Sex Equality: I’m With Her

A Wild Duck guest editorial

Lydia Begag is a high school junior at Advanced Math and Science Academy in Massachusetts. She got our attention when she published an editorial critical of the school’s uniform policy. With eloquence and articulation, she laid out a brilliant and persuasive argument that the policy was anything but uniform. It was ambiguous, arbitrary and discriminatory.


I’m with Her
Ideas Regarding Sex Equality—Forget the Rest

Political and social turmoil are everywhere we turn, especially in the early months of 2017. Lunch conversations, small talk at work, and, of course, the media we consume have all become related to a singular topic: the United States government and its workings. Emotionally, I want to curl up in a ball and block out the political nonsense being spewed left and right until the day I die (pun very much intended)—but I feel intellectually obliged to confront the controversy.

All who live and breath America understand why politics have always been a hot topic for debate. Every ideology, action, and word are potentially contentious. Such is especially the case with modern feminism. Everyone seems to have a different opinion of it and portrays it in different ways, from the group of men wolf whistling at a woman on her way to her car after work to powerful cultural figures who associate themselves with the movement. Before we can even begin to familiarize ourselves with conflicting beliefs towards women and feminism in general and their reflection of a worrisome mentality, it is crucial to first understand feminism’s roots in the United States, and how interpretations of the word and the movement have varied throughout the years.

Feminism begins its legacy in 19th-century America, where its first-wave arises at the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1948. Prominent feminists of the era (including Elizabeth Cady Stanton—more on her later!) issued a Declaration of Sentiments for women that emulated the Declaration of Independence their husbands had crafted 170 years earlier. The document asserted that women had fundamental rights that were denied without cause, including suffrage. However, the first-wave feminist movement raised a series of questions regarding whether it was acceptable to promote black civil rights over and into women’s rights. Should the rights of black men be prioritized over establishing and recognizing rights for women? Should black women be considered in the fight for gender equality as well, or would that undermine the cause white women had been fighting for for so long? The moral conflict eventually resulted in a success for the women’s suffrage movement in 1920. White women, led by famous feminists such as Stanton, Alice Paul, and Lucy Burns, gained the right to vote in federal and state elections via the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Women of color, however, were left in the dust and did not start to gain suffrage until 1965. This type of exclusive feminism did not end when women of color gained suffrage; it has proven itself to be significant even today.

The list of American feminist milestones goes on and on. Women experienced sexual liberation in the Roaring 20s, when life was grander and more exquisite than ever. They essentially took over maintenance of the U.S. economy when men went  to fight in the world wars, and Rosie the Riveter was born. Women were also becoming increasingly influential in politics. Such milestones included the first woman to run for president on a major-party ticket in 1972 to landmark Supreme Court cases asserting that a right to privacy does include guaranteed legal accessibility to abortion and contraceptives. Title 9, the amendment to the Education Amendments Act of 1972, enabled girls in schools across the country to receive the same benefits as their male peers. All of these milestones reshaped a woman’s role in society throughout the 20th century onwards, but they did not come without drawbacks. The ’20s was an intense era of sexist and classist attitudes. Female sexual liberation resulted in extreme objectification. After WWI was over and soldiers came home, women were whisked back into the households to resume their roles as obedient housewives. Male dominance made running for public office harder for a woman, despite having the opportunity. And let us not forget the controversy surrounding a woman’s right to privacy. A significant factor involves religious morals and/or other ethical reasoning that are not related to gender equality, but it is impossible to ignore the misogynistic rationale that many pro-lifers exhibit. All of the achievements we’ve had have seemingly been countered by just as much dissent as support, a persistent reality since Abigail Adams urged her husband to support gender equality.

We are currently in the era of what fundamentalist feminists call “Take A Shot Every time You Offend Someone With One of Your Comments.” That term, of course, is colloquialism at its finest. You’re probably more familiar with something called third-wave feminism. This type of feminism has become increasingly less focused on the kind of feminism Stanton was prominent for (Yay! Exclusivity!) and more on queer and non-white women. The concept of intersectionality was introduced in the late ’80s just before this third wave began. It has received great support by women of color and those who had always been ignored by exclusive feminists, but as we already know, dissent is just around the corner.

The most popular criticism focuses on a lack of cohesion. First wave feminism fought for and gained female suffrage. The second wave fought for the right for women to have access to equal opportunity in the workforce and an end to legal sex discrimination. What is third wave feminism’s goal? Is there even a goal, or are its advocates serving as the world’s determinators of what is PC and what is not? The stigma around the feminist movement has existed ever since its origins in this country, but the increasing disassociation of women from the term ‘feminism’ has become alarming in recent years. For every outspoken celebrity and political feminist there is out there (think Emma Watson, Shonda Rhimes, Nancy Pelosi) there is an equally prominent female figure that opposes the movement, such as Lana del Rey, Tomi Lahren, and Shailene Woodley. Here’s the kicker: these role models usually aren’t misogynistic or demeaning. They simply seek to avoid affiliation with the word itself and its modern day supporters. This is understandable; we’re a country founded on grounds of freedom. If a person doesn’t want to associate themselves with a movement, there’s no obligation to. However, the fact that women don’t even want to be labeled feminists because of what it has come to signify is something I find very problematic. I don’t see this as an inadequate reflection of what 21st century women believe in, but rather a poor reflection on the feminist crusade. The way I look at it is this: apples don’t fall off a tree because they are too heavy. Rather, they fall off because the stem is too weak to support them.

This creation of a conflict within a conflict has led to major confusion on what “right” feminism is. As defined by Merriam Webster, “feminism” is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. This most basic meaning of the word is something most women, if not all, should consider when they debate  whether or not to label themselves a feminist. Sex equality is really the only thing the third-wave feminist movement should be focused on. Issues such as racial inequality, and rights for LGBT and disabled persons, are a matter for a cause much broader than feminism (think egalitarianism). The more narrow a movement and its fight becomes, the more likely it is to accomplish its goals. The first two waves of feminism all had a set goal in mind, which was something that followed core feminism to the nines. In the midst of all of the social unrest that has risen since the ’80s, the feminist movement has been trying to take over the egalitarianist one. However, if women ever wish to gain social equality between the sexes, it is necessary to narrow the cause to its fundamental roots.

Another issue with the modern feminist movement is that, in the effort towards sex equality, many feminists have interpreted being equal to men as trying to act just like them. Men and women are different, biologically and perhaps psychologically, but of equal value. To quote Mary Ramirez’s “Dear Daughter: Here’s Why I Didn’t March For You”: “…we are biologically and physically and emotionally different from men, but that doesn’t mean we’re less. It means we’re special.”

Nonetheless, achieving social equality between the sexes is something I consider crucial, particularly for the girls just starting to grow up in this country. It is disheartening for women to live in a world where, from the moment we start to grow up and find ourselves in a male-centric society, life becomes a tale of denigration and overt sexualization. However, the problem with using modern feminism to change this sexist attitude is that it has turned into a male resentment club, and no longer seems to revolve around sex equality in society. Off the top of my head, I can think of multiple times where the “feminists” surrounding me on a daily basis have remarked on female superiority or denounced women who do not wholeheartedly accept their idea of feminism. Feminism should preach equality and acceptance. Instead, it has turned into a catty game of doing to the men what the men have done to us. We live in a world where raising people up has turned into knocking others down. Vulgarity and impertinence has turned into the ideal image of a “strong” woman, and has become more and more acceptable. The idea of a feminist who respects others’ opinions has seemingly been swapped with one that thrives off of the idea of being regarded as “bitchy,” angry, or disrespectful. We’ve come a long way since our feminist founding mothers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue fighting for suffrage, and unfortunately, it’s not for the best.

Envisioning myself in the world of politics five or ten years down the road…I won’t pretend it doesn’t worry me at times.Influential female politicians over the years have found not their beliefs or their policy agendas as the primary subject of media conversation, but rather whether or not they’re menstruating or have considered cosmetic surgery. Seeing myself and others in my current situation has worried me as well. Despite growing up in a privileged setting where I receive nothing but acceptance from my family, the school and work environment has offered me and similar girls slut-shaming, catcalling, and the craftiest of off-hand remarks (“Who are you trying to impress today with that outfit?”). A multitude of women who come from different backgrounds have experienced similar toxicity in their surroundings. Ultimately, any setting for a woman can be a problematic one, and a promotion of classic feminism could turn things around. To me, an advocacy for respect on both sexes’ parts—rather than claimed superiority—would be transformative in making these conditions for bearable for young American women and men. Right now, what we have is extreme exclusivity and not enough acceptance.

Want to call yourself a feminist? Great! Reluctant to associate yourself with the movement but still support sex equality? Sounds good! Don’t support sex equality and a reversal of traditional gender roles? That is still okay! Obviously if an opinion undermines the cause you are fighting for, you’re not inclined to encourage it. But what the American public needs to realize is that, when advocates contradict the cause of unity and respect with their actions and words change will not come. Crudity does not empower you; it only cheapens you.

As mentioned before, narrowing down the movement’s goals is also crucial in moving forward. In comparison to many nations around the world, the United States has seen great success when it comes to fighting for sex equality. The third-wave feminist movement does have some valid issues to advocate for—domestic violence, raising awareness for rape victims, pay discrimination, etc.—but also chooses to focus on trivial causes like Free the Nipple and eliminating “manspreading.” Perhaps it is because we have obtained legal equality (thanks, first two waves!). But now that social equity has become the main focus, a blur of ideas and beliefs have resulted in a chaotic, incohesive movement. If you consider feminism at its core, the social issue to fight for is clear. There are many causes worth fighting for: racial inequality, ableism, and marriage justness, to name a few. But for the love of God, leave the aspects that do not relate to sex equality for the egalitarians. They’re there for a reason.

Author’s Note:  Add a comment or question below. I will respond promptly.

— Lydia Begag

The New Era of Virtual Reality

A Wild Duck guest editorial

Richelle Ross-sRichelle Ross is a sophomore at the University of Florida, focusing on statistics and data science. As a crypto consultant, she educates far beyond the campus. Her insight on the evolution and future of Bitcoin has been featured in national publications. Richelle writes for CoinDesk, LinkedIn, and Quora, providing analysis on Bitcoin’s evolving economy.


In 2003, I remember going to see my first IMAX 3D film,
Space Station . My family was touring NASA at Cape Canaveral Florida. The film was an inside view into life as an astronaut enters space. As the astronauts tossed M&Ms to each other in their new gravity-free domain, the other children and space_station_1I gleefully reached our hands out to try and touch the candy as it floated towards us. I had never experienced anything so mind-blowing in my 7 year life. The first 3D film was released in 1922. Yet, surprisingly, flat entertainment has dominated screens for in the 9½ decades that followed. Only a handful of films have been released in 3D—most of them are animated. But now, we are gradually seeing a shift in how people experience entertainment. As methods evolve and as market momentum builds, it promises to be one of the most groundbreaking technologies of the decade. I foresee Virtual Reality reaching a point where our perception of virtual and real-life experiences becomes blurred—and eventually—the two become integrated.

Ever since pen was put to paper, and camera to screen, audiences have enjoyed being swept into other worlds. For those of us “dreamers” being able to escape into these stories is one way we live through and expand our understanding of other times and places—even places space_station_2that may not be accessible in our lifetimes. Virtual reality is the logical progression and natural evolution of these experiences.

I caught the VR bug after one of my Facebook contacts was posting about it and sharing 360 degree videos that were of no use to me unless I too had the headset. Having been a Samsung user for the last several years, I purchased the Samsung VR headset to understand what all the hype was. Just as with my childhood experience visiting the space station, the VR Introduction video sent me floating across the universe. But this time, it was much more compelling. I could turn my head in any direction and experience a vast heavenly realm in 3D vision and tied to my own movements. Behind me was a large planet and in front were dozens of asteroids slowly moving by.

Similar to visiting the Grand Canyon, this is one of those novel experiences you really have to experience to appreciate. Within about ten seconds of trying it out, I had become hooked. I realized that I was experiencing something with far greater potential than an amusement park roller coaster, yet I also recognized that any applications I might imagine barely scratch the surface. This unexpected adrenaline rush is what leads tinkerers to the imaginative leaps that push new technologies into the next decades ahead.

Video games are probably the industry everyone thinks of being affected by this new paradigm. I immediately thought about the Star Wars franchise with its ever expanding universe. It will be a pretty exciting day when you can hold a lightsaber hilt that comes to life when you wear a headset and allows you to experience that universe from your living room. You could even wear a sensored body suit that allows you to feel little zaps or vibrations during gameplay. With more connected devices, the possibility of Li-Fi replacing Wi-Fi and so on, video games are just scratching the surface.

I discussed what the future of VR could offer with Collective Learning founder, Dan Barenboym. We explored various difficulties that impede market adoption. Barenboym was an early enthusiast of virtual reality, having worked with a startup that plans to deploy full-body scanners that give online life to gamers. The project began long before the film Avatar. Berenboym suggests ways that this dan_barenboym_5624swould improve online shopping by allowing people to see their avatar with their own personal measurements in various outfits. This doesn’t have to be limited to at-home experiences though. Dan suggests that instead of walking into the boutique changing room, you walk into one with mirrors connected to VR software. Your reflection ‘tries on’ different virtual outfits before you pull your favorite one off the store rack.

We also discussed the current obstacles of VR like the headset itself, which is a hindrance in some respects as it is a bit uncomfortable to wear for prolonged use. The other looming issue is money. There are many ideas similar to the ones we brainstormed, but startups may struggle to get off the ground without sufficient funding. The Oculus Rift is one great example of how crowdfunding can help entrepreneurs launch their ideas. It is easier than ever before to share and fund great ideas through social networking.

Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, shared his own vision in 2014 after acquiring the Oculus Rift. Zuckerberg eloquently summarized the status of where we’re headed:

Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we oculus_rifthave a chance to build it together.”

What could this mean for the social networking that Zuckerberg pioneered? I’d venture to say the void of a long distance relationship may be eased with VR immersion that allows you to be with your family at the click of a button. You could be sitting down in your apartment in the U.S., but with the help of a 360 camera, look around at the garden that your mother is tending to in the U.K. The same scenario could be applied to a classroom or business meeting. We already have global and instant communication, so it will serve to add an enriched layer to these interactions.

The concept of reality itself is probably the biggest factor that makes virtual reality so captivating. Reality is not an objective experience. Each of us has a perspective of the world that is colored by our childhood experiences, personality, and culture. Our inner dialogues, fantasies of who we want to become, and areas of intelligence determine so much of what we’re able to accomplish and choose to commit to outside of ourselves. Michael Abrash describes how VR works with our unconscious brain perceptions to make us believe we’re standing on the edge of a building that isn’t really there. At a conscious level, we accept that we are staring at a screen, but our hearts still race—based on an unconscious perception of what is happening. Tapping into this perception-changing part of our brain allows us to experience reality in new ways.

As VR becomes more mainstreamed and incorporated into all areas of our lives such as online shopping, socializing, education, recreation, etc., the degrees of separation from the real world that society applies to it will lessen. Long-term, the goal for VR would be to allow us to use any of our senses and body parts. We should see continued improvements in the graphics and interaction capabilities of VR, allowing for these experiences to feel as real as they possibly can.

One can only imagine the new vistas this powerful technology will open—not just for entertainment, but for education, medicine, working in hazardous environments or controlling machines at a distance. Is every industry planning to incorporate the positive potential of virtual reality? If not, they certainly should think about the potential. As long as we pay attention to present day needs and issues, engineering virtual reality in the Internet of Things promises to be a fantastic venture.

Author’s Note:

Feedback from Wild Ducks is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, add your comment below. Until then, perhaps we will meet in the virtual world.

— RR

FOR or AGAINST: Registry of Tainted Bitcoins

The founders and co-chairmen of the Cryptocurrency Standards Association have a friendly—but passionate—disagreement on the need for a public registry that lists tainted bitcoins. Arguments For and Against a registry are presented below. To view the arguments side-by-side, click the image below (same content):

Tainted Bitcoin Registry

Continue reading

Expand Public Charter Schools?

Exclusive to AWildDuck . . .

This week, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education awarded 3000 new charter school seats across the Commonwealth. It increases the number of students that can be educated at new or existing charter schools in the Commonwealth.

While this is exciting news for students and families, Massachusetts has again reached a legal cap in Boston and is close to a cap in Holyoke and Lawrence, such that no new charters can be awarded in these communities until the Legislature votes to lift the cap.

It’s not just Massachusetts, of course. Across the United States, a debate is raging over the legality and wisdom of the publicly-funded charter school model. Many, are puzzled over the debate. Why are there statutory caps? Who stifles what works?! But it’s not that simple…

Publicly subsidized charter schools draw from the same tax dollars that fund incumbent districts. Charters often hire from industry instead of teaching colleges and they often ignore the pay scales that were negotiated in good faith with collective bargaining units in the communities served. In fact, their very existence breaks covenants entered into with unions. For these reasons, the public-charter school model is fighting against some who feel strongly that it is not in the best interests of students or their communities.

If today’s post were like the many that appear under my name, the title of this post would end with an emphatic “Hell Yes!”. After all, I am biased. This Blog is all about bias—and as chief editor, I often use it as my personal bully pulpit.

I support the public charter school model. But I have tended to avoid the public debate, because my chief reasons are anecdotal or the product of an outside bias:

  • I live next to a fantastic charter school, serving pupils from 70 communities
  • Our local school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation
  • My daughter transferred from the local public school to the charter school. She thrives in her new environment, just like pupils at both ends of the spectrum
  • I generally dislike and distrust unions *
  • Our charter school principal is talented, engaged, motivated and has a pas-
    sion that demonstrates an unfettered interest in the success of every student

* I generally avoid debating the merits of charter schools (from the perspective of student and the perspective of taxpayer). That’s because my general anti-union bias was baked in by a father who directed operations at a manufacturing plant during my formative years. It’s difficult to see unions as anything other than money grubbing, self-serving organizations unto themselves (not their constituents) when you have seen negotiations between management and the Teamsters or any local machinist or electrical workers union.

The high school in my public school district is constantly in danger of losing state accreditation. Standardized test scores are near the bottom of the heap. And yet, our community also hosts the top middle/high charter school in the state. My daughter has transferred to this fantastic charter school in my own backyard. Using the same tax dollars but with a keen financial disadvantage (despite popular conception), the difference is like night and day. Our charter school consistently tops state scores and – more importantly – real world metrics. In fact, with freedom from onerous union contracts and a principal whose incentives are fully aligned with pupils, your charter school can excel too.

A few months ago when discussing our pre-election analysis of Barak Obama, I pointed to his failure to strongly support a public charter school model. I was wrong. Shortly before that post, Obama was interviewed by NBC News correspondent, Savannah Guthrie. The US president not only demonstrated strong support for charter schools, he also put the teachers’ unions on notice by supporting pay for performance.

But enough armchair analysis! A reader responding to our Barack Obama piece is an analyst with more experience than me in politics, market economics, law and education. He strongly disagrees with my position on charter schools. He not only feels that they have an unfair advantage, he believes they undermine a public school system that deserves more public attention and support.

Today, he represents one side in our counterpoint editorial for and against expansion of the public charter school model. During preparation for today’s column, I have given both sides access to each others’ drafts. Nothing has been withheld.

Arguing for expansion of the public charter school model, Marc Kenen, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association. Making a case against expanding public support for charter schools is James Tenser, an analyst, journalist and author from a family of public school teachers.

An Argument For and Against
Expansion of the Public Charter School Model

Read the arguments side-by-side

Charter School-s

________________________________________________________________________

High Performing Charter Schools Should Be Allowed to Expand
By Marc Kenen – February 2013

America was founded on what was then the radical idea that a society could be a meritocracy in which ideas that succeed can flourish. The creation of charter public schools has spurred the kind of educational innovation that should be allowed to thrive not only through the expansion of charters, but also the extension of charter-like reforms to district schools.

President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative provided incentives for states to enact various public school reforms, including removing restrictions on the growth of charters. Nearly 20 states responded by eliminating all caps on charter growth. But many states across the country still impose arbitrary caps. And many urban school districts bound by unyielding teachers’ union contracts have not been able to enact meaningful reforms.

AMSA Charter School, Marlborough MAMassachusetts enacted a limited cap lift in 2010 – allowing charters to double the number of seats they offer in low performing districts and reserving new charters for operators that had a proven track record of success.

Recently filed legislation in Massachusetts would allow charters to expand without limits in the state’s lowest performing school districts. This would provide parents in those districts with more public school choices and their children with high quality educational opportunities.

Throughout their history, charters have attacked head-on the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor kids, particularly in urban areas. Their primary mission is to provide high quality educational options for disadvantaged families and they have historically concentrated in urban areas to attract children who are poor, minority and far behind where they should be academically.

Charters generally provide hundreds of additional hours in the classroom, through longer school days and longer years. They establish a culture of excellence setting high standards for their teachers and students and providing the additional supports they need to succeed.

Academic Performance

While charter performance from state-to-state varies, there is no doubt they have been a success in Massachusetts, which provides a good model of how strict oversight and high levels of accountability can breed success. Independent national organizations have rated Massachusetts charter system among the best in the nation and it shows in the academic results.

Charter public schools in Massachusetts are proving that children from these urban communities can achieve at the same high level as children from affluent suburbs.

The vast majority of charter public schools dramatically outperform their host district schools, and have lower dropout and truancy rates.  Last year, 24 charters ranked first in the Commonwealth on various MCAS tests and academic improvement rankings. Many urban charter public schools with mostly low-income and minority students outscore even affluent suburban schools on MCAS.

Charter schools also rank high in the state’s new academic accountability system, which ranks how well schools close race-and-income-based achievement gaps.

charter_school_stats

Lift the Cap

Given their performance, it’s not surprising that demand for charter public schools across the country is through the roof.  In Massachusetts, just over 29,000 students are enrolled in charters, but another 45,000 are on waitlists. Most of the waitlisted children – 35,000 – live in one of the state’s lowest performing districts.

Given the track record of performance and the incredible demand for new seats, states should not place restrictions on charter growth.

In Massachusetts, the recently filed legislation would eliminate charter caps in districts ranked in the bottom 10 percent statewide, which educate nearly one-third of all public school children. Seven-out-of-ten students in these districts are low-income, 60 percent are African-American and 63 percent come from families in which English isn’t the first language.

The bill would also allow charters to open on an expedited basis in districts that have been placed into receivership, and require municipalities to make space in unused public buildings available to charters.

Financial Impact Exaggerated

Misinformation is the best tool charter opponents use against expansion.

Money has long been at the core of opposition to charter public schools, but the financial impact on districts is grossly exaggerated. First of all, charter schools are public schools, so there is no loss of public education funding in those communities. It’s simply allocated to a different type of public school.

States have different ways to fund charters, but the Massachusetts model seems fairest. It provides charters with the same amount of money the districts would have spent if the children had stayed in their classrooms. Since districts no longer educate these students, they no longer keep the funding.

Massachusetts is unique in that it also provides some financial assistance to districts that lose students to charters – recognizing that not every penny that “follows the student” can be saved in district budgets. The state reimburses districts for funds lost to charters – districts get more than double their money back (225%) over the six-year period. Districts receive every penny back the first year, and then 25% in each of the next five years. It is the most generous reimbursement policy in the country.

Enrollment

Opponents try and dismiss this academic success by claiming charters “select” only the best students. But, charters are open to all students, and enrollment is determined by random lotteries. On a statewide basis, charters serve a far higher percentage of minority and poor children, and a similar percentage of special needs children. And while district schools serve more children who either cannot speak English or struggle with it, recent efforts to attract immigrant families are changing that. Three new charter schools in Massachusetts focus on teaching English-language learners and others have opened in neighborhoods with high immigrant populations.

Private? No. Independent? Yes

Recently, teachers unions and other charter opponents have accused charters of “privatizing” public education. But, charters are public schools; they are founded by local citizens and are overseen by local public boards. They operate independent of local school districts, report directly to the state department of education, and are not required to collectively bargain with teachers unions. They are not “private” in any way. The unions are confusing “private” with “non-union.”

Opponents also claim that charters are “not accountable to anyone,” simply because they do not report to local districts or local school boards. But that’s the point. Charters are designed to be independent of the local bureaucracy.

No aspect of education reform has been more successful than charters.  In a meritocracy, they have earned the right to expand and meet more of the overwhelming demand for schools that provide a world-class education to the neediest children.

Marc Kenen is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

________________________________________________________________________


Confessions of a Charter School Skeptic
By James Tenser – February 2013

Questioning the charter school movement in America feels like a touchy business. There are powerful forces in play within our governments and communities. There are powerful people channeling impressive sums of private money to fund their progress. There are powerful emotions in the hearts of parents who sincerely and appropriately want what is best for their children.

I think there are two main areas of discussion regarding charter schools. The first is the relatively straightforward matter of education consumption that parents confront every school year in every community in the nation: “Where shall I send little Amanda so that she receives the best possible education in a safe environment that nurtures her talent and self image and enables the best possible future?”

It’s natural for any parent to want their kids to receive an ideal education. We may define “ideal” in any number of ways, according to our beliefs, preferences, prejudices, desires and fears. If a nearby charter school represents that ideal option (or at least the best available one), we will move heaven and earth to get Adam or Amanda enrolled. We feel it’s our responsibility and our right to do so.

If freedom of choice were there only issue raised by charter schools, this critique might end here and now. Charter schools would simply thrive or fail based on their ability to provide an attractive option. But the second area of discussion is far less straightforward. For me it raises darker concerns about how we model the future of our society and even the motivations of some of the individuals who advocate most strongly in favor of the Charter option.

“Old School” Nostalgia

Public education has for generations been a foundation of the American way of life. It’s been our way of preparing young people for the workforce, for military service, for participation in the political and cultural affairs of our nation. In a nation of immigrants, public schools have been a primary engine for acculturation and assimilation of new arrivals. They have been the places where our traditions of meritocracy, fair play and social equality have been inculcated and reinforced. They have been the places where the ambitions and intellectual contributions our young people have been identified, honed and brought to the surface.

Charter_School_3sThe old public schools were far from flawless. In too many corners of the country they were manipulated to help institutionalize unfair social practices and outright discrimination. They have too frequently perpetuated inertia and apathy that lowered educational quality standards in some communities and harmed America’s academic competitiveness on the world stage.

No wonder the charter school concept had immediate appeal when the idea was first floated by Prof.  Ray Budde of U. Mass. Amherst in 1988. The idea was to operate autonomous, publicly funded schools, which were freed of certain procedural burdens and oriented toward student performance outcomes. For concerned, motivated parents in underperforming districts, this option was a godsend, an affordable chance for their children to escape mediocrity and even danger at some public schools.

I write this from Arizona, a state that has since been a leader in charter school creation. According to the Arizona Charter Schools Association, our state “is home to 535 charter schools that enroll 142,368 students in the 2012-13 school year. Fully at least 25 percent of the state’s public schools are charter schools, and 13.5 percent of all public-school students are enrolled in charter schools — the highest percentage for any state, and second only to Washington D.C.”

Full disclosure: I am also married to a middle school math teacher in the Tucson public schools (Tucson Unified School District), who is dedicated beyond reason and who delivers top student test performance year after year. She and I and a number of her colleagues have had thoughtful discussions about how the rapidly expanding charter school movement may be creating both intended and unintended consequences.

Bright Flight

One troubling unintended consequence is micro-economic in nature. When a large, diverse, urban school district loses student population to competing charter schools, the district budgets can become distorted, to the detriment of remaining students. As noted above, motivated parents make individual decisions to move students to charter schools for generally sound reasons. When this happens in large proportion, it amounts to what I call “bright flight” – the departure of the most educationally motivated families first.

A consequence of bright flight is that the school buildings and administrative infrastructure remain, along with their many fixed costs. Payrolls must inevitably be cut. Students who stay behind experience cutbacks in services, including elimination of non-core subjects such as arts, music, shop, phys. ed., sports teams and extra-curricular activities.

I wrote an essay about this issue in 2010, in which I compared the over-schooling of some communities to the over-storing of America. Too much capacity chasing too few consumers is a formula for collapse – which may be healthy, but certainly painful too.

Districts are eventually forced to close and consolidate school buildings – as in Tucson Unified, where 11 schools were designated for closure by the board last December. In a large district, fewer buildings means more remaining  students travel greater distances by bus, further diverting funds out of the classrooms.

The shifts can be demoralizing for teachers and students left behind, who can sense that structural financial issues are overwhelming the mission to educate.

Changing the structure of our public educational system through the widespread implementation of charter schools brings other potential consequences that may amount in some respects to social engineering.  This could be a good thing if we agree on the objectives and have confidence in the means.

But strangely our national debate has not confronted the vision or motives of education reform advocates very vigorously. One might infer that there is a power play afoot, driven by ideology. Philanthropies run by Gates, Waltons, Broads and others have poured billions of dollars into support of the education reform movement over the past several years, including many charter school operations, and the Race To The Top competition. So it’s not unfair to press them on why and what they hope to accomplish. Even where hearts are pure, methods may be suspect.

Charter America?

I harbor another, theoretical, concern – that charter schools might be somewhat self-segregating, by class, ethnicity, or belief. Students who attend them may miss a chance to be exposed to people with differing backgrounds. Already we see charter schools that advertise their points of difference on television. One is focused on sports excellence; another on music and theater; a third on science and math; a fourth promises Christian values; one other promises “no bullying”! I worry this may be culturally regressive – not by design, but in practice. Is the demise of the community school socially, culturally, politically desirable? Is it good for businesses that hope to hire graduates one day? We have yet to confront this as a reasoned public debate.

Of course, some critics have suggested that charter schools are disruptive to unions – threatening disintegration of their power base. Many will shed no tears over this, but once again, we need to ask ourselves if how this change best serves our public school students. Unions are sometimes justly accused of obstructionism, but some union leaders have also been staunch advocates of charter schools.

Education reform in general – and charter schools in particular – bring consequences for our fundamental conception of America. What kind of society are we striving to be? How do we want to prepare our young people to participate in it? What is the proper role for power and influence in our educational system? How can we best define merit for students, teachers, schools, and our nation’s competitiveness?

I would stipulate that these addressing these questions may be fundamentally different from the very personal debate we individually face for and against sending ones’ own child to a charter school. I leave this discussion with food for thought: If we truly had a handle on our institutions of public education, would the charter choice even be necessary?

In addition to being the product, son, brother and husband of talented public school teachers, James Tenser is a retail industry analyst. A former journalist and author, Mr. Tenser pens his own Blog, tenserstirades.com. He is a frequent commentator at RetailWire.com and Chief Analyst at The Center for Advancing Retail Technology.

Adele’s Songs Brings Tears

 A Wild Duck guest editorial

Just days after her writing her Wild Duck debut, Min Yin returns for this follow up. In addition to critical aclaim as a contemporary philosopher, Ms. Yin is software engineer and mother to 3 children.

Adele, the young British singer/songwriter, swept the 2012 Grammy Awards with 6 Grammys. Of all her songs, “Someone Like You” is my favorite [watch the video]. When I first heard the song on the radio, I was immediately drawn to it for the story she tells and the sadness in her voice. “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now. I heard that your dreams came true…Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you.” The song started out with a simple fact that the man she loves is now married. What came up next in the song shows how much struggle she went through internally to accept the fact. “I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited. But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it. I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded that for me, it isn’t over.” Tenderness rose up in my heart and my eyes welled up with tears.

A lot of us can relate to what the girl in the song went through in life. When we were young, we did not know better. We did not know what we want in life, and we did not have a good sense of our passion and talent. For us, life was indeed like a summer haze. Maybe we met someone whom we loved, but we did not cherish that person because we thought we’ll meet someone else better in the future. Fast-forward twenty years. Now, we realize what a mistake that was. Or the other way around. Maybe we did love the other person wholeheartedly, but the other person thought he could do better and did not cherish us. Whatever the scenario, it isn’t the case of “happily ever after”.

Now what do you do? You are middle-aged, may or may not have kids, and may or may not be married. There is no time machine to catapult you back to twenty years ago to start over. What can you do to comfort your aching heart? For me, the answer lies in looking within myself. For the longest time, I thought I needed someone to love me. In all of Disney’s fairy tales and romantic movies, when the girl is finally kissed by the prince, all her problems are solved and it’s “Happily ever after.” Doesn’t that mean that the girl only needs to find the right man, and then she is all set in life? I think the pop culture does a disservice to the young girls and women in the world by depicting such a simple and rosy picture. It’s telling the young girls that you just need to be adorable then someone will love you. But what if over the years the princess becomes to feel life in the castle is boring after all? Suppose she wants to venture out to the big world and use her talents and character strength? Can men look beyond the appearance of women and see their talents? Can men associate women with wisdom and leadership?

For a long time I have been reading Cinderella to my younger daughter. After maybe the twentieth time reading the story, I asked her, “Why didn’t the prince ask Cinderella what her name was while they danced? Don’t you think that is better than having every girl try on the shoe?” My daughter looked at me with a puzzled look on her face and slowly said, “The prince is stupid, isn’t he?” That ended the reading of Cinderella and we moved on to other stories.

What I want to say to all the young girls in the world is you need to find yourself first. You need to know who you truly are inside. Everything else is secondary. A lot of us are running around busily every day trying to avoid spending time with ourselves. Of course, we have our excuses: Work, kids, keeping the house clean, putting grocery in the fridge, all valid excuses. I lived my last fifteen years like that. I did not know that fifteen years could pass like a flash before my eyes. I had three children. I just remember the lack of sleep and running around trying to be at work, at daycare, at school functions and after school activities in time. I forgot I had a passion for words, for literature. Slowly but surely, I feel a void developed in my heart. When I see my kids playing contently by themselves, I ask myself “What do I do for fun?” With a tentative heart, I took baby steps and found my way back to books. I used to read a lot when I was a child. I cannot believe so many years have passed until I sat down with a good book. To my surprise, I am still intensely drawn to good books and I still have the ability to tell a good book from a bad one. It is like there was a small candle burning in my heart, and it was never extinguished completely. However tiny the flame is, it has been flickering throughout the years.

“Nothing compares, no worries or cares. Regrets and mistakes, they’re memories made. Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste?” Sometimes I think sadness is good, of course when I am able to look at it from a distance. Sadness comes from disappointment. We all have a mental picture of how the world should be, and without exception we all discovered to our dismay that the reality is quite different. Disappointment arises, is this all there is in life? Fear arises, I may not be able to achieve what I had dreamed in my youth. Did I waste my life away? Though troublesome, these feelings force you to look within yourself. They force you to ask the most important question: “What is the purpose of my life?” It may take a long time for you to find the answer, nevertheless only you can answer that question.

Like a bird, whose wings will get strong only from flying a great distance, you develop your strength and toughen your resolve only through fear and disappointments. We truly learn from mistakes. You have to face your own fear. Nobody can do it for you, and you cannot run away from it. The toughest thing in the world is to be content with yourself. Eventually, going through the pain, you realize that you do not need anyone to love you, you only need to love yourself. You learn to give up the things you thought you must have in order to be happy. And gradually, it dawns on you that you have found freedom.

I was surprised to hear that Adele is only 23 years old. I thought one needs to be 43 to have that much sadness and wisdom expressed in her song. But then, I learned that she had been heart-broken by bad relationships. She said the heartbreaks helped her to learn, to grow, to mature. Gradually, the pieces come together. One learns so much from a broken heart—much more than from reading all the books in the world. Her songs fit the saying, “learn from your mistakes”. To all the young girls out there: Brace yourselves for heartbreak. Despite the pain, it can be a good thing. No matter how dark your world may seem at the time, you will emerge much stronger than you could ever have imagined.

Author′s Note:

Feedback from Wild Ducks is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, use the feedback link to express your opinion about Jeremy Lin and other examples of inspiration and perspicuity. Until next time, follow your dreams!

— MY

Marry me, Jeremy!


Translate:

Editors Note:

AWildDuck encourages freelance editorial and op-ed contributions.  Today marks the debut of the very talented Min Yin, an Asian American immigrant, software engineer and mother of 3 bright children — the basketball stars of tomorrow.

The title. “Marry me, Jeremy” was not chosen by Ms. Yin. It appears in a poster held by a Lin fan in the final seconds of the ABC News video linked in the 1st sentence.

If you don’t know the word “LINsanity”, you’re not keeping pace with a phenomenon taking the sports world by storm. Jeremy Lin, the point guard for the New York Knicks, has swept a competitive NBA with a story of underdog becomes super hero. From being an undrafted, overlooked and anonymous player, Lin has become an overnight sensation and focal point of basketball fans. He has led the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak. His gusto makes him an inspiration to millions. Watch any recent Knicks game and see an ocean of fans rooting for him with posters raised. Bask in the intensity of their admiration.

How did so much happen in such little time? First, people love to see a neglected person making it big. Everyone has been an underdog at some time in their past. Deep down in their hearts, sports fans feel a stirring. Perhaps like Jeremy, fans have a dream of making it big. But too often, they give in to financial circumstances and or ridicule—doing whatever it takes to survive. But through Lin, we sense see our own reality and the dreams that might still be.

Watching Lin’s moves, one marvels at how hard he plays. With a relatively slim body, he doesn’t fear collisions with the big guys. Even as he gets knocked hard, somehow he manages to score on the way down. You can almost see his will. It is the triumphant determination of a winner no matter what odds.

Commentators talk about Lin’s intelligence. There’s no doubt about this. Lin is a Harvard grad born to hardworking immigrants—the Silicon Valley elite. He studied economics at America’s flagship university. He certainly is smart. But there is something here than transcends smarts and goes even beyond sports…

I was never a basketball fan, but I have a good layperson understanding of the game. It always seemed to me that basketball was about height, physique and maybe a good eye. Which player is taller, bigger or tougher? If I were asked to handicap a game, my money would be on that one. But I have little interest in watching huge men show off. Sure, they effortlessly score a basket in the absence of a good defense, but I figured that their gift was genetic rather than skill, concentration, intuition and knowing when to take a risk. Talent lives between the ears. Basketball seemed to be a game based on height.

But with Lin, there is graceful strategy, elegant coordination, and an obvious trust between players on his team. You see unselfish passing of the ball. When everyone is huddling under the basket the ball goes out to Lin at the perfect position. Invariably, he scores. The team plays like an intricately designed and well-oiled machine! Every business organization wants to build. They would do well to study the Knicks. It’s not a metaphor, but rather a study in team building. When you see these big guys hug and jump for joy, you realize people of different color and race can get along well, and you have a warm fuzzy feeling that people can be innately good.

It pays to follow your dreams

In a world of waste, indifference and greed, Jeremy Lin is a refreshing role model! His unflagging attitude demonstrates that – in the long run – persistence pays off; Dreams pay off; Not letting put-downs and ridicules of pessimists pays off. Lin demonstrates a world an individual does the thing he loves and lives the life of his dreams. He exudes pure joy when he plays; joy that comes from knowing he is finally at his rightful place and doing what he was born to do!

Many Wild Ducks had passions and dreams in their youth. But how have fulfilled that passion in the day-to-day grind of life? Through Lin, we see the striving of our youth—like a seed under the weight of soil and the inertia of the earth, trying to break through and become a thriving plant.

During the span of a few days, I have become a major basketball fan. Just last Friday, I watched my first YouTube clip of Lin in competition. It’s exhilarating and inspiring. He disproves a stereotype that Asian men cannot compete in professional basketball. More than that, he proves that if you put in the effort dreams come true. Maybe one day, I too, can proclaim to the world that I am living out my dream. What about you?

Author′s Note:

Feedback from Wild Ducks is important. I’ll be back from time to time. Drop me a note on the comment form, or better yet, use the feedback link to express your opinion about Jeremy Lin and other examples of inspiration and perspicuity. Until next time, follow your dreams!

— MY

From the Editor

Check out Ms. Yin’s 2nd guest editorial, a tribute to Adele and her ability to bring a listener to tears with music.