating around the dangers. Maybe I would have learned something, been a little more comfortable within myself, and had a better time of things. Instead of just trying to scam free French fries off of nice guys like Rich.

Anyway, you can read my review of My Life at the Bottom of the Food Chain at Goodreads, or just head over to Amazon and order the darn thing already.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The little guy with the bandage on his head ...

The little guy with the bandage on his head is my oldest nephew, Andrew. The occasion was our wedding, and Andrew was the ring bearer.

The night before the wedding we had a rehearsal dinner at a rather nice restaurant with all our out-of-town guests in attendance. It was quite a party. Andrew was hanging out by the bar with his little brother, Keith, and 2nd cousin, Julian, although they all swore they weren't drinking.

A little playing around got a little out of hand, and a bar stool came toppling down onto little Andrew. Lots of blood, sirens, paramedics, and a trip to the emergency room followed.

The next morning, as we were getting set for the wedding ceremony to begin, we all sat down with Andrew and said, "It's okay. You had a rough night last night. If you don't want to carry the rings Uncle Steve will take them for you."

"No, this is important for you, Uncle Ken and Aunt Leslie. I want to do it."

It's now 17 years later. He still has a scar on his forehead. And he's getting married this Saturday.

We live in California, his wedding is in Connecticut. Because of work obligations we cannot make a real vacation of going east for the wedding. Instead, we will leave Friday morning, travel all day, and arrive at the airport in Connecticut about 1/2-an-hour before his rehearsal dinner, but we will make it. The wedding is Saturday, then we'll fly home Sunday and be back at work Monday morning.

It's a crazy trip to make: crossing country for a single day's activities. Too much travel time, too expensive, not enough time to visit with people back east. Ridiculous!

But Andrew got a life-long scar for our wedding. This is the least we could do in return, after all, it is important for him.

(This story is cross-posted to Cowbird)

Monday, April 15, 2013

I Am A Bostonian

I am a Bostonian. I don't mean that just in a general "today we're all Bostonians" way - not "Ich bin ein Bostonian" - but in a born there, in my blood, key to who I am way.

No matter how long I live elsewhere, no matter how Californian I may also be, no matter if I never step foot on Massachusetts soil again, I will always be a Bostonian.

Growing up, going to watch the Boston marathon was an annual tradition. We had our usual spot, along "heartbreak hill," where the marathon wound its way up Commonwealth Ave through Newton.

Those memories come flooding back today with news of a probable terrorist attack killing at least two and injuring dozens more at the marathon's finish line.

There is now only speculation as to who and why this happened. I have my own theories, based on my own ideas of what the greatest threats are to America today. But I'll keep them to myself until actual facts are available.

Right now, all I have to say is, "I am a Bostonian." Hopefully we all are.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Ear Worms & Guilty Pleasures

It started a couple of weeks ago - March 21st to be exact - with the Guilty Pleasures episode of Glee. Yes, I sometimes watch Glee, and I suppose that is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but this post is not about Glee. I watch it, I admit it, get over it.

Anyway, the theme of the episode was that each kid would perform a song from an artist they were embarrassed to enjoy; their guilty pleasure. Blaine (Darren Criss)'s choice was to perform Phil Collins' Against All Odds. It was a decent cover, and the rare live performance rather than lip-synched production number. And, I had to agree with young Blaine, it's about time to get over being sick of how overplayed Phil Collins became, he still wrote some damn good songs and deserves our respect.

Yes, he created a lot of meaningless pop songs that all blended together into one horn-infused mess after a while. But he also maintained Genesis following the departure of Peter Gabriel, and while it wasn't the same, they made records worthy of the Genesis name (Mama and Home by the Sea from 1983's self-titled Genesis LP immediately spring to mind). Beyond the silly pop songs, his solo hits also included the undeniably classic In the Air Tonight.

Listening to Blaine sing Against All Odds, I tried to remember if I appreciated how great a song it was at the time. It may have been just after the saturation point had been reached and Phil was no longer cool. And, as a movie theme, I may not have taken the song as seriously as I should have. But, really, I don't fully remember.

What I do recall is a time about a year or two before, on December 19, 1982, when Phil embarked on his first solo tour of the USA, and I attended the show at Perkins Palace in Pasadena. His first solo LP, Face Value, had done well (featuring In The Air Tonight), and his second LP, Hello, I Must Be Going!, had just been released a few weeks earlier. I was working at the Music Plus record store on Vine Street, in Hollywood, and got the tickets only hours before the show from the Atlantic Records rep.

Two specific things I remember about that show. First, was standing in line before the show directly behind Tony Dow. Second was the excitement at the opening drum beat of I Don't Care Anymore. It was a great show that was captured on video and for radio broadcast on the King Biscuit Flower Hour.

So, anyway, yes, watching Glee a couple of weeks ago, I had to admit that, yes, Phil rocks, and that Against All Odds was, and still is, a brilliant song. But then, the next morning, I had it stuck in my head. Checking my email in the morning, "How can I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace?" Standing in the shower, "Oh, so take a look at me now-ow..."

And it continued the next day, and the next, and the next. It was 1985 all over - I'd been Phil Collinized again! Yesterday I thought it was finally gone, but it's back this morning.

This has to be one of the longest-lasting ear worms I've ever experienced. And that's the thing about Phil Collins' songs; they are infectious. The good ones along with the bad ones. Whether you like them or not, you cannot get them out of your head. "And there's nothing left here to remind me, just the memory of your face," and the endless loop of this song in my brain.

I'm just thankful now that Blaine did not choose Sussudio.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Murder and Mayhem in Portland

One of my oldest and best friends, JD Chandler, has just published his latest book, Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon (History Press 2013), a true crime history book chronicling 100 years of local murders. His theory is that one can learn about a region's social, political, and cultural history by making a study of its murders, and after reading the book, I believe he's right.

You can read my full review over on GoodReads, but on this blog I just wanted to put in a more personal plug. I've known JD since about 1974 or '75, and we were creative partners back in our Super-8 movie-making days.

Someday I'll get around to converting some of those to digital, but for now you'll have to settle for our most recent collaboration, a video I shot with JD in the summer of 2011 when he took Leslie and I around some of the sites of Portland's more grizzly murders (though not the same ones detailed in the new book):

Anyway, if you're interested in old west history, murder, political corruption, perversion, or Portland, you may want to check out Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon.

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