Saturday, April 29, 2006

God Bless Chicago

From today's Sun-Times, two articles that say nothing at all about the political culture of Chicago and Illinois. Nothing at all. First:

Gov's family feud takes new twist

A top Illinois environmental official has told investigators he "may have" warned a landfill owner that his state permit problems would not clear up until his relative, Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), patched up a feud with Gov. Blagojevich, sources told the Sun-Times.

"[M]ay have...." What a brilliant hack this man must be; what a comfort it must be to the governor to know that he has such uniquely talented people working in his administration.


Daley cousins on list of Sorich witnesses

Prosecutors may call as witnesses three of Mayor Daley's cousins who had high-ranking city jobs and the mayor's former campaign manager at the trial of Daley's former patronage chief, a court filing shows.

It is truly remarkable that the Daley family should have so many talented people in it, that they should find places at so many levels of government.

My own position is that if a crony can do the job, it isn't a job worth doing. The day that notion gains traction in Chicago is the day that hell freezes over.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The History That Repeats Itself

From John Kekes, writing about Robespierre in the City Journal:

Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot are of the same mold. They are the characteristic scourges of humanity in modern times, but Robespierre has a good claim to being the first. Understanding his motives and rationale deepens our understanding of the worst horrors of the recent past and those that may lurk in the future.

We could add Mugabe to the above list (from me, see this discussing this), but that is happeneing now and God forbid we trouble our elites with understanding evil when it occurs when it's so much easier to deal with it when it's over.

What Robespierre had unloosed were the most depraved urges of society’s dregs. The resulting anarchy temporarily served his purpose, much as the Kristallnacht served Hitler’s, the purges Stalin’s, and the cultural revolution Mao’s. Each perpetrated the terror to frighten opponents into abject submission and establish himself more firmly in power....

Robespierre, who saw himself as a romantic hero battling against great odds, yearned for power and was indifferent to the cost of achieving it. When he succeeded in concocting an ideology from the flotsam of Rousseau’s ideas and other bits and pieces, he held on to it with fanatical dedication, for it provided him not merely with a political program but also with a justification of his quest for power. In a strangely closed circle, when he perpetrated the monstrous acts of the Terror, he took their very monstrosity as evidence of the purity of his motivation and convictions. He and his fellow ideologues were the elect whose passions guided them to know good and evil, truth and falsehood, however obscene or forbidden their actions might appear to the unelect.

Robespierre is a history that has been repeating itself for over two centuries now.

(Mr. Kekes has also recently authored The Roots of Evil.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A "Regnef" Alum

When reading the articles on "Regnef" HS, I came across this: Bond denied in slaying of church musician (reg. req'd):

Police said they arrested Stanley on Thursday after getting a tip that the nickname of the killer was "Peanut." They have also said that Stanley acted alone and did not know Bosley [the victim/gospel musician].

Stanley's family said he has two children and earned a GED after dropping out of Fenger High School. He is unemployed but volunteers as a teacher's aide at Kennedy-King College, they said.

Fast Times At "Regnef" High

I really shouldn't have missed this.

I first saw this article at Education Wonks. It details the rather miserable experience a teacher had when he decided to vent his frustrations on a blog, Fast Times At Regnef High. The blog has been removed, but Regnef is a pseudonym for Fenger, Fenger HS being a poorly performing school on Chicago's south side. Here's a link to their state report card.

The teacher started out with an interesting idea: blog in the voice of the school building itself. He soon dropped that pretense, however, and revealed he was a teacher at the school. The staff and students discovered who it was who created the blog after the blogger himself revealed his work to two of his colleagues.

This turned out to be a rather bad idea, as the students unleashed all sorts of violent and vitriolic threats against the teacher. As detailed by the Chicago Tribune (reg. req'd):

He labeled his students "criminals," saying they stole from teachers, dealt drugs in the hallways, had sex in the stairwells, flaunted their pregnant bellies and tossed books out windows. He dismissed their parents as unemployed "project" dwellers who subsist on food stamps, refuse to support their "baby mommas" and bad-mouth teachers because their no-show teens are flunking.

He took swipes at his colleagues, too--"union-minimum" teachers, literacy specialists who "decorate their office door with pro-black propaganda," and security officers whose "loyalty is to the hood, not the school."

Clearly this teacher was fed up with the school, and each of the things he's described I have either seen for myself or have had painfully described to me by teachers in the Chicago Public Schools. Pointing these things out had a negative effect on the self-esteem of the students, resulting in their acting out just a tad:

This week, after returning from spring break, the students read how they were depicted and flamed the blog with profane threats and righteous indignation toward the teacher.

It would seem to me that "profane threats" and "righteous idignation" are mutually exclusive, but perhaps not. The teacher, citing fears for his safety, has not returned to the school.

What interests me though is how the what resulted from the discovery of this blog says about the persistent disconnect between the realities of Chicago schools and the things that students and teachers believe about those schools.

First, the principal says some interesting things about the effect that the blog has. Again from the Tribune:

"There is a silver lining," [Fenger Principal William Johnson] said. "It brought Fenger together." Johnson said he plans to hold student forums next week to discuss the blog, both the antagonism it revealed and the challenges that need to be fixed.

"He was painting a picture of desperation, and I had a problem with the generalizations he made," Johnson said. "But some of it was true, and that was the tragedy. If he had gone about it in a different way, it could have been a great forum."

So, basically, the principal acknowledges that the blogger told the truth, acknowledges that the problems he had cited had been ignored, but criticizes the teacher for being angry at the problems and the fact they were ignored. He should actually be thanking the teacher.

A student at the school does something similar:

"These are things that happen at Fenger--fights, drug-dealing, gangs--it happens here like it does at other high schools. I already feel bad when I tell people I go to Fenger, because they go, `Ooooh, that's a bad school.' But there are still people here trying to do something with their lives," said Ivy [Latasha Ivay, Senior Class Vice President], who has been accepted at the University of Illinois this fall and plans to study biology.

Good for Ms. Ivy for getting accepted to the University of Illinois, but she reveals a problematic line of thought, one that will contribute to the problems the blogger described. Pointing out that Fenger is no worse than others schools a) only tells us how enormous the problems are for Chicago, and b) completely ignores the particular problems Fenger is having. Universalizing the presence of gangs, for instance, means that Fenger never has to deal with the particular gangs that are in their school. What's happening at Fenger is important not because it is representative of what happens at a lot of schools, but because it is specifically happening to Fenger, and the community at Fenger has to find a way to deal with it.

Another student criticized the blog:

Gerald Rogers, 17, said the blog was a "big topic everywhere." He was struck by how many students read the site and posted comments. But he still found the teacher's observations "racist and derogatory."

It is unlikely to happen, but it would be nice if the student first decided whether the observations were true before he decided to use America's favorite shortcut for avoiding a problem: calling someone a racist.

A quote from a teacher closes out the article:

"Although many of our students adopt tough facades and insist they are grown, they are still children: sensitive children who still crave guidance, encouraging words and positive reinforcement," wrote teacher Gina Miski. "Was the author present when students, having read the blog, dejectedly hung their heads with pained, angry tears stinging their eyes?"

This blogger would like to kindly ask Ms. Miski one simple question: What color is the sky in your world?

Seriously, this stock description of high school students is so stale and phony it hardly deserves comment. It is hardly true about any high school student, much less true at a school with so many problems that it literally drove a teacher over the edge. Does this teacher know, or even care, who her students are, or are these kids just fodder for her moral preening?

Also, please note that left out of the list of things these students crave are the words "education", "knowledge", and "academics."

A few others besides the Education Wonks have chimed in: -- Anger at Regnef High
This Week In Education -- Blog Shines Harsh Light On Struggling High School - And Its Author

There is a police scandal in Arlington Heights (Chicago Tribune, reg. req'd), a suburb of Chicago. From the article:

Dozens of area Muslims have placed protest calls to Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder demanding that charges against a Muslim civil rights protester be dropped after allegations were made that police ripped off the woman's headscarf during her October arrest.

Yes, they just went and ripped it off. The police tend to do that; haven't you read Howard Zinn?

A few paragraphs later:

The protester, Rehana Khan of Chicago, was arrested Oct. 15 with four other people while demonstrating in Arlington Heights in support of immigrant rights and against the Minutemen, a group that opposes illegal immigration. Khan is to appear in court Tuesday.

Khan is charged with battery and resisting arrest. She is accused of hitting a female officer and trying to break free while being arrested, authorities said.

The Religion of Peace brawls once again.

"It's analogous to having a blouse ripped off," said [Council on American-Islamic Relations] spokesman Ahmed Rehab. "It's a state of forced nudity."

No, it isn't.

It's first of all unforced: the woman chose to protest violently enough to get arrested and chose to behave and a manner entirely antithetical to the American tradition of protest, one she wishes to exploit without showing it any respect. In America, when the time comes to get arrested at a protest, one lets oneself be arrested peacefully. If one does not, it is probably because one is a fraud.

It's second of all not nudity. I know naked, and a bare head ain't it. A person has no right to force others to pretend one's own beliefs are the absolute truth.

Some more context:

Assistant State's Atty. Rich Karwaczka said Khan's headscarf was "shifted" during the course of the arrest but was never pulled off. She was required to remove it during processing at the police station, which Karwaczka said is normal practice. "For safety reasons it always is [removed]," Karwaczka said.

Arlington Heights is going to continue with the prosecution. Good for them.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Overdoses "Pouring In"

Also in the Sun-Times:

Reports of people overdosing on the bad drugs have been "pouring in" throughout the late night and early morning hours Sunday [April 23, 2006], one police official said....

"This all started around 9 p.m. Saturday [April 22, 2006]," said [Wentworth Area Sgt. Kevin] Duffin. "They’re just pouring in."

One of the victims was a 70-year-old woman.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Zimbabwe Holiday

This article by a Namimbian reporter is a must read. He travelled to Zimbabwe and wrote this account of life under Robert Mugabe's left wing thuggery. The wisest part is this:

It's hard to imagine that Namibia could plunge to the level of economic meltdown where Zimbabwe is now.

But it was just as hard for Zimbabweans to imagine they'd reach the state of decline that Zambia was in in the 1970s.

The decline begins slowly, almost unnoticeably.

Thereafter it goes into freefall.

All because the voters failed to put the brakes on looting and murderous politicians whose only ambition was to be in power at all costs.

He could have added that voters have an obligation to recognize a truly murderous politician, and to avoid indulging in prejudiced stereotypes.

Professorial Mobs

Here is a very interesting article about the behavior of insular, privileged groups when confronted with challenging ideas.

A better moral argument against tenure I do not know, provided one adds the common sense recognition that people who are in a situation where they can behave badly without paying any price for it probably will behave badly.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Religion of Peace of the Grave

Sienna Miller gets death threats from Muslims.

For associating herself with a remake of a Theo van Gogh thriller, Interview.

CPS Grad College Graduation Rate, part 2

A report in the Chicago Sun-Times and a similar report in the Chicago Tribune (reg. req'd), state that only 6.5 percent of graduate of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) high schools earn a degree by their mid-twenties. The information was developed by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research. The article was interesting because it said much, mostly unintentionally, about why the students at the schools I visit in my consulting work lack so many basic skills.

The Sun-Times article starts with a pair of quotes that I think clearly intend to defuse, which will lead a reasonable person to conclude that they have no idea how to fix the problem, much less how horrible it was to begin with. The first is from one of the study's authors, who points out the obvious: that the results are appaling. But this is followed deftly by a set of assertions said to be from the researchers as a group. These assertions caution the reader not to draw any actual conclusions from the data the researchers so assiduously obtained:

...many of the kids they studied were not exposed to a batch of recent reforms intended to improve graduation rates, including smaller high schools, stiffer graduation requirements and a new department focused on post-high school plans.

In other words, despite one of them willing to speak the truth about what the data means, the Sun-Times writer wishes to defuse the obvious conclusion by making the outspoken author sound either extreme or at least self-contradictory. "Move along, nothing to see here," is what the reporter seems to want the quote to say. Further, the author overlooks the obvious question, which is, given the scope of the problem, how can any of those things make a difference in the college readiness of CPS students, at least those in currently in high school? The efforts cited to dissuade us from drawing conclusions about the state of CPS high schools are woefully insufficient for solving the problem of sending kids to colleges only to watch them fail.

The next quote comes from Arne Duncan, the CPS CEO, who says the result affirms his belief that Chicago Schools need drastic change, a statement that I translate as "I've always known it was this bad and and I've always wanted to do something about it, so move along, nothing to see here, and if anyone asks, it's not my fault."

The article then articulates, despite itself, the heart of the problem. First, discussing the fact that more boys than girls fail to complete college, the study's principal researcher points out, "Clearly, high schools are not engaging boys in ways to get them the grades they need." yes, clearly, that is the problem. The students have not been failed by years and years of social promotion, a lack of strong parenting, or callous, useless educators. They have simply not been "engaged", and if they were merely "engaged", all that ignorance would dissipate into the mists of "engagement".

Nonsense. These students will not succeed if engaged by any material because years in the Chicago Public Schools have left them unable to write grammatically, do basic math problems, and read above the 6th grade level. It won't matter how interested they are in the material they study, they won't be able to understand it sufficiently to make anything useful of it. These students don't need engagement; they need teachers who care enough about them to drop all the pretensious prattle about engagement and help them learn the basics their other teachers never bothered to help them learn and the school district leaders never bothered to ensure were being taught. The call for more "engaging" coursework only reminds the sensible about what the schools are really missing.

The author then adds that because of their low grades, many students are relegated to nonselective two-year colleges, which have low graduation rates compared to four year schools. This is probably the most contemptible sentence in the article, and it comes from the study itself, though perhaps taken out of context. First, the word nonselective was in scare quotes, suggesting the authors of the study think a two-year college is some dirty thing the best people shun like they shun Walmart and Nascar. Second, the authors seem to think that attending such a school is being "relegated" to some tragic fate. I would instead suggest they look for ways to help typical CPS students succeed at such schools, rather than suggesting attendance at such schools is a failure in itself. The journey of this particular thousand miles best begins at a two-year school.

The author next reports two "important" conclusions of the study. The first is that grades are more predictive of college success than ACT scores. The second is that students need help finding colleges with better graduation rates.

The first point is a little nonsensical, since the subjects of the study all attended local colleges with extraordinarily low ACT requirements. Basically, on the ACT, if you score 18 out of 36 on the scale, you're in the 33d percentile, which is to say you scored better than 33 percent of the other test-takers. If you get a 16, about the average of CPS, you're in the 19th percentile. An 18 is what you generally need to get in to the colleges mentioned, but you might squeak in with a 16 or 17. If you get a score this low, you are barely showing knowledge of anything at all. On the ACT you only need to answer about 40-45% of the questions correctly to get an 18, and since the ACT is a multiple choice test that doesn't penalize for incorrect answers, you expect ot get 20-25%, or half of what you need to go to college, just by guessing. In other words, an 18 on the ACT means your a minimally competent at academics.

If you do get into a college with that accepts those low scores, alongside many others with similarly low scores, what will separate you from others is your work ethic, and the article itself suggests that this all that separates the strong students from the weak students at CPS schools. Therefore, saying grades predict success better than ACTs is a little silly, since at the levels we're talking about for Chicago, ACTs predict hardly anything at all. It is inappropriate to use this study to denigrate the use of the ACTs for testing because the study was about college graduation rates, which the ACT cannot pick up on at these low levels, and not about whether the ACT shows how much students have learned through high school.

The second "important" point is nonsensical, but in a different way. It's nonsensical because the colleges that were mentioned in the articles are not known to be highly demanding. I don't know of many schools that have lower requirements than the Universiy of Illinois at Chicago, so its low graduation rates probably stem less from it's demands than from the number of kids from Chicago public schools that enroll there. Also, as the article later describes, most of the kids come from families that cannot afford out-of-state colleges. So this search for colleges with better graduation is either pointless because if the kids can't finish at schools like UIC then they probably can't finish anywhere, and if they could finish at another school, a dubious proposition, they probably couldn't afford to go.

The article next quotes a UIC senior from a CPS school who points out that apathy was widespread, and that most students found a C acceptable. This is probably true at a lot of schools, but most of those schools have a majority of kids that can multiply fractions and read at grade level. The CPS schools do not, so a C there would probably be a failing grsade elsewhere. What always disturbs me at the CPS schools I visit is the talk about honors classes. On the one hand I understand the need to support the best students and give them challenges. On the other hand, I've seen their grades and test scores: they qualify for honors at CPS high schools alone. Everywhere else they are hard working but average students.

The last major piece of the information provided is that most of the kids in the study come from economically disadvantaged homes, making it difficult for them to graduate in four years if they can even afford to go at all. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I find it hard to believe that many of the CPS students capable of getting into college despite all the problems at their schools would be unable to get some kind of financial assistance. And while the article rightly reminds the reader that some students may not graduate in four years because they have to work, the study itself mentioned students not graduating when the reach their mid-twenties, which in fact gives the seven years to graudate. The principal quoted in that part of the article makes a good point, but it's hard to believe that expanding the study to include people who graduate by the time they reach 30 would improve the number much.

The article concludes by describing additional flaws the authors admit their study may have. This is reasonable, but what kills me is the last sentence of the article:
Still, even with the maximum possible adjustment for those caveats, researchers said the 6.5 percent number would not rise to more than 10 percent.

What bothers me about this is all those caveats at the beginning of the article. If the caveats given for the study make such a small difference, the act of highlighting them so early and without stating how little they mean in practice borders on deliberately dishonest. It causes the reader to wrongly conclude that what they are reading may be inaccurate, when in fact the flaws make little practical difference at all.

So what is to be done about this problem? I would suggest that the only solutions are so unlikely to be implemented in Chicago that they hardly merit mentioning, but despite that, here goes:

1) Privatize, privatize, privatize. Or at least come as close as possible and still have "public" schools. The communities these high schools serve are terribly flawed, and the schools themselves are top heavy with bureaucrats, bad teachers, and curricula that the students as a group can't handle. The only way to fix things is by allowing the hard working students find schools that help them achieve something and let the rest attend vocational or remedial schools where they are expected to learn the basics and no one pretends they really understand algebra II and Shakespeare. It would salvage a lot of the raw talent that exists in this city and provide the rest with the skills and discipline that will help them have a successful working life, skills I can assure are not now being developed.

2) Liberate us from tenure. No public education system as bad as Chicago's has any right to guarantee a job for life. It teaches both students and the public at large that all that matters is playing the game, doing your time, and figuring out how to get your hands on other people's taxes.

CPS Grad College Graduation Rate

There is an extremely revealing story in today's Sun-Times regarding the college graduation rate of the graduates of CPS high schools. That rate is 6.5 percent!

Chicago public high school freshmen are battling daunting odds: Only 6.5 percent of their predecessors have been earning four-year college degrees by their mid-20s.

There is much in the article to digest, so I will post more later, when I have time.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Grad Test Prep

I just read a bunch of threads at a site for people getting ready to take the LSAT (they have threads for the GRE, GMAT, and TOEFL as well). It was an icredibly depressing business. It was divided into three clearly defined groups: shills for test prep companies; arrogant narcissists trying to bully other posters with displays of what I'm sure they thought were impeccable examples of logic; and what seemed like an outnumbered band of young innocents who sincerely believed they were at a website that might help them prepare for grad school admissions tests. The existence of the first two groups depressed me terribly, and as did watching the third group slowly discover how useless the other posters were.

The graduate admissions tests take practice and seriousness of mind. Obnoxious shills and self-centered preeners don't contribute anything to anyone's preparation. AutoAdmit appears, after a very quick glance, to be somewhat useful, but I can't say it's wise to waste too much time on the threads it provides.

Hollywood Intellectualoids

If two-thirds of American Dreamz is as good as described here, I think it will be huge, even if the remaining third is as insipid as described.

And note the disconnect between the ads and the synopsis given. The ads show only Mandy Moore's fame-hungry country girl and Dennis Quaid's repetitive and shallow parody of President Bush. Nary a word of the Al Queda singing star out to "Omerize" America. I can't think of a good reason for that aspect of the movie to be ignored. Truly, every reason I think up is either venal or idiodic.

More Heroin

Some additional articles on the heroin overdoses:

From Media Monitors, yet another site I would not have discovered had it not been for my curiosity:

Fentanyl Deaths -- Severe Math Problems At FDA

On August 15, 2005, NBC News reported that police said fentanyl disguised as heroin had caused multiple overdoses on the West Side of Chicago and had been given away by members of a street gang in order to acquire new customers.

Six months later, on February 6, 2006, Chicago police warned that drug dealers on the South Side might be selling fentanyl as heroin on the city streets.

On February 7, 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times reported from unnamed sources that the drug may be linked to as many as a dozen recent fatal overdoses in a small area of Chicago's South Side.

The Sun-Times reported on February 11, 2006, that laboratory "tests on some of the fatal overdose victims who Chicago Police suspected may have died last month from a bad batch of heroin indicate the presence of the powerful pain-killer fentanyl."

At least 10 fatal overdoses are under investigation the Times said.

(The Sun-Times article referenced above is presumably on the Sun-Times website, but either their server is having issues today or their site simply stinks to high heaven, because every time I attempt a search I get a page not found error. Here's a link to their search page if you want to try your luck.)

The Sun-Times article from April 18 includes a quote from a police spokesperson saying that "This has been going on for at least three weeks." In fact, it would appear that this problem has existed for at least three months. The article, authored by stringers, is a little unclear on the timeline, and though it makes a brief reference to "recent deaths," it fails to mention the Feb 11 article or the deaths described therein specifically. It is reporting without memory, and is so vague and inconclusive that it drains all the blood from a dramatic municpal tragedy.

From The Daily Southtown Local Digest (scroll to the end of the page). One would think the distribution of free heroin that is simultaneously homicidal heroin would merit more than a paragraph at the end of news roundup.

Here's some reports from a few days ago that describe the first news of the most recent batch of bad heroin: Free Heroin Hospitalizes 7 In Chicago (CBS News); Free heroin samples send 7 to hospitals (Chicago Tribune); and 7 overdose after taking heroin (ABC7Chicago).

Web Find

I love the web because it provides an immediate reward for intellectual curiosity. I was curious to find out more about crimes in the area of one of the overdose deaths, and in searching out that information I discovered a new website: Police & Law Enforcement -- I not only found the information, but I was rewarded with a window into the culture of law enforcement. God bless the ARPNET's pocket-protected cadre.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Chicago Overdoses

Part of my job involves visiting high schools, and the particular type of work I do often takes me to Chicago public schools in very tenuous neighborhoods. A couple of years ago the assistant principal of one such school pointed out that while he appreciated my company's services, he wondered how valuable they would be for his students, given that a gang war was taking place in his area.

Since then, I've wanted to keep track of the culture around the places I visit. It hasn't been a driving ambition, but one of the goals of this blog is to provide me with a place to report on what I observe here in Chicago and to develop a better sense of what really goes on in this city.

With that in mind, I read with interest the rcent reports of overdoses from a supercharged batch of heroin that made it's appearance recently on the city's west side: Overdose deaths may be linked to bad drugs and Police warn residents of deadly drug being passed as heroin.

One of the deaths mentioned occurred in an area that I suppose to be considered the west side: south of I290, a mile or two southwest of the United Center. Google map here showing the location of the fatality. This particular overdose occurred within a mile of two high schools that I have visited multiple times.

Between one of the schools and the location of the death is a large, open park. Despite how lovely the park looks, I have never seen it occupied. No joggers, no kids, no picnics, no one. Thus it has a decrepit aura, despite the green fields. How does this come to pass, that a park that is clearly well maintained lends its neighborhood only a cemeterial aura?

Back to my original point: it's only through glimpses that I have a chance to see what happens in these areas. Though I link to their reports, it's useless to rely on newspapers and tv news: those writers are too superficial to contemplate the city at large. The only way to understand this city is patient observation, which I hope to help provide, at least for those areas I know.

First And Last

So this is the first post on this blog, which by definition makes it the last in this blog. I hope it is not the last post of this blog.