Monday, June 29, 2009

Man in the Moon

My daughter Suzanne called me this weekend to talk about the death of Michael Jackson. It is interesting how one rather strange person could have touched the world the way he did. We all marveled at his gifts of music and movement. He was creative and iconic in so many ways. As he got older, he didn't really grow up which is the way he wanted it. He was taken with all things Peter Pan, going so far as naming his estate "Neverland" after the home of the lost boys. Accusations of child abuse and pedophilia made him a lost boy too. All that notwithstanding his legend is assured. I heard one analyst say that he was a modern "Benjamin Button" being born with the wisdom and gifts of an old man who got younger and less mature as he got older. His strange genius will give us much to think about in the years to come as we all ease on down the road.

The touchstone for Suzanne, her sisters and myself revolved around watching his videos together on Saturday mornings. He wasn't so much "Bad" as he was a "Thriller." The stunning moment for me came at the Motown 25th when he glided across the stage, indroducing the "Moonwalk" to the world. It was like watching magic become real. How could he move backward while walking forward? A few weeks later at the Princeton High School talent show Shammie Flenoid did a Jackson inpersonation and duplicated the moonwalk. I grabbed him in the hall the followig week and insisted he give me "moonwalk" lessons. I considered it a basic skill for a superintendent--moving backward as you appeared to be moving forward. I was convinced it was a skill I would use frequently, especially at board meetings. As the spring rolled on the moonwalk lessons continued everytime I visited the high school and could round up Shammie. I dutifully practiced at home.

I have to admit that while I thought I would use the skill in many circumstances, I only unveiled it once. It was at graduation. Shammmie was graduating and as he accepted his diploma from the principal, I waited on the side of the stage to shake his hand as I did for all the seniors. As he approached me and stuck out his hand, I stuck out mine and glided about four "moonwalk" steps back across the stage. He found himself chasing my hand. I am sure that is all he remembers from his graduation and it created quite a stir from the audience as well. My moonwalk career began and ended that day but I continued to brag to friends that I was the only superintendent in America who could do the moonwalk.

Aside from the many hours of music I have enjoyed I have to thank Michael Jackson for giving me the sense of magic that comes far too infrequently in our busy and mundane lives and for giving me and my children a shared memory. Pop culture is often rightfully criticized for its coarseness and stupidiy but sometimes it brings us together in ways we don't fully understand. And sometimes it lets us share some magic.Vaya Con Dios M.J.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mullah-ing Over Iran

Like the rest of the world I have been following closely the situation in Iran. Since America has some recent history with what happens when someone gets elected who may not have really been elected, we can see that the future for Iran may not be pretty.

At home we have Sen. McCain and pals excoriating Presidant Obama for being soft on the Mullahs. This is the same McCain who about a year ago was captured joking about "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Now he is belittling the U.S. president for not being more forceful in dealing with the Mullahs. I suppose there is a consistency here if you dig deeply enough but on the surface we have him showing a new found senstive side by wanting to support the poor Iranian people against their leaders--the same people who would have been the recipients of the bombing he joked about.

So where do things stand? Whose up and down on the scorecard? Well, many (include me) think that President Obama has shown real leadership and nuance in his handling of the situation so far. Speaking softly seems wise when you have no stick to wield. Certainly it seems wiser than speaking loudly when you have nothing to back it up. We are already fighting two wars, suffering through a disastrous economy, and haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran for 30 years. We are already supporting economic sanctions against them. What do we have to threaten with that is meaningful--holding our breath until we turn blue? Others feel he has had his 3 o'clock phone call and has fumbled the receiver. Some think the Republicans have looked tough and agressive (that's a new one for the party of "shock and awe") while others think that once again they are suffering from hoof in mouth disease. Some see the Mullahs and clerics who have ultimate power and who lead Iran as having been weakened as they go about crushing resistence and consolidating their power. Others see the beginning of the end for the Islamic republic. Many see the cause of women having been furthered by the actions of the women on the street of Tehran. This, while the government moves agressively to suppress them.

I think the clear winners in all this are the people of Iran. They have shown their human face to the world. The iconic shooting of Neda and its world-wide sharing has put a face on one leg of the "axis of evil." It is not unlike the realization that grew during the Cold War that the Russians loved their children too. Yes, we will likely continue to have real problems with the government of Iran. But none as great as the people of Iran will have. Meanwhile we have come to see these same people as heroic, as yearning for things similar to what we yearn for and most of all, we have come to see them as human. Next time someone wants to sing "Bomb,bomb,bomb Iran" the face of Neda and her sisters and brothers is what we will all think of. Once you have humanized an enemy, they can no longer be your enemy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gaming the System

In a speech to the IES conference on June 8, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out the current administration's educational agenda. As a life-long educator I have watched this with some interest. It seems, from my perspective, that we have a "kinder, gentler" version of the Bush educational approach; lots of belief in alternatives, but with some nodding to the need for more accountabilitiy for charter schools, a continued emphasis on testing with a nod to the reality that the tests we have aren't very good and lots of attention to creating a merit pay system for teachers. Since this administration came to office, in part, on the support of teacher unions this is seen as daring.

In his remarks Secretary Duncan was discussing some of the oppostion to their position and he stated that "somehow to suggest that we should not link student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box scores." Now sports are something this secretary knows something about--he played basketball for Harvard, went to Australia to play professionally and his close connection to the president came, in part, through their shared pick-up basketball games. So he knows what he is talking about. Or does he?

Certainly box scores are important for giving an overview of how individual players performed. But we know that you can have one or two outstanding players with impressive statistics and still lose the game. In fact, bastketball coaches collect all sorts of data that does not appear in the box score--where shots were taken, fouls taken as well as given etc. But the greatest of current players and past players were great, not just for the statistics they generated. They are great beacuse of their attitude, their sense of competition and their will to win. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James are great players not because they score a lot of points but because they carry their teams on their backs.And each of them found that winning championships was not just about them and thier exploits. They needed the right team around them. Duncan is right in drawing the sports analogy. Like sports, education is a people activity but that implies things like motivation, belief and teamwork are as important to victory as box socre statistics.

As we look to improve American education let's not lose sight of the fact that the box score is uesful for explainging the final outcome, but the final outcome will be shaped by the attitude of the players on the team and their will to win. In constructing these new "improvements" to education, such as merit pay, let's make certain that we don't win the game but lose the championship. Oversimplifying the issue is probably not a great idea.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Connecting the Dots

It has been an interesting week for news. We had the Tiller murder in Kansas, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum and the dust-up between David Letterman and Sarah Palin. What do these things have in common? I would suggest quite a bit. Sarah Palin has responded to Letterman's humor about her and her family with great indignation. It is difficult to know how much is anger and how much is calculation on her part. Declaring her kids offbase with the media seems a bit too little, too late as she has spent the last year parading them in front of the public. But now, she seems to have settled on the argument that Letterman's comments demean young women and lead to the coarsening of our society and that it gives comfort to those who would prey on young women.

While I think taking one questionable joke and using that to blame the plague of abuse and misuse of young women may be a stretch she has one valid point--words matter. And when enough words are spoken over the airwaves it can either give permission to those who may have strange ideas to act on those ideas or, at best, it sets a tone of disrespect or worse. Which brings me to the other two incidents.

In both cases talk radio and cable TV commentators have to shoulder some of the blame for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. When Ann Coulter suggests all Jews should be "perfected" by becoming Christian it creates a diminishing of respect for Jewish people and when Rush Limbaugh suggests that Barack Obama doesn't have a birth cirtificate (giving credence to the right wing conspiracy theorists who think he isn't really American) it can lead a nut case who agrees with this theory on the president and who hates Jews to feel it is just fine to pick up a rifle and shot up a memorial to those who died in the holocaust against the Jews. And when Bill O'Reillly talks for years about "Tiller, the baby killer" it creates an atmosphere where the unhinged can feel it is moral on their part to kill the "Killer." Of course Coulter, Limbaugh and O'Reilly did not tell these nut jobs to get their guns and go on a shooting spree any more than Letterman making a joke about Palin's daughter tells a pedophile it is OK to abuse children. But when hate speech is used too easily or when jokes are made that dimish others in a crass way, then speech can lead to actions.

I tend not to agree with Sarah Palin on a lot of things and don't find her particularly insightful on very much, but she is on to something here. Words uttered on television,(or the radio or on the internet)have meaning and resonence far beyond the speakers' intention. Perhaps it is time for everyone to start dialing back their loose speech. Loss lips can not only sink ships, they can lead to sinking our culture.