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updates for 03.02.2012

5 new posts today

On Stealing an Education

You read it right: an education can be stolen. Tanya McDowell, a homeless woman from Bridgeport, recently pleaded guilty to first degree larceny for fraudulently using her babysitter's address to enroll her 6-year-old son in the neighboring town of Norwalk. As a result, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison. She only wanted a better education for her son. (The context is complicated by other factors. She was also arrested for dealing drugs. Both the larceny and drug charges were made together. This forced her into a plea bargain, and into a particular form called an Alford plea. Read more here and here.) This case provides much food for thought. It's particular relevant, given my most recent post:

I’m making my first foray into another sphere this summer. I’ll be working on housing/foreclosure litigation on behalf of low-income families at a legal services organization in Bridgeport, CT. I intend to serve my clients to the best of my abilities, but also to learn more about how housing–or the lack of it–in turn affects educational achievement. I think the experience will be particularly interesting given that Bridgeport’s school district ranks 161st out of CT’s 165 school districts.
I thought I'd focus on the educational aspect of the story: what was the state of affairs behind Ms. McDowell's motivation to send her son to school in Norwalk? With my investigative hat on, I went onto School Digger and dug around. I compiled some basic data on three sets of CT elementary schools: (1) Bridgeport's (2) Norwalk's (3) CT's top 10. There was a lot of data to play with, but I think this chart captures the situation well: Here are some observations (putting aside the complications that Ms. McDowell's homelessness created):
  • Practically all of Bridgeport's elementary schools are worse than any of Norwalk's schools--and those schools themselves tend to fall in the bottom half of CT's schools overall.
  • The school that Ms. McDowell chose to send her son to was, itself, not emblematic of "upward educational mobility." Brookside ES ranks 383 out of CT's 530 elementary schools--almost putting it in the bottom quartile.
  • (Practically) all of CT's top schools have no poor students.
  • There is a very strong correlation between poverty (implied through the free and reduced lunch rate) and school rank (based on CT Mastery Test scores).
  • There's a (bleak) story behind the weird outlier (the top 10 school with an 89% FRL rate) that probably caught your eye just as it caught mine. This is not a case of an amazing school defying the odds. Rather, it is a case of a school's faculty gone succumbing to the pressure to raise test scores. Even sadder is that the school is called Hopeville.
And my thoughts: Ms. McDowell ultimately appears to have made a rational decision by sending her son, albeit illegally, to the Norwalk school district. Who can fault a mother for wanting the best education possible for her son? While I doubt that Ms. McDowell used School Digger to choose Brookside, I'm sure her decision was influenced by what she knew of the school. And what she knew was that the education there was probably going to be much better than anything her son could get in Bridgeport. But, as noted, the crushing part about this story is that the school she chose to send her son to was itself mediocre and likely not an environment that would have made a huge difference in her son's life opportunities. She risked--and eventually was forced into--jail time to improve her son's education to only a marginal degree. That she would do this (assuming, of course, that her son's education was her primary motivation--something I have no reason to doubt) shows just how ****ed up our education system is. In a state with as stark of an income inequality as Connecticut, this story is troublesome. It should make us rethink how we control access to our public schools. Of course, there are legitimate concerns on the other side, and the policy rationale behind criminalizing such an act makes some sense: we want to ensure that those in the district who are paying taxes directly benefit from those raised taxes and that, conversely, those from out-of-district aren't unjustly enriching themselves. Yet, if we truly want to ensure educational opportunity for all, something needs to change, whether it's the way we fund schools; the process we use to enroll students; or the opportunities we create, by law, for students in poor areas to retain access to great schools (which, likely, will be in rich areas). In a way, I admire Ms. McDowell's act. By trying to give her son the best education possible, even if that meant openly and knowingly breaking the law, she highlighted the injustice of the system. The irony of all this, too, is that, had Ms. McDowell claimed to be homeless, she would have been permitted to keep her son in the Norwalk schools under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. What are your thoughts on this case? I focused on the educational context. Anyone have insights on the other parts to the story? Homelessness? Drugs? School funding? Local government law? Race? Poverty? profile counter

April NCTM Conference and ME

I am GOING to the annual NCTM conference in Philadelphia this April.   My district is giving me the days off of work and paying for the trip. They need someone to spearhead curriculum development for math (which is largely ignored currently) and hopefully this means they'll let me help....   I know this makes me the biggest nerd ever, but the idea of spending three days talking about math and learning with the experts makes me really super excited.



1.  6th graders are too old for recess. 2.  Token economies aren't worth the annoyance. 3.  We've moved past the "stealing from the teacher" phase of the year. 4.  (Insert coworker's name) can't actually be THAT difficult to work with. 5.  Since our extremely tense behavior meeting with A.'s dad, the school director, the cultural liaison and our middle school dean, A. and I have really turned the corner in our relationship and he definitely won't talk back to me anymore. 6.  Proctoring state testing for two days will be much less stressful than two regular teaching days! 7.  Students whose parents work in our school would never dare seriously misbehave. 8.  Students whose parents work in our school, catch them misbehaving, and proceed to ream them out in front of their entire class, would never dare misbehave again. 9.  Whatever my students are saying in Somali that is just so hilarious, I really want to know what it means. 10.  J. might yell out the opening line of "Baby Got Back"  (Oh. My. God. Becky) as he walks into the classroom, but he wouldn't actually keep singing the very explicit lyrics to that song.  And especially not during my reading lesson.


The Niggerization of Black History Month: Musings for a Necessary Reconstruction

The origins of an annual recognition of American black history, initially dubbed as “Negro History Week,” can be traced to as far back as 1926, despite blacks’ presence in American life since colonial times. It would not be until the twentieth century that black Americans would acquire a respectable and noticeable residence in American historical scholarship. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, born to parents of former slaves, was disturbed to find that the history of the African diaspora was absent and ignored in texts, mirroring the inferior position that the black race was assigned at that time. In response, Woodson launched “Negro History Week” to draw national attention to the contributions of black Americans throughout American history. He chose the second week of February for the birthdays of two men who he believed greatly influenced the progressive cause of black America, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. To choose Lincoln is not surprising; however, it does not come without complication, which I will discuss later in this post. While Black History Month celebrations can provoke important and vital conversations for American academic, racial, and cultural fabrics, there are those that peddle the idea that Black History Month is no longer necessary or relevant, that Americans should not have to wait eleven months to pay tribute to and commemorate the legacy, achievements, and struggles of historical black leaders and their movements. Morgan Freeman, a critic of Black History Month, said "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history." There are those that claim that it (Black History Month) is shallow and actually fuels racism. The idea of schoolchildren learning about the same black historical figures annually -- and only in February -- can appear to be a ghettoization of black contributions, that somehow black history is not American history and that it is only worth the value of 28 days out of a year, or the shortest month of the year. The aims of Black History Month all point to raising awareness and never forgetting; yet, I question how effectively the goals of Black History Month are met by schoolchildren who learn cheapened versions of the same figures year after year without background or the historical context that surrounds how they (historical leaders) were able to prosper despite deep-seated racism? To what end does learning black history without a contextual backdrop serve as meaningful history? I question how adequately the goals of Black History Month are met at a time when colorism, the schism and contention between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks, has yet to be paid attention or afforded collective action. I question how useful celebrating the merits of school desegregation are when our black and Latino youth marry speaking proper grammar, pursuing education, and achievement to whiteness, that somehow one is "acting white" or can be considered a racial or cultural sellout because they "are not being true to who they are." How can we discuss the injustices and the abomination that rage around the Emmett Till case who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi when there continues to be rampant and pervasive discrimination and racial bias within our American criminal justice system because of the inability of the capitalist system to provide economic and social justice? I do not advocate dismantling or abandoning Black History Month altogether. Truly, a knowledge of black history is essential to understanding the present and how to meet the demands of the African-American experience in the distant future. The current framework and approach of Black History Month has run its course, though. Black History Month should not hold a seasonal occupation of once a month annually. The irreverence of how uncalibrated Black History Month has become in pursuit of raising awareness, never forgetting, and perfecting our Union is entirely apparent and glaring. If we insist on maintaining Black History Month celebrations, we should at least not niggerize* it. We should reframe the celebrations to provide more context for greater understanding, but we should also discuss problems and challenges of the black community today. Discussing and remembering the past is important, but it is not enough to solve our most urgent evils nor does it provide enough audacity to even consider the unknown perils of the future. We should discuss colorism. We should explore the confusing and troubling word "nigger" and why it is both offensive and endearing depending on the user of the word. We should debate (and eradicate) the "acting white" phenomenon among our black and Latino youth. Let Whitney Houston be a lesson unto us all, but particularly within the black community. It is the lesson that we can have incomparable talents, potential, and wealth, but should we succumb to the ravage of substance abuse and drugs, we can instantly lose it all. We should address misconceptions and historical inaccuracies, such as the claim that "the Great Emancipator," Abraham Lincoln, fought the Civil War because he was sympathetic to slaves and wanted to free them.

"I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races---that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race." - Abraham Lincoln, "Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858, Charleston, Illinois," in "Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings" (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 636, and in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, page 371
If we continue to cheaply honor the struggles and advancements made to ensure equality and justice for all, then we will always and only discuss history and never be doers in history. For all of the headaches that afflict the black community, simply reflecting on history is not enough today, for an entire month, or year. Black History Month, once upon a time, was necessary, and that was a time when simply recognizing history was progress. Make no mistake, America has made considerable progress, but to continue to see progress and move towards a more perfect union, we must remember meaningfully with context and never forget, promote black history to a year-round, permanent position, and discuss cultural and social aspects affecting or dealing with the black American experience.
*Niggerization is neither simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people nor solely the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of them. It is also the wholesale attempt to impede democratization—to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects. - Cornel West, whose most recent book is Democracy Matters (2004) and whose most recent CD is Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations (2007), is a professor of religion at Princeton University.

In the hopes that Ioana's spirit might live on

News stories about my friend's tragic 300 hundred foot fall in the Grand Canyon fill my facebook news feed. Here is the ABC video. The key point is that she was incredibly experienced and not to blame for her fall-the best I can guess is that she probably stepped on an errant rock that started her sliding towards the edge. She wasn't in a particularly difficult place or right by the edge when she fell. There were places she walked I was too scared to follow, but this hike wasn't one of them. Romanian newspapers have picked up the stories of their fallen ex patriot and posted videos and photos. Who knows what they wrote about her. Ioana was the one who could read in four languages. Ioana-if everyone is curious about you they need to read something closer to the real story. I can't claim to know all of you- I know you expressed your love for your friends in many different ways- but I'm going to try to see if I can capture more than the images of your smile on the sides of the Grand Canyon. The newspaper stories share that you were to be the youngest person to ever walk the entire length of the Grand Canyon. They say that you double majored in math and biology, tutored, and perhaps that you did ultra marathons. People might imagine these feats in the abstract but can they envision the day to day decisions you made to achieve your dreams? Would they have judged you unreasonable if they had heard your plans? Can they imagine the spirit of the women who accomplished these feats? Ioana wanted to take more classes than she had time for, run more miles than her knees and ankles would allow, go on more coffee dates than a conscientious user of caffeine might recommend. I didn't always know how to respond to her enthusiasm-she wanted to hike the grand canyon with me, climb half-dome(something well beyond our abilities at the time), travel to Patagonia with me, study math in her tree house when we were in combinatorics together. When I'd say no, I need to sleep or do my homework, Ioana was kind about it. But she didn't often make excuses for herself about needing to rest or study. She ran an ultra marathon before a Real Analysis test. And still passed. And she always expected to be able to do everything. She loved everything so much that these accomplishments were a natural consequence of her enthusiasm for life. What do all of these accomplishments look like in practice? Ioana tried to run 50 miles at the Havalina midnight run. She wanted me to wake up at 2 am and pace her for the last 15 miles and I wish I hadn't decided it would be too exhausting to trash my body when I was so busy with school. She ended up not being able to finish. Not because she gave up but because she threw up all of her liquid when she wasn't by an aid station and literally couldn't continue. She made it 30 miles and still placed in that category. I remember when she told me that she twisted her ankle on mile two of a rim to rim to rim Grand Canyon hike. (For the uninformed that is a one day 50 mile hike that is all up or down the steep walls of the canyon and crosses the Colorado and Phantom ranch). She still completed it in 16 hours. She posted pictures to facebook of her swollen ankle. I thought that she was insane for walking downhill for 10 miles on a strained ankle without camping gear in case she couldn't make it out. In hindsight, I'm glad that she did it. I would have turned around. At her death I'm left asking myself some questions. Is there anything in life that I'm too afraid to take on because I worry I won't have the energy? Is there a project I'm leaving undone because I'd rather watch a movie or relax? Do I let the minor aches and pains of my body keep me from going on the adventures that Ioana and I dreamed up together? Ioana's physical and mental strength were just one part of her essence. She loved her husband with reckless abandon. She met him when she was only 18 years old. He was twice her age. It didn't matter. She believed in their love and she was right. She didn't second-guess her love when others wondered how someone so young could know who to marry. They shared a deep love for adventure in the canyon. She cooked him amazing Romanian food and homemade yogurt. She enthusiastically shared how physically attracted she was to Andrew even in venues where people might have turned and stared. They raised kittens together in their sock drawer and cried when her first cat died. They took their friends and families on adventures. His heart is breaking for her: "My light, my fire, and my love: I am so broken and lost. I say "my" but I could only hold you like a butterfly. I will find the poem I wrote you, when we met. I hope you knew the exultant joy and perfect love I felt merely being in your presence. Watching you do... everything... with zeal and passion. Please come to me in my dreams. Yes, YES, YES, (you asked me so often), I DO know the depth of your love for me. It is my honor and salvation. Everyone saw it, how we found truth and happiness with each other. To those whose lives Ioana touched: Love each other. Now. Deeply. With abandon. You will not regret it.. I promise you." The day I found out she died I spent an hour or two sending messages to friends and calling my grandparents to tell them I loved them. Nobody knew why I'd picked that day to skip school and tell them why I appreciated them. I hadn't told Ioana about the ways she inspired me and how much I appreciated her texts, her invitations, going on her wedding trip across the Grand Canyon. Whenever I showed up to her house, to the ASU pool, to her wedding she lit up and told me how glad she was to see me. She was never afraid to shout out the truth. She was kind, honest and lived as if she had nothing to hide. She didn't. When I spent time with Ioana there were times I couldn't believe what she was doing even though I delighted in fantasizing about adventures with her. After her graduation party she woke up at three in the morning to drive the Grand Canyon. And she was sick. I was too quick to judge her. Too quick to stay home when I thought a trip might wear me out. And too likely to miss out on love and beauty because of the effort it takes to get packed and leave town. She never would have completed what she did in 24 years if she had waited for all of her bruises and blisters to heal. I'm not sad for Ioana's sake because I knew that if she looked back on her life she will never wonder if she could have done more. She wouldn't ask, Could I have taken more than 22 credits in a semester? Could I have triple majored in French, math and biology? Could I have walked farther than 50 miles in one day? Could I have kept running after I vomited up all my food and liquid at mile 30? Could I have put more energy into my friends? Could I have taken more time for adventure? Could I have led more than 17 people into the Grand Canyon on my honeymoon? Could I have carried more than two overnight backpacks up thousands of steps if another guest had been ill? Could I have loved Andrew more deeply? The answers would all be no. She did as much as anyone could. Her life was short, but wonderful. She wasn't waiting to graduate, to get older, to have more money, to be less busy, to start living. She won't have regrets. I'm not crying for her life-I'm crying for all of the people who don't have her anymore. We have her stories and memories and many people will be inspired to pour themselves into their passion in her name. People are donating her her scholarship fund for female mathematicians. My heart breaks for Andrew. I tucked him in last night and held his hand and told him everything I could remember Ioana had ever said about him. I was thankful all I could remember was Ioana talking about loving Andrew. I could look Andrew in the eyes and share everything I remembered she'd said about him and know that it would make him secure in her love for him. She wanted his body. She was always sure about her wedding. She was proud of his book. She loved going to the canyon with him. Ioana, I love your spirit and I'll carry it with me when I climb mountains, ride my bike for 10 hours in a row and try to change math education. What dream will Ioana's strength inspire you to attack with no fear of failure?


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