Saturday, June 21, 2008

“I Can See Us Sittin’ 'Round the Table, When from the Family Koran Dad Would Read …” *

Usually the only solicitors drawn to our neighborhood are those wily Jehovah’s Witnesses and the guys who want $10 to paint our address on the curb in a Texas flag motif. But Friday brought something new under the sun: Some believer had swept down our street and hung a black-jacketed paperback copy of the Koran (or Quran, as it was spelled on the cover) from the doorknob of every household.

An accompanying flier informed recipients that the Muslim holy book was a “free gift” from the Book of Signs Foundation, which according to this recent Chicago Tribune article “hopes to clear up misconceptions” Americans supposedly harbor about Islam. But the group has a “particularly ambitious” long-term goal, the paper reported:
… that each household in the U.S. possess a Quran, even if the residents are not Muslims.
From what we could detect the gift** was not unanimously well-received in our neighborhood. The lady next door approached us we puttered in our front yard after the afternoon rains and asked, her voice heavy with suspicion, “Did you get a copy of the Koran put on your front door?” We said that we had and assured her she hadn’t been precision-targeted for conversion. “Well, it pisses me off,” she said, going on to assert that Muslims in the U.S. are given much wider latitude in their proselytizing than Christians. We had no facts on which to argue or agree and simply said that we guessed that the deliverer had right to drop the volume on our doorstep, as many times as desired, as long as he didn’t make a nuisance of himself. "Yeah, I know," our neighbor agreed. "But it still pisses me off."

Later we read the fine print on the flier and discovered that the gift was not really free and that the Book of Signs Foundation actually wanted---demanded---something of us, something that would not only require an expenditure of our valuable time but our conformance to a tenet of Islam:
NOTE: Please remember that this is a Holy Book and therefore treat it as you would treat your own scripture. While it is our sincere desire to present this to you as a gift, we realize that some may not want the copy. Please don’t throw it. Call us and we’ll arrange to have it picked up or you may give it to your nearest Mosque or another Muslim …”
Nah. This still being America, we’ll retain our right to toss our new Koran into the garbage or the recycling bag or pitch it in the barbecue pit next time we’re running low on charcoal. And we suspect our neighbors will do the same.

*With deep apologies to Willie, of course.

**We once again made a run at skimming through the Koran and once again were struck by what an angry load of gibberish it seems to be, with almost every page we opened devoted to dictate after dictate on the necessity of bending to Allah’s will. Here, randomly chosen, from the book of Al-Mujadila, 58:5: “Verily, those who oppose Allah and His Messenger will be disgraced down to dust, like those who were disgraced before them: For We have already sent down clear Signs (Ayat). And the unbelievers (will suffer) a shameful penalty …” Which we suppose is no different than the biblical threat of roasting for eternity in the Lake of Fire, but at least the Bible tells occasionally coherent and interesting stories, and the power of the language in the King James version cannot be denied.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wild Geese in the Clean Air

Last Sunday’s New York Times carried an informative front-page story on South Korea’s “wild geese”---mothers who leave behind their husbands in Korea to temporarily (and legally) immigrate to an English-speaking country, usually Australia, New Zealand or the U.S., so that the couple’s children can master the mother tongue of George Bush while attending school. Lots of these wild geese land in Houston’s Memorial area, where a noticeable contingent of Korean kids is enrolled in the Spring Branch school district. It’s a phenomenon with which we are vaguely acquainted, having worked with some of these children over the years to help them divine the mysteries of verb-subject agreement.

This widespread splitting of families has an obvious social cost. According to the Times, it's
considered enough of a social problem that an aide to South Korea’s president recently singled out the plight of the penguin [stay-at-home] fathers.

President Lee Myung-bak said he would start to address the problem by hiring 10,000 English teachers. “This is unprecedented,” he said. “Korea is actually the only country in the world undergoing such a phenomenon, which is very unfortunate."
The learning of English is thought to be a necessity for success in Korea’s corporate world (unlike here in the English-speaking [as of right now] U.S., where we consign so many Spanish-speaking youngsters to the grievously misnamed “bilingual” class), but there’s another reason the geese take flight: so their kids can escape, at least temporarily, the pressure-cooker of the Korean school system. As the Times notes
… unhappiness over education’s financial and psychological costs is so widespread that it is often cited as a reason for the country’s low birthrate, which, at 1.26 in 2007, was one of the world’s lowest. South Korean parents say that the schools are failing to teach not only English but also other skills crucial in an era of globalization, like creative thinking. That resonates among South Koreans, whose economy has slowed after decades of high growth and who believe they are increasingly being squeezed between the larger economies of Japan and China.
It is unfortunate that South Korean parents are under the impression---at least if the Times can be believed---that their kids can be “taught” creative thinking, which of course is one of the grand fallacies put forth by America’s educational elites (the ones with Ph.Ds in education who demand to be addressed as doctor). The secret of many of these Asian kids’ academic success in the U.S. is not just their superior pattern-recognition skills but their rote memorization talents. They have the eerie ability just to stare quietly at written material long past the expiration date for most young American minds and somehow absorb it. That’s how they do it. They may be short on “creative thinking” but almost any child who comes to the U.S. from Chinese, Japanese or Korean schools is going to be 2 or 3 years ahead of their American counterparts in math---over there second graders are already accomplished at long division while over here some of the home-grown knuckleheads we pass on to middle school still don’t "get it."

Yet almost all of the Korean kids we’ve worked with tell us they’d really like to stay in the U.S. if only because school here is more manageable. In Korea, most of them---and the ones we know are almost all middle- or upper-middle class---go to school until 3:30 or 4:30 in the afternoon, then go to after-school “cram” classes until 10 or 11 at night. They say it’s a brutal pace, and more than one has mentioned that corporal punishment is still routinely meted out by South Korean teachers---not necessarily for bad behavior, but for missing an answer or not paying attention. Usually this consists of a ruler whack to the wrist, the same attention-getter once employed by Irish-American nuns of lore and legend, although we've also been told of smacks being administered upside a tender young Korean noggin.

Then there's the 12-year-old we know who’s taken the English name of “Ted.” He’s not technically a wild goose, as both of his parents are doctors who are studying at the Texas Medical Center. The family planned to return to Korea in a few months but is now considering trying to stay on in the U.S. When we asked why, Ted quickly consulted his electronic translator and pointed to a very wordy entry, explaining that he suffered from the condition defined on the little screen: atopic dermatitis. Apparently he was nearly eaten up with it in Korea, but since he’s been in Houston it has almost totally cleared up. Why is that? we asked. Our superior medical system?

“No,” he replied, shaking his head. "In Korea the air is very dirty. Much pollution. But in Houston the air is very clean. Very good.”

That's what he said ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Constitutional Scholar

Rick Noriega, the Democrat who’s trying to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the November election, was the subject of a “Sunday Conversation” Q&A in the Houston Chronicle (no link available for some reason, but it was in the paper newspaper---honest!) and offered a curious response when asked by reporter R. G. Ratcliffe whether the Constitution should be amended to “deny automatic citizenship status” to children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. Noriega’s published reply, in its entirety:
And no, we should not be amending our most important founding document.
So we shouldn’t be amending the Constitution, and therefore should have no right to free speech (Amendment No. 1), no right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures (No. 4), wouldn’t have banned the sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors (Numero XVIII), would still be denying women the right to vote (19), wouldn’t have repealed the prohibition on the sale and transport of intoxicating liquors (XXI) and might still be requiring blacks in the South to pay to vote (the 24th)?

We didn’t always pay attention in school, but we believe we were taught that the Constitution is a living document subject to amendment. This non-answer from Noriega---and we’ll acknowledge the possibility that the interview was edited for brevity, although his reply hardly needs further context---makes the Democratic U.S. Senate nominee sound … not too bright.

Surely Noriega knows that the section of the Constitution that is assumed to bestow citizenship on the spawn of any border-jumping mamacita from Zacatecas who can make her way to a public hospital was not part of the original “founding document” but was added as an amendment (XIV) by the Reconstruction-era Congress specifically to guarantee citizenship and its attendant rights to recently freed African-American slaves. No one back then envisioned massive illegal immigration, or even the concept of illegal immigration---or a public-hospital maternity ward, for that matter.

He does know that, right?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

What’s Wrong with Public Education Today, One in Continuing Series

The state’s “closing” of Sam Houston High School provides a too-perfect illustration of the fabulism underpinning the current Grandiose Mission of Statements of Public Education in the United States---whether No Child Left Behind (the notion as much as the law) on the federal level or the Houston school district’s corresponding effort to inculcate a “College Bound Culture” in its students---which essentially posit that every child is not only handsome and above-average but that he or she is mentally endowed with the ability to pursue a college education, a goal that is realizable if only we could dump even more money on the premises and those damned teachers could somehow pour the knowledge into those obdurate heads, or at least secure passing TAKS scores. As the writer and Rice alum Steve Sailer has indelicately pointed out, this fanciful notion is similar to the medieval belief in alchemy---the faith that base metals could be transmuted into gold.

Sam Houston’s “problem” was that a too-large percentage of the school’s very small percentage of black students have been failing state accountability tests, most especially the math exam---where “passing” just means the ability to get right at least two-thirds of the questions (which elsewhere is usually called “failing”). As the Chronicle put it in a loaded and likely deliberate turn of phrase, the school named after our city’s founding father*, the one where LBJ once taught, "could not get a small group of black students to pass the state-mandated math exam …" Not, mind you, a small group of black students couldn’t pass the state-mandated, etc. This after an apparently inordinate amount of money and attention were devoted to the “problem”---“spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix it,” as the Chronicle reported, including the wholesale replacement of faculty three years ago and a $300,000 affiliation with something called the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, “which specializes in teaching math and science” (so much for it … and the $300K).

The daily newspaper, in an effort to divine the deep mystery behind these kids’ “failure,” tapped the quotation services of one Valerie Hill-Jackson, an assistant education professor at Texas A&M University, who declared from her academic aerie that “teachers need to learn how to connect with black students.”

"We know this is a culture that is very vibrant, exuberant, likes to talk," said Hill-Jackson, who is black. "So, if I'm a math and science teacher, how can I use that to my advantage? I can have them get out of their seats.”
Oh, that's brilliant! Out of their seats! Bet no one thought of that before. No wonder you're an education professor, Ms. Hill-Jackson.

(We’d bet that one afternoon of “teaching” quadratic equations in rap ’n’ rhyme [maybe it’s possible …] to these exuberant out-of-their-seat talkers would send Ms. Hill-Jackson---who, by the way, is black!---scurrying back to the Ivy-covered walls of Aggieland with a pressing desire for several stiff drinks, if not a lifetime prescription for a powerful psychoactive medication.)

Yes, it’s the “different learning styles” fallacy, a discredited and implicitly racist concept that’s usually pitched forward as an excuse for bad behavior (when we read Hill-Jackson’s comments we flashed on our daughter’s recent 8th grade "graduation" ceremony, during which the school’s final-year students who had been “commended” for their scores on the year's four TAKS exams were recognized; the line-up included a good percentage of black students, in a proportion that looked equal to or higher than the school’s black population; none were fidgeting, loud or demanding of attention as they stood on stage; none threw gang signs or chanted inane rap lyrics at the top of their lungs). At the better charter schools the kids with the serious behavior problems are tagged as “culture breakers”---meaning they screw it all up for the rest of the students who keep their heads down and try to master the work (the culture breakers, of course, being the same kids the better charter schools work to rid themselves of).

This supposed root cause was also cited by Carol Mims Galloway, a Houston school board member and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston, who offered the Chronicle this racist slant: “People of other races always feel like they have the best solution for the teaching and learning of African-American students when they don't even understand the total concept of African-American culture and the environment which these young people of today live in." Y’know, if we were a teacher at Sam Houston High that comment would tempt us to place a flamin’ bag of dog poo on the Galloway front porch, ring the doorbell and run away. We’d imagine that any public high school teacher in the city knows much more about “the environment which these young people of today live in" than, say, the average school board member.

No one, of course, has raised the notion that … and we must whisper here … that some kids just aren’t cut out to pass Algebra I, much less Algebra II, and really aren’t going to get much out of a forced 9th grade “reading” of A Tale of Two Cities, a book they aren’t even equipped to understand if they were going to read it in the first place. Perhaps that’s harsh and unfeeling, not to mention out-of-step with the prevailing group-think in education, but who’s really shortchanging those kids? Who’s really leaving them behind? Instead of being forced to pass 4 years of math and science, as the state now requires, might not it be better if high schoolers were given the option of pursuing a non-TAKS track, spending, say, a half-day in voc-ed courses for their junior and senior years, which might offer a pathway to a real living (but which are in disfavor with educational elites---they went to collich, y’know---who disdain the manual trades or anything smacking of physical labor) and a half-day being given remediation in the basics (that’s readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic). Or, they could take calculus and physics---their choice. Lots of kids, especially working-class Hispanics, already know they can make a better living, and be their own boss, by learning a trade, as opposed to scrapping together a couple of years in community college so they can sit in a cubicle or behind a counter and be at the mercy of some corporate asshole 900 miles away.

We don’t mean to indict the accountability system---just the rankings based on racial breakdowns and not on a school’s overall achievement. The Chronicle reported that only 110 of Sam Houston’s 2,500 students are black, along with 65 lonesome Caucasians (imagine what the dominant language in the hallways is---it ain’t the tongue of Sam Houston). Sam Houston probably isn’t a school you’d send your kids to (being a typical elitist blog reader) but judging from its overall scores it certainly is not deserving of a “closing” (which really isn’t a shuttering as such). Something similar, with a less dire but still damaging result, happened a few years back at Poe Elementary in an upper-income neighborhood north of Rice University---a good school by almost any measure, and one you’d have no problem sending your kids to---when a literal handful of Hispanic ESL students, maybe a half-dozen if memory serves, failed the 5th grade TAKS science exam and the school was rated “unacceptable,” which it most certainly was not.

Accountability is a good thing---it’s what the tax-paying public wants and deserves---and barring some miraculous new education theory the only to way ensure accountability is through standardized testing. Various parties whine and moan about the supposed “teaching to the test” (and what’s wrong with that, if the test is reflective of the curriculum and the curriculum is serviceable?), but about the only subjective way to judge a school is by its overall test scores (certainly a better method than those “ratings” produced annually by the ominously named non-profit Children at Risk and duly reported as Gospel by the media---does any serious person actually think the YES Prep Public Schools-Southeast is a better school than Carnegie Vanguard or Bellaire High?).

One thing’s for certain about Sam Houston: lots more money will be spent on the “problem,” and lots more bodies will be run through the classrooms until---some way, somehow---the desired result is squeezed out of the students. Or, perhaps, until the policy-setters remember that useful definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

*Not Santa Anna de Whatshisname

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

One Thing You Can Say About Sheila Jackson Lee …

Yep, there she was, briefly popping onto our TV screen as the MSNBC (or CNN, we forget which one we were watching*) cameras panned the audience as it broke up Tuesday night after Hillary’s “Ain’t Dead Yet” speech: the ubiquitous, the ever-present, the veritably unstoppable Sheila Jackson Lee, dressed in bright yellow (we think) and glad-handing as if her life depended on it (which it does, of course).

Sure, her politics are those of the cartoonish ideologue and, yeah, she treats (or treated---we believe in the Power of Now) her underlings horribly, but it appears that once SJL is by your side she’s there till the last dog dies or the asteroid hits, whichever. It would’ve been easy for the congress gal to beg off her commitment to Clinton and board the late train for Obama, especially give the way the contest became so racial-ized and all, but apparently (we’re hedging because we don’t know for certain) SJL values loyalty over expediency.

In the wake of Obama’s “clinching of the nomination” (which we always thought only happened during a roll-call of delegates at the convention) the local daily newspaper tagged SJL a “loser” for “investing considerable political capital in touting Hillary Clinton” and getting considerably less in return than if she’d invested in mortgage-backed securities. But Sheila Lee’s a winner in our book, and we hope she remembers this posting so that when we die she’ll show up at our funeral and deliver a half-hour (or more, hopefully) oration.

Anyway, we fully expect to see SJL Velcro’ed to Obama’s side in the very near future, although we'd imagine the senator's campaign has had plenty of time to tighten security.

*We started out watching MSNBC but had to change the channel after being nearly overcome by the gaseous fumes emitted by the combined personages of the always-unfunny and never-perceptive Keith Olbermann, the deadly pompous Tom Brokaw (“ … this is an extraordinary new generation---they think nothing of it when a black person walks into the room,” etc.), and the tendentious two-Irish-guys-blabbin'-on-barstools duo of Tim Russert and Chris Matthews ( who apparently has no "off" button when it comes to Obama).