Monthly Archives: February 2011

Tomorrow at 4:30: Come See Me in Chicago!


The kind folks at the University of Chicago creative writing department have invited me to do a reading and collect an "emerging writer in creative nonfiction" award. Therefore, I will be in the fair city of Rahm Emanuel TOMORROW, Thursday, Feb. 24. The details:

WHO: Dana

WHAT: Speaking at the University of Chicago

WHEN: Tomorrow, Thursday Feb. 24, at 4:30

WHERE: Rosenwald Hall, 1101 E. 58th Street, Room 405

WHY: A free trip to my second favorite American city! Also: I love meeting student writers!

One fun part of this event is that I was asked to choose a student to read alongside me. I went through about 20 nonfiction essay submissions, and the winner is Michael Lipkin, a writer and editor at student newspaper The Chicago Maroon

Hope to meet some blog readers there!

Reality Check: Wisconsin Unions Have Already Agreed to Major Concessions

Labor movement






My comments section is happily overflowing with debate over Scott Walker and the Wisconsin union protests. I've noticed people seem to be most irked by the fact that public sector workers contribute so little to the cost of their health insurance compared to private sector workers. 

So I just want to point out that Wisconsin's unions have already agreed to $30 million in pay cuts and to increase their members' pension and insurance contributions. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

Earlier Friday, Marty Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said his members would agree to pay more of their pension contributions and health insurance benefits as Walker is demanding. But Beil said his union would never agree to give up decades-old bargaining rights.

Beil's union is part of AFSCME, the largest state and local employee union in Wisconsin, which represents 68,000 workers for the state, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and other municipalities. An AFSCME spokesman said Beil was speaking for all the group's union locals in the state.

"We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union . . .  we will not – I repeat we will not – be denied our rights to collectively bargain," Beil said in a statement.

Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, said her group also would make the financial concessions to keep its bargaining rights.

"This is not about money," Bell said in a phone conference. "We understand the need to sacrifice."

This battle is not about the specific conditions of union contracts in Wisconsin; it is an all-out attack on American workers' hard-earned right to collectively bargain not only for wages, but for benefits and working conditions, too. As Tim Fernholz reports:

The state’s entire budget shortfall for this year — the reason that Walker has said he must push through immediate cuts — would be covered by the governor's relatively uncontroversial proposal to restructure the state’s debt.

By contrast, the proposals that have kicked up a firestorm, especially his call to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of the state's public-employees, wouldn't save any money this year.

In other labor news this morning, check out this New York Observer piece about the absolute mess at Harper's magazine, where the staff unionized in the wake of unexpected firings and a continued reluctance on the part of management to fully engage the magazine on the web.

Thoughts on Teacher Seniority and “Last In, First Out”

Many union contracts stipulate that when school districts lay-off teachers because of budget cuts or shifting student populations, they must adhere to "last in, first out"–less experienced and non-tenured teachers are let go first. With Mayor Bloomberg threatening to lay-off thousands of New York City teachers, fighting LIFO has become a major priority for education reform philanthropists. The policy has also become a very popular media bogeyman.

Here's my take: LIFO isn't a great way to reduce the size of a teaching force. Teaching is a creative and intellectually-demanding profession; many of its best practioners are seasoned veterans, but some of its superstars are newbies, whether they are fresh out of college or mid-career changers. 

The problem is that it isn't so easy to determine who is great at any given job, who is average, and who is terrible.

Consider analytical journalism: Would you want to lay-off young hotshot Nate Silver from the New York Times or establishment darling David Brooks? Your answer to that question would depend on what kind of political analysis you enjoy, data-driven or anecdotal, and whether you prefer to read online or in print. Conservatives might prefer Brooks, while liberals might choose Silver. The PR department might love Brooks because he's famous, while the online advertising department might push to keep Silver, whose blog has a devoted following. In other words, reasonable people would disagree. 

In education, reasonable people have been disagreeing, for decades and decades, about how to define and measure good teaching. LIFO has become standard practice because in the absence of such agreement, it has one great advantage: LIFO can be applied completely objectively. 

Now, there are all kinds of efforts underway across the country to create fairer, more accurate teacher evaluation and professional development systems. In Colorado, the "Great Teachers and Leaders Law" relies heavily on student test-score data to measure teacher effectiveness. Linda Darling-Hammond has proposed a far more rigorous tenure-granting process that would include mentoring and coaching for new teachers. New York state will be implementing an evaluation system in which state tests, district assessments, and peer and administrator observations are all taken into account.

But the bottom line is that ending LIFO now, before any of these new evaluation systems are implemented, would be putting the cart (effectiveness-based layoffs) before the horse (a reliable system to measure effectiveness). Under the current evaluation system used in New York City, for example, teachers are simply classifed as "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory." Many teachers have been denied useful feedback on their practice and others have been treated completely unfairly, as this discouraging testimony from Queens teacher Peter Lamphere makes clear.

The New York Post is angry that Arne Duncan rolled back plans to deliver a tough, anti-LIFO speech, but I commend him for approaching the issue with caution–it's a complicated one. I think what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said is basically right: "There should be objective fair criteria that don’t penalize seniority. But [I] also understand that there are other criteria to take into consideration. And that’s a conversation worthy having in my opinion.”

Sunday Morning Reading List

This guy might be the craziest state legislator in the U.S. (and that's saying a lot): He introduced a bill that would require the Georiga police to investigate all miscarriages as murder and issue fetal death certificates.

study of Hebrew day school students finds they are skeptical of the information they are taught at school about Israel and Zionism, and prefer less biased sources of information.

The Tallahassee Democrat retells the story of the 1959 gang rape, by four white men, of Florida A&M student Betty Jean Owens. She was impregnated during the rape and had to travel to New York to obtain an abortion. At trial, Owens took the stand to testify against her rapists; one defense attorney referred to her as a "(N-word) wench" in front of the all-white, all-male jury. Nevertheless, the four men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The trial was a civil rights watershed, helping to end the conspiracy of silence around white sexual violence against black women.

WNYC's Leonard Lopate interviews Liz Canner, director of the new documentary "Orgasm Inc.," about the pharmaceutical industry's desperate quest to create a "female Viagra," and whether normal female sexual response is being pathologized along the way.

If you've been following the Silvio Berlusconi news with interest and are looking for some context on Berlusconi's perverse, oligarchical tenure, it's worth revisiting Alexander Stille's April 2010 New York Review essay, "The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio."

On Planned Parenthood and the Experiences of Our Elected Representatives

Obama sotomayor
photo of President Obama and Sonia Sotomayor courtesy The Daily News

As you've likely already heard, two female members of Congress, Jackie Speier and Gwen Moore, were very brave during the floor debate Thursday night over the Pence Amendment, the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. Speier revealed that she had an abortion in the 17th week of a wanted pregnancy, because of medical complications. "For you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous," she said to a supporter of the amendment, Chris Smith of New Jersey. 

Moore, meanwhile, shared the story of her own unplanned pregnancy at the age of 18. When she went into labor, she was too poor to call a taxi or ambulance to take her to the hospital. I want to quote at length from the rest of her remarks, because she offered such an incredibly powerful and true statement about this country's approach to poverty, women, and children. This should be required reading for every American who cares about health and education policy, and certainly for every Democratic elected official wondering how to speak coherently about reproductive rights:

I just want to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to not have Planned Parenthood. You have to add water to the formula to make it stretch. You have to give your kids Ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry … It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty. You know, one of the biggest problems that school districts have in educating some of these poor black children who are unplanned is that they are mobile; they are constantly moving because they can’t pay the rent … [P]ublic policy has treated poor children and women who have not had the benefit of Planned Parenthood with utter contempt. These same children, it has been very difficult to get them health insurance through CHIP.

These two women serve as reminders of why we need many more women and people of color serving in public office. To suggest so much is often derided as playing "identity politics," but really, it's just an acknowledgement that people with identities that differ from the status quo of political life–old, white, affluent, and male–have experiences that add something to the public debate and decision-making process. They've been single mothers. They've endured the tragedy of losing a wanted pregnancy. They've been poor.

In short, they've been chiseled by life. 

I think President Obama said this most eloquently, when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

…as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."  Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers.  It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. 

The Wisconsin Labor Fight: An Attack on Women, Too

Afscme-womens550photo courtesy of the AFSCME women's history project

The Wisconsin GOP's war on public sector unions–except those representing police officers, firefighters, and state troopers–is not only a craven attack on the Democratic base, but sexist, too, since predominantly male professions are deliberately protected while female ones are targeted. 

About 80 percent of American teachers, for example, are female; at the elementary school level, nearly 90 percent are women. Nursing is 95 percent female. Nationwide, the majority of public sector union members, represented by AFSCME and other groups, are women. 

Meanwhile, over 70 percent of law enforcement workers in the United States are men. Our firefighting ranks are 96 percent male and over half of all professional firefighting departments have never hired a woman.

Just sayin'.

Books I Purchased This Morning

It's springlike in New York City today, though I really do think it was sunnier in Brooklyn at 9 than it was when I arrived in Morningside Heights at 10. In any case, something about the nice weather inspired me to have a proper breakfast and then stroll through the bookstores near Columbia's campus.

Dark end



State of union


On the Education Budget and the Crisis in the States; Or: What Does Money Have to do With Good Public Schools?

In the documentary "Waiting for Superman," there's a clip of Bill Clinton campaigning in 1992 in front of a teachers' union group. Education reform, he tells the teachers, "is not about money. Except when it is about money."

This is supposed to make us laugh and deride the received wisdom of the Democratic Party. After all, everyone knows Washington, D.C. has the highest per pupil spending in the country and some of the worst achievement outcomes. Everyone knows the United States is spending more per pupil than any country except Switzerland, yet our kids are getting their asses kicked by those smarty-pants Singaporeans. 

And it's true. Except when it isn't. Take a look at this scatter plot comparing per pupil spending to high school graduation rates. As you can see, some states–like D.C. and New York–are spending a heck of a lot and getting a heck of a little. But overall, as the good folks at the New America Foundation point out, there is no easy conclusion we can draw about the relationship between spending and academic achievement.

 Grad rate ppexpend 082

Consider New Jersey: It has a very diverse student population, spends the most per pupil of any state in the country, and also has the fifth highest graduation rate. It has achieved this through wise, court-mandated investment in academic enrichment and social supports–including universal pre-K–for low-income kids.

All of this is a long wind-up to say the following: There's a lot to admire about President Obama's 2012 education budget. He makes some sensible compromises–ex; allowing interest to accrue on grad school loans (a graduate degree is likely to lead to a higher income)–while investing in the preparation of new STEM teachers and incentivizing some proven reforms, such as high-quality pre-school. 

But it's important to remember that federal dollars account for less than 10 percent of national education spending, and at the state level, schools are reeling. The Times had a great story on this yesterday, about a Texas district forced to close a school, lay off 38 teachers, and even trademark its mascot "in a frantic effort to raise cash." Texas legislators are proposing $3.5 billion in cuts to the public school system, which could lead to over 100,000 layoffs. 

And by the way: None of this is the fault of big bad unions or massive public spending. Texas has long been a low-spending, right-to-work state where less than 2 percent of teachers are unionized. 

In this climate, in which good teachers are losing their jobs and taking pay cuts, Obama's budget increases represent just a drop in the bucket. All of this puts in discouraging perspective the president's call, in his State of the Union address, for the nation's best and brightest to enter the teaching profession.

Valentine’s Day Recommendations

Beach Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

For the romantic: About Alice, by Calvin Trillin

For the (sentimental) cynic: 69 Love Songs, by the Magnetic Fields

The best romantic comedy ever made: It Happened One Night, starring Cary Grant Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

If litereary history/theory floats your boat: Love in the Western World, by Denis de Rougemont (aka the love=death book)

On the love of a parent: Who She Was, by Sam Freedman

On women's sexual liberation: Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong (a pulpy and weird novel that blew my mind at 19. Dated, but it does a lot to explain 1970s feminism)