Federal deregulation is a path to disaster

Some years ago, in an enumeration of the sins of modern society, the Canon of Westminster Abbey listed, “Commerce & industry without morality.” Certainly, meeting the needs of the marketplace can constitute a moral exercise if exercised properly, and capitalism – loosely defined as the favoring of private enterprise over state-owned business ventures – has proven itself to be the most efficient method of furnishing and distributing goods and services to consumers.

At the point, however, where entrepreneurs prioritize greed over need, our social contract demands that our government intercede on behalf of citizens. “Buyer beware” is an insufficient credo when dealing with the distribution of unsafe products or the spread of immoral business practices. Society, as a whole, must be wary of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen if for no other reason than showing a louse a profit may place your well-being at the very bottom of the business priorities.

We accept as common wisdom that the individual’s right to throw a fist ends where another individual’s nose begins. Why is the same not held true for consumer products? In the absence of governmental regulation, these behaviors will undoubtedly follow:

  • The greedy will overcharge the consumer.
  • The selfish will neglect the common welfare.
  • The unscrupulous will deceive the naïve.
  • The unprincipled will exploit the ill-informed.
  • The powerful will overwhelm the weak.
  • Industrialists will poison our bodies for profit.

History suggests that some who aspire to wealth recognize few limits on expedience in their quest for riches. As Michelle Alexander observed in “The New Jim Crow”, “Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich…” Wanton avarice prompted the abomination of human bondage, the ramifications of which reverberate into the modern era.

The progression from an agricultural to an industrial economy induced some small progress in economic justice for the labor force. However, unbridled capitalism and industrial production has created a host of nuisances that threaten our health and welfare. How many thousands have died building canals, bridges and railroads? How many captains of industry attained wealth beyond the dreams of avarice while stepping over the carcasses of workers?

Industrial waste in the Cuyahoga river caught fire no less than thirteen times between 1888 and 1952. The fire in 1969 finally prompted legislative remedies in the Clean Water Act. Flash forward to 2016 and recall the still unresolved catastrophe with non-potable water in Flint, Michigan.

In 1994, captains of the tobacco industry raised their hands at the Waxman hearings and swore, “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.” Worse, to retard burning, cigarettes also contain chemical additives that would not pass EPA muster for dumping in a landfill.

Today, oil barons refuse to affirm the incontrovertible evidence that the rampant burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change which threatens rising seas, more violent storms and decreased biodiversity. Our ice cover is melting which threatens the water table, and fracking has poisoned What becomes of our species when the food chain is broken? How many more days will their wealth ultimately purchase when they can no longer breathe the air?

Governmental regulations are required simply because tycoons tend to ask if goods, services or processes will generate a profit long before they worry about adverse outcomes for the consumer. For evidence, we need look no further than the overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming and the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It would appear we have learned little since Victor Hugo famously penned, “The paradise of the rich is made from the hell of the poor.”

Reworked from a letter to the editor at The Prince George’s Sentinel on March 14, 2017.

There is more to School than Reading, Writing or Math

In his Remarks on the Youth Fitness Program in 1961, John F. Kennedy proposed that, “The Strength of our democracy and our country is really no greater in the final analysis than the well-being of our citizens.” My generation was the first to undergo the annual test for physical fitness.

That was more than a half-century ago.

The decades-long trend of increased childhood obesity should be sounding klaxons across this country. President Kennedy’s proposed minimum of “fifteen minutes of vigorous activity daily” was insufficient. Our failure to resolve this issue will likely result in a generation of adults needlessly dependent on an already-strained health care system.

Strong minds are improved by strong bodies.

Simple biological survival requires the presence of air, water, food and shelter from the elements. The offspring of sentient creatures also require access to time for “play” that leads to the development of survival skills and general fitness.

Both structured and unstructured play time are absolutely essential to the physical, social and intellectual growth of children. Adequate time for play is critical to their physical well-being and facilitates the development of collaboration and cooperation with peers. 

So, why are we still stuck with a fifteen-minute minimum recess for children in a place called “school”? This in a day and age where everyone is advised to perform thirty minutes of exercise to maintain good health.  

For the dozen years since the enactment of the pernicious No Child Left Behind legislation, school schedules have been compelled to strictly narrow the curricular focus to reading and math skills. Schools are devoting ever more of the school calendar to test preparation and test administration because their very survival depends on achieving “acceptable” results on standardized assessments.

Instructional programs, especially in schools serving the socio-economically disadvantaged, have therefore experienced reductions in enrichment programs, arts, recess, and even naptime for pre-Kindergarteners. Such regimentation ignores the needs of the whole child, and, frankly, contributes to a decay in morale for students. Having coached athletics for a portion of my career, it was clear that athletics kept many of my at-risk students engaged in their studies.

In the current climate of test-based accountability, it will be no small task to allot time in the school day to provide an opportunity for children to achieve the recommended 30 minutes of daily exercise at aerobic threshold required to maintain optimal human health. So far, only a handful of states have achieved that goal.

We ignore that goal at our own peril.

According to research released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012, too little recess leads to difficulty with concentration and attention span. Educators see the evidence of this every day as fatigue sets in and students get lost in daydreams about access to the playground. Conversely, ample recess time in elementary school leads to increased cognitive performance as well as improved physical fitness. Consider this an affirmation of another bold assertion by Albert Einstein: “Play is the highest form of research.”

My first contribution to the Prince George’s Sentinel on 07/01/2015 (Slightly revised). 


“Send these the homeless, tempest tossed, to me”

Have we, as a nation, forgotten the spirit of the poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns our beloved Statue of Liberty? This country has a history rich in human migration that has proved to be a crucial part of our social tapestry. Our culture is enriched by our diversity, not harmed by it.

Fear of the ‘other’ is an unbecoming trait to most Americans. Having spent nearly a quarter-century in local public high schools where more than a hundred nationalities are represented and dozens of languages spoken in the hallways, it was impossible to do more than sit with mouth agape upon hearing the Chief Executive’s latest cringe worthy observations about the nations-of-origin for the innumerable exemplary immigrants that have graced my classroom.

This is not to suggest that many parents lacked ample cause to flee their homelands. However, we would all do well to remember that many of those nations so recklessly disparaged by our President have endured centuries of occupation by the European colonial powers who ruthlessly pillaged the natural resources of those lands, subjected their peoples to servitude and attempted to erase their languages and cultures from history. America was all too frequently complicit.

A bit more compassion for refugees might be in order since, as reported by The Guardian, children as young as seven continue to toil in open pit-mines to furnish cobalt for our lithium batteries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, subsistence wages, perilous conditions, extortion and intimidation are rampant according to Amnesty international. Would you accept such a fate for your children?  

As Nobel laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, once observed, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Human rights must be accorded to everyone, or you may not profess to believe that we are all equal.

Pick any geopolitical hotspot from the last three decades, and it might surprise you to discover the number of students that appeared on my class lists whose parents were seeking asylum. It might also surprise you how many of those children graduated from public school having obtained college credit in my Advanced Placement classes.

Every year, one composition was devoted to relating a life-altering event. Twice in my career, a student described the massacre of his/her native village. The young man had concealed himself in a haystack for days until he heard his uncle’s voice. The young woman was placed in a closet when the soldiers came, and later was spirited away to relatives in the United States. Somehow, both remained optimists and excelled in their studies.

Another young woman wrote an eloquent essay about the untimely death of her father. In dire straits, she came here to live with extended family. That essay was so perfectly executed –not a single missing agreement or ill-advised word choice — that the misty-eyed French teacher set aside the red pen for the only time in his career.

What can be said about the eldest of three brothers who, forced to flee a homeland rife with political corruption and ravaged by natural calamities, arrives in a new country and works nights to help support the family and turns in impeccably completed assignments by day while finishing off his requirements for a high school diploma? Well, for starters, our nation will be improved when he becomes a citizen.

The President has advocated for merit-based immigration and stoked the cauldrons of fear against Islam. His patently offensive generalizations about broad swaths of humanity speak for themselves and run counter to the American tradition of an open and egalitarian society. His reversal of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) makes political pawns of thousands of Dreamers and suggests that American promises have no value.

The overwhelming majority of immigrants are seeking the American Dream of a better life for their children. Their children serve in our military and offer up their lives in gratitude for the opportunity to live under the Constitution. Since the turn of the century, 33 of 85 American recipients of a Nobel Prize have been immigrants.

America must never extinguish “the lamp beside the golden door”.  


[A slightly reworked editorial piece from the Prince George’s Sentinel (01/18/2018)]

How do teachers come to loathe the vocation they once loved?

     It is insufficient to point out that our society is NOT completely rational. Quite to the contrary, in the real world educators might be justified in seeking restraint orders to protect themselves from society-at-large. Even when the best of us find our way into the classroom, seldom do more than five years elapse before we understand that success in the classroom requires an unsustainable level of personal sacrifice. Even those for whom intangible rewards satisfy their emotional needs eventually find themselves exhausted by the constant edicts to do more for every child. This is how teachers end up settling for “something”  [read that: “anything”?] else. 

     During my quarter-century as a classroom instructor, the opening of the school year invariably saw some representative of the educational leadership team stand before the faculty and exhort classroom instructors to extend themselves beyond the limits of human endurance with a hale and hearty “Do it for the children!” Administrators would implore, with the force of a moral imperative, that teachers expend whatever effort might be required to reach each-and-every child despite that pile of unfulfilled wishlists in the principal’s inbox.

     Guilt is the poorest of motivators for those who already give all they have. 

     Do folks really believe that teachers remain in the classroom because of the great pay, lucrative benefits and retirement packages, stellar working climate and reasonable work load? No, for most career educators, the love of their subject matter and the joy of the daily interactions in the classroom keep them hanging around despite the myriad challenges…teachers have been doing so since time immemorial. The harshest critics of teachers have no idea what drives rank-and-file teachers to devote such energy to children! 

     Persistence and grit are reinforced in those moments when a student’s eyes sparkle with a sense of wonder or accomplishment. Students occasionally return years later to share how much they loved your class or how much they learned there. These little rewards render bearable the innumerable daily aggravations.

     Infrequent morsels of positive feedback suffice to keep some teachers around for a while, but after a decade or so, when buried once more up to the neck in papers to be corrected prior to tomorrow’s deadline for semester grades for 100 plus students, ideals begin to matter a bit less. So long, written assessments; hello, multiple choice!

     Theater performers complain about the weekly matinée; teachers are compelled, on a daily basis, to do three, four, five, and even six shows a day. What is more, teachers must conceive, write, produce, direct, decorate, block, and perform every show. Furthermore, first period might be a drama, period two a musical, and period three a farce. Then the teacher must assess whether the audience was attentive and do an encore for those who dozed. So long, public service; hello, private sector!

     Teachers are locked in a room for nearly 300 minutes a day with thirty children who become indignant when directed to use their transit time between classes for biological needs. Teachers sometimes relent and write that hall pass. Meanwhile, teachers themselves are forbidden to abandon their classes for even the most basic of human needs. So long, bladder infections; hello, bathroom breaks!

     Sure… teachers have a nine-week hiatus in the summer, but more than one study has shown that teachers work more hours during the 40 weeks that school is in session than other jobs require in a 50-week work year. Therefore, the summer hiatus is necessary to recuperate from the damage inflicted by the potboiler school year. And while summer should be a time for teacher reflection on the improvement of instruction, most teachers supplement their income with summer jobs and usually for significantly less than a teacher’s rate of compensation.

     A few teachers may get the chance to work in their field, but the deplorably infrequent “professional” opportunities for curriculum writing are paid at a per-diem rate that is half that of regular pay for any save the most junior teacher. Go ahead! Suggest to your doctor, lawyer, plumber or electrician that time or services beyond the contract be billed at half the regular rate. Do you hear them laughing?

     True, it has never been solely about the money for teachers. Still, vows of poverty & eternal toil were not included in the paperwork to accept the position of classroom instructor.

How does that old song go?
 “…you load sixteen tons,
and what do you get?
Another day older,
and deeper in debt.”

     It is discouraging when college classmates, with fewer credentials, make twice your annual salary, and wonder out loud “Why on earth are you still in the classroom?” It is disheartening when blue-collar union brethren go on strike and teachers discover that the average striking union truck driver earns 30 percent more than the average teacher (who does not, by the way, even have the right to strike!). Nothing against truck drivers receiving their just due, but they do park their trucks at quitting time.

     Ask any parent if they want their child’s teacher to give rigorous assignments and assessments. You can rest assured the response will be affirmative. And while parents have been known to demand that schools give their children more work, they seldom bother to ascertain when teachers will be reviewing that student work and offering feedback that is prompt and appropriate. It certainly will never be accomplished in the contractually allotted 50 minutes for planning.

     Thank goodness that a job well done occasionally delivers its own rewards.

     One day, though, retirement looms large on horizon. Teachers look at those yearly statements of retirement benefits and wonder how they will survive on the deferred income set aside at the retirement agency. Hence, it is incumbent on teachers to set aside even more than the customary 6% of their less-than-professional compensation in order to maintain their standard of living at retirement.

     Now, hear this! 

     Teachers always “do it for the children”! They always have; they always will. Not much else keeps teachers going into their classroom every day. Were it not for the moral certitude that our services enrich the next generation, who among us would endure inadequate compensation, interminable labor, and a conspicuous lack of the most rudimentary resources needed to accomplish the assigned task of reaching every child.   Like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, many would prefer not to do so, and that is reflected by the more than half of instructors who depart the profession within five years.

     So, cease dangling before educators their own well-practiced altruism as a motivational tool: a simple “thank you” would be preferred. Always working within the confines of “The Heroic Model of Teaching” suggests that other reasonable aspirations will remain somehow always beyond the reach of committed professionals. It also suggests, as one colleague recently offered, that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the Prince George’s Journal in January, 2000. It has been revised for clarity and readability…]




Why the “minimum wage” should be a “living wage”

For the working class in this nation, the path toward progress has been a rocky road starting as we did with an investor class that believed labor to be no more than chattel. We must never forget that from this nation’s founding, the relationship between the investor class and labor has been oppressive, at its worst, and antagonistic at its best. Centuries of enslavement and indentured servitude for the working class would lead to a small group of people amassing vast intergenerational wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. 

In 1932, half a century before Ronald Reagan would recycle trickle down economics and make them seem once more a plausible alternative the following lines appeared in a column by Will Rogers: “ Mr. Hoover… knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands. They saved the big banks, but the little ones went up the flue.”

It is nearly a century later, and the prescience of Will Rogers still amazes as wealth percolates upward at a prodigious rate while the wages of the working class have remained stagnant for three decades. In the most recent financial crisis, taxpayers saved the banks who, in turn, foreclosed on homes, and small investors lost $3 trillion in holdings while hedge fund managers gained $3 trillion for betting against the economy. In 2019, 26 individuals possess as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the world’s population, 

Establishing a fair level of compensation for all labor arrived with the enactment of the Minimum Wage in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” Workers can no longer support a family or prepare for retirement on today’s minimum wage.

Two fortunate outcomes arise from putting a few more dollars in the pocket of workers. First, the working class pays taxes on those new wages thereby furnishing revenues for more public works. Second, workers with disposable income spend it on more products and services spurring on the economy.

We can no longer afford to establish a minimum wage and allow inflation to degrade its buying power for decades until that minimum wage becomes subsistence pay. Clearly, adjusting wages at that point needlessly puts a choke on the economy. Instead, we need to establish a livable wage and tie it to the Consumer Price Index for annual review.

Also, it is time to channel our inner George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and ask the important questions, “…you are all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”

It is a thoroughly reasonable expectation that street sweepers should sweep streets as though the hosts of heaven might walk there. It is, however, also a reasonable expectation that those hosts of heaven not find street sweepers sleeping under the overpasses for want of adequate wages.

This Commentary originally appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on May 26, 2016. It has been slightly reworked, here. 

Curiosity: all too easy to stifle

Curiosity, genuine intellectual curiosity, is not a habit of mind than can easily be taught in the classroom. However, a long career in the classroom has crystallized into this one inescapable conclusion: curiosity is a behavior – a life skill even –  that children must bring to the classroom to ensure their academic success. 

Teachers coax some academic performance from students with any number of motivational gimmicks. Teachers modify behavior with positive and negative feedback. Teachers lead students to the proverbial fountain of knowledge, but students will not drink sufficiently long and deep in the absence of a thirst for understanding. Teachers may sometimes inspire a cautious ascent up the psychologist’s hierarchy of needs, but should a student lack intrinsic curiosity, then the climb to that ultimate goal of self actualization will be torturous.

It must be noted that teachers can also squelch nascent curiosity. If teachers mistake meanness for rigor or bitterness for pragmatism, the effects can be devastating and long lasting. 

Absolutely everyone shares in the responsibility for the cultivation of curious minds. 

How important is curiosity? The ‘question’ is the foundation for all rational thought. It has been said that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity – which thoroughly revolutionized the way humanity looks at the Cosmos – began with a seminal event in his fifth year and bore fruit nearly two decades laters. 

On Einstein’s fifth birthday, his father bought the young genius a compass. Albert asked what compelled the needle to point northward. His father explained that invisible lines of magnetic force emanated from the Earth and pulled the suspended magnet in the direction of the North Pole. 

Albert Einstein spent his entire life answering an endless series of follow-up questions, completely obsessed with understanding the workings of electromagnetism and gravity. Or, so the story goes…

Countless times in nearly three decades, I stood in front of a classroom full of students shouting like some modern Richard III, “A question! A question! My kingdom for a question!”

Three-quarters of a class might perform abysmally on a relatively simple assessment, but when surveyed the respondents would willingly indicate that they had not opened the book, or practiced the skill, a few would indicate inability to decode the cues despite near-daily repetition of a base vocabulary for multiple semesters. No small portion of students would exhibit handwriting that was marginally legible. A couple students would crumple the paper upon receipt. The principle symptom of “senioritis” manifested as acute affected disinterest.

These aspects of daily life in the classroom, in and of themselves, are not particularly bothersome.

What is troubling is the collective response to the teacher’s prompt: “Are there any questions about the quiz?”

Most frequently, none would be posed. Seldom would a hand be raised. 

It mattered little that this skill would likely appear again in the unit exam. It mattered even less that this was a foundational skill, scaffolding for future knowledge. No, what mattered more was that raising your hand and asking pertinent and cogent questions might lead to labeling as a “nerd” by classmates. 

“How can you not have any questions?” I would ask. A few indifferent shrugs constituted the reply. You know you are in trouble when the bell rings and it fails to awaken a student who has learned to sleep with his eyes open. 

How has it come to this? What has become of the human passion for understanding? Where is the will to learn? How do our young people arrive in the modern classroom so totally unprepared to participate in the process of improving their minds in preparation for the Age of Information. 

Some years ago, this confirmed people-watcher occupied a bench in a local mall waiting for his wife to exit a store. Not far away, a mother and her son were having lunch in the food court. No scene could have appeared more benign. 

The little boy was engaged in that “Why is the sky blue?” questioning behavior typical of toddlers. His little voice was barely audible, but the nature of the conversation could be surmised by the mother’s increasingly agitated replies. 

“I don’t know.” “Stop asking so many questions and eat your lunch.” Because they do, that’s why.” “I don’t know that, either.” “You’ll have to ask your daddy.” “You ask too many questions.” “You are starting to get on my nerves with all these questions.” “Eat your lunch or we won’t be able to go to the movie.” “That’s it, we are going home.”

Everyone has felt similarly exasperated with an ambitiously inquisitive child. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it had consigned one young man to perdition – judging by the wailing as his mother led him away – for a behavior that most teachers would heartily welcome in the classroom. If such conditioning were to be commonplace, it is not too difficult to imagine some future teacher calling little Jonathan’s parents to express concern about his lack of participation in class. 

Teachers may sometimes succeed at reawakening stifled curiosity during instruction, but their jobs would be infinitely easier if everyone would simply nurture the natural inquisitiveness of children instead of stifling it. To paraphrase George Sand, curiosity is a delicate flower that never blooms once trampled underfoot. 

The “Viewpoint” originally appeared in the Prince George’s Journal on April 20, 2001. It has been revised. 

How Do We Get There From Here?

An old Winston Churchill quote has been getting a lot of play of late, but it bears repeating. “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” The quip is applicable for so many of our national endeavors, except for public education where we try the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. 

It has become abundantly clear that funding education with the proceeds of a property tax favors schools located in affluent jurisdictions and disfavors those schools serving jurisdictions predominantly inhabited by the economically disadvantaged. However, we continue to rely on the same funding mechanisms that have failed to deliver equity for all children.

Why do we burden property owners with the responsibility of providing public education for all children? Is it not time to find a path to spread that responsibility more evenly across the tax base?

Educators, those closest to the work of preparing children for this new century, advocate strenuously for sufficient human and material resources to reach every child in every classroom. Achieving equity for the children most in need will be expensive, but poverty is the rogue elephant in our classrooms and pea shooters will not stop its charge.

Instead of compensating for that poverty with resources,  so-called education reformers allocated millions to fund new standardized assessments that do nothing but validate what all classroom teachers know in their heart: aggregate test scores are a reliable indicator of socio-economic status and little else.

Still, the nation doubled down on the ’test & punish’ strategy of No Child Left Behind by enacting an even more onerous Race to The Top, and this despite mounting evidence that both students and educators were losing too much time for teaching-and-learning to the administration of tests.

The media report regularly on the rampant turnover in the teaching profession. The exodus and/or migration of educators remains the logical outcome following years of vilification of teachers in the public debate and the fetid mix of inadequate compensation, unreasonable workload and little professional autonomy.

From where will the next generation of lifelong, committed educators arise given the current working conditions? Why would any of them stay anywhere but an affluent neighborhood with guaranteed optimal test scores?

Little has changed in the five centuries that have elapsed since Montaigne observed “…the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education children.” It does seem like time at least to start exhausting the possibilities so that we can finally arrive at doing the right thing for all children. 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 29, 2015] 

Federal deregulation is a path to disaster (II)

“Decades of corporate government deregulation and reduced funding of important government departments has the country well along the path to a lawless society.”
Steven Magee

James Carville is reputed to have said, “Businessmen want fewer regulations for the same reason criminals want fewer police; it’s easier to get away with murder!” One must hope that Mr. Carville was speaking metaphorically, but any number of our industrial products and by-products now jeopardize our health and, very possibly, our continued tenure as the dominant species on Earth. 

Decades of reliance on insecticides have increased food production, but at what cost? In the seventies we were talking about the thinning of eggshells for birds in the wild. Today, we are losing bees, our principal pollinators, at an alarming rate. In January 2017, bumblebees have been placed on the endangered species list. The risks to the food supply cannot be overstated if we lose the bees, or even if climate change alters the delicate timing of blooms and the awakening of the insects that feed on their pollen.

Nor can we be certain of the health consequences on human beings of chronic exposure to these powerful toxins that kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems.  Joni Mitchell said it best decades ago, “Give me spots on my apples; but, leave me the birds and the bees, now!” We really will not understand what we have until its gone. But, cheer up, chemical companies will have made a fortune in the process! 

The opening line of a study from the National Institute of Health [NIH] study Epidemiologic Evidence on the Health Effects of Perflourooctanic Acid should do little to calm your jitters.  “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) does not occur naturally but is present in the serum of most residents of industrialized countries.” Our exposure rates are very low and PFOA does not qualify as an acute toxin. However, our exposure qualifies as chronic since so many cook with Teflon-coated pans. The study continues, “It does not break down in nature and has a half-life of three years in the human body PFOA is not directly genotoxic; animal data indicate that it can cause several types of tumors and neonatal death and may have toxic effects on the immune, liver, and endocrine systems. Data on the human health effects of PFOA are sparse.”

There is much we do not know, with certainty, about this product, but corporate America is reaping a fortune on a decidedly unnatural molecule that most citizens are carrying in their bloodstream. Regulation may have failed us, here, but some might argue that more regulations, not fewer, should be in place. 

Those ubiquitous plastic bottles and containers from which we imbibe the universal solvent – water – and ingest micro-waved foodstuffs are another potential health hazard. Bisphenol-A (BPA), another chemical brought to you by the chemical industry, is used in the production of those containers. Much more is known about the health consequences of this little beastie, consider the insert, below, from the NIH

“Why are people concerned about BPA?

One reason people may be concerned about BPA is because human exposure to BPA is widespread. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. The CDC NHANES data are considered representative of exposures in the United States. Another reason for concern, especially for parents, may be because some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.”

Again, dear reader, does this suggest to you that industrialists are in need of fewer regulations, or more? 

More recently, Gary Taubes has published his new work The Case Against Sugar in which he recounts the history of refined sugar and its evolution toward dietary staple, and the possible links to the so-called ‘diseases of civilization‘.  His arguments are compelling, but inconclusive, since we are unable to subject human beings to experimentation that controls for all variables. However, Big Sugar has spent millions on lobbying over decades to increase its market-share of calories consumed while simultaneously sponsoring less-than-rigorous research with the express goal of attributing those diseases to other macro-nutrients. 

It has been said that the most dangerous place on Earth is the spot between Capitalists and their Profit. Certainly, a few obsolete regulations may still be on the books; however, the public should not be duped by businessmen into believing that regulations are placing a chokehold on the ability of business enterprises to turn a profit. As Linda C. Brinson said in “10 Unforeseen Effects of Deregulation”, “Deregulation doesn’t always work as expected. Some economists believe that deregulation usually leads to someone being hurt. It’s just not easy to predict whom.”  Or, even to what degree they might be harmed…


The Need for Restorative Justice to address the Decline of Discipline

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders, and love chatter in places of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” Socrates circa 400 B.C.

       Whenever the daily stresses of teaching became too much to bear; whenever the tardiness, sloth or superficiality of my students drove me to distraction; whenever overwhelmed by the certainty that this is undoubtedly the generation that will deliver us to hell in a hand-basket; whenever contemplating the prospect of one day being the recipient of urgent care from one of my students; this quote served to remind that over a hundred generations of adults have shared identical feelings. This sense of historical perspective has been comforting.

     Still, how would Socrates have coped with the recalcitrant student of today? What would Socrates have thought of being compelled to instruct the unwilling while being held strictly accountable for their non-performance? How would he have managed the worry of his students having access to assault weapons? How would Socrates have reacted to a student responding to his particular method of discovering truth through questioning with “Get the [expletive deleted] out of my face, old man!”  Would Socrates have remained true to the instructional method that bears his name?

     Cultural awareness of challenges in the classroom are clouded by memory, but occasionally illuminated in cinema. Blackboard Jungle and To Sir with Love detailed with some grit the efforts to introduce civilization into the chaos of inner city schools.

     Enter the inner sanctum of the teacher’s lounge in most any school today and hear the time-honored tales of the further exploits of the Ilmar Dammit’s of the world, those ill-begotten minions of teacher purgatory possessing no other purpose than to usurp our authority, try our patience, sabotage our instructional program and test the limits of our credulity with their idiocy. Twenty-nine of thirty students may have relished the task before them and acquitted themselves favorably, but the bile generated by that thirtieth student will be the topic of conversation over coffee and corrections, for coping with the antics of that student consumed far too much of the instructional time.

     Some years ago one of my French 2 classes was graced with such a student. He arrived late, never brought his materials, belched loudly, passed gas, grinned, giggled, clutched his genitalia, made inappropriate comments to the young ladies, muttered epithets, researched and uttered vulgar expressions in the target language, wandered the classroom, declined all work, ignored most directives and occasionally napped. Please, forgive me for failing to wake him on the days he chose to take a siesta!

     Vast amounts of time were spent each day to get him seated and quiet so other students could attend to instruction. He required constant supervision or he pulled others off-task. He was oblivious to his grades. Calls home and disciplinary referrals to the administration had no effect. In short, this one student rendered thirty lives unbearable for one hour each day.

     Whenever forming groups for Cooperative Learning activities, the other members of his team would be sure to stay for a minute, or two, after class to complain about the vast injustice of his inclusion in their group.

     One day after a particularly egregious episode, security was called and he was escorted from class. A student, who a couple of years later would successfully complete the Advanced Placement exam, asked, “Mister Haines, why do we have to put up with this?” I could not offer a cogent reply.

     “Ilmar” was back in class the next day.

     Suffice it to say that this experience does not constitute just one aberration in an otherwise tranquil teaching career; he does represent my “Kobayashi Maru” exercise, the no-win scenario, of Star Trek fame. Every year presented some new trial or tribulation. With mind-numbing, spirit-sapping regularity school years would invariably begin with at least one behaviorally challenged student creating obstacles to effective instruction from Day 1.

     It is the systemic nature of such challenges that exasperate. Federally mandated guidelines and statutory policies frequently yield deleterious effects on the school environment and, consequently, hinder the education of all children. School administrators lament that the tone of a building might be changed drastically were management able to cull five-percent of students into an alternative education setting. Ninety percent of disciplinary problems are caused by that five percent, and another five percent of students who might otherwise conform to expectations find themselves in disciplinary difficulties for imitating the attention-seeking of misbehaving classmates.

So, how has it come to this?

     Question: What do you call a private school student who chronically misbehaves?

     Answer: A newcomer to the public schools.

     While virtually all students are capable of learning, not all students avail themselves willingly of the opportunity to do so. Free will is a double-edged sword. It must be observed with great regret, but it is a fact. We accept as an axiom that all children must receive formative instruction that both challenges and pushes them to their limits. However, there is an equally important corollary. As John Goodlad pointed out in A Place Called School, “Those who can and want to learn must be protected from those who don’t.”  Or, we must find ways to inspire unmotivated students to greater heights…

     One truculent and willfully disobedient student can have intolerable effects on the learning environment. If three or more such students attend one class, teachers may as well scratch “instruction” from their job description and replace it with “behavior management“.  In order to uphold the right of ALL children to learn, it is incumbent on society to make provisions to modify these behaviors whenever possible and to furnish alternative educational scenarios when misbehavior becomes unmanageable. There can be no disposable children in the 21st Century. 

     If not, we will need to change the sign out front from school to Adolescent Containment Facility

   Those who most vigorously protest education spending seldom bear witness to the wisdom of spending disproportionate amounts of time-and-effort on a segment of the school population that yields the fewest increases in academic performance. It would be shortsighted, however, to overlook this challenge. The question remains: are teachers only here to convey academic content, or to forge more productive and resilient human beings?  

   In recent years, educators have been seeking to rid schools of ‘zero-tolerance strategies‘ since a direct correlation exists, bordering on irrefutable, between suspensions, dropouts and eventual involvement with the criminal justice system in what has come to be known popularly as the school-to-prison pipeline. Most educators seek to teach children how to thrive in society, not deliver retribution by exclusion from the mainstream.  

   As for suspensions and other withholding of educational services in retribution for anti-social behavior, even the most committed educator is able to teach nothing at all to an empty chair. 

   Yes, negative feedback for misbehavior is always simpler and may produce short-term compliance. Positive feedback for acceptable behavior, though, while requiring more time and effort, yields measurable results and fewer instances of recidivism. Yes, it is labor intensive to praise and reward the 28 students arriving on time and ignore the tardy few. Ultimately, however, the tardy student’s desire for acceptance and praise usually wins out in the end… 

     There are those who will argue that there are insufficient resources to provide alternative settings and alternative protocols for the most troublesome students. However, if we are concerned about maximizing returns for our education dollars, how can we continue to ostracize so many students in dire need of inclusion in the educational process? One way to forge empathy is to model empathy by focusing on building community and relationships through the practices of Restorative Justice

     Most of the evidence is anecdotal at this point; however, its proponents are building a case for its effectiveness. A practitioner for three years in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Robin McNair is quick to state that the techniques she has learned during the training for Restorative Justice have totally transformed the climate in her classroom. “I do not raise my voice anymore, nor do I find it necessary to remove students from class. It has gotten to the point where the students correct each other’s behavior. There are still occasions where more support is needed for some of my trauma students,  but I am better able to provide that social and emotional learning students so desperately need in the 21st Century.” In her role as a certified trainer, Ms. McNair has become deeply involved in preparing an entire cadre of teachers to bring Restorative Justice practices back to their respective schools. 

    Restorative Justice is a protocol for repairing harm and restoring the school community by holding accountable those who violate the rules and allowing them to acknowledge the harm they have done and make restitution for those actions. It focuses on the needs of both the victim and the perpetrator by not focusing on the deed, but about the motivations for the deed so there can be support to help correct the behavior. The emphasis is on  inclusion rather than exclusion from the social group.  The practices of Restorative Justice seek to increase the emphasis on healing and forgiveness rather than meting out punishment and retribution.  

   Too frequently in the past, the public debate has applied the mistaken metaphor of removing ‘rotten apples’  as though youthful misbehaviors render children irredeemable. Educators, however, are hoping to install a model that perceives each child as an unformed mass of marble – replete with faults and imperfections  –  that through patience and hard work can be chiseled into a work of art. Using Restorative Justice techniques to model empathy and understanding  must eventually supplant the model of crime & punishment that has dominated the discipline policies of our public schools for far too long… 


Elections & Consequences in 2016

“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God”? James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Part II Section 3, Education.

If this quote from the landmark examination of poverty among tenant farmers in the rural South of 1941 resonates with you, then the election results of November 8, 2016 must surely give you pause since it appears that we have apparently elected the reincarnation of Jacob Marley to occupy the Oval Office. Not one of his picks for his cabinet suggests that humankind will become his business for the foreseeable future.  Sure, a few will become richer, but nothing will be said of those who get trampled in the stampede for what little manages to trickle down. 

Of particular note, the appointment of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education must terrify all proponents of equitable opportunity in the public schools, because nothing in her résumé suggests anything but disdain for the cause of public schools as the foundation of an egalitarian society. Her policies, if implemented, will only serve to deepen the social & economic divisions of this nation by systematically dismantling access to equitable educational opportunities for all children. What Gandhi suggested about society-at-large applies also to schools, “No society can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.” 

Vouchers – most of which are delivered into economically privileged households – essentially endorse educational elitism and fail to deliver education equity to the children facing the greatest challenges. 

Reflect for a moment on the possibility that nearly every child is capable of accomplishing some stupendously unimaginable feat that satisfies a salient need of our human species. Why are we not willing to invest in children to such a degree that they might achieve what Simone Weil dubbed their “indispensable destiny“? How can we deny any child the right to that opportunity for self actualization. 

Imagine for a moment each of our most economically disadvantaged children on such trajectories, perhaps forging a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; or designing the magnetic containment field for a fusion reactor; or isolating a molecule that deactivates the aging gene; or finding an inexpensive way to desalinate and purify seawater; or curing cancer; or leading a successful mission to deflect interplanetary debris from an Earth orbit intersect; or solving any of the host of environmental, medical or economic problems that beset all of humanity.

Which of these indispensable destinies would you sacrifice to tax cuts for the wealthy or larger profits margins for private enterprise?

Now, imagine each of those potential world changers settling for a McJob, simply because politicians could not justify the immense effort and expense of truly educating all children to the limits of their potential. Imagine those children lost in the anonymity of large classes and taught by marginally qualified instructors. Imagine those potential movers and shakers of history competing against what is known, today, as the “digital divide“. Not much imagination is required since our tale of two school systems is right in front of our eyes.

Which of these scenarios constitutes the greater loss for our society?

Too much is currently left to serendipity when it comes to educating children. A few children find their way, against all odds, out of challenging circumstances… A few years ago,  a former student returned to visit his high school teachers at our majority-poverty high school. He had not been a particular standout in high school, but he had just graduated in 3 1/2  years with a double major and was headed for a prestigious medical school.

He was among the fortunate few who undertake what Anne Sexton called “The Awful Rowing Toward God” on the way to achieving his “indispensable destiny” despite large classes and inadequate resources. Still, such success stories should be the trend and not the anomaly. Nor should such statistically insignificant anecdotes suffice as justification that we have, collectively, provided enough to remove the stumbling blocks for all children. 

No child should be allowed to languish in conditions that permit little more than a flourishing of social darwinism. Rather, it is the purview of adults to remove impediments to learning and furnish the resources necessary to achieve self actualization. It is also incumbent on adults to elect representatives who will make such schools possible for all children instead of a privileged few.  Should you believe, as does Jonathan Kozol, that ‘spending more on [prisoners] than [students] is a form of cultural suicide’ then the time for political apathy is long past with an understanding that our national greatness will ultimately be determined by how we treat the least powerful among us.