Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!

Superman was the great savior during my childhood, along with a few other heros with seemingly superhuman abilities to dodge bullets and fight evil, like Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon. It’s thrilling to know that a real, live Superman now flies among us, fighting evil and saving America. Of course, I mean Donald Trump.

The earlier comic Superman hid his vast strength under a meek disguise, but when it came time to rescue us, he boldly displayed his awesome powers. Trump has never toyed with humility, but only recently has he thrown off all disguise to reveal the truly superhuman Trump.

Trump attended a military-style boarding school for 5 years in the early 1960s. He “always felt that I was in the military”. School gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” That explains why he showed no interest in earthly war in Vietnam: he knew everything already. His military experience must have come from other planets. He told an Iowa audience, “I’m good at war. I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war. I love war, in a certain way.” Doesn’t everybody?

Today he is a military expert without equal. “You know the thing I’ll be great at? And I do very well at it. Military. I am the toughest guy. I will rebuild our military. It will be so strong and so powerful and so great, that we’ll never have to use it. Nobody’s going to mess with us, folks. Nobody. Nobody. Nobody’s going to mess with us.” He said, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.” He told Bill O’Reilly, “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”

Superman is tougher than anyone, but always fair. So is Trump. In 2011, he said, “I am the least racist person there is.” In November, he reported that he was the “least racist person on Earth”. This month, he told Don Lemon, the black CNN newsman, “I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” That is why “I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”

Superman had great physical powers. Trump also has great mental power. “I went to the Wharton School of Business. I’m, like, a really smart person.”  “I was a great student.” His memory is other-worldly. He remembered graduating first at Wharton in 1968, when none of his classmates could remember him at all, and the commencement program did not list him as getting any honors.

Trump is really smart, and most of the rest of us are dummies. On Republican Congressional leaders: “These people are babies.... They’re babies. They’re babies.” On other presidential candidates: Jeb Bush is “dumb as a rock” and Marco Rubio is a “clown”. He told it like it is in Fort Dodge, Iowa, when he came in second in an Iowa poll: “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country?”

These intellectual abilities enabled him to write a fantastic book. “I write a book called The Art of the Deal, the No. 1 selling business book of all time, at least I think, but I’m pretty sure it is.” Other business books have sold 10 times as many copies here on Earth, like Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, but Trump is adding in sales all over the galaxy.

Put those superpowers together and you have an out-of-this-world negotiator. At the 2015 Values Voter Summit in Washington, he guaranteed the audience that after he is elected President, but even before he takes office, the Americans who are prisoners in Iran will be back. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, I’ll make this statement, if I get elected President, before I ever get to office, I guarantee you, they will be back, I guarantee you, 100%, 100%.”

That’s just a selection of his superpowers. Everyone is irresistibly attracted. “All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me, consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”  “I love beautiful women, and beautiful women love me.”  Teachers love me, every one of them”.  “The Hispanics love me.” In fact, “People love me. I’ve been very successful. Everybody loves me.”


Add in one more super-power, his invisible shield that protects him from rays of knowledge which he doesn’t like from the outside world.

I think he is super-fooling all of us. Here is what he is using all of his powers for: “It’s very possible that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.”

That would be super. For him.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 22, 2015

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What About 8 Points Charter School?

Jacksonville School District 117 says on its home page that it is “accepting written public commentary” about the 8 Points Charter School. There is much to say about the threat to close another school in our small town. The argument that Superintendent Steve Ptacek brought to the Board of Education in favor of closing 8 Points revolves around numbers, lots of numbers. Many are displayed on the 117 website.

Ptacek’s “Analysis of Academic Performance” uses test data for 2012-2014 to support the argument that 8 Points has not lived up to its goals. Red numbers color every box in the report’s first table, showing reading and math scores for grades 5 through 8 at 8 Points: did not achieve the goal. He wrote, “the performance of the Charter School on the 2012, 2013, and 2014 ISATs was unacceptable.”

The full data about ISAT scores at 8 Points and other Jacksonville schools reveal a more complex story. It’s true that in 2012 in both reading and math at every grade level, the proportion of students who met the ISAT standards was much lower at 8 Points than at Washington and Lincoln Elementary schools and at Turner Junior High. Those 5th through 7th grade students had been there just a few months. The ISAT scores for 2012, at the beginning of 8 Points’ short life, show the abilities of students from District 117 who chose to enter 8 Points.

8 Points Charter School was conceived and advertised as an alternative school environment for students who did not fit well into traditional public schools. 8 Points began with and continues to serve an untypical student population. Comparing the proportions of students at 8 Points who meet standards in any year with students at other Jacksonville schools tells you nothing more than that families with academic difficulties were much more likely to chose 8 Points.

In order to see how well 8 Points is doing with those students, we need to watch its performance over time and compare that to other local schools. Those results should guide our local discussions.

ISAT scores at 8 Points have gotten worse from 2012 to 2014. So have the scores in schools across Illinois. Comparisons within District 117 are the key story. In 5th grade reading and math, scores at 8 Points fell less than at Washington and Lincoln. In 6th grade reading and math, scores at 8 Points fell less than at Washington and Lincoln. In 7th grade reading and math, scores at 8 Points fell less than at Turner Junior High. In the 8th grade, there are only data for 2013-2014, when scores at 8 Points fell more than at Turner.

I have not mentioned science, also an ISAT test for 7th graders. The “Analysis” does not show those scores in its tables, perhaps because the science scores in 2014 at 8 Points were just as high as at Turner, even though the 8 Points students had begun at much lower levels in earlier years.

The “Analysis of Academic Performance” also compares Jacksonville schools to 8 other Illinois schools in Cahokia, Peoria, Springfield, and East St. Louis with “similar demographics”. The “Analysis” says that “the Charter School is not performing well.”

Again, different schools start at different places in 2012, depending on their student populations, so the only way to compare them is to compare the changes in score from 2012 to 2014. During that time, every school in the list showed a drop for every student category. The scores from 2012 to 2014 show 8 Points doing significantly better than most of these schools. In 5th grade math, 6th and 7th grade reading, 8 Points ranks in the middle of these schools. In 7th grade math, 8 Points is in 2nd place, and in 5th grade reading and 6th grade math, 8 Points has the best performance.

There are many more numbers in the multiple reports offered by the District 117 administration, involving complex models which may not be appropriate for such a small school. But the most significant numbers are those discussed above, the actual test scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

There is more going on here than analyzing numbers. The District 117 home page proudly displays photographs of “Our Schools”. 8 Points Charter is not among them.

8 Points Charter is doing as well or better than other similar local schools and similar schools around the state. 8 Points is serving the most academically challenged student population in Jacksonville. It offers a longer school day and a longer school year, as well as more adults per classroom than any other school in the District. It emphasizes literacy and leadership.

I think a decision about 8 Points should revolve around numbers. Here’s the most important number. Within the larger environment of lower than average school performance here in District 117, an exciting, professionally staffed, innovative experiment in public education is taking place, directing its appeal especially to families with scholastic underachievement. 8 Points should get more than 5 years to achieve its promise.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 8, 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Thanks at Thanksgiving

We have a tradition at Thanksgiving dinner, probably like many families, when we all say what we are thankful for. It’s good to think about the good things in our lives, to dwell on what makes us happy, especially in these perilous times when bombs and bullets seem to threaten us wherever we look. Right now I am thankful that when our Christmas tree, that we had just put up and decorated, crashed over, nobody was hurt.

But something is often missing in these recitations: whom we are thanking. We can be thankful for food on the table or family togetherness without thinking too hard about who might be responsible. So I’ll say a little about the people I wish to thank for the life I enjoy.

I should start with my parents. Of course, without them I would not exist, but they did much more than conceive me. My mother showed me how to play ping-pong and pool, taught me tennis and golf. My father, who grew up with soccer rather than baseball, played endless games of catch until I threw a ball better than he could. They showed me how to play fair to win. Sports always demonstrates wider ideals. Their love for the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson was my first lesson in civil rights. They nurtured and taught me, modeled values and created a personality.

My brother is younger, and didn’t teach me much until we were both adults. Over these last few decades, he has taught me much about myself just by being himself. I look to him to connect me with my first family.

My wife taught me about feminism. Creating gender equality takes much more than repeating slogans or wishing the world were different. I had to give up male privileges, in exchange for which I gained a partner, someone whose life is as interesting as mine, whose ideas are as weighty, whose opinions as valuable.

I thank my children for showing me how to be a father. My own father was a good model, but imitation is not enough. These days they teach me more than I teach them, from cooking vegetarian dinners to making computers work to thinking clearly about life’s difficult problems.

I thank my teachers. Some went beyond their prescribed lessons, designed for all students, to see me and what I needed, transforming teaching from a job into a calling. They inspired me to follow in their footsteps as well as I can.

I thank my editor, who has literally given me space here to think out loud, without regard for whether we agree.

Much more distant, but still important in my life, are the founders of our nation. They risked their lives to conceive something new, a political system based on neither tradition, religious dogma nor inherited status, but on ideals of equality and democratic power. Since then, many generations of founders have ignored conventional prejudices and improved that system, stretching equality and democracy to include more people, always risking much to fight those who claimed superiority for themselves. Our system was not nearly perfect when I was born, and remains imperfect. But the American life I enjoy would not have been possible without their struggles and sacrifices.

I thank many people whose names I don’t know, who bring my mail and take my trash, who arrange for electricity and water and gas to be delivered to my house, who do their jobs so I can do mine. We don’t think of them often enough. If you try to fetch your own water, chop your own wood and create your own heat, their contribution to our lives becomes apparent.

I thank government workers. As a group, they take a lot of heat from people with political axes to grind. Most earn middling salaries and deal with every kind of citizen, day after day, providing services without which we could not drive our cars, fly in airplanes, vote, or organize our communities. Some of them have risky jobs. I have never needed a firefighter or a cop, but I sleep better at night knowing that I can call them up at any time for help in situations far beyond my control.

I thank the writers who don’t know me, but have provided me with their wisdom, their flights of fancy, their strings of words which enrich my life. I try to do the same for my readers.

I thank my friends. Some I have known nearly all my life; others I met only recently. Friends forget my mistakes and forgive my excesses. They are willing to give more than they get, because we are not keeping score.

None of us is an island. Whatever goodness comes to us is brought by others. Whatever we achieve has been helped by others. I should have thanked more people more often for what they have given me, but this is the best I can do now to catch up.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 1, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cops Out of Control

I just watched a fuzzy video of two policemen beating an unarmed man with batons while he lay on the ground. One cop hit him at least 20 times, the other at least 15 times. They kept on hitting him after other policemen arrived. The most appropriate word in my vocabulary for this scene is sadistic.

This happened on November 12 in San Francisco. The man is a criminal, who had apparently stolen a car, led police on a chase at high speeds, and injured another policeman in attempting to flee. But the beating had nothing to do with arresting him. It was about inflicting pain.

I had seen this video before, but forgotten the particulars. When I searched for it by Googling “police beat man”, I found many similar videos of police brutalizing people they had caught.

In Inkster, MI, in January, Floyd Dent was pulled over on a traffic stop, yanked from his car and punched at least 16 times while being held in a chokehold. He was shocked three times with a taser. At the police station, he was stripped and made fun of, with no attempt to treat his injuries.

In Philadelphia in April, two officers beat an unarmed man who had been riding his bike on the wrong side of the street. Eventually 11 police cars and 26 officers gathered to deal with this one man.

In Salinas, CA, in June, a man who had been fighting with his mother was whacked many times with a billy club by a policeman. He was on the ground, and the policeman was standing over him, waiting for him to move, swinging the club with both hands like a baseball bat, then waiting and whacking again. Another policeman stood by and watched. There was no attempt to handcuff him. This was simply a beat-down. After three other police arrived, he was beaten further with a billy club, still lying on the ground.

In Brooklyn in July, two policemen punched a man suspected of stealing a piece of pizza and hit him with a baton, when he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender. In Chester, PA, that same month, a man who was driving the wrong way on a one-way street was repeatedly punched and shocked with a taser by four policemen while he was lying on the ground. That’s a selection among a longer list of incidents of violence by police this year, that happened to be recorded on video, in San Bernardino, CA, for example, and in a Target store in New York.

In most cases, the victim was doing something illegal. In each case, multiple policemen beat up the victim with weapons or fists while he was unarmed and defenseless. Although one of Floyd Dent’s police assailants was charged with assault, in most cases nothing happened to the violent officers.

None of these victims was killed. Media attention to violent police tactics has become much more intense recently because of a number of deadly incidents in 2014, such as the choking of Eric Garner in New York in July, and the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in August. The Guardian has tried to list every person killed by police during 2015, tallying 202 unarmed victims.

In May, a 39-year-old woman led police on a high-speed chase in Wyoming. Her tires were deflated by spikes, and she emerged from her car with a knife, confronting five police. She was shot with a taser, but still did not drop the knife. Then she was shot twice and killed. Ten women armed only with knives were shot and killed by police in 2015.

I wonder about shooting to kill in those circumstances. As in the Wyoming case, often more than one officer was involved. How dangerous is a woman with a knife versus several police with batons? What about shooting in the leg?

The violence in these cases appears grossly excessive. It was not necessary to beat Floyd Dent, or any of the other victims mentioned above, before handcuffing them. It was not necessary to kill Michael Brown or Eric Garner. It was not necessary to kill all 10 women or the 125 men armed with knives who were killed in 2015.

Racism means that in all of these situations, African Americans are more likely to be victims of excessive police violence, more than twice as likely to be killed as whites. But twice as many whites were killed as blacks in 2015. The problem is larger than racism. When a group of heavily armed and highly trained police confront a suspect, even one armed with a knife, death should not be the result. Police should never hit someone multiple times with a club when they are down.

Policing is a dangerous business, every day and every night. Excessive police violence, now caught increasingly on camera, does not make it less dangerous. These incidents reduce the trust between police and the people they are paid to protect. The reluctance of police administrators and courts to get rid of violent cops makes policing less effective.

There are about one million police in the US. These incidents do not reflect normal interactions between citizens and police. But if we can watch a new video every month of groups of police brutalizing unarmed citizens, then we have a police problem.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 24, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can We Talk About Fat?

I don’t know how to talk about fat. I’m missing an opportunity to be a healthy influence on my students’ lives. But speaking thoughtfully about fat is hard.

When Megyn Kelly criticized Donald Trump for calling women “fat pigs”, he responded, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” That line earned loud applause from the conservative audience.

American culture is fixated on skinny as a moral virtue, and encourages the denigration of those who weigh more. I too am critical of people who use worries about weight as a weapon to assert their superiority. That makes me an enforcer of “political correctness”.

I don’t think there is such a thing as Political Correctness as it’s used by conservatives to criticize liberals. Let’s just remember the speech codes of the 1950s. As I was growing up, the legal rules restricting what could be said in print, in schools, in movies, and on TV were enforced with severity. Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco in 1961, in Chicago in 1962, in Los Angeles in 1963, and in New York in 1964, where he was sentenced to 4 months in a workhouse, all for saying words in public performance that were against the law.

But saying things which intentionally slandered whole categories of people was fine. I heard adults use every possible form of demeaning racial and sexual expression in public. I thought that was bullshit, a word rarely spoken then except among friends, but I take no credit for originality. It seemed like my whole generation saw the hypocrisy in that combination.

We are freer today than ever before to use our own voices. But conservatives have never forgiven the youth of the 1960s for rejecting their speech codes, their power to say what they wanted and regulate what everyone else said. People who call themselves libertarians don’t applaud the libertarian impulses of the 1960s, when we not only demanded more liberty, but were willing to stand up for it. They don’t celebrate the increased freedom from rules by authorities, the greatly expanded sphere of liberty in speech and in print. Many conservatives don’t recognize the moral value of today’s social codes, which hold racist, sexist, and generally misanthropic speech up to ridicule.

One of their more successful tactics has been to invent Political Correctness. By turning correctness into something negative, they convert their moral errors into a virtue. We are now more aware than ever of what deliberately hurtful speech sounds like and how it works. Why do so many conservatives retreat into familiar patterns of expressing superiority, and defend them with this invented claim of Political Correctness?

I think it’s fear of speaking. But they’re not the only ones who are afraid. I feel anxious when I think about talking about fat. How do I tell some of my students that medical experts say they are putting their health at risk by gaining so much weight?
I have seen these students since they came to Illinois College. In class, I am concerned about their intellectual development. Beyond class, I care about their youthful welfare. I have watched as they have gained significant weight in just a few years. These students are men and women, black and white. I make no moral judgments or psychological diagnoses. There is nothing wrong with weight, except that the National Institutes of Health say that being overweight increases the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, various cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, infertility and gallstones.

A new study shows that obesity is linked to 1 of every 5 American deaths. Obese 20-year-olds have a life expectancy that is shortened by 6 to 8 years. Worse, their expectancy of a healthy adult life is shortened by about 15 years. Women who develop anorexia as teenagers might lose up to 25 years of life. Overweight is the second leading preventable cause of death in the US, just behind smoking. Weight is important.

The inventors of PC try to make life difficult for anyone who says fat should be discussed thoughtfully as a health issue, not as a social stigma or moral weakness. But that’s not the only reason why few people in our society can talk comfortably about fat. Speaking to relative or friend about weight swings up or down is difficult or dangerous. There is so much psychological baggage attached to weight that conversations about health easily slide into lectures about good behavior.

So far I’ve said nothing to anybody. I don’t know if I will in the future. The health risks of overweight are preventable. But the risks of addressing someone else’s extra weight are daunting.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 17, 2015