Sunday, January 06, 2008

Why No Child Left Behind Should Be Scrapped by Anthony Cody

America’s schools have fallen into a giant trap. This trap is epic in its dimensions, because the people capable of leading us out of it have been silenced, and the initiative that could help us is being systematically squashed.Policymakers and the public have been seduced by a simple formulation. No Child Left Behind posits that we have troubled schools because they have not been accountable. If we make teachers and schools pay a price for the failure of their students, they will bring those students up to speed.
But schools are NOT the only factor determining student success. Urban neighborhoods are plagued by poverty and violence and recent reports in The Chronicle show that as many as 30 percent of the children in these neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Fully 40 percent of our students are English learners, but these students must take the same tests as native English speakers. Moreover, a recent study provides strong evidence that family-based factors such as the quality of day care, the home vocabulary and the amount of time spent reading and watching television at home account for two-thirds of the difference in academic success for students. Nonetheless, NCLB holds only the schools accountable.
Teachers are realizing that this is a raw deal. We can’t single-handedly solve these problems, and we can’t bring 100 percent of our students to proficiency in the next six years, no matter how “accountable” the law makes us, and no matter the punishments it metes out. But if we speak up to point out the injustice and unreasonableness of the demands on our schools, we are shouted down, accused of making excuses for ourselves and not having high expectations for our students. Thus, teachers have been silenced, our expertise squandered.
The fatal flaw of NCLB was that it assumed that teachers were obstacles to change; that we had to be coerced to set higher standards for ourselves and our students. As a result we have state-mandated standards, standardized tests - even scripted curriculum to tell us what to say in class. All of this has demoralized teachers by making us into the problem, rather than a big part of the solution.
But educators have not been completely immobilized. We have been learning in spite of the hostile conditions, and have discovered that:
– Although student success is heavily influenced by other factors, an effective teacher can make a huge difference.
– Teachers who are able to skillfully assess student learning on a daily basis can promote rapid growth by giving timely feedback and tailoring instruction to meet students’ needs.
– Teachers who collaborate together to develop common assessments and share techniques can build powerful learning communities that allow them to push their students to make great gains.
– Teachers are capable of developing assessments that reflect the values and skills desired by their local communities - and this yields a much higher level of student and teacher engagement, as can be seen in Nebraska ( www.nde.state.ne.us/focusstars/ index.htm).
– Teachers must be deeply involved in educational policy decisions - without our insights and support, policies on paper will not translate into real-world solutions.
While the recent proposed revisions of NCLB contained some improvements, the law remains fundamentally flawed, and does not deserve to be reauthorized. We need to step back and create a new vision of accountability - from the classroom up. Teachers are willing to be accountable for making a difference - that is why we entered this profession. But we must have reasonable goals that reflect the realities we face. We need to be given a much bigger role in designing the measures by which our students and schools are judged, and we must have the conditions and resources in our schools that allow for the high quality collaboration we need to succeed.
When we are asked to lead, we will be ready to help show the way. We are still teachers, after all.
Anthony Cody, a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, is a National Board certified teacher who works as a science coach with the Oakland Unified School District.
This article originally appeared in the January 6, 2008 issue of THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2007: The Year in Review (Census)

Billy Henderson (Spinners), Tom Poston, Joey Bishop,
Deborah Kerr, Ike Turner, Phil Rizzuto, Evel Kneivel, Lady Bird Johnson, Norman Mailer,
Luciano Pavarotti, Bill Pinckney (Drifters), Beverly Sills, Marcel Marceau, Kurt Vonnegut,
Dan Fogelberg, Eddie Robinson, Joe Hunter (Funk Brothers), Molly Ivins, Pookie Hudson
(Spaniels), Denny Doherty (Mamas & Papas), Anna Nicole Smith, Calver DeForest,
Wally Schirra, Sean Taylor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Wilson (Mr. Whipple), Porter Wagoner,
Julia Carson, Jack Valenti, Sidney Sheldon, Brooke Astor, Art Buchwald, Robert Goulet,
Yvonne DeCarlo, Don Ho, Arthur Schlesinger, Tom Snyder, Jane Wyman, Thomas Eagleton.

2007: The Year In Review (Politics)

Because of a myriad of time consuming obligations, health concerns and unforseen circumstances this blog remained dormant for most of 2007. For the new year I will
try my best to resurrect it. Since December of 2004 I developed a small but vibrant
following that was lost due to a complete lack of production. Unlike the previous years
I will not be writing the "Year in Review" post. Robert Weissman and Medea Benjamin
have written two excellent "End of the year" summations for www.commondreams.org
which can be read below.

Victories in 2007 by Robert Weissman

It’s easy enough to recount what went wrong in 2007.
But it wasn’t all bad. Not only did grassroots movements and citizen campaigns — and sometimes governments responsive to public demands — defeat and resist countless corporate power grabs, they won some vitally important, affirmative victories.
Like every new year, 2008 offers renewed hope, and the chance for new beginnings. There really were some important gains in 2007 that suggest countervailing forces to concentrated corporate power are on the rise.
The following list of 10 victories from 2007 doesn’t claim to be all-inclusive. And almost all of the victories are partial and inchoate. Whether they blossom into fuller achievements will depend on what happens in 2008 and beyond. Have ideas for victories that should be added to this list? Send me a note (rob@essential.org) or post a comment on the blog.
1. Cultural Change on Global Warming
There were numerous small steps forward to meet the greatest challenge of our day, including in the biggest carbon polluting country, the United States. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a respectable energy bill; the ultimately adopted energy bill will modestly improve energy efficiency in the United States. Many U.S. states are doing much more, most importantly requiring electric utilities to source an increasing amount of their energy from renewable supplies. The Sierra Club and grassroots groups have combined to defeat dozens of coal-fired power plant proposals. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Bali in December ended with a fizzle, thanks largely to U.S. intransigence, but even at Bali, there was agreement that climate change is a real threat.
This last point is probably the main achievement of 2007. There is now no serious argument about the reality of climate change and the need for action. Going forward, the challenge is to generate the political will for meaningful carbon emission cuts, immediately and for the long-term.
2. Bank of the South
Latin American countries joined together to launch the Bank of the South, an effort to create an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Latin American countries — not just Venezuela — are making contributions to the new institution, which will then make project loans, especially for initiatives to facilitate regional integration.
Says Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Politically, the new bank is another Declaration of Independence for South America, which as a result of epoch-making changes in the last few years is now more independent of the United States than Europe is.”
3. Treatment for People with HIV/AIDS
Somewhere between 2.5 million and 3 million people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries are now receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment. This was only possible because of campaigns by people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries and their allies in rich countries. First, activist campaigns and speeded-up generic competition brought down the price for life-saving drugs from more than $10,000 a year per person to, in some cases, less than $100 per person. Then, campaigners successfully demanded aid money be made available to save lives.
Treatment coverage is only around a quarter to a third of need, and global need will grow dramatically in coming years. More international and developing country funding will be needed, and there will be ongoing disputes over patent and pharmaceutical issues. But significant progress is underway.
4. Thailand and Brazil Face Down Big Pharma
In January, Thailand issued compulsory licenses — an authorization for generic competition for products that remain on patent — for two medicines. This followed a prior compulsory license in December 2006. The resulting lowered prices on the medicines enabled Thailand to expand treatment significantly in its public health system — the cost of a heart disease drug fell by 98 percent, and just the initial price drop on an AIDS drug enabled the country to provide the medicine to an additional 20,000 people.
Brazil followed Thailand’s example in May, issuing its own compulsory license on an important AIDS medicine.
The compulsory licenses led drug companies to lower prices on key AIDS drugs around the world. Abbott Laboratories lowered its middle-income country price on a vital AIDS drug by 55 percent.
5. The Billionaire’s Tax Loophole Comes Under Scrutiny
2007 saw new attention focused on the incomes of super-rich private equity and hedge fund managers in the United States — and the stunning fact that they exploit a tax loophole to lower their tax rates to less than that of their secretaries.
The “carried interest” loophole lets private equity and hedge fund managers characterize a big portion of their management fees — their cut of the very high profits they make for investors — as capital gains income, instead of ordinary income. That means they can pay federal taxes at a 15 percent rate, instead of 35 percent.
The House of Representatives passed legislation to eliminate the loophole, but it failed in the Senate.
The issue won’t be going away, however. Says Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, “It’s finally dawned on people that the richest Americans aren’t paying any taxes.”
6. The U.S. Minimum Wage Goes Up
It’s still a long way from where it should be, but popular support for raising the minimum wage forced Senate Republicans to accede in May to a minimum wage rate hike.
The lowest paid workers in the United States (not counting farm workers and others exempted) will earn $7.25 in 2009. Roughly 13 million workers are expected to see their wages rise as a result.
7. McDonald’s Agrees to Pay Tomato Pickers More
McDonald’s in April agreed to pay a penny a pound more for the tomatoes it uses, with the extra money going directly to Florida farmworkers.
McDonald’s agreed to the arrangement in response to a farmworker campaign coordinated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The coalition had earlier won a similar victory against Taco Bell.
Farmworkers earn about $10,000 a year. If the entire industry went along with the penny-a-pound arrangement, farmworker wages would rise by about 75 percent.
Unfortunately, an intransigent Florida Tomato Growers Exchange is refusing to implement the McDonald’s accord, fatuously claiming that it would violate unnamed federal and state rules. McDonald’s is placing its extra payments in escrow.
Meanwhile, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is now focusing on Burger King, which is largely owned by Goldman Sachs and other private equity operations. They continue to reject the penny-a-pound demand — which would cost Burger King as estimated $250,000 a year.
8. School Fees Phased Out
For decades, the World Bank and other international agencies instructed developing countries to impose educational and health user fees — charges to go to school, or get access to care. The result: poor children (especially girls) were locked out of school, and sick people from poor families were denied healthcare.
Healthcare fees remain widespread, but primary school fees are finally being phased out throughout many of the world’s poorest countries, in part due to 2000 U.S. legislation requiring the United States to oppose World Bank loans that include user fees.
Primary school enrollment increased by 36 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 22 percent in South and West Asia between 1999 and 2005, according to UNESCO. “Much of this is due to the abolishment of primary school tuition fees in 14 countries,” says Global Action for Children. “This ground-breaking measure has leveled the playing field, allowing many of the world’s poorest children access to the school house door.”
9. White-Collar Drug Pushers Punished
In May, the maker of Oxycontin, a highly addictive painkiller, pled guilty to charges of misbranding its drug. Purdue Pharma will pay more than $600 million in connection with the guilty plea.
Oxycontin offers major benefits to cancer patients and others with chronic pain, but is prone to abuse. It is especially popular in Appalachia, where it is known as hillbilly heroin.
U.S. Attorney John Brownlee says that scores of people have died as a result of Oxycontin abuse. The federal case against Purdue charged its sales reps misled health providers — including non-specialists in pain management — about the addictive properties of Oxycontin.
Purdue, a privately held Connecticut-based company, launched a major effort to avoid prosecution, including employing Rudy Giuliani to meet with prosecutors and argue against filing of charges.
But Brownlee refused to back down, though he did make some concessions. He did agree not to charge company executives with felonies (three pled guilty to misdemeanors), and he agreed to accept a guilty plea from a Purdue subsidiary, leaving the parent free to continue selling the drug to Medicare and other federal programs. The government could have come down harder on “white-collar drug pushers,” says Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen’s health Research Group.
10. The Bush Countdown Begins
Only 385 more days of the Bush regime.
Happy New Year!

Let's Toast to Ten Good Things About 2007 by Medea Benjamin

As we close this year on the low of Congress giving Bush more billions for war, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, let’s remember some of the year’s gains that can revive our spirits for the New Year. Here are just ten.
1. With the exception of the White House, this has been a banner year for environmental consciousness and action. Al Gore and the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize. Green building and renewable energy have exploded. Congress passed the Green Jobs Act of 2007, authorizing $125 million for green job training. Over 700 U.S. mayors, representing 25 percent of the U.S. population, have signed a pledge to reduce greenhouse gases by 2012. Illinois became the 26th state to require that some of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources and Kansas became the first state to refuse a permit for a new coal-fired power plant for health and environmental reasons. That’s progress!
2. On the global environmental scene, the Bush dinosaurs were tackled head on. When the US delegation at the UN climate change conference in Bali tried to sabotage the negotiations, the delegate from tiny Papua New Guinea threw diplomatic niceties to the wind and said that if the U.S. couldn’t lead, it should get out of the way. Embarrassed by international and domestic outrage, the U.S. delegation buckled, and the way was cleared for adopting the “Bali road map.” Although it is a weak mandate, it lays the groundwork for a stronger climate agreement post-2012 when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocols ends.
3. Imagine living in a waste-free urban society? Well, it’s no longer a utopian dream but a well-thought-out plan for India’s state of Kerala. The plan to be “waste-free” within five years includes waste prevention, intensive re-use and recycling, composting, replacing unsustainable materials with sustainable ones, training people to produce these materials, and providing funds for setting up sustainably run businesses. The ground-breaking plan, spearheaded by a local grassroots movement, demonstrates how citizen groups can advance pioneering policies to heal the planet.
4. While the war in Iraq rages on, a new war was stopped. The specter of war with Iran loomed large throughout the year, with Washington accusing Iran of killing U.S . soldiers in Iraq and being a nuclear threat. Then in December came the National Intelligence Estimate showing that the Bush administration knew all along that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003. It exposed the Administration claims of an Iranian threat as unjustifiably inflated, and the winds of war were suddenly subdued. Nothing is guaranteed, but a U.S. military attack on Iran is less likely now than it was earlier in the year.
5. This year also brought a decrease in tensions with North Korea. Hostilities flared after North Korea successfully conducted a nuclear test in 2006. But the Bush administration, bogged down in Iraq and pushed by international pressure, agreed to negotiate. Following a series of six-party talks involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S, on March 17, 2007, an historic agreement was reached. North Korea agreed to shut down its main nuclear facility and submit a list of its nuclear programs in exchange for fuel and normalization talks with the U.S. and Japan. During this age of raw aggression, it is a welcome example of putting diplomacy first.
6. The Iraqi people have little to celebrate, but there was one important victory for the people this year. Remember how the Bush administration and Congress were insisting that the Iraqi Parliament pass a new oil law? Touted as a way to “share oil revenue among all Iraqis”, the oil law was really designed to transform the country’s currently nationalized oil system to one open to foreign corporate control. But opposition was fierce inside Iraq, especially from the nation’s oil worker unions. In a rare sign of independence from Washington and concern for domestic opinion, the Iraqi Parliament withstood intense U.S. pressure and refused to pass the oil law.
7. In early 2007, few Americans had heard of the private security company Blackwater. By year’s end, Blackwater had become infamous for the killing of civilians in Iraq. The radical privatization of our military to corporations like Blackwater that are accountable to no one was exposed for all to see. This frightening process is still well under way, with more private contractors in Iraq than soldiers, but at least the issue has now entered the public dialogue. And Blackwater has received such a black eye that it’s unlikely to get a new Iraq contract when the present one expires in May.
8. One victory on both the war and environmental fronts came in Australia, where Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd beat conservative John Howard to become Prime Minister. Howard was an enthusiastic backer of George Bush’s disastrous war on terror, from defending the Guantánamo prison and extraordinary rendition to sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Howard also joined Bush in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Agreement, arguing it would cost Australians jobs. After assuming office on December 3, Kevin Rudd immediately signed the Kyoto agreement and he has promised to remove Australia’s combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008.
9. Sometimes a loss is a win. Hugo Chavez had initiated a constitutional referendum that would have, among other changes, scrapped term limits. His immediate acceptance of a razor-thin margin of defeat before all the votes were even counted showed his democratic colors and made it a lot harder for Bush and the corporate media to label him a dictator. Despite the loss, Chavez remains extremely popular, especially among the poor and working class in Venezuela. And throughout Latin America, the historic transformation led by progressive leaders like Chavez continues to blossom.
10. Last but not least, this year saw the resignation of some of Bush’s closest allies in government - Donald Rumsfeld resigned as Secretary of Defense, Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney General, and Karl Rove as Deputy Chief of Staff. Best of all, we can give thanks that we only have ONE YEAR left of the criminal, war-mongering, constitution-shredding, rights-violating, torture-sanctioning Bush Administration! It’s just GOT to get better than this!