Tag Archives: New York City

Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.

 

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Machiavelli’s advice to Mayor DeBlasio on his recent education defeat

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – The Prince, Chapter 6, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

How does a state function when its prince has a mountain of moral and ethical rectitude and not an ounce of political sense?

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio learned this lesson the hard way this Friday, as the far more politically adept princes of Albany reached a bipartisan budget deal that slapped the mayor in the face.

Earlier, DeBlasio acted on a campaign promise to put a leash on the charter movement in New York; a movement run rampant under his predecessor.  This was following his earlier push to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-kindergrarten programs for all city children.   In the latter, DeBlasio went at odds with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who introduced his own Pre-K program into the state budget that didn’t require additional tax revenue.  At any rate, DeBlasio would get what he wanted, albeit through more capitalist means.

Then he decided to get personal—and stupid.

Blindsiding just about everyone, the mayor on February 27 announced the closing of three charter schools.  The three were part of about 12 that were approved in a frenzy of activity in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, of which two were in the Success Academy network run by former city councilwoman and frequent education critic Eva Moskowitz.  DeBlasio made a point of singling out Moskowitz during his campaign, making her the poster child of everything wrong with education reform and the charter movement.

In the wake of the decision, Moskowitz staged a rally in Albany with the support of the Governor, an act that crowned her with legitimacy that DeBlasio wished he had.  The Albany minions quickly moved to silence the new mayor’s power by creating a budget deal that not only forces the city to provide space for charter schools, but also orders it to pay rent for the private building that house charters.

Andrew Cuomo comes off as the savior of New York schoolchildren, Eva Moskowitz as the Virgin Mary, and Bill DeBlasio as the demon out to unravel the whole sanctified process.

DeBlasio did not lose because he didn’t have right on his side.  He lost because he didn’t have enough political might to buttress his right.

As an Italophile of the first order, the mayor obviously overlooked the writings of the foremost political philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Therefore, let’s look at DeBlasio’s failings through the pages of The Prince, the seminal work of power politics, and see where he can do better:

“…the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  – Ch. 6

DeBlasio woefully underestimated the forces that benefit from the charter school movement, from the parents to the operators to the businesses that fund them and the civic institutions that make their bureaucratic process easier.  Under Bloomberg, these people have always been at the table of power—putting them at the kids’ table requires political finesse and (dare I say) Machiavellian subterfuge.  The mayor exhibited neither.

“A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.”  Ch. 18

You have to hand it to Eva.  As much as she makes many peoples’ blood boil, she is an astute political operator.  The minute she heard of the closings, she made sure her kids (along with their parents) were ripped from school and sent straight to Albany for a rally.  The sea of cute children and weeping parents was a PR masterpiece.  The addition of the governor sealed the deal; it neutered the DeBlasio narrative of any righteous indignation.

“…the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” – Ch. 3

Andrew Cuomo, contrary to what DeBlasio might think, is not running for re-election.  He is running for the Presidency.  Thus, he doesn’t need to—nor does he have to—listen to his constituency: a people who will vote Democrat even if their candidate is caught in bed with farm animals.  Cuomo is pandering to the swing states, where the education reform movement has been in full swing and maintains a solid popularity.

So when Cuomo saw what he thought was a power grab by the mayor, his action was swift, shady and merciless.  A bipartisan deal is like two stab wounds, in the front and in the back…and you’re not sure which hurts more.

“The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.”  – Ch. 22

The mayor conducted a campaign that used commercials and live broadcasts to great effect.  Yet upon his administration, why was there not a single coherent ad campaign to “prepare the ground” in military terms?  Not a single ad, bulletin board, radio spot, etc. to whip up support.  DeBlasio’s PR machine in the campaign didn’t make a dent when confronted with the charter closings, and it speaks volumes of the people who work under the mayor.

“…it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.” – Ch. 6

This battle could have been won, and won easily.  The DeBlasio administration made the assumption that the goodwill generated from the campaign and the election still carried over into the spring.

What happened was the thaw that unleashed the fickle multitude.

DeBlasio never made a point to win the hearts and minds of his supporters.  This was largely due to going into battle without a wellspring of hate towards Eva Moskowitz in general and charters in particular.  He was haranguing the masses without the masses.

The smoking guns are there, and they are plentiful: The recent allegations that Success Academy cherry-picks students and excludes students with special needs.  The studies that show charters don’t really outperform other public schools when measured accurately.  The high rates of student and teacher turnover.  The uneven distribution of resources, funds and support.  The bully tactics used when charters share space with public schools, only to see public schools swallowed up by charter monoliths.

DeBlasio never even bothered to launch a campaign for support of charter closures.  On the other hand, campaigns funded by fronts for the Koch brothers, et. al.  sprang up all over the television dial, showing smiling, happy children of various ethnicities with teachers who were just integrated enough…all praising the value of charter schools and tearfully pleading with the mayor to not take that away.

The counter argument is there, and well documented.  So why no buildup of support?

The people need to be reminded, or “persuaded by force” in Machiavelli’s words, of the supposed evils of charter schools.   This episode shows just how fickle New Yorkers can be when it comes to the education of our children.  It took some well-placed media ops to overtake the message and the battle.

Mr. DeBlasio, you got played, plain and simple.

If you want to institute the reforms you think are necessary, learn from this debacle.  Line up your allies.  Whip up support by any means necessary.  Use the resources at your disposal.  Win the PR war.

Most importantly…be ruthless and merciless to your enemies.

The time for congenial debate and finding “common ground” is over.  The opposition doesn’t bother with such niceties, and neither should you.  Play the game, and play it well.  Play to win…at all costs.

In other words:

“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” – ch.6

By the way…I have a spare copy of The Prince on my bookshelf if you need it.

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Mad Men and the King Assassination

Some of the cast of AMC’s Mad Men.

Yesterday was that rare instance when television illuminates.

Even so, the light shone by the tube can often reflect on our own mirrors—and the image is rarely beautiful.

Mad Men has been one of my favorite programs for a long time—mostly for superficial reasons.  Sure, the series gets deep once in a while, exploring emotions or lack thereof (the latter in the case of main character Don Draper), but I just love the entire ambiance.  The clothes, the furniture, the hair, the constant booze, cigarettes and womanizing; the show does a great job romanticizing a time and place that, if you had an ounce of humanity in you, shouldn’t be celebrated at all.

Yet yesterday’s episode, which focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, gave an interesting window into how this predominantly white establishment dealt with crisis.

Let’s face it; for most of America, the 1960s was still a time of rigid social mores, gender roles, and class divisions that gave more leeway to those males who climbed higher up the food chain (a time we’re unfortunately cycling back to today).  The counter culture image of the Sixties was what America saw on TV, but not necessarily what dictated their everyday lives.

To paraphrase a famous saying, by the time the Sixties really reached middle America, it was the Seventies, and nobody cared.

It certainly seemed that way for the characters of Mad Men, as the episode opened with an advertising awards ceremony in New York.  As the advertising honchos got in their tuxedos and mink stoles, the keynote speech (given by the late Paul Newman as an endorsement to 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy) was interrupted by a shout that King was killed in Memphis.

As the episode wore on, the emotions of the principal characters ran the gamut.  Megan Draper and Peggy Olsen cried at the news.  Don and Roger Sterling stood as stoic as possible—with Roger cracking wise that he thought King’s famous eloquence would save him.  Old-money scion Pete Campbell lashes out at Harry Crane for thinking of profits on what he calls a “shameful, shameful day!”  Buxom office matron Joan Harris hugs Don’s Black secretary Dawn.  Even Don’s son Bobby starts ripping the wallpaper in frustration.

If there was one common theme in their reactions to the King assassination, it isn’t rage, regret, or even sadness—it is awkwardness.

It’s an awkwardness that captures beautifully the confused mindset of most of white America (at least north of the Mason Dixon) at the time.

The King assassination was one of the defining moments of the decade, and opened a groundswell of emotions.  The survivors of King’s movement tried to keep his legacy and activism alive as best they could.  Stokely Carmichael and others in the Black Power movement called for an end to nonviolent resistance.  Riots sprang up in overt 100 urban areas, including Washington, DC, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New York.

Again, if you didn’t live in these riot zones, all of this was seen through television.  Most of America, to be honest, really didn’t know how to react.  David Halberstam, the famous journalist, reported callous, even vicious reactions by whites, particularly in the South.  Yet most of America was too stunned…too bewildered…and definitely not sure of what the right reaction should be, especially since the wrong reaction (riots, violence) was sprawled all over the six-o’clock news.

Mad Men was not about to cover the rage and discontent in the Black community, and rightfully so.  Mad Men never has been, and never will be a show about people of color in the 1960s.  It’s about white America, the elite of white America, and how that elite changes with the rise of mass culture and mass communications.  Old-money nabobs like Roger Sterling and Bertram Cooper evolve into the self-made media elites like Don Draper.

As such, it would be extremely stilted, and rather phony, to shift focus from Madison Avenue to the streets of Harlem.  The awkward silences, the phony hugs, the confusion about what to do—all of that reflected perfectly the era and the people of the ruling class of 1960s New York, and nothing else.

Yet even with a clear view, the vista is not always pleasant.  In hindsight, we should’ve known better.

The assassination did not serve as a galvanizing force in America.   On the contrary, it showed how while the activists, intellectuals and politicians moved closer together, the rest of America was still far apart.  Not only were the differences vast, but growing every year as awareness through the media didn’t always lead to acceptance or even sympathy.  Many whites in 1968 still saw civil rights as a threat to their way of life, and not just in the South.

The awkwardness, therefore, reflected a reinforcement of social niceties that mask true intentions.  It’s difficult to know how anyone on Mad Men truly felt about civil rights: even the most liberal of characters, like Peggy Olsen, hasn’t had her worldview tested by a Black family moving next door.

So, in its own way, Mad Men was a lot more realistic about the attitudes of the 1960s than any other show.  The strange silences, stilted apologies and affected shows of affection demonstrate an establishment ( indeed, an entire population) with not only an extreme disconnect to the world around them, but a complete breakdown as the chaos enters the front door.

As our society suffered further catastrophes in the decades since, one must wonder if we ever learned how to react.

What do we do when the world comes crashing down?

Do we make the painful observations that are necessary to make our world better…or just wrap ourselves in the comfort of awkward silence?

 

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When the Pagans are Fed to Lions – can Core Knowledge survive as a NYCDOE mandate?

Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine: He swapped out one lion meat for another.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, when the conquered becomes the conqueror, the outcome is far from bloodless.

When Christianity became legal through the Edict of Milan 313 under the Roman emperor Constantine, it provided for the religious freedom of pagan faiths as well, the same faiths that worked to persecute Christians for centuries.

Yet over time, as Constantine chose to eliminate his rivals, what was a potentially newly tolerant society simply replaced one orthodoxy for another, as Christianity became THE state religion of the later empire.  Now it was the pagan’s turn to feel the whip and the fire…and no one learned anything.

In education, this cycle of persecution is alive and well—and a good group’s work could be casualty of it all.

Although it took time for me to warm to it, the Core Knowledge Foundation has really become a system I’ve embraced more and more.  Founded by former University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Core Knowledge is a philosophy that strives to improve education not just through how children learn, but on what they learn.  According to their guiding principles:

“For the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.

The persistent gap in reading achievement in U.S. schools can never be reduced until the knowledge gap is reduced. And the knowledge gap will not be reduced unless broad, rich content knowledge is integrated into the many hours devoted to language arts instruction.”

A long time ago, I did a column on Core Knowledge, critiquing its insistence on certain baskets of knowledge as artificially constricting and inherently subjective—that content needed to drive skills to find further content, and especially critical thinking.    It’s flaws notwithstanding, CK has strengths in advancing content knowledge along with language and math skills.  It is rigid, to be sure, but allows room for growth due to its ability to be woven into literacy blocks and natural progressions into subject areas that the class can pursue independent of the program.

Core Knowledge seems useful—which is why I was dismayed when I learned that New York City will be pushing for Core Knowledge to be the curriculum of grades K-2.

Maybe this was CK’s goal all along: to make their system mandatory district by district until it becomes the new dogma.  I really hope not.  History reminds us that when innovation becomes codified in law, it often loses its original intent for other, more sinister goals.

Ask Lucy Calkins, for example.

Her workshop model, designed at Teachers College, was, like Core Knowledge, considered controversial.  It stressed too much free writing.  It didn’t teach grammar effectively.  It didn’t for children to grow in their  writing, much of it stuck on writing about how children “feel.”

Then came the Bloomberg administration, and like Constantine of old, the persecuted was allowed into the palace.  With little checks from on high, Calkins and her minions had almost free rein in training teachers, designing workshops, creating massive new models of planning and learning that became (and in many cases, still is) the only accepted model of instruction in this city.

What happened?  The original model morphed into concepts, models, plans, curriculum maps—most strayed well enough from the original idea of Calkins that it became something of a joke.  Add to this the new pressure of standardized tests, and the dream of creating child prodigal writers turned into factories of learning rote models of answering essays, writing about poems and fairy tales, anything to drive up scores.

It was not designed to make kids more knowledgeable, to be sure.  But even Calkins has to admit the veneer of official sanction twisted her original goal to the ends of people less than enamored with student success.

This is my ultimate fear for Core Knowledge.

It’s a great system, and used correctly, it can be a lifesaver for kids who struggle with basic skills.  Yet the mandate can very easily pervert Dr. Hirsch’s original intention—and it’s already happening.

The alignment of Common Core-based assessments with the CK program already seems like the handwriting on the wall.  As the first results are released and the stats show less promise than expected, how will Core Knowledge address the problem?  Is it designed to address the problem?

Or worse, will CK be yoked to the Common Core as a beast of burden?

Core Knowledge is too valuable to be left to the education reformers to be slaughtered.

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This Day in History 3/11: The Great Blizzard of 1888

Now that spring is coming soon, it might serve as a reminder that the end of winter can be just as turbulent as the rest of the season.

March 11, 1888, was shaping up to be another unseasonably warm day.  It had been remarkably mild for the previous week.  Yet as the rain fell, the temperatures dropped.

By midnight of March 12, the Great Blizzard of 1888 was in full fury.  It would snow nonstop for 36 hours, finally leaving the East Coast on the 14th.  When all was said and done, parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts received 50 inches of snow, while parts of New York and New Jersey had up to 40 inches, with drifts as high as 50 feet.  48 inches dropped on Albany, 45 inches in New Haven, and 22 inches in New York, which recorded a temperature of between 6 and 9 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the storm, thanks to wind gusts that reached almost 80 miles per hour.

The blizzard had an enormous impact, even before the age of electricity.  The telegraph and telephone lines were in tatters from Montreal and the Maritime provinces of Canada to Maryland and northern Virginia.  200 ships were grounded or wrecked.  Roads and rail lines were impassible for days.  It even froze the East River in New York so solid for a time that locals walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn across it, bypassing the 5-year-old Brooklyn Bridge which was deemed impassible due to ice.

Attached is a firsthand account of the Blizzard of 1888 by Albert Hunt of Winsted, Connecticut.  Recorded in 1949, he recalls the day the storm first hit as if it were yesterday.  It’s an amazing piece of oral history-and I wish there were more from that time period.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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Petition to keep the Global History and Geography Regents as a Graduation Requirement

World map - Produced in Amsterdam First editio...

World map – Produced in Amsterdam First edition : 1689. Original size : 48.3 x 56.0 cm. Produced using copper engraving. Extremely rare set of maps, only known in one other example in the Amsterdam University. No copies in American libraries. In original hand color. Français : Carte du monde – Créée à Amsterdam Première édition : 1689. Taille originale : 48,3 x 56,0 cm. Eau forte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so late to this party that it isn’t fashionable anymore.Yet some parties are so important it’s just as important to just show up.

As it broke in April, The New York State Board of Regents is considering a measure to make the Global History and Geography Regents examination optional for graduation with a state-endorsed diploma.  Instead, students would opt to take another math or science course or another vocational course.

However, you still have to take the global history course…because it makes so much sense to take a class but not the final exam (cough, cough).

Never mind the obvious age-old agendas of gutting social studies to create automatons proficient enough in math, science and literacy to be submissive cogs in the corporate machine, yet ignorant of the workings of government, history, economics and geography so that they will be ill-equipped to participate fully in American democracy.

The motives for this one are both sinister and silly.

It is done under the guise of offering more educational options—more options at the expense of the hardest exam in the Regents system.  The Global exam had a passing rate of about 60%, the lowest in the state.

So the move is less about well-rounded educational options and more about artificially boosting graduation rates.

Even more incredible, the test is mostly a test of reading comprehension, and less of a trivia contest.  The low passing rates have little to do with the content.  It has everything to do with students with subpar reading skills—often at or below 6th grade level for 10th graders.

The irresponsibility, deviousness and outright stupidity of this move is so self evident, I won’t waste any more words on it.

Below is a petition from Change.org to try to reverse the decision.  The Board of Regents will make their final decision at their June meeting, so it’s important to sign soon.

The link is here.  Make sure your voice is heard.   Also, be sure to read Alan Singer’s column on the matter in the Huffington Post.

It’s bad enough our kids can’t find where they live on a map.  Let’s at least teach them where the rest of the world is located.

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