Waiting for Oscar.

I didn’t see “Waiting for Superman,” although I followed the chatter about it. The story had considerable buzz going into its fall release; Roger Ebert wrote a rave from Sundance last year, and it continued from there. The documentary film, about several poor families desperate to get into a handful of outstanding charter schools, had The Answer to awful urban school systems, and it was? Yes, charter schools. Also, taming the terrible teachers’ unions. And so on.

And then it was snubbed for an Oscar nomination. Hmm. On the one hand, that’s not that surprising. Documentarians — who decide which films will get the five coveted slots — are a notoriously petty and jealous crew, and while things have supposedly improved since 1995, when “Hoop Dreams,” the best documentary of that or any year, was denied a nomination, it’s safe to assume jealousy and pettiness wasn’t driven from the system entirely.

But it turns out the problems go a little deeper than that:

(Director Davis) Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.

One scene showed a mother touring a charter school — and saying things such as, “I don’t care if we have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to get there at 7:45, then that’s what we will do” — that turned out to be staged; she already knew her son didn’t get in, according to The New York Times.

Interesting. My problems started with the story about how the film came to be, how Guggenheim would drive past the lousy Los Angeles public school that his children would attend if they weren’t the offspring of a wealthy filmmaker — of course they attend private schools — and be struck by how terrible and depressing the school looked, and wondered why that was. That the answer he came up with is, “because they have terrible teachers, who are protected by a powerful union” is understandable, although I wonder how much consideration he gave to the idea that one reason the schools suck is that Guggenheim’s children don’t attend.

What ails our public schools is a complex problem, and complex problems don’t have simple solutions, but for my money, there’s something so repellent in this sort of (literal) drive-by analysis it makes it hard to listen. I’ll give a more respectful ear to someone like Sandra Tsing Loh, who had the same feeling looking at her own local public school, but coped by actually enrolling her daughters, rolling up her cuffs, and wading into the pond herself.

My own child goes to public school, but a suburban one, so I don’t really have skin in the game, either. But at least I’d never say there’s a single answer to a problem as big as this one, and I wouldn’t stage a scene in a film to prove it.

Diane Ravitch, who has forgotten more about education policy than all of us combined will ever know, took the film apart in the New York Review of Books last fall. She didn’t pull punches:

The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.

But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.

But the political right loves “choice,” vouchers and the like, and hates teachers’ unions, so I expect we’ll carry on in this vein for a while. A friend of mine teaches in a Detroit charter. She says there are teachers who have been there a decade who are still not earning $50,000 a year, a nice bread-and-water wage level that should please those who think teachers are overpaid. I wonder what that’s done to the test scores.

By the way, Michigan has a modified level of school choice. Districts can choose to open themselves to non-residential enrollment, and students bring their per-pupil financial allotment with them. School districts advertise on TV — it’s freaky. Ours isn’t one of them, and our teachers are unionized and the highest-paid in the state. And it’s a first-class district. Why do you think that is?

Today is office-hours days, so skedaddle I must. A little bloggage before I go:

Rabbis tell Rupert Murdoch to make Glenn Beck put a sock in it with all that Nazi bullshit. Good for them.

Dennis Kucinich sues his country when he accidentally gets an olive pit in his sandwich. Why doesn’t he just get the tooth fixed with his no-doubt-top-drawer dental insurance and settle for an apology? Just a suggestion.

One of my filmmaking friends is celebrating a birthday today — happy birthday, Dan Phillips — and just updated his Facebook status: What better way to celebrate than to be on set doing what I love to do — cutting off someone’s legs. I can think of no better note to finish on. Happy Thursday, all.

Posted at 9:05 am in Movies |

66 responses to “Waiting for Oscar.”

  1. coozledad said on January 27, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Kucinich reminds me of the Marxist philosophy seminars that used to meet in the restaurant where I worked. These kids had clearly been marked out for the vanguard of the proletariat by being born into the Kohler bathroom family fortune, among others. Nasty little shits at the table, by turns sullen or outright rude to the wait staff, and non-tippers to the last heavily orthodonticized, prematurely boob-jobbed one of them.

    Kucinich ought to get together with his soulmate Bob Bork and work a little tort reform jiu jitsu.

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  2. 8th grade mom said on January 27, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I have a good friend who works at a pretty good charter school here in inner city Chicago. He was recently describing a situation where they had to lock down their school during the school day, due to some gangbangers with drawn guns being followed by the police literally running through their school’s courtyard. Many of the students reacted to this by describing similar situations where they had personally witnessed similar kinds of violence in the streets. A number of years ago, I worked on a research study involving provision of long term care services for older veterans (WWII). A number of the care providers independently described these guys as having PTSD symptoms (about 60+ years after their war time experiences?). In looking at our data, none of these guys were ever formally diagnosed with PTSD, but apparently something had happened to trigger these symptoms. This is what I thought about when my friend was describing the reactions of his students – I feel that we are asking young kids in public schools to learn in environments that are pretty hostile to learning, at least compared with my son’s (relatively) safe suburban school. I asked my friend whether his school ever provided any kind of psychological support services for students witnessing violence like this, etc., and he told me that his school shares a social worker with 4 others. This means that their social worker is at their school only 1 day a week. So only those students with the most obvious and difficult problems are likely to get seen. I am certain that if a similar situation had occurred in my son’s school, there would have been counselors falling all over one another. I did not get the impression that this situation was all that rare at my freind’s school. My impression is that the analysis of schools presented in “Waiting for Superman” is very superficial at best and dangerous at worst.

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  3. brian stouder said on January 27, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I have become passionate about our public schools. Over the past 6 months, I’ve been to most of our school board meetings – a very educational experience in itself – and to all of South Side High School’s “Inside the Ivy” meetings, wherein the principal and assistant principal bring interested parents up to speed on what they are working on, and what progress they’re making. The term “Waiting for Superman” has come up several times at the school board meetings – and honestly, that is a movie I probably won’t watch. In short, no member of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board is “waiting” for anything or anyone, nor is the administration, nor are the principals and staff at any of the three public schools we have our children in. Two of those schools are Montessori magnet schools, which we are extremely impressed with, and one – the high school – was the classic “troubled institution”. South Side has about 1,700 students, and more than 70% of them qualify for free or reduced lunches; a key metric, and a huge statistic. South Side was (and remains) on the state of Indiana’s target list; the district undertook major (major) efforts, system wide and specifically there and at two other high schools, including sweeping changes in teaching staff and administration. One of the key challenges that South Side faces every day? Attendance. The state is absolutely requiring 96.5% attendance; as of last night South Side’s attendance is 96% flat. Thinking about it, a kid would have to miss more than 6 days in order to fall below 96.5% attendance; our son has literally never missed a single day of school, since his first day of kindergarten up to today. I can’t imagine – short of hospitalization – what would keep him out for 6 days; yet with a school of 1,700 students, it’s almost scary to ponder how many young folks wander out the door between classes, or who never come at all. And – not for nothing, but about 8% (more than 100 students) of the school’s population is actively working to learn the English language (a fair number are Burmese, while others are Hispanic)

    Our student there is succeeding; the teachers and the administration we have interacted with have all (to a person) been professional, results oriented, motivated, and sincerely helpful. In short, no one I know at our massive urban formerly troubled high school is waiting for Superman (an undocumented alien, btw), or anyone else.

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  4. Laura Lippman said on January 27, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I just finished MOTHER ON FIRE last night and thought it was quite good. I read a lot of memoirs and very few take on the subject of class. The moment when Loh finally enters the local school that she so dreaded is particularly funny/poignant, when she realizes that there are actual children inside the drab building that has loomed so large and horrible in her imagination. She compares herself to Charles Heston: “SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE.” Only hers is a much happier epiphany.

    (Can you tell I finished a book recently? Sheesh.)

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  5. Rana said on January 27, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.

    Tell me about it. Teaching on a campus that’s serving the working class students educated by this state’s shitty school systems, I can tell you that one class isn’t going to fix the holes in their education. There’s too much backlog. The most I can do is point them in the right direction and hope that they have the will and means to continue to progress independently afterwards.

    And these – because they’ve made it to college somehow – are the successful ones among their cohort.

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  6. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Nancy, thanks for an excellent dissection. If I started in on this subject, I’d go long, and I have to . . . leave for a public high school building to deal with the effects of what we’re all talking about today.

    I will toss in that teacher’s unions a) have to be part of the solution, whatever it’s going to be, and b) that’s much more important than coming up with a precise calculation of what part of the problem is their fault. To which I suggest the answer is “not very much, but discernably so,” except in the limited but tragic-comic ways in which it looms large (rubber rooms for train wreck teachers, inability of principals to manage their staff on occasion). But the hyper-professionalization of PhD/EdD administrators has done more net harm to the system than any individual messed up teacher times all their fellow problematic educators in a district can inflict; the confusion on this is because parents & most education reporters (read: newest in the newsroom very often) can’t figure out what the good admins are doing, and it’s very easy for the bad ones to hide behind state regs and insurance blather — but a screwed up teacher leaves a trail of witnesses to their incompetence, namely students, who are often hard to credit but dangerous to ignore.

    That’s just the base of the problem, though. The index, the exponent which multiples to a square or cube of the educational conundrum is the parental role. When parents regularly facilitate absence, rage at administrators & teachers for addressing basic problems, and start saying about their own children around 14 “I can’t make ’em do anything; how can you threaten me with court for what my grown kid is doing?” then you have a problem that not only won’t show up or stay at a charter (HA!), you have the nub of our inability to get attendance & graduation rates to the purely implausible levels our legislators have so posturingly set. It’s a slightly different math than the Lake Wobegone formula of mandating that schools get “all children above average,” but it expects the same solution.

    [Leaves, muttering to self.]

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  7. Peter said on January 27, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Although I don’t think teachers are overpaid (especially because my sister is a high school teacher), in my profession if someone is making 50K after ten years that would be really good money.

    I don’t know how to say it any other way, but a few years back I heard the Chicago Teacher’s Union rep say that their members can’t make ends meet on their salary, and I was thinking about all of the students in those schools who can’t afford a meal and wishing that their parent(s) could even have a portion of that income…

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  8. Scout said on January 27, 2011 at 10:39 am

    From what I’m hearing through my own wingnuttia grapevine, disparaging The Evil Unions is the new black. Last year it was Immigrants (Mexicans) and before that Teh Gays.

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  9. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Oh, and to be fair to Kucinich (did I just type those words?), he’s suing the vendor that runs the Longworth cafeteria. I ate there this summer with my wife and son, and it was some of the best food we had in DC, reasonable price, and the whole area is well-displayed to interpret to staff & visitors how they’re doing a top-to-bottom recycled, composted, zero-waste & trash operation, with potato-based plasticware, biodegradable everything-else, with most of the disposed material going to a giant composting operation on a Maryland farm, which grows a big chunk of what they serve.

    So Kucinich is still a tool — these guys ought to be getting kudos from his office, not a summons.

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  10. Sue said on January 27, 2011 at 11:11 am

    My kids have finished and are out of the local school system so by common wisdom now is about the time I should be starting to think with my wallet instead of my heart. And boy do I have a lot of company around here. Our schools are slowly moving toward a focus on costs above all else as taxpayer association members get elected to the school boards. And the taxpayer association people around here are openly anti-union, along with everyone else sometimes it seems. My limited review of local school issues indicates that administration is still in a strong position and now that they’ve cleared out most of the aides and para-type positions, teacher positions are on the block.
    Silly me, I’m still not thinking with my wallet, at least not in the common-wisdom standpoint. I don’t have a stake in the school system from a personal standpoint but I do own a starter home, the kind that young families with kids buy when they see a nice community with a school system they like. I’m thinking the anti-employee, cut taxes no matter what curve around here hasn’t peaked yet but by the time I’m ready to sell my house the reputation of the local schools will have taken a hit that will take years to bury.

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  11. Bitter Scribe said on January 27, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Conservatives and “libertarians” (i.e., conservatives who smoke pot) have always been hostile to public education. The mere thought that their precious tax dollars might go toward educating someone else’s children is, in their minds, the greatest indignity that can be visited on a taxpayer. These people never argue in good faith when it comes to education policy, and I stopped listening to them years ago.

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  12. Catherine said on January 27, 2011 at 11:39 am

    I’m a huge Sandra Tsing Loh fan, and I loved Mother on Fire. I did what she did — got deeply involved with my local, imperfect public schools well before my kids entered kindergarten. For the six years they attended public school, I was one of those very involved middle class parents. But by third grade, it became apparent that it was time to move on. Switching to private was a painful and costly decision, but they LOVE their school now, and so do I. When my youngest finally left public school, and I ended most of my involvement with the public schools, I realized that, more than anything, I was angry (sad and frustrated, too). Rolling up our sleeves and wading in, especially when it means throwing our kids in, too, is not just insufficient, it’s potentially irresponsible. I gave both time and treasure (still give that), and I don’t think it made a damn bit of difference.

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  13. Catherine said on January 27, 2011 at 11:48 am

    And (sorry, on a roll here), what Jeff said. If I were to point fingers, it would be at administrators and parents. Administrators, meh, there are the good and the bad; but parents who can’t be bothered to VOTE in school board elections, and then complain about the board, get on my very last nerve. In my little city, the same 12% of eligible voters vote in every school board election, and guess what? Most of them are old people who never even had kids in the public schools.

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  14. brian stouder said on January 27, 2011 at 11:51 am

    What Bitter Scribe said!

    Plus, I forgot to add a hearty guffaw, in response to Nance’s sarcastic

    “But the political right loves “choice,”

    straight line.

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  15. mark said on January 27, 2011 at 11:56 am


    You raise an interesting point about the relationship between schools and surrounding property values/neighborhood stasblity. After much observation, I’ve concluded that the ability ofr a school to stabilize or improve a neighborhood is limited and that, instead, neighborhoods generally have a greater influence on the quality of the school.

    I’ve become a real pessimist. I don’t think schools as we understand them (public, charter, parochial) are equipped to educate when a “tipping point” percentage of the student population presents issues that are typically lumped under “low income” and which reflects other issues like crime, single parent households, low functioning and uninvolved adults, etc. The Charter and parochial schools that function in this environment do so because they cherry pick, diluting the percentage of problem issue students below the tipping point.

    I don’t share the enthusiasm of Brian S. for the local school district, though I give it credit for declining at a slower pace than it’s urban peers while facing the same “white (and higher income) flight” and suburban sprawl. I also think the problems of the local district are not solvable by it, with or without influxes of more cash.

    If I had a spare $10 million to experiment with, i’d choose one of the barely adequate grade schools and focus on improving/stabilizing the neighborhood that feeds the school rather than seeing what the school can do with $10 million. Extra infrastructure improvements, more police presence, more aggressive code enforcement, whatever the situation calls for. I’d consult with the school to ask what inprovements to the neighborhood would be of most value or what deficiencies in the neighborhood cause the most difficulties.

    Edit: That’s not to say that doing what you can to help the local school is inappropriate. It is a good thing, of course.

    Further edit: We are generally talking different pots of money, too, as schools aren’t at liberty to use funds to replace sidewalks and city government doesn’t generally just hand money over to schools. But if the two could cooperate, and if municipal government would see school quality as an economic development necessity, then maybe we would spend less on center of the city entertainment venues enjoyed mainly by visiting suburbanites and more on stabilizing urban schools and neighborhoods.

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  16. alex said on January 27, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Amen, hallelujah, Bitter Scribe.

    It’s absurd to hold all schools and teachers to the same achievement standards when some schools work with mostly the creme de la creme and others serve impoverished communities or those with large non-English-speaking populations. Yet that’s exactly what they’re doing here in Hoosierland. If a school fails to meet certain benchmarks within a very limited time, it becomes a charter school, which is to say it is privatized and turned over to one of the wealthy cronies of the governor who have gone into the charter school business without knowing the first thing about education.

    Here’s a rare piece of competent investigative journalism from our local paper regarding this racket in our town.

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  17. moe99 said on January 27, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    My two older children did very well in the public school system. They went to Garfield, the high school in the worst part of town, but one that was a math/science magnet. My youngest didn’t want to follow them so he wound up at the richest public high school and did rather poorly there. I was and remain extremely impressed with and grateful to the Garfield staff for giving my kids an education that has stood them in great stead in their lives.

    Elementary school was another story:


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  18. Sue said on January 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    mark, good points, but $10 million wouldn’t make much of a difference for more than a couple of years; it would be eaten up in no time. Especially if you use it for police presence or code enforcement, within months the complaints would start about all the money going to overpaid unionized employees. Not being snarky here, it’s just how it works.
    Catherine, after my experience with the local school district(s) I was angry, sad and frustrated as well. I now consider the time I spent trying to make a difference a large waste of my time. And I’m in a suburban-type district.

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  19. Michael said on January 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Related is this nifty video a Facebook friend of mine (college professor) posted. My kid was diagnosed as having ADHD and I’ve always considered that he got it from me. Even if you have a busy day this one worth the watch.

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  20. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Drive-by additional comment, rooted in the last hour: when you mandate, at severe financial penalty, 96.5% attendance, that’s in the teeth of the fact that in most average districts (not even the 50+% free/reduced demographics), 10 to 15% of the kids have Huck Finn’s dad as the parental unit.

    It’s hard to get Huck to the building, let alone through a curriculum, and it can be darn scary to talk to his dad, even when you know he’s the one who will show up face down in a floating house someday, not you. But he’s looking at you as if he knows differently.

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  21. nancy said on January 27, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Moe, that’s one hell of a yarn. You’re a good writer.

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  22. Sue said on January 27, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    MMJeff, this sentence is burned into my brain, from the parent’s handbook for our elementary school district. Amazing that it even needs to be there:
    “‘Needed at home’ is not sufficient reason for student absence”

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  23. Kath said on January 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I worked on a project to stabilize the neighborhood surrounding one school in a low income neighborhood in St. Paul. Most alarming was the fact that the student turnover rate from the beginning of a single school year to the end was 106%. It’s hard for teachers and administrators to show improvement over the course of a year when they weren’t even teaching the same students from beginning to end.

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  24. beb said on January 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    An old article in The New Republic, back when it was still a liberal magazine noted that if you remove the test scores from inner-city schools then overall US schools compare well with the rest of the world. Which is pretty assuring, so long as you don’t happen to live in one of that dreaded inner-cities. Hello, I’m from Detroit.

    I’ve long believed that one step to improving inner-city schools is for Social Services to open offices in schools. Full-time offices where students and parents, parole officers etc. can get together to deal with kid’s problems. But that costs money.

    A also think that smaller high schools is one way to control gang violence, smaller schools, smaller gangs. But that costs money. In fact every idea to improve schools costs money.

    I went to the same elementary school my father did. It was old, sort of looked it but because it had what might be called classical design it looked good. I was sorry to see it torn down. Near Nancy, in Detroit is a high school that has classic fifties ranch stylings. As Detroit schools go it would one of the newer ones. And yet it looks tired and dilapidated. It’s dire-looking. It needs a face-lift at the very least.

    When you consider the number of teachers with MAs, $50,000 a year is piss-poor. And when you consider the sorts of kids (and parents) they have to deal with, again, it’s piss-poor. The obsession with teacher’s unions as the root of all evil comes, I think, from the same people not only hating to pay for someone else’s kid’s education but hating unions in general.

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  25. prospero said on January 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    My distrust of Charter Schools undoubtedly arises from living in Southern states, and the feeling that charters share much in their origins with the numerous Christian schools that proliferated down here in response to school desegregation and teaching real science, like Evil-ution. The whole school voucher budness was a grotesque sham. “We’ll give you just enough of a coupon that you can almost afford the better education, while our political supporters will get a small windfall.”

    If people are so bigoted, benighted, befuddled they don’t understand it is a basic benefit to societal commonweal that Americans are educated, there is probably no remedy to the problem. Blaming teachers and AFT is kneejerk stupidity. Teachers’ efforts are hindered by economic and racial economic redlining in the same way as are their students, and to the same extent. Substandard housing + school systems funded by local property-based taxes = resource-starved school systems. And it’s a snake swallowing its own tail.

    This mom’s situation is appalling. Too bad the kids aren’t really good athletes.

    And the eternal question. Is our children learning? In Tejas, they prefer they isn’t.

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  26. Jeff Borden said on January 27, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I think Beb is on to something interesting. I’m interning at one of the better community centers in Chicago, assisting a Level One ESL instructor, and I’m starting to get a sense of just how much is done within this one building.

    The second floor is largely given over to adult students, most of whom are studying English or for their U.S. citizenship test, but also computer skills and some other areas. There is a parenting class in one of the rooms, too. On off hours, one of the teachers convenes “conversation groups” where ESL’s can practice their language skills.

    Downstairs, there are Head Start classes and supervised daycare for the smallest children. Many of our students stop at the first floor, drop off their children, then climb the stairs to the second-floor for class. Two generations are learning at once.

    We also have a food bank open to anyone in need in our zip code, and there are meetings, conferences, etc. to help job seekers prepare a good resume, practice their interviewing skills, etc.

    It would be workable, at least in some cases, for a public school to offer similar kinds of opportunities. I have no idea who would pay for it –our center runs on a shoestring and many of the staff members have been laid off at one time or another because of money woes only to be hired back when the ink turned black again– but this seems like a model that might be effective in some of our more troubled neighborhoods.

    One last note: One of my journalism friends left the business for awhile and participated in a Chicago Public Schools program where she received training and education in exchange for a multi-year commitment to teach elementary school. She was placed in a school on the South Side and was dismayed at ill-prepared her first-grade students were when they arrived. They did not know basic colors, shapes, letters or numbers. She had to begin from scratch. . .and rarely received much help from the often unemployed, often single, often impoverished parents.

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  27. Mark P. said on January 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Libertarians are always down on public schools, which they call “government schools.” Neal Boortz, a radio commentator who self-identifies as a libertarian, always calls them that. But he draws out his pronunciation of “government” like a middle-schooler making fun of someone on the debate team. I wish all those libertarians/free-marketeers/conservatives could go off somewhere and form their own country. That would be fun to watch. From a distance.

    Oh, and tell me what you think of Boortz’s name for President Obama: PrezBo. Does that cause any dogs’ ears to perk up?

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  28. Linda said on January 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    We seem to have a lot of hate for the right here. While I don’t love them myself, I should point out that it was a Gore admirer who has no hesitation about throwing teachers under the bus as The Only People To Create Bad Education. And uppity union teachers, too! How dare the proles have the income security of their betters!

    The left lost a lot of its support by ditching working people and their welfare. The rich have a congressional bloc that will go through a brick wall for them, to the detriment of every and anybody else. Were that working and middle class people had politicians that loyal. But maybe they can’t put up the money for them.

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  29. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Mark, that’s “gov’mint schools.” You have to pronounce it correctly.

    Sue, that’s exactly where juvenile court mediation comes in. We go to the building (or a neutral location, if the parent requests), and pull in a building administrator, the teacher for youn ‘uns, the attendance officer, and the parent (the kid if 6th grade & up), and we can ask, in a confidental setting (excepting threat of harm to self or others, or indications of abuse/neglect), “Why do you think your child is needed at home?”

    And sometimes you find it’s all bull, and they just can’t wake up because no one in the house goes to bed until 4 am most nights . . . other times, you find that mom says “It’s not every day, it’s just on days when it’s raining, because if I go out in the rain, it hurts.” We can work with the latter sans charges; the former, we offer a free obnoxious alarm clock and the threat of jail time if everyone doesn’t let this kid get some sleep on weeknights.

    But yeah, “I need them at home” comes up often — it means many different things, though. The worst part is so many are wise to just dropping the e-bomb at the point of pressure: “I’ll withdraw ’em and put them on electronic instruction with (Insert for-profit e-school here).”

    And when the kid doesn’t log in for two weeks straight, guess who the e-school folks call? Yep. You can be legally truant from home instruction online. And there I am again at the door. “Hello . . .”

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  30. Rana said on January 27, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Today’s symptom of the problem: this week I gave my college students a quiz in which I asked them how French, Spanish, and English colonists differed in their approaches. This was a question straight from the textbook, and I’d told them that I’d be using those questions for their quizzes. A full QUARTER of them turned in responses in which they talked about hunter-gatherers versus people who grew maize, or similar. That’s not just failing to read the chapter and bull-shitting the answer. That’s failing to understand the difference between people from France and American Indians. And this is a class with a fair percentage of education majors in it.

    Oh my god, this will be a rough semester.

    Oh, and remember this little bit of joy: These students are old enough to vote.

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  31. moe99 said on January 27, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Nancy, thank you. That is high praise.

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  32. Bitter Scribe said on January 27, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Back in the 1970s, when Mississippi was debating whether to institute free and mandatory kindergarten, one of the Solons in their state legislature was quoted as saying he was damned if he would spend taxpayers’ dollars to babysit African-American children.

    Only he didn’t call them “African-American.”

    Today’s enemies of public education are mostly too sophisticated to use the language he did, but I think the sentiment is much the same.

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  33. 4dbirds said on January 27, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I was educated (until High School) in Department of Defense schools. They hire the best staff and they’re well funded. I think Mark hit on something about the community. DOD schools educate the general’s kid and the private’s kid. Everyone is invested in the schools. Students know if they cause disiplinary problems, their father/mother is going to be called in for it. Also, no one is going to allow a child who isn’t being fed or clothed properly to stay that way. The chain of command will get involved and the problem corrected. A few of the children of the lower ranking servicemen may be on free or reduced lunch but not many. Now I’m on a quest to see how the DOD students stack up against other public school students in graduation rates and college attendance.

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  34. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Very interesting, but the bear in comparisons will be that graduation rates should be from 9th grade entry to the end of what should be their 12th grade year — and in high-poverty areas, you have trouble getting a clear number because of moving around, often between districts (another reason why “punishing” schools for grad rates is stoopid). Ditto DoD schools . . . but I’d sure suspect there’s some tracking that’s been done and it’s better than the norm.

    To blame or credit a school system, you’d want to know how they do with kids from K to 12, and that’s where the so-called measures break down. Kids who are constantly moved, whatever the general socio-economic stat of their area, do poorly. If your area has high mobility in general, how is the school supposed to overcome that?

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  35. Rana said on January 27, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    4dbirds, I don’t know about the children of military personnel, but I can attest that students with a military background are among the easiest to teach. They understand lines of authority (so they’re not arguing with me about things like assignments), they have excellent self-discipline (so they stay on top of the work), and they have the confidence to speak up in class. I have many issues with the military, but they do a damn fine job preparing people to take responsibility for themselves.

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  36. Peter said on January 27, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Rana, your exam story reminded me of my sister’s class – last year they were studying the Holocaust, and my sister tried to inject a personal angle by saying that her husband is Jewish (which for the record, he is). The students couldn’t understand why he wasn’t sent to a camp, even when my sister explained that he was from Gary and was born in 1955.

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  37. prospero said on January 27, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Rana, in my experience, Catholic and other parochial schools accomplish the same sort of self-discipline. Nuns take no shit from kids in school.

    I went to private (Jesuit) HS in Detroit, where academic achievement was as peer-prestigious as athletics. There was an appreciation of knowledge for it’s own sake, rather than for any outcome, and the atmosphere was collegial. It was also the case that discipline was no problem whatsoever. I think the tuition my senior year was a bit less than $900. Same school 40 yrs. later, about $15 grand.

    Are public schools spending 15 times as much now as they did 40 years ago? Not in districts where housing stock and property values have basically rotted to nothing. Part of the problem is the funding mechanism for public education, which is clearly a manifestation of problems of class and poverty in American society.

    I’ve also spent considerable time in public schools in the last 20 years substitute teaching, and witnesses some of the worst of the worst, from kids I believe were convinced there is no way out of abject lives. Obviously, everything is worse for a sub, but I’ve seen enough to know that huge numbers of teachers are put in exceptionally difficult circumstances, situations that their most vituperative and vocal critics would not, and could not even attempt to deal with.

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  38. 4dbirds said on January 27, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Off topic and I know you Mid-Westerners will laugh at me ….. the Metro DC area was hit with a snowstorm during the early afternoon yesterday. Everyone panicked and left work at the same time. Major gridlock. I live 10 miles from my workplace. I left at my normal 5pm time and it took me 6 1/2 hours to get home. What a cluster*&(*!

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  39. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    To be fair, Prospero, in actual dollars, about eight times ($750-1,000 per student to $8,000-9,500 today). Inflation adjusted, it’s up by some measures, but those almost without exception don’t factor in the dramatic increase over the last 40 years in WHOM we educate. Special education costs average $25,000 per student, with cases I’ve worked with in this county running to $100,000+, and these are students that weren’t and/or did not have to be educated before 1976.

    So I’d suggest public schools are, adjusted for inflation and audience, actually spending about the same in dollars for educational output, but with much higher expectations and less parental support; your old school is probably, as I look at what you said, spending about twice as much, adjusted, as they did per head back in the late ’60s.

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  40. Sue said on January 27, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    4dbirds – yes but you people are stacked on top of each other out east, because in like five states you’ve crammed the population equivalent of China so you’re always having to elbow each other out of the way just to get out of the building, much less find your way home in bad weather. Here in the Midwest we live in the wide open spaces and we just catch one of those Alberta Clipper winds and waft home, using our outermost layer of clothing and our hoods to navigate. Kind of like the Flying Nun only it’s 10 degrees and no one’s cute, perky or cheerful.

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  41. brian stouder said on January 27, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Moe – that was indeed a great read. The obstinancy of the school board there makes one wonder who that principal might have had naked pictures of (for example).

    Your narrative reminded me of Pelican Brief (et al); chasing down records, disappearing records, scorned wife and re-appearing records, etc etc

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  42. Jolene said on January 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    This conversation makes me so sad I could cry. There’s much that you all have said that rings true. In my family and among my friends, kids are read to practically from birth, and teaching colors, letters, and numbers is just part of what people do in interacting with their kids. That so many kids miss out on this early teaching is tragic and, really, inexcusable. It costs nothing and should be, at least most of the time, a joy.

    More and more, people, including some conservative economists, seem to be emphasizing early childhood as the best way to intervene, but in these mean times, it’s hard to imagine that we are going to make that a national priority.

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  43. BigHank53 said on January 27, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    This isn’t a short read; allow some time. It doesn’t start off being about education, either–you won’t find that until you get halfway in. But you will learn exactly how little teachers can do in some situations.


    And the writing is very fine.

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  44. Tom M said on January 27, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Our students went to public school, in fact they insisted on it. My wife works (as an administrator- with an MBA, a degree in education and quite a lot of public company experience) for the district. We have a number of charter schools in the area. All of the students in the district are bused. Catholic school (elementary to high school) private schools, charter etc. all paid for by the public school district. One community (there are 13 distinct municipalities that comprise the district) has about 1/4th of school students in the public school but we pay to bus them all no matter how far away they go to school.
    The district has about 75% reduced lunch eligible and about 12% of the 2500 students are developmentally challenged. Oddly (you’ll see why) in the charter school almost 20% of their students are d.d. The district reimburses the charter at a rate 150% of the per student rate.
    However well-meaning charters are at formation, if they’re for profit, they learn to game the system.

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  45. Jolene said on January 27, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    4dbirds, do you have power at your place? I have never lived in a place that has as many power outages as the DC metro area. This AM, the Post reported that 422,000 people were affected by these outages, and Jim Fallows just tweeted that Pepco, which seems to be the worst of the utility companies, has said it will take them until Sunday to restore power. That’s a lot of time to go w/o juice.

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  46. Tom M said on January 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I would also point out that Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has written extensively on education in general and on Waiting for Superman starting with this one Journalists don’t know squat about schools

    Here: Does Brian Williams know shit from shinola?

    Here: The Post prays for a great debate. We’ll offer eight prescriptions:

    Sorry about the links; hope it’s okay.

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  47. Rana said on January 27, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Sue, that provided a much needed laugh. Thanks!

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  48. 4dbirds said on January 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Jolene, Yes we have power thank goodness. I too am amazed by all the power outages especially in rich Montgomery County.

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  49. prospero said on January 27, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    You’re right Jeff. I was not considering the cost of Special Ed. That cost would seem to be intractable. Perhaps a part of these programs would be better handled by domestic sorts of NGOs, workshops. I’m not sure I’d consider that fair. On the other hand, I’ve never complained about taxes, particularly as connected with educational spending. My world’s a better place, the better-educated, happier, engaged and successful my fellow citizens get to be. It’s difficult for me to comprehend how that’s not obvious to more people, especially those that proclaim their own Christian values.

    On the fed level, defense should be slashed. The Pentagon says so and Republicans in Congress argue with them.

    Nothing is more simultaneously nauseating and ridiculous than Republican chicken-hawk hypocrites lecturing and hectoring experts from the military establishment on the defense budget.

    Congressman “Buck McKeon” is typical. Privatize SS and throw more cash away on “missile defense”, literally shooting bullets with bullets. About a $trillion spent so far to prove it won’t work.

    Do these Congress members claim to know more about defense than the defense planners at the Pentagon? Based upon what experience?

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  50. alex said on January 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Here’s a recent op-ed piece on charter schools that’s almost Jonathon Swift funny. If the truth weren’t so fucking sad, that is.

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  51. prospero said on January 27, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Speaking of education, nuns I’ve known are turning over in their graves.

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  52. Jeff Borden said on January 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Shouldn’t some measure of blame be placed at the feet of our alleged national political leaders?

    A fine education from a great university is now something to be sneered at as elitist. A degree from Yale, Harvard or Princeton is now a negative in much of our national dialogue.

    Idiots argue for the inclusion of creationism or “intelligent design” in our schools. A Texas school board works to edit out Thomas Jefferson but include Phyllis Schafly. How will future generations of Americans compete against students from other nations that embrace real science when they are weighed down by political horseshit that affects subject matter?

    Two prominent Republican figureheads, SheWho and Michelle Bachmann, are literally stupid. I saw a brief clip of SheWho weighing in on Obama’s citing of a “Sputnik moment” and the gibberish that emanated from her mouth lowered my IQ by 5 points. I’m not talking about political rhetoric, but a misinterpretation of history that would get a junior high school student an F.

    I wonder what percentage of our Congress would be considered flat-out stupid? And how would that compare with the average office?

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  53. nancy said on January 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Just getting back to the blog after a few hours away, and I must say: That link Big Hank posted is not for the faint-hearted. But it’s wonderful, just the same.

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  54. Catherine said on January 27, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Jolene @42, I think/hope that early childhood education is the best hope for K-12 education, heck, for us as a nation. That’s where I’ve turned my time and treasure giving. Until we see it as early childhood education and not childcare, though, it’s not going to get the funding it needs. Echoes of Bitter Scribe’s post about mandatory K. And meanwhile, here in CA, our newly elected Democrat governor, Jerry Brown, is proposing 35% cuts to early childhood education. Talk about mortgaging the future.

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  55. Catherine said on January 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Prospero @37, you talk about the funding mechanism for public education. In CA there is no direct connection between your property taxes and your local schools — in the interest of fairness, the state takes a percentage of every property tax and distributes it evenly, per student across the state. But this has created certain perversities, in which in a wealthier school district there is almost a disincentive to go public, because your kid’s education is funded at the same crappy rate as every other school in the state. Also, people are unwilling to tax themselves to pay for schools because it doesn’t go to help their local schools, and thus has no impact on their property values. At its extreme, this system promotes the growth of alternatives, while traditional schools become the province of the idealistic and the poor.

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  56. MichaelG said on January 27, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    My daughter taught eighth grade math for two years in a public school in VA. She told me stories just like the ones in Big Hank’s link. She told me about how she would come home from work and cry. About how she ended giving her lunch away and eventually bringing food and other things to kids (Ms. C., I’m bleeding down there. What’s happening?). She did lots of things above and beyond and ended up in despair knowing that all she was doing was shoveling shit against the tide. She ended up poisonously full of disgust and hate for the vicious and corrupt administration. She’s a great and compassionate kid and she’ll never teach school again.

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  57. alex said on January 27, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    On a brighter note, She Who and Huckabilly won’t have to duke it out with one of Congress’ lesser lights come 2012. Instead, he’ll probably run for governor on a platform of firing all those godless commie science teachers in the public schools to balance our state’s budget.

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  58. brian stouder said on January 27, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Big Hank – what Nance said. That was a remarkable link.

    Alex – wouldn’t it be great if Sponge Mike Square Pence runs in the primary against Lugar? I think he’s just about stupid enough to think that would be a good idea, and I think it could be a good thing for Indiana and the United States.

    If Rep Square Pence actually defeated Lugar, he’d get blown out when the D’s and the moderates unite in November, and elect Ellsworth (presuemably); and if he lost to Lugar, then we’d be done with Pence altogether.

    On the other hand, if he runs for Governor, I think we’ll be stuck with him, and Indiana will become crusty and crabby

    edit: totally unrelated, but worth a laugh. Here is an excerpt from Ms Palin’s brilliant and enlightening post-State of the Union analysis:

    “That was another one of those WTF moments when [President Obama] so often repeated the ‘Sputnik Moment’ that he would aspire Americans to celebrate. He needs to remember that what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that race to space, yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it led to the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.”

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  59. Kirk said on January 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Are there no bounds to that woman’s idiocy? Besides which, she still hasn’t found anyone on her staff who can write comprehensibly: ” … that he would aspire Americans to celebrate”???

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  60. Suzanne said on January 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I think Indiana is already crusty, crabby, and getting dumber every day. But that is an aside. I have mixed feelings about modern day education. My kids went to parochial school, and both have vowed they will never do the same to their children. The test scores were decent, but that is mainly because of small class size and parents who cared and felt that education mattered. The quality of teaching there, however, lacked–projects that had nothing to do with anything, but looked cool in the hallway, assignments collected but never returned, etc. One teacher told me that she did not consider herself a teacher, but only a facilitator. In other words, the students were pretty much on their own to learn anything. When they hit the local public high school, overall, the teachers were wonderful, but both kids complained about the attitude of fellow students (why try, when you can cheat?) and the stranglehold that sports had over everything. Unfortunately, in Indiana, I don’t see the situation improving. I’m not sure more money will solve the problem, but I’m darn sure less money won’t. Most of it is attitudes. How is a teacher supposed to inspire a kid who’s mother is a “crack whore” or a kid that smokes dope with his dad in the evening? How are those kids going to see any point in learning algebra or sentence structure? And until that changes, I don’t see much hope in anything changing.

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  61. brian stouder said on January 27, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    Kirk – it is just so beautiful, isn’t it?

    As you point out, her mangled vocabulary is indeed unbounded by definitions, or elitist insistence upon conformance with what some ol’ dictionary insists a word means.

    But setting that aside (if one possibly can!) – even when you squint real hard and try to see what she “really” meant, her thoughts are still impenetrable.

    Does she really think that President Obama wants us to “celebrate” a Sputnik Moment? Did she miss the point that the real “Sputnik Moment” represented a jarring national awakening in America? – that it was a “fire bell in the night” (as her friend Thomas Jefferson might say)?

    Did she not get that the Soviets did NOT win the space race? That Sputnik spurred us to action, and that WE won the Space Race? And that, in so doing, all that public spending on the space race created whole new private industries, in things as diverse as medical hardware and advances to computers and integrated circuitry? That the Soviets couldn’t compete, because they didn’t have the private sector we have, that could capture and exploit all those advances?

    What the hell am I saying? of course she has no earthly idea what the hell the president was saying about the space program (ours or the Soviet’s), or what she herself was saying. Obama/bad, period.

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  62. Kirk said on January 27, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    You know, she could have seen that sputnik go up from her front yard, if only she had been born then.

    Right, Brian. How is it that we spent even more money to get to the moon and we didn’t slide into the same abyss of history?

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  63. alex said on January 27, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Brian, Pence is probably the most viable candidate the Tea Partiers could possibly find to run against Lugar, and that’s not saying much. I remain confident that Lugar is too well-loved a statesman to be unseated by anyone in a primary. Conservative around here still means what it always did—fuddy-duddies who don’t want anything to change, especially if it ain’t broke. They “like it like it used to be” as Nance would say. That’s why they overwhelmingly chose a cynical K-Street revolving-door insider like Dan Coats over a pea-brained putzlicker like Marlin Stutzman for Senator. Lugar’s facing a cakewalk. And I’ll be a registered Republican in the 2012 primary to help ensure it.

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  64. Jolene said on January 27, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Kirk, the Palin quote you cite came from an interview w/ Greta van Susteren on Fox. As painful as reading it is, watching her struggle to produce that horrible sentence was even worse. But she is done. I would be surprised if she ever ran for any office ever again and, because it’s the idea that she might run that’s keeping her in the public eye, I suspect that we’ll hear much less from her when it’s clear she’s not going to be a candidate.

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  65. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on January 27, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Not a word in Sugar’s post (Big Hank’s link) has changed. Not for the better; for the worse would require roving militias of AK toting 13 year old boys, I guess. But the aside as to how children’s services works — exactly so, except these days even under 12 if you don’t have specific, verifiable evidence/proof of direct harm being done, you’re lucky to get them to assign a caseworker to make a phone call (to number that’s currently out of minutes).

    Looking at CS caseworkers, I can’t complain about my caseload a bit, number wise, but I’m supposed to cover 10 school districts in Ohio’s second largest county. Part time. Lots of miles to cry into my coffee between scattered school buildings, or finding the right door to tuck notes into, which is what I do when all the numbers on the student’s medical forms are “currently not in service.” My supervisor grimly reminds me that if I get shot by a meth cooking mama, I don’t qualify for worker comp. My retort is that if I get shot doing that, my wife will file a lawsuit against the county, and we both smile at that, since she probably would win.

    Thanks for pointing that one out, BigHank. There’s not much depth to our society wherever you go scratching at it. Just a cheap veneer, and we didn’t pay for the KleerCoat or the extended warranty.

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  66. prospero said on January 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    So, today is a 60-70 day on the island. So bike riding. Some dumbass ran off the curvy road and almost cashed me out. I tore every ligament in my left knee, , and I hyperextended my foot to the point I’ve got a severe ankle sprain and totally separated my plantar fascia from whatever it’s supposed to be connected to. I’m supposed to use a cane, and I’m supposed to think I’m fortunate. Why. I got out of the way of an out of control motorist hurtling at me and rolling, and pulled Sharlie out of the way. Guy was 45 over the speed limit. The deal is, I know how to drive that curve at that speed and not almost run over some guy on a bike. Now, he’a hurt , I’m hurt, He was driving like an irresponsible asshole. The cost of my injuries is all on me. In what universe is this fair? This reminds me of a great movie, Babel. If you don’t think that’s a great movie, you are a dickhead. Probably when things collapse, we can’t be sure what we think. Sometimes, clarity mainlines

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