Friday, October 15, 2010

Borderline Stupidity

I am reposting this essay from 2005 because it is still relevant. (As a preface, please note that this was announced in July 2007: "In a joint release, Morgan Quitno Press announced that it has been acquired by CQ Press, a division of Congressional Quarterly of Washington, DC. Scott and Kathleen Morgan, editors of Morgan Quitno’s annual state and city statistical reference books and owners of the privately-held company, will continue to edit the publications in collaboration with CQ Press.")

Borderline Stupidity

by Felice Prager

When we were relocating from New Jersey to Arizona almost two decades ago, our relatives told us all the reasons why moving was not a smart decision.

"No doctors," they said.

"Mayo Clinic," I replied.

"Too dry," they said.

"Seven days of rain a year," I said to my cousin whose hair was beginning to frizz on that 98 degree, 98 percent humidity day so long ago.

"Too hot," they said.

"Air conditioning," I replied.

"Too hot," they said again, as if saying it twice would make it a better reason.

"Swimming pools and a year-round tan," I replied.

"Horrible schools," they said, knowing where my Achilles heel was hidden.

"I taught in a horrible school," I replied, "Don't you remember when I ordered $5000 worth of new books and supplies for the next year, and all I got was a yard stick and a package of ditto masters?"

Despite the best attempts of our relatives at dissuasion, we moved.

For the most part, my sons, who received their entire K-12 education in Arizona, had good teachers; and, the curriculum usually was rigorous and challenging. For example, the other night I asked my son why he was doing Greek homework since he is not taking a foreign language this year. His reply: "Mom, it's calculus." If standardized testing is a barometer, my children have done exceptionally well on these national tests, consistently scoring above the 90th percentile. In fact, my younger son is presently deciding which college to attend next year, and part of his decision is being based on the size of the academic scholarships he has been offered from excellent universities in and out of Arizona. From my perspective, Arizona's schools and teachers are not very different from those with whom I worked elsewhere. Good genes and good parenting aside, my sons have thrived in the Arizona school system.

With that in mind, in a recent and highly publicized survey, Morgan Quitno Press named Vermont the "Smartest State" in its Education State Rankings for 2005-2006. Vermont was followed by Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maine, all in the Northeast. The losers ("losers" is the word used by CNN) were Arizona -- in last place, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. Four of these five are in the Southwest [1].

I am acutely aware that Arizona has its share of problems, but I visited the Morgan Quitno Press web site because, as a person who never takes surveys at their face value, I needed to see just how their rankings were determined. If someone is going to call my state the dumbest, I wanted to know how this was decided.

A few years ago when Florida was listed by Morgan Quitno Press in forty-seventh place, columnist/humorist Dave Barry wanted to know why Florida was not number 50. This was in the days of chads and Al Gore, and as a Florida resident, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Mr. Barry had the same questions as I did.

For the record, I was not requesting a change in ranking; I simply wanted to know how it was determined that Arizona was the dumbest state in the USA.

Morgan Quitno Press - "Reliable Rankings for 16 Years."

As explanation, Morgan Quitno Press of Lawrence, Kansas (not far, I am told, from where Dorothy and Toto lifted off to find the ruby slippers and flying monkeys) produces annual announcements that designate our country's:

Safest City - Newton, Massachusetts

Most Dangerous City - Camden, New Jersey

Smartest State - Massachusetts in 2004 (before Vermont got the honors this year)

Most Improved State - New Hampshire

Most Livable State - New Hampshire (before the floods, I assume)

Healthiest State - Vermont

Safest State - North Dakota

Most Dangerous State – Nevada (home of the one-armed bandito!)

Each designation was based on data collected by Morgan Quitno Press and released in print or on CD "for as little as $3.49 each." For their "Smartest State" designation, they calculated winners and losers using a complicated procedure based on 21 factors that were divided into positive and negative characteristics. "Rates for each of the 21 factors were processed through a formula that measures how a state compares to the national average for a given category. The positive and negative nature of each factor was taken into account as part of the formula. Once these computations were made, the factors then were assigned equal weights. These weighted scores then were added together to determine a state's final score." Among the characteristics weighed were:

Graduation rates

Dropout rates

Student-teacher ratio

Class size

Teacher salary

Expenditures for instruction

Student achievement


Positive outcomes

Strong student-teacher relationships

School district efficiency [2]

The credentials of the founders of Morgan Quitno Press are impressive. They have "years of experience in and out of government and in working with data." Scott Morgan, as an example, was Staff Counsel on a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee in the 1980's, served as Chief Counsel to Senator Dole's 1988 presidential campaign, served as Chief Counsel to the Kansas Governor, and, after one year in private law practice in Kansas City, has devoted all of his time to Morgan Quitno Press [3].

I am not looking to make waves, at least not the tsunami type. However, I do have some objections with their findings. Using numbers and statistics is a starting place, but ignoring key variables/handicaps leads to erroneous conclusions. Arizona still may be the dumbest state, but by omitting the following information, these rankings hold no weight, despite what they say on the news: "ARIZONA IS THE DUMBEST STATE – DETAILS AT 6 PM – HECK, THEY DON'T EVEN SET BACK THEIR CLOCKS!"

Here are some facts that Morgan Quitno Press did not include in their analysis:

FACT #1: In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled (Plyler v. Doe) that states and school districts cannot deny free public education to illegal alien children residing in the United States [4].

The international border between Mexico and the United States extends about 2000 miles along the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. There are approximately 350 million legal border crossings every year [5]; and, it is estimated that illegal crossings account for over one million people a year. (As a point of reference, the length of this border is approximately the same distance as it is from Phoenix, Arizona (#50) to Montpelier, Vermont (#1).) Currently, the government has not yet estimated the costs of educating the children of recent legal and illegal immigrants, but it is generally accepted that the immigrant population is growing, and that the undocumented component is significant. This directly affects local and state education budgets, which have not been able to keep up with increases in enrollment and classroom overcrowding caused by this inflow.

According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR): "The total K-12 school expenditure for illegal immigrants costs the states nearly $12 billion annually, and when the children born here to illegal aliens are added, the costs more than double to $28.6 billion. This enormous expenditure of the taxpayers' contributions does not represent the total costs. Special program for non-English speakers are an additional fiscal burden as well as a potential hindrance to the overall learning environment. A recent study found that dual language programs represent an additional expense of $290 to $879 per pupil depending on the size of the class. In addition, because these children of illegal aliens come from families that are most often living in poverty, there is also a major expenditure for them on supplemental feeding programs in the schools [6]."

According to Don Collins, a member of FAIR's board of directors, "The average native-born-headed household in Arizona now bears more than $700 a year in additional costs to provide education to illegal aliens and their children, an estimated $810 million a year." This number does not include the burden of paying for health care for illegal immigrants that threatens to bankrupt many Arizona hospitals and clinics. Incarcerating illegal aliens costs Arizona taxpayers an additional $80 million annually [7]."

Other Southwestern states have similar burdens. In fact, Arizona isn't even at the top of the list for estimated costs of educating illegal alien students and U.S.-born children of illegal aliens - California leads at 15%, and Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Texas follow with 10% - but it is an expensive handicap, nonetheless, and it affects school budgets, school spending, and overall outcomes.

FACT #2: The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nationally, Native American students have a dropout rate of 35.5%. This is about twice the national average and the highest dropout rate of any United States ethnic or racial group. Among minority populations in Arizona, Native American students have the highest dropout rates [8].

According to the United States Census Bureau, Vermont has a population of 621,394 of which 24.2% are under 18 years old. That is approximately 150,000. Of that, 0.4% are American Indian or Alaskan Native. TRANSLATION: There are approximately 600 American Indians or Alaskan Native under the age of 18 in Vermont.

Arizona has a population of 5,743,834 (more than nine times that of Vermont) with 26.6% under the age of 18. That is approximately 1.5 million people. Of that, 5% are either American Indian or Alaskan Native. TRANSLATION: There are approximately 75,000 American Indians or Alaskan Natives under the age of 18 in Arizona.
In my neck of the reservation, using this category to rate the quality of education in a state that has 600 students in a cultural group known for its high dropout rate to one with 75,000 in this same cultural group is like comparing dollars to wampum.

In addressing the problem of dropout rates, it is inevitable that Arizona's expenditures will outweigh that of Vermont. When the money for this comes from education coffers, something somewhere else will be cut; it is an expensive handicap and one that affects the total budget significantly.

FACT #3: According to the United States Census Bureau, 25.9% of Arizona's population speak a language other than English in the home, whereas Vermont has 5.9% of its population speaking a language other than English at home. In Arizona, there are 75%more of a much larger population base not speaking English in their homes. Being from the smartest state or Kansas is not a prerequisite for seeing how problematic this may be to a state's overall educational system.

FACT #4: A critical detail that accentuates the burden of education in Arizona, once again, can be obtained from the United States Census Bureau. Since 1990, the population of the United States increased by 13.1%. Vermont's population, again not to pick on Vermont but to point out the absurdity of these rankings, increased 8.2.

Arizona's population increased 40%. With increased population comes the burden of educating the children. Thus, add to this picture overcrowded older schools, new schools with limited budgets and lack of supplies, and all the other variables which go with new school start-ups. If you draw a giant dollar sign, that should help describe the situation in Arizona.

A forty percent increase in population in fifteen years is hugely significant, and has to be factored into the equation.

Doth the Lady Protest Too Much? She Dothn't.

It could very well be true that Arizona is the dumbest state, but in making a list, it is misleading not to include the above data. Though Morgan Quitno Press comes up with some valid assertions, they are based on their limited criteria, which omit handicaps some states have.

The question about smartest and dumbest has to include what states are doing about their educational problems (taking into consideration that all states have unique situations), and the effectiveness of these programs. The question about smartest and dumbest also must include comparable finances backing these programs.

Regardless of the label, Arizona is working hard at improving.

In order to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state report cards must be made available to all parents. I received my copy of this report card last week from Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne. Within the brochure, results of the AIMS test were listed. AIMS is Arizona's Instrument to Measurement Standards (AIMS), a test which provides educators and the public with valuable information regarding the progress of Arizona's students toward mastering reading, writing, and mathematics standards. Within the report card brochure, these were detailed by race and ethnic group. Though there were different results between races and ethnic groups, the fact was clear that each group was surpassing the AMO (Annual (federally mandated) Measurable Objectives) and prior years [9]. Vermont's report card, obviously also required by No Child Left Behind, had similar results but on a much smaller scale [10].

Arizona's inherent problems will not disappear, but when judging a state as a whole, if this diversity is not accounted for, then the outcome is flawed and irrelevant. --












©2005 Felice Prager.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The World According to Señor Poje´

What I said was, "Which part of 'NO' don't you understand?" but what my son said he heard was, "I'd just love to have a tarantula living in my house." I've considered having his hearing checked, but instead, I was deciding which piece of furniture was the highest off the ground so that when Señor Poje´ opened the latch on his tarantula cage and came looking for the mean lady who wouldn't give him a home, I could be high enough off the ground to jump to my death rather than being eaten alive by an irate arachnid.

It's when my son used school as his reason for needing Señor Poje´ "just until school starts" that I became suspicious. "It's for school," had always worked in the past with things like expensive calculators, software, and top-of-the-line backpacks. However, I had him this time! I mentally went through his class schedule.

"Gotcha! You don't have science this year!" I said.

My son countered with, "Remember, my biology teacher from freshman year? He keeps pets in his classroom. I'm going to trade Señor Poje´ for a letter of recommendation for college."

Thus, Señor Poje´ was alive and well and eating crickets in a cage on a shelf in my 17-year-old son's bedroom until the third day of school this year. I wrote up a formal contract and had my son sign it just in case his freshman biology teacher said he had enough class pets. "He's going back out in the desert where he belongs if you can't find him a home," I said. My son nodded and signed on the dotted line, but I knew he was already at Step Five when I was just coming to terms with Step One.

On the third day of school, Señor Poje´ found his new home in the biology lab at my son's high school. There was no need to negotiate for a letter of recommendation. A few teachers enthusiastically told my son they would write letters for him. Not one of them required an arachnid as payment for services rendered.

We have gone through the class pet thing a few times. Caring for the class hamster for a weekend in first grade led to the adoption of a series of pet hamsters. When I learned the average life-expectancy of a hamster is about two years after a $100 vet bill for which I was told that there was nothing one could do to stop the blood coming from Xena, Warrior Hamster's rear end, I told my son to find a more cost-effective pet.

That's when the hermit crabs moved in. My son fed them garbage and discussed how hermit crabs are environmentally important. We watched them move in and out of shells until they finally shed their crusty outer bodies one last time, shriveled up, and died. I saw nothing environmentally important about hermit crab bodies rotting in my son's bedroom.

There were several fish which kept living and living and living. These were not class pets. These were school fair prizes. My son did not actually do anything to win these. He simply batted his eyelashes and his teacher handed him a plastic bag with two gold fish in it.

Then there were those swimming things he brought home from the drainage ditch by his elementary school playground. They started as a school experiment, and then my son volunteered to continue the science project in his bathroom at home - in my house. The swimming things lived in a fish tank with a giant rock in it so the swimming things could become tadpoles and then toads which needed to eat things that others pay exterminators to get rid of. I believe my older son added aftershave or cologne to the water in hopes that the tadpoles would die and he would have more counter space, but that's debatable because they did not die and eventually my son, the science experiment caretaker, was forced to put the frogs back by the drainage ditch because they were starving to death. They did not like store-bought bugs. At least that's how I interpreted my lack of desire to keep buying them.

My older son never got into unusual pets. I think that's because when he was in third grade, his teacher made him mount and identify bugs for a project. I watched as he scooped bugs from the pool, and with tweezers, collected his bugs. He was okay until he had to push the pin through the bug to mount it. I believe Tarantula Boy did that for him. I certainly did not. I was fine with all of this because it was "for school" until a scorpion he found at the bottom of the pool proved that this species will outlive man. With the pin pushed through its back, after spending a good deal of time at the bottom of the pool, the scorpion came out of its water-induced coma, pulled his body -- pin and all -- out of the cork board, and was found walking on my son's pillow.

For years my sons have heard me mutter things about school projects, class pets, and hands-on science experiments.

It's not as if my sons have been pet-deprived. We have four cats. We have always had cats. If you look at my carpet and find a stain, I can name the creator of that stain in four notes. We have more litter boxes in my house than bathrooms because the cats do not share. My husband and I share a bathroom. I could say I won't share, but that won't get me my own litter box.

I blame the unusual pets on teachers. I know I am a teacher, too, but I specialize in English, so I am above reproach. English teachers do not do parts of animal anatomy; English teachers do parts of speech. However, just point me toward a science classroom or an elementary school classroom, and I will bet something is alive or has been alive in a cage or a tank within that classroom at some time in that teacher's career. You are guilty! Admit it! You are why Señor Poje´ and the other menagerie of unusual pets have lived in my son's bedroom. You are why my son could not mow the lawn last week when he had to go to PetsMart to buy crickets for Señor Poje´ because that was part of the terms for his adoption by the biology teacher. And you are why my son has left the spot on his shelf open because Señor Poje´ is returning at the end of the school year. "You said he had to be out by the third day of school," said my son, "but the contract didn't say a thing about his return engagement."

©2005 Felice Prager.

Originally published by the Irascible Professor