James Grossman on the New History Wars!

Dear Commons Community,

James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, examining what he calls the “new history wars”. Specifically, he discusses the response to the recently-distributed  history framework developed by the College Board. Here is an excerpt:

“Last month, the College Board released a revised “curriculum framework” to help high school teachers prepare students for the Advanced Placement test in United States history. Like the college courses the test is supposed to mirror, the A.P. course calls for a dialogue with the past — learning how to ask historical questions, interpret documents and reflect both appreciatively and critically on history.

Navigating the tension between patriotic inspiration and historical thinking, between respectful veneration and critical engagement, is an especially difficult task, made even more complicated by a marked shift in the very composition of “we the people.” This fall, whites will constitute a minority of public-school students in the United States. “Our” past is now more diverse than we once thought, whether we like it or not.

It turns out that some Americans don’t like it. A member of the Texas State Board of Education has accused the College Board of “promoting among our students a disdain for American principles and a lack of knowledge of major American achievements,” like those of the founding fathers and of the generals who fought in the Civil War and World War II. The Republican National Committee says the framework offers “a radically revisionist view” that “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history.” Stanley Kurtz, in National Review, called it “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political and ideological perspective.”



Revisionism is necessary — and it generates controversy, especially when new scholarship finds its way into classrooms. But debate over what is taught in our schools is hardly new. Part of the logic underlying the creation of Catholic schools in 19th-century America had to do with a public-school curriculum that took a distinctly Protestant view of religious conflicts and cultural values. Since the early 20th century, battles have been waged over the relative place of “history” and “civics” in public education, a dichotomy that many professional historians don’t even accept.

In 1994, Lynne Cheney, a former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, pronounced the results of a congressionally mandated set of national standards in American history “grim and gloomy,” distorted by “political correctness,” and deficient for paying too much attention to the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism and too little to Robert E. Lee and the Wright brothers.

The latest accusations arise from belief born of assumption rather than careful reading. The document is not a curriculum; in the words of David Coleman, president of the College Board, “it is just a framework, requiring teachers to populate it with content required by their local standards and priorities.” Those who assume that America’s founders are neglected seem not to have actually read the material. The Declaration of Independence stands front and center alongside the Constitution in the section devoted to “experiments with democratic ideas and republican forms of government,” including those of France, Haiti and Latin America. The framework makes clear that these “new ideas” included evangelical religion.”



The critics are unhappy, perhaps, that a once comforting story has become, in the hands of scholars, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling.

And there’s the rub. Fewer and fewer college professors are teaching the United States history our grandparents learned — memorizing a litany of names, dates and facts — and this upsets some people. “College-level work” now requires attention to context, and change over time; includes greater use of primary sources; and reassesses traditional narratives. This is work that requires and builds empathy, an essential aspect of historical thinking.

The educators and historians who worked on the new history framework were right to emphasize historical thinking as an essential aspect of civic culture. Their efforts deserve a spirited debate, one that is always open to revision, rather than ill-informed assumptions or political partisanship.”

Well-stated, important commentary!



On This Labor Day – Randi Weingarten Implores AFT Members to Take the Pledge to Reclaim Public Education!


Dear Commons Community,

AFT President Randi Weingarten on this Labor Day has sent a letter to all members imploring them to take a pledge to reclaim public education. Below is her letter. At the end of her letter is the url for signing up to take the pledge.



Dear Member,

The very first Labor Day was created to acknowledge and honor working people who aspired to the American dream and fought for a better life for themselves and their families.

Together, each and every day, we build on the work they began decades ago. As a union that is 1.6 million members strong, we are immensely proud of who we are, and we thank you for the work you do. Our union is at the intersection of two vital societal movements—creating educational opportunity through strong public schools, and advancing economic opportunity through the labor movement and sound economic policies. We not only teach our kids, heal our families, and keep our communities strong, we engage, mobilize and challenge ourselves and our communities to fight for a better nation.

As a union, we are fighting back against the relentless attacks on our jobs, our families and our communities. We are fighting back—whether it’s against Campbell Brown’s efforts to strip teachers of their due process rights and pit teachers against parents; corporate hospital chains seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of patients and healthcare professionals; politicians like Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who never met a public school, public service or public employee he didn’t want to eliminate; or those saddling students with debt, ripping them off and “Wal-Martizing” the higher education workforce.

The austerity hawks, the privatizers and the deprofessionalizers know that there’s a growing disconnect between what they are peddling and what the American people want. And the only way they can keep their power is by demonizing and marginalizing us.

There’s no doubt they will outspend us—as they will in this coming election. But our strength and the strength of the labor movement has never been our dollar power—it’s been our people power.

This is our fight. But fighting back only gets you so far; we must fight forward to move forward, and that means never being afraid to both engage in conflict and find common ground, particularly with our communities, those we serve and one another. Together, by being member-mobilized, community-engaged, solution-driven and, yes, a little bad ass, we can reclaim the promise of America. We can create a nation fueled by democracy, justice and opportunity for all, instead of for the very few.

On this Labor Day, let’s remember what this day is really about and recommit ourselves to the task before us—creating a more just world.

And to achieve a more just world, we must stand together against injustice everywhere, starting in our workplaces, our neighborhoods and the communities we serve. Pledge to stand with us.

In unity,

Randi Weingarten



Take the Pledge: I Stand with Working People!

We are being ripped off.

Our students are suffering. School budgets are slashed, and with them, student opportunity. Test obsession drives a culture of punishment. Skyrocketing costs push higher education further out of reach.

Our families are being squeezed. Wages stagnate while benefits are gutted. Millions can no longer afford high-quality care for our young children. Wall Street profits from our pensions and uses our own money against us.

Our communities are being starved. Public services are privatized and cut to the bone. Healthcare is driven by corporate profits instead of patient care. Neighborhood schools are shuttered while public money goes to privately run charters.

Our enemy is organized.

This is no accident. Corporations and billionaires blame educators, public employees and workers for the broken economy. They sell austerity as the answer, while they buy elections, push radical legislation and fund court cases to strip workers of our rights. They won’t stop until unions are broken and their own power and profits are unopposed.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Not so long ago, the middle class was growing. Achievement gaps were shrinking. Opportunity was expanding. It can be that way again.

Together, we can win. We have before. It’s time to recommit to each other and to the communities we serve. Time to push back AND fight forward.

The promise of America is in our hands. Together, we can reclaim it.



California Governor Jerry Brown to Appeal the Vergara Ruling on Teacher Tenure!

Dear Commons Community,

Wading into an intense national battle that has pitted teacher unions against a movement to weaken tenure protections, Gov. Jerry Brown has appealed a California judge’s sweeping ruling that threw out teacher job protection laws on the ground that they deprived students of their constitutional rights.  As reported in The New York Times:

In a one-page appeal filed late Friday afternoon, Mr. Brown and the state attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, argued that a decision of such scope needed to be made by a higher court, and that the judge in this case had declined a request by the governor and attorney general “to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.”

“Changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review,” it said of the case, Vergara v. California.

The notice of appeal was filed one day after the judge in the case, Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court, issued his final ruling. Tom Torlakson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, had also requested that Ms. Harris file the appeal.

The decision by Judge Treu, handed down in June, sent shock waves across the educational establishment here and nationwide. He found that tenure protections for teachers deprived students of a constitutional right to an education, and disproportionately hurt poor and minority students.

“The evidence is compelling,” the judge wrote. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

The case was brought by an organization of students, Students Matter, backed by a Silicon Valley technology millionaire, David Welch. A lawyer for the organization, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., criticized Mr. Brown’s decision to appeal.

“The State of California should be supporting and protecting students not defending these harmful and irrational laws,” Mr. Boutrous said Saturday. “Judge Treu got it exactly right, and this appeal is destined for failure.”

Teacher unions here had denounced the decision, saying teachers were being scapegoated for the failures of educational institutions. But the ruling was strongly welcomed by the federal education secretary, Arne Duncan, and California Republicans — including Neel Kashkari, who is challenging Mr. Brown this fall.”

Governor Brown is doing the right thing in appealing this ruling.


Lee County (Florida) School District Rejects Mandatory Standardized Testing!

Dear Commons Community,

The Lee County (Florida) School Board voted 3-2 last week to reject state-mandated testing in its district, saying it was acting on behalf  “of administrators, teachers and most importantly students, whose educational growth has not been enhanced as a result of such testing.” This sets a precedent nationally during a growing controversy over the use of high-stakes standardized assessments in public education.  Lee County is located in southwest Florida in the Fort Myers area. As reported in The Washington Post:

“[Lee County School] Board member Don Armstrong, who supported the testing boycott, said the vote was meant to send “a strong message” to state education officials in Tallahassee that county officials are tired of being told how to run their school system. He said:

“It’s an act of civil disobedience. We stood up for what we thought was right.”

The district’s superintendent, Nancy Graham, was  unenthusiastic, saying she believes the decision will “hurt children,” the News-Press reported. But Armstrong said it was Graham’s job to implement policy as set by the board. “Now it is up to her to adhere to it,” he said.

“The pushback from Lee County — the ninth-largest district in the state and the 37th largest in the country, with more than 85,000 students –  is striking in a state that has been at the forefront of standardized test-based “accountability” systems that use student test scores to evaluate not only kids but their teachers, principals, schools and districts. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush was a pioneer in test-based accountability and he continues to support it around the country, even amid a growing revolt around the country by parents and educators against test-based school reform, which has led to narrowed curriculum, obsessive test preparation and other negative consequences. Reformers have insisted that test scores are a legitimate high-stakes evaluation tool, even though assessment experts have repeatedly said otherwise.”

It remains to be seen how this plays out but the Lee County Board should be congratulated for taking this stand.




Mark Tucker: New Report on Education Accountability!

Dear Commons Community,

Joe Nocera in his New York Times column today considers education accountability and references Mark Tucker’s report, Fixing Our National Accountability System. In the 1970s, Tucker worked at the National Institute of Education, followed by a stint at the Carnegie Corporation. In 1988, he founded the National Center on Education and the Economy. Essentially Tucker sees our current system as broken and that there needs to be an improvement of the teacher “profession”.  More specifically:

“..the current system of [public education] accountability is not pretty. Ever since the passage of No Child Left Behind 12 years ago, teachers have been judged, far too simplistically, based on standardized tests given to their students — tests, as Marc S. Tucker points out in a new report, Fixing Our National Accountability System, that are used to decide which teachers should get to keep their jobs and which should be fired. This system has infuriated and shamed teachers, and is a lot of the reason that teacher turnover is so high, causing even many of the best teachers to abandon the ranks.

All of which might be worth it if this form of accountability truly meant that public school students were getting a better education. But, writes Tucker, “There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance.” Meanwhile, he adds, test-based accountability is “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching.”

Not long after founding the N.C.E.E., Tucker began taking a close look at countries and cities that were re-engineering successfully. What he came away with were two insights. First was a profound appreciation for the fact that most of the countries with the best educational results used the same set of techniques to get there. And, second, that the American reform methods were used nowhere else in the world. “No other country believes that you can get to a high quality educational system simply by instituting an accountability system,” he says. “We are entirely on the wrong track.” His cri de coeur has been that Americans should look to what works, instead of clinging to what doesn’t.

The main thing that works is treating teaching as a profession, and teachers as professionals. That means that teachers are as well paid as other professionals, that they have a career ladder, that they go to elite schools where they learn their craft, and that they are among the top quartile of college graduates instead of the bottom quartile.”

Tucker’s report is on target.  Education policymakers at the U.S. Department of Education and state education department would be wise to read and consider its recommendations.





Clive Thompson: End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email!

Dear Commons Community,

Clive Thompson, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times entitled, “End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email”. Just in time for the Labor Day weekend, he alerts us to the way email has taken over our lives especially for many white-collar workers. Here is an excerpt:

“White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.”

He comments:

“Limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.”

Agreed!   Break the chains and enjoy the Labor Day Weekend!



Los Angeles Schools Superintendent Suspends iPad Rollout!

Dear Commons Community,

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that John Deasy, Superintendent of Schools in Los Angeles, has suspended a contract with Apple Inc. to provide an iPad to every student. As reported:

“… the $1 billion initiative faces problems and growing scrutiny…the suspension is the latest setback for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s proposed technology rollout, the largest of its kind for any U.S. public education system. Under a contract approved a little more than a year ago, Apple’s tablet computer was to be coupled with a digital curriculum from Pearson. The program was to expand greatly over the next year. “Moving forward, we will no longer utilize our current contract with Apple Inc,” Superintendent John Deasy told the district’s Board of Education on Monday in a memo posted on the newspaper’s website. “Not only will this decision enable us to take advantage of an ever-changing marketplace and technology advances, it will also give us time to take into account concerns raised surrounding the,” Deasy wrote. Deasy has described the rollout as a civil rights initiative designed to give students, mostly from low-income families, access to a 21st-century tool common in middle-class households. The landmark project ran into problems at the start of the 2013-2014 school year when about 300 high school students among an initial 25,000 pupils to get an iPad bypassed its security protocols to access social networking and other websites blocked to them. Last week, a draft report of the district’s technology committee, obtained by the newspaper, was critical of the bidding process.”



New York Times Refuses to Endorse Andrew Cuomo in Democratic Party Primary!

Dear Commons Community,

There was trouble in Cuomo land yesterday when the New York Times editorial board announced it would not be endorsing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in the upcoming September primary for governor. In making this decision, the editorial board stated:

[When] Mr. Cuomo became governor …[he[ recorded several impressive achievements, but he failed to perform Job 1. The state government remains as subservient to big money as ever, and Mr. Cuomo resisted and even shut down opportunities to fix it. Because he broke his most important promise, we have decided not to make an endorsement for the Democratic primary on Sept. 9….

His opponent in the primary is Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham Law School who is a national expert on political corruption and an advocate of precisely the kind of transparency and political reform that Albany needs. Her description of Mr. Cuomo as part of a broken system “where public servants just end up serving the wealthy” is exactly on point, but we decline to endorse her because she has not shown the breadth of interests and experience needed to govern a big and diverse state.

Ms. Teachout brings a refreshing seriousness to the job of cleaning up state government, making a strong case for the urgency of rescuing politics from unchecked corporate power. The centerpiece of her platform is a campaign finance system modeled on the matching funds program that has proved successful in New York City.

She would limit contributions to candidates to $2,600, compared with the current $60,000, and would keep corporations from giving five-figure donations, a loophole that Mr. Cuomo has exploited to raise millions of dollars. These proposals are as thoughtful as one would expect from a leading expert on combating public corruption, particularly given her work promoting transparency as national director of the Sunlight Foundation in 2006 and 2007.”

It is not likely that Ms. Teachout can win this primary but Mr. Cuomo and his image are taking a lot of hits from major organizations that normally support incumbent Democratic Party candidates.


Burger King to Buy Canadian Company to Avoid Taxes!

Dear Commons Community,

Burger King Worldwide Inc. is in talks to buy Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain Tim Hortons Inc.,a deal that would be structured as a so-called tax inversion and move the hamburger seller’s base to Canada. In doing so, Burger King would join a number of other companies “gaming the system” to avoid paying taxes. As reported in The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post:

“The two sides are working on a deal that would create a new company, they said in a statement, confirming a report on the talks by The Wall Street Journal. The takeover would create the third-largest quick-service restaurant provider in the world, they said.

Inversion deals have been on the rise lately, and are facing stiff opposition in Washington given that they threaten to deplete U.S. government coffers. A move by Burger King to seal one is sure to intensify criticism of them, since it is such a well-known and distinctly American brand.

A person familiar with the matter said a deal between the two companies could be struck soon, though additional details on timing couldn’t be learned. Tim Hortons has a market value of about $8.4 billion, while Burger King’s is about $9.6 billion, so together the restaurant companies are currently worth about $18 billion.

By moving to a lower-tax jurisdiction, inversion deals enable companies to save money on foreign earnings and cash stowed abroad, and in some cases lower their overall corporate rate. Even though many of the headline-grabbing inversion deals of late have involved European companies, Canada has also been the focal point for a number of them, given its proximity and similarity to the U.S. Canada’s federal corporate tax rate was lowered to 15% in 2012.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., which had been based in California, combined with Canada’s Biovail Corp. in 2010 and redomiciled in Canada. The company now has a tax rate less than 5%.”

McDonalds anyone!



Thousands on Staten Island Protest the Death of Eric Garner!

Earl Garner Protest II

Dear Commons Community,

Several thousand marchers converged in northeast Staten Island to protest the choking death of Eric Garner who was in the custody of police officers trying to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. The protesters chanted “I can’t breathe” — Mr. Garner’s words as he struggled with officers — mixed with those borrowed from Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

As reported in the New York Times:

“For days, march organizers and Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized that the demonstration on Staten Island would not devolve into the sort of violent confrontation with police officers that had plagued the protests over the death of the Ferguson teenager, Michael Brown. By late afternoon, the march had ended and the crowds were heading home. The police said all had been quiet and there had been no arrests.

Indeed, for both police officials and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who led the march, the demonstration served as a kind of protest by example for how to respond forcefully but peacefully amid accusations of police misconduct.

“We are not here to cause riots; we are here because violence was caused,” Mr. Sharpton said at a rally after the march. But, he said, “we are not against the police.”