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Long Story Short: Teachers, cops, and weather

7/22/19



Education Commissioner Elia resigns

New York State Commissioner of Education (and my former high school teacher) MaryEllen Elia abruptly announced Monday that she will resign at the end of August. The Buffalo News wrote an article discussing what her departure means for Buffalo, given that Buffalo superintendent, Kriner Cash, is her friend and handpicked choice for the job. Their close relationship will be missed, says Cash. Then the News wrote a tearstained editorial titled "Farewell to State Education chief MaryEllen Elia," which called for the next commissioner to have the same reform-minded agenda.

 

Here’s the real story

Elia was at odds with New York’s Board of Regents over her plan to aggressively regulate private and parochial schools. Regents was also angered that some schools were being strong-armed by placement on the state watch list because parents opted out of allowing their students to take state tests. This, despite Elia’s assurances that such schools would not face repercussions. Testing to gauge learning was Elia’s signature policy. The tension came to a head at a June Regents meeting.

 

You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it

Years of education research makes a case against the use of high stakes testing to measure student achievement. That’s true even when it’s done right. But in New York, server glitches again muddied 2019 computer-based reading assessments produced by the private company, Questar.

 

Elia also initially supported the wrongheaded and disastrous policy of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, although she went along with recent state legislation decoupling testing from evaluations.

 

Why are the tests so bad?

Grades 3-8 English Language Arts (ELA) tests have been among the most problematic. Why? Here are some facts:

• The results fail to accurately predict future student success. Over half of students taking the tests are told they failed, but eighty percent later graduate from high school, taking Regents exams.
• Testing was cut from three to two days, but the number of questions were not reduced. Students have unlimited time to take the tests, so many of them spend long hours being tested.
• Under pressure to get higher scores, educators spend large portions of the year preparing students for a single test, instead of providing them with diverse educational experiences.
• The same pressures have led schools to cheat on the tests, changing student answers.
• Privately run computer-based testing has been riddled with problems in New York, from lost tests to concerns about what’s actually being tested—knowledge or keyboarding skills?
• The tests do not provide useful information to parents or teachers or any valid information on how a district is performing. Students are often mislabeled, and teachers have been adversely impacted by evaluations based on flawed test scores. 

 

Goodbye

Elia was New York’s first female Commissioner, and among my favorite high school teachers. Her shining achievement was probably removing Carl Paladino from the Buffalo School Board. She calmed choppy public opinion waters surrounding Common Core standards. She says she’s not leaving the job because of any disharmony, but her abrupt resignation followed that contentious June meeting.

 

 

It’s all about the optics

Across the US, police have an image problem. Seldom does a week pass that we don’t hear of another shooting or instance of abuse of authority. This holds true in Western New York. One local assault case involving a Buffalo Police officer went to court last week, and an Erie County Sheriff awaits trial for assaulting a Bills fan. There are many more examples.

 

When the public hears about these incidents, it erodes respect for law enforcement, making the job more difficult. And it’s a tough and dangerous job. Given all this, one would think police would do everything they can to polish their image. Under Buffalo Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood, the department has implemented community policing. That’s good, but it’s not enough.

 

It’s the little things

Fortunately, most of us have never directly experienced incidents of police brutality (though occurrences are more common in nonwhite communities). But we all witness examples of police micromisconduct. When you see officers—who are not responding to an emergency—speeding, running red lights, or turning without signaling (do they ever signal?), it sends a bad message. Such things don’t even rise to the level of misconduct, but they leave an impression.

 

To serve and protect

On July 12, WKBW ran a story about a Buffalo woman, Felicia Helton, who discovered blood around her backyard and in her children’s pool after Amherst Police chased a suspect onto her property. She wanted authorities to clean the potentially infected bodily fluid, but when she called Amherst Police, their response was to tell her to Google “how to clean blood.” How is disregarding a citizen’s concern over a possible biohazard protecting the community? How is that serving the public?

 

Another story

About two summers ago, my son discovered that his backyard grill had been knocked over and damaged. He checked his security cameras and saw two Buffalo Police officers shoving a suspect against the grill. They handcuffed the man and left. Of course, if you or I damaged someone’s property, hopefully we’d have the integrity to apologize and offer to pay for repairs. Minimally, the officers could have picked up the grill.

 

My son contacted B district police. He brought a flash drive with the video to the station, and the case was assigned to a detective. Case? The cops knocked over a grill, a mishap in the line of duty. My son would have settled for an apology.  

 

After repeated calls to the detective without a response, my son got a message saying that the “case” had been transferred to another detective. After that detective failed to return calls, he gave up. He never even got his flash drive back.

 

The takeaway

Sure, these incidents are small potatoes in light of the serious crime police deal with daily. What makes them so infuriating is that they’re easily remedied. Imagine if the officers had knocked on my son’s door, or the door of Felicia Helton, and apologized for knocking over the grill or warned about the blood. This would be a different story, one about conscientious police, rather than about cops who demonstrate disdain for those they serve. 

 

 

Climate and weather

Well, it took hot weather a long time to get here, didn’t it? Maybe you thought the wet, frigid spring meant the earth is getting a break from global warming. Nope. That’s weather—the short view, the regional picture. If you take the long view, global warming is still in full swing.

 

Following trends

Major weather tracking agencies, including NOAA and NASA, determined that this June was Earth’s warmest on record.  And it’s likely that by the end of December, we’ll have experienced one of the warmest years since 1880 (when they started recording temperatures). The Earth's temperature—both land and sea—was just shy of a degree above the twentieth-century average. The tipping point for global disaster starts around 1.5 degrees. By the way, the previous record for June was set just three years ago, so this is a troubling trend. Fifty of the last fifty-four months have at least tied for the top five warmest on record. The planet's five warmest Junes have all been within the past five years. This year, Siberia was 7 degrees Celsius above average!

 

Most of the lower 48 states experienced a relatively normal June. The Northeast, however, including Buffalo, suffered unusually cold weather, tying for the most rainfall in forty years. This made for a dreary spring, delaying the gardening season, which brings me to…

 

Garden Walk Buffalo

Most people have heard of Garden Walk Buffalo, which takes place on the last weekend of July. This year’s cold, rainy spring set local gardens back about a week or two. For some gardeners, this might not be a bad thing. On Garden Walk, you often hear the refrain, “But you should have seen it last week.” Well, now you’ll see what gardens usually look like mid-July.

 

And, in about forty years, gardenias, palm trees, orchids, and Bird of Paradise will be Buffalo perennials.

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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