Sunday, December 29, 2013

Newcastle 0 Arsenal 1

After the mauling at Man City, Arsenal looked tattered and torn. They had lost to Napoli 2-0, ultimately setting up the second straight knockout bash with Bayern, lost to United 1-0 earlier and allowed a late equalizer to Everton. The pressure was on and their lead at the top dwindling. But since then they have put in three solid defensive showings and collected 7 of the 9 points on offer, with only the Chelsea draw in terrible conditions and with terrible refereeing from the perennially bad Mike Dean. Today, the Gunners were not at their best, with Ozil and Ramsey on the sideline, but in the 65th minute, as they were starting to mount some pressure around the Newcastle goal, Theo Walcott stepped up and delivered a lovely free kick in front of goal that Giroud finished.

From there, Arsenal made the bizarre decision to sit back and invite pressure and though it worked in the end, one does wonder why they didn’t try to retain possession at least for short spells of the last 15 minutes or so. In any case, the win took Arsenal back to the top of the table, though only by a point over City and two over Chelsea. The good news for the Gunners is they now have five very winnable games in a row in the league before their trip to Anfield on February 8. In the mix during that period, however, is the FA Cup tie against Tottenham at the Emirates. Wins in those six contests could be a warning sign to the rest of the league before a tough run of fixtures in February and mid-March. But a second scrappy win in a row is certainly good news after the team seemed on the brink of blowing their early season momentum. A few thoughts from the game …

1.  Wilshere Malaise:  it is time to start asking serious questions about the Arsenal midfielder whose form has been somewhere between average and poor most of the year. Sure he’s scored a few goals (all in a two-game stretch), but he otherwise gives the ball away more than anyone else on the pitch through bad passes, dawdling on the ball, absurd dribbling forays into multiple defenders and overly ambitious long balls. Beyond this, his defensive skills are suspect at best, as he is often not only beaten but strewn on the ground as the attack continues behind him. He blows too many opportunities with poor shots or ill-advised passes and essentially appears to hurts the team whenever he is on the pitch. The clear answer is that he is a squad player at the moment, but could it be that a loan out next season might help? It’s hard to see Wenger doing this, but I think there would be clear benefits to be had.
2.  Defense holds firm: After ceding six goals against City a fortnight ago, all on defensive or midfield errors, Arsenal have only given up one in three. While few are still counting them among title favorites, with most of the bandwagon onto Man City at the moment, the defensive nous of the Gunners could become a key factor in the run in. Beyond the clear back four starters (Mert, Kos, Sagna and Gibbs), Arteta and Flamini are solid defensive mids (though the later much more than the former) and Ramsey, when fit again, covers more ground than anyone in the EPL on a weekly basis. This solid defending will have to hold up if Arsenal are to have any chance at the title. The most impressive thing I’ve noticed about the team over the past season is their pressing high up the pitch. This is the strategy Barcelona used to perfection during their brilliant run a few years back and one we should employ more often.
3.  Giroud off the Snide, but … : Olivier Giroud finally scored, for the first time in the league since November 23, but missed an opportunity a few minutes later that could have sealed the result (scuffing a right footed shot from in close with the goal gaping). Giroud’s hold up play was above-par, but he just seems to lack the pace and finishing touch necessary at the moment. If Wenger fails to pick up another striker in the winter transfer window, I think he will come to regret the decision. The other needs appear to be a centre back (not a starter but a solid squad member), maybe another defensive mid (or maybe Cabaye a little further forward) and possibly a winger. But with Walcott and Podolski back, the winger is not a real need.
4. The Second Half: as I mentioned above, Arsenal have a run of winnable fixtures heading into the key matchup at Anfield. That starts the first of two tough periods that will probably decide whether the Gunners are title-contenders or pretenders. The first starts with Liverpool on the road and then home matches against United and Bayern (the first leg of the UCL tie). The second, which starts on March 11 and goes through April 5, sees Arsenal visit the Allianz for the second leg, then head to White Hart Lane against Tottenham followed by a trip to the Bridge and Chelsea, Man City at home and then Everton on the road. The second is a brutal spell, but one that could put Arsenal on the cusp of silverware if they come through it well.

Next up is Cardiff City on New Year’s Day at home. COYG!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Early Christmas Present

Finally some good news after a year of natural and human-made tragedy, economic stagnation, political gridlock and the exhaustion of ideas in Hollywood and across the artistic landscape - Justin Bieber is quitting making "music." (Salon). The non-tineared among us can sing a collective sigh of relief, at least until the next no-talent, finally-coiffed walking tool comes Along and sends earplug sales through the roof.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fire Garrett, Romo and Defense and Start Over

The Dallas Cowboys have been finding ways to blow games in epic fashion for three seasons now and might just miss out on the playoffs yet again after deciding to inexplicably throw throughout the second half, even as their lead dwindled. The worst of the bunch came on 2nd and 6 with time running out after a 4-yard run on first down. In fact, the running numbers for the game were impressive, but Garrison decided to keep throwing. Dallas were actually up 26-3 at halftime and then continued to throw throughout the second half as Green Bay scored on every on of their possession to win 37-36 (that's 5 straight touchdowns). How do you kill a comeback? By orchestrating a long drive that eats up clock. Instead Garrison and Romo decided that they wanted to set a single season record for pass attempts? Or to set the record for stupidity in one season? This loss comes after losing a shoot out against Denver earlier in the season, when Tony Romo threw an interception when they looked poised to march the ball down the field and win with a field goal. They blew a late lead against Detroit that was as close to a miracle as one will see in regular season football. And now this. -

While Romo will be blamed, I think it again comes down to a coach who might be smart, but coaches like a moron. He has cost the team at least three wins a year since joining and simply needs to go. Romo shouldn't be let off the hook either, though, with two late interceptions first ceding the lead and then ending the chance for a game winning field goal. This comes on the heals of the error against Denver, the interception in the closing game last season and many others I'm too annoyed to comment on at the moment. Romo is a very good quarterback who just isn't a winner. And for those who are obsessed with the statistic, that's 0-2 in December yet again. Romo has just signed a big new contract and will return, but the defense needs to be completely retooled and a new coach needs to be hired who can find success with a talented and underperforming team. A coach's job is to manage games and I can think of two against Washington, the game against Detroit, another against Baltimore and the Eagles game in just the last two years that he has played a role in losing. And this one, to me, is all on him -- even as the defense is useless. Fire Garrett now, please. Yuck!

Arsenal Implode (Lose 6-3 at Man City)

It was a bad end to a bad week for Arsenal, after a draw at home against Everton and a 2-0 loss at Napoli that pushed the Gunners from first to second in their Champion’s League group and created a major test in the first knockout round. The game Saturday provided the team with the opportunity to open up a nine-point lead on City and show their title-worthy chops after the recent setbacks. Instead they looked like the Keystone Cops, making one mistake after another that ended up seeing them ship 6 goals (with 5 based on clear mistakes). The Gunners can be proud of their resiliency in trying to mount comebacks not one, nor twice, but thrice, but upset for again failing to gain points against top competition. There were hints earlier in the year that they might finally be able to match up against the top competition in the EPL, with victories over Tottenham and Liverpool, but since then they have lost to a very average Man United, drew with Everton and lost to Man City, with Chelsea in the wings in 9 days’ time, with their lead in serious doubt.

Rather than a long description of the disappointing loss, I thought I would highlight some key points from the game:

1.  Wenger’s team selection mistakes:  though close to the normal starting 11, it included a couple of head scratchers that seemed to cost the team all game long. The first was to start Nacho Monreal over Kieran Gibbs at left back. Monreal has been solid coming into games late to add an extra defender and hold leads, but has shown some defensive frailties over the past 11 months since his move from Malaga. He was beaten on two of the goals, by not closing on crosses and generally had a game to forget. One wonders if Gibbs would have done better, particularly given the space that sometimes opened up for the Gunners when they went out wide. The second choice was even harder to fathom, allowing Arteta to sit on the bench while Wilshere played with Ramsey and Ozil. Wilshere has been underperforming most of the term, minus a few goals, and his display was below average in the first half and never really amounted to much throughout (he had a decent spell in the middle of the second half when Arsenal briefly got themselves back in the game). He has the lowest pass success rate of any of our midfielders, loses the ball far too often and is a defensive liability when the ball gets beyond him. A questionable choice that cost the team against a team that thrives at home. Hard to understand and reminds us of the wrong choices that have plagued Wenger for the past 8 seasons. And late on, the subs did little to improve the result, instead allowing the shipping of three goals from the 66th minute onward (and two in the last 8 minutes).
2.  Defensive/midfield errors: clear errors from the generally solid Koscielny and Mertesacker were guilty for at least 2, if not 3, of the goals. The first goal came from Aguero (14’), who hooked in a glancing header from Demichelis across goal, when Koscielny fell asleep at the far post allowing the in-form striker to sneak past him from behind. Mertesacker fell asleep for the fourth, allowing the diminutive David Silva (66’) to slip in front of him and finish a nice cross, that Monreal should have closed on; changing the momentum after the Gunners had closed to 3-2. The generally solid Mathieu Flamini was guilty for the third, after failing to latch on to a Ozil pass from deep on the right and allowed Fernandinho (50’) to thrust forward and score (with Szczesny coming out to far). The fifth came after Wilshere again gave the ball away in the midfield, allowing Fernandinho to score a second (88’), with Sz in no man’s land again. And the sixth, came after substitute Gnarby gave the ball away late, and Sz finished a torrid second half by fouling Milner in the box and watching Yaya Toure slide it behind him in a last second penalty (90’ + 6). It was a display of ineptitude that the Gunners will have to forget quickly, if they are to stay in the lead through the holiday season.
3.  Giroud needs a rest: Olivier Giroud had two opportunities to draw the Gunners level, and spurned both of them, with the second a gilt-edged cross from Bacary Sagna that he somehow headed wide from the middle of the box, six yards out. He also missed another great opportunity in front of goal and generally gave up the ball far too often, trying to create too much from Sz’s long balls, rather than pulling them down and distributing back. The reality is that in the past month or so he has spurned far too many chances and that it is starting to really hurt the team, as was the case in the first half of last season. In this case, it appears to be fatigue, and the result of Wenger failing to grab a striker in the summer window. Giroud could have put the Everton game out of reach, had a chance to open things up against Napoli and missed a number of chances across all the fixtures. Strikers need to finish when given chances, and his profligacy in front of goal is starting to take a toll on our title ambitions. If Wenger fails to bring in another striker in January, he has completely lost his mind.
4. On the other hand, Walcott!: Theo has been missed, with this being the winger’s first start since September. But while we do lose a little on the defensive end when he plays, he more than made up for it with two nice goals. The first came in the 31st minute, when an Arsenal counter started by Aaron Ramsey stealing the ball from Toure in midfield led to a pass from Ozil across goal to Walcott, who finished with a less than impressive, but still successful shot to equalize. In the 63rd minute, Walcott brought the Gunners back into the game, with a lovely chip across goal, beating the 6’7” Pantillmon (who might find himself back on the bench after this display). His speed down the right and clever movement across the pitch gave the Gunners more outlets and his finishing was something to behold, after the spurned chances from Giroud, Wilshere and Ramsey.
5. Flamini/Ozil Off: one of the criticisms leveled against Wenger is that he overplays his started and they thus tire out as the season wears on. This was the case for the first few years of the Gunners recent silverware-free period, but Arsenal have finished strong two years in a row to take the final UCL place. But this year, fatigue and a bevy of injuries have started to take a toll in big games. And it might be the case with our two new signings, with Ozil having a rather poor game after the first-half assist and Flamini less than stellar, allowing the fourth goal in with what looked like a tired half-attempt at latching onto an Ozil pass from deep in their own zone and missing a nice chance to score in the first half. His passing is generally perfect, but he gave the ball up recklessly throughout, and missed far too many tackles, allowing City’s attacking troops to round him with far too much ease. Luckily both have a 9 day breather to get back to top form, and they’ll need it against a Chelsea team that is winning mainly by scoring more goals then their opponents.
6. Referees Again Costing Gunners: last year was the first year that I can remember where Arsenal might have gotten more calls than their opponents throughout a season. But since the beginning of this campaign, the Gunners have been overcoming bad calls, rather than getting calls in their favor. Against Aston Villa, a questionable penalty and red card saw them lose their opening game, before the run that followed. In a few other games early, clear penalty appeals were ignored and questionable penalties called against Koscielny. Foul calls that made little sense went against the Gunners while others, like Napoli in midweek, bullied the team without punishment. On top of this, the yellows seem to come out far too often against the team; with Arteta sent off for two yellows on the only two fouls he committed all game. In this one, there were three questionable offsides calls against Arsenal, with two disallowing goals. Yes, that’s right. The score could easily have been 6-5, or 10-8 for that matter, if the refs hadn’t incorrectly intervened. There was also a penalty appeal that seemed legitimate, as Zaboleta kneed the ball into his outstretched arm in the box. But the Gunners really have themselves to blame for both losses, and so I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of the blown calls (there were also two corners that magically became goal kicks for City).

So the expected drop in form has emerged for the Gunners, even as they came back on three separate occasions to keep it close until the final minutes. On Wednesday, it appeared to be a case of relaxing too soon, when Dortmund was knotted in the late stages and the Gunners looked certain for first place, before the second in injury time made the score look worse than it was. But today the Gunners suffered an embarrassing defeat based on far too many errors by the midfield and defenders and too many missed opportunities when they were pushing forward. The mistakes are starting to creep in with increased frequency and Koscielny might be out for a little while with a nasty gash in his knee. Arsenal need to reassert themselves by beating Chelsea at home and heading into Christmas with the lead retained. They have already dropped some points when a win would have heaped real pressure on their two major competitors for the crown, Chelsea and City, and now they have to show they can play with the big boys. So far, they have been less than impressive in this regard, forgoing the away win at Dortmund in the UCL and the early success over Tottenham and Liverpool. COYG! 

Monday, December 09, 2013

Media Bias Examples

One of the greatest lies continually passed onto the American people by the media, besides lone gunman theory, * and Justin Bieber having talent, is the idea that the media has a liberal bias. A few examples from the past week or so should serve as exemplars of this absurd prevarication, passed on by the prevaricators themselves. The first involves a story about Greeks giving themselves HIV to get 700 euros a month in government aid. The second involves a large portion of the mainstream media’s obsession with deficits and debt. And the third involves that contentious issue of global warming. 

The first story, No, Large Numbers of Greek People are Not Giving Themselves HIV ... (Atlantic) details how a mistake in a report from the WHO led to Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge going apoplectic with joy, showing us how government spending creates insane behavior from otherwise normal people. The problem is the WHO corrected the report before these stories broke (not only among the right-wing loons, but across the global media landscape: Slate). The idea that people would purposefully make themselves very sick just to get government money plays directly into the conservative myopic worldview and reinforces the notion that it is government, not the neoliberal policies and bad bank loans, that caused this problem to begin with. This is the greatest lie of all – that government is the problem, not the solution to our current economic travails.

The second story, Why Do Newspaper Reporters Root for Deficit Reduction? (, asks why reporters continue to focus on the deficit and debt even as it is falling precipitously at the moment. Too many have fallen into the conservative trap of believing that Social Security will soon run out of money (false), that excessive government spending and not constant tax cuts and the reason for deficits (both true) and that if we don’t deal with the deficit immediately, the economy will collapse (false, as Keynesian economics demonstrated until it was abandoned in the 70s). The reality is that the focus on deficits over jobs just reinforces neoliberal economic policy and the declining quality of life for far too many here and abroad.

Finally, a fascinating report from Media Matters found that while there's a 97 percent consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed climate science literature and among climate experts and a  96 percent consensus in the climate research that humans are responsible for most of the current global warming (a 2013 IPCC report agrees with this position with 95 percent confidence, and states that humans are most likely responsible for 100 percent of the global warming since 1951), in stories about the 2013 IPCC report, rather than accurately reflect this expert consensus, certain media outlets have created a false perception of discord amongst climate scientists. This not-terribly-surprising finding simply reinforces the notion that “fair and balanced” and “objectivity” are false and impossible goals that merely bamboozle the average citizen while serving the powerful. The same can be said about the lead up to the Iraq War, the terror threats, inequality and a whole host of other issues that obfuscate the reality that at least one and a half parties in this country are encumbered to corporate interests. 

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Arsenal 1 Everton 1

Arsenal missed out on the chance to move seven points clear of the field after being held to a 1-1 draw by Everton at the Emirates. After Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea either lost or drew on Saturday, the onus was on the Gunners to deliver. Yet after a slow start that saw them thoroughly dominant for the first 40 minutes of the game, the Gunners had a number of chances to take the lead and finally did with 10 minutes left, when Ozil netted a Walcott header across the crease. And then the unthinkable happened – Barcelona loanee Gerard Deulofeu found a slight opening and smashed the ball past Szczesny for a draw.

Everton played a high-tempo pressing game, with the impressive Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas swarming all over Arsenal. But for all the pressure and possession, Everton did not have a shot on goal in the first 45. It was in fact Arsenal who crafted the two best chances of the first half, in the last five minutes. First a clever pass from Jack Wilshere played in Olivier Giroud, though Tim Howard dashed off his line to make the save.
The Everton keeper then showed his class again in the final minute of the half after a combination of Cazorla, Giroud and Ramsey sliced open the Toffees. Once again, Howard was fast off his line and able to smother the ball at the feet of Ramsey, moments before he scored.

The second half started with Arsenal in the ascendancy, creating several half chances. Everton had chances of their own on the counter though and Szczesny was called into action for the first time on 54 minutes, as he had to push out a stinging drive from Steven Pienaar after a rapid Everton break. Minutes later, the alert Howard denied Ramsey a ninth Premier League goal, as the Everton keeper scrambled across his line to keep out the Welshman’s volley. Szczesny was in the thick of the action again in the 67th minute. He had to push out a fierce drive from Barkley after Wilshere had inexplicably allowed a loose ball to run across the edge of his own area.

Wenger then made a surprise triple substitution with a shade over 20 minutes remaining, and it almost provided an instant impact. A loose ball fell to Mathieu Flamini inside the box, and he flashed a shot a fraction wide of the target. Arsenal were well short of their best, but there is a steely determination about them, and they found a goal with 10 minutes remaining. Two of Wenger’s substitutes had a big say in the goal. Theo Walcott nodded a cross from Tomas Rosicky across goal, and Ozil was on hand to stroke the ball home after Giroud had missed his kick. The lead did not last long, courtesy of an on-loan Everton substitute—as Gerard Deulofeu picked up the ball inside the box and flashed a powerful, dipping shot that flew past Szczesny.

Arsenal and Everton then both pushed forward for the winner and Giroud came closest with a rasping drive that clattered against the woodwork as time elapsed. In the end, it was a fair result as Everton won the possession battle 56 to 44, had one more shot (12 to 11) and only one less shot on goal (4 to 5) and a higher pass completion rate (84 to 78%). Arsenal had more fouls (13 to 11), but that was partially down to Howard Webb being rather judicious with his calls as Everton played an extremely physical game that probably should have resulted in more yellows.

It was a disappointing loss of the opportunity to go a full seven points ahead, but still leaves us five points clear of City and Liverpool, with a game against the former coming up in a fortnight. Ramsey had an odd night off, with only a 77 percent completion rate, a couple of missed opportunities and giving the ball away far too often (particularly in the first half). Wilshere played some decent ball, but again gave it up on several occasions that led to Everton counters. And Giroud failed to connect with two clear cut chances, though Howard had a lot to do with both. The defense held strong for much of the game, with Kos and Mertesacker both putting in strong games that kept Lukaku at bay, Arteta breaking up play on several occasions and Gibbs and Jenkinson marshalling well down the wings. However, it was Gibbs who failed to close of the leveler – and this was not the first time this season. It is the one aspect of his game he needs to work on, closing out the spaces in front of goal and timing his headers better.

When Flamini, Rosicky and Walcott came on in the 70th minute, the tide of the game changed completely and there are serious questions about why the Czech doesn’t play in front of Wilshere at the moment, as his play is far superior – pushing the ball forward, completing more passes and providing a greater threat without really giving up anything on the defensive end. There have been concerns that Arsenal’s inability to put teams away would hurt them in the end, and one could argue converting their chances would have made the equalizer moot, but the reality is that Everton was impressive throughout and that Martinez appears to have improved the team since taking over for Moyes, while the latter is mired in a veritable crisis at United, after losing to Everton and Newcastle within a week. Arsenal now has three imperative games starting with the final group match against Napoli on Wednesday – where they simply have to not lose 3-0 to advance (though a victory could see them top of the group of death). Then it is a trip to City where a point would be a success before hosting Chelsea. COYG!

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Time Magazine and White-Washing the News - Redux

Time Magazine is at it again, providing a very different perspective to U.S. and world audiences, a practice that is common across the media landscape. I previously mentioned the CNN U.S. versus CNN World coverage during the Iraq War. We could add the U.S. owned newspapers worldwide that are both more critical and explicit in their images and coverage. And we could add the International Herald Tribune, that has articles that never make it to mainstream American audiences. Here is the latest example, ignoring one of the biggest stories in the world in lieu of one that the NRA can get excited about ...


Arsenal 2 Hull 0

Arsenal just keeps on winning and the pundits keep on questioning their title chops. Sure Man City and Chelsea are better on paper, but neither has played with the consistency or verve of Arsenal from one game to the next. Today they dominate a Hull City fresh off a 3-1 scalping of Liverpool from the kick off until the end, securing their 7th clean sheet in their last eight games.

Their first goal came from the most unlikely of sources, a mere two minutes in, when Ramsey passed off to the charging Jenkinson, who sent a picture perfect cross that Bendtner headed home, splitting two Hull defenders. This is the same Bendtner who missed a clear cut chance to draw the game at Man United a few weeks ago, the same Bendtner who looked downright awful in the Capital One Cup loss to Chelsea, the same Bendtner who has only started one game since his galling miss at Barcelona two and a half years ago that sent the Gunners on a long tailspin that they are just awakening from now (in a 3-1 second leg loss that would have gone the other way if he had finished a clear chance). But Bendtner showed some real quality today, from his opening goal to a lovely chip that Ozil failed to finish – though he fluffed two clear chances, one that almost any striker in the league would have finished 9 times out of 10.

It was Ramsey who shined again, with several fine saves from Hull goalie McGregor keeping him off the score sheet, though he added the assist on the second with a lovely sliding pass through to Ozil who squared in his third in the EPL this season. The two appear to be finding the kind of understanding that one rarely sees outside of Spain and that floundering Barcelona team of yore. But Arsenal largely dominated the game from beginning to end, but for a 10-15 minute letup right before halftime. After scoring the second within two minutes of the second half whistle, Hull was lucky to keep the game to 2, with Arsenal showing the kind of flair and skill that will leave a lot of teams ruing their game against the current leaders. And this was with three changes to the side, with Jenkinson on for the injured Sagna, Bendtner up front and Monreal in for Gibbs on the left. Arteta also sat out most of the game, as did Wilshere and Walcott – though all three came on for second half cameos.

Szczesny continued to impress as well, confident and mistake-free for the recent run of games that now has the Gunners with the best defensive record in the league. The only blip in the game was Cazorla, who seems to have lost his poise in front of goal, missing several opportunities, though his play from the back continues to impress. Arsenal’s tight control and passing around a Hull side that sat back from large chunks of the game (the final possession stats were 67-33%) was truly spectacular and some missed opportunities and poor finishing, together with some quality saves from McGregor was the only thing that stopped Arsenal putting in five or six. In fact, if there is one complaint about the team so far this year it is not putting away opponents they are dominating until late in games. Sure Arsenal had all but sewed up the points right after the break, but they should have done so earlier and more convincingly when all is said and done.

And this has happened on several occasions this year. In fact, the game against Napoli would be an afterthought if the Gunners had taken a few more of their chances in the preceding UCL ties, particularly the missed Ozil penalty in their last game (even if the Marseille keeper was off his line early). But as long as they don’t lose by three, they are through – and a victory would garner them first place in the group of death. The game is sandwiched by two weeks of tough fixtures, starting with Everton at home this Sunday followed by Man City on the road, before Chelsea visits on the 23rd. After those four tough matches, Arsenal have five winnable games in a row and could well build on their lead by the turn of the new year if they keep their consistency up.

The rest of the teams around them generally kept up with them today, with Chelsea pulling out a thrilling 4-3 win, City holding on for a 3-2 victory after ceding two late goals, Liverpool winning big behind four from Suarez and Tottenham maybe saving AVB’s job by coming back with two second half goals. But the flailing Manchester United season continues to go south after losing to Everton 1-0 at Old Trafford, the first time the Blues have won there in 21 years. COYG!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Black Friday

Holidays used to be a time to spend with family, to take time off work, watch sports, eat some good food and relax. Of course, for many years now it has become an excuse to buy, buy, buy. And those four days around Thanksgiving, sandwiched with the biggest shopping day of the year in Black Friday apparently are no longer enough ... beyond stores being open on Thursday, is the addition of Cyber Monday to the extended weekend. What does it all mean, beside further reinforcing the notion that citizenship has been supplanted by consumption as the new raison d'etre of being an American ...

Cartoon by Ted Rall -   

Monday, December 02, 2013

Reprint: A Warning to College Profs

I thought this was so great, I would reprint it in full (Washington Post):

A warning to college profs from a high school teacher
By Valerie Strauss, Updated: February 9 at 12:00 pm
For more than a decade now we have heard that the high-stakes testing obsession in K-12 education that began with the enactment of No Child Left Behind 11 years ago has resulted in high school graduates who don’t think as analytically or as broadly as they should because so much emphasis has been placed on passing standardized tests. Here, an award-winning high school teacher who just retired, Kenneth Bernstein, warns college professors what they are up against. Bernstein, who lives near Washington, D.C. serves as a peer reviewer for educational journals and publishers, and he is nationally known as the blogger “teacherken.” His e-mail address is This appeared in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors.
By Kenneth Bernstein
You are a college professor.
I have just retired as a high school teacher.
I have some bad news for you. In case you do not already see what is happening, I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.
No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the U.S. Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind—we have already seen that in public schools, most notably in high schools.
Troubling Assessments
My primary course as a teacher was government, and for the last seven years that included three or four (out of six) sections of Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics. My students, mostly tenth graders, were quite bright, but already I was seeing the impact of federal education policy on their learning and skills.
In many cases, students would arrive in our high school without having had meaningful social studies instruction, because even in states that tested social studies or science, the tests did not count for “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. With test scores serving as the primary if not the sole measure of student performance and, increasingly, teacher evaluation, anything not being tested was given short shrift.
Further, most of the tests being used consist primarily or solely of multiple-choice items, which are cheaper to develop, administer, and score than are tests that include constructed responses such as essays. Even when a state has tests that include writing, the level of writing required for such tests often does not demand that higher-level thinking be demonstrated, nor does it require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure. Thus, students arriving in our high school lacked experience and knowledge about how to do the kinds of writing that are expected at higher levels of education.
Recognizing this, those of us in public schools do what we can to work on those higher-order skills, but we are limited. Remember, high schools also have tests—No Child Left Behind and its progeny (such as Race to the Top) require testing at least once in high school in reading and math. In Maryland, where I taught, those tests were the state’s High School Assessments in tenth-grade English and algebra (which some of our more gifted pupils had taken as early as eighth grade). High schools are also forced to focus on preparing students for tests, and that leads to a narrowing of what we can accomplish in our classrooms.
I mentioned that at least half my students were in AP classes. The explosive growth of these classes, driven in part by high school rankings like the yearly Challenge Index created by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post, is also responsible for some of the problems you will encounter with students entering your institutions. The College Board did recognize that not everything being labeled as AP met the standards of a college-level course, so it required teachers to submit syllabi for approval to ensure a minimal degree of rigor, at least on paper. But many of the courses still focus on the AP exam, and that focus can be as detrimental to learning as the kinds of tests imposed under No Child Left Behind.
Let me use as an example my own AP course, U.S. Government and Politics. I served several times as a reader for the examination that follows the course. In that capacity, I read the constructed responses that make up half of the score of a student’s examination. I saw several problems.
First (and I acknowledge that I bear some culpability here), in the AP U.S. Government exam the constructed responses are called “free response questions” and are graded by a rubric that is concerned primarily with content and, to a lesser degree, argument. If a student hits the points on the rubric, he or she gets the points for that rubric. There is no consideration of grammar or rhetoric, nor is credit given or a score reduced based on the format of the answer. A student who takes time to construct a clear topic sentence and a proper conclusion gets no credit for those words. Thus, a teacher might prepare the student to answer those questions in a format that is not good writing by any standard. If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support. Some critical thinking may be involved, at least, but the approach works against development of the kinds of writing that would be expected in a true college-level course in government and politics.
My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing. My teaching was not evaluated on the basis of how well my students did, but I felt I had a responsibility to prepare them for the examination in a way that could result in their obtaining college credit.
I would like to believe that I prepared them to think more critically and to present cogent arguments, but I could not simultaneously prepare them to do well on that portion of the test and teach them to write in a fashion that would properly serve them at higher levels of education.
Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.
Further, the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level. I learned to balance these seemingly contradictory requirements. For much of the content I would give students summary information, sufficient to answer multiple-choice questions and to get some of the points on rubrics for the free response questions. That allowed me more time for class discussions and for relating events in the news to what we learned in class, making the class more engaging for the students and resulting in deeper learning because the discussions were relevant to their lives.
From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use what content knowledge they had.
The structure of testing has led to students arriving at our school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge in social studies, but the problem is not limited to this field. Students often do not get exposure to art or music or other nontested subjects. In high-need schools, resources not directly related to testing are eliminated: at the time of the teachers’ strike last fall, 160 Chicago public schools had no libraries. Class sizes exceeded forty students—in elementary school.
A Teacher’s Plea
As a retired public school teacher, I believe I have a responsibility to offer a caution to college professors, or perhaps to make a plea.
Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are. We have very little say in what is happening to public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. The National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be the representative of America’s teachers—if he or she cannot get teachers’ voices included, imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us. That is why, if you have not seen it, I strongly urge you to read 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen’s famous blog post, “Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” After listening to noneducators bloviate about schools and teaching without once asking for his opinion, he was finally asked what he thought. He offered the following:
Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms.”
The strange little man cocks his head and, suddenly, the fly on the wall has everyone’s attention.
“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
During my years in the classroom I tried to educate other adults about the realities of schools and students and teaching. I tried to help them understand the deleterious impact of policies that were being imposed on our public schools. I blogged, I wrote letters and op-eds for newspapers, and I spent a great deal of time speaking with and lobbying those in a position to influence policy, up to and including sitting members of the US House of Representatives and Senate and relevant members of their staffs. Ultimately, it was to little avail, because the drivers of the policies that are changing our schools—and thus increasingly presenting you with students ever less prepared for postsecondary academic work—are the wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage.
If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.
You should have a further selfish motivation. Those who have imposed the mindless and destructive patterns of misuse of tests to drive policy in K–12 education are already moving to impose it on higher education, at least in the case of the departments and schools of education that prepare teachers: they want to “rate” those departments by the test scores of the students taught by their graduates.
If you, as someone who teaches in the liberal arts or engineering or business, think that this development does not concern you, think again. It is not just that schools and colleges of education are major sources of revenue for colleges and universities—they are in fact often cash cows, which is why so many institutions lobby to be able initially to certify teachers and then to offer the courses (and degrees) required for continuing certification. If strictures like these can be imposed on schools and colleges of education, the time will be short before similar kinds of measure are imposed on other schools, including liberal arts, engineering, business, and conceivably even professional schools like medicine and law. If you teach either in a medical school or in programs that offer courses required as part of the pre-med curriculum, do you want the fatality rates of patients treated by the doctors whom you have taught to be used to judge your performance? If you think that won’t happen because you work at a private institution, remember that it is the rare private university that does not receive some form of funding from governments, local to national. Research grants are one example; the scholarships and loans used by students to attend your institution are another.
Let me end by offering my deepest apologies, not because I may have offended some of you by what I have written, but because even those of us who understood the problems that were being created were unable to do more to stop the damage to the education of our young people. Many of us tried. We entered teaching because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of the students who passed through our classrooms. Many of us are leaving sooner than we had planned because the policies already in effect and those now being implemented mean that we are increasingly restricted in how and what we teach.

Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Higher Education Under Attack: Commercialization

The second installment of my short series on major trends in postsecondary education will briefly explore the commercialization on campuses. With the cuts to federal and state funding, it is little surprise that universities have had to look at other sources of raising revenues. These have included 1. Higher tuition, 2. Less direct aid (thus more student debt from loans), 3. Seeking additional research funding (meaning more control over research from the major foundations and government sources), 4. Attempt to fund revenue-earning research – like patents (focusing research on tangible outcomes, undermining humanities and critical research) 5. Moving from tenured to non-tenured faculty (mirroring the general attack on labor that neoliberalism is founded on), and 6. Commercialization. The last item is but a small part of the new college experience, but it slowly gaining steam.

UCLA is infamous as the most commercialized campus in the country (and thus probably the world), with sponsors selling products at the bookstores, chains providing food and goods, a computer store, corporate-sponsored events, the selling of the email list, etc. But we can also include the money major universities pay for sporting facilities, the selling of student demographics, allowing businesses to sell products on campus, renting campus space for commercial purposes and a host of other strategies to allow the increased infiltration of the business world into schools. But could this just be the beginning? Fernando Fragueiro, the President of a private college in Argentina called Austral University, certainly thinks so, with his plan to use the “Google business model” to make higher education free of tuition, in returning for the pure commodification of that institution: Inside Higher Ed.

And why not? The average American already sees more than 3,000 distinct ads every day. What’s a few more? The plan involves companies paying to advertise their physical products (laptops, for example) and services (keg removal, perhaps) to students during their course of study, helping to eliminate the need for fees. Companies hunting for new talent could also pay the university for detailed information on how its students were progressing – allowing them to cherry-pick the best. Sounds like a great plan and who wouldn’t want a free education?
So what is the problem? One could argue, of course, from an idealistic perspective that it undermines the integrity of the institution and certainly calls into question its original mission to be an independent source of knowledge creation and transmission. But that doesn’t seem to hold for the for-profit colleges that are sprouting up across the globe, providing specialized instruction with little to no research, no tenure-track positions and little of the intellectual and social enticements of their older, more respected public and private brethren. Beyond this, is there any problem in selling to kids? Let’s consider a few other arguments:

2. An overly commercialized campus merely reinforces the notion of the commodification of education and the sense that schooling is little more than the acquisition of a credential. One reason too few consider when considering the rampant cheating that now occurs is the way it relates to the general disregard for education and learning in America. Corporations and even small businesses on campus undermine the earnestness and lofty ideals of the college experience, undermining attempts to counteract our general anti-intellectualism.
3.  Students might be happy to be freed of student loans that can follow them around for years and encumber them to the market economy and capitalist system before they can make any real life choices, but what will they think of their very identities being sold to the highest bidder? Is it too idealistic to think that people should have choices as regards their privacy? One wonders if this generation even believes in the idea, given their sharing of every detail of their lives on Facebook, twitter and the other social networking sites. But a certain fatigue to the constant selling certainly appears to surround the most marketed to generation in history. Shouldn’t universities provide some shelter from the world of their youth and the future to come?
4. Would universities become even more encumbered to their sponsors, who already often have a say in research, program funding and campus initiatives?  The answer would probably be yes, putting further strain on “useless” majors like those that fill the entire humanities. Would those sponsors want the curriculum reflecting their needs? That seems reasonable. And ideologies? Well, corporations are quite good at getting those they fund to reinforce their hegemonic positionality.

So while the idea of a free tuition certainly appeals to any sane person considering a degree, the proposition comes with a number of costs and potential side effects that might not only devalue that free education but the very institution that provides it. Smaller scale commercialism is already leading us on that path – reinforcing the notion that corporations are everywhere and we should just accept their everyday presence as part of la nouvelle vie quotidienne. I’d prefer to pursue a different path.