Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Coroner's Report on Tom Petty and other Loose Thoughts

This is not going to be the post I want to write, but the time for that is not quite now.

As if the loss of Tom Petty was not bad enough, now the New York Times reports that it was accidental and unintentional:
Tom Petty, the chart-topping singer and songwriter, died in October from an accidental drug overdose as a result of mixing medications that included opioids, the medical examiner-coroner for the county of Los Angeles announced on Friday, ending the mystery surrounding his sudden death last year.  
The coroner, Jonathan Lucas, said that Mr. Petty’s system showed traces of the drugs fentanyl, oxycodone, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetyl fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl.
The opioid crisis is everywhere we turn and I've been running into it more than I would like lately.

I have no clue what the answers are to this.  I know we have been at "war on drugs" for decades and I don't see that much has changed.  Politicians have feathers in their caps for passing this legislation or that legislation but we still have a terrible drug crisis.

There are a million rabbit holes to explore on this topic and I'm only beginning to try to learn more about it. I have heard the conspiracy theories about big pharma and while I am reluctant to accept those theories in totality, I do think there is some dirty business there that should be explored. (I just re-watched Dallas Buyers  Club on Netflix last night!)

That list of drugs that Tom Petty had in his system is staggering. The drug fentanyl has been in the headlines a great deal lately and I personally know at least one person who died from this drug in the past year, much too young.  Oxycodone was the drug in the headlines before fentanyl and has been tightly controlled because of its strong addictive properties.  At least two of the drugs in Mr. Petty's system are benzos and those are terrible drugs.  Alprazolam is Xanax and as far as I'm concerned, that one is as bad as fentanyl and oxycodone.

Obviously all of these drugs have medical benefit when used in a carefully controlled and monitored fashion, but the potential for abuse is so real.

That all of these drugs were in Mr. Petty's system is stunning.  I understand from the NYT article that he had a broken hip and was in terrible pain.  I get that.  And I understand that his overdose was an accident.  But wasn't somebody monitoring all these meds?  Who thought it was a good idea to take all of those together?

I'm in no way judging Tom Petty or anyone here -- I want to be clear about that.  His personal medical situation is not my business.

That being said, I do think that prescription drug abuse is a very serious problem.

As I said, I have no answers whatsoever.  I'm just ruminating and I'm starting to learn more.  I recently went to my physician for a wellness check and we had a conversation about this.  She shared with me how new regulations are cracking down on writing many of these prescriptions and that in Texas, she said, it is very difficult to get prescription pain meds.  I have done no research on that and am not sure what kinds of cases she is referring to, but I do hope that there is some truth in it.

Do a simple Google search on benzodiazapine, or xanax, addiction.  The stories are terrifying.  Do the same for fentanyl, and oxycontin.

I know nothing about this is particularly informative or news to anyone -- like I said, this is just on my mind.  I have some stories fairly close to home on this subject that I'll eventually write about, but not today.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experience on this.

Further Reading:
1 Son, 4 Overdoses, 6 Hours  (The New York Times )
Beautiful Boy:  A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction (Amazon link)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Shreveport Water Department Woes Continue

Pooling water from meter leak
Nothing to see here.

Shreveport is doing just fine: we defeated a sports complex and allowed Uber in.  That's only two of our "accomplishments" touted by city officials as 2017 closed.

And Mayor Tyler touted infrastructure:

Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler cited major infrastructure improvements — including 69 new street projects totaling $12.1 million and and an additional $143 million on sewer improvements — as a top accomplishment for 2017.


And the politicians looks to the future:

As far as next year, Councilman Willie Bradford pointed to a long laundry list of upcoming endeavors that will require significant attention from city leaders— including "crime, economic disparity, a dying inner-city, white and middle class flight, and a loss of faith in our city government."

Meanwhile, our city administration is under investigation.

Elliott Stonecipher writes this morning at Real Shreveport about the article in the Shreveport Times print edition by Lex Talamo regarding the corruption and mismanagement at City Hall, specifically the water department.

I'd link to the Times article but as of this writing it is not in the digital edition (which makes me question why I'm paying for that...).

You'll have to read Stonecipher's report:

While the article does, in fact, include details about 1998-2006 Shreveport Mayor Keith Hightower, it also mentions the involvement of those in the 2006-2014 double-term of Mayor Cedric Glover and the current administration of Mayor Ollie Tyler.  
 The Times report clearly intends the article to focus public attention on Keith Hightower, along with Michael Wainwright and Scott Pernici.The three are well-known among locals who care as major political players over recent decades, often as a trio.  
Their 2016 lawsuit against the City of Shreveport over water service under-billing triggered the subject events and investigation.

It's a nasty tangled web and far above my pay grade. And here is the KSLA report from October 2017 about the internal auditor report of the water department which found high risk levels of fraud and abuse.  Here is the KTBS report.

Meanwhile the city's infrastructure crumbles.

The recent cold weather and sub-freezing temperatures exacerbated the problem as water mains burst all over town. Add this to the crumbling city pipes going to residential water meters and we are soon to be a city with major utility problems.

On our street alone there is one meter-leak that has been seeping water into the street and pooling at the ends of driveways for several months.  It was called in several times before the city came out and
put sticks and tape around it, did some spray painting in the street, and went away.

After the freeze last week, another meter three houses down started leaking.  Water is pooling onto the sidewalk.

The city has been called twice on this latest leak.

I spoke to a one water department employee who came out to test the pressure on a hydrant (which made the meter leaks even worse) who said there are "so many busted pipes all over town" there is no way to keep up.

It's not likely to improve. Consider this report from Lex Talamo dated September 2017:
The city's sole water treatment facility is sometimes stretched to capacity and operates, at peak, below its original capacity by 12 million gallons of water per day.  
Cross Lake, which supplies water to the water treatment facility, needs an estimated $200 million in upgrades, including to fight invasive species such as Giant Salvinia. Cross Lake Dam, which stores water for the facility, needs up to $18 million for repairs.  
The city has met its deadlines so far in completing work under a federal order requiring $500 million in fixes to city sewers. But now the work gets more difficult and expensive. A source of funding has not been identified.  
All told, the infrastructure maintenance, repair and upgrade bill facing city government is around $1.5 billion — the result of paltry appropriations for decades.
Meanwhile, our city officials are patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

Further reading:
Shreveport/Caddo Leaders Reflect on Accomplishments
Two Investigations into Shreveport's Water Department
Shreveport Times City Hall Corruption Report a Must Read
Audit: High-Risk Levels of Fraud, Abuse at Shreveport Water Department
Report to the City Council by the City Internal Auditor

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Conversations in Education: Testing and Burnout

Christmas break is coming to an end and the new school semester begins Monday.  It has been absolute bliss to have this time to rest, recharge, and regroup.  I feel like I've accomplished quite a lot over my break: I've worked through the queries from my copy editor on the book, cleaned house, organized my planner for 2018, unsubscribed to a large number of email clutter, done some writing, some cooking, and some reading.  It's been busy, but productive.

Much of my reading has been work related. During the school semester there is little time for that sort of thing and over break I've read several different pieces that, taken together, seem to indicate some troubling trends.

The article that most resonated with me was this one by Bruce Dixon about standardized testing, a practice he equates to "tyranny" and "an insidious virus."

Dixon writes:
We are way overdue for the debate around standardized tests to become prominent in the mainstream media led by educational leaders, instead of politicians, journalists or in particular those who benefit most, the testing, tutoring and textbook industry.
There is little doubt that the testing industry is huge business; testing and textbook giant Pearson is at the top of that list earning billions of dollars from testing alone.  Their profit statement for 2016 is here Note their goals for 2017:  "Our priorities for 2017 are clear. We will continue to accelerate our digital transformation, simplify our portfolio, control our costs, and focus our investment on the biggest growth opportunities in education."  What are those biggest growth opportunities in education, exactly?

Back to Dixon's piece.  He quoted this 2014 article in The Washington Post by Valerie Strauss which quotes extensively from her own 2013 piece about the resignation of a very talented and creative teacher, Ron Maggiano.

As for standardized testing, Maggiano says:
The overemphasis on testing has led many teachers to eliminate projects and activities that provide students with an opportunity to be creative and imaginative, and scripted curriculum has become the norm in many classrooms. There is nothing creative or imaginative about filling in a bubble sheet for a multiple choice test. Students are so tired of prepping for and taking standardized test that some have protested by dressing up like zombies to protest — and thousands of families are opting their children out of taking high-stakes exams.
How true this is.  Excessive standardized testing crushes kids.  The ones who are very concerned about their GPA feel one type of pressure and the apathetic ones, the ones we have to work harder to reach, are reinforced in their ideas of failure and inadequacy.

Magianno also notes the "scripted curriculum."  Think about that for a moment and think about your own education.  The scripted curriculum is literally that: teachers read from a script and teach the same content in the same way on the same day in every classroom across the district.  Depending on the district there may or may not be room for creative leeway, but more often than not, teachers are required to stick to the script, thus confirming Maggiano's statement that teacher's no longer have an "opportunity to be creative or imaginative."

Standardized tests do not require creativity or imagination.

This quote by Maggiano resonated with me:
Every student is a unique individual with their own talents and abilities. The standardized testing regime fails to recognize the importance of individual achievement in education and instead uses a “cookie cutter” approach to learning that ignores students’ individual interests and abilities.
Amen to that.  The reason I love teaching is because my students are all unique individuals.  Every single one of them.  Helping them find their own talents and abilities is the primary goal and perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.  Standardized testing quashes that.  Standardized testing assumes they are all the same individual who must score above a certain level on a test to assess mastery of material learned that was taught from a script.

Back to Blake's piece.  Aside from killing creativity and innovation in the classroom, and assuming that all students learn the same material in the same way at the same pace, Blake points out yet another flaw in standardized testing:
And if all of that isn’t enough, don’t forget that one of the hidden curses of standardized testing is the insidious manner in which it penalizes diversity. By statistical definition, it ignores the “edges” which include all of those students who have cultural, geographic physical or intellectual disadvantage. Far from helping to “close the gap,” the use of standardized testing has in fact found to be most damaging for low-income and minority students.
This is a fact proven to be true.  Consider this quote from Noliwe Rooks's article in TIME (2012):
And if the standardized testing gap between racial minorities is bad, it’s nothing compared to the gap between the poor and the wealthy. For example, one recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the gap for achievement test scores between rich and poor have grown by almost 60% since the 1960s and are now almost twice as large as the gap between white students and children of other races. The playing field is far from level when we continue to use tests where we know at the outset that wealthy students will do better than less wealthy students and white and Asian students will outperform blacks and Latinos.
There is a great deal of research out there to support this theory.

Another trend that is disturbing is that of teacher burnout and not surprisingly some of this comes from the testing atmosphere.  We have long been aware of the challenges that new teachers face; often once they get into the classroom they realize this is not what they anticipated and so the dropout rate for new teachers is relatively high.  In this 2015 Washington Post article, one can see the climbing rate of new-teacher-dropout.  In 2011-2012, seventeen percent of new teachers left the profession within five years.

On January 4, 2018, Elizabeth Mulvahill posted this list of why teachers at all levels are leaving the profession and one of those reasons was standardized testing:
The demands teachers are feeling as a result of high-stakes standardized testing and the emphasis on data collection is definitely a hot button issue among teachers who are leaving. According to an NEA survey of classroom teachers, 72 percent replied that they felt “moderate” or “extreme” pressure to increase test scores from both school and district administrators.
The NEA survey cited in Mulvahill's article is dated 2014 and sounds remarkably similar to Bruce Dixon's article discussed above:
The sheer volume of tests that teachers are tasked with administering and preparing students for is enormously time-consuming. Fifty-two percent of teachers surveyed said they spend too much time on testing and test prep. The average teacher now reports spending about 30 percent of their work time on testing-related tasks, including preparing students, proctoring, and reviewing results of standardized tests. Teresa Smith Johnson, a 5th grade teacher in Georgia, says her school spends a minimum of 8 weeks testing during the school year. “That doesn’t include preparing for testing, talking about testing, and examining data from testing,” she adds. “Imagine what we could do with that time. There must be a better plan.”
The time cited here, about 30 percent of time on test prep and testing is spot on and I would suggest a little higher now, three years after the date of this survey.

In August 2014, this NEA article by Richard Naithram contends that parents are tired of the testing obsession and says that 68% of the parents surveyed have no faith in the tests.

Finally, moving away from standardized testing, another source of stress for teachers is lack of time to adequately plan and the incessant demands on their planning time, including but not limited to the growing stress on professional development and the professional learning community model.  This post, dated January 5, 2018, at The Great Handshake blog describes the busy day of any teacher, the long hours, the plethora of necessary duties on any given day:
Good teachers are artists, yet we are not allowing them studio time. Art can’t be manufactured on an assembly line, but that is the position we put teachers in. They have one spare hour a day in which to plan, collaborate with colleagues, meet with students, grade tests, provide feedback, make copies, eat, and pee. It shouldn’t shock us that the rigor of their schedule can cause good people and thoughtful educators to leave student-centered education fall by the wayside.
Why would a teacher need time to plan if you have scripted lessons, one might ask.  Because even scripted lessons need planning, perhaps even more so because they are not your lessons and not designed for your kids.  You have to find some way within the script to make them relevant.  The planning period is filled with many more tasks than just writing a lesson plan.

Yet too often that planning time is scheduled for PLC meetings, test administration, covering classes, faculty meetings, and other tasks that must be met.  There simply is not enough time.

This paragraph from The Great Handshake post resonates:
Conversations about increasing teacher planning time are essential to any conversation on how we can make education better for our young people. And, when we make choices under the pressure of a system set up for teachers to burn out and eventually fail, they are often counterproductive. We throw things on our walls without thought, yell at kids instead of working with them, are short with parents, whine about our administrators, brag about things that don’t matter, overlook things that do, hand out worksheets, and see lonely kids as bad.
And also this:
Not having enough prep time can turn a great teacher good, a good teacher average, an average teacher bad, and a bad teacher abusive.
This all sounds very negative about the state of education today and it is not meant to, but I do believe it's time to have these conversations.  Are parents content with the constant testing and teaching to the test or do they want a more creative, innovative classroom?  Do parents want their children taught from a script or do they want a curriculum modeled to their child's needs as assessed by the professional in the classroom with him?  Do teachers have adequate time to prepare, assess, communicate with both students and parents, and teach?  Are we teaching our kids to take tests or be critical thinkers and good, well-rounded citizens?  Are we preparing our kids for the future adequately if what they primarily know when they leave high-school is how to take a test?

There are many conversations that need to happen in the field of education today.  The changes are happening very quickly and perhaps not enough parents are paying attention to them.

At the end of the day it should all come down to what is best for the students and it may be that that is not what is happening any longer.  At the very least, it's time we started talking about it.

For further reading:

The Testing Emperor Finally Has No Clothes
Why Good Teachers Quit Teaching
Don't Eat Supermarket Cupcakes
11 Problems Created by the Standardized Testing Obsession
Award-winning Virginia Teacher: "I can no longer cooperate with testing regime"

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Blogging is Not Dead

Is blogging dead?
Caution: reflective navel-gazing ahead.

Is blogging still relevant?  It is a subject much on my mind lately as I've been in discussion with a friend who is contemplating starting a new blog of her own.  She has my full support in her new endeavor and it never crossed my mind to suggest to her that blogging might be dead.  But, is it?

Consider this article by Gina Bianchini dated June 1, 2017 and titled "Starting a Blog in 2017? Don't."  Ms. Bianchini advocates something called "deep interest networks" over blogging primarily because she says there are just too many blogs as it is and a deep interest network is the best way to connect with like-minded people and share your content.  It is basically an email newsletter, it seems to me, but maybe I'm missing something.

Last month, Farah Mohammed posted this article about the proliferation and influence of blogs in 2007 but, like Bianchini, also contends that blogs are dead.  Ms. Mohammed suggests that we are more likely to get our news from Facebook and Twitter than from a blog. 

Okay so given the fact that both of these ladies say blogging is dead, why are we still here - why are you still here? 

And here comes the navel-gazing.

My first blog post was August 1, 2008.  I look back at those early posts and they are rather embarrassingly naive, but I leave them there.  Nothing that I wrote about in those early months was relevant or important, but it was a creative outlet for me, and a chance to grow and to hone my writing skills.  I'm not sure how much honing has occurred, but the blog itself has certainly evolved through the years.

After I moved on from blogging about raspberry tea and my dog, the blog evolved into one that was strictly political.  I had some success there and was even linked by Michelle Malkin a time or two which was pretty exciting for the old SiteMeter.  I was linked by Instapundit a few times, The Dead Pelican and other big bloggers, but I never hit the big leagues like those guys did.  On the other hand, I made some really good friends, and "met" some great fellow bloggers like Stacy McCain and William Jacobson.  I still have a weekly post at DaTechGuy blog. 

These days the blog is mostly state and local politics, animal issues, education issues, and otherwise things that interest me. 

And this is why I do not discourage my friend from starting her new blog.  I've done some work here I'm really proud of.  Oddly, the posts that I'm most proud of are not my highest viewed posts: this one on the Confederate monument situation in NOLA got 137,013 views and is my highest ranked post.  The post I'm probably most proud of is this one about the Braveheart trial.  I attended the entire trial and when it was over I sat down and typed this article out without stopping.  I had taken no notes and so I wanted everything fresh from memory.  Braveheart has lots of followers from all around the country and I wanted them to feel like they were at the trial with us. 

The majority of my traffic comes from Facebook and from Google: not surprising.

Going back to the posts by Ms. Mohammed and Ms. Bianchini, I agree that the heyday for blogging began in 2007 and I'd say ran until about 2010.  Maybe a little longer.  But I think there is still a place for blogs on the internet.  Just because WordPress has 75 million blogs does not mean they are still all active.  Look at my sidebar and see how many blogs are no longer updated regularly, and I cull that list pretty regularly.  There are a few on there that I keep for various reasons, even though they aren't updated any longer.

Every now and then I think about getting back into political blogging but it seems like an echo chamber to me now.  I spent a lot of time blogging about the trepidation I felt and dangers I saw in Barack Obama and I don't think I changed one single mind or made one bit of a difference there.  I stayed in a bad mood all the time.  I got snarky, ugly comments from people sometimes - which in and of itself was fine - but just contributed to my overall bad mood.  I decided it just wasn't worth it, and so, now I just write about whatever I want to. 

Sometimes it's about an issue that needs attention and sometimes it's just about a day trip.

I never check my stats any more.  If I hit the million hits club, I don't care. 

For me, blogging was really always a place to be creative and to record the journey.  My favorite posts are not the political ones.  Does that mean I won't ever do a political post?  Nope.  I'm certain I will, but it will be because it's an issue I care about, not because it will drive traffic or get me linked somewhere.

The point is, again, that there is still plenty of room and influence left in the blogosphere; I don't agree that blogging is dead.  It's evolved, but it hasn't died.  In the heydey of blogging, the reason we were writing what we were writing politically is because the mainstream media wasn't doing it and someone needed to.  We were at ground-level, so to speak, blogging the Tea Party movement and covering local protests or issues that major media would not touch.  But still today there is nobody doing finer work on politics than Stacy McCain, William Jacobson, Peter Ingemi, Michelle Malkin and Glenn Reynolds.  Nobody. 

If you're going to start a blog, find your niche, find your passion, develop a thick skin, and go.  There will always be that member of the grammar police there to nitpick your work, or the person who disagrees with you.  But in the end, you have to carve out your own spot on the internet, and write what matters to you.  In the end, it's really your passion that matters.

From time to time I've though about turning off the lights here, but I can't see it happening. 

I love it too much.  I love the contacts I've made and the opportunity to interact with people.

Thanks for still being here.