Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pearson and Apple Make Deasy an Offer He Can't Refuse

This one puts the “back room” in back room deal.  Something’s rotten in the state of Los Angeles, specifically with the school district.  In a sweetheart, carefully calculated and shadowy deal with the educational software company Pearson and slick technology giant Apple, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, with an assist from his second-in-command Jaime Aquino, signed a contract to purchase $1 billion in curriculum and iPads for every student in the district.  There were so many problems with the way business was conducted in the awarding of the contract that rival companies immediately cried foul.  Then there was the roll-out itself, where the district lacked a cohesive plan for distribution and monitoring of the devices and students quickly found a way to defeat the security software allowing them to surf the web at will.

Once the deal came to light, and the distribution and maintenance turned into a nightmare, Deasy cancelled the contract and issued a big “never mind” to students, teachers, parents, and administrators throughout the district, the second largest in the nation with 700,000 students and 46,000 teachers.  The details of the deal are sleazy even in the face of Deasy’s claim that he was trying to level the playing field for students who lack the financial resources to obtain the latest educational software and technology.

First of all, the “latest technology” might be a bit of a stretch.  In a recent batch of emails that have surfaced, Deasy and Aquino strategized with both Apple and Pearson to make their bids the most attractive to the district and its Board of Education.  However, the equipment was purchased at full price from Apple, even though the iPad was an older model about to be replaced by a newer version.  LAUSD purchased 600,000 units with the software provided by Pearson, a major educational publishing company and a key player in the Common Core curriculum development.  The iPads were distributed in 47 schools during the 2013-2014 school year before problems surfaced.  The software had glitches and students could override the security software and access questionable content and websites.  When called on the carpet to answer questions about the deal and the botched roll-out, Deasy and company deceived the school board and misled them about the problems that were quickly snowballing behind the scenes.  Meanwhile, competing companies in the bidding process smelled a rat.  Apple charged LAUSD more than it charged other school districts for the same equipment.  This led to charges that Deasy and Aquino had become “too cozy” with both Pearson and Apple leading up to the signing of the contract.  There was an appearance of conflict of interest as well as a lack of transparency that was unacceptable in such a large public institution like the LAUSD.

In an era of tight budgets and the memory of sweeping layoffs still fresh, is spending a billion dollars on aging equipment really a boon to the education of students?  Technology is a tool.  I agree that using technology in the classroom opens up vast possibilities for lessons and creative teaching that will enhance student learning, but it is only a tool.  Would giving students a pad of writing paper make them better writers?  No.  Would the money be better spent hiring more teachers and paying the existing ones better salaries?  Yes.  A classroom needs a teacher, a living, breathing educator, to take the available tools and utilize them for creative and enhanced learning.  An iPad alone is just a bunch of expensive circuit boards and computer chips without a guide to facilitate exploration and learning.  Sure students now are very familiar with computers and tablets—as we saw when kids took the iPads and modified them around the security software—but a teacher focuses the learning with the devices and utilizes them in a way that benefits student learning.  Purchasing and implementing technology should be done with careful planning, organization, and oversight.  The process and utilization must be assessed and changes made to get the most benefit for every dollar spent.

Another question that must be asked is how much stock does Deasy own in Apple?  For that matter, how much of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System portfolio is made up of Apple stock?  As with most stories of government waste and back room deals, we must ask who stands to gain from this contract?  We must always remember the mantra of Deep Throat in the Watergate affair:  “Follow the money.”  This situation warrants a full investigation with transparency.  If Deasy, Aquino or any other official of the LAUSD acted inappropriately, heads must roll.

This situation here in Los Angeles reflects a greater problem in school districts across the country.  Investors see education as a potential money-maker.  They buy their way into classrooms and try to streamline and refocus the mission of schools to get a return on this investment.  They introduce business principles to education, asking “What do we want our product to look like upon graduation?”  “Our product” is a human being.  Schools are not assembly lines.  Education is not always quantifiable or accurately measured by standardized tests.  Just as every human being is unique, so is that person’s intellectual development.  I appreciate people like Bill Gates getting involved in a philanthropic way with schools, but we must make sure that the students are the beneficiaries and that schools prosper with increased graduation rates and higher standards in the classroom.  Steering large lucrative contracts through the school budget system to benefit investors at Apple or Pearson or Microsoft does not mean that students are always coming out on top.  With large technology purchases or sweeping changes in curriculum and standards such as the implementation of Common Core, we must evaluate who stands to gain and how will these things benefit students?  Bill and Melinda Gates will directly benefit from their $150 million dollar investment in Common Core with schools purchasing software and materials from Microsoft.

Finally, I see this fiasco as just one more example of the need to break up the LAUSD.  The bureaucracy and waste has surfaced more than a few times over the years, and the whole enterprise could benefit from becoming leaner and more efficient.  Although it is anecdotal evidence, I’ve spoken with a few Catholic school teachers over the years who have been the beneficiaries of great giveaways of textbooks and materials from the LAUSD.  These were discontinued or older edition textbooks that the school district allows private schools to take free of charge.  The teachers were astounded to discover whole pallets of textbooks, some of them still shrink-wrapped or with spines uncracked.  The Catholic schools picked up loads of books that had never been used.  The LAUSD, with its almost $7 billion budget, has bargaining power with its vendors, and therefore, should negotiate heavily when purchasing anything, especially technology and textbooks.  These negotiations and the people who conduct them should be beyond reproach and every contract should be entered into with transparency and full disclosure.  Anything else is unacceptable.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ferguson, Ezell Ford and Good Old L.A.

The events over the last week in Ferguson, Missouri look very familiar to those of us who have lived through the 1960s and 1990s in Los Angeles.  The National Guard, the militarized police response, the fires, the looting, the tense confrontations between citizens and police officers, the media caught in the middle while trying to cover the story (and sometimes, just being obnoxious and in the way).  And while the situation in Ferguson developed, L.A. had its own potential crisis:  the case of Ezell Ford, the 25 year old, unarmed, mentally challenged black man shot and killed by LAPD officers south of downtown.  LAPD Chief Charlie Beck met with the community this week in an attempt to diffuse the situation, but he was often shouted down by the crowd.

Ford was accosted by officers near 65th and Broadway on Monday, August 11th.  According to several witnesses, he complied with the officers’ directives but was shot in the back while lying face down in the street.  The officers involved said he fought with them and was shot only after he grabbed an officer’s gun.  At the meeting in a local church, Beck tried to calm and reassure residents who feel Ford’s killing is just one more terrible injustice in a city with a long history of racial conflict involving the LAPD.  The incident spawned a number of protests throughout the city including a large gathering and march in downtown L.A.

The Watts’ Riots during the summer of 1965 are often cited as a watershed moment for Los Angeles in the Civil Rights Movement.  On August 11 through 17 of that year, the city erupted in flames over the treatment of motorist Marquette Frye and his mother.  Frye was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol for reckless driving, and upon failing a field sobriety test, was arrested.  A friend brought Frye’s mother to the scene where a scuffle ensued.  Residents on the street began throwing rocks and chunks of concrete at responding officers and the incident quickly escalated into violence.  Approximately 46 square miles of Los Angeles turned into a war zone with LAPD Chief William H. Parker calling in close to 4000 National Guard troops to supplement 934 LAPD officers and 718 sheriff’s deputies.  The Chief declared martial law and instituted a curfew citywide.  In a week’s worth of violence, 34 people were killed with 1,032 injured.  Law enforcement officials arrested 3,438 people.  In the end, damage totaled $40 million with widespread looting and arson, much of it targeting white-owned businesses.  Parker, himself, fanned the flames, referring to participants in the rioting as “monkeys in the zoo.”  Rioters blocked fire fighters from putting out flames, and beat white motorists who drove through the area.

Twenty-seven years later, the city erupted again with the Los Angeles Riots.  The chaos in the streets began after officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King were acquitted by a mostly white jury in the bedroom community of Simi Valley.  The civil unrest again originated in south-central L.A. and resulted in $1 billion in damages.  In a repeat of the past, Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, asked Governor Pete Wilson to call in the National Guard and federal troops to quell the violence.  A curfew was put in place but looting and arson spread across the city.  In the end, 53 were dead including 10 shot by law enforcement.  Two thousand were injured.  In total, fire fighters responded to 3600 fires with 1100 buildings destroyed.

The LAPD claimed that King resisted arrest and was under the influence of PCP, yet his bloodwork turned up negative for the drug.  A citizen by the name of George Holliday videotaped King’s beating from the balcony of his apartment and his tape quickly became familiar to people around the world.  The flashpoint for the violence was at the intersection of Florence and Normandie where again, motorists were pulled from vehicles and beaten, and bystanders began looting markets and businesses in the area.  Many were owned by Koreans or Asian-Americans.  White truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his vehicle and nearly beaten to death on live television.  Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant was also pulled from his car and beaten.  His ear was nearly severed from his head by a suspect who assaulted him with a knife.  Both men were rescued by African-Americans.  At one point during the violence, Koreatown was fortified by business owners who armed themselves and came together to stop looting.  It was a tense and deadly chapter in Los Angeles history.

The roots of 1992 go back to Watts in 1965.  Both incidents were the result of racial tensions and police brutality.  It appears the shooting and murder of Ezell Ford may be yet another incident involving race, although it is not clear if Ford was targeted because he was black.  That definitely appears to be the thinking of the crowd that showed up to voice their complaints and concerns to Chief Beck.  In this latest incident, people have taken to the streets to protest but have yet to resort to violence.  However, the tension and potential for another explosion remain high.

Many of the pundits interviewed on cable news this week about the events in Ferguson claim that the blame for these incidents falls on law enforcement and the increasing militarization of city police departments.  Much of this weaponry and equipment was given to these organizations by the federal government as a way to fight off possible terrorist attacks.  So the question must be asked:  do we need our police departments to be armed like an army?  President Obama announced this week that this policy would be reviewed in the future and military hardware grants to local law enforcement may be curtailed.  There is an argument, given some of the desperate situations police officers have found themselves in recently, that such equipment is necessary to protect citizens.  The LAPD has faced some violent and well-armed advisories over the years, including the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in a shootout May of 1974 and the North Hollywood bank robbers in February of 1997.  Should police officers approach their jobs as social workers who keep the peace or as militia who protect lives and property with violent confrontation if necessary?  Do they have a choice?  More to the point, how do officers view the people they police?  When they encounter a situation on the street, they have no idea who to trust, and therefore must treat every situation as hostile and every person present as a potential suspect or source of violent attack.

It is very easy to categorize others by appearance, and that is a temptation we all must resist.  In a dangerous world with potentially armed suspects lurking around every corner, the police face the difficult job of protecting themselves as well as their fellow citizens in situations that are never clearly defined.  When officers exercise caution with an active shooter or perpetrator of violence, we say they waited too long to take action and neutralize the suspect.  When they act decisively, if erroneously, we are horrified by the results which are often tragic.  How do we find the middle ground, where law enforcement has the ability to react and keep innocent people from getting killed while simultaneously avoiding prejudicial mistakes where someone with mental illness or even an innocent bystander is hurt or killed?  The answers will not be easy to find.

Monday, August 11, 2014

His Untimely End

Years ago, Robin Williams saved me many times over from my own depression.  That being said, I hated Happy Days and its spawn of Satan, Mork & Mindy.  I thought it was the stupidest premise for a television show:  an alien from another planet comes down and lives among us.  In Colorado, no less.  It is only too fitting that Happy Days began the long tradition of TV shows “jumping the shark.”  Literally, Fonzie jumped over a shark in an episode, and fans claim that was the beginning of the end for Richie Cunningham and friends.  Mork & Mindy might be a case where a show “jumped the shark” in its first episode.  Adding comedian Jonathan Winters to the mix as a baby only made the show more ridiculous.  It was a popular show, Mork & Mindy; shows you how much I know.

As a lonely, dateless high school misfit living in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, Robin Williams saved me with his comedy, specifically, his stand-up.  I had a cassette tape of performances he did at the Copacabana in New York City and at The Boardinghouse in San Francisco.  The collection was called Reality…What A Concept (1979), which was a kind of signature line for Williams.  When times were tough and I was feeling particularly down, I’d listen to his routines over and over again until I knew them by heart.  I was living in a trailer in my parents’ driveway, trying to be a musician and pay my way through private Catholic high school and later, state college.  When I could not study anymore and felt as if there was no point anyway, I’d pop on Williams and laugh until the tears came.  I’d still be laughing the next day as I walked across campus to class.  People probably thought I was nuts, but I didn’t care.

What attracted me to Williams’ brand of humor was the lightning fast way he improvised.  People in the audience would shout words or phrases out, and he’d volley them back with an outrageously funny line.  He did voices, impersonations, full characters, even Shakespeare.  I got his references, and they ran deeper than the comedians of my parents’ generation:  Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, and Jerry Lewis.  (Lewis, I still do not get, although my wife loves him.)  I enjoyed watching Bob Hope’s specials and the Tonight Show, and Ladies’ Man (1961) is amusing to me, but Robin Williams put me on the floor.  I laughed so hard, it hurt.

Later, I realized what a talented guy he was, having attended Juilliard, the performing arts conservatory in New York City.  His acting sometimes had him playing versions of the stand-up characters he created:  the Russian in Moscow on the Hudson (1984), or the gay nightclub owner in The Birdcage (1996).  However, he excelled in numerous other roles where pure acting chops were required.  My favorites:  The World According To Garp (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Awakenings (1990), What Dreams May Come (1998), and most especially, his cameo in Hamlet (1996).  When I looked up his full history, I could not believe how many films Williams has done.  So many great moments in American cinema.  Some of them he might have done just for the money, but he was never boring on screen.  He brought something to every character and left an indelible mark on the viewer, at least on this viewer.

I also enjoyed his other stand-up concert films over the years, although for sheer, coked-up exuberance, nothing beats that long ago cassette tape now lost to history and a hundred different moves through a series of apartments.

Artists create a world that offers respite from the all too painful and tragic real world.  They take us outside of ourselves, and in their characters, their music, their sheer being, we see the world differently and their art makes our lives more livable, more bearable.  Unfortunately, Robin Williams had nobody to do this for him in the end.  Suicide is the bravest cowardly act one could commit.  Brave, because it takes courage to force a life to its conclusion; cowardly because one quits before the game is done.  But it is not for us to judge.

If I could have sent a message to Williams, it would be this snippet of dialogue from Awakenings.  In it, Leonard Lowe, played memorably by Robert De Niro, tells Williams’ character, Dr. Sayer, why it is important for people to realize the gift of life:

Leonard Lowe: We've got to tell everybody. We've got to remind them. We've got to remind them how good it is.
Dr. Sayer: How good what is, Leonard?
Leonard Lowe: Read the newspaper. What does it say? All bad. It's all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They've forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!
Certainly, the light of this life is a little dimmer tonight, and it will take time before we will laugh again.  Goodbye, Robin, and Godspeed.

Robin Williams in the film, What Dreams May Come (1998)