Monthly Archives: February 2010

Firing an Entire Faculty in Central Falls, Rhode Island

Map of Rhode Island, from The New York Times

In education, there’s often no such thing as “starting from scratch.”

When it comes to improving education, school districts often utilize well-worn methods to get progress going.  Grants are obtained.  Funding is allocated.  Time for afterschool programs and remedial support is blocked out.  Additional personnel and “experts” are added to the mix–often doing more harm than good.

Yet in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the high school plans to start from ground zero.   Things must’ve gotten downright disastrous to come to this.

On Tuesday night, citing low achievement scores and a low graduation rate of 48 percent, School Superintendant Frances Gallo got approval from the school board to fire all 100 faculty from Central Falls High School.  It was one of four options presented to Gallo from state education commissioner Deborah Gist, which included school closure.  Gallo went with the less-than-Doomsday option, and it passed 5 to 2. 

There was another earlier option on the table to increase teacher hours without monetary increases.  The teachers’ union rejected it, citing that Gallo was not negotiating in good faith. 

Thus, Gallo fired them all.   All of them.

A physical education teacher said of the vote, “They sat up there, looked us in the eye, told us we were not good enough. That’s an embarrassment.”

I wish it was someone else other than the gym teacher, but that can’t be helped.

This situation is problematic for a number of reasons. 

First of all, how bad must a school have been to fire the entire faculty?  According to the NY Times article, Central Falls was one of the six worst performing schools in Rhode Island.  Yet I know of a number of underperforming high schools in New York City that would step over their dead mother for a 48 percent graduation rate.  In terms of test scores, well, most regular readers know my opinion on that matter.

Second, is the faculty truly at fault here?  Was every teacher failing at the same rate?  If so, not only was there underperforming students academically, but also a knock-kneed, skittish football team, a drama program where kids can’t memorize their lines, an AV squad that still uses Betamax, and a band that can’t even play “Happy Birthday” without emptying spit valves and busting reeds on their clarinets.

Lastly, I really hope other school districts, such as my own, are not watching this and getting glassy eyed.  In the city, at least, the union would (I hope) prevent such drastic actions from occurring.  Yet its difficult to fight an idea, especially an idea that can rally parents and disgruntled politicians.

If any out there is from Central Falls, or knows more about this situation, please leave your comments on the Neighborhood.  It would be great to get a complete picture of the situation.

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The National Head Count: The Weird History of the US Census

Most moments in our life involve some sort of head count.

On a field trip, a teacher routinely counts heads multiple times, in fear that little Juan stuck his hand in the Ming vase.  Schoolchildren need to divvy up teams, insofar as to distribute the fat, slow kids evenly and without favoritism.  During tax time, the more fertile couples take careful accounting of their kin, labeling each “Dependent # 1, Dependent # 2…”

So it goes that countries must periodically count heads.  The census, or the accounting of the population of a given area, has existed in some form or another since antiquity.  The word comes from the Latin censere, meaning “to estimate,” thus proving that even the ancients could fudge numbers with the best AIG accountants.

Without the census, there would be no Christmas—literally.  The historical record of Christ’s birth comes due to the census ordered by Augustus around the first decade CE (“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” – Luke 2:1).  In the Roman Republic, a periodic census would calculate the population of men fit for military service.  During the imperial period, a census took place in order to assess for taxation, which is why Joseph trudged to Bethlehem with his pregnant wife.  It makes for an interesting census questionnaire:

Members of household: Joseph: husband, Mary: wife, Jesus: son of God and basis for worldwide religion.

Assets: One donkey, carpentry tools, salvation for the world (or at least those who believe in the divinity of the third member of said household).

Race/Ethnicity: White, non-Hispanic (despite Hispanic-sounding name of third member of said household).”

Like our ancient brethren, America has also resorted to a counting of heads for official purposes.  Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution stipulates a regular, periodic census to apportion Representatives to the US Congress.

“The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” – Constitution of the United States, Article 1, Section 2.

The first census was conducted in 1790 and took a while to compile, as census takers—originally court officers and marshals—went from house to house, farm to farm collecting information.  From the August start date, the official reports would not be sent to Congress until 16 months later, October 27, 1791.  The delay was largely due to states lollygagging in collecting their data: I’m looking at you, South Carolina!   The original questionnaire looked like this:

  • Name of head of family
  • Number of free white males 16 and up, including heads of families
  • Number of free white males under 16
  • Number of free white females including heads of families
  • Number of all other free persons, except Indians not taxed
  • Number of slaves

Unfortunately, this was probably in hierarchical order.  The number of slaves was important, at least 60% of that number anyway, thanks to theThree-Fifths rule that counted “all other persons” as three-fifths for purposes of representation.

1850 Census from Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln’s entry.

At first, only heads of households were listed, with aggregate numbers of family members.  By 1850, all household members were named, including slaves.  The 1850 and 1860 censuses had slave schedules attached, and got much more complicated.  The 1850 census questionnaire asked about race, sex, education, occupation, even “whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic.”  I’ll leave it to you to guess how many Americans picked that last category.

Even though the census is necessary—and participation compulsory, although the penalty for non-compliance is a joke—many Americans regard the ritual with suspicion.  Many feel the US government uses census data to punish potential lawbreakers or tax cheats.  Others feel that it’s a method of social control.

None of these has turned out to be the case, yet one instance in particular has stung this image.

According to US law, no one — neither the census takers nor any other Census Bureau employee — is permitted to reveal identifiable information about any person, household, or business.  Like all laws, however, there were ways to get around them, particularly if you’re German, Italian or especially Japanese.  Just prior to our entry into World War II, the FBI used census data to compile a Custodial Detention Index, or CDI.  The index contained information of citizens, enemy aliens and foreign nationals who were considered a threat to national security—the “race” question on the census form really helped.  The internments of Japanese Americans, and a smaller number of Germans and Italians, came thanks to the little form we fill out every ten years.

Yet our census continues, and the 2010 census will begin in a little over a month.  Make sure you fill out that form—don’t worry, it’s shorter this year than in years past.  If you forget, the census taker may visit your house and take down your information.  You probably won’t get caught, but try not to lie: refusing to cooperate is a $100.00 fine, but lying on the census is a $500.00 fine.

And for God sakes, don’t say the joke about taking the census in a Polish village.   It’s for your own good.

The following links provide more information on our once-a-decade head count:

US Census Bureau — the agency responsible for the census.  A part of the Department of Commerce, these are the guys that send out those annoying forms.

2010 US Census — provides information about the current census, how it will be administered, the questionnaire, etc.  I’m still a little peeved that the form isn’t online yet.

Census in Schools — a site for teachers and students with lesson plans, printables and other information for the classroom.

Finally, for a good laugh, here’s the Three Stooges in their 1940 film “No Census, No Feeling.” Definitely fun to watch with students–especially the reactions to the ridiculous questions that were asked.  Enjoy.

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This Day in History 2/22 – “The Miracle on Ice”; the US beats the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics

I love the Winter Olympics, much more than the summer variety. 

The sports are more dangerous, the speed more deft-defying.  Where else is the use of cowbells so encouraged?

So it is fitting that today we commemorate one of the greatest moments in our Olympic history.  In 1980, in the little hamlet of Lake Placid, New York, the Winter Games was hosted for the second time.  Ice hockey would capture the world’s attention, as the United States, a young inexperienced squad of college stars and amateur talent, faced off against the mightiest team in the world, the Soviet Union.

March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated. The only edition to run without a headline nor a caption. None was necessary.

This was more than David and Goliath.  It was more like David’s invalid brother versus Goliath and the rest of his family.  The USSR had only recently shellacked the Americans in an exhibition game.  Yet the US had a secret weapon, a tenacious coach named Herb Brooks who wouldn’t stop believing that the Soviet juggernaut could be beaten.

On February 22, 1980, the US faced the USSR.  In the post-Vietnam era, during the Iran hostage crisis and a terrible recession, it was tough to feel good about America.  Many people felt that maybe this plucky little team can pull something off.  It seemed like wishful thinking.

Two thirds of the way into the game, it sure seemed like a miracle was needed.  The team faced a deficit early in the game–3-2 at the end of the second period.  However, like it did so many times in the preliminary games, the Americans gutted it out and managed to overcome their deficit. 

By the end of the game, within the last few seconds and the score 4-3 in favor of the US, ABC commentator Al Michaels uttered a famous phrase: “Do you believe in miracles?!”  The name stuck, and the game was forever known as the “Miracle on Ice.”  It was a lone bright spot on a very dark decade, and everyone who was alive and aware knows about it.

What some people often forget about the game was that both teams spawned players that would resonate in the National Hockey League.  The Americans who made good in the NHL included Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Mark Pavelich, and Bob Suter–who is the brother of NHL veteran Gary Suter and father of current player Ryan Suter.

What’s even more suprising is the Soviet talent that made its way to this side of the Atlantic.  In 1986, Alexander Mogilny–who was not in the 1980 Olympic squad–was the first Soviet player to defect to the US to play in the NHL.  Since then a slew of players from the 1980 squad made careers in the NHL, including Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, and perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time, Vladislav Tretiak.  Although he never played in the NHL, Tretiak was a longtime goaltenders coach, tutoring the likes of Ed Belfour, Dominick Hasek and Jocelyn Thibault.

Attached is the last few minutes of that fateful game.  Explain the context of the game with your students so they can enjoy the whole experience.

Besides, where else can you watch sports during the school day?

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Winter Break Malaise

It’s rare that I have little to write about.

I should be opining at length on the contrasting attitudes towards snow across the United States.  People are too damn sensitive about the stuff.  Maybe a good dose of the Blizzard of 1888 will give them some backbone. 

 I should probably also note the quadrennial farce that is the Olympic Games, albeit the cold, wintry kind that I like (although Vancouver could use a little more winter).  There may have been a mention of the continually “awkward” event that is the two-man luge–flying down a track at 90 miles per hour riding on your partner’s testicles.

I should also mention how Presidents’ Day got stretched into Presidents’ Week.  Probably gives time for Bill Clinton to recover from another heart scare. 

Or maybe about my upcoming Cuba trip.

I’m just not in the mood.  I’m on vacation. 

Give me until next week to be a little more loquacious.  At least until I’m so bored that I may actually write something useful.

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This Day in History 2/14: “St. Valentine” is Beheaded (or not)

“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” – Lenny Bruce

Saint Valentine--we think

I’ve been really sick the past few days, so the Neighborhood’s been getting a little seedy.

Since I’m feeling better today, it’s time for us males to find someone to blame for this incessant buying spree of roses, chocolates and reservations.  That person is, of course, Saint Valentine.

Or is it?

If you thought that the overhyped lovefest that is Valentine’s Day is bad enough, consider that St. Valentine may not have even existed.  The first mention of him is in the late 5th century, and he is either a priest, an African martyr, a bishop, or whatnot.  No mention of love, hearts, Hallmark or candy.  At least not yet.

It wouldn’t be until a millenium later, in 1493, that we get a somewhat thorough account of the Saint Valentine story.  In the Nuremburg Chronicle, the story goes that Saint Valentine was active marrying Christian couples and aiding other Christians during the late 3rd century.  He is imprisoned by Claudius II, who takes a shine to him–until Valentine tries to convert the emperor.  Enraged, Claudius orders his execution.  Beaten, stoned, Valentine was finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate in Rome, where his traditional burial place lies.

So where did the holiday come from?  We don’t really know.  The common explanation is that it was derived from a pagan holiday, Lupercalia; funny how the pagans make things more convenient for us.  Another explanation was that Geoffrey Chaucer popularized the holiday in his 1382 poem Parlement of Foules.  Notice his title: now think about how we males fret and fumble over this dreck.

Whatever the explanation, we are stuck with the consequences today.

Next Valentine’s Day, give your loved one a bloody ax.  It’s far more appropriate.

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Bias or No Bias: Howard Zinn and the role of the Historian

his·to·ri·an  (hĭ-stôr’ē-ən, -stōr’-, -stŏr’-) noun. (1) A writer, student or scholar of history.  (2) One who writes or compiles a chronological record of events; a chronicler.                                                                                                                   — The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

As neat and simple as it seems, the definition of the term “historian” morphs into murky territory.

Investigator, researcher, documentarian, professor, storyteller, alarmist, revisionist—all these labels fit into the job description.

Yet when it comes to Howard Zinn, the celebrated historian who passed away recently, the role often devolves into one of two directions: either as the master editor/revisor of the historical narrative or a storyteller of an altogether different story.

Zinn tried to be both, and it is this dichotomy that intrigues me…as well as frightens me. 

Of course, the first stop is looking back at Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States.  First published in 1980, and revised in numerous additions, People’s encapsulates Zinn’s mission in history: to shatter the prevailing narrative of American history, driven by leaders, generals and “old white men” and create a new arc of historical analysis based on social and economic movements from below.

It was among the first “bottom up” histories of our country, and it still provides useful insight.

We know today that the upheaval and fluidity of American society cannot be ignored when it comes to history.  After all, Washington needed an army.  Carnegie needed workers.  Lincoln needed conscripts.  Jefferson needed concubines (just kidding).

Zinn did make sure that those left out of the prevailing narrative—the working class, minorities, immigrants, etc.—have a definite and active place in the story.  For the most part, this is completely justified.  In a democratic society, the arc of history is indeed a tug-of-war between the ruling elites from above and the working masses below.  Until the 1960’s, the elites have won out.  The historical literature of this country has largely been constrained to the wealthy, educated Caucasian elite, holding a monopoly on the written word in America. 

Zinn wanted to make sure that those who truly did the heavy lifting were not forgotten, but celebrated.  For this, all historians should be grateful.

Yet it is the subsequent direction of his work that made me fearful.

 Instead of providing an alternative arc or a complementary narrative, Zinn’s outlook has been accepted by the Left as a new orthodoxy.  His “textbook” has become required reading in classrooms throughout America.  Much of Zinn’s ideology, as well as the historical content, are taken as fact by many in the academic community, simply because it runs counter to the conservative antecedents of history.

This is the problem.  Zinn himself said that his work was not “an unbiased account.”  Yet even he sees that People’s shouldn’t be completely objective, but rather an account of those left out based on the contrarian bias.

Yet isn’t history about finding the truth, no matter how painful, and dealing with its effects?  Does one bias necessarily ameliorate another?  They’re both wrong, aren’t they?

I’ve tackled Zinn-like postulations before, in my look at Native Americans.  Take a look at this sentence from Chapter 1 of People’s:

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”

This is the kind of blanket statement that Zinn peppers throughout his text.  While it is accurate that Native Americans were mistreated by European explorers and settlers, often in horrific numbers, Zinn rarely puts any nuance to this story.  The whites are the enemy, period.

What Zinn neglected to mention were the internecine wars between the Aztecs and their subject peoples (which Cortes exploited), the recurrent—and powerful—Inca insurrections that lasted well into the 18th century, and the complicity of other tribes, such as the Mohegans, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags in the problems with the Pequots.  I guess all that doesn’t fit on a pamphlet very well.

In his zeal to make up for past wrongs, Zinn painted with such a broad brush that the detail work got lost in the rollers.   Whitey has to look bad regardless of the cost.  This makes for great propaganda, but terrible history.

A professor of mine once told me that even the great philosophers of Western civilization—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, even Marx—understood that there is no answer to that all inclusive question “What is truth?”  Yet the academic mind understands that there is still value in searching for that truth.

Howard Zinn saw a chapter of history that was clearly neglected.  This is commendable.  Yet his ideology got in the way of the history, so much so that I question whether or not Zinn was a decent historian at all.

Attached is a copy of Zinn’s seminal work from History Is a Weapon, a website that focuses on progressive revisions of history.  Please feel free to read it, or reread it, and give your opinions.

In re-reading this thing, I honestly think Zinn could spin a good yarn.  But it’s a crappy history book.


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This Day in History 2/3: “The Day the Music Died”

The Neighborhood raises their collective glasses to Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

To most of us, these names are vaguely familiar, but to earlier generations, their death signalled the end of an era.

On February 5, 1959, Valens, Holly and Richardson–all well-known rock-and-roll stars of the mid-late 1950s–boarded a Beechcraft Bonanza plane near Clear Lake, Iowa following an unscheduled stop on their tour.  Their plane lost contact with the control tower within minutes in a blinding snowstorm, and by 3:30 AM the wreckage of the plane was found.

The news devastated the music world, and signalled the close of the early rock era.  By the late 1950’s, the early rock edge had softened to more commercial acts, and the victims of the crash were considered the last vestiges of the initial energy and demeanor of rock music.  Thus ended the age of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and early Elvis–soon to be followed by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and later, fatter Elvis.

One young person who took the crash to heart was Don McLean.  In 1972, McLean released “American Pie”, his ode to the music and memories of his youth.  It is in this song that he referred to the crash as “The Day the Music Died”.  McLean himself never tried to decipher fully his own cryptic lyrics, but generations of music lovers since have tossed and turned over its meaning. 

Attached is a recording of McLean in 1972 singing his classic tune.  Enjoy.

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