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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ernesto is Dead and It Matters to Me

Yesterday, I was driving home from school and listening to Marketplace when a piece from their series, "My Life is True," aired. It was from a man named Leo Webb and this is what he said:

... I just got back from Iraq...

... I got 17 confirmed kills. I didn't see their faces. I only saw them through a scope and blew their brains out. I didn't meet them, or ask how many kids they had. When you kill somebody, you kill their family too. It all goes downhill.


That part about when you kill somebody, you kill their family, too, yeah, I kept thinking about that.

One year ago today, a man I never met was gunned down outside a liquor store in East Hollywood. It was 8:34 PM and Ernesto was alone when he walked out to the parking lot where he was confronted by one or more assailants. And then he was dead.

When we first moved to Los Angeles, we lived just blocks from where Ernesto died, but I didn't know him. He was born, grew up, became a father to his son Joshua, and died without my knowledge.

I have no memory of what I was doing one year ago today. It was a Monday night and I imagine I had just finished reading my daughter a bed-time story and, at the moment Ernesto died, I was probably watching her sleep and loving her quietly.

I suspect that if news of his death had reached me before today, I wouldn't have cared much. Even if I'd heard about it yesterday after listening to Leo Webb, I wouldn't have understood. Just another young man pulled under by a rogue wave in Ocean Los Angeles.

But I would have been wrong.

Ernesto had a sister. She was six years younger than he and he wanted her to be everything he wasn't. She was going to graduate high school. She was going to stay on the straight path. She was his baby sister and he loved her very much.

He took good care of her. He watched out for her at home and on the streets. He gave her love and support and advice and he regularly reminded her, both in words and in looks, that she was someone special to him. She loved him, too. Very much.

And then he was killed.

When she came to us a month ago, a small girl, rising barely over five feet tall who wore her hair short and had bleached it down to an orange-gold which brought out her startlingly hazel eyes, she was a bit of a cipher. We don't get good students very often and when we do, it's because something bad has happened. But this girl laughed easily and well. She seemed happy and at ease with where she was and what she was doing. She made friends quickly and was quick to help others. She seemed fine.

But she's not fine. She's Ernesto's family and it was murdered, too.

She's barely holding it together and I only found it out because I happened to notice today, on the anniversary of her brother's murder, that things were different. A year ago she lost her anchor and her compass and she's with us because, on her own, she breezed onto the rocks, failing classes and missing school.

She came to us because she wants to right herself, but it's harder than she imagined. At seventeen, being your own rock and compass is a heavy and complicated load, but she's trying hard.

She even came to school today and I have rarely been prouder of such a simple accomplishment.

On my way home I said a small prayer for Ernesto and then another one for his sister. And then I said a prayer of thanks to Leo Webb, even though he's not dead, for speaking so clearly about so many things that are wrong with death.

I thought about saying a prayer for all the other families who's names are on the LA Homicide Report, but it felt like too much to do on my own.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lessons in Capitalism from OWS Oakland

Those of us on the sidelines of capitalism are flabbergasted when some massive international megacorp sues a mom'n'pop operation for copyright infringement because their store name sounds a little bit like the corporate brand. It seems ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But the core reason behind such moves are anything but ridiculous -- these actions are borne from the most basic desires for corporate self-preservation. In our modern capitalist system, there is nothing more important to success than brand control.

What if Pepsico allowed another company to market a Blue, Red, and White logo-ed soda pop called Pipsi? Even though the name and logo are different, they are close enough that any malfeasance on the part of PipsiCo could and would reflect badly on PepsiCo by those who did not pay close enough attention to note the difference.

Or worse, what if Pepsi allowed another company to market a dangerous product using their name?

If a brand grows popular and it is not properly controlled, others will exploit its popularity and it will be ruined.

Just like is happening to Occupy Wall Street.

One of the most interesting things about the Occupy Movement around the country and the world is the way that a national (and international) movement has taken on the personalities of the local communities in which it has landed. Because OWS fought any attempt to aggregate the movement, defying all attempts to create governance or message control, we have been left with what is essentially a localist movement that is more a reflection of local politics than it is of the national and international issues of inequality and fairness.

And in Oakland, the localism has the potential to derail the national movement.

The purported goal of the Oakland Occupiers was to take over an abandoned building in downtown Oakland near city hall in order to set up a Social Center that would help to provide services that are no longer provided by the Oakland City Government due to budget cuts. Here is a link to the promises they made on their website. Here is a link to the organizational site set up to coordinate the activities.

It is obvious to me, when I compare the promise and the plan for implementation that there is, in fact, no intent to make the social center happen. There was no fundraising. There is no organizational plan. There are no supplies. There are no positions. The building was not even to be chosen until the day of the move-in. There are no plans for things like gas, water, sewer, or electricity to facilitate the safe environment they promise. Where will the food be stored and prepared? How will they light the interior rooms for classes?

I am a firm believer in the need for community organizing and I know that true empowerment is born when people learn to take care of themselves and of others, but that is not what this was.

If the goal were to create services, commercial property rents in areas of need in Oakland are low enough that a year's lease could have easily been covered by a fraction of the amount that will be spent on bail.

What I see is a plan inspired by only one thing: A desire to continue a confrontation with the OPD.

The Oakland Police Department is a terrible dinosaur of a department. Their tactics are stone-age and brutal and the failures of its paramilitary structure are written all over the horrific crime rates and numerous judgments against them that are the sum of their record. I am in no way defending OPD. Not at all.

But to conflate this weekend's events with the peaceful protests that populated dying grass all over this country last summer is to hand OPD and those who want to cloud the message of OWS a permanent and irrevocable victory.

But unless the rest of the Occupy Movement is willing to stand up to simultaneously condemn the OPD and the cynical and pro-violence ("When Occupy Oakland is Under Attack, Occupy Oakland Will Fight Back" was the chant behind the barricades) ethos that inspired this latest move by OO, OWS will have lost control of its brand.

And the loss of this brand will be a terrible blow to all of us who truly care about the crimes of Wall Street against Main Street.

I am truly sad that people have gotten hurt again in Oakland. Oakland is a city where there are plenty of people already getting hurt without adding riots on top of it.

I am disheartened by the aggressive and unnecessary beatings and gassings inflicted by OPD.

I am outraged by the actions taken in Oakland under the banner of Occupy Wall Street.

But I'm not surprised by any of it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The God Trap: Trust and Fear in Modern Politics

There are few countries on Earth with more people who believe in God than right here in the United States of America. According to Gallup, as of June of 2011, upwards of 90% of believed that God exists. For me, even as a casual believer myself, this is an astonishing figure because it tells us that 9 out of every ten Americans is willing to stake themselves to a position for which there is absolutely no direct empirical evidence and about which there is outwardly no direct benefit. It would be one thing if God Himself had gone door-to-door recently, reminding Americans of His Existence, or if there had been some recent Oh God! style John-Denver-led publicity campaign that reminded us to "Think God," but neither of those things have happened. We've done it, individually and collectively, with very little urging. More people here believe in God than have a FaceBook. More people believe in God than watch TV.

And there is nowhere in the industrialized world where Atheists are less liked.

So, for me, the question is: Why on Earth do so many Americans believe in God and why don't we like people who don't?

And it is Americans, mind you. It's not Canadians (75% believe), and it sure as hell isn't the Swedes (23% believe). Even the traditionally belief heavy regions of Central and South American are showing a decline in theism and all the while American theism is climbing steadily. Seriously, what the hell?

What makes us different?

Why do I believe in God? Why do you (if you do)? I, personally have no difficulty with atheists -- it would be hard to live in my family if I did -- but why do so many others?

I know, for me, there's certainly an element of Pascal's wager involved in my having faith, but that's not all of it. There's more, and a recent article published in Scientific American has granted me some insight into myself and, possibly, into the rampant Godification of the US and American Politics.

The article, unlovingly titled "In Atheists We Distrust," explores studies by Will Gervais, a somewhat odd looking Psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, which were aimed at why atheists are disliked. It identifies one single issue as being the centerpoint of Atheist Antipathy: Trust.

The article explains:

Gervais and his colleagues presented participants with a story about a person who accidentally hits a parked car and then fails to leave behind valid insurance information for the other driver. Participants were asked to choose the probability that the person in question was a Christian, a Muslim, a rapist, or an atheist. They thought it equally probable the culprit was an atheist or a rapist, and unlikely the person was a Muslim or Christian. In a different study, Gervais looked at how atheism influences people’s hiring decisions. People were asked to choose between an atheist or a religious candidate for a job requiring either a high or low degree of trust. For the high-trust job of daycare worker, people were more likely to prefer the religious candidate. For the job of waitress, which requires less trust, the atheists fared much better.

Even non-religious participants succumbed to the anti-atheist prejudice.

A belief in God -- any version thereof, it seems -- is a key element of trust for most people. The daycare worker, our society believes, will be less likely to molest a child if s/he believes in God. Since the worst a waitress can do is spit in your food, an atheist will do in a pinch.

Now, of course, when we look at this logically, we can see it's a pile of crap. One needs only point to the Catholic church sex abuse scandal to demonstrate that a belief in God is not necessarily a character reference, but even so Americans look at faith as a sign of trustworthiness in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

According to Gervais, here's why:

When we know that somebody believes in the possibility of divine punishment, we seem to assume they are less likely to do something unethical. Based on this logic, Gervais and Norenzayan hypothesized that reminding people about the existence of secular authority figures, such as policemen and judges, might alleviate people’s prejudice towards atheists. In one study, they had people watch either a travel video or a video of a police chief giving an end-of-the-year report. They then asked participants how much they agreed with certain statements about atheists (e.g., “I would be uncomfortable with an atheist teaching my child.”) In addition, they measured participants’ prejudice towards other groups, including Muslims and Jewish people. Their results showed that viewing the video of the police chief resulted in less distrust towards atheists. However, it had no effect on people’s prejudice towards other groups. From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.

Another person's belief in God, to the rest of us, is a safety signal letting us know that this person feels watched. And if someone feels watched, they will behave better.

It's not that we don't trust atheists in positions of power, it's that we don't trust anybody in any position unless we know that somebody else has got their eye on them.

So it comes down to this: People who feel safe and secure do not feel a need to look to the divine for their safety and security. People who are afraid and insecure look for something to help them feel safe and secure. God is popular in America not due to poor parenting and education, but because our nation feels terribly unsafe and insecure all the time.

I,myself, am prone to magical thinking like this and am always on the lookout for talismans and portents. A few blocks down Sunset Boulevard from my house there's a sign that is universally known as the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign. It is a big blue rotating thing and has an anthropomorphic foot emblazoned on each side. On one side, the foot is throwing it's arms up in joy and smiling a big happy smile (Happy Foot), while on the other side the foot is resting on crutches while wrapped in bandages (Sad Foot). Each time I drive down Sunset, I look for the sign and if I see Happy Foot first, I feel secure. If I see Sad Foot first, I get nervous.

I also believe in God, I think, for much the same reason: Faith gives me a sense of safety.

So then the question, for me, becomes, if I am not anomalous, if others who believe believe for much the same sets of reasons that I do, why is it that so many Americans are frightened and insecure when so few Swedes are?

Let's see...

A limited safety net. No job security. Tenuous hold on health care access. Rampant gun ownership and high levels of civic violence. Massive poverty. Poor Education. Low real wages. No ability to save for retirement.

And a generations long campaign on the part of one wing of our political spectrum to convince people that government cannot and should not solve these problems.

And that same wing of our political spectrum has monopolized God in the political dialectic. It probably wasn't intentional, but boy does it work out well for them.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Newt's Redemption or, Why Romney Must Sin

In college, while most people were drinking and partying, I was on a spiritual quest. I had been an habitually unhappy person for much of my life and had already discovered that drugs and alcohol were at best, for me, a terribly destructive partial solution. I understood from experience with 12-step programs that a connection with a power greater than myself could help me, but I didn't want to do the steps they suggested. Instead I spent a lot of time on hilltops at sunset and at the sides of creeks at dawn and in theology classes, trying hard to understand how knowing "God" could help me function properly in the human world.

I seriously discussed going to divinity school after graduation and even filled out an application. I didn't tell my parents, though, because I though they would have been embarrassed. In the end, I didn't go because I realized that while I was OK with God, I was unable to grok the foundational element of Christianity: Jesus was the Son of God who He sent to Earth in order to grant us redemption for our sins.

Nor could I conceive of a devil.

Nor could I conceive of evil.

I could conceive of sin as a separation from man and God as Paul Tillich described it.

Pascal spoke to me. So did Anselm. So did Reinhold Neibor. I still think about Dorothee Soelle's To Work and To Love and it has helped frame my conduct.

I was awed by the Desert Fathers, but Jesus himself just didn't speak my language.

I learned a lot, but I was still miserable and areligious. It was years later that I found what I had been seeking elsewhere. I am no longer habitually miserable.

The final product of my Christian immersion project was not salvation, but a pretty good outsider's understanding of, and respect for, modern American Christianity -- which in light of modern politics is quite helpful.

Most on the left -- and even many in the center -- are regularly flabbergasted by the emergence and rise of deeply flawed, even obviously disingenuous, candidates like Cain, like Bachmann, like Gingrich. "How can they be about family values," we say, "and support a scandalous asshole like him?!"

This is my explanation:

They are not supporting the "scandalous asshole," they are supporting the penitent who stands before them. One of the elements of Christianity I found most compelling was the willingness (often more in the abstract and theoretical) to forgive transgression and, among some Christians, the need for others to have visible transgressions that have been forgiven.

While the high churches recite the same Lord's Prayer (with one or more "forevers", depending) as the low churches, the lower the church, the more congregational and the more that forgiveness becomes the central focus of the faith.

The religious right is generally borne out of anabaptist churches where the acceptance of Jesus is a conscious adult choice and, unless one has had a Rumspringa of some sort where the seeker has looked elsewhere and discovered their propensity for sin and that they cannot live rightly while cut off from God, they cannot turn fully towards Him.

Only one who has sinned and repented can be born again.

Only one who has held the devil's hand and then slapped it away can turn to the light and only such a man can speak eloquently and believably to the heart of the Republican Evangelical base.

Which is why the two candidates who, to the non-Evangelical, may appear to be the most pious and the most moral are in fact the least likely to be able to speak to the heart of the movement.

Mitt's problem is not just that he's Mormon, and it isn't just that he's rich, it's that he has never strayed.

Santorum's problem isn't just Google, or his Catholic identity, it's that he has lived his entire life as a rock of faith.

In the eyes of the Evangelical Right, neither man has a redemption tale and, without a redemption tale, they cannot have truly accepted Jesus.

Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie have their weight. George W. Bush had his drinking. Newt Gingrich has his divorces and his corruption. Herman Cain had his lust (and it was only the fact that it seemed to be ongoing that was the problem, not the fact that it had happened). Michelle Bachmann has Marcus.

And so, in a political party where Evangelicals make up a plurality of the base, it is the pure candidate is going to struggle and it is the sinner who will prevail.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Educational Moneyball: Why Value-Added Analysis Will Fail



My students are all on the far side of screwing up in school and if you ask them what went wrong in their education, their answer is almost always a variation on a theme. Somewhere along the line, they each ran into the teacher who wrecked education for them. The teacher that called them an animal or the teacher who was never there, or the teacher who told them that they were stupid or (more common than you would think, even in South Los Angeles) the teacher who told them that they weren't going to succeed anyways because they were poor and black or poor and brown or poor and from a Spanish-speaking home.

A bad teacher most likely won't destroy the life of a student who isn't already riding wildly along the rim of disaster, but a shocking number of kids are doing just that and a bad teacher can push them right over the edge.

And all of us in the profession know that a single good teacher is rarely enough to pull them back.

Everybody agrees that teachers matter. Teacher's unions say that teachers matter. Experts say that teachers matter. Students say that teachers matter. Parents say that teachers matter. Left, right and center all acknowledge the fact that bad teachers do damage and people agree that good teachers can change lives.

But the question remains, how do we legitimately judge teacher efficacy?

A few days ago, a wide-ranging longitudinal study on the long-term effects of teacher quality was released by the thinking people of Harvard University. This study makes the claim that a single effective teacher in 4th grade can increase a student's lifetime earnings by 1.5% and a single ineffective teacher can result in damage equivalent to missing 40% of a school year. The study used the value added metrics first popularized by the Los Angeles Times and then partially adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine teacher quality.

Essentially, value-added is a statistical model that incorporates year-by-year gains for individual students on standardized tests and then regulates for factors such as race, economic station, transiency, English-language fluency, previous schools, and gender. It is only useful for longitudinally tested subjects which currently are only math and English. It is an effective measure of testing improvement for students in 3rd through 11th grade if one believes that the only valuable measure of success is student improvement in math and English testing.

And the truth is that it does, indeed, help show that some teachers are more effective than others. It is the educational equivalent of Sabermetrics and now we have a generation of scholastic Billy Beanes who think that they've found a solution.

But much like Beane's Oakland A's, value-added is not the tool that is going to win the last game of the season.

Math and English scores may be the on-base-percentage of the teaching world, but there is much more to both both baseball and teaching than simple numbers because in both cases the numbers are overwhelmed by the simply unquantifiable human element.

A value-added analysis will not show which teachers were able to get their students to think and a value-added analysis will not reveal which students were inspired. A value-added analysis is not applicable for those who choose to work with untestable children in special education or alternative settings and a value-added analysis cannot touch subjects such as social studies, art, business, or the sciences.

Oh, and value-added analysis relies on standardized tests that most people agree are deeply flawed.

A reliance solely on value-added analysis, as is the case with the Harvard study, ignores the fact that education is a group effort. Just as sabermetrics cannot assess team chemistry, value-added cannot parse the influence of other teachers who have helped improve the literacy and numeracy of the tested teacher's students. Value-added analysis assumes that education happens in a vacuum and that no other person is meddling in the minds of students. But my students are learning from a half-dozen other teachers at the same time they are learning from me and my efficacy is as much a reflection of their efforts as it is of my own.

This is why value-added cannot be the winning formula in education.

But we still need to be able to determine which teachers are effective. We all agree. I have my own thoughts on this (please read -- I think my "1% for Teachers" plan is a real solution), but right now I am much more concerned that some of our greatest thinkers are already satisfied that they've found an answer in the value-added analysis.