Singling Out Jenny McCarthy: What Autism, CPS, and Ethos Have in Common

A few weeks back, I was aimlessly reading FB post updates, and I noticed Jenny McCarthy (an actress and comedian) was being skewered, once again, in the media and on Twitter, for her views on vaccinations and immunizations and the autism-vaccination hypothesis. You may recall, years ago, McCarthy using her son as evidence for the validation of this hypothesis. People listened to Jenny McCarthy, which was odd to me.

I remember watching the MTV show, Singled Out. The Nerdist himself, Chris Hardwick, (and current host of Talking Dead) and McCarthy co-hosted the show. It was a dating game, and while I wasn’t interested in dating at the time, I was interested in anything MTV. I remember McCarthy and Hardwick being funny, and in retrospect, I probably didn’t really understand the humor on the show, but they were funny: they were comedians.

Around the same time, a British physician, Andrew Wakefield et al. (1998), misanalyzed data from an Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) study and misreported findings that included a supposed link of MMR vaccines to autism. His study was reported in The Lancet, and eventually, after severe outcry from the medical community because of a lack of rigor in the analysis among other problems, the article was retracted. The message was clear: Wakefield (and the other authors) were out of line and off the mark: there was no link between MMR and autism. (For a more thorough account, read the Harvard Health article.)

The difference, I think, between McCarthy’s anecdotes and Wakefield’s bad science (and that’s an understatement) is that the audience in Wakefield’s case new better: they knew that in order to continue to build knowledge, they would need to be critical, and they were. So, what is it with celebrities? McCarthy is a comedian and actress, but why was she given so much press, and why did so many people believe her anecdotes? What made McCarthy a better source of information than Wakefield?

I don’t think the answer is simple, but I do think it is ingrained in the culture where we reside here in the U.S. We don’t mind getting advice from celebrities, on the whole, and I think we encounter this each and every day in the classroom. For some reason, our society and our culture of celebrity have merged and confused popularity and fame with ethos (credibility) and value. In fact, in class, when we explicitly discuss logic and reasoning, I show a clip of an interview Matt Lauer conducted with Tom Cruise (2007).

In the video, Cruise discusses Ritalin and post-partum depression with the enthusiasm and the expertise of a professional. But, he’s not an expert; he’s an actor. I usually remark that if Cruise wants to discuss what it’s like to dance around in his underwear while filming Risky Business or being Suri’s dad, he’s more than qualified to do so–he has that expertise and ethos; however, if I want to know about post-partum depression, I’m probably going to talk to an expert (and definitely not Tom Cruise). Discussing an appeal to a false authority (which is what I try to exemplify by showing the clip), is a good reminder for me to beware of where I get my information.

Recently, Adriana Tapanes-Inojosa shared a Sun-Times letter to the editor, “Under Emanuel, principals have no voice.” I read the article, and as an educated reader, I know I intrinsically look for clues to evaluate the credibility (and ethos) of the author. The author is a principal who provides his credentials, including his experience as a teacher and his experience as a principal. While I can’t speak to the experience of being an educator or principal in the CPS system, I can speak to the issue of appealing to false authorities, like Jenny McCarthy and Tom Cruise.

And Troy LaRaviere is an authority. He has the experience, which isn’t anecdotal–he is a professional educator. I encourage you to consider the underlying issues LaRaviere is pointing out, implicitly, in the article: a lack of appreciation and value for those who are in the classroom and a de-valuing or undervaluing of experience and expertise. I am not suggesting to merely accept credentials at face value (remember Wakefield?).

I am strongly suggesting maintaining a critical and thoughtful framework. And I am strongly suggesting valuing the expertise and experiences of educators after they successfully navigate your critical and thoughtful framework.

(NB: The most succinct response to an attempt to de-value or undervalue expertise was on Fox News. You can see it here.)




A CPS Teacher’s Voice To Share

As some of you know, my beloved has been a high school English teacher when she is working for pay (and hopefully will be again), so we have a lot of friends who teach here in Chicago. One of her former colleagues wrote to his friends and family about the impending strike, asking us to consider his views on it. I asked him if I could share his email here because it had information in it that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The author is a person of the very highest integrity–intellectual and otherwise–and I would bet all I had on the veracity of anything that he put in writing. Given all of that, I thought I should share his email here in case you have friends or family or neighbors who think the strike is just about money or that the teachers are lazy or whatever. Maybe you can share this with them. Here it is:

Dear friends and neighbors,

I write to you because of the possibility that my colleagues and I in the Chicago Teachers Union may go on strike one week from today. I want to share with you why I support this strike, and I hope that you will consider my words as you sort through the media coverage and other perspectives you hear about the regrettable impasse that the Board of Education and the CTU have reached. Please feel free to respond to me, to engage me in conversation personally, and to forward my message to other people you know in Chicago who may be interested.

I have been a public school teacher ever since I graduated from college. I’ve spent the last 10 years of my career in Chicago, and the last 6 with the Chicago Public Schools. Wherever I’ve taught, I’ve been one of the first teachers to arrive in the morning and, until parenthood forced me to be reasonable, one of the last to leave. I approach my career more as a calling — a democratic obligation to help level the playing field of our unequal society by working with young people to create opportunities for themselves. I tell you this to clarify up front that I am not a member of a union in order to work less, shield myself from negative evaluations, or otherwise meet my own needs at the expense of my students, as Mayor Emanuel might allege. I am a union member because I believe that the union, more than the Board of Education, will best protect a contract and working conditions likely to attract and retain a teaching force in Chicago that can live up to my democratic aspirations.

While there are numerous issues still on the negotiating table, I want to focus on something that has not received attention in the media. I’d be happy to discuss the other issues with you as well, but I won’t address them in this message. Please know that I don’t agree with everything that my union leadership is asking for, and I don’t claim to speak for all of my colleagues either.

Learning and working conditions

While a strike would be extraordinarily inconvenient and frustrating for all parties involved, the district’s current contract proposals are not calculated to retain or attract good teachers or maintain classroom conditions conducive to learning. In the long run, the district’s proposed contract would thus be more harmful to public education in Chicago than the brief disturbance of a strike. State law does not allow us to bargain with the Board about a whole range of educational issues (like class size and number of courses taught, for example). So when the Board proposes a contract that makes absolutely no guarantees about anything besides compensation and evaluation (which are controversial enough by themselves), the door is left open to unmanageable, unrealistic learning and working conditions. Since the Board refuses to negotiate these issues, the only way the Union can prevent such measures from becoming part of the contract is to strike.

Here’s the language proposed by the Board about their authority; I’ve highlighted the parts that most concern me:

“Employer Authority. The Board retains the exclusive right, authority and responsibility to manage its operations, develop its policies, determine the scope of its operations, adopt a budget and decide the manner in which it exercises its constitutional and statutory functions and otherwise fulfills its legal responsibilities. Except as may be restrained or limited by a specific and express provision of this Agreement, the Board shall not be required to bargain collectively over matters of inherent managerial policy as defined by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act or the Illinois School Code, including, but not limited to, the following areas of discretion: (a) the functions of the Board; (b) the Board’s overall budget; (c) the Board’s organizational structure, including the creation, modification or elimination of departments, divisions, offices, sections and positions and the allocation or reallocation of the work to be performed therein; (d) decisions to eliminate work or relocate, subcontract, contract out or transfer work to a third party for one or more services otherwise performed by bargaining unit employees and the procedures for obtaining such contract or the identity of the third party; (e) decisions regarding the implementation of new technologies and methods of operation and decisions concerning the use of technology to deliver educational programs and services and staffing to provide the technology; (f) the retention of consultants, specialists and other skilled professionals on a contract or project basis; (g) the size and composition of the work force; (h) the selection, examination and classification of new employees and the establishment of hiring standards; (i) the hiring, evaluation, transfer, promotion, demotion, layoff or reduction-in-force, reappointment or recall, discipline and discharge of employees; (j) the educational or training programs provided to employees; (k) the direction and scheduling of employees; (l) the assignment of work to employees whether on a straight-time or overtime basis; (m) production and quality standards, standards of service and performance expectations of employees; (n) the development and implementation of rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing employee conduct, job performance and other conditions of employment; (o) decisions to determine class size, class staffing and assignment, class schedules, the academic calendar, the length of the work and school day, the length of the work and school year, hours and places of instruction or pupil assessment policies; and (p) decisions concerning the use and staffing of experimental or pilot programs.”

The Board’s assertion of “employer authority” threatens to make the teachers’ contract an empty shell of what it once was. It creates the possibility of a principal assigning me to teach, say, 7 high school classes instead of 5. It creates the possibility of a principal assigning me to 40 students per class, or any number at all. Such working conditions would, of course, be my students’ — and our children’s — learning conditions. It would be virtually impossible for a teacher to be effective under these conditions, given the demands of lesson preparation, photocopying, grading, and building relationships. It is equally difficult to imagine my own children achieving their potential under these circumstances.

I refuse to approve a contract that makes these conditions possible.

On this Labor Day, I hope you will take a moment to consider my perspective on the looming strike. One week from now, I hope to be at school, working with my students. But I will strike now if I have to so that I can protect my ability to work effectively with my future students as well.



CPS News

There’s this…And the truest sentence is the last one:

Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman will leave his post later this month, according to district spokeswoman Monique Bond…Huberman has said he did not plan to serve under a new administration…Many of Huberman’s signature initiatives are still unrealized. The district is in the midst of creating a new teacher evaluation, implementing a $40 million anti-violence initiative, and trying out Huberman’s favored performance management system, which attaches performance metrics to everything from transportation to teaching.

Shaken by layoffs, never-ending budget holes and high turnover in the upper ranks, the system’s 40,000 employees and 410,000 students can look forward to acclimating to another administration’s priorities and agendas.


A Case to Watch

Check this power play out; last week’s Reader has the story of one CPS teacher:

She exemplifies what Huberman calls the “gold standard” of teaching excellence. And yet, she says, “I have no job—I have no prospect for jobs. We’re talking about getting food stamps and going on Medicaid. I was at the top of my profession—how did this happen to me?”The answer has to do with Huberman’s deployment of a rarely used tool—what CPS calls “redefinition”—in his effort to either force salary and tenure concessions from the Chicago Teachers Union or slash his payroll some other way…

On June 15 the board unanimously adopted a resolution giving him emergency powers to circumvent the union contract by raising class sizes and laying off the teachers whom this would render unnecessary. The more kids you cram into a classroom, the fewer teachers you need on the payroll.Under the contract, teachers who have been on the job for at least three years have tenure, which means they have due process rights. If they’re dismissed “for cause,” meaning fired for some perceived wrongdoing, they cannot be let go without a hearing. If they’re laid off because enrollment’s falling at their school, or because the school’s in “turnaround” and the entire faculty is being replaced, they keep their salary and benefits for a year and can apply for other openings in the system (or even, in the case of a turnaround, at their old school).

Also under the contract, in the case of mass layoffs due to a budget crisis, the board must follow seniority procedures—which means the last hired are the first fired.

Arguing that the system faced a “financial exigency,” the June 15 resolution gave Huberman the “authority to honorably terminate (lay off) tenured teachers” without due process.

It gets weirder and more troubling from there. The upshot, though, is that her union has filed suit, making this case one that bears watching for all of us.

Chicago Reader’s Follow Up Story on CPS Budget

If you haven’t seen it, this week, the Reader’s Ben Joravsky who caused quite a ruckus a few weeks ago, describes a special invitation follow up meeting with the CPS brass.

You can read about it here.

A sample:

I have to tell you: in all my years of hammering away at Mayor Daley’s various budget machinations, I’ve never been asked to come in for a talk. But this story had clearly struck a nerve. Friends who work in the schools told me that it had been pinned to bulletin boards in faculty lounges in schools all over town. Teachers had forwarded it to one another. A link to the story was included in an e-mail blast from Chicago Teachers Union president Marilyn Stewart to her members.

So downtown I went. I kept thinking about the advice my friends had given me: Whatever you do, if you’re offered a cup of coffee, don’t drink it!

What follows is neither surprising nor heartening, but well worth reading. And if that didn’t quite satisfy your interest completely, there’s video, too, of Joravsky on Chicago Tonight.

And, to top it all off, it could be worse...

New Evals for Teachers in Development

Not for us, of course, but still, as I’ve said before–the developments at the K-12 levels are worth watching.

Developments like this (from the article):

A pilot program called Excellence in Teaching, now being tested in 100 Chicago schools, seeks to produce an honest conversation about performance, useful feedback to teachers from principals and more realistic evaluations of performance in the classroom. Instead of a vague checklist that principals use to rate teacher effectiveness, the new program aims to define good and bad teaching, gives principals and teachers a common language to discuss frankly how to make improvements, and requires evidence that teachers meet certain criteria.

(For the record, as I have said before, I am wholeheartedly in favor of drastic revisions to our evaluation procedures. The tenure process is a nightmare and the Post Tenure Review, which I went through last semester, is so facile that it is both hilarious and depressing at the same time, not to mention pretty much a waste of time. Take a look at the form for class visitation sometime (it’s in the contract). Think about how bad the class you visited would have to be in order to write anything even slightly negative in response to those questions. It’s ridiculous. At some point, I think we have a responsibility, and by we, I mean, the Union of Teachers, to take the idea of professional responsibilities and peer review seriously. I understand that there are significant dangers to peer review, but there are dangers to inaction in the face of incompetence, too. I’m not saying that I know of anyone who is incompetent–I don’t. But I don’t think its unreasonable to expect an evaluation to do more than equate presence with competence. 2 cents. Of course on the other side of that fence are nightmare scenarios like this one. But if we don’t do it, others will, undoubtedly do it for us.)

CPS Budget Shenannigans (and Associated Grumblings)

Just in case you missed it in last week’s Reader, this is a pretty fascinating look at the tensions between the teachers and the admins over in CPS-land.

A sample:

In effect Huberman and these other bureaucrats got their salaries jacked up to insulate themselves against any voluntary pay cuts they might take. It’s like the department store that doubles its prices and then announces a half-off sale.

And another:

This year the board increased its allowance for “non professional services” to $243,000 from about $91,200. The budget for “seminars, fees, subscriptions and professional memberships” went up to $120,000 from $45,000. Travel expenses rose to $80,000 from $30,000, and “miscellaneous contingent projects” to $83,000 from $31,000.

On the bright side, the board did cut its allowance for “telephone and telegraph” from $6,647 to $6,565. Maybe that’s what Daley meant by dieting.

I asked Bond what all these accounts are supposed to cover and why the board boosted funding for them—as opposed to spending the money on something that would directly benefit students, like sports or art. Again, she said she would get back to me, but by press time she hadn’t.

And one more:

I know that eliminating raises in the central office wouldn’t fill the budget gap, especially if it really is approaching $1 billion. But it’s hard to justify, say, eliminating sophomore sports—a move that affects thousands of kids—when the board (a) hasn’t announced how much that will save and (b) somehow or other can find more money for seminars, subscriptions, and professional membership fees.

Great reporting, I’d say.