Friday, September 30, 2016

Data Dictatorship: How the Police State Has Invaded Graduate School Applications

Note: This was written by a brilliant graduate applicant who chooses to remain anonymous. Read it and weep!

Merriam-Webster defines the term “excess” as “an amount that is more than the usual or necessary amount.” A second, but equally fitting definition, includes “behavior that is considered wrong because it goes beyond what is usual, normal, and proper.” I would certainly describe the inordinate amount of security measures imposed on me during my recent experience sitting for the GRE exam as excessive—to say the least.

But it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Security is a good thing. As a prospective graduate student, I am expected to be quiet, follow orders, and take my exam. I am not to find any part of the security protocol uncomfortable or disconcerting. I could (and did), but I know I wouldn’t dare express my discomfort, as that would mean the end of my ambition to attend graduate school and earn a doctorate. Even if I had chosen to opt-out that morning and choose another testing center (which like Voldemort, need not be named), the security measures for high-stakes testing would remain the same. I am required to present GRE scores in my applications to graduate programs, and as such, forced to accept all of the requirements regarding test day. But what happens when security measures intended to discourage inequity infringe on a student’s right to privacy? What happens when test center protocol intended to facilitate a successful test day, hinder it?

Before I begin a general overview of the process, it is imperative to point out that the proctors at the testing center were helpful and ready to answer any questions I may have had. The draconian policies that they are required to enforce, however, is a different matter entirely. 

First, I was asked to familiarize myself (quickly) with all of the test center’s policies and copy a statement in which I promise not share the content of my exam—a standard part of any “official” exam. Then, I was monitored as I placed my items in my designated locker and only allowed to keep my ID with me. No writing materials (fine), but no water either (even if you were to bring a spill-proof water bottle). Test-takers waited in line as proctors called each of us one by one through an unremarkable metal detector. All of the above were procedures that did not feel intrusive, yet. 

Next, my clothes were examined in case I decided to bring prohibited materials. In essence, I was required to give myself a pat-down as proctors supervised. I had to lift the ankles of my pants so my calves and the tops of my shoes were visible, next my shirt sleeves, and then I had to open and shake every single pocket to prove they were empty. Yes, even the impractical hidden pocket on the inside part of the band on my exercise leggings that I forgot existed (it is big enough to fit a quarter and that’s about it), as one of the proctors so gently reminded me. Then I was led to a hallway in which nervous hopefuls were required to wait outside their particular testing labs until they were “processed.” I sat on a bench outside the lab I spent the next 5 hours in, fidgeting with my fingers until I watched another test-taker being processed in front of me. He was required to prove his identity with a series of personal questions, provide his ID, signature, and his fingerprints (yes, even his fingerprints), all the while the proctor in charge constantly checked his face against the photo on his ID. Next, he was instructed to stand against the wall as his photo was taken and added to the testing center’s database. As he signed in, the last step in the pre-lab process which seemed to last a lifetime, it was then that I noticed the endless sea of security cameras lining the wall. They took note of every student; every movement; every breath. Not only was there surveillance in each hallway, but at each station, monitoring not only the whole lab as an overview, but each student taking an exam. It was then my heart started to pound with the knowledge that I would be watched, literally, the entire time I was taking the exam. And if they noticed any “suspicious” behavior (which was vaguely defined in and of itself) they had every right to enter the lab and, in a manner of speaking, apprehend me. What was even their definition of “suspicious” behavior. As someone prone to anxiety and medically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I naturally began to worry. What if my neck hurt and I turned my head in a certain direction? Would Big Brother watching think I was trying to cheat?

Was I in a testing center or correctional facility?

And then it was my turn to be “processed.”

I shook the entire time—it felt like a dream. Not only was I about the take the exam I had prepared for months in advance, but instead of facilitating optimism, I felt hunted by the test center, like I was in a psychological experiment studying how spot a cheater. I no longer was a dedicated student with a passion for learning hoping to join the ranks of academia—I was an untrustworthy, culpable youth.

For the record, I would never condone cheating or the notion that responses to instances of academic dishonestly should be lax and that measures should not be taken to prevent cheaters from getting away with cheating in the first place. But fingerprints? Cameras following your every move, including your own personal one never leaving your station for 5 hours recording every second you bite your nails, wipe the nervous sweat off your brow? And what about the fact I don’t even know the exact conditions of the video recording and what exactly the test center does with that recording? If it was my own error missing the policy, I will fully own up to it, but I can’t say I like the idea of the test center having a five-hour long recording of me taking my exam. How long do they have it for? Do they delete it after the test is complete or do they save it for a rainy day, waiting to catch the next cheater? Such a policy was not made clear.

Of further note, when I left for a 10-minute bathroom break, I was required to sign out. To return, I had to walk through the metal detector for a second time, pat myself down and demonstrate my clothing was still free of prohibited materials, and wait until I was allowed to continue taking my exam.

While I scored well above average on the exam, I know that my performance was certainly affected by the intimidating environment. On average, I scored significantly higher (about 15-20 points) on practice exams made directly by the makers of the test (thus, the type of test prep program is not a variable here). I caught myself thinking about the multitude of cameras on me more often than I cared to, ensuring I refrained from doing anything “suspicious,” which I never intended on doing (nor would ever) in the first place.

Sure, one can argue that it is difficult to secure a student against intimidation and nerves on the day of an important exam. Moreover, I fully acknowledge that such security measures would not exist if students had taken advantage of what previously must have been less stringent policies. However, like many policies and measures intended to “help,” they can often be implemented to the point of exaggeration and excess; to the point where they do not help, but hinder. What’s to stop high-stakes test centers from demanding a saliva sample, once fingerprints are not enough? They could simply employ the same problematic logic (the same logic that is too reminiscent of the motives behind the PATRIOT Act and unencumbered NSA surveillance) once someone nefarious figures out how to dupe the system again. Cue further invasion of privacy.

Yet like every one of my fellow test-takers, I was required to be complacent that the test center had taken such care to ensure an honest and fair experience. I will need to be obedient once more when I sit for the exam a second time, hoping that an acclamation to such drastic security measures (not unlike a US military station in Iraq, as one ex-marine on the net has likened the test center surveillance to) will not intimidate me.

Unfortunately, I need that official score report to be the scholar I dream of becoming. The price? Complacency. While the official score is supposed to be a measure of intelligence, it conveniently refuses to reflect how inimical the ordeal of the high-stakes testing center experience is to a student’s success. 

Note  Here is telling testimony of a former marine who claimed the surveillance he saw at his testing center was military-grade--another pretty important piece to read! 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Nothing New In Charter Schools

When I was growing up I was not that well behaved. I got in fights in school and in the streets, refused to listen to my parents, and threw temper tantrums when my parents punished me or confined me to my room..
When direct physical discipline (spanking, slapping my face, washing my mouth out with soap) didn't work, my parents pulled out what they thought was their most potent threat
: "If you don't shape up, Mister, we are going to send you to Yeshiva or Military School."
That ALWAYS got my attention. The last thing I wanted to do was to be sent to a place where corporal punishment and zero tolerance discipline prevailed.
And as I recalled those "conversations," which I am sure took place in the homes of my Italian friends with Catholic school as substitute for Yeshiva, I thought about the "no excuses" charter schools like K.I.P.P, Success Academies, and Uncommon Schools which are being currently being touted as the "solution" to educational inequality.
And what I concluded is this- Such schools have ALWAYS existed, in some form, as options for frustrated parents, but they
never served the majority of students and won't be able to do that now
Because there is no "one size fits all" discipline that works for every child and every family, any more than there is a one size fits all curriculum or pedagogy.
Charter schools, as the reincarnation of military school and religious schools, work for some families, but to make them the model for all school does a terrible disservice to teachers, students and families who want a freer and less intimidating educational atmosphere.

Jose Fernandez and the American Dream

I have never seen more TV commentators become emotional than when covering the passing of Marlin's pitcher Jose Fernandez,, including Mets announcer Keith Hernandez, a notoriously tough, hard edged person. Tears are still being shed when talking about him all over sports television, three days after his untimely passing
It is not just that Fernandez was the best young pitcher in baseball, someone who put up Koufax like numbers ( he was an astonishing 29-2 at Marlin's Stadium), that he played with joy and enthusiasm, that he was loved by his teammates and everyone in the greater Miami community who met him; that his smile not only lit up the room but the stadium
It was that for his baseball peers and many others he symbolized the wonderful qualities that Latino immigrants have brought to this country at a time when their presence here has been made the subject of negative attention during a Presidential campaign
Jose Fernandez did not come here "legally" He risked his life 4 times before he finally made it to this country by boat. He came because despite all its injustices and problems, the United States represented the hope of a better life for him and his family. And he repaid his debt to this country by working hard, cultivating his skills and sharing his joy in being here with everyone around him
Is there anyone else who symbolizes the American Dream more than Jose Fernandez?
Hello Donald Trump. Are you listening?
The people you are attacking are some of the people who are working the hardest to "Make America Great"
Jose Fernandez certainly was. Rest in Peace my Cuban brother

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Donald Trump and "Hamilton's" America

After watching Donald Trump in the debates, I thought he was more pathetic than dangerous. Here was a 70 year old man, and not a particularly healthy one at that, convinced he was on a sacred mission to "save" his country, who was running out of time and whose powers were failing. Yes, he is a demagogue and a bully who appeals to some of the worst instincts in people, but he could not bully Hillary Clinton and, if by some chance he is elected President, will not be able to bully elected officials, educators, religious leaders, people in the arts, or ordinary citizens who find his plans and rhetoric abhorrent..
If Donald Trump were 40 years old and presenting the same message, I would be a lot more scared.
But he is 70 years old and represents a fading past, not the future, We are and will remain a multiracial society, one that welcomes immigrants, one where peoples and cultures mix, one where people who are stimatized because of their identities will be supported and defended by many of their fellow citizens.
The America that made "Hamilton" the most popular Broadway show in years is not disappearing because of Mr Trump's ascendency. We are are strong, we are resilent, and in the long run we will prevail.
And that is true whether or not Donald Trump is elected President.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Notorious Phd Analysis of the Debate

Donald Trump did not lose any support last night. He touched all the key talking points that have attracted supporters to him- jobs and companies leaving, immigration and law and order, Clinton email scandals.
However, Hillary Clinton's hugely confident performance, and Trump's interruptions, bullying and babbling in the later stages of the debate, will help Clinton win over undecided voters and mobilize people who are anti-Trump but skeptical of her.
This debate decisively stopped the free fall that had beset the Clinton campaign and raised many questions about Mr Trump's fitness to be President, especially on foreign policy issues. And it was Trump's health and stamina that suddenly became questionable, not Clinton's.
ALSO, for the record, Mr Trump flat out LIED about murder rates in NYC going up under Mayor Bill DeBlasio when stop and frisk rates were sharply diminished. ( see my earlier post)*
Nothing was settled last night, but the Clinton camp must be very very happy.

*Trump, Stop and Frisk and the NYC Murder Rate-
What the f..k is Donald Trump talking about regarding murders going up in NYC under Bill DeBlasio, who has reduced stop and frisks by the NYPD
Below are the number of murders in NYC, according to the NYPD website!
Bill DeBlasio was Mayor for all of 2015!
1990-- 2,262
1993-- 1927
1998-- 629
2001-- 649
This guy does need someone to FACT CHECK FOR HIM.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Dems, this Election, and Attacks on Public Education:

If Hillary Clinton loses this election, as well she might, I hope analysts will look to the 8 year long war on teachers and public education as a factor, waged not only by Barack Oabma and Arne Duncan, but teacher hating politicians like Rahm Emmanuel, Andrew Cuomo, and Dannel Malloy, supported even by people on the "left" of the Democratic Party like Al Franken- a huge Teach for America supporter- and Elizabeth Warren- a defender of test based teacher evaluations. And while, as my friend Jonathan Massey predicts, many teachers will still ultimately vote for Hillary Clinton, the DP's stance has sapped their energy, enthusiasm and willingness to tap their pocketbooks, all actions necessary in a close campaign. I wish I didn't have to say this, because I think Donald Trump is a disastrous candidate who would make an even more disastrous President, but the scores of emails I get per day from the Democratic Party shows the DP is clueless as to the impact of the policies they have supported on the millions of Americans who are public school teachers and milions more in families where someone teaches
The icing on the cake- no one in the DP, including Ms Clinton, is intervening to prevent Rahm Emmanuel from provoking a teachers strike in the middle of a Presidential election. Sheer insanity!
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R.I.P Arnold Palmer and Jose Fernandez- Great Athletes Who Perfomed with JOY.

Today, for the seond day in a row, I woke up with tears in my eyes.
I just learned that the great golfer, Arnold Palmer, age 87 had passed away.
On the face of it, Arnold Palmer would seem to have little in common with the great young pitcher Jose Fernandez, age 24, who had died tragically in a boating accident the day before.
One played golf, the other baseball, one died of natural causes, the other in a boating accident; one revolutionized the sport he played; the other was just starting a career with infinite promise.
Yet these two remarkable athletes, from such different backgrounds and with such different histories had one thing in common- they loved the sport they played, played it at the highest level, and did so with a joy and exhuberance that inspired everyone around them
Talent is one thing, determination and hard work another, passion for what they do is third- all great athletes have those traits.
But to perform at the highest level with the sheer unadulterated JOY in their sport- that is truly special.
Arnold Palmer and Jose Fernandez both did that and that is what will be remembered about them as much as their incandescent talent.
Let me close with something personal None of us are here forever. I am 70. The clock is ticking and at times I find myself thinking about how I want to be remembered
And as I contemplate the passing of these two great athletes, their example is the one I would like people to think of in how they remember me:
"Whatever else you say about Mark Naison, say he loved what he did and he TAUGHT WITH JOY!"
When the best among us leave, let their lives be a guide to those still here.