A listening post monitoring public education and teachers’ unions.

Five Offbeat Back-to-School Stories

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 29•16

Yes, it’s back-to-school time, and amid all the safety suggestions and fashion tips come these five unconventional stories.

1) “Boys get back-to-school buzz cuts aboard the Battleship New Jersey” Because, why not?

2) Twentieth Century Fox created a press mailer to promote the Blu-Ray release of X-Men Apocalypse made out like an admissions folder to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

3) This bro’ doesn’t give a damn about your kids going back to school!!!

4) Speaking of which, here’s one mom’s back-to-school photo.

5) But here’s my favorite: “Back to school snacks: Turn a Twinkie into an edible school bus


Video of Union Employees Protesting Their Union Bosses

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 26•16

I mentioned in Wednesday’s column that employees of the California Teachers Association were planning a labor action to address the union’s failure to properly fund their pensions. Here is video of their picket line, courtesy of the Sacramento Bee:

This follows on the heels of a protest during a speech by SEIU president Mary Kay Henry earlier this month. The protesters are organizers for the union’s Fight for $15 campaign, but they themselves are being denied the right to join SEIU’s staff union, and they claim they receive less than $15 per hour. As you can see from the video, they are shouted down and one of their signs is ripped up.


California Test Scores: English Improvement, Math Not So Much

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 25•16

The state of California released its standardized test results for English and math yesterday and it was a mixed bag. Overall scores improved but the gaps between racial and ethnic groups widened.

There will be a lot of analysis from all parties but I thought it important to highlight something California did with its results that you rarely see when test scores are reported.

There is a tendency to compare this year’s 4th grade results, for example, with last year’s 4th grade test results. Obviously each year’s 4th graders are different students and so some variations are to be expected.

The California Department of Education web site allows you to easily compare this year’s 4th grade results with last year’s 3rd grade results. While these are not exactly the same students, it does give us a better sense of whether they are improving as they move through the system.

Using that tool we can see that while only 38% of 3rd graders met the English standards last year, 44% of this year’s 4th graders met the standards. As we move through the rest of the tested grades, the one-year improvements were 8%, 3%, 5% and 4%.

The math results were not as rosy. One percent fewer 4th graders met the math standards than did last year’s 3rd graders, and the same was true of this year’s 5th graders. The upper grades improved by 5%, 3% and 2%. Even with improvement, between 61% and 67% of California’s students failed to meet the math standards.

The educators among you will certainly have many theories as to why this should be so. Perhaps English naturally improves through additional years of exposure while math gets progressively more difficult for those who fall behind. But if we want to value “problem-solving” and “critical thinking” over “drill and kill” techniques, these math scores are worrisome.


Teachers Unions Are The Man — Union Employees and the Fight for Better Contracts

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 24•16

Click here to read.


Vergara, Oliver & the Appeal to Authority

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 23•16

In a 4-3 ruling, the California Supreme Court decided not to review Vergara v. California, which challenged the constitutionality of the state’s teacher tenure, seniority and dismissal laws.

The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers declared this a “victory for students” because, as we all know, parents choose schools for their children based on whether the teachers receive tenure after two years, and if they are laid off in reverse order of seniority.

I’m not surprised by this result, but I entirely understand why the case was pursued. California’s education labor policy is entirely under the thumb of the teachers’ unions, to the point where even watered-down reform bills introduced by Democrats are rubbed out. The mercurial Gov. Jerry Brown will sometimes halt a union scheme with his veto pen, but he has no stomach to confront CTA and CFT on education reform. With two branches of government closed to them, Vergara supporters had to try the third.

“Eliminating teachers’ ability to stand up for their students and robbing school districts of the tools they need to make sound employment decisions was a well-funded but wrong-headed scheme developed by people with no education expertise,” said CTA president Eric Heins.

Ah, the old expertise argument, designed to stop everyone in their tracks. No matter the evidence of our eyes, we must defer to the experience and expertise of teachers. Well, not all teachers. Not private school teachers. Not Teach for America teachers. Not charter school teachers. Not non-union public school teachers. And not agency fee-paying teachers.

Oh, wait. There is at least one non-teacher to whom we must listen: John Oliver!

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post Your Talking Points Here had the on-the-nose headline regarding the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight and his lengthy segment on charter schools: “John Oliver hysterically savages charter schools — and charter supporters aren’t happy.”

It was hysterical, all right.

John Oliver might be an expert on charter schools, but I doubt it. He’s certainly not an educator. Since he opines on a vast array of topics it is probable that the sum total of what he knows about charter schools is what he presented in that segment. But since he said exactly what charter school detractors want to hear, he is celebrated by them instead of ignored as a know-nothing.

By the same token, charter school supporters should avoid getting too worked up over Oliver. While he was savaging charter schools, he also ripped into Pitbull, NBC’s Mysteries of Laura, the Olsen twins, the state of Pennsylvania, John Kasich, Papa John’s, Billy Joel, and the state of Nevada. I also think Papa John’s makes nasty pizza, but I don’t lobby for state laws to prevent people from going there.

I like pointing out inconsistencies in union arguments as much as anyone, but it’s mostly irrelevant. Unions use situational tactics, and if arguing one way gets a win today, and arguing the opposite gets a win tomorrow, they are perfectly happy to do so.

But if winning is all that matters, then just remember that 25 years ago there were no charter schools. Today there are 6,700 in 42 states. Who’s winning?


Test Your Union Advocacy Quotient!

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 22•16

The Canton Repository in Ohio brings us this story about middle and high school art students painting and decorating the headquarters of the Canton Professional Educators’ Association, the local teachers’ union.

Their teacher said the project “gives them some ownership of something in the city, and it also provided them with some summer activity.”

The union president said the students benefit by practicing their craft. The kids are working on stained glass windows, awnings, parking posts and interior painting.

Now for the test of your union advocacy quotient.


How I Became an Internet Hero to Fans of a Defunct Disney Channel Cartoon

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Aug• 19•16

Forgive me for going off-topic, but I love stories about what a strange and wondrous place the Internet is. This time I just happened to be personally involved.

It begins with this July 20 article on io9, which introduced me to Gravity Falls:

Gravity Falls was a cartoon that ran on Disney XD from 2012 until February of 2016, where it ended its run after two seasons. It followed the adventures of twins Dipper and Mabel Pines, who went to spend the summer with their (great-uncle) in the Oregon town of Gravity Falls. In the tradition of shows like Twin Peaks, the twins encounter the weird and the unexplained, from ghosts, to shape-shifters, to formerly unknown Presidents of the United States who were frozen for centuries.

What made the show so special—besides its amazing voice acting, outrageous humor, and heartwarming character moments—was its reliance on code breaking. At the end of each episode, viewers were presented with a jumbled assortment of letters that they could crack. Some were hidden jokes, but others were bits of foreshadowing that were sometimes incredibly bleak and foreboding.

The last frames of the last episode showed the cartoon’s main villain, Bill Cipher, as what appeared to be a statue in a real-life setting.

Fans of the show speculated that the statue really existed and was out there, somewhere. Clues were sifted and search parties formed, but no one could find it.

Finally, the show’s creator, Alex Hirsch, put together a treasure hunt for Bill’s location. It began with this tweet:

Using the hashtag #CipherHunt (the deciphered result of Hirsch’s hashtag above), Gravity Falls enthusiasts began exchanging clues and theories, quickly determining the first location to be the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. A clue there led cipher hunters to a second clue at the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo, and so on, through Georgia, Rhode Island, California and Oregon. Thousands of fans were actively involved in the search, with thousands more lurking and cheering them on.

I began watching reruns of Gravity Falls, loving the humor and in-jokes, but also intrigued by the regular use of ciphers. Back in the good old days I used to write a column on unknown ciphers for the American Cryptogram Association, and had a cover story published in Civil War Times Illustrated on codebreaking in the Civil War. Hirsch seemed to be a real student of cryptology, though in consideration of his audience kept his ciphers relatively simple.

For two weeks I followed the hunt amid maps and geocaching and jigsaw puzzles, kids and adults live-streaming themselves digging through leaves for clues in various parks, until at last we reached the final clue. There we were all stumped. The clue informed us that the answer to Bill’s location was “written in the trees” of the picture in the very first clue Hirsch had tweeted. After a few days of fruitless guessing by the fans, Hirsch took pity and gave a hint that was quickly deduced to indicate a Polybius cipher was in play.

I admit I spent more time than I should have on the problem, but I finally reached a working hypothesis, which I posted on Twitter and on Reddit, where a megathread had been created devoted to the hunt.

Another hunter applied the “x marks the spot” segment to a Google map of Reedsport and found a perfect match.

Even though it was approaching sundown, Gravity Falls fans in Oregon immediately jumped in their vehicles and headed for Reedsport. I started to get a little worried. If I were wrong, I would be responsible for little children wandering around in the Oregon woods at night.

A young woman from California had already driven to Oregon – before the last clue had been solved – and apparently was in hover mode waiting for a solution. The video of her experience is on YouTube, but if you don’t want to watch it all, jump ahead to the 15:00 mark to see her on a forest trail, like something out of The Blair Witch Project, until she comes upon her goal.

Next on the scene was a family – with a baby in tow – who dug up the treasure in front of the statue. That begins at the 23:00 mark of their livestream.

There was great rejoicing in Gravity Falls-land. io9 ran a follow-up story, Hirsch congratulated all the participants, my small contribution was lauded across a section of the Internet, and thanks to one devoted fan who braved long lines at a gallery, I received a personalized reward.

Some might find a deep meaning to all this – like if the power of the Internet can be used to solve multiple puzzles to lead to a box of tchotchkes in the Oregon woods, why can’t it bring about world peace? – but I’m simply encouraged that the pioneer spirit isn’t dead in America. It was one thing to solve a cipher in the comfort of my office. It was quite another for others to go out alone – or with their entire family – into the wilderness to test a theory. My respect and hopes for the next generation have risen dramatically.