Think Ink to Help Save the Planet

(I’ve been reading through some of my old essays from when I had to write a monthly editorial for our publication. For the most part, they are still relevant, so I thought I’d share a few. This one dates back to 2010.)

How committed are colleges and universities to sustainability and climate change–even at a time when such things as record enrollments combined with budget cuts and furloughs top most people’s list?

The sustainability movement is not only alive and well on campus, but it is also exceeding many expectations.

For example, the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, formed in 2007 to help minimize greenhouse gasses and achieve climate neutrality, continues its work?with impressive results. In an economic downturn, environmental issues typically take a back seat. That clearly isn’t the case with the 677 schools that have signed the commitment.

Also read about the growing movement toward eco-friendly technology, with a collection of tips on how your own institution can help save energy, money, and the environment.

But what caught my eye as we were putting this issue together was a brief news item that came across my desk.

Officials at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay discovered they could save money on printing costs by switching the school’s default e-mail print font from Arial to Century Gothic.

It turns out that Century Gothic uses roughly 30 percent less ink, according to Diane Blohowiak, the university’s director of Computing and Information Technology. The font doesn’t allow quite as many letters per line, but considering that ink is about 60 percent of the cost of a printed page, it’s still a savings, she noted. And with printer ink costing roughly $10,000 a gallon, that simple change could result in real savings for the school.

A simple font switch could, over time, result in real savings.

Just the thought that someone would be able to calculate the savings produced by squeezing more letters out of an ink cartridge boggles the mind (or my mind anyway, which typically runs screaming whenever it hears that math is involved). I applaud the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s efforts at saving money down to the pica level. It’s a simple change that, over time, will make a difference.

But what U W-Green Bay probably didn’t expect was the reaction that the news of the font switch produced from people who you’d think would have more pressing matters with which to occupy their time.

First, there was some dismay from the school itself over how the story was perceived elsewhere.

“We note also that in the Houston Chronicle, it was placed in its ‘News Bizarre’ section. Is saving money and using less ink ‘bizarre?’ ” asked Communications Director Christopher Sampson. “And at the Miami Herald they think that this change is worthy of ‘Weird News.’ Maybe it’s the oxymoron of printing out your e-mails, but c’mon, practically everybody does it at least on occasion. Or maybe they’re getting too much sun in Miami and Houston.”

The topic was also fodder for a prolonged debate by a group of “Type A type types” on the tech-oriented Slashdot blog, who were eager to one-up one another with their opinions of U W-Green Bay’s ink inspiration.

“Who was the genius there that had them using ink jet printers instead of laser?” asked one commenter. “Probably the same genius that thinks this will save them money?”

Said another: “Seriously. If you’re printing e-mails on the school’s inkjet printers, your font is probably not the only change you need to make.”

One commenter chimed in: “In most universities the local IT has no power to change any of this, and has to walk a lot of very fine lines politically. Localized IT has both the responsibility to enforce these edicts, and none of the power to do so.”

Yet another pointed out, with supporting links, that printer ink actually costs more than things like human blood or a barrel of crude oil. (I am not making this up.)

So, if you’re wondering about the commitment of colleges and universities to sustainability, you can rest easy. They’re thinking about it. Trust me, they’re thinking about it.


A Trump Thesaurus

trump-hairDonald Trump had become well known for his bombastic, insulting behavior long before he decided to run for president. He doesn’t hesitate to call his opponents “losers,” “dopes,””stupid,” “liars,””dummies,” “ugly,” “fat,” “weak”–all things that speak to his shocking lack of self-awareness. His long-running Twitter feuds with …well, anyone who dares to criticize him are the stuff of legend.
He can dish it out, but can he take it? For the last few months I’ve noticed a sharp uptick in the negative descriptions people have for the orange clown who will represent the GOP in the upcoming election. That’s why I started to collect some of the better ones.
While I have plenty of negative things to say about him, this isn’t about me. Here’s a (sadly incomplete) list of the words and phrases other people (mainstream news organizations, international press, politicians, public figures, celebrities, bloggers—you name it) use to describe the horror that is Donald Trump…a Trump Thesaurus, if you will. These are all genuine statements. Some of them border on the poetic. The list will be updated as necessary.

And if you are a Trump supporter (for which you have my pity) who wants to complain about the content of the list, tell it to someone who cares.

  • He’s an asshole — Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter
  • Pompous blowhard Donald Trump has always been an arrogant dick.
  • bombastic billionaire
  • Combover Caligula
  • a demonc messiah in Oompa Loompa’s clothing — Keith Olberman
  • Birther McAssclown
  • billionaire blowhard
  • a class A piece of dog shit
  • Thin-Skin McBaby Hands
  • The Great Trumpkin
  • mangled apricot hell beast
  • the great orange human shitstain
  • a narcissistic, misogynistic, lying, word salad-spewing, oompa loompa-looking man who does not have the intelligence nor the temperament to be president
  • Human Hemorrhoid — John Oliver
  • a smug, stupid, arrogant, preening Pork-Man from one of the minor moons of Jupiter
  • the worst of America stuffed into a nacho cheese casing — Drew Magary
  • “a spoiled brat” and a “human leech who will bleed the country” — Sen. Harry Reid
  • self-described billionaire —The New York Times
  • a congealing buffalo wing cemented to outgrown armpit hair
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder poster child
  • The man is a jerk who can’t control his temper or handle criticism.
  • a man who is erratic, morally rudderless, mercurial and emotionally unstable – and that on his better days
  • a former reality television star with an adversarial relationship with the truth and a fluorescent rodent adorning his head.
  • Cheeto Jesus —Rick Wilson, GOP presidential consultant
  • epic douche canoe —Rick Wilson, GOP presidential consultant
  • a self centered asshole
  • the urine-coloured piglet-man Donald Jaundice Trump
  • fascist flim flam racist liar
  • real-estate mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-national-punchline
  • the overcooked sweetpotato that is Donald Trump
  • a wall-building, immigrant-bashing, Muslim-banning, Putin-loving, tax-hiding, deal-breaking, gold-plated buffoon who rolls each morning in a vat of Cheetos
  • a “shriveled tangerine, covered in golden retriever hair, filled with bile, that I wouldn’t leave alone with the woman I love.”
  • clown
  • a lump of dung
  • Ambulatory septic tank
  • that human cheese puff of hate, insecurity and intimidation
  • a lying narcissistic bigot manbaby
  • a 12-year-old bully on the playground
  • the bigoted gasbag.
  • a huge asshole
  • America’s Problem Child
  • the biggest wussy of all time
  • this teeming boil of a candidate.
  • relentlessly tweeting like a 14-year-old girl
  • wanna be future Misogynist-In-Chief,
  • Captain Combover
  • Presumptive Republican presidential nominee and wig mannequin come to life
  • The tangerine huckster and his trusty running mate, That Thing On His Head
  • the amateur candidate
  • a virtuoso of contempt
  • staggeringly stupid
  • the high priest of strutting bombast
  • the most unqualified sociopath to ever run for President
  • “When he doesn’t know something, he just changes the subject, makes it all about himself. He is completely uneducated about any part of the world.” Andrea Mitchell, NBC News
  • “Donald Trump’s ignorance of government policy, both foreign and domestic, is breathtaking.” Eugene Robinson, Washington Post
  • “He’s deflecting from the fact that he is wholly unqualified to handle the real issues facing America.” Tara Setmayer, CNN
  • “Trump is the most radical and most ignorant major-party presidential candidate in our history.” Max Boot, conservative fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
  • the first 6 year old to run for POTUS
  • that ignorant, aggressive, nasty, narcissistic, violence-promoting, bullying, bigoted demagogue
  • this living orange-esque hairball looking bag of dicks
  • a petulant slice of stinking, festive shit-pie
  • a narcissistic, rude, profane, misogynistic, racist carnival barker
  • talking septic tank
  • an insufferable prick
  • petulant whiner
  • Narcissistic big baby
  • Self-centered prick
  • bloated windbag
  • flaming asshole, Obnoxious asshole, total arrogant asshole, and a racist cretin (all spoken by Cher)
  • the walking punchline known as Donald J. Trump.
  • A total whiny asshole that pouts and attacks whenever he doesn’t get his way
  • a dangerously stupid man
  • il Douche
  • a bumbling stumbling clown
  • Short sighted prick
  • a dangerous, narcissistic, amoral egomaniac
  • doughy, tangerine-colored old fart
  • “the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan” Bill Maher
  • Donald Trump could very well be our first openly asshole president. —The Daily Show
  • he resembles a bloated haggis filled with piss, and his mouth is like that of a blow-up sex doll, permanently composed into a belligerent O, like a worn-out anus.
  • a rich bitch baby who thinks every thing he does or says is right and all the rest of us are wrong
  • This Bloviated Spoiled-Child , Self-Promoting , Arrogant , Ignorant , Self-Centered Bully-in-the-Sandbox that Only Wants-to-Hear HIMSELF SPEAK and Over-Talks ALL Others with His RANTS
  • The television clown and serially bankrupt business mogul sports a peculiar, swirling spun-sugar-colored confection on top of his head. It is clearly an elaborate work of artifice, designed to confound the eye. 
  • The shameless orange-tinged reality star
  • Orange Hitler
  • Tiny-handed Tyrant
  • Hair Trump
  • violence-inciting misogynist
  • Narcissistic Demagogue
  • Stubbyfingers McCombover
  • inompetent,nitwit
  • fucking candy-assed bully prick
  • An ambitious corn dog that escaped from the concession stand at a rural Alabama fairground, stole an unattended wig, hopped a freight train to Atlantic City and never looked back
  • an orange-Crayola Chris Christie
  • the big orange Garfield who hates Mexicans instead of Mondays— Stephen Colbert
  • Orange asshat
  • brain dead, orange motherfu(ker
  • Four-time bankruptcy filer and seething hernia mass
  • He’s a carnival barker selling tickets to the geek biting the head off a chicken, except the geek is punching black protesters.
  • Bone-in ham
  • Sun-dried tomato
  • brassy, fatuous and egomaniac
  • the human embodiment of hot dog filling
  • a large, tangerine-colored mound of pig dung
  • barely passing as a human being
  • A shithead
  • Adult blobfish
  • Deflated football
  • Fart-infused lump of raw meat
  • Melting pig carcass
  • Disgraced racist
  • Talking comb-over
  • Human equivalent of cargo pants that zip away into shorts
  • Cheeto-dusted bloviator
  • Fuzzy meat wad
  • Bag of flour
  • Human turd
  • Not in any way sexist, you bimbos
  • Decomposing ear of corn
  • His own best parody
  • absolutely repugnant
  • the orange prince of American self-publicity.
  • A rich idiot … willing to allow garbage to fall out of his mouth without batting a single golden lash
  • Pond scum
  • Noted troll
  • a poisonous, corrosive man
  • The class clown that everyone wishes would be quiet and let the class learn
  • Melting businessman
  • The person still inexplicably leading the Republican presidential primary
  • Wax museum figure on a very hot day
  • Soggy burlap sack
  • Bag of toxic sludge
  • Your next president and ruler for life
  • A brightly burning trash fire
  • Impoverished urchin
  • Aggressively stupid
  • Great judgment-haver
  • Man-sized sebaceous cyst
  • Enlarged pee-splattered Sno Cone
  • Empty popcorn bag rotting in the sun
  • Man-shaped asbestos insulation board
  • Hair plug swollen with rancid egg whites
  • Inside-out lower intestine
  • Dusty barrel of fermented peepee
  • Usually reasonable burlap sack full of rancid Peeps
  • Degloved zoo penis
  • Presidential candidate and bargain bin full of yellowing Jean-Claude Van Damme movies
  • Hairpiece come to life
  • Normal-looking human man and entirely credible choice as future leader of the free world </snark>
  • Decomposing pumpkin pie inhabited by vicious albino squirrels
  • A dishrag that on closer inspection is alive with maggots
  • The pompous tycoon
  • Lead paint factory explosion
  • Candied yam riddled with moldy spider carcasses
  • Enraged Gak spill
  • The shriveled pinto bean you had to pluck out of your Chipotle burrito basket
  • Human-sized infectious microbe
  • Poorly-trained circus orangutan
  • Chester Cheetah impersonator
  • Lumbering human-like tardigrade
  • A tiny piece of dried cat poop that you found in your rug
  • Hitler Bad Hair
  • He is still a boastful, volatile, misogynistic, race-baiting, willfully and strategically ignorant, exploitative fear-monger who is guided by profit over principle and whose hair-trigger temperament has the world on edge.
  • a furious clown with a painted on scowl Donald Trump is just a carnival barker who got dunked into orange soda every day for the first 50 years of his life
  • demagogue who panders to people’s fears, rather than their strengths.
  • not only racist but homophobic and misogynistic
  • A great representation of how awful America is
  • ridiculous xenophobe
  • vague and vapid
  • embarrassment
  • Idiot
  • Jerk
  • Stupid
  • Dumb
  • Arrogant
  • Crazy
  • Nuts
  • Buffoon
  • Clown
  • Comical
  • Joke
  • Egotistical
  • Narcissist
  • Selfish
  • Frightening
  • Arrogant
  • Racist
  • Stalk of corn
  • Nasty
  • Alarming
  • Disturbing
  • Disgusting
  • Terrifying
  • Scary

(This next section is made up of descriptions used by Chris Hardwick on @midnight)

  • Xenophobic sweet potato and wispy human queef
  • Douchebag infested hair-piece
  • Orangutang and casino miss-manager
  • Presidential candidate and cranky planetoid
  • The orange condom filled with rancid stew
  • The Jersey Shore ventriloquist dummy
  • corn husk doll cursed by a witch
  • America’s No. 1 racist Donald Trump fan Donald Trump
  • feral shouting meatball Donald Trump
  • the angriest pumpkin
  • shrieking buffalo wing that fell into a urinal
  • orange yelling machine
  • jingoistic bullfrog
  • narcissistic human airhorn
  • hotel magnate and bloated jack-o-lantern in a suit
  • dissonant bagpipe powered by farts
  • living Donald Trump caricature Donald Trump
  • tangelo fruit roll-up stretched over cat litter

(This next section is a series of descriptive quotes from the good people of Scotland, who have had a long-simmering dislike of tRump. It was compounded recently when he visited the country to shill for his new hotel and golf course in the midst of the Brexit vote. As usual, he made this globally historic and economically devastating event about himself.)

  • buttplug face
  • toupeed fucktrumpet
  • cockwomble
  • mangled apricot hellbeast
  • witless fucking cocksplat!
  • incompressible jizztrumpet
  • ignorant fuckmuppet
  • weapons-grade plum
  • absolute fucking doughnut
  • sentient enema
  • munchkin handed Creamsicle
  • rotten orange fucknut
  • tiny-fingered, Cheetoh-faced, ferret-wearing shitgibbon

(This next section was posted by Jezebel as a list of ways the site has described the orange asshat since he announced his candidacy.)

  • Seagull dipped in tikka masala
  • Bursting landfill of municipal solid waste
  • Mountain of rotting whale blubber
  • Sputum-filled Orange Julius
  • Gangrenous gaping wound
  • Racist, sexist block of aged Cheddar
  • Oversized wasp exoskeleton stuffed with old mustard
  • Neo-fascist real estate golem
  • Abandoned roadside ham hock
  • Bewildered, golden-helmeted astronaut who’s just landed on this planet from a
  • distant galaxy
  • Monument to human hubris crafted out of rotting Spam
  • A walking pile of reanimated roadkill
  • Heaving carcass
  • Stately hot dog casing
  • Flatulent leather couch
  • Swollen earthworm gizzard
  • Narcissistic bowl of rotten gazpacho
  • Yellowing hunk of masticated gristle
  • A human/Komodo dragon hybrid
  • Blackening scab artfully hiding in your Raisin Bran
  • “Taco truck”
  • A man who could one day become the first hobgoblin to enter the White House
  • A pair of chapped lips superglued to a hairball
  • Horsehair mattress stuffed with molding copies of Hustler
  • Malignant corn chip
  • Human Kinder Egg whose inner surprise is a tiny pebble of rat shit
  • The sculpture your three-year-old made out of soggy ground-up goldfish snacks
  • A man with the hair of a radioactive skunk
  • Roiling Cheez Whiz mass
  • Cryogenically frozen bog man
  • A glistening, shouting gristle mass with a history of saying terrible and stupid things
  • Screaming giant cheese wedge
  • Republican frontrunner and 250-pound accumulation of rancid beef
  • Day-Glo roadside billboard about jock itch
  • Temperamental gelatinous sponge
  • Sentient hate-balloon
  • A Rumpelstiltskin inflated with a bike pump and filled with bacteria
  • Sun-kissed ass plug
  • Self-tanning enthusiast
  • An enraged, bewigged fetus blown up to nightmarish size
  • Parental pile of burnt organic material
  • Human-shaped wad of Gak
  • Walking irradiated tumor
  • Uncooked chicken breast
  • KKK rally port-a-potty holding tank
  • Neon-tinted hellion
  • A plentiful field of dung piled into the shape of a presidential candidate
  • Malfunctioning wind turbine
  • Seeping fleabag
  • Sloshing styrofoam takeout container filled with three-day-old mac and cheese
  • A sticky, grabby, Cheeto-hued toddler with no sense of adult deportment
  • Figurative rubber, and also literal rubber
  • A carnivorous plant watered with irradiated bat urine
  • Sentient waste disposal plant
  • A disappointment
  • Poorly-drawn fascist
  • Racist teratoma
  • Lamprey eel spray-painted gold
  • A hair that you pluck, causing a cluster of hairs to sprout in its place
  • Sunken, corroding soufflé
  • Nacho cheese golem
  • Undead tangerine
  • A cartoon representation of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in a pharmaceutical ad
  • Fossilized meatball
  • Horking mole-creature suffering from radioactive spray-tan
  • Tattered Craigslist sofa
  • A full-grown Monopoly dog carefully balancing a spongecake atop his head
  • Play-Doh factory explosion
  • A new superfood made of finely-ground clown wigs
  • Unkempt troll doll found floating facedown in a tub of rancid Beluga caviar

Say it Loud, Say It Proud

We were having a discussion the other day about direct marketing and how certain marketers just love them some exclamation marks!!!

It made me recall a freelance job I once had writing ad copy for a company that sold Silver Eagle Half-Dollars as collectors items. I’m sure you’ve seen similar ads. This, I was told, would be a full-pager on the back cover of a Sunday newspaper magazine insert.

The coins were in mint condition and were packaged in a very attractive velvet-lined cherrywood box, perfect for the discriminating coin collector. The company’s owner instructed me to write copy that would impress the reader with the collectible significance of this coin and its .999 percent pure silver composition. They sold for more than $100 each. My father was a coin collector, so I knew that these things had some real value.

I wrote what I thought was a dignified ad, extolling the coin’s mint brilliance and beauty. I had researched the historical significance of the coin and tried to convey to potential customers the importance of having such a magnificent piece among their collections. I even wrote about the beautiful, velvet-lined cherrywood box and how much value it added to the piece, which would no doubt be passed down from generation to generation and become a treasured family heirloom.

By the time I was done I wanted to buy one of the coins for myself.

When I showed it to the owner, he read it carefully, nodded a few times, while muttering a few thoughtful “hmmm” and “ahh” sounds. Then he said, “This is great, but what it needs is more CAPITAL LETTERS and plenty of EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! That’s what catches their eye. Make it LOUDER.”

I was horrified. In my mind, what he was asking for was tantamount to drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Then I got over myself, shrugged my shoulders, and gave him exactly what he wanted.

A job is a job after all.

What if he really does look like that?

police sketchI found this in my local newspaper a number of years ago. It had been tacked to my office bulletin board for much of that time until it became yellowed, and I figured I should scan it for posterity. It has always been one of my favorite images.
It looks like the Danbury (Conn.) Police have turned to third graders to create their police sketches (and as you can see below, it is the real deal).

Seriously if they ever found this guy, and he looked like this, he’s got more problems to worry about than a purse snatching charge. He’s got to go through life like this.

I’ve often wondered about the conversation that transpired when this sketch was made:

Witness:  His head was shaped roughly like a cinder block.

Sketch Artist: (drawing)  Sooo… kinda like this?

Witness:  Yes! Exactly like that!

Sketch Artist:  What about his hair style? Long? Short?

Witness:  Short, like a nicely manicured lawn.

Sketch Artist:  Okay, what about facial features? Let’s start with the eyes.

Witness:  Really close-set eyes. The kind that could stare right through to my very soul.

Sketch Artist: Like…this?

Witness: Yes! Perfect!

Sketch Artist: And the nose?

Witness:  Kind of long and red and turned up at the end, like a botched plastic surgery job.

Sketch Artist: Ears?

Witness:  Two.

Sketch Artist:  No, I mean what did they look like?

Witness:  Oh, they were pretty shapeless, but they came off his head at almost right angles.

Sketch Artist:  Let’s see…. how does that look?

Witness:  Oh this is so scary!

Sketch Artist:  Let’s work on the mouth…

Witness:  He had large, full plump lips. He may even have been wearing lipstick.

Sketch Artist:  I’d hate to bump into this guy on a dark street.

Witness:  I know, right? Oh–and he had high cheekbones.

Sketch Artist:  Like so?

Witness: Higher… no, still higher…. a little more… perfect!

Sketch Artist: Geez, that is one ugly mug…

Witness:  Draw me now! Draw me now!


That little radio

thatlittleradioI’ve been looking for a photo of that little radio for a long time. I finally found it–via The Google–on Pinterest. That little radio has real significance in my life. I grew up as the third of four siblings in a noisy household. I was probably the biggest source of the noise, as I was either playing the drums down in the basement or listening to my sister’s record player. I’m sure I used that thing far more than she ever did. Anyway, this is about that little radio pictured here. It’s a Ross Micro Ten Transistor Radio, made in Hong Kong.

So, I bought that little radio for myself in 1969. I know it was ’69 because I heard the debut of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on it, but I’ll get to that in a second. It was a pretty big deal that I was able to buy it because money was tight in those days and I was just a 12-year-old kid. I didn’t get an allowance like some kids got, so somehow I earned the money to buy that little radio. I believe I bought it at a Radio Shack store, but I could be mistaken. But I can clearly recall unboxing the thing when I got home. I was so proud of it. And just as you see in the photo, it was tiny and had the key ring thing. It was a beauty. And it sounded great to my ears.
That little radio was my personal window to the world beyond my family and school. I didn’t get around a whole lot beyond my own neighborhood. My only means of escape were the family television in the living room, and my radio. And since someone usually was already watching something I wasn’t interested in, I was left to that little radio.

That little radio made me understand how important radio was in the decades before mine. Until television became so dominant in the 60s and 70s, radio was…well, radio was it. It was still hanging on to its past glories in many markets, by the early 70s.

You know how you remember certain events by where you are and who you are with? For me the “who” in many cases was that little radio.
It came with an earphone–one of those cheap cream colored things–but as it was mono, you had to decide which ear the earphone sounded better in. If you wore it too long, your ear would hurt like hell. It had almost zero fidelity, but it made the music more personal for me, so I  sacrificed ear comfort for that little radio.
I carried it with me everywhere, even risking taking it to school one day (but I probably chickened out of trying to use it in the open), so I have a lot of memories tied to it.
As I said earlier, I remember hearing Space Oddity for the first time. I was lying in bed, just zoning out and listening to that little radio. When I listened in bed, I often put it under my pillow, which somehow improved the sound, and I would fall asleep to the sounds of that little radio. More than once I woke up to a dead battery.
I remember using it while I was working a summer job doing yard work. This was through a program called YES, the Youth Employment Service. I probably signed up because a friend was doing it, but I promptly forgot about it. So I was a little annoyed when I was eventually called for a job. I mean, it was summer vacation, you know? You want me to work? Of course, I did, because I’m not an asshat. My mother would drop me off at whatever house was requiring my services, the homeowner would point out what needed to be done, and I did it. And accompanying me on those jobs was that little radio, tucked in a shirt pocket with the ear plug in my left ear.
The deejays on WABC (station of choice back then) were like friends who I looked forward to hearing from each day. They had cool patter between songs that you just don’t hear anymore. That may not be a bad thing now that I think about it. Back then, though, that’s what the groovy jocks like Harry Harrison, Dan Ingram, and Cousin Bruce Morrow did. It was very rhythmic and slightly sing-songy.
And they played. The. Best. Music. Evah.
If you take a look a the pop charts of the day, you realize what a golden era it was. I had a ringside seat with that little radio playing throughout my job and later back at home. That little radio was the soundtrack to my teen years.
And then…
And then…
I don’t remember any specific event–like losing it or breaking it–but at some point I didn’t have that little radio any longer. I have a hazy memory, which may or may not be real, of seeing it in a box of junk from one of the few times I cleaned my room.
I had moved on to another radio which I’m sure sounded better (remember, this is before Walkmans and such), but the interesting thing is I don’t remember it. Nor do I remember any of the many other radios that followed.
But I remember that little radio.

Moving education beyond the report card

Education professor Cathy Vatterott says that grades have come to reflect student compliance more than student learning and engagement.Once used to reflect successful memorization of facts and figures, the process of grading has transformed into a near meaningless code, often fogged by a variety of factors that have nothing to do with learning.

Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, says that over the years,grades have come to reflect student compliance more than student learning and engagement.

In her book Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning (ASCD, 2015), Vatterott advocates for a standards-based approach to grading that can more accurately demonstrate learning through mastery.

“When you get into standards-based grading, you can collect data that shows that those grades are more realistic,” Vatterott says. “You are actually making them learn things instead of just giving them a grade and moving on.”

It’s pretty clear from what you write that the way we teach and the way we grade are out of sync, with little relation to each other. How did we arrive at this point?

There are two historical forces that brought this on. First is that we have this legacy of behaviorism in schools—this is the way we control kids. That carries over into grading—“Well, if I want people to do something, I reward and punish. And that’s how I change behavior.”

I recently did a webinar on this for ACSD. There were a large number of questions like, “How do we teach responsibility and how do we make work habits count in the grade?” And I said, “They don’t count in the grade. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Teachers look at it as though points are their only tool, their only form of control, but they also have this delusion that it works. Guess what? If zeros worked, we wouldn’t have to keep giving them. If penalizing kids with points worked, our problem would be solved, right? We’d do it once and it would never happen again.

The second force is that our curriculum has changed. If you go back historically, our grades were based on rote memory and all our tests were rote memory. I was an honor roll student and I can’t draw a timeline of American History to save my life, because all I did was memorize stuff, spit it out on the test and then forget it.

Now we’ve upped the game. With Common Core and standards-based learning, we’ve said, “Wait a minute. People actually have to be able to think at higher levels.” That’s part of my dilemma with my college students—they’re coming in as sophomores and they can’t think. It’s insane.

We also see it contribute to a number of mental health issues as students go on to college and suddenly they’re not getting an A in everything.

Very true. That’s one reason we have such a high dropout rate at the college level. The students come in thinking, “OK, this is what I need to do to get the grade. Got it.”

But when they get to college, their professors say, “Wait a minute. We’re expecting you to do more on your own. We’re expecting you to perform at higher levels of learning.” And students don’t know how to do that.

I am reeducating my college sophomores and freshmen about what has to happen in order for them to get an A in my class. It’s not about showing up every day and it’s not about sucking up to the teacher. It’s a whole different world.

You write that students—and parents—learn how to game the system, because they know that the grade is the only thing that counts.

There’s a whole reeducation piece that’s got to happen with parents, as well. It’s like, “I know you are concerned about grades and GPA and all that, but do you want your kid to finish college? Do you want them to go forward with the concepts that they need or do you want them to flunk out of freshman chemistry?”

You mentioned the Common Core standards. Why do you think there is so much resistance to that?

First, I believe there’s a huge anti-government movement in this country. People have either been misled by information that’s out there or they have a kneejerk reaction to any government involvement.

Part of it is state’s rights—states don’t want the federal government telling them what to do. I do workshops all over the country. I’ll go to Indiana or Alaska, and they tell me, “Oh, no! We’re not Common Core, but we did come up with our own standards.” Their standards are 95 percent the same as Common Core—but they had to do it themselves.

And then, I think there is a group of people who are so anti-government that they have taken this and blown this all up like it’s some plot.

But people in this country are fed up with standardized tests. They are fed up with the amount of time that it takes away from learning and the absolute hysteria that goes on—especially in low-income school districts.

I also think we haven’t done a good PR job with teachers in Common Core. We’ve not gotten all the classroom teachers to join the church. When I first heard people were against Common Core, I thought, “How can you be against Common Core?” It’s upping the game. It’s upping the standards. And with the mobility rate of people that we have in this country, how can you not want some standardization across states? It has just never made any sense to me.

I hear many classroom teachers bad-mouthing Common Core because they have been told they have to do this. They’ve not gotten adequate staff development. They’ve not had time to adapt their curriculum. This is a huge shift for many classroom teachers because we’re back at the rote learning thing.

Maybe it’s the word “standard.” There’s so much backlash against standardized tests that when you say “standards-based learning” people don’t differentiate.

Right. And, in fact, when I talk to districts, they’ll say, “We’re not going to call it standards-based learning. We’re going to call it learning for achievement” or some other name.

It’s really funny that some schools won’t even talk about Common Core. Even though they are doing Common Core, they won’t use those words and they won’t say that this is standards-based learning. They’ll call it something else, because that word has gotten such a negative connotation.

When do you introduce this change? Is it best in the earliest grades, so teachers and the students go through the system knowing what’s expected of them or can it begin later?

I’ve seen it done both ways. You have to look at your teachers and ask, “Which group of people are most open to trying to this?” Most districts that I’ve seen have started at K2, which is pretty easy to do, because many schools in K2 don’t give grades anyway. That, to me, is the easiest place to start.

I’ve seen a lot of districts that have gotten their entire elementary staff on board, but the middle school and high school are not. In the middle school and high school, I think you find a department that’s interested in looking at it.

So I’ve seen schools where they started with one math teacher. And then that teacher got the whole department on board at his building. And then they got the whole secondary group of math teachers. And now the science teachers are looking at it.

You write about districts that are doing this, but what can those district leaders show politicians and the community to say, “These schools are working, whether it looks like it or not.”?

One of the things that these schools do is run correlations of the grades that teachers give with how students perform on standardized tests. And sometimes that’s the evidence to prompt the change. They can say, “We did this analysis of all these kids in the seventh grade. Here are their math grades and there’s absolutely no correlation between them and the standardized tests.”

When you go into this implementation of standards-based grading, you can then collect data that shows that those grades are more reflective of kids’ standardized tests. And most of the places are seeing that their performance improves on standardized tests because you are actually making them learn things instead of just giving them a grade and moving on. I think that’s where you go for your evidence.

How do you get people on board with this?

Most of the schools that I talked to that were successful in doing this started with a book study. There are a number of books and journal articles that discuss and document this idea.

I love this approach to doing any kind of building-wide or even districtwide change, because it gives teachers the opportunity to read about it, think about it, absorb it at their own pace and then discuss it.

Parents have to be involved, too. That’s another thing that’s changed over the years. Parents expect school change to be a democratic process in which they have some involvement and some voice.

The days of us telling parents what we are going to do are gone in most communities. The parents want to have some input into what’s happening.

Give Me Bugs

I recently saw a great film called I Know That Voice, which I highly, highly, HIGHLY, recommend to anyone who ever watched a cartoon. It’s about the men and women who voice our favorite animated characters. The one person that nearly every person in the film named as an influence was the inimitable Mel Blanc, who was so brilliant at creating signature voices for a variety of characters. It made me remember this post in which I wrote about my love of Looney Tunes cartoons and the characters — all voiced by Mel Blanc.

I’m no fan of Disney characters and I never have been. I know, that’s sacrilege in some parts of the country, but I’m willing to risk it.

(Full disclosure: My wife and I did take our kids to Disney World once when they were young because, well, parents are supposed to do that kind of thing and we bought into that. But our boys were never Disney fans either. In fact, when we were walking through Orlando airport after our flight we came upon the giant statue of Mickey Mouse dressed in Fantasia Wizard robes. My wife pointed and asked my younger son, “Who’s that, Alex?” He stared at it for a while before saying uncertainly, “I think I’ve seen him before…”
I laughed, but other parents around us reacted in shock and horror. Fathers glared at me like I was “some kinda anti-‘Murican,” while mothers covered precious Kaitlyn and Tyler’s ears for fear that they’d overhear this blasphemy. I was never so proud in my life.)

Disney characters and their cartoons/films are too saccharine-cutesy for my taste. In fact, they turn my stomach. Some of it doesn’t even makes sense. I mean what’s the deal with Goofy and Pluto? Goofy is a dog that dresses and talks and acts like a human, yet he owns a dog named Pluto who is… a dog. Huh? Seriously, did they think about this before they did it?

But this post isn’t about my dislike of Disney, it’s about my love for Looney Tunes.

Those are the cartoons I eagerly watched every afternoon after school and on Saturday mornings. They were funny, with a mixture of colorful characters, great story lines, sometimes biting sarcasm, cultural references, and catch phrases that Disney could never hope to approach. (I’ve heard rumors of rogue Disney animators who drew NSFW versions of the characters in, shall we say, compromising positions but I don’t know if there’s any truth to them. It wouldn’t surprise me. It would even score a few points in my book.)

Looney Tunes characters had depth and substance. Even more, they had unique vocal tics and accnets that made them instantly memorable. Here’s what I mean:

Bugs Bunny was wisecracking rabbit with a New York accent (think about that for a second) who was always aware that he was in a cartoon. He mugged for the camera and spoke to the audience. Bugs was Groucho Marx back in his day and, I would argue, a later prototype for Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye Pierce” character on M.A.S.H, and Bill Murray’s …well his whole shtick actually.

Porky Pig is a not-too-bright pig with a severe stutter (again, think about that for a second). He was a well meaning porker who rarely caught a break, but you could never not like him.

Daffy Duck is Bugs’ nemesis, a perpetual second fiddle who believes he is more deserving of the acclaim that his more famous colleague enjoys. (I can’t believe I just wrote that about a cartoon character, but there you go.)

Foghorn Leghorn, a rooster with a deep southern accent, was based on the Senator Claghorn character from the Fred Allen radio show (it’s probably a testament of some sort that the rooster is remembered by more people than the radio character, who was portrayed by Allen’s announcer, Kenny Delmar). He is constantly tormenting the farm dog, but his jokes often backfired, resulting in Foghorn losing his feathers. This lead to one of his more famous catchphrases, “I keep my feathers numbered for just such an emergency.”

Elmer Fudd, one of the very few human characters (Yosemite Sam, and a minor character named Granny are two others) was a hunter, usually chasing Bugs or Daffy. Elmer suffered from a condition called rhotacism–difficulty pronouncing the letter R — “Be vewy vewy quiet. I’m hunting Wabbits.”

Sylvester the Cat is a slobbering lisper — you really don’t want to get too close when he’s talking. He was mainly interested in getting to Tweety Bird, a canary with a grossly enlarged head whose tagline was, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat.”

Pepe Le Pue had to be the horniest skunk in the world, but he couldn’t get laid to save his life. When I think about it now, I’m surprised at the double entendre content of the cartoon. Extra points for Looney Tunes.

There is one thing should be clear to anyone who has had even the slightest exposure to Looney Tunes. That is, so much of what made these characters whole is tied to the peculiarities of their voices. In Elmer Fudd’s case it is rhotacism. In Daffy, Sylvester, and Tweety it’s a lisp. In Porky, it’s a stutter. And Pepe? Well, he’s French, so… you know. (Just kidding, I loves me some French peoples.) You didn’t see that in Disney characters, with the exception of Donald Duck who, in my opinion, was just unintelligible, cranky noise most of the time. Somehow these flaws made the Looney Tune characters more accessible. And the fact that nearly all of them were voiced by the incredible Mel Blanc was a testament to the man’s versatility as a voice artist.

Anyway… you can keep your Disney lightweights, and give me Looney Tunes any day.


29906170001_4248494398001_video-still-for-video-4248484810001Last night I watched the finale of The Late Show With David Letterman. I have been a fan since 1980 when I was one of the (apparently) few people who witnessed his morning talk show on NBC. I was living in Florida, staying temporarily in my great-uncle’s double-wide mobile home in Pompano Beach until I found my own place. As the “new kid in town,” I didn’t know too many people, and pretty much my only source of entertainment was my trusty little black and white portable television, with the funky whip antenna that had to be positioned just right to get a clear picture.

I had a night shift job at a convenience store called Majic Market, so my mornings were free to just relax. One morning I discovered this goofy gap-toothed guy with a pronounced mid-western accent doing a sort of talk/variety show. It was The David Letterman Show and it was his first attempt at network television. It was definitely not your typical daytime talk show, which in those days was sort of defined by the likes of The Merv Griffin Show and The Mike Douglas Show—super tame (or is it lame?) and targeted to the blue-haired adult demographic. Letterman was young and edgy (as they say) and dared to go beyond the accepted boundaries of daytime television with gags and stunts you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And sometimes the “guests” were actually part of the show’s writing staff who appeared as characters. I particularly remember Edie McClurg, a wonderful character actor who would appear regularly as Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, giving “updates” on the most mundane topics. She was hilarious and underappreciated, in my book.

But I’m way off the subject I came here to write about, which was finales.

The Late Show With David Letterman finale was a memorable one, but it was just one of many that come to mind. After all, I already saw Letterman do a “final show” when he ended Late Night with David Letterman in the messy aftermath of an NBC contract dispute. The network had held out The Tonight Show as sort a carrot-on-a-stick to him for years, and there seemed to be no one better suited to replace Carson than Letterman. Even Carson thought so. But instead, NBC gave The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, and Letterman packed his bags for the more welcoming CBS. If you’re interested, there’s a fascinating book on the subject called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night.

In thinking back on these “final shows” I recall a number of other memorable finales that were momentous in their own right. These include, not in chronological order:

  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson—I grew up watching Carson almost every night, even when I was far too young to be up that late. I shed a tear when he did his finale.
  • Late Night with David Letterman—As mentioned above.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—I have to confess I wasn’t a big Leno fan, partly because I thought Letterman should have originally gotten The Tonight Show instead of him, and partly because his show, in my opinion, just wasn’t very funny. I wasn’t alone. Leno drew lots of criticism from other comedians who said he had lost his edge and his comedy was lazy. It wasn’t until 2014, when Leno was a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s version of The Tonight Show that he showed what he was capable of. He was extremely funny—because he didn’t have to be “The Tonight Show Guy” anymore and could do and say what he wanted.
  • Late Night with Conan O’Brien—The relatively unknown ex-Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer replaced Letterman, and after a rather shaky start, built a popular show. He couldn’t know what was in store when he was later named Leno’s successor on The Tonight Show. Ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon took over the Late Night desk, from O’Brien, until opportunity came a-knockin’.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Conan O’Brien—Conan got one of the rawest deals in television history when NBC didn’t give him the time needed for his unique brand of humor to catch on with a Tonight Show audience that was conditioned by Leno.  Leno weaseled his way back behind the Tonight Show desk after the spectacular failure of his Jay Leno Show at 10p.m. that lasted less than 5 months. Conan would get his own show on the TBS network, but more important, he got the time to build his audience.
  • The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno—Again. Finally. Jimmy Fallon is off to a good start as the newest host.
  • The Colbert Report—As Stephen Colbert prepares to take over Letterman’s seat on The Late Show (isn’t it funny that so many of these events involve two programs?), I am reminded that it will also soon be time to witness another finale: the end of Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show.
  • M*A*S*H—At one time the final show held the record for largest viewing audience.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show—The last scene where she turned off the light in the WJM newsroom was very touching.
  • Newhart—With possibly the best last scene in the history of television.
  • Cheers—A long drawn-out affair but still good.
  • Roseanne—One of the stranger finales. I had lost touch with the show for several seasons, so the ending, in which Roseanne revealed that the events of previous eight seasons had been part of a story she was writing or something, came out of left field for me.
  • Seinfeld—I wasn’t a real fan of the show. In fact I’d only seen a handful of episodes. But it was a much-hyped event, so I watched. I think I could have found a better use for my time.
  • Friends—Again, I rarely watched the show and the finale was over-hyped. Oddly, I don’t remember what happened.
  • Breaking Bad—An amazing show and brilliant finale.
  • How I Met Your Mother—I discovered this show late in the game (thanks Netflix) but was in time to see and appreciate the end.

And while I’m at it, there have been a few non-television finales that I remember well.

  • Peanuts—This one was especially poignant because Peanuts creator Charles Schulz died in his sleep the day before that final strip, announcing his retirement, ran.
  • Calvin & Hobbes—One of my all-time favorite strips. We knew the end was coming, and even though the final strip was upbeat and positive—”It’s a magical world, Hobbes,ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”—it was still sad to see.
  • For Better Or Worse—Unlike most strips where the characters are frozen in time, we watched the Patterson family grow up and grow old and sometimes die. Lynn Johnston explored new territory with what I think was the first “out” character in mainstream comics with Michael’s best friend Lawrence.

Finales that often get talked about but which I didn’t see include:

  • The Sopranos—I didn’t have HBO
  • Mad Men—I watched a couple episodes, but never got into the show.
  • Six Feet Under—Never saw it
  • Prison Break—Never saw it
  • Friday Night Lights—Never saw it
  • …you get the picture

Toward more responsive campus mental health care

SoodEight years ago this month, Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus before committing suicide.
In the aftermath, Aradhana Bela Sood, senior professor for child mental health policy and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, was named to an independent panel to recommend policy changes that might prevent future tragedies.
Sood’s new book, The Virginia Tech Massacre: Strategies and Challenges for Improving Mental Health Policy on Campus and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2015), highlights what can be done to better treat people who are struggling emotionally.
“Overall, the telltale signs of a mind unraveling were observed by students and faculty,” Sood says, “but there was no coherent action from the institution to provide to Seung-Hui much-needed psychiatric attention.”

Your book includes a remarkable chart of Seung-Hui Cho’s behavioral red flags and various people at Virginia Tech who were aware of individual incidents. Yet the connections were never made.
Here we have a situation where there were so many things that were said and done by the young man, as well as picked up by his professors. Some people did sit up and pay attention, but the ones who could have done something with this information did not respond to it.
So these are opportunities for us to look at a system failure. We have to be more aware when these red flags occur and develop a better strategy of addressing them.

Cho had written dark poetry and stories about death and murder. Young people often have a fascination with dark subjects. How do you distinguish art from illness?
That’s a major issue. We certainly don’t want to stifle creativity.
I see these kids even in my practice, where a teenager might come in and be very preoccupied by Goth stuff or they might be really dark in what they are writing about, which concerns parents. Sometimes it’s just an outside veneer and there’s nothing going on that is of concern.
But I think that also needs evaluation and assessment. What does this mean in context of the person’s life?

What is the role of faculty here?
Two of Cho’s English professors were concerned enough that they weren’t really just viewing it as creative expression. They were also concerned about his ancillary behavior.
He accused classmates of being “low-life barbarians” and “despicable human beings.” He took covert photos of other students with his cell phone, among other things, which the professors were picking up correctly. One of the professors had him removed from her class.
But the role of the faculty has always been confused by the fact that educators think their job is limited to education, and that even if they identify problems, they don’t know what the university does in response to it. The information goes into a black hole and they are left wondering, “What do I do? How much should I push this with the student or the behavior?”

How do we rectify that situation?
One of the strongest outcomes of the Virginia Tech massacre has been alerting universities about threat assessment and how they can handle these issues. Virginia Commonwealth University, where I am a professor, did the same thing. I was one of the consultants to the university. We came up with multiple strategies.
One approach was to set up a code of conduct for everyone—students, faculty and staff—of what is expected behavior on a university campus. If there are aberrant behaviors occurring, there should be a mechanism wherein that is picked up and the dean of student affairs is alerted.
That student should be evaluated. It can vary from a threat assessment situation, to counseling, to seeing a psychiatrist, to seeing a substance abuse counselor—something gets done when that behavior is noticed. This way, when faculty bring up an issue, they can be assured it doesn’t go into a black hole where they have no idea what is happening.
They don’t need to know the granular details of what is happening with the student, but they should know and feel comfortable that the dean of students is responding.
We are not making the faculty counselors or therapists or interventionists. We are merely making them aware of the expected behavior. We are setting up the structure so that when these things are identified there is an appropriate intervention plan for them. That takes faculty out of the equation of making a judgment call for which they don’t feel qualified.
Of course, anyone can recognize aberrant and weird behavior. But they may think it is a private matter in which they can’t intervene.

There’s a lot of confusion over FERPA and HIPAA privacy laws.
Clearly, one of the things that is misunderstood when it comes to FERPA and HIPAA rules is that anything that is observed—that is, not written down on paper—can be communicated with peers, or with others in faculty and the administration.
You are not prohibited from doing that. Anytime there is an issue where you are worried about safety, you can immediately communicate that to anyone without danger of reprisal.

Cho’s parents were not notified that he had been hospitalized earlier for making suicidal threats.
I interviewed his folks. They took him for therapy weekly because they were concerned about him. That was one of the reasons, given his problems, he had been doing relatively well to that point.
So, there is no reason to think that, had they been told he was hospitalized or was expressing these behaviors, they wouldn’t have removed him from school. They clearly understood the need for mental health treatment.

A record number of college students are struggling with depression and anxiety. Do we know why?
I can list multiple reasons. Number one is the stigma around mental health. I see this all the time—when you are losing your seat of reason, which is the brain, it is very scary. That’s a tough place to be for young adults. Sadly, people don’t realize that these are eminently treatable conditions.
Second is that young men and women who transition to college are suddenly taken from highly sheltered environments and put into campus life. It’s very different from the highly supervised arena they had in high school.
They have to think for themselves and be responsible for their own well-being. Stress and insomnia are major problems. There is substance abuse, which is rife within college campuses. You have the first precipitation of psychotic illness, which occurs in late adolescence.
The third thing is access. Even when these problems are identified, there are often very few providers to help a person in crisis. These kids are on waiting lists and they can’t get in to see anyone.
If they do get in to see someone, it is often a student counselor who may not be as well trained and may not be very helpful.

After a tragedy like Virginia Tech, the response is often reactive—more guards, more guns—rather than proactive.
Yes, and that doesn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t you want to know what is making these people unhappy? Unhappiness is not something that can be totally obliterated, but you can begin to look at the foundations of where it’s coming from.
You can help those people by asking, “Why is this happening? What could we do to reduce the stress so people don’t end up with these kinds of events?”

Where does that job begin at the university?
It is very important to involve key leadership. They have to empower the people below them. They have to initiate open, progressive policies around mental health. If the president or the provost doesn’t see a value in it, it’s not going to go very far.
Another problem is that many counseling centers are good at things like adjustment problems, but they often will have little experience with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia and major depression. Counseling centers need to be able to access care for these students.
Statistically, one in five people have some sort of mental health issue that requires intervention. It’s not an uncommon thing. We need to embrace that.
Schools have generally done a very good job at the threat assessment piece, because that is low-hanging fruit. It’s the least aggressive approach when someone is exhibiting weird behavior. But the mental health piece of it still has a lot of room for improvement.
Change starts small, but you have to keep pounding away at it, just like cancer. Mental health is where cancer was 50 years ago. The more we talk openly about it the more we will remove that stigma, but we have to start that conversation.

Confronting a low-income crisis in U.S. schools

ssuitts2The number of U.S. students who come from low-income families has long been the metaphorical elephant in the room when it comes to education funding. But, according to a new report by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, it’s a problem that can no longer be ignored.
For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of our public school students fall into that low-income category. For Steve Suitts, vice president of the foundation, the alarming trend is that the increase of low-income students is now occurring in regions where it had not been before.
“While found in large proportions throughout the United States, the numbers of low-income students attending public schools in the South and in the West are extraordinarily high,” Suitts wrote in the report. “Thirteen of the 21 states with a majority of low-income students in 2013 were located in the South, and six of the other 21 states were in the West.

Let’s begin with a definition of low-income. That doesn’t necessarily mean poverty does it?
That’s right. We found that 51 percent of students in 2013 were receiving free and reduced lunch. Now, the reduced lunch part of that means that the folks are eligible up to 185 percent of the poverty level. Those who receive free lunch are about 135 percent of the poverty level.
So, we say that these are students in and near poverty. That’s the most accurate way of expressing who these low-income students are.

The economy has improved since the 2008 recession. Are you surprised your numbers show an increase in low-income students?
The slow improvements in the economy haven’t slowed this growth. So far it doesn’t seem to have had a great deal of impact. That’s probably understandable given the fact that we’ve seen little growth or a decline in growth in lower-income job and wage earnings.

Do you expect it to get better, worse or remain stagnant?
Until we see a major increase in the wages or the other income of families and households in the bottom quartile of the economy, I don’t think we are going to see these numbers change. And there has been no real change in those numbers either from the Department of Labor or from the Census Bureau’s reports so far.
So I think this is a reflection of the economy, and also a reflection of the particular households that are in that lower quartile of the economy. These are increasingly single-parent households. They are increasingly households that are with children of color. And these are households whose incomes are just stagnant, if not declining.
That’s where it compounds the problem, generally speaking, that the students with the greatest need, these low-income students, are the ones that are provided the least resources.

When it comes to school funding, there’s a growing influence from the so-called school choice movement, but your report indicates that school choice doesn’t seem to play a role in closing learning gaps.
It really is a stunning fact in many ways. Most proposals for adopting public funding of private schools argue that it’s going to give low-income students a chance to get a better education by moving them out of “failing public schools” to successful private schools.
The best current data we have in the country—the NAEP report on student achievement—just doesn’t show that private schools do any better job at closing the gap than public schools are doing. It’s a big challenge for all schools.
So simply giving a low-income student a choice to go to private school is not going to improve their performance in relationship to higher-income students.
School choice is not about low-income students performing at higher levels. It’s about someone who wants to reshape and redefine education. School choice proponents operate on the theory that private entities can provide better education than public entities. That’s a philosophical doctrine position, not a point of evidence.

Are there any states or regions where the numbers of low-income students have grown dramatically?
In most cases it’s pretty much a steady march. What surprises me from our analysis of our earlier report is how widespread this trend is in all parts of every state.
Clearly, low-income students are more concentrated in the central cities. But if you look at our data from 2011, you also see that 40 percent of the students in the suburbs are low-income and 52 percent in the smaller towns.
What I think is pretty evident is that this whole problem within states cannot be simply dismissed as a big city problem or an isolated rural problem. Those are places where it often is the most striking. But when you have two out of five of your students in suburban schools who are low-income, you have a problem which is everybody’s problem.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, one could have said that the problem was something that only parts of different states—and the school districts in those areas—would have to deal with. But if you look at the numbers in Georgia, for example, we now have two-thirds of the schools across the state with a majority of low-income students.
That pretty well means that it’s an issue that every part of the education community and every community in a state is going to have to address if it wants to be successful.

What does this mean for our economy and how we compete globally?
We can no longer look at low-income students as being a part of our student body whose performance is unfortunate for them, but is also not a major factor in where this nation will go in coming years and in future generations.
When a majority of your students are low income, and when low-income students are performing at the lower levels by almost all indicators, then what you have is a situation where a majority of the students will not perform at higher levels until low-income students become a great focus of education.
The nation is simply not going to have a well-educated citizenry for performing the kind of work that a high tech, high education economy requires. And we’re not going to have the quality of life that we want, that we want our children to have. And we’re not going to have an improvement in the standards of living either.
Unless Americans are willing to compete on the basis of cheap labor— uneducated cheap labor—then the United States has to figure out how low-income students can perform at higher levels for the national interest.

Are you optimistic about how candidates might address this in the 2016 election?
Education gets a lot of lip service but not a lot of focused attention in the electoral process at the federal and the state levels. The kind of positions that are taken and the kind of questions that are asked of candidates about education simply are uninformative in terms of the problems that schools face.
Our political system simply hasn’t yet focused on how important this issue is for the future of the country. Until it does, I don’t know that we’re going to get the kind of policies that we need.

Do you see a way that this trend can reverse?
There are two ways we can deal with this situation if we are willing to—and they probably need to be done in combination.
One is we can figure out ways in which parents can earn more money and provide their kids the kind of educational experiences in and out of school that we know that higher-income families provide for their children. Those kids are doing very well in public schools in the United States—those upper-middle-class kids.
We need to find ways to improve the income of low-income families so that they can begin to provide those kind of resources to their children’s education.
And we can try to have schools and communities provide low-income kids the kind of educational experiences that upper- middle-class kids receive. We know the advantages of early childhood education. We know that exposure to books and language—and to the kind of early learning experiences that parents and communities can provide—will help low-income kids not be so far behind.
And I think we can find ways in which to provide that to low-income kids—if we have the policies and national commitment to do so.