Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living

This is from Monty Neill, Executive Director of FairTest:

Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living (Mother Jones). Or is it, those whom tee gods would destroy, they first make mad. The latter might be true, but the first is all we can do.

On education in MA, our strategic path forward may not be so complex (not easy, just not so complex).

Nationally on the much wider range of ‘issues’ there are deep complexities that have I think led to the Democrat’s loss – specifically, the neoliberalism that grabbed the party perhaps as far back as Carter and certainly under Bill Clinton, then continued under Obama (who also aimed to promote more social democratic approaches such as on health care, but the two cannot really be reconciled).

Hillary was, I think, trying to get out from under it, at least partially (as with Obama), but could not (thus, as pundit land put it, was not seen as a change person). Compound that anger against neoliberalism with white racism and plus misogyny, it is a potent brew. Neoliberalism has in many ways has most hurt people of color, but they face R’s open racism; related was media’s apparent unwillingness to talk about racism – only ‘southern strategy; and media kept failing to qualify its term ‘working class’ with the modifier ‘white’ since by any meaningful definition of working class, it is composed disproportionately of blacks and Latinos.) It mixes also potently with cultural conservatism that for example led white evangelicals to massively support Trump.
Sanders offered something of a route forward for the Dems, but it is far from clear the Dems will break with neoliberalism – now a huge part of their base are folks who have relatively benefited from neoliberalism (those with college degrees, as media discussed incessantly last night, tho they used terms like ‘technology’ so they could avoid ‘neoliberalism’). That sector and it would seem large sectors of the ruling class/elite that brought us neoliberalism backed Hillary if only out of fear of the unknown that is Trump (see stock market sharp declines last night, internationally). Again, the Republicans were able to mix their strange alliances better than were the Dems.

Very weird political knots to even untangle clearly, never mind figure out how to address strategically.

BTW, I don’t mean to suggest our strategic thinking should be limited to terrain of major political parties.

Back to education:
Ed week just had a piece wondering what Trump will do – a useful reminder of the little he has said.

Monty Neill, Ed.D.; Executive Director, FairTest; P.O. Box 300204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-477-9792;; Donate to FairTest:

California Proposition Recommendations

Below are my recommendations on the 17 California Propositions

(links to other explanations and recommendations)

(summary of recommendations)

There is a part of me that wants to just vote no on every proposition as the initiative process is in my opinion a severely flawed process for making law. The reason we elect representatives is to make and pass laws—it is their full time job. To expect every citizen to become an expert on 17 issues this year, many of which have complex provisions in them, is ludicrous and ends up meaning people often vote based on knee jerk reactions to the initiative’s title. Legislative bills go through the give and take of compromise and debate to amend them, which I think is a good process. Propositions are voted up and down as is, with no opportunity to fine tune them. And the outcome is actually more, not less, influenced by big money as people tend to get their info from TV ads or just going by who supports or opposes it, if not simply the title. Not a good way to makes laws and amend our State Constitution.


Proposition 51, School Facility Bonds: No

While more money for schools is always good, there are a couple of hidden poison pills here. One is that it exempts developers from paying fees to go to schools when they create new developments until all the bond money is used up (such developments often creates the need for new schools, and so traditionally developers pay fees to offset such costs). It therefore transfers the burden from developers to increased general state debt.

Also it gives a disproportionate share of the money to charter schools, which actually undermines traditional public neighborhood schools.

Proposition 52, Medical for Private Hospital fees: Abstaining

While the proposition makes sense, this was originally done by the legislature and no reason they cannot extend it as a bill. We should not be voting as propositions what our legislatures can easily do themselves. We elect and pay them to be the experts and understand the details and repercussions of such bills. Additionally this is a Constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are extremely difficult to change or amend if need be, like if there is a need to change these fees in one direction or the other. I am not voting no as I do not want to send the message that I am against these fees.

Proposition 53: Public vote of Revenue Bonds: No

Revenue bonds are paid off by users of the service the bond pays for (e.g. tolls if used to a bridge). This bill was put up by one individual who does not like one particular project. We elect our representatives to make these decisions. And no reason everyone in the state should be voting on every project—and need to be an expert on all the pros, cons and details of them that is needed to make an informed decision — especially projects that do not affect those voters in terms of paying for them or serving them.

Proposition 54: Changes in Legislation Process: No

This bill would require 72-hour notice before any bill could be voted on, among other things. On its face, this proposition does seem to offer more transparency in government, but in reality would make passing any bill extremely difficult. As bills are normally passed, they go through a process of adjustments and amendments to both make compromises and fix problems with them. If every amendment or minor change meant a 72-hour wait, it would take forever to get anything done. This is why Republicans, who are in the minority in California want it, as they want to be able to obstruct bills.

Proposition 55: Tax on High Incomes: Yes

This extends the 1%-3% additional tax on individuals making over $250K and couples over $500K per year. The money mostly goes to schools. Since our infrastructure is falling apart and the rich have been getting richer at the expense of the rest of us over the last decade or so, it only makes sense to get the additional money our society needs from those who both most can afford it and have benefited the most from our economy.

Proposition 56: Tobacco Tax: Undecided

I am mixed on this. Cigarette and “sin” taxes tend to hit the poor much more than the well to do. But it is in society’s interest to discourage smoking as higher prices do, and smoking has societal costs that these taxes help offset.

Proposition 57: Parole, and Sentencing: Yes

We have several times the percentage of our population in jail as any other civilized country, and when you look at the percentage of our oppressed minority groups, the numbers are staggering. The evidence is that the longer people spend in jail the less fit they are to reintegrate themselves back into society. Reducing sentences for those that are not a clear and present danger only makes humane sense (and economic sense, as keeping people in prison is extremely expensive).

Proposition 58: English Language Education: English Language Education: Yes

This overturns the anti-bilingual proposition passed 17 years ago. It does not require bilingual education, but allows schools to once again use it if they wish. All research has shown bilingual education to be at least, if not more, effective than the English Only instruction required under the previous Unz initiative. Arguments that it has raised test scores are wholly false. For one thing, state testing only became high stakes after Unz, as well as the fact that all sorts of other instructional changes have taken place, so the number of factors that might affect test scores are too numerous to count. Furthermore, the tests have changed more than once, so any comparison is meaningless.

Proposition 59: Citizens United Advisory: Yes

While in some ways meaningless, any message that we object to the Supreme Court ruling that Corporations have the right to spend unlimited amounts influencing political elections since they are “people” is worth it.

Proposition 60, Condoms: No

While wearing condoms is a good idea this bill is horrible. There actually are laws already on the books requiring the use of condoms. This would allow individuals to sue anyone involved in the porn film as individuals and the person filing the suit would personally get some of the proceeds from the fines involved as well as court fees, giving enormous incentive for any anti-porn people to file frivolous law suits in the hope of financial gain. It also requires the actors to divulge their home address. It also has the potential of making the writer of the bill the Porn Czar if any one challenges the amendment. It also likely applies to individuals who shoot their own private porn movies, not just commercial movies.

Proposition 61: Prescription Drug Costs: No

Many good organizations and people seem to be supporting this, and the intent is good—bring down prescription drug costs. But the devil is in the details. It only applies to a small number of residents (Medical patients who are not under managed care systems). It also is impossible to really do what it says. The negotiated prices are not public, so how would we know if we are getting lower price? It mandates the government to get the lower prices but not the drug companies to agree to those prices. It could encourage the drug companies to raise prices to the Vets so that then the price the government has to match is actually higher not lower. This is the wrong solution to a real problem. Whether it will actually reduce drug prices is dubious, and even possibly could create higher prices.

Proposition 62: Abolish Death Penalty: Yes

Killing people is just wrong, even (or especially?) if done by the state. It does not bring justice, only revenge. It is not a deterrent—people committing crimes that lead to death penalty do not think—“oh, I might get the death penalty if I do this!”  It does not make up for anything the perpetrator has done. It is expensive to carry out. The death sentence is disproportionately given to minority and poor people. And sometimes innocent people are executed. We are one of the few countries with a death penalty. Those that do have it tend to be religious extremists and totalitarian (e.g. some Muslim states and Russia and China).

Proposition 63: Gun and Ammunition sales: Yes

This would make it more difficult for those who have committed violent crimes and with certain types of mental illnesses to get ammunition. If it makes it a little more inconvenient for others to also get ammunition, I do not see that as a bad thing. I do not see why we make it easier to buy guns and ammo than we do to check out a library book!

Proposition 64: Making Recreational Marijuana Legal: Yes

There are some problems with the details of this bill, and there will be problems with its implementation, as we have seen in other states. Also, I would rather see this done by the legislature than as an initiative. Waiting might have some advantages, in that we could learn more about what is working and not working in other states that have legalized marijuana.

However, I plan to vote yes anyway. The societal costs of criminalizing marijuana use are just not worth it, both in terms of costs of prosecution and jail, and ruining the lives of those who are prosecuted. Legalizing marijuana take it out of the hands of the criminal market to where it is easier to regulate the industry. If it gets voted down would send a message to the legislature that the public does not want to legalize it (an example of why I do not like the initiative process as I cannot send a nuanced message, as I might be able to do when a bill is working its way through the process).

Proposition 65: Carry out bag fees: No

Paid for by plastic bag industry to confuse the issue of Prop 67, the ban on bags, and to punish the supermarkets for their support of the ban. It claims to support the environment, giving the money for bags to a conservation organization, but the only supporters of the bill are the plastic bag industry. Environmental groups are NOT supporting this bill.

Proposition 66: Death Penalty procedures: No

Makes it easier to carry out the Death penalty, and makes appeals harder.

Proposition 67: Plastic Bag Ban: Yes

Plastic bags are extremely bad for the environment, and these bans have been very effective in getting people to use reusable bags instead of paper or plastic ones. The only real opposition is the Plastic Bag industry–who put it up in the first place hoping to override the bill the legislature already passed with a no vote on this. This is a straight forward example of big private money trying to hijack the legislative process.

Summaries and explanations:

Official voter guide

BallotPedia: Gives extensive information on each Initiative, with pros and cons and who is for it and against, and money contributed, and all sorts of analysis. Non-partisan

Cal Matters: Gives quick summaries of each. Non partisan


Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Gives their recommendations with detailed explanations.

DailyKos blogger analysis and recommendations: Mostly agrees with my analysis

California league of Women Voters recommendations:

California Democratic Party:

Summary Recommendations:

Proposition Me Friends Committee League of Women Voters DailyKos-Mainstreet Democratic Party
51 No Yes Yes Yes Yes
52 * No * Yes Yes
53 No No * No No
54 No Yes Yes No No
55 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
56 * * * No Yes
57 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
58 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
59 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
60 No No * No No
61 No No * No *
62 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
63 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
64 Yes Yes * Yes Yes
65 No No * No *
66 No No No No No
67 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

* No Position or Undecided

The War on Blacks?

The United States has by an astronomical amount the largest proportion of its population in prison compared to other countries. Our competition, (though we still have them beat) are places like Russia and Uganda, and maybe China, though reliable statistics for China are hard to come by.

Prison population

And while Blacks make up around 10% of the population of the country as a whole, they make up about 40% (FBP) of the prison population on the federal level and similar disparities are found at the state level.

Fifty percent of the prison population at both federal and state levels are for drug related offenses ( The war on drug that produced these figures has had no measurable effect on reducing drug use. It has been a boon to the prison industrial complex, and possibly the effect of increasing the power of drug cartels.

This is not to mention the well documented disproportionate violence against Black by police, too often resulting in death as well.

A further repercussion is that for the most part prisoners cannot vote, and in some cases that lack of ability to vote carries past being released, sometimes for life.

Now add to that the recent voter suppression laws, and we see a pattern of the disenfranchisement of the Blacks and the Black vote.

If you look at this by numbers, it would be easy to interpret this as a police state for Blacks.

(I was recently hearing that similar statistics—if not even worse, are true for the Native American population).

Should we still require cursive?

I just came across a piece entitled Ten Reasons People Still Need Cursive by Jennifer Doverspike, in the Federalist. The piece is obviously on the importance of teaching cursive. As one who found its imposition on me as an elementary student to get in my way, rather than help me (and in fact, my teachers in middle school were glad when I quit using it, since they found it difficult to read my cursive), I decided to critique the 10 claims.


  1. Cursive Helps People Integrate Knowledge

So do lots of other things at least as well, such as the arts, theater, physical education, all of which there is way too little of in most public schools. These others sound like better and more interesting ways to integrate knowledge to me. And print is just as tactile as cursive, so would it not do this integration just as well?

  1. Writing Long-form Teaches Us How to Write

The author cites a correlation between the good writing and good handwriting in children. However, it may be that those that have good handwriting as children do so simply because they have matured earlier, both physically and mentally—so do not confuse correlation with causation. I would have to see evidence of such a correlation in adults to give it any credit. If you want fast, then learn to type—that is what I did, since I have atrocious handwriting.

  1. Our Hands Should Be Multilingual

“Should be?” Well, there are lots and lots of things maybe we should be—like be multilingual. Is its more important than all the other things that time could be spent on. Remember, time is school is an extremely limited resource. I do not see a reason to force this one particular “should” over all the others I can think of that we do not find time for in school.

  1. We Learn Better When We Write It Down

We can write it down without knowing cursive. In argument 2, they focus on the need for speed in writing, yet in this argument they argue slow is better. Well then go to print. And what the author is referring to writing down is lecture notes. Children rarely do have to do this, and a better way to learn is to be actively doing something rather than listening to lectures anyway.

  1. Handwriting Leads to Cognitive Development, Self-Esteem, and Academic Success

It may only do so because we give it that importance. And in fact, since good handwriting is easier for some, requiring it actually gives an academic advantage to those who have better dexterity, but may not be any smarter. Again from the research cited, they may very well be confusing correlation with causation, or even reversing the cause-effect relationship.

  1. It May Help Those With Special Needs

And it may hurt them too. That it “may” is not a reason to impose it on all. For many using a keyboard opens up a world denied to them, especially students with physical impairments which make handwriting more difficult. If it helps a particular student, great, but this is a sweeping generalization.

  1. It Reduces Distractions and Inspires Creativity

Maybe it does for some, and for others it becomes another burden—I know that when I started typing (in middle school) and then using a computer (in college), it was way less frustrating for me, and in each case I felt more creative, not less. I do not think I am all that unique in that way.

  1. It Keeps Our Brains Active in Old Age

There are millions of ways to keep one’s brain active in old age. It does not happen to be the one I would choose. If you like it great—but do not impose it on me.

  1. We Need to Be Able to Read Cursive

Actually, I have found extremely few times in my adult life when I need to read cursive—and the claim you need to be able to write it to read it is just plain false.  If and when such a time comes up, one can learn it. There is no critical age for learning to read or write cursive. Learning to read it can be done in a tiny fraction of the time needed to learn to write it. To force all to learn to write cursive for the few that might find it necessary seems wasteful and arbitrary.

  1. We Can Create Something Beautiful and Unique.

Again, there are millions of way to create unique and beautiful things. To impose this one way is arbitrary. I would hate it to be imposed on me.

My main argument is not that cursive is bad—but it is no longer necessary in modern society. I could make 10 easily as justifiable arguments for learning to ride a horse , but we do not require horse back riding or many other wonderful things that can integrate our brains and help us be creative. All of the arguments relate to why it may be worth doing, but do not justify it as a requirement, especially given the limited time that schools have with children.

As a teacher I happened to have liked teaching cursive—but that was because I could keep the kids busy and quiet at the end of a long day in a mindless activity that as third graders they saw as important. Learning cursive was, and may still be a sort of right-of-passage. That is the best argument I can come up with to teach it.





In this post I am going to discuss a pet peeve about the use of language–the use of a particular word. I am an avid tennis player (even if not particularly good). I get the magazine Tennis, and there was an article asking some tennis stars who their heroes were. The large majority of them named tennis or other sport stars from the past. I have found this use of the term hero to be quite common.

humptydumpty with quote

What is a hero? We can go to the dictionary, but that is problematic in that a) the dictionary offers several definitions, and b) dictionaries are not the arbitrators of definitions but the recorders of them—dictionaries decide definitions by their usage. My experience has been that the word hero is often used the way I described above.

However, for me, that use of hero is simply a synonym for idol. What I would like to reserve the term hero for when it includes two other criteria besides (and some dictionary definitions do include these, especially if you look up heroism, or heroic, rather than just hero). These are that it is done in the service of others, and that some risk is taken.

While I admire Roger Federer as a tennis player, and he may even be an idol or someone I want to be like as a tennis player, he does not fit my definition of a hero. His becoming one of the best tennis players ever took and takes an enormous amount of dedication and talent. But he did not take any what I would call significant risks—his life or future was not put in danger by his working to be a great tennis player. He did it for himself—no one is saved by his great tennis playing.

I see this phenomena of people naming idols—often media and sports stars—as common, true from kids to adults. I wonder if this is just a different idea of what hero means, or part of out focus on media and sports stars in our culture.

One common answer kids, and others often give, though, does fit my definition. Parents! Parents do fit the hero definition of mine! Having a child is a big risk—no one really comes prepared for what it means to be a parent. It is a big sacrifice! The work of a parent is to put one’s child before oneself.

Do you have a pet peeve about a word you feel is misused? What is it and why?

Multi-graded Classroom

We think of the age-graded classroom as so normal, as if it is just the natural order of things—and forget that it is a relatively recent modern invention.


The first public schools were mostly small one room buildings with kids of all ages and a teacher. This was mostly done not out of any belief in multi-aged classroom, but since most people lived in rural areas, schools were not likely to have more than a classroom full of kids from the town and surrounding farms, and their attendance often sporadic.

The age-graded classroom was a product of two simultaneous and connected changes in society: urbanization and industrialization. In a primarily agricultural society, there were too few students in close enough proximity to fill up more than a class or two, especially given that most did not spend much time in school. Most of what anyone needed to know could be, and really had to be, learned at home on the farm. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were all that was needed from school for most people, and not to a very sophisticated level.

Urbanization meant more of the population was living in larger cities, which meant schools could have larger enrollments. With more of the population living in large cities, now in many places there were enough children of one age to make a entire class or even more than one. It also meant more people’s jobs were working for someone else, and so schooling seemed more important as well. Further, since parents were working outside the home, they needed a place to send their kids.

Industrialization brought with it as well the idea of assembly line efficiency. It only made sense to apply the modern ideas of such efficiency to the classroom, especially given having so many children in one place. Curriculum was designed along these lines, where all teachers could give the same lessons to all the kids of a certain age in the proper order.

Soon this way of doing things, where students were grouped by age and taught subjects and content in a linear order, became what seemed the natural order of things. Multi-graded classrooms were now just an inconvenience of the few places left rural enough not to be able to have age-graded classrooms, or in larger schools to avoid hiring extra teachers when the numbers did not work out to have a complete class at every grade, putting the extra kids form two grades together.

When most teachers are now assigned such a combination grade class they dread it. After all, it is gong to mean two different curricula they have to teach; kids of different ages to manage; more different groups. How to instruct one group while keeping the other busy doing something meaningful? Given the paradigm of teaching as the delivery of curriculum, these fears are probably realistic ones.

However, if one has a different paradigm, multi-graded teaching can be wonderful. In my third year of teaching, when I had a second grade, I asked to keep my students the following year. I found it a huge advantage to start the year knowing my students. I felt I developed a much deeper relationship with these students. I could start the year right off and take them on from where they were. Classroom management was easier since we had already established the classroom norms. Having students for two years was a blessing.

The following year I switched school districts and was assigned a first grade. But as the year progressed, I started scouting among the other faculty for a teacher that might want to join me for teaming for multi-graded classrooms. My idea was to do a first/second, and keep half of my students, but the teacher I found that was willing to try this with me did not want to do first, so we ended up agreeing to do second/third. After doing that for several years, I also had years where I did 4/5, 4/5/6 and 3/4/5.

The big difference in the paradigm that makes one seem advantageous over the other is a belief in how people learn. Much of schooling is based, mostly implicitly, on a belief in learning as a linear process, generally passed from teacher (or any form of directed instruction which can be in the from text books, workbooks, or even computer programs as well as a teacher) to pupils. In this paradigm, teaching a group where everyone is around the same level is most efficient for delivering the correct instruction.

Another paradigm of learning—one which follows most of our out of school learning, is that we learn in communities of diversity, where different people have different levels of knowledge and ability, and just different ways of approaching and looking at things. We learn in this context by doing purposeful activities along side others—learning with and from them. If this is your paradigm for how learning takes place, then you will see multi-graded classrooms as an advantage rather than hardship.

As in moving up a grade with my students, my multi-grade classroom meant that I already knew half of my students. I could see how they were maturing, what they needed. In many ways knowing I had two years with them meant I had more patience for the natural differences in how children develop at different rates.

Learning is also to a large degree built on trust. Real trust is something that comes over time and with two years that trust is also deeper. This goes for the teacher’s relationship to the family families as well as the students themselves. In having my students for two or three years, I found the trust level increased exponentially.

Then there is socialization to how the classroom runs. With half the children knowing the routines, the other half easily learn them as well, as they can follow the lead of the students who were with me the previous year.

In terms of curriculum, for much of it, I use a thematic approach. A thematic approach allows students of a variety of interests, abilities and styles to approach the theme in their own way at their own level. When students are reading real books and literature rather than text books, they naturally find the books that interest them—and a book that is too easy or too hard is not interesting. The same goes for writing, using a writer’s workshop model. For math, students would have self-paced workbooks for arithmetic, and I would do on-the-spot grouping for particular skills, as well as thematic projects for the whole class to work together on. Themes could be anything from building a town, creating houses, studying bugs, investigating the environment, learning about the solar system, studying the peopling of the America’s to name just a few that I have done. The possibilities are practically endless.

In the multi-graded classroom, less-able students have more experienced and knowledgeable students to model and guide them, who are just enough above to act as effective models. The more-able students, in helping guide the less experienced, actually learn even more in the process of offering such help and guidance. It creates a form of having to meta-cognize—think about their own knowledge—in helping others. Teaching can actually be the most powerful form of learning.

In summary, multi-graded classrooms offer a variety of advantages: Getting to know students and families better; allowing more time to work with students; building greater levels of trust; easier classroom management; creating a more natural environment where those of different abilities learn from and with each other; and built in peer tutoring.

For these various reasons multi-graded classrooms can offer a more powerful environment for learning than a standard age graded classroom.


What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.