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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Trickle down or trickle up school reform?

For San Diego's North County Times

Say what you will about Occupy Wall Street, it has focused our attention on the sharp rise in income inequality over the last 10 years. Since facts are facts, on that we can all agree. Where we disagree is what to make of it. That depends on whether you're a believer in trickle-down or trickle-up economics.
There's the same disconnect in public opinion about educational inequality. We agree that family income is the best predictor of a student's success in school. Children from low-income families are mostly left behind. Where we disagree is what to do about it ---- fix our public schools, or give up on them.
In California, No Child Left Behind and charter schools were intended to improve learning through school accountability, free-market competition and parental choice. But test scores show they've done nothing to narrow the achievement gap separating students by family income. This year's standardized-testing results show only 42 percent of economically disadvantaged students are proficient in grade-level math, compared with 62 percent of the non-disadvantaged.
That 20-point spread has remained unchanged since testing began in 2003. Proficiency in math leads to jobs with better pay, which may explain the vicious cycle of educational and income inequality.
The legislative intent of California's 1992 Charter Schools Act was to "Increase learning opportunities for all, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving."
North County's 17 charter schools enroll 10 percent of students in their sponsoring school districts but only 5 percent of the districts' disadvantaged students.
The only charter school to enroll more low-income students than its sponsoring district is Vista's North County Trade Tech High, with 68 percent compared with 61 percent districtwide. It is a charter school that lives up to its promise, focusing on students who've been left behind in larger, traditional schools.
Its success can be measured by impressive test-score improvements and a project learning, "many paths to success," hands-on curriculum that ranges from college prep to training for construction trades.
A group of Oceanside parents is now lobbying for a local campus of San Bernardino's Oxford Preparatory Academy. The charter school opened in 2010 in Chino Valley, where 40 percent of local school district students are economically disadvantaged. According to Oxford Prep's 2011 Academic Performance Report, only two of the 683 students tested are disadvantaged.
Ninety-three percent of Oxford parents attended college. Forty-four percent are college graduates, and another 28 percent attended graduate school.

If you favor trickle-down school reform, this San Bernardino charter school's for you. If you're a trickle-up advocate, look no further than North County Trade Tech High.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Senior bullying

For San Diego's North County Times

In my last column I praised Escondido High School for the bottom line on their sexual harassment policy: "Sexual harassment is based upon the impact on the victim. It is not based on the intentions of the perpetrator."

I thought of that last week when I stood in line at the checkout stand of our local grocery store. No, I didn't see sexual harassment there. I watched a woman, looking to be in her late 70s, subjected to elderspeak, a kind of unintended bullying of seniors.
"Hello, how are you today?" a standard cashier's greeting, spoken at normal speed and volume before eye contact.

Then, after her customer struggles with the payment keypad, the clerk notices who she is and raises her voice, speaking more slowly, word by word. "Can I help you, dear," she asks. "You have to press the button with the little green arrow on it after you put in your number. Here, dear, let me do it for you. Can you tell me your phone number, dear?"

Judging from the look on her face during the cashier's overly solicitous efforts to help her enter her telephone number, identifying her as a shopper's club member, eligible for discounts, what the lady probably heard was: "You're old, hard of hearing, and have a failing mind. So I'll speak to you as I would a child."

Finally, as a reward for taking her receipt, the older lady gets a patronizing farewell: "Now, you have a good afternoon, dear."

The fundamental assumption behind elderspeak is that older people are cognitively impaired, needing "help," and must be spoken to very slowly and loudly. To paraphrase Escondido High's sexual harassment policy, the impact of elderspeak on an older person depends on what is heard, not on the speaker's good intentions.

I'm guessing the lady who'd been publicly humiliated didn't file a complaint. If she had, the cashier would probably tell her boss she was just trying to help a grumpy old lady and promise to be even "sweeter" to her next elderly customer.

Yale University professor Becca Levy says of elderspeak: "Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging, and those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival." Her survey of 660 people over 50 in a small Ohio town found those with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, exceeding the beneficial effects of exercising or not smoking.

Store managers who value their older customers should train their sales clerks to drop the sweet-talking belittlement of elderspeak and replace it with simple friendliness and common courtesy.