Monday, June 30, 2014

Arne Duncan Outdoes Himself

In my antepenultimate (to this) post, I described Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as “the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis).” It wasn’t always that way—I even praised him for his confrontation with the NCAA over graduation rates for athletes. But a). virtually anyone looks good by comparison to the NCAA, b). that was over four years ago, and c). give enough monkeys enough typewriters…

Since that good start, moreover, Duncan has managed to espouse positions which represent the worst of both political perspectives. An arrogant buffoon who has never actually taught a day in his life, Secretary Duncan manages to blend the union-busting, anti-teacher, corporatist Machiavellianism of the GOP with the top-heavy bureaucracies, nanny-state sensibilities, and documentation fetishes of the Democrats. He has become a self-styled Tsar, and President Obama has not only let him get away with it, he’s encouraged it. Obama’s education policy is probably no worse than Bush’s, but it’s no better, either, and that’s a rather scathing condemnation when you get right down to it.

Arne Duncan Attempts to Be Worst Cabinet Secretary Ever

But now comes a statement from Arne the Idiot that boggles the mind in its inanity—even by Duncan’s standards. In announcing a “major shift” in the way the government evaluates federally-funded special education programs, he declared that whereas most states are indeed in compliance with federal standards, including an “individualized education plan” for each student, “it is not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math.” And it is certainly true that the dropout rate for students with disabilities is twice that for those without, and that two-thirds of students in special education programs perform below grade level in reading and math. Um… that’s why they’re in those programs, Ace.

Here’s the response of teacher and blogger Peter Greene, in a post aptly entitled “Quite Possibly the Stupidest Thing To Come Out of the US DOE”:
Arne Duncan announced that, shockingly, students with disabilities do poorly in school. They perform below level in both English and math. No, there aren’t any qualifiers attached to that. Arne is bothered that students with very low IQs, students with low function, students who have processing problems, students who have any number of impairments—these students are performing below grade level….

But who knows. Maybe Arne is on to something. Maybe blind students can’t see because nobody expects them to. Maybe the student a colleague had in class years ago, who was literally rolled into the room and propped up in a corner so that he could be “exposed” to band—maybe that child’s problems were just low expectations. Maybe IEPs are actually assigned randomly, for no reason at all….

We don't need IEPs—we need expectations and demands. We don’t need student support and special education programs—we need more testing. We don’t need consideration for the individual child’s needs—we just need to demand that the child get up to speed, learn things, and most of all TAKE THE DAMN TESTS. Because then, and only then, will we be able to make all student disabilities simply disappear.

This is just so stunningly, awesomely dumb, it’s hard to take in. Do they imagine that disabled students are just all faking, or that the specialists who diagnose these various problems are just making shit up for giggles?
If what we were discussing here was only that group of students with ADHD, dyslexia, or similar conditions, it might make a little sense to expect to see progress roughly equivalent to norms for students without those conditions. But no, we’re also talking about kids with developmental disorders so severe they can’t sit, talk, or hold a pencil to take one of Duncan’s precious high-stakes tests.

And now we get the capper, an utterance so mind-meltingly idiotic that it would embarrass Michele Bachmann: “We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel.” Really, Arne, and where is the evidence for that assertion? Any evidence for that? You’re dealing with educators here, dude. You can’t just make shit up and think you can get away with it.

Despite the cringe-worthiness of Duncan's absurd assertion, the Secretary did manage not to be the stupidest person on the conference call. That dubious distinction went to Tennessee’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, who put forth the proposition that it is lack of testing, of those magical words “strong assessments,” that’s the real problem. Because mandated testing cures everything from Down Syndrome to celebral palsy, apparently.

Seriously, it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like in the universe these guys inhabit. Unfortunately, the fact that what Duncan, Huffman, and their fellow charlatans propose is utter nonsense doesn’t change the fact that there are serious implications associated with their delusional ravings.

First, tens of thousands of good and effective teachers will have their hard work demeaned by Duncan’s transcendent silliness. Second, schools, already facing budget crises across the country, will have to re-direct resources to accommodate this boondoggle. That means less money to pay teachers, to support libraries and technology centers, to underwrite gifted and talented programs, in short to, well, be a school. Third, since Duncan seems pathologically incapable of doing anything without attaching a threat to it (do it my way or lose your funding), he further alienates anyone who actually knows anything about education from both his own inanities and the DOE in general, and enhances the impression of Chicago-style politics run amok in the Obama administration.

Finally, whereas high-stakes testing of the regular student population is unnecessarily stressful, often incompetently administered, and frequently used as “evidence” of utter falsehoods, at least we can understand the impulse. As a university professor, I do often despair at how remarkably underprepared many of my students are when they arrive in my freshman classes. If testing actually worked (it generally doesn’t), at least we’d have some means of determining what they know and what they don’t—and, as I’ve said before, I do look at a prospective student’s ACT or SAT scores as part of my decision of how to vote on a scholarship application. (I’d never use those scores to evaluate a teacher or a school in any way, however.)

Here, though, the proposal makes no sense at all. There’s no possible way that testing disabled students could do any good at all, could provide any useful information, could in fact accomplish anything remotely positive. The only way this makes sense is if it’s some sort of elaborate ruse to get people like Curmie to say “testing of the regular student population isn’t so bad, because see how much worse it could be.” (Note: ain’t gonna happen Arne—regular high-stakes testing is still awful, even if this is worse.)

Either that, or Arne Duncan is off his meds.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two Updates (more to follow)

Curmie is, as noted on the Facebook page, way behind in his writing. Here’s a first salvo, with updates on a couple of stories I’ve discussed earlier. There are more updates to come, but let’s keep the posts of manageable size. We’ll take the cases in chronological order of the original posts.

We start, then, with a case I’ve actually written about three times: first in May of 2010, then in November of 2011, and most recently in May of 2012.

The offending garments.
The short version of the events: five students at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill High School in California wore clothing with American flag designs to school on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 2010. Although there were no substantive problems by lunch-time, the Assistant Principal, Miguel Rodriguez nonetheless told the boys to turn their shirts inside out, go home, or face suspension. They refused. After the fact, Rodriguez invoked the “potential for disruption” argument that is the only loophole available in what is otherwise an open and shut 1st Amendment case.

He also claimed that he hadn’t seen any students wearing Mexican flag apparel, although news reports at the time make it clear that numerous students were in fact doing so. Indeed, whereas Rodriguez’s actions were arbitrary, petulant, and almost certainly unconstitutional, he—like generations of cops and other violators of civil liberties before him—dutifully consulted his lawyer, found out what wildly distorted version of his actual mindset might get him off the hook, and proclaimed that as his motivation all along.

The boys’ parents sued a month or so later—not for damages, but just to prove a point—only to have their case rejected by federal judge (and serial prevaricator) James Ware. They tried again, but (and here’s where we get to stuff I haven’t discussed before) this February their appeal was denied by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Needless to say, although I still think the boys were and are “right little assholes” (my term in 2011), they also have the stronger case, at least in common-sense terms. As I wrote in 2011,
… the whole “potential for disruption” argument is now, and frankly always has been, little more than an excuse for intellectual cowardice. It’s what gets controversial speakers uninvited from college campuses. It’s what justifies the worst excesses of “political correctness.” It’s what craven administrators, mayors, and police chiefs hide behind when they really, really, really want to censor speech (cf. the #Occupy folks) but know they have to circumvent that pesky First Amendment somehow.
Or, as someone with considerably better legal credentials than mine—Eugene Volokh—puts it:
This is a classic “heckler’s veto”—thugs threatening to attack the speaker, and government officials suppressing the speech to prevent such violence. “Heckler’s vetoes” are generally not allowed under First Amendment law; the government should generally protect the speaker and threaten to arrest the thugs, not suppress the speaker’s speech.
Volokh then describes the exception to this principle as expressed in the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and says the 9th Circuit “might be” right in purely legal terms to use this as the guiding authority.

More importantly, however, he adds the following note:
… even if the judges are right, the situation in the school seems very bad. Somehow, we’ve reached the point that students can’t safely display the American flag in an American school, because of a fear that other students will attack them for it—and the school feels unable to prevent such attacks (by punishing the threateners and the attackers, and by teaching students tolerance for other students’ speech). Something is badly wrong, whether such an incident happens on May 5 or any other day.

And this is especially so because behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated [emphasis his]. The school taught its students a simple lesson: If you dislike speech and want it suppressed, then you can get what you want by threatening violence against the speakers. The school will cave in, the speakers will be shut up, and you and your ideology will win. When thuggery pays, the result is more thuggery. Is that the education we want our students to be getting?
This is indeed the lesson that will be learned, that the heckler’s veto works. This is why exceptions must be rare, and why, irrespective of the legalities of the case, justice took a shot to the solar plexus in this case.

Next up: schools that force students to divulge Facebook passwords or open their accounts the prying gaze of school officials. I didn’t write about the specific case in question here, but I talked about the phenomenon in May, 2012 in a case in Geneva, Illinois in which busybody administrators, responding to rumors which had nothing to do with school and nothing to do with violations of the law, demanded that a 7th-grade girl open her Facebook page for their delectation.

Riley Stratton
This update is about variation on the same phenomenon at roughly the same time—except for a different girl, a different Midwestern state, a different sorry excuse for school administrators. This time it was then-6th grader Riley Stratton in Minnewaska, Minnesota who was subjected to the humiliation of having her private social media posts pawed over by both school and police officials. (N.B., her friends’ posts were, of course, also subject to scrutiny, although their authors weren’t even suspected of wrong-doing.) 

First, she was given an in-school suspension for posting, from home, that she hated a “mean” hall monitor. She was 13, remember. That kind of response happens. Then, having been punished for something that is none of the school’s damned business, she took to Facebook again to wonder which alleged friend had narked on her. Another punishment from the school. And finally, the mother of a male friend got her skivvies in a twist that her son and Riley had engaged in an on-line conversation about sex. Naturally, it couldn’t have been innocent, or the same conversation they could have in person, or instigated by the boy, so school officials, who have more prurient interest than their charges, the brains of a banana slug, and the moral courage of overcooked linguine, demanded—in the presence of a sheriff but not of Riley’s mother—all her passwords so they could get their rocks off peeping at an adolescent girl’s secrets.

Yeah, yeah, sure. It was all for the best of intentions. “The school’s intent wasn’t to be mean or bully this student, but to really remedy someone getting off track a little,” quoth Superintendent Greg Schmidt. If you want to see someone who’s off track (and more than a little, at that), Mr. Schmidt, look in the fucking mirror, you voyeuristic asshole. What students—any students—say on social media is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS unless it significantly affects the operation of the school per se: a threat of violence, for example. This obviously doesn’t qualify. Butt out.

What’s new is that young Ms. Stratton (or her parents) enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued (or at least threatened to do so), and got an out-of-court settlement. Here are the details, according to the ACLU’s press release:
As part of the settlement the School District agreed to change its policies to better protect students’ privacy and train its staff on the new policy to ensure it is correctly followed. The School District also agreed to a $70,000 settlement which will be divided between the Strattons, for damages, and the ACLU-MN to cover case costs and support future ACLU-MN efforts to protect the civil liberties of Minnesotans.

“We are pleased with the settlement and hope this sends a clear message to other schools that it is bad policy to police students behavior on social media,” stated Charles Samuelson, Executive Director of the ACLU-MN. “There may be times when it is appropriate for schools to intervene, but only in extreme circumstances where there are true threats or safety risks.”
The consummation devoutly to be wished here is that maybe, just maybe, some other school district somewhere will collectively think twice before callously and self-righteously invading the privacy of its students. Curmie isn’t holding his breath, but stranger things have happened.

More updates forthcoming…