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Friday, September 28, 2007

Content over form

No truer words were written about the untidy newspaper model for web.

"Readers just don't come to a newspaper's website looking for a messy passel of blogs. They come looking for sports, or fashion, no matter what "form" it's in. Old newspaper editors may think blogs are some crazy different variety of publication; readers don't.

The result of this bias at newspapers is the unbelievably horrible web organization of their websites."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Life shared through death

Earlier this month I made my once-every-five-years trip to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license. I had lucked out because there was no one else in line and I moved quickly through the process. Vision? Check. Vital stats? Check. Address? Check. Organ donation? Sure.

It happened that quickly. I was in and out in under five minutes, surely some kind of record. I didn't stop to give one minute of thought to my decision to continue to be an organ donor.

Not until my friend, Chris, gave me a copy of Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly's column, "Getting a Second Wind."

As I unfolded the clipping back at home, Ryan stood reading over my shoulder. I gasped aloud when I read that a 14-year-old soccer goalie shot herself in the head after being on Paxil for 10 days. I'm not going to curse the drug, because I have loved ones who have benefited from its use. But Korrine Shroyer was in eighth grade, she was feeling a little sad and so a therapist recommended the drug.

Reilly's column, however, is really about how her parents coped with such profound sorrow.

Kevin, an investigator in the public defender's office, and his wife, Kristie, a hairstylist, were able to think one clear and brave and terrifying thought during the six days Korinne survived after the shooting. They decided to send out her organs like gifts.

Her green eyes would go in one direction, her glad heart another, her kidneys still another. Her liver and her pancreas went somewhere else, and her two good lungs -- the ones that played the saxophone -- went to a Gainesville, Ga., man named Len Geiger, who was so close to dying that he was practically pricing caskets.

At age 48 Geiger had genetic emphysema. Korrine's strong young lungs saved his life. Eventually Geiger met her parents.

Hours later the group was parting when Kristie said, "Len? Can I ask you a favor?" She walked over and stood before him.

"Anything," Geiger said.

"Can I put my hands on your chest for just a second?"

And she stood there, crying, as she felt her dead daughter breathe.

As tears ran down my face I felt my son's strong arm wrap around my shoulder and I shuddered at the thought of losing him, his laughter, his confidence, his sheer physical presence. Would I have such courage?

The story ends fairly well. Geiger and Korrine's dad took up running together. Eventually Geiger met and married a woman. They had a baby girl. Her name? Ava Corrine.

A divine noontime meal is...

...Heinen's Toasted Nut salad. The combination of creamy goat cheese, roasted pine nuts and marinated green beans, red peppers and mushrooms tossed with mesculin greens and a poppyseed dressing is like a blessing from the food gods. All it needs is a flaky croissant (courtesy of Heinen's bakery) and my lunch is complete.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sy Hersh on journalism and government

Brad Greenberg interviews New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh for JewishJournal.
SH: There is an enormous change taking place in this country in journalism. And it is online. We are eventually -- and I hate to tell this to The New York Times or the Washington Post -- we are going to have online newspapers, and they are going to be spectacular. And they are really going to cut into daily journalism.

I've been working for The New Yorker recently since '93. In the beginning, not that long ago, when I had a big story you made a good effort to get the Associated Press and UPI and The New York Times to write little stories about what you are writing about. Couldn't care less now. It doesn't matter, because I'll write a story, and The New Yorker will get hundreds of thousands, if not many more, of hits in the next day. Once it's online, we just get flooded.

So, we have a vibrant, new way of communicating in America. We haven't come to terms with it. I don't think much of a lot of the stuff that is out there. But there are a lot of people doing very, very good stuff.

JJ: Some people have a problem with muckrakers. Why do you think it is important to shine a light on filth?
SH: I can't imagine what else there is to do in the newspaper business today right now but to write as much as you can about what is going on. Like it, don't like it, what you call filth is the normal vagaries of government and foreign affairs these days.
SH: With these stories, if they slow down or make people take a deep breath before they bomb Iran, that is a plus. But they are not going to stop anybody. This is a government that is unreachable by us, and that is very depressing. In terms of adding to the public debate, the stories are important. But not in terms of changing policy. I have no delusions about that.
Lines I would bold, underline, all caps, etc.?

"I can't imagine what else there is to do in the newspaper business today right now but to write as much as you can about what is going on."

"This is a government that is unreachable by us, and that is very depressing."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Two more UB stories today

CPT missionary turns faith into practice in Colombia
By Wendy A. Hoke
St. Luke Church parishioner Joseph Betz believes that “presence is peacemaking and storytelling can be healing.”

As a second-year graduate student at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., the Lakewood native is interested in the practical applications of the Christian faith in the world.

Putting his feet where his faith lies, he spent two weeks in July as a member of the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) in Colombia. As one of seven in the delegation from the United States and Canada, Betz came to hear the stories of people who suffer because of the violence of an ongoing civil war.

Influenced by his undergraduate experiences at Mercyhurst College and by his friend, Chris Knestrick, who is a member of the Catholic Worker community here in Cleveland, Betz said, “If faith isn’t practical then what good is it?”

As a future teacher of theology, he believes, “If I can’t say I’ve been there, and met the people I’m going to be less credible to the students.”

CPT has a full-time team in Barrancabermeja north of the capital city of Bogotá, where the team spent time talking to many groups. It also traveled further north to Mico, a rural community.

With a mix of Christians, Betz said his experiences served as a strengthening of faith, not just of Catholic faith. “I was enriched spiritually by means of meeting other people doing the same work and seeing it be effective.”

CPT’s focus is to go to the areas of active conflict and to get in the way. “We did a lot of listening,” said Betz.

“Hearing difficult stories and not being able to ‘fix’ everything is taxing,” he said, adding that he was mentally and physically exhausted from the experience. But the trip has altered his worldview.

When he thinks of Colombia, he thinks of Carlos, a young man very close to his age (24) kicked out of the (Christian) church for being gay yet continues to remain in the country to do work despite the threats to his life.

“I can’t not pay attention to him because of his stories. The night before we met him his friend (who was in the Catholic Church) was found dead on the train tracks because he was gay. His life is in danger because of his sexual orientation and yet he still believes in the power of the Gospels.”

Betz acknowledges the paradox of the church’s involvement in the conflict, but remains pragmatic about reconciliation.

“The church has roots in the conflict. But there are some great bishops and some great work being done by them. The church today can use its power and place to stand up to an unjust system.”

Part of the commitment to CPT is to share the experience with others. In addition to working on his Spanish, Betz is back home in an academic community where he does so one-on-one and by giving presentations. Being the pragmatist that he is, he also uses the online networking community, Facebook to post snippets and connect others to resources.

“My approach is always the story first. A good storyteller can grab people. Once you’re hooked, then you can get into policy a bit.

“The most important thing we can do is ask questions,” he said.

How to help
Joseph Betz offers the following tips for how you can help CPT’s efforts in Colombia.
• Contact your congressional representative and ask that the mostly military aid we give to Colombia be changed to humanitarian aid, judicial reform and stopping impunity in the country.

• Pick one place, one conflict anywhere and choose to stick with it following articles in the paper, online or via new books that come out on the subject. Then begin to ask questions about how religion might have a role in the conflict and how religion could also be a vehicle for conflict transformation and reconciliation. Here are some Web resources:

The InterReligious Task Force on Central America: (216) 961-0003
Christian Peacemakers Team
The Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program
The Washington Office on Latin America
Latin America Working Group

• Give one minute per day in prayer to those suffering from internal displacement from conflict.

Hoke is a freelance writer.
Patrons of the Arts affords exclusive opportunities when in Rome
By Wendy A. Hoke

In late May of this year, Lorraine Dodero and Denise Jasko were in the chapel at Governatoria in Rome. They were there with other Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum from around the world to tour Italy and meet with dignitaries, including Pope Benedict XVI.

Hanging behind the chapel altar was a painting the women said looked strikingly similar to the Ohio Chapter’s first restoration piece—“Madonna with Child and Saints Anne and Joachim.”

“We had heard that someone requested the painting be hung in their office,” said Jasko, from the group’s Solon office. “We didn’t expect to see it.”

“Certainly we did not expect it to be an altar piece,” added Dodero. But as they sat in the stark white chapel while Pope Benedict XVI gave a blessing they began to think that the painting could be theirs.

“No one said anything to us because the emphasis was on the Holy Father,” said Dodero. “We went back to our hotel and pulled out the materials we had brought along. We had only seen a black-and-white photograph of the piece, but we started comparing angel to angel and saint to saint.”

That evening over dinner they asked the priests with whom they were dining if the altar painting was the “Madonna with Child and Saints” and they replied that it was. “They forgot to tell us. But there was our piece, hanging behind the altar, being blessed by the pope,” said Dodero.

The Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum was formed in 1983 to help provide funding for restoration of the Vatican Museum’s aging and historic artwork. Chapters across the world recruit members whose dues help to pay the cost of restoration of certain works.

Dodero started the Ohio Chapter three years ago and the “Madonna” was its first restoration project. Not all restored work is on public display, which made the experience all the more unique.

Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum share such privileges and intimate artistic and spiritual experiences.

Tourists typically wait in long lines and enter the Vatican sites with the noise and bustle of thousands of others doing the same. Patrons receive special tours often before museums open to the public and with guided tours to explain the history and importance of many works.

Imagine the spiritual experience of visiting the Sistine Chapel with a handful of guests, or watching the nuns working behind-the-scenes on tapestries that are hundreds of years old.

Dodero started the Ohio chapter with Rome’s blessing after she was involved in the Florida chapter. “It’s such a different experience to be able to go to Rome and be treated like dignitaries,” she said.

Annual dues are $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families. The chapter currently has 49 members.

The Vatican Museum compiles a catalog or wish list of items it needs restored and, based on the amount of money collected from dues, chapter members vote to fund a project.

The chapter’s next restoration is the cleaning of an entrance to a library.

“Since we’re a new chapter, we choose projects based on what we can afford. The library entrance will take about two years and involves mostly cleaning and some stucco work,” said Dodero.

Of course there are also the trips to Italy. The last one in May included the special audience with the pope, a visit to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, private viewings of the Sistine Chapel and a tour of the Roman Necropolis. The archeological site dates from the reigns of Augustus to Constantine. The Canadian chapter of the Patrons of the Arts is funding the excavation restoration.

While the Vatican Museum artifacts are of spiritual and historic importance to Christians, Dodero said the Patrons is an ecumenical group also open to all art lovers and philanthropists.

The Ohio Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museum's next activity is a clambake at 4 p.m. Oct. 7 at Gamekeeper’s Tavern in Chagrin Falls. Call (440) 398-1300 for more information or visit the Patrons online.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

On finishing "Edith Wharton"

I'm a little late in sharing my thoughts, but I finally finished the Edith Wharton biography. It was an incredible read, though a long one. In the end I began to feel sad for my favorite writer, for enduring so many changes in society and the loss of so many friends and loved ones. She did not have a sense of how history would portray her at the time of her death, but I believe she worried about seeming insignificant.

She was not and is not insignificant. If anything, she is a model for how to write about real life without the requisite happy endings. Drawing from her own losses, she brings to us her haunting characters inspired by her life and her world.

I've yet to process the entire book, but there is one line in a letter to her lover, Morton Fullerton, that strikes at the heart of her for me:
"When one is a lonely-hearted and remembering creature, as I am, it is a misfortune to love too late, and as completely as I have loved you. Everything else grows so ghostly afterward."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Merton could have written this today

"What characterizes our century is not so much that we have to rebuild our world as that we have to rethink it. This amounts to saying that we have to give it back its language. The vocabularies that are proposed to us are of no use to us and there is no point in a Byzantine exercise upon themes of grammar. We need a profound questioning which will not separate us from the sufferings of men." — Thomas Merton, February 1964

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More thoughts on new journalism site


If I wasn't already serious about starting a new Greater Cleveland journalism-focused site, I am ever more convinced of its merits and necessity after reading "The Nonprofit Road: It's paved not with gold, but with good journalism," in the September/October issue of Columbia Journalism Review.

Between Charles Lewis' (that's my dad's name so it's weird to use it for someone else) article and a feature on Josh Marshall and his Talking Points Memo, I am convinced that the way forward journalistically speaking for Cleveland is an independent site dedicated to original investigative in-depth journalism, thoughtful features and intelligent commentary.

Of course, I have no idea how to pay for such a site or even what revenue model would support such a site. But I am convinced of several things that make me want to find a way financially: good stories are routinely under- or unreported yet are found everywhere, fine writers capable of telling those stories abound and the audience for those good stories exists and is willing to read them and support an online format.

Mainstream news is limited by time, space and a beat system that seems to work against the enterprise reporting MSM espouses as its most worthy content. About Marshall's efforts, David Glenn writes:
New articles in mainstream dailies often contain facts whose full implications aren’t explored, Marshall says, “either because of space or editorial constraints or because the reporters themselves don’t know the story well enough. They’re often parachuted in to work on these topics for just a few weeks."
In these parts, anything that happens on the county level is a prime example of that approach. Don't just take my word for it.

What's inspiring about Marshall's work is that it began simply, as a blog. When he needed money to cover something (such as the New Hampshire primary) he asked readers for contributions. And they responded—with minimal donations (mostly $20-$50) that eventually allowed him to hire employees and expand his site's focus. “We’ve never had any investment capital behind us,” Marshall says. “So we have to be profitable every month. It’s all on a kind of cash-as-you-go basis.”

Marshall has been blogging a lot longer than most of us — since 2000. He has grown his audience, experience and content organically, relying more on the shoe-leather of original reporting and developing sources than on some fancy Web platform and design. If content is king, then Marshall has launched his own dynasty that has daily newspaper reporters such as Dean Calbreath of The San Diego Union-Tribune, saying the site, “provides reporters with sources that might not be at the top of our radar screen,” he says. “Being based in San Diego, I’m not a big reader of The Hill, for instance. But by reading TPM, I can have easy access to [The Hill’s] pertinent articles. The commentary at TPM, meanwhile, poses important questions that we might not have thought of on our own.”

Content is king. As Elisabeth Sifton, senior vice president at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, writes in her CJR essay in the same issue, " The Second Draft of History: Where newspapers fall short, news books continue to succeed" (not available online):
"Readers are showing, not only in their use of the Web but in their purchase of books, an age-old, still insatiable appetite for intelligently reported news; when they can, they devour five-hundred-page tomes about events near and far and make bestsellers of them. What an irony—to have news editors fear they might no longer attract readers with sustained, individuated attention to the perils of our time, and to have book publishers demonstrate the opposite."
So I'm wondering what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Does it make sense to start a site as a blog and begin to build audience and traffic before making it more sophisticated? Is there financing available to at least pay some good writers for solid content? Are there people willing to get involved with such a start-up in hopes of a long-term payoff? Web developers, marketing experts, journalists, editors, business development experts?

Other cities are doing this successfully and I will talk with their founders to learn about about the process and the model they chose. But check out the following to see what appeals to you.

Minnesota Monitor
LA Observed
Beachwood Reporter (Chicago)
* New Haven Independent

I envision a Greater Cleveland site that includes the things I'd love to see in a good print magazine—politics, business, economic development, education, arts and culture, books, sports, history, profiles, travel, architecture, style, urban culture, media, food, the environment—all related to Greater Cleveland.

The kinds of stories I'm interested in reading are those that go beyond a recitation of what happened, but that take an in-depth look at how government decisions play out for the average citizen, or how policy affects us. I want to read the work of writers capable of connecting those dots, those capable for writing intelligent, INFORMED analysis.

And that's where Lewis's article provided the necessary push forward.
"...our democracy’s need for higher-quality reportage has substantially increased. It’s time for civil society, especially the nation’s foundations and individuals of means, to collaborate with journalists and experts who understand the changing economics of journalism in an imaginative, visionary plan that would support our precious existing nonprofit institutions and help to develop new ones—the Associated Presses and Morning Editions and Frontlines of the future, in all forms of media."

"There are tantalizing signs that specific philanthropic institutions and individuals finally realize just how severe the crisis has become. The question is: Can they overcome their sometimes short-term thinking and fickle, often idiosyncratic nature and make significant, multi-year commitments to strengthen or build pillars of journalism in their communities, the nation, and beyond? Can they think outside their own agendas and embrace the inherent value of accurate, nonpartisan information to our national discourse?

The journalists are ready. More than at any time I can remember in the past thirty years, respected journalists in the U.S. and around the world, frustrated by what has become of their profession, appear to be increasingly interested in carpe diem entrepreneurship, in starting, leading, or working in new nonprofit newsrooms locally, nationally, and even internationally. And in recent months, major philanthropists and journalists, in different settings around the country, have been talking to each other about what is needed and what is possible." (Bold is mine)

I'm ready. Let's seize the opportunity to bring something journalistically empowering, engaging and informative to Greater Cleveland.

Monday, September 17, 2007

How 'bout them Browns!

Dan and I had the good fortune to land in a loge yesterday for the Browns game. What a game! We rarely sat, our hands hurt from clapping and at least one member of our party had little left of his voice by the end of the game.

It was a gorgeous day for football and so nice to have something to cheer about.

We meandered through the Flats and the municipal lots past hundreds of tail-gaters, inhaling the smell of beer, barbecue and cigarettes, dodged more than our share of cornhole games and high-fived a colorful (literally) assortment of fans young and old, big and small, male and female.

Cleveland deserved the win, the beautiful day and the fun-filled atmosphere.

Now if only our Bay Rockets can do the same this Friday night. It's T-minus two weeks and counting until Ryan gets the go / no-go on returning to full practice after the collarbone mishap.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why certain stories can't be told in newspapers

Great article in this month's Columbia Journalism Review. Unfortunately it's not yet available online, so I'll pull extensive excerpts here because I believe it's very illustrative of why reporters leave newsrooms to write.

"Unshackled: Why one reporter left a newspaper to write books," is written by Linda Perlstein, whom I've mentioned here a few times in recent weeks as the author of, "Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade."

My initial interest in her work related to my own work in reporting and writing about small school transformation for KnowledgeWorks Foundation. The new "Legacy" books detailing the work done in the 2006-07 school year will be out on Sept. 26, so I'll be sure to link to them here. I have two stories about Cleveland Heights High School: "Building Trust in the Power to Change: One leader of a small school hopes to build momentum by inspiring those around him" and "A Tale of Two Students: One reluctant, one enthusiastic and both testing the limits of Heights Schools."

Perlstein mentioned the upcoming CJR article to me when I spoke with her two weeks ago. Her article does a fine job of addressing the importance of in-depth and contextual reporting for such complex issues. While she is not dissing newspapers, she is cognizant, as a former Washington Post education reporter, of the limitations that prohibit such work from appearing in newspapers.
"...principals and elementary school teachers, not a rebellious bunch by nature—middle managers and line workers of a big bureaucracy, after all—can't afford to be that forthcoming with reporters they barely know. That's especially true with prominent newspaper like The Washington Post, where a glowing mention can buoy a school community for months.

And so in articles in the Post as well as in the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Tyler Heights Elementary is portrayed simply as a model of school reform done right, headed by a cheerleading, effortlessly optimistic principal. The stories don't delve into the heavy costs of the success; they rely heavily on interviews with the principal, and why would she have wanted to discuss the messy stuff?"
But in a book, such as Perlstein's, the messy stuff appears organically as part of the natural observation and the twin luxuries of space and time.
"Freed from the strictures of space, I was able to focus on issues I felt were crucial to understanding the inner workings of a school, which are the types of topics a newspaper editor is likely to consider inside baseball and the first things that get cut from an overlong newspaper article. Too often, education is covered as a consumer issue, with stories geared only to what editors think readers want to know about how their own children spend their time."
"A 'news you can use' approach to stories is fine in many cases, but not when it crowds out the comprehension that can come from seemingly wonky stuff."
That "wonky stuff" is the what drives much of education and certainly many educators. So to brush it off and to focus instead on loss of sports or recess or music or art is to miss that what also gets lost in the test-prep mania is explorations of science and social studies. But you only know that, only get to see those things when you are there—often.
"...For what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments."
"I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test thirty times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students' experiences and illustrated my concerns."
While there is a certain detachment that comes from observing, the power in book writing is that you can express your opinion. Our mantra during our KnowledgeWorks writing workshops throughout the year is to show not tell. While we are not writing in first person, some of us struggle to put scenes into larger context. It's challenging trying to resist the temptation to tell when you've spent enough time to "just know" that certain things are. Perlstein believes that it is better to show than to tell, "but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both."

Even with our challenges and struggles in storytelling and constant need to select, focus and reduce, what I enjoy most about my reporting on small schools is that it frees me somewhat from newspaper strictures that can get in the way of telling the story.
"You are allowed to say, 'It's hard to get parents to school in a poor community,' rather than, 'Experts say it's hard to get parents to school in a poor community.' "
To average readers that may sound like splitting hairs, but attribution is a block in the foundation of a newspaper's credibility.
"Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself ... But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year."
Other freedoms found in reporting in book form including not needing the "journalistic shortcuts" often found in articles. For example, she didn't say "test scores rose" when the truth is the percentage of children who passed the test rose. A book doesn't require to provide equal time to opposing arguments considered baseless. Sarcasm can be used to illustrate a point without the fear of offending readers. And you have the freedom to change names to protect people's identity. This is not used in reporting, though anonymous sources are. What gives any unnamed or changed name sources credibility, whether in a book or newspaper, is that it's used with such specificity that it narrows the potential pool of people providing the sourcing.

Finally, you can tell the story without the risk of offending people.
"When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being 'too hard on parents,' and that part of the story was excised considerably."
Perlstein concludes that newspapers' commitment to balance, objectivity, attribution, etc., while an impediment to telling compelling stories, necessarily keeps the focus tight. But that the best non-fiction books combine that journalistic discipline with looser narrative storytelling.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Thoughts on "the big one"

It starts about half-way through your thirties and begins to pick up steam by about 38.

"Oh, you've got the big one coming, eh?" people ask, as if the number isn't permanently affixed in front of you in flashing neon. 40 — 40 – 40, it blinks.

For the past few months, I've been in a "Let's just get this over with" mode. So in that spirit, and because I'll be unplugged for the weekend, let me say that tomorrow I turn 40. FINALLY!

Feel as if I should have some profound comments to say about the matter, but I really don't. I'm not particularly bothered by the age. I am very much in progress and so it almost feels premature to say that turning 40 has provided me with any sense of enlightenment. Maybe I'll feel differently later.

For now, I'm looking forward to a weekend with my mom and my sister at my sister's cabin in southeast Ohio — spa time (courtesy of my hubby), red wine, chic food, walks in the woods and lots and lots of good girl talk.

Must read NCLB article from AEI

The American Enterprise Institute has an interesting perspective on improving No Child Left Behind. Resisting the temptation to diss it outright, the article dissects the reasonable roles of federal government and how the current structure sets up incongruous models.

The authors jump right into the issue with a comment heard in the hallways of many of today's schools—namely is 100 percent achievement a realistic goal?
Noble, yes, but also naive, misleading, and in some respects dysfunctional. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students in America can and should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. (Bold is mine)
It's practically un-American to shoot for anything less than the top and certainly political rhetoric doesn't tolerate anything less. But what does setting such an unrealistic expectation do to the overall intentions of the bill? The answer is that it creates a system that turns the very good goal of improving student achievement into dysfunctional compliance without regard for what real student achievement looks like.

Authors Frederick M. Hess and Chester Finn describe NCLB as a "civil rights manifesto masquerading as an education accountability system."
NCLB's architects thought they were devising an elaborate plan to alter the behavior of thousands of schools and millions of educators, drawing on a mix of goals, rewards, sanctions, choices, and sunlight. They overlooked the fact that effective behavior-changing regimens are rooted in realistic expectations and joined to palpable incentives and punishments; NCLB provides none of these.
The authors go on to detail why NCLB, as it is currently structured, is not working as intended.
Embedded within NCLB's accountability system are three distinct, discernible models of educational change that have been awkwardly welded together.

Each of these approaches is plausible on its own terms. And each has a place in federal policy. But they cannot reasonably be linked to one another, as NCLB tries to do. They entail discrepant views of the federal role in education and employ discordant mechanisms. The result isn't working.

For example:

  • The value of an "X-ray" of the nation's school performance has long been recognized. NCLB's dictate that all states regularly test students in key subjects marked a historic success. The accuracy of the picture is compromised, however, when this cross-sectional look at student achievement becomes the basis for gauging the performance of schools and educators, much less for triggering interventions or remedies. We don't judge doctors based on whether their patients are sick today but by how much patient health improves under their care. Judging professional performance on the basis of a one-moment-in-time X-ray encourages questionable behavior, leads states to play games with standards, and threatens to discredit the X-ray itself.
  • Prodding public sector institutions to set goals, monitor performance, and then reward excellence and address mediocrity has been a signal success for reformers on both the left and the right. Decades of studied effort, touted in iconic books like Reinventing Government and championed through the 1990s by the Gore commission, make clear that sensibly structured accountability systems encourage self-interested workers to take goals seriously, focus on outcomes, and employ all the levers at their disposal to produce those outcomes. But we compromise such "behavior modification" when those on the ground view the targets as unattainable. If workers know they are unlikely to succeed, the goal becomes to avoid trouble when they fail. By making failure inevitable, unrealistic goals have the perverse effect of focusing employees on compliance and encouraging actions that will mask "failure."
  • Bully pulpit exhortation is a legitimate role for federal officials. Dating at least to Bill Bennett's colorful tenure as secretary, the Department of Education has sometimes been a valuable podium from which to promote and energize school reform. Setting high bars and challenging state and local officials to meet them provides political cover to leaders, while lighting fires under laggards. It's great to shine a bright light on performance and then laud or shame schools, states, and districts based on that performance. Yet such efforts are discredited when they are based on X-rays ill-equipped to readily trace progress or when behavior modification schemes lead local officials and educators to react by devoting their energies to bureaucratic compliance on the one hand, and loophole exploitation on the other.

Beyond just picking apart the flaws of NCLB, which has become a varsity sport in recent weeks, the authors take a look at what realistic remedies could be applied to its reauthorization. Let's hope the House Committee on Education and Labor is reading.

They caution against the "sweeping hubris" found in NCLB, something not even present in such landmark social reforms as the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, which didn't seek to micromanage voting at the precinct level. Instead the authors propose a federal role that sets clear expectations for student achievement; proposes real sanctions such as withholding federal Title I dollars when results are not shown; and improves how "adequate yearly progress" can be fairly measured. You won't find an educator today who doesn't roll his or her eyes when AYP is mentioned. They know this system of measurement, as it's currently structured, is flawed.

It is appropriate for Uncle Sam to demand that every state provide a fine-grained image of student achievement. It's reasonable also to insist that states develop sanctions, remedies, and interventions for schools and districts that are performing badly and not improving. Washington should indeed press states to track performance levels, but "adequate progress" should be based primarily on the academic value that schools add (i.e., the achievement gains their pupils make), not merely on the aggregate level at which students perform.

Moreover, states that are already moving on these fronts do not need federal intervention, much less cookie-cutter prescriptions. It's folly for Congress to draft school-level modifications; far better to require that lagging states act, then move to withhold funds--big bucks, including, if necessary, the whole Title I payment--from any that sit on their hands or post unacceptable results.

It's valuable, too, for Washington to set ambitious goals and exhort everyone to attain them. But the constructive way to do this is by promoting transparency, setting benchmarks, rewarding high achievers, pointing fingers at laggards, and clearing political obstacles. With a consistent metric, call it a national standard, accompanied by national tests, everyone's performance can be fairly tracked and compared.


[Washington] cannot competently micromanage what state, districts, or schools do. And it shouldn't try.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Who's saying what on NCLB

The Education Commission of the States—"a nonpartisan, nonprofit interstate compact created by the states and the U.S. Congress that helps governors, legislators, state education officials, business leaders and others identify, develop and implement public policies to improve student learning at all levels"—launched a new database that's providing information on who is saying what about the reauthorization of NCLB.
The database captures the recommendations of 15 national organizations
for revising specific NCLB requirements and provisions, as well as how
recent education reform priorities should be part of the NCLB discussion.

According to the ECS synthesis and analysis of 15 key education policy
stakeholders across 16 issues, the greatest collective agreement emerged in
the following areas:
-- Allow growth models for calculating Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
-- Provide more flexibility for students with disabilities and English
Language Learners (ELL)
-- Provide adequate funding to support NCLB requirements
-- Build state and local capacity to assist low-performing schools
-- Offer high-quality professional development
-- Target assistance and interventions to the highest-need schools and

"It's good to be young"

Those are the words of the orthopedic who has been seeing Ryan during the collarbone incident. Today's x-ray showed new bone growth and healing. No more figure-of-eight brace, which is a good thing considering the metal prongs holding it tight have dulled and keep snapping loose.

Best of all, Ryan is able to start running and doing some legwork with weights. That's all he was looking for today. It'll be a good day for him.

We're halfway through the healing process.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Deadline for comments on NCLB reauthorization is today

Today is the deadline for the House Education and Labor Committee to receive comments on the draft of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. For more information, see my post here. The first link will take you to the committee's site where you will find PDFs of the proposed changes.

Comments can be sent to Include your name and/or organization, the page and line numbers of suggested changes to legislative language.

According to Education Week, Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has set an aggressive timetable with hearings slated to begin Sept. 10 (Monday) and possible panel vote on the reauthorization by the end of October.

For more up-to-date info, visit Ed Week's NCLB: Act II blog. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings delivers her back-to-school speech—"No Child Left Behind: Moving Forward"—this morning at 10 in Washington. Stay tuned for her positions on the reauthorization.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Are you having trouble e-mailing me?

I confess that in my haste to cancel my Time Warner cable service, I didn't realize that I would lose all e-mails coming from that address. Ever since I've received very few e-mails and I've had several people ask me if I've been receiving stuff they are sending to me.

If you haven't heard back from me in a timely manner, it's a good bet that I haven't received your e-mail. I am usually very prompt in my responses. Please try to send to both accounts for the time being if you suspect a problem—wendyhoke(at)gmail(dot)com and whoke(at)att(dot)net.

Kozol's "Letters" is next on my reading list

Today's Christian Science Monitor has a review of Jonathan Kozol's "Letters to a Young Teacher." The reviewer compares teachers waiting for the newest Kozol book to their students awaiting the latest installment of Harry Potter. He claims that "a battle is beginning for the soul of education." Here's a brief excerpt of the review:

Now he's making his battle cry even more explicit, urging young teachers to take a stand if they, too, see injustice in their students' lives. But his weapons of choice are peaceful ones – the teachers' own creativity and their commitment to nurturing their students' sense of delight.

In one chapter he tells about a teacher who could calm her rowdy classroom by putting her fingers to her mouth as if playing a flute; the children knew the signal and did likewise, dancing with her to an imaginary tune. Then Kozol holds a mirror up to Francesca's own classroom, recalling how excited her students were to track the status of their loose teeth on a chart she had made with categories such as "Wiggly," "Wobbly," and "Out!"

In another chapter he takes on the high-stakes testing environment. He laments the way the language of the business world has crept in, so that school mission statements treat children as products who have to be prepared to take their place in a competitive global marketplace. "Childhood does not exist to serve the national economy," he declares. "In a healthy nation, it should be the other way around."