Archive for the ‘economics’ Category

Public School Cuts Run Deep

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

By Christian Piatt

Originally published in PULP

Call it schadenfreude, but I couldn’t help but smile when I read about Dr. John Covington, former Pueblo City Schools superintendent, having to contend with the ugly business of shutting down nearly half of Kansas City’s public schools. Granted, it was clear when he split town for the Midwest that he was entering a hot mess of a district.

But hey, when upward mobility calls, right?

Despite my sadistic need for karma to beat up Covington a little, the closure of 29 schools is nothing short of a crisis for children and families living in the city. Such a dire situation makes some of the recent developments in our own back yard a little easier to swallow.

Schools District 70 announced that, as of next year, it will be cutting back to four-day school weeks to try to balance the budget. Naturally, parents are concerned about the quality of their kids’ education, young ones taking the bus in the dark and what to do with the little buggers an extra day of the week when the rest of the world works.

Many parents in Pueblo are barely making ends meet as it is, particularly in outlying areas covered by District 70, and the challenge of paying for an extra day of child care every week might be the difference between making the car payment and giving it up to the bank. Obviously, the schools are trying to save money, so to stay open just to babysit would make no sense, but what to do?

As a vocal advocate that churches and community service groups should step up when there’s an identifiable need, this is a great opportunity to put words into real action. Some churches offer parents’ night out or daytime relief once a month or so for caregivers. But if retired, unemployed or underemployed congregants could provide a safe haven for children to play and continue learning, it might actually help all of us justify those big buildings that, too often, only get used on Sunday mornings.

The busing issue is more easily addressed. True, there might be days when the buses have to run in darkness or at least twilight, but how many parents are content to leave their children at a bus stop on their own, even in broad daylight? I realize that rural areas tend to create a climate where everyone knows everybody else, but given the fact that sexual crimes against children are usually committed by relatives or family friends, this is hardly an excuse for a lack of vigilance.

When I rode the bus to school – the city bus, mind you, not a school bus – in Dallas, my folks stayed with me until the bus came. Yes, it took time, but it also communicated to me that my safety was a priority. Sometimes we’d carpool and parents would take turns at this job, but even in the winter months when the bus ran into the evening, I knew there was always someone waiting for me on the other end.

Regarding the quality of education, the comments of a teacher friend of mine from District 70 makes the point well. She explained that, given busing schedules as they are now, combined with all the transitions kids have from one class or program to another, it’s hard for teachers to pack in all the curriculum-mandated material they’re expected to cover.

With the four-day schedule, she explained, teachers will still have the same number of contact hours in a week, but with one-fifth fewer transitions. This means longer periods of contact in the classroom, and, according to her, a better chance to cover important content than in a five-day system.

This still doesn’t point to the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the absurdity of a donut-shaped district the educators and administrators are struggling to manage. Meanwhile, Pueblo City Schools sit square in the middle of it all, with some of its schools much closer to District 70 facilities than other schools in their own district.

It’s understandable how reluctant either district may be to consider redrawing district lines or cost-sharing more than they already do, but considering what Kansas City schools are now facing, reshuffling the deck sounds like a much less bitter pill to swallow if funding continues to lag.

Finally, this still doesn’t address the other problem we have in Southern Colorado, which is the value – or lack of it – that we seem to place on public school funding. Ours is one of the absolute lowest in per-capita funding of public education compared to income, and within Colorado, our two districts are near the bottom of that miserable pile.

I understand the resistance to raising taxes, particularly when we’re all hurting financially. But the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” tells only part of the story when it comes to children’s minds. Actually, the lack of investment will have a negative ripple effect, for decades to come, in the form of overburdened social services, swelling criminal-justice dockets, teen pregnancies, dropouts and substance abuse growing unchecked.

Maybe the more appropriate saying is “pay now, or pay later.” The four-day week may be relatively good news, compared to what may be coming if we don’t step up to support public education. Unless we’re looking for John “Hatchet Man” Covington to come back our way and work similar magic for our kids, it’s time to make big changes while we still have a chance.

When “Social Marketing” does more harm than good

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

My wife, Amy and I were watching TV the other night, and a series of commercials came on that told me a lot about who the sponsors of the show thought I was. First, there was a Pepsi ad for this program they have where they give “grants” to people with good, community-changing ideas. Second was a Sun Chips commercial touting their new compostable packaging.

I remarked to Amy about how prevalent this kind of social marketing had become, and did so with no small amount of disdain in my voice, I expect, based on the way she looked at me.

Basically, it’s popular these days for companies to tout their social responsibility to help persuade you to buy their product. From Sun Chips (owned by junk food giant Frito Lay) to Pepsi, and even Coke with their “every time you drink our sugary, caffeine-laced soda, you’re participating in worldwide recycling” promotion, everyone wants to get in on the action. Of course, food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only one’s getting in on the action. Car manufacturers, clothing designers and all manner of retail chains try hard to give you wamr fuzzies about their products.

On the surface, I know it seems cynical to grumble about companies trying to be socially responsible, even if it only is to better their bottom line. After all, if the result is the same, who cares what their motivation really is, right? But the concern I have hearkens back to my time-tested theory about capitalism at the consumer-level, which is that companies try hard to make us feel good about buying their stuff, and we agree not to ask too many questions, because we’d rather feel good (even if falsely or superficially) about getting what we want rather than doing the hard work of digging deeper for truth and – God forbid – maybe having to sacrifice some wants for our ethics.

First, we should never take a company at their word that what they’re doing is good for us or the planet. As an example, here’s a recent mention about Sun Chips’ installation of a ten-acre field of solar panels to help operate one of their factories, for which they won an “Effie.” This award, it turns out, is not an environmental award, but rather an “effectiveness in marketing” recognition. This from Effie’s website:

On Earth Day 2008, Sun Chips’ factory in Modesto, Calif., opened a 10-acre solar grid so that Sun Chips would be made with solar energy. However, the brand’s users were not hard-core green consumers, and they didn’t care to hear about the details. They just wanted to know they were doing something a little better.

I’m not saying this move to solar is a bad thing, but there are a few questions I’m left wondering about (though evidently, the marketing folks are clear that the general population doesn’t really care):

What percentage of the factory’s total consumption is generated by solar?
Was this part of a government mandate for communities/companies to get certain percentages of their energy from renewable sources, or was it voluntary?
Does the company have any standards for their suppliers and the way they grow, harvest and transport their products?

In short, the idea is to find out if this company seriously is committed to the values they’re promoting, or if it’s simply a photo-op. Before we give ourselves pats on the back for being responsible consumers, we should try to find out.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have concerns that we allow companies who engage in this kind of social marketing to assuage our guilt for our way of life, allowing us to feel like we’ve done our good deed simply buy buying a soft drink or eating chips. Yes, guiding our dollars to more responsible outlets is an important thing to consider, but this doesn’t let us off the hook as human beings, responsible for the care of ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet. It’s not unlike how some folks figure they don’t have to work hard at making the world a better place all week long, just because they go to church on Sunday.

If the companies we support truly are walking the talk, and if we can verify this, more power to them, and more power to us to support their efforts with our money. And if guiding our purchases in such a way is simply a reflection of a greater effort in all parts of our lives to do right by ourselves and our world, that’s great.

But let’s not fool ourselves; just because we drink Fat Tire instead of Miller Lite or buy our gifts from 10,000 Villages doesn’t mean we don’t have a hell of a lot of work left to do.

An open letter to critics of health care reform

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I understand that not everyone is a fan of the changes coming with the new health care reform legislation. However, I expect most can understand why at least the 32 million people anticipating having some kind of coverage would beg to differ.

This is not my issue. My beef is with the fear-mongering about the “government takeover of health care.” this is a broken system, and most of us simply find basic health care and insurance untenable. It’s been a problem for decades and nothing substantial has been done, so kudos to those lawmakers who bucked up and spent some political capital to do SOMETHING. But in debating the law’s implications, let’s stick to logistics rather than capitalizing on fear of big government to polarize public opinion.

I would also suggest that such rhetoric is hypocritical for anyone benefiting from any of the following taxpayer-supported programs, which we have “no choice” but to support through our taxes:

VA Benefits
Public Education (this includes state universities)
Social Security
Transportation systems (you drive on a road I/we paid for with our taxes)

I could go on, but the point is that ALL of us benefit from taxpayer-supported programs. Sure, health care is a huge portion of our national economy, but how about national defense? I’ve yet to hear a tea party activist complain about their tax dollar going to missile systems or to fund internment camps for enemy combatants. Why is this? isn’t the health of our citizenry at least as important?

For me, this is an issue of theological importance. If Jesus were here today, it would be hard to argue that he wouldn’t chastise us for our treatment of the poor and less privileged, here in the wealthiest country in the world. And while I’d love to see our communities address this and other issues without government intervention, how much longer do we wait? How many more thousands/millions should remain sick or die while we debate how to best reform a broken health care system? How many more decades should we say is acceptable until we say “enough”?

It’s not a perfect bill, and no one is saying it is. But thank God something is changing. At least now we’re taking some responsibility for one of the most sorely neglected issues of social justice we’ve yet to content with as a nation.

Tire-Burning, Corporate “Citizens” and the Supreme Court

Friday, March 5th, 2010

By Christian Piatt

(Originally printed in PULP)

Love or hate it, we have a new cement plant in Pueblo. Yes, it will bring jobs, and yes, it will add pollution to our local environment. Spin it however you want, but no one can argue in good conscience that cement manufacturing has a positive – or even neutral – impact on the planet.

What we’re left with, then, is the challenge of at least mitigating those negative effects on our community. Already, we see growing numbers of respiratory-related problems in Pueblo. So what to do?

Some local media have celebrated the proposal to burn used tires for fuel in the plant, indicating that this is an excellent example of “real recycling” for our state to celebrate. Apparently, the other recycling efforts currently underway in Southern Colorado don’t qualify as “real.”

Granted, we have millions of tires that have to be disposed of every year, one way or another, and burning them for fuel does decrease the need for fossil fuels. But to tout tire burning as an alternative energy source is, at best, disingenuous.

As the Montana Environmental Information Center points out, “Tires contain chlorine. When chlorine is burned, it can form dioxin. DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) admits that the dioxin emissions pose the greatest risk to health and the environment from tire burning.”

But dioxin is only one concern. The Energy Justice Network lists lots of other dangerous byproducts on tire burning:

“The fumes emitted are packed with the many toxic chemicals that tires contain (including volatile organic compounds such as benzene, metals such as lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo(a)pyrene, and synthetic rubber components such as butadiene and styrene). Additionally, the chlorine content in tires leads to the creation of dioxins and furans (which are extremely toxic chemicals) when tires are burned.”

One argument that proponents of this energy strategy make is that, although these compounds created in the fires are highly toxic, the systems used to burn the tires can clean such chemicals from the gases emitted into the atmosphere.

They’re right that such systems exist. The problem is that cement plants that burn tires aren’t required to have them.
Said environmental researcher Dr. Neil Carman: “Cement kilns are not designed or required to have major fail-safe combustion devices such as large afterburners that all state-of-the-art incinerators must have by federal law today…”

Research for this piece yielded no federal or state standards to which polluters are held to determine if their tire-burnings are in compliance or not, and emissions from such plants generally are tested only 2 1/2 years, at most.

There is a fee that the state collects every time a new tire is sold. Approximately $1.50 of each sale goes to the state, supposedly for the purpose of subsidizing proper disposal of the tires once they’re out of commission. The problem is that this fund has regularly been raided, allocated instead for general fund expenses rather than being set aside to aid the purpose for which the tax was initially levied.

There are lots of other more Earth-friendly uses for old tires, especially once they are ground into “crumb rubber.” The byproduct is used for playground surfaces, running tracks and even in asphalt for roads. But these uses don’t fetch the same premium that they do as fuel. Meanwhile the shell game of environmental risk factors continues, and our community’s health suffers the inevitable consequences.

On a somewhat related topic, state manufacturers are incensed about proposed legislation that would lift the tax exemption for two years they’ve enjoyed on all money spent on energy to run their factories. The impact would indeed be close to home, with companies like Evraz Steel and Summit Brick realizing a significant tax increase.

The companies are fair in arguing such expenses may result in layoffs down the road. Pro-business advocates argue that the absence of such exemptions make us appear less business-friendly as a state. All of this aside, I have more of a philosophical issue with this complaint.

Personally, I get no tax break for the money I spend on electricity and gas in my home, and a big percentage of every dollar I spend on gasoline goes to the government coffers. Corporations don’t want to be treated like individuals because, theoretically, they bring more economic value to the table. They deserve special treatment.

Then the federal Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations indeed should have the same First Amendment rights to free speech that individual citizens have, which means they have free rein to donate to the political campaigns of their choosing.

It seems that businesses want to be treated as individual citizens when it benefits them, but not when it comes to taxation. This double standard not only serves to erode the confidence of a public already suspect of the impartiality of government; it also makes a mockery of the Constitution upon which our system of governance is based.

Dockers Man-ifesto and a great womanist response

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

So, I’ve been working on this book about postmodern male identity for some time called BE A MAN, and Brandon, a colleague of mine, passed along the text of a recent Dockers ad campaign they’ve labeled the “Man-ifesto.” Here’s the ad content:

Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.

And here’s a revised version/response from a blogger known as Heartless Doll, which I think kinda rules:

Once upon a time, men didn’t have anyone questioning their shit. They wanted to be congratulated for opening doors and walking across streets. Men were in charge because they kept everyone else down. But somewhere along the way, women wised up and were like, these dudes are fucking assholes and we’d like some freedom and autonomy now, please. Somehow, dance music and delicious coffee made it so that men couldn’t wear the official pants of middle management, left stranded on the road between ageism and misogyny. But today, there are questions scholars, feminists and other people who speak truth to power would like some answers to. The world does not sit idly by as activists fight against the actual evils of the world while some pants company complains about coffee. For the first time since bad guys, we realized that the heroes were often the bad guys. We need grown-ups who don’t whine about dance music. We need men to not be ushered into oppressive gender roles and to eat salad if they want to, and ladies, too. It’s time for everyone to get their hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of gender equality. It’s time to wear whatever the fuck you want.

My three new custom T-shirts

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

I made a few T-shirts on Zazzle and thought I’d share:

See my shirts at Zazzle


Prosperity vs. Abundance

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Prosperity vs. Abundance

By Christian Piatt

(Originally published in PULP)

It’s easy to turn a deaf ear to all the talk about “the economy,” at least until it hits you where it counts. Sure, we all notice when we have to pay more at the pump, or our health insurance costs jump for the 10th year in a row, but these are mere inconveniences compared to what some folks are dealing with.

I’ve been fortunate to work from home as a contract consultant to nonprofits for the past five-plus years. It allows me the flexible schedule I need to help out with the church, spend quality time with our kids and pursue my writing on the side. I’ve often carried more work during that time than we needed to get by, but my reasoning was that the work wouldn’t last forever.

Man, was I right.

This past summer, I lost all of my contracts in short succession. All of them said basically the same thing: it’s not about your work. We just have to cut back, and contractors are the first to go. Some were freaked out about city-county funding being cut, while others saw writing on the wall with their program-related contracts. One employer offered to keep me on part-time, provided that I move back to Texas to take the work.

Though things aren’t fully recovered for us, I’m grateful that a combination of side projects and a new part-time job with a graduate school in Tulsa have helped us keep the bills paid. We’ve undergone some fairly significant lifestyle adjustments, swallowed our pride and accepted help from family, and we have a plan to carry us at least through the holidays.

This whole experience, though, has caused me to reflect on a couple of things. First, though I’m not a fan of accepting help from anyone, it’s a blessing to have it available when we needed it. We realize that, no matter what happens, we’ll only fall so far. We won’t end up out on the street, and our kids will hardly know the difference.

I also am grateful to have a network of friends and professionals who have helped me dig up work from places I would have never found it by myself; I’m also thankful to have the opportunity to call people in positions of power and means to discuss ideas for employment.

Sure, I get work on my own merits, and I certainly wouldn’t keep it if I couldn’t perform. But this series of networks and safety nets is, without a doubt, the very definition of privilege. We Americans are fond of the idea that everyone, given a solid work ethic and enough ambition, can achieve anything. While there may be some anecdotal evidence to support this, it’s certainly a myth to suggest that this means that opportunity is an equally-distributed commodity.

It’s easy as a person of faith to fall back on guilt, and to assume that the “right” thing to do is deny myself those privileges that skew things in my favor. But, on reflection, I think the more just thing to do is both to recognize that privilege, and then to employ it to help raise others up whenever possible.

This may include giving what I can to charity, or returning the favor to those with less of a support system than I have. It might even be as simple as listening to others’ stories of hardship with a little more empathy and compassion. Most important, perhaps, is not to give myself too much credit for my own successes – or at least a minimalization of failures – and instead focus on gratitude.

The scaling back of our budget also has caused me to reflect on the difference between prosperity and abundance. Over the last three decades, organized religion has fallen over and again into the lucrative trap of preaching prosperity. All you have to do is turn on the television nearly any time of day, and you’re sure to find some preacher explaining to you why it is that Jesus wants you to be rich.

Funny, but I don’t recall Jesus or any of his followers racking up the bling. In fact, there’s more than one account of Jesus telling wealthy people that their prosperity could well be the stumbling block between them and a well-developed faith practice.

Jesus did, however, speak of abundance. Because of our consumer-centered worldview, we like to think that this is synonymous with “wealth.” But abundance is relatively independent of the physical world, and rather is a state of being. It is about believing that we have enough, here and now, rather than becoming willing slaves of want.

It’s ironic that having less has made me more grateful for what I do have. But sometimes it takes having the opportunity to stop and reflect forced upon you to gain a healthier perspective.

I go to bed at night with the peace of mind knowing there’s food on the shelves for breakfast, and that the heat will still be on when we wake up. I offer a quiet word of gratitude for the abundance in our lives, even in the face of slightly less material prosperity. I wonder what opportunities tomorrow may bring to pass that privilege and abundance along, and if I’ll have the compassion to act as I should.

Prosperity is often the perfect antidote to help us forget our hardship. Abundance, however, reminds us that there will be enough, especially if we’re willing to let a little bit go for someone else.

Two New Podcasts: WTF Chat, parts 1 & 2

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Parts on and two of my three-episode chat with Brandon Gilvin, my co-creator and co-editor of the WTF? (Where’s the Faith?) young adult books series are now posted. Episode one is about the context of Young Adult culture in today’s culture and a bit about how in the hell we were ever given the opportunity to create a book series together.

The focus in the third episode is on the first book in the series, coming out in February, 2010 (Chalice Press) called Oh God, Oh God, OH GOD about faith, sex, sexuality and embodiment among young adults.

We also talk about the challenges, fun and risks involved in producing a potentially “controversial” series of books.

Check out both podcast episodes, as well as all archived podcasts, by searching “PIATT” on iTunes and other podcatchers, or BY CLICKING HERE.

Are We Too Dumb to Govern Ourselves?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Are We Too Dumb to Govern Ourselves?
By Christian Piatt

(Originally Printed in PULP)

As the time draws closer for Pueblo’s mayoral question to achieve ballot-worthy status, tensions have been a little high around these parts. Lines have been clearly drawn on both sides of the issue, and there’s been no shortage of drama, particularly regarding the Committee to Assess Local Mayorship’s (CALM’s) petitions to make way for a charter amendment that would require the city to have a “strong” mayor at the helm.

In case you’ve been napping for the last few months, he’s a basic rundown:

CALM was created several months ago to press for the charter amendment to be included on the upcoming November ballot. It is clear from the wording of their proposed amendment (visit to read for yourself) that the type of leader they seek is historically described as a strong mayor.

In response to CALM’s actions, the City Council assembled its own “Blue Ribbon” panel of advisors, who then proposed their own model of leadership, which included a “weak” mayor.

Though there are many details differentiating a strong mayor from a weak one, the main distinction is that, with a weak mayor, we would maintain the existing city manager position to do most of the real work of governance. The weak mayor, which would be a member of city council, would effectively be a step up from the current council president, charged mainly with diplomatic and other symbolic duties.

Council took some time to decide whether to put their own weak mayor option on the upcoming ballot, as their action seemed to be a response to CALM’s proposal. In the last couple of weeks, a question arose about whether CALM’s amendment would make it after more than a thousand of their petition signatures were disallowed by Pueblo City Clerk, Gina Dutcher.

Says Roger Gomez, CALM’s Executive Director and current Owner/Operator of Steel City Dogs, “We ended up handing in 4,575 signatures. The expected signature disqualification rate for an average petition drive is about 20%. The City Clerk’s Office ended up invalidating over 35% of our signatures…”

Asked if they could provide the extra signatures in a week, CALM quickly mobilized and collected 644 more names in two days. The signatures were verified as of Tuesday, August 18th. Now the voters will have three choices in November: a strong mayor, a weak mayor, or keeping things as-is.

Though it might seem potentially frustrating to have Council openly working against CALM’s efforts, the benefit has been a more informed public. “We are delighted,” says Gomez, “that so many voters we have talked to have been able to distinguish between our strong mayor platform and the new weak mayor platform adopted by the City Council. The voters are very aware and they asked a lot of specific questions about structure and cost.”

Regarding cost, one argument for the strong mayor option is that it should cost less. Whereas in the weak mayor system, one council member serving as mayor will be paid more for added duties, while also employing a full-time city manager, the strong mayor would replace the city manager role, leaving Council as-is. The proposal is for the strong mayor to be paid $50,000 a year less that the city manager position too, and though some fear that additional positions under the mayor will be created, many current duties and positions currently under the manager simply would be shifted over to the mayor’s office.

Asked why Council would pick now to jump into the ring on this issue, Gomez was clear.

“I believe the weak mayor alternative is an attempt to dilute and possibly confuse the voter on election day,” he says. “The Pueblo voters have been watching this debate and they know the difference. That does not mean that over the next two and half months our opponents won’t try to blur that fine line with a weak [mayor] ad campaign.”

So why the objections to a strong mayor in the first place? The answers vary, even within Council, though the majority of council members oppose CALM’s proposal. One common argument is that an elected official is accountable first to the voters rather than to Council, which theoretically makes them more susceptible to corruption.

Another, more concerning, reason has come out in commentary from City Council members themselves. In a City Council Work Session held on the evening of June 22nd, Councilman Mike Occhiato referred to the median family income and education levels as cause for questioning whether or not a capable candidate could be fielded from Pueblo. He also states:

“There’s always the ability to hire someone within a relatively short period of time, or to bring someone up from the ranks within the professional pool of professionals who actually managed a department head versus the gene pool that a strong mayor might have. And I say ‘gene pool’ because strong mayors in larger communities [pause] a lot of the department heads that have those positions are not filled by people with competent ability.”

Occhiato continues, “We just don’t have the ability to pick someone out in the community, unless he’s unemployed, to run the community. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I know there’s a joke going around the community. If the strong mayor would pass, we’d wanna be at Gina [Dutcher]’s office the next day to see who lines [up] for [pause] trying to, uh, become the mayor. Those that would be unemployed.”

Get it?

Where did this mentality in our city come from that suggests we’re not capable of sustaining a reasonable democratic system of governance? Following this line of thought, we’re just smart enough to elect those currently in power, but beyond that, we cannot be trusted to choose or participate wisely.

Council’s decision to impose their own opposing option on the ballot is yet another example of this. Kudos, however, to Councilmen Thurston and Atencio for standing up against the way this matter was handled, regardless of their personal feelings. In an August 25th Chieftain story, the two “said council had no business bringing such a question to the public.” They went on to say that, had Council done the same as CALM and gone to the public, gathering signatures for their proposal of a weak mayor ballot option, they would then have been happy to support it.

The ballot options are sure to be a hot topic of conversation in the coming months, and I’d expect that, one way or another, we’ve yet to see the most dramatic developments in this political soap opera.

Stay tuned, stay informed, and most of all, mind your gene pool, Pueblo.

Why standardized testing in our schools SUCK

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Why CSAP Sucks

By Christian Piatt


(Originally published in PULP)

If the ridiculous school supply and uniform bills weren’t enough to signal the beginning of school, there are plenty of other signs that the academic season is upon us: nervous-looking kids; slightly euphoric parents; bulging backpacks and the telltale crossing guards posted at strategic locations around town.


We also know it’s back-to-school time since we’re finally getting a glimpse of the CSAP test results from last year. The CSAPs – which stands for “Colorado Student Assessment Program” – is given to most students on most grades throughout the state, supposedly to track student progress. A love child of George Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation, the CSAPs and similar testing batteries across the nation have drawn mixed reviews.


In general, the sentiment toward the tests is negative, but the problem is most folks agree we should have some sort of accountability for student achievement; the problem is that no one seems to have a clue about how to make the tests better.


For starters, the tests historically have compared apples to oranges, holding one third-grade class’ scores up against the third-graders that follow them the next year and so on from grade to grade. But aside from any kids who failed and had to repeat a grade, these are entirely different students, so it’s impossible to get much useful data this way.


Recently, the bureaucrats and administrators have wised up at least a little, and they’re now tracking cohorts. This means we get to see data from one group of students as they progress throughout their academic career. But this still has huge flaws, particularly in a highly mobile community like Pueblo. In some schools, where the mobility rate exceeds 100 percent, most of theses aren’t the same kids from beginning of year to end, let alone from one year to the next.


A more reasonable solution is to implement a longitudinal system that follows each individual students from kindergarten to graduation. This would require more consistency from state to state, but it’s really the only way to use the tests to tell if a particular student is where they need to be or not. 


Another issue is the test’s sensitivity, on two levels. First, though some strides have been made to try and make the tests culturally sensitive, there are still issues surrounding the assumption of prior knowledge, much of which comes from a middle class, primarily Anglo background. Simply put, middle class kids have seen and done more than poorer kids, which gives them an advantage over kids who may have never left their home town.


A second sensitivity problem is more technical, primarily regarding the higher and lower extremes of the scale. In general, all we hear about is whether or not a kid performs at or above the “proficient” level, which constitutes two of the four possible quartiles within which scores can fall. Each school can see scores in a bit more detail, but for a child who began as a non-English speaker, or as functionally illiterate, a gain of a year or more may not even create a blip on the score chart. Some concessions are made for “special needs” students, but this hardly addresses the fundamental flaw, which is a test that is akin to taking a chainsaw into surgery.


Finally, there’s the problem of what the tests actually measure. The testing protocols, which are timed, try to tell if a child has mastered a set of skills necessary to solve a problem, whether it is a math proof or answers at the end of a reading passage. For the kids who get the right answers, all is well, but for the rest, the tests really tell us nothing.


For example, say a child misses all five questions at the end of a story passage. Though we can see they got all the wrong answers, did they fail because they didn’t understand the story? Maybe they misunderstood the questions? Or perhaps the directions for what to do in the first place? Did they read too slowly to even get to the questions? Did they have so many words they could not decode in the story that they lost the story’s point? Did they lack the vocabulary to comprehend three dozen words in the first few paragraphs?


We have no idea.


That’s because these are achievement tests, which do just that: measure overall achievement. If, however, we really wanted to mind some valuable data from this effort, we should be conducting diagnostic assessments. This not only tells you where a child does well, but where, across the board, they are weak. This helps teachers target the low points so that the entire end-result can come up, and so that some problems for which kids may compensate early in their school careers don’t suddenly blow up in their faces come junior high or high school.


Some are calling for the whole testing concept to be trashed, which would be a mistake. The problem isn’t that we’re testing our kids; it’s that we don’t know how or why. For now, though, the CSAPs and their counterparts in others states score well below proficient.