Monday, June 25, 2012

Weather and Politics

Two weeks ago we traveled to Colorado for a family wedding.  The wedding was beautiful and I also appreciated the fact that this was an academic love story in every way.  The bride (my niece) who holds a Master’s in Math and the groom who has a Ph.D. in Math fell in love in graduate school and their love of math was an important catalyst.  What a beautiful story and it all added up to a wedding to be followed now by an increasing number of anniversaries.

While the wedding was beautiful, the weather was memorable. After we arrived, picked up our rental car, and began the journey from Denver to Greeley, lightening appeared in the distant sky.  Relatively muted at first, it quickly evolved into very prominent cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightening.  The effect was highlighted by a series of unlit roads and dark open fields.  And then it happened.  The lightening continued but now was accompanied by heavy hail.  Yes, summertime hail, which became noisier and noisier and heavier and heavier. In those few times in the past when I was driving in a winter hail storm in the New York area, I never remember any storm that had the intensity of this one.  My older daughter was sitting next to me in the front seat following the navigation system which was clearly our lifeline since the visibility for almost 30 minutes was at most a few feet. And all of us in the car were very tense and apprehensive as we drove to our destination and we did keep driving since there were very few and very far between places on these rural roads where you could safely stop.  Even when we got to the hotel, we still stayed in the car for an additional 15 minutes just to give the lightening time to move away and then allow us to safely enter the hotel.

The next day, Friday, there was a rehearsal and a dinner and on Saturday the wedding took place.  The weather was clear, hot and very dry.  Not comfortable but nothing to worry about.  Except we could see from the wedding site, what appeared to be a fire far in the distance. On Sunday, our last day in the Denver area, we decided to drive to Fort Collins to spend time in a nice college town.  As we drove closer to Fort Collins, we could see the fire more clearly and the smoke and smell were now permeating the entire area. When I was able to see the flames first hand, I could see the enormity of the event and get a clear sense of the toll it was enacting on the area. The fire was caused, according to the news reports by lightening that struck during the Thursday night storm.

Today, a little over a week since the fire began, it continues and the devastation it causes continues as well.  On the news this morning, a story on the fire noted that more than 180 homes were lost and also noted, unfortunately, that the fire was continuing.

As I think about the hail storm and the resulting fire, I also think about the November elections which are now less than 5 months away. So many candidates are talking about cutting spending and cutting taxes.  The candidates seem very specific on how and they would cut taxes for everyone and much less specific on how spending would be cut. There is no question that some government inefficiency exists, but not nearly enough to compensate for the tax cuts being proposed by some office seekers.  Let the candidates talk openly about how they will cut costs—will it be a reduction in spending for weather related research, for fire prevention and firefighting, for national defense, for education, for cancer research etc. And let them talk precisely about why taxes need to be cut for everyone.  Give the public the specifics and let’s see whether they think the math adds up to what best serves our country.

Monday, June 18, 2012


I have already stated on multiple occasions that I am a musicals fan, preferably Broadway but I’m also passionate about college theater, middle and high school theater, not-for-profit theater, and off-Broadway theater. Hopefully I have covered all the applicable venues. But for me theater has always been more than just entertainment. Studying theater, working on a theater production, and watching/listening to theater all serve to enhance learning and accomplish this in a very dynamic way. Yesterday provided me with another excellent example of learning while watching and listening. I took my younger daughter plus a friend of hers as well as a daughter of a friend to Newsies. Since this production was announced, I have been looking forward to seeing it. For me it was much more than just an opportunity to take the younger generation to a show. Everything about the show worked well, the cast, the score, the story, and the music all combined to tell an important story. And different from many of the Disney musicals (which I typically enjoy), this was a true story and an important story. Newsies is the story of the newsboys’ strike of 1899. This was a successful strike that forced Joseph Pulitzer to change how newsboys (newsies) were treated as they sold newspapers. Often homeless children, the newsies worked long hours for miniscule pay and even had to pay for papers they were unable to sell. The importance of organizing to stand up for what was right and the importance of unions in the history of our country all came across loud and clear. The kids loved Newsies and they learned from it. One day before the 2008 Presidential debate on the Hofstra campus (and once again one day prior to the upcoming 2012 Presidential Debate), we had (and will again have) a day of “Democracy in Performance.” Three outstanding faculty members organized (and are again organizing) a day where historical figures roam the campus and vignettes on key issues and key moments are performed. These vignettes, performed as historical re-enactments (in costume), come alive thanks to the “living history performers” as well as our talented student performers. It is a moment to learn and to reflect and we share the moment, not only with our own community, but also with the local schools in the area. A great time is had by all and the learning is continuous. In this time of constrained budgets, when many schools are looking at arts budgets as potential areas to cut first, careful attention should be paid to consider all the benefits of the arts. We all have to live with these financial constraints but living with the arts needs to be considered a priority with wide ranging learning benefits. My headline is very clear: Support the Arts.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Serving on a school board has increased my exposure to acronyms. I started my board service already understanding STEM, and have now gained a familiarity with (but not a respect for) the APPR evaluation system. I am also familiar with ELA, especially when it involves an added emphasis on testing, and have now added LOTE to my acronym assortment. LOTE stands for Languages Other Than English, which for me is a very important part of the education a student should receive before entering college. At my local school board meeting this week, we dealt with the elementary school language experience and it was one of the best discussions we have had as a board. In addition, it was enriched (in the public comment section of the meeting) by both the participation of language teachers and members of the public. At the present time, my district’s elementary school students receive exposure to Latin beginning in grade 4 and continuing in grade 5. Everyone is in agreement that this exposure to Latin is a positive factor in the education of our students with benefits that extend beyond Latin language and culture. The discussion on the agenda was precipitated by a proposal by the superintendent to begin language at the kindergarten level and to specifically choose Mandarin as the language that would be taught. Part of the impetus for this change was the added testing at the 4th and 5th grade levels and the added preparation that helps our students do well on these tests. With this testing being concentrated at the same time as the Latin language exposure, it resulted in an overly pressured situation both for the students and for teachers. Another part of the impetus was that the earlier you start foreign language training, the greater the potential for mastery of the language. And here the goal is clearly fluency, rather than exposure. A student beginning Mandarin in elementary school will hopefully have the option of taking Mandarin through 12th grade.  Why the change to Mandarin? Understandable given the superpower status that China has achieved especially in its economy. I regularly see the Chinese students who are studying on Hofstra’s campus. Their motivation is clear as is their desire to enhance their second language skills, first learned by these Chinese students taking English starting in elementary school. U.S. students, on the other hand, have much more limited 2nd language skills and often seem to lack the motivation to achieve sophisticated second language skills. In an ever more competitive world economy where not everyone is willing to use English, language skills matter and as we strive to educate our students to succeed, mastery of Mandarin will clearly help. In the course of the board discussion, I endorsed the early start of second language education but suggested that the case could also convincingly be made for Spanish, the most used language on our planet. What I really wanted was to offer both languages from kindergarten on, but the funding just isn’t there to make that happen. Ultimately what we perhaps should consider is to start Spanish in 3rd grade (now it starts in 6th grade) while at the same time consolidating some of the language options presently available beginning in 6th grade. As part of the overall discussion there were advocates for continuing and perhaps expanding Latin, advocates for Mandarin from kindergarten on, advocates for Mandarin and Spanish from kindergarten on, and also advocates for a FLEX approach, with a one or two year exposure to one language, followed by another language, and even perhaps a third language. When it came time to vote, I voted in favor of Mandarin feeling that given the complexity of the language, an early start was essential and feeling also that this was an important language that would become more important in the years ahead. But what I also realized is that there is no one right answer to what the language should be and how much exposure there should be. Any of the proposals being considered had the potential to provide our students with outstanding language preparation. Voting for Mandarin was actually easier when I realized we were choosing what we thought was the best option from among a series of options that would all serve our kids well. It’s always better when no alternative available to you represents a bad choice. In summary, we need more language skills as part of an excellent k-12 education (and I also wouldn’t mind fewer acronyms as part of the education vocabulary).

Monday, June 4, 2012

School Board Reelection

Three years ago, when I first ran for the local school board, I was one of two people running for two seats.  The campaign was easy and winning was never in question. My total expenses for that campaign consisted of one first class postage stamp. Three years later, I debated long and hard whether I should run for another term.  What finally convinced me to run for reelection was that we are in a critical time for public education and I felt I could make a positive difference.  A property tax cap, increasing unfunded government mandates, an overemphasis on testing, a flawed evaluation system for teachers all come together to create an environment where public education is under attack and I’m not willing to sit on the sidelines and just watch it happen.  I need to be involved.  I have very strong qualifications and I want to make sure that the enormous benefits of education receive at least as much attention as the cost of education.

This election was very different for me from the initial stages to the conclusion.  The summary is easy to give: there were three qualified individuals running for two seats and I was reelected and received more votes than either of the other two candidates.  At the initial stage of the campaign I was advised that having lawn signs was a key part of the outreach for a local election.  I have never been a fan of lawn signs or signs stapled to utility poles.  I find them to be visual pollution.  So before I made my decision on having or not having lawn signs, I asked a very knowledgeable journalist, who had covered school boards for a major newspaper for a decade, what she thought.  Her response was very immediate, direct and clear.  If you want to win, you will distribute lawn signs.  I immediately ordered the signs.  What happened next surprised me.  A comment was made by a member of the community at a subsequent school board meeting that I was unable to attend, that lawn signs could be construed as bullying.  It took me a moment to think about the comment after I heard it second hand but my reaction at that time, and my reaction today is identical.  Bullying is a very serious matter and to compare a lawn sign to bullying is to trivialize what is an important concern in many, many schools.

I loved Meet the Candidates night. It provided an excellent opportunity to address all the key issues and all the candidates focused their articulate remarks on these issues.  I felt completely comfortable throughout the evening:  I was not only aware of all the issues raised but more importantly I had given a significant amount of thought to each of these issues.  When I wrapped up my remarks, I also endorsed one of the two other candidates and asked the audience to vote for her in addition to voting for me.  I felt this candidate was not only qualified (as was the other candidate) but that her views were more closely aligned to mine in regard to significant issues such tracking (which I oppose), over testing (which I oppose) etc. There were some interesting subsequent reactions – first and foremost that a sitting board member shouldn’t endorse another candidate for an open position.  And here I strenuously disagree.  Being a member on a school board does not and should not require me to give up my first amendment rights of free speech.  It is common practice and expected that elected officials (with very limited and very specific exceptions such as judges) endorse other candidates.  The school board should not, as a body, endorse any candidate just as Congress shouldn’t endorse any candidate and just as the local or state legislature shouldn’t endorse a candidate. But individuals can and do and the grounds are typically what I mentioned above; the person being endorsed is more aligned and in sync with the philosophy of the person doing the endorsement.

My last comment is a concern that the cost of being a candidate, even a school board candidate, where the costs are very modest (lawn signs, banners, ads in local papers), will likely be significant enough to discourage very qualified candidates from running, especially in a difficult economic time such as this when so many individuals and families are hurting.  In more and more elections, the money you have and the money you are able to raise become key factors in the result.  In my opinion to get the best pool of candidates requires a much more level playing field when it comes to expenditures.  I still believe that candidates should be elected based on the merits and not the money.