Month: May 2008

The Dim Bulb Award goes to Idaho State Senator John Goedde

I have considered and rejected a number of candidates for this month’s “Dim Bulb” award including the usual suspects. I was waiting for a jaw-dropping example of stupidity or illogical thinking.

At the last minute, Idaho State Senator John Goedde came through by claiming that, in order to remain true to the idea of “accountability,” the Idaho State Department of Education ought to impose sanctions on those Idaho schools who failed to meet annual progress based upon what Goedde concedes is an INVALID test.

A little background is needed here for those of you who have not kept up with the on-going fiasco know as “No Child Left Behind.” The punitive NCLB legislation is the centerpiece of Bush’s education program. It affects nearly every U.S. public school and requires all students be performing on grade level by 2014. Critics have pointed out the folly of the program’s reliance on high stakes testing and some states have even flirted with abandoning the system, which would mean giving up federal funding.

Although we can laugh at the absurd notion that educational reform will take place solely by testing, Republican business types like Goedde are strong supporters of the legislation because it claims to hold schools accountable for student learning

Have there been increases in student achievement in the years NCLB has been in effect? Yes, it appears there have been modest gains nationwide. I say “appears” because there has been only one study that has looked specifically at this question- a June 2007 Center on Education Policy (CEP) study titled “Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?”

It should be pointed out that the authors of the study warned that “it is difficult to say whether or how much the No Child Left Behind law is driving the achievement gains.” Moreover, the study cautioned readers that its comparisons between pre- and post-NCLB data — available for only 13 states — should be treated as “suggestive.”

DIFFICULTY OF ATTRIBUTING CHANGES TO NCLB

This report focuses on whether student achievement has improved since the enactment of NCLB. It is very difficult to determine whether students are learning more because of NCLB. Isolating the cause-and-effect relationship of any education policy is often impracticable. With a policy as far-reaching as NCLB, it becomes nearly impossible when states, districts, and schools are simultaneously implementing so many different yet interconnected policies and programs. If student achievement has risen since NCLB took effect, is this due to NCLB, or to state or local reforms implemented at roughly the same time, or to both? If both, how much of the improvement is attributable to state or local policies and how much to federal policies? Using multiple methods of analyzing achievement will not tease out the causes of gains or declines.

In a similar vein, this study does not take a position on how well specific components of NCLB are working or whether the requirements in the current law are the most effective means to raise achievement and close test score gaps.

Was Idaho one of those 13 states with data that allowed comparison between pre and post NCLB student achievement? No, because Idaho has invalid iSAT exams that do not measure Idaho’s educational standards or the curriculum that teachers are expected to teach.

Who is to blame for Idaho’s invalid examinations? As Bill Roberts of the Idaho Statesman points out:

Tests and standards used over the past several years were approved by the State Board in 1999 and early in this decade. The system was revised in 2007. Tom Luna, state schools superintendent, played an integral role in development of both the first standards and the exams, although he was not superintendent or a State Board member at the time.

Despite concerns from critics, including then state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard, the board moved ahead with both testing and standards. The tests and standards were later found lacking in two independent reports in about 2005.

As a result of pressure from the Idaho School Superintendents Association, Mike Rush, State Board executive director, wrote the feds asking to reset the No Child Left Behind clock for Idaho beginning with spring 2007 statewide exam results, after the state made improvements to its testing system.

The board wants a “do-over” for hundreds of Idaho public schools facing NCLB sanctions such as forcing them to provide outside tutoring or allow children to go to schools that are more successful than the ones they attend. This last sanction is particularly absurd in small Idaho communities where there are no alternatives to the local public school.

The board has asked the U.S. Department of Education to wipe away the student progress measurements between 2002 and 2006 under No Child Left Behind on which the sanctions are based. In its place, the board wants the feds to restart the No Child Left Behind clock, which sets the deadline for schools to meet minimum proficiency standards.

“It is unreasonable to label schools and districts based on student achievement data that was measured with an invalid and unreliable tool,” Rush wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education dated Tuesday. “How can you say that a school didn’t make progress if your initial measurement was not valid?” Rush said.

But John Goedde, state Senate Education Committee chair, opposes a do-over because it defeats the purpose of accountability.

The original (exam) was not a valid test, yet that test was commissioned by the State Board of Education to meet federal standards,” he said. “Our State Board made another mistake, which is a tragedy. “But to ask to restart the accountability process due to that error seems to defeat the concept of accountability altogether.”

Merriam-Webster defines accountability as: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Whose actions have led to this “mistake.” The list is quite long and includes Luna, the State Board, the Idaho Legislature, the Senate Education Committee and its chair, John Goedde. It does not, however, include the schools, teachers and students who will suffer the NCLB sanctions.

I am all in favor of accountability. I only hope the citizens of Idaho hold those “dim bulbs,” truly culpable for this fiasco, accountable when they go to the polls in November.

Utah Phillips – Voice of the Common Man

If you heard Michael Feldman’s “Whad’YaKnow?” broadcast live from the Morrison Center in Boise last Friday, you heard Rosalie Sorrels sing a song written by her friend, the singer-songwriter Utah Phillips. When she finished, she mentioned that Utah was not well and wished him the best. It turns out that Utah died at home that evening of congestive heart failure.

Utah Phillips was much more than just an entertainer. He was an authentic “folksinger” in the mold of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Ramblin Jack Elliot.

Phillips was the son of labor organizers and his music was an outgrowth of his belief in social justice. When he returned from the Korean War, Phillips became a drifter riding the rails. He ended up destitute and drunk in the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter in Salt Lake, where he met anarchist, philosopher and social reformer Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy helped Phillips reconnect with the struggles of the American laborer. Like the real Joe Hill, Utah became a “Wobblie” and devoted himself to singing to and for working people.

I was lucky enough to see him perform a number of times. Some of his songs were hilarious, others sad; but they always had a strong story line and a deep message.

Although his records were never able to capture the warmth of live performance, they are all we have now. If you have never heard Utah, I suggest buying one of his many available recordings. If you only get one, try The Long Memory, the 1996 recording he made with Rosalie Sorrels. In his obituary, she said of her friend:

He was like an alchemist. He took the stories of working people and railroad bums and he built them into work that was influenced by writers like Thomas Wolfe, but then he gave it back, he put it in language so the people whom the songs and stories were about still had them, still owned them. He didn’t believe in stealing culture from the people it was about.

With Utah gone, Pete Seeger and Rosalie Sorrels are among the last of the authentic folk singers still with us.

Dirk Kempthorne – Why is this man smiling?

While the Bush Administration slouches its way towards an ignominious end, most of the criminals have skittered under the rug like cockroches avoiding the harsh light of day. One exception is Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorn who, like the last man standing, has been forced into the spotlight numerous times this month.

At home, the former Idaho Governor has been roundly criticized for refusing to turn over his gubernatorial papers to the state historical society. The Idaho Statesman was blunt in an editorial memo to the former governor, “Cough ’em up.”

And, there is also the small issue of the debt Kempthorne still owns from his last run for governor in 2002.

Six years after his last election, supporters of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne are still raising money to pay off debts from his final bid for Idaho governor. Kempthorne’s gubernatorial campaign committee will hold a “debt retirement reception” in Idaho next week to pay off obligations from his 2002 campaign.

This “debt retirement reception” is a bit dicey because of the possibility of violating the Hatch Act (the law that restricts political activity and interference by Federal employees).

Kempthorne himself won’t attend the cocktails-and-h’ors d’ouevres event, said Graham Paterson, a fundraising consultant who has been raising money to pay off the remaining debt from the old campaign. It is “better we maintain an arm’s length relationship between the secretary and the campaign,” Paterson said. “His name doesn’t appear on the invitation.”

The invitation does include the last name Kempthorne eight times, including in such phrases as “Kempthorne for Governor Debt Retirement” and “Make Checks Payable to: Kempthorne for Governor – Debt Retirement.”

The last few weeks have provided further concerns for Kempthorne. After over a year of stonewalling, Kempthorne was finally forced by the courts to rule on whether or not the polar bear was an endangered species. The courts cited May 15th as the deadline for a decision and on May 14th Kempthorne declared the polar bear endangered. His statement, however, was classic Bush Administration deception.

Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited dramatic declines in sea ice over the last three decades and projections of continued losses. These declines, he told a news conference, mean the polar bear is a species likely to be in danger of extinction in the near future.

Kempthorne also said, though, that it would be “inappropriate” to use the protection of the bear to reduce greenhouse gases, or to broadly address climate change.

In other words, the Environmental Protection Act forced him to declare the polar bear endangered as a result of global warming, but the Bush Administration would take no action to protect the polar bear from extinction. The Administration has already sold out the polar bear by selling the oil drilling rights to prime polar bear habitat, so Kempthorne allowed himself to become the latest face of Bush hypocracy.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was among those who felt Kempthorne was essentially forced to issue the listing, but at least acted so “that opportunities to continue to explore and drill in Alaska will not be impacted.”

In February, the Interior Department sold oil and gas rights across some 29.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast — including prime polar bear habitat — for a record $2.66 billion.

The latest shoe to drop for Kempthorne occurred yesterday during a Congressional hearing.

A congressional investigator asserted Wednesday that at least four Interior Department officials may have inappropriately interfered in decisions on protection of endangered species.

The four officials – including three Bush administration appointees – may have put political pressure on lower-ranking employees who were deciding endangered species cases, said a top investigator for the Government Accountability Office.

The allegation came during a House hearing on purported interference by Julie MacDonald, a high-ranking Interior official who resigned last year after the department’s inspector general found that she pressured government scientists to alter their findings about endangered species and leaked information about species decisions to industry officials.

One of the officials accused of political interference and putting pressure on government scientists to alter their findings about endangered species was Brian Waidmann, Kempthorne’s chief of staff. According to the Associated Press:

The allegation against Waidmann marked the first time that allegations of political interference had reached the office of Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and senator who became Interior secretary in 2006. Waidmann and Bowman, who both still work at Interior, did not return telephone messages.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Nazzaro’s testimony and the 66-page GAO report troubling.

“A disconcerting picture has emerged of officials working at the highest levels of the Interior Department continuing to tamper with the endangered species program, trumping science with politics,” Rahall said. “The practice is pervasive and I am convinced that the only remedy is a house-cleaning, post-November.”

Appeasement and other Republican talking points

George Bush continues to be one of the most effective campaigners for Barack Obama. His speech Thursday to the Israeli parliament, with its veiled accusation that Obama was guilty of “appeasement,” is a gift to the Democrats that will keep on giving all the way to November.

Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

First of all, there is the obviously disgraceful interjection of partisan politics into a speech to an international audience celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state and for whom the interjection of Nazi analogies was especially inappropriate.

Then there was McCain’s pathetic flip-flopping as he first echoed the President’s attacks and then, when James Rubin wrote an editorial with quotes of him advocating negotiations with Hamas, his transparent attempts to weasel out of the contradiction between his stance then and now.

What I find most troubling is the historical amnesia involved in this latest Republican talking point of “Obama the appeaser”. I can’t believe that Bush and McCain (or, more accurately, their speech writers) are ignorant of the historical facts, so the only conclusion I can come to is that they believe the American voters are that ignorant.

It is quite easy to debunk the pseudo history of Bush and McCain. For example, Peter Scoblic has a great editorial in the Los Angeles Times explaining why negotiating is not appeasement. He clearly demonstrates that Bush and McCain are wrong in their claims about negotiating with the “enemy.”

But if there is anything that has been discredited by history, it is the argument that every enemy is Hitler, that negotiations constitute appeasement, and that talking will automatically lead to a slaughter of Holocaust-like proportions. It is an argument that conservatives made throughout the Cold War, and, if the charge seemed overblown at the time, it seems positively ludicrous with the clarity of hindsight.

But, of course, the rightwing talk radio windbags don’t need to know anything about the historical context of appeasement. They are content to simply shout the accusation. Until someone calls them on it, at which point they crash and burn.

Rush Limbaugh, proud of the fact that he is a college dropout, illustrated the depth of research behind the right wing talking points. Yesterday, he went on a rant about Obama’s liberal university education leading him to misunderstand the real cause of the Great Depression. His evidence that liberal universities like Harvard promote Marxist lies about the Depression? He googled Great Depression and found an article that he proceeded to critique line-by-line. What he failed to realize was that a 10th grade high school student had written the article in 1996. The hilarious details are here.

All this proves… ah… let’s see, as Carlos Santana… err… George Santa Clara… hmm… someone like that once said, “Those who don’t repeat history…” er, no, “If you fail history, you are doomed to repeat the 10th grade”? No, that isn’t it. Oh, well, I don’t have time to google the quote, but you see my point.

There is one oddity to Bush’s speech that provides some evidence that neither he nor his speech writer know their history. As most Idahoans know, the American Senator that wanted to talk to Hitler was none other than Idaho Republican, William Borah.

Abacadabra- Your Career is Over

There is no profession in America less willing to stand by their employees and more willing to overreact to a few crank calls than school administrators.

All that it takes is for one patron to call in with a complaint and you can rest assured that a teacher will be forced to take the fall.

The latest victim of this sorry trend is Jim Piculas, a middle school substitute teacher in Pasco County, Florida.

The telephone call that spelled the end of Jim Piculas’ career as a substitute teacher in Pasco County came on a January day about a week after he performed the disappearing-toothpick trick for a group of rapt middle school students.

Pat Sinclair, who oversees substitute teachers in the Pasco County School District, was on the phone. She told Piculas there had been a complaint about his performance at Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes.

He asked what she meant. “She said, ‘You’ve been accused of wizardry,’ ” Piculas said

He said the statement seemed bizarre to him, like something out of Harry Potter. Piculas said he replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He said he also told Sinclair, “It’s not black magic. It’s a toothpick.”

It is pretty obvious that Piculas has not yet received his Wizardry Diploma. After all, the toothpick trick is certainly not on the level of the “Stupify,” “Incendio,” “Furnunculus,” or even “Rictusempra” spells of a full fledged wizard. Harry Potter and his friends at Hogworts were doing more sophisticated magic after just one year.

In Fact, Piculas seems to have broken the first rule of Wizardry, “Don’t tell your victim how to do the trick.

Piculas said he thinks his troubles all come down to the disappearing-toothpick trick and a student who may have interpreted the trick as wizardry.

The trick requires a toothpick and transparent tape. A sleight-of-hand maneuver causes the toothpick to disappear then reappear. At least, so it seems. In reality, the toothpick hides behind the performer’s thumb, held in place by the tape.

“The whole thing lasted 45 seconds,” Piculas said. He said the students liked the trick. He showed them how to do it so they could perform it at home.

The students at Rushe Middle seem to be a sensitive lot.

One student in the Rushe Middle class apparently took the trick the wrong way, Piculas said. He said he was told the student became so traumatized that the student’s father complained.

The student was traumatized, but Pinclas’s career dream has come to an end.

Piculas had worked as a substitute teacher for eight or nine months, spending time at 15 schools. He said he also was working toward teacher certification with the dream of being hired full time. That appears unlikely now. Piculas said he applied for a job as a GED instructor but wasn’t allowed to interview.

“My whole career is in limbo,” he said.