|A Note from Rabbi Creditor & Two Recommended Action Steps|
Dec 31, 2008
A Note from Rabbi Creditor & Two Recommended Action Steps
J: Local Jews defend, criticize Israel
by dan pine, staff writer
Friday January 2, 2009
Lying awake in a Bedouin tent somewhere in the Negev, Daniel Feder could hear the faint rumble of bombs echoing across the desert night. Not far away, Israel was waging war against Hamas.
"We were out of the range of any rocket fire," the rabbi of Burlingame's Peninsula Temple Sholom said Dec. 30 by phone from Israel, during a weeklong congregational mission. "But we have a clearer sense not only of the restraint Israel has shown since 2006, but the importance of Israel responding with strength. If Israel loses its deterrence, Israel and its citizens will be more vulnerable."
Feder's view is one along a broad spectrum of local reaction to Israel's sudden assault on Hamas. Like other Bay Area Jews contacted by j., he supports Israel in its struggle with an implacable foe. But he also feels the sting of civilian casualties resulting from the campaign.
"Whenever human life is lost or threatened, everybody has tremendous empathy," Feder added. "But I have great concern for the Israelis citizens of Sderot as well. They bleed, too."
Mervyn Danker, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Northern California chapter, echoed the sentiment.
"The collateral damage is regrettable, to say the least," Danker said. "Of the casualties, 80 percent were Hamas terrorists. When Israel kills innocent civilians, it's by accident. When Hamas fires rockets, they kill innocents by design."
Danker blamed Hamas for sparking the Israeli action, citing the Gaza-based terror group's multiple cease-fire violations. "You can turn the cheek only so many times," he said. "The Palestinian Authority tried to persuade [Hamas] to renew the truce. They refused, and the outcome was a salvo of literally hundreds of rockets being fired into Israel. No sovereign state can allow that."
Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos recently returned from a trip to Israel sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights. She visited residents of Sderot victimized by relentless rocket fire from Gaza, and West Bank Palestinians chafing under Israeli occupation. She is heartsick over the latest violence.
"Escalating violence is never a solution to an ongoing conflict," Marcus said. "The work that needed to be done during the cease-fire wasn't being done to reach consensus. This should have been avoided earlier on. Here we are trapped in the same old spiral of violence."
Marcus says her congregants have been talking about Gaza all week, and that she has heard a variety of views. "It's so emotional because all of us have friends and family there. When I hear people say 'my nephew has been called up to the [Israel Defense Forces],' I feel this connection and a great sense of sadness. Even though things have escalated, we still have to support the people there working for peace."
Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley's Netivot Shalom channeled his feelings about the Gaza war into letters to the editor at major national newspapers. He wanted to make sure that among the media condemnations of Israel, a pro-Israel voice was heard.
"Sympathy for Israel when it is forced to act lasts only so long," Creditor told j. "[Israel's] retaliatory acts are awful, but they are necessary. Other tactics have not worked. There's no question that war is an awful alternative, but this strategy seems to be affecting Hamas more directly."
Like Marcus, Creditor has heard from congregants about Gaza, but he said there wasn't much disagreement about Israel's justification for war. "Many people feel the way I do," he said. "Violence is ugly. Peace, dialogue and diplomacy are the preference. But we've come to a crossroads with Hamas, which doesn't even recognize the legitimacy of the other party."
To the claim that Israel caused excessive civilian casualties, Creditor cites New York Times and CNN reports that before the Israeli action, thousands of cell phone calls were made to Gaza warning civilians to avoid military sites.
Feder, in Israel, took note of the same, saying, "I'm extremely proud of Israel and the moral bearing that its military has. Neither its military nor its people are perfect, but Israel holds itself to an extraordinarily high standard."
That's not enough to satisfy Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. He is troubled by Israel's military strategy in Gaza and worried it will backfire.
"My major worry is for the people of Israel," he said. "I have relatives in Israel. My son is in Israel right now. This is a scary time and I understand people's fear. My problem is I don't believe [the Gaza strikes] are going to affectively address that fear. I'm also deeply afraid that this might represent the tipping point and that it may cut off the possibility of a two-state solution."
While calling Hamas' rocket fire into Israel a war crime, Cooper also believes Israel should have negotiated with Hamas despite its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. "At Kehilla, we were advocating direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO as early as 1985 when the same arguments were being made."
Cooper was quick to add: "The one thing we're all united on is a prayer for peace and security for the Israeli people. Our disagreements are strategic."
The AJC's Danker gives the moral high ground to Israel, noting that Hamas uses "civilians as a defensive shield. Over about a year, [Israel] had done a survey of exactly where these [Hamas] infrastructures were located. The bombing was close to pinpoint in almost every instance, which is quite remarkable. The idea is never to harm the civilians."
Even with late calls for a general cease-fire, voices within the Israeli government suggest the Gaza operation is likely to continue. That means the anguish over Israel's strategy and its results will also continue.
To address that anguish, at Temple Beth El's morning minyan Dec. 30, Marcus asked those gathered for a moment of silence to "hold all the people who died in our hearts." She went on to note the linguistic connection between the Hebrew word "dam," meaning "blood," and the Hebrew word "d'mama," which means "silence."
"In the face of bloodshed," she said, "there's a way in which only silence is the appropriate response."
Dec 30, 2008
A Prayer for Elusive Harmony
A Prayer for Elusive Harmony
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
The worst compliment an a cappella singer can get is this: "Your voice sounded great! I could hear you over everyone else in the group!"
Having recently reunited with an old college a cappella friend, I've begun reflecting on the power singing in a group has had throughout my life. It was because of the unpredictable harmonies of a Jewish a cappella group that I discovered my own Jewish voice and ultimately chose to become a rabbi. It was at a joint concert that I met my future wife, a talented singer. But those life moments are not the point. Those mid-life punctuations are about me. The power of that music was, and remains, its ability to bring strong, unique voices into blended harmony.
A memory of singing in London with Pizmon, the Jewish a cappella group of Columbia University, Barnard College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary: We had just revised an arrangement of David Broza's "Yihiyeh Tov/It will be good" to include his updated lyrics, which draw on dreams for peace in the biblical book of Isaiah. This was our debut, and we were nervous. We nailed the music, the emotion, the togetherness of the arrangement, and with it closed the concert. As we regrouped in the back of the hall, I collapsed in a seat, my body wracked by sobbing. It was the music, the 'being lost' in the harmony, the dream-like reality we were able to create, the peace that we could each taste as we together pronounced its possibilities.
Did we know then what we know now? That peace and harmony are easier to project than they are to experience? Perhaps. Did we realize what an anomaly we were? Jews of any and no stripes willing to promote by example a model of passionate celebration of each other's voice? Perhaps. Did we realize how fleeting the opportunity to dedicate time to our ecstatic harmonies would be? No, we did not.
There is so much going on in the world. So much cacophony, so much drowning out of the other's voice. War is a profound manifestation of this. And while "peace and harmony" in the face of war might seem like fairy dust in response to a charging buffalo, why do we find this prescription so laughable? Is it perhaps because we've lost our ability to sing? Because it takes so much time to learn how to harmonize? Because we've come to enjoy our own voice's sound above everyone else's?
We live in a time when one voice is not enough. I close, for now, with Broza's adaptation of Isaiah, wishing it to be truer than it feels:
We will yet learn to live together, amidst groves of olive trees.
Children will live without fear, without borders, without bomb shelters.
On graves will flourish grass, to Shalom – Peace! – and Ahava – Love!
One hundred years of the sword and we have not yet lost haTikvah – Hope!
Sometimes I am broken, but tonight with you I remain.
It will be good, yes it will…
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Emergency Masorti Appeal
Dec 28, 2008
Newsweek: A Return to Deterrence: Can Israel restore its aura of invincibility?
Of all Israeli casualties in the 2006 war with Lebanon, the loss of the Jewish state's aura of invincibility was perhaps the most devastating. For the better part of the preceding 40 years — since its lightning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War — Israelis were devoted to that image as a security guarantee in one of the world's roughest neighborhoods. "Deterrence" is one of the most-frequently used (and over-used) words in the Israeli lexicon; the concept has been raised almost to cult status. To Israelis it is much more than a strategic abstraction. For many, it is a rule that has been learned by rote. Historian Amatzia Baram recalls how his mother used to recite a Yiddish proverb to drive home the point: "Over the bent tree, all the goats will jump."
This week's assault on Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military, is being billed as a clean-up job intended to keep Hamas from launching rockets into Israeli territory. It is that, to be sure, but the stunning scale of the operation — 225 dead and hundreds wounded in the first day alone — is also intended to make a brutal point: that even after the Lebanon debacle, Israel is not the "bent tree" of the Yiddish proverb. One telling detail: the air assault was launched in full daylight. In the past, Israeli airstrikes — even during the intense conflict two years ago — came largely at night, when buildings were empty. Yet on Saturday the plumes of smoke and scenes of carnage were displayed in all their horror under a midday sun.
Rights groups immediately condemned the Israeli assault as disproportionate. Palestinian rockets, while disruptive and menacing, rarely inflict severe casualties (although on Saturday a chunk of shrapnel from a rocket did kill one Israeli civilian in a village near Gaza). Yet in the Middle East, balance-of-power calculations are not based on simple arithmetic. In "From Beirut to Jerusalem," Thomas L. Friedman memorably recounts a Bedouin legend about an old man who has his turkey stolen. The man is disconsolate, but his sons don't see why he's so upset over a single fowl. Then somebody steals the old man's camel. Then his horse. The old man blames it all on the stolen turkey. "When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything," he explains. Wobbly rockets may seem like turkeys to most of the world, but Israelis see a more profound underlying threat.
Of course, Israelis were making many of the same arguments in 2006, and that conflict ended up actually weakening the state's deterrent power. If the Gaza operation is seen as a failure — and that is a real possibility — this assault could have a similar result. Airstrikes alone can do little to take out rockets launched from a tripod. With troops massing on the border and the military calling up 6,500 reservists, a ground operation is looking increasingly likely. But even ground troops can't significantly shake the Islamists' hold on power. Hamas, says one senior Israeli intelligence officer, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more frankly, is "connected to the roots of the place." Israeli officials are being extremely cautious this time around about raising expectations to unrealistic levels — a key flaw of the Lebanon campaign. "This time, there have been no grandiose declarations that the landscape will be changed or history will be reversed," says Gerald Steinberg of Bar Illan University. "The terms of reference are much more modest."
It is hard not to see this latest operation in the context of Israel's upcoming elections, which are scheduled for Feb. 10. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the driving force behind the 2006 Lebanon strikes, has already announced his resignation. But his deputy in Kadima, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, is neck-and-neck with hawkish former prime minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's fortunes are also tied to the results of this campaign, which could well determine the outcome of the election. Livni is well-liked and perceived as squeaky clean, but she was seriously weakened by her role in the last Lebanon war. A well-executed, decisive strike with limited goals could boost her prospects, as well as Barak's.
A protracted, desultory operation that costs Israeli lives and provokes international outrage, on the other hand, will do more than just weaken Israel's deterrent power. It will also likely win Netanyahu the election. Bibi is at his most effective when Israelis feel vulnerable, as they did during the period before his 1996 election victory, when Hamas suicide bombers executed a string of devastating attacks that ultimately turned voters against his dovish opponent, Shimon Peres. One certainty: Hamas will find some way to retaliate for these most-recent strikes, probably with more rockets. Already longer-range Grads have begun landing in Ashdod, deep in Israeli territory. Suicide bombers are also a risk, although Israeli security measures have made infiltration from both Gaza and the West Bank much more difficult. Perhaps the most likely scenario is popular unrest in the Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem — the same types of deadly but difficult-to-prevent outbursts that shook Jerusalem this past summer.
Retaliatory strikes aside, an intense Israeli assault on Gaza could indeed restore some element of its deterrent power vis-a-vis the Islamists. The Jewish state "has already improved its reputation and powers of deterrence by yesterday's performance," says Jerusalem-based historian Michael Oren. Yet even as Israel strengthens its position with regard to Hamas, it risks simultaneously weakening its ability to confront larger, more-dangerous players — particularly Iran. Regional Arab allies like Egypt and Jordan will be critical if the U.S. and Israel are to effectively increase pressure on the Islamic Republic. The bloody images of dismembered corpses that are now airing around the clock on Al Jazeera will strain those ties. Israel's latest campaign may restore some measure of its long-lost aura of invincibility. Yet in the long run, it will come at a price.
With Joanna Chen in Jerusalem
Letter to the NYTimes
It is all too easy to have Israel's actions be the focus of a headline this past week ("Israeli Attacks in Gaza Strip Continue for Second Day", Dec. 28). Yes, the violence and deaths are truly terrifying in magnitude. But what of the Gazan weapons-smuggling tunnels, forty of which were destroyed by the IDF early Sunday morning? What of the thousands of cell phone calls the IDF made to Palestinian civilians, warning them to stay away from militants in advance of the attacks? Cell phone warnings and avoidance of civilian deaths have not been the strategies of Hamas, the duly elected leadership in Gaza. Hamas is ultimately responsible for the horrible violence and death of these past days, having barraged Israel's southern region with smuggled weapons instead of recognizing Israel's existence as a first step towards the peace we all seek. Hamas deserves the headline, and thereby the global accountability.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Letter to the SF Chronicle
It is all too easy to focus on the thousands of protesters against Israel's retaliatory actions this past week ("Across Mideast, thousands protest Israeli assault", Dec. 28). And yes, the violence and deaths are truly terrifying in magnitude. But what of the Gazan weapons-smuggling tunnels, forty of which were destroyed by the IDF early Sunday morning? What of the thousands of cell phone calls the IDS made to Palestinian civilians, warning them to stay away from militants in advance of the attacks? Cell phone warnings and avoidance of civilian deaths have not been the strategies of Hamas, the duly elected leadership in Gaza. Hamas is ultimately responsible for the horrible violence and death of these past days, having barraged Israel's southern region with smuggled weapons instead of recognizing Israel's existence as a first step towards the peace we all seek.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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How normal will life be for Obama girls?
How normal will life be for Obama girls?: The public is fascinated by famous tweens Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7
NEW YORK - They're only 10 and 7, and already designers are angling to dress them. They've been on the cover of People and Us Weekly. And there's that standing invitation — unlikely though it is to be redeemed — to the set of "Hannah Montana."
Malia and Sasha Obama are unquestionably the world's most famous tweens, and they haven't even moved into the White House yet. When they arrive, do they have even a chance at the normal existence their parents have often said they want for them?
A look at history suggests that the media, at least, will keep their distance. Chelsea Clinton, 13 when she entered the White House, was largely left alone at the request of her parents. Amy Carter, who came at age 9, was allowed to live a fairly normal life. And the much younger Kennedy kids were kept from the public glare by their mother, Jackie, who even set up a school for Caroline at the White House.
But this is a different world, one where photos and video can be snapped not just by mainstream photographers but anyone with a cell phone, and uploaded to the Web within minutes. It's also a world where kids, now a powerful consumer force, eagerly devour news about celebrities closer to their own age: Miley Cyrus, for example, or the "High School Musical" bunch.
Are the Obama girls celebrities in their own right?
"If you're talking about people who fascinate the public, then yes, absolutely," says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, which has featured the Obama family on its cover three times. "But if you mean celebrity in the sense that we can cover their every move, then no. These are kids."
Public fascination with the girls
Figuring out just how public the Obama girls can and should be, Hackett says, will be a tricky process not just for the media but for the Obama family.
"I think the Obamas are clearly aware there's a fascination with the girls and how they're going to lead their lives," Hackett says. "They're going to try to chart a course."
Though the Obama girls weren't constant fixtures on the campaign trail, they were hardly invisible, either. They occasionally appeared at rallies, spoke onstage to a video image of their father at the Democratic convention, and, with their parents, gave an interview to "Access Hollywood," a move Obama later said he regretted.
"I think that we got carried away in the moment," he said. "We wouldn't do it again."
Yet the girls, who captured many hearts with their poised, joyful, color-coordinated appearance on election night in Chicago, were clearly an asset to Obama the candidate, says Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly.
"These images of the Obama kids have been incredibly heartwarming," says Min. "No one could doubt that these were great parents, and that they have great girls."
But now, says Min, "it's time for business, and I expect there will be far fewer pictures." Except, of course, for the inauguration — "everybody wants to see them in something super-cute" — and perhaps a flurry of activity whenever their hotly awaited puppy makes his or her arrival.
A normal childhood
Certainly, there will be slip-ups, no matter how protective the Obamas try to be. Paparazzi shots of a shirtless Obama on a Hawaii beach were one thing, but those of daughter Sasha in a blue bikini may have been another — at least according to some angry commenters on the photo agency's Web site.
But once safely in the White House, the girls will be well protected and nurtured, says Ann Stock, who was White House social secretary during the Clinton administration.
"Will there be the occasional photo? I'm sure. But the people around these girls are going to work very hard to let them go about their routines," says Stock, now at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Can the girls live a normal life, or close to it? Stock, who watched Chelsea Clinton spend her preteen years in the White House, thinks they can. "I know it can work," she says. "Chelsea went to her ballet rehearsals. Then she came home, did homework, ate dinner with her parents, went to bed."
"You try very hard to make their lives be a childhood," says Stock. She remembers the White House ushers setting up a scavenger hunt for Chelsea when she came, so she could get to know the place.
And the Obama family is starting with one huge advantage over the past few years: Dinner together, every night. "Remember, essentially they're living above the store," says Stock. "They'll see each other seven days a week."
We know the Obama girls like their dance classes, their soccer, their sleepovers. Those will likely continue. And surely we can expect President Obama, like candidate Obama, to never miss a parent-teacher conference at the private Sidwell Friends school.
Former White House curator Betty Monkman recalls the little Amy Carter, famous for once reading a book at a state dinner, engaging in lots of the normal activities of childhood — like hanging out in a tree house designed by her dad, or carving pumpkins with friends.
"I think they had enjoyable lives," says Monkman of Amy and the other White House children she came to know during 30 years there. "Their families worked hard at it. Their fathers were there probably more than before. The media was not too invasive."
In the shadow of the White House
One author on presidential children has a somewhat more pessimistic view. In "All the President's Children," Doug Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, details the various difficulties he says White House children have experienced later in their lives. Not least of them, he says, is an identity crisis.
"Most White House children live in the shadow of the White House for the rest of their lives," says Wead. "For all their accomplishments, they are forever defined by something they said or did there."
If that's true, it could be one reason why so many White House children decline now to speak to the media, Carter and Clinton among them. But it's not a problem the Obama girls will be facing anytime soon.
First, they'll have to make new friends. At school, one can assume that neither Malia nor Sasha will be the odd girl out.
"You're probably not going to be the picked-on girl," jokes Min, of Us Weekly. "You're already going in as the queen bee."
On the other hand, even that can be difficult, says Carol Weston, an author of books for young girls and the advice columnist for Girls' Life magazine.
"I don't think they'll get left out of anything," says Weston. "But you want to feel you're invited because you're you, not so your parents can get invited to the White House! In New York, we see this all the time with kids of regular old celebrities."
Weston thinks that if anyone can successfully navigate the pitfalls of newfound celebrity at such a young age, it's the Obama family.
"I truly believe the Obamas have laid a good foundation," she says. "You get a sense that there's a lot of love there, a lot of back and forth. Michelle says she wants to be mom-in-chief — how wonderful is that? And Barack Obama says 'I love you' to his kids right up there on the stage. That wins me over."
Of course, the tricky part comes with adolescence — something Malia, at least, would be experiencing at the end of a first Obama term. With middle school comes all sorts of issues: rebellion, body issues, mean-girl stuff. But there's plenty of time to think about that. Right now, there are rooms to decorate and lots of people to meet.
And will the Obama girls be treated like celebrities? Weston thinks that's a given.
"This is America," she says. "And who's more famous than the Obama family? We're curious. Who wouldn't be?"
Dec 24, 2008
For The Inauguration of President Barack Obama by Ira F. Stone
How the heart
with its necessary
its tasks changing
color as it moves
from one chamber
to the other with
news of the furthest
for the closest
How it especially
takes the breath
to ache and
ready to swell
in pride or
How it heals itself
and breaks and scars
How it is damaged
by blockages anywhere
in the system but
How its wholeness
is always various
and when healthy
throbs with near-mad
hope and believes
if it is not endless
it is at least prepared
to give itself over
to the waiting
hands of its children
to be carried in their
hearts as though
there is a unity across
the imperishable divide
msnbc: "Charity gets personal amid economic hardship"
Charity gets personal amid economic hardship
Heading into the holidays amid deepening recession, Angela Smith has one concern that eclipses her own worrisome situation — the thought that Santa might not make it to some homes.
"Yes, we are in an ugly economic crisis and I'm scared like everyone else, but I'd rather go without than see little children suffer," said Smith of Cocoa, Fla. She said she took the little cash she had in reserve and spent it on goody boxes for children who otherwise might have nothing on Christmas morning.
Smith was among the hundreds of readers who responded to an msnbc.com query asking how the turbulent economy is affecting their charitable activities. She also was among the vast majority of respondents who said they plan to keep up or even increase contributions to favorite charities or those in need, even if they are feeling the financial pinch themselves.
Many also indicated they are focusing their philanthropy locally and, in some cases, dispensing it personally.
Such individual initiatives are increasingly needed, as institutional charities struggle to maintain contribution levels.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported Monday that 37 of the 66 charities it surveyed as part of its year-end roundup reported that donations are down in 2008. The major exception appears to be social-service charities, many of which have seen contributions increase over last year, it said. But that has been largely offset by increased demand for their services and the decline in value of investments used to fund activities.
A case in point cited by the publication was the Salvation Army chapter in Syracuse, N.Y., which has seen contributions increase by 20 percent over last year. But at the same time, demand for food from its pantry has doubled and the nonprofit is housing 50 percent more people than its shelters were designed to accommodate.
The charity, which relies on government grants and contracts for 70 percent of its operating budget, also recently learned that New York will cut support for many of its programs in April as it attempts to trim an estimated $15 billion state budget deficit, it reported.
Creative, personal giving
As charities and government social service agencies around the country wrestle with similar hard realities, some comfort can be found in the e-mail sent to msnbc.com, which indicates that the economic hardship has prompted thoughtful, personal and creative ideas for giving, even by some who might soon find themselves on the other side of the equation.
"I am certainly not wealthy and am on the brink of losing everything as I write, but that does not deter me from the joy of giving," Jack McLoughlin wrote from his sandwich shack in Thomaston, Maine. He said he doesn't limit his philanthropy to the Christmas season, as he donates year-round to the Salvation Army and food banks. When local fishermen were hit by falling lobster prices, he created a lobster special to help bolster their business. And with Christmas approaching, he has turned his business into a Toys for Tots collection point and gives a discount on lunch to anyone who donates.
Nancy St. Pierre of Cleveland wrote that the greater challenge posed by the difficult economy actually has added to the satisfaction she derives from giving.
"I have actually come to enjoy the challenge because I am a senior citizen who is supposed to be fragile and slightly dotty, teetering on the edge of senility," she wrote. "Instead, I'm enjoying the renewed sense of being smart enough to work out solutions to problems posited by this economic turmoil. I contributed quarterly to six trusted charities before the recession, and I am willing and eager to continue sharing with those facing hardship."
The responses also suggest a broader trend in giving patterns, toward addressing local and basic needs — giving to hometown food banks, homeless shelters, Meals on Wheels, animal shelters and granting the wishes of poor children through giving trees or similar programs. Some readers reported shifting their contributions to these immediate and urgent needs and away from nonprofits that serve more remote populations or causes.
Discovering need next door
Linda Flanagan of Henderson, Nev., was one of many people who said they were cutting down on family gift giving in order to free up money for helping people in need.
"I just spent about $140.00 buying warm clothes to send to a homeless shelter my sister works for," she wrote "I'm doing this instead of buying gifts for my family, all of whom are very secure financially and in need of nothing except a bit of merriment, which I'm sure they'll manage to create."
Other readers reported "adopting" a needy family or child through local agencies and providing food, clothing and gifts to match their requests.
But many said they didn't really need any help identifying the needy — they found them in their own family, workplace or neighborhood and responded directly.
Nina Flores of Fort Worth, Texas, said she reached out to help after her daughters told her about classmates who had nothing but oatmeal to eat at lunch every day. She started by doubling her daughters' lunches, so they could share with the other girls. Now she is giving groceries directly to the girls' families.
"This year will be the first we are going to help two families at my two daughters' school that have it really hard," wrote Flores, saying that in the past she and her husband had given instead to the American Red Cross and a Catholic charity. Now, despite feeling the pressure of the struggling economy herself, she's donating to the charities and helping locally.
Anne Hamm of Greenville, Pa., wrote that her mother thought of a creative way to help others by transforming a brewing family feud into a fundraiser.
"My mother has made a very beautiful quilt that everyone in the family would like to have," she said. "Rather than choosing who gets the quilt, she is selling raffle tickets to the family members and then donating the money to our local food pantry in town. With as many people as there are in the family and how badly we all want the quilt, I think it will be a nice donation!"
Turkey and stuffing, via the Web
Marcie Davis of Puyallup, Wash., said her family was moved by an article about shortages at local food banks. But rather then working through an existing operation, they decided to give Thanksgiving dinners to people in need, whom they found through the Web site Freecycle.org.
"I got quite a few responses and was able to bless three families," wrote Davis. "Then for the ones I couldn't do, others contacted me about helping and two more families got dinners!" Her impression was that the recipients were until recently members of the middle class unaccustomed to seeking help.
"The families were so grateful," Davis wrote. "It meant a lot to us to reach out to those who have needs, but are afraid to go to a food bank or might not meet the requirements."
We also heard from readers who themselves felt so squeezed by the current economy that they are in no position, or mood, for charitable contributions.
"Giving?????" wrote Darrell Holst of North Platte, Neb. "Thanks to the financial train wreck of the economic crisis there is little left to live on much less to give!! I'm now on the receiving end and waiting for my "rescue plan" from the government! I think I'm next in line right after AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, etc. etc. etc."
Giving time, blood
Others, like Mike Cheddar of Madison, Wis., said they were using a different currency for their charitable endeavors.
"I've stopped giving money," he said. "I volunteer time instead. Like most Americans, I'm bitter and McJobbed, so I've barely enough money to give my family nice things for Christmas. Now blood donation and volunteering to teach English is it."
There's no question that the year has dished out many reasons for gloom — shrinking retirement funds, foreclosed homes and Wall Street fraud to name just a few. But the tough circumstances only add to the joy of giving for some generous souls.
Iris Tobias donates through her job in the defense sector, but she gets her fun from her own "ambush" charity.
"I set aside a certain amount of money that I feel I can share and then I head out to mingle," said Tobias of Erie, Colo. Then, she goes out to stores, looking for people who are scrimping — perhaps with only bare essentials in their grocery cart, a stack of coupons in hand and maybe a calculator. (Tobias knows that look well; in the early years of her marriage, she and her husband scraped by on his military salary.) "If I get the overall impression they could use a hand I follow close, and as their back is turned I drop money in their carts," she said.
Another theme in the responses was expressed well by Margaret Driscoll of Poplar Branch, N.C., who sees in the tough times an opportunity to break the habit of buying gifts for people who don't really need anything.
"This year my family is not exchanging adult gifts," she wrote. "We are giving gifts to the children. We have also adopted a child in need and will purchase gifts for him. We will spend Christmas enjoying a great meal and each other's company. The current economic times motivated my adult children to make these suggestions. I was pleased. I have wanted to get away from the material aspect of the season for many, many years. The current economic crisis is giving us (and I hope everyone) the opportunity to redefine what the season should mean: Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."
Dec 23, 2008
Malcom Gladwell: "Annals of Education"
Annals of Education: Most Likely to Succeed
How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?
by Malcolm Gladwell December 15, 2008
On the day of the big football game between the University of Missouri Tigers and the Cowboys of Oklahoma State, a football scout named Dan Shonka sat in his hotel, in Columbia, Missouri, with a portable DVD player. Shonka has worked for three National Football League teams. Before that, he was a football coach, and before that he played linebacker—although, he says, "that was three knee operations and a hundred pounds ago." Every year, he evaluates somewhere between eight hundred and twelve hundred players around the country, helping professional teams decide whom to choose in the college draft, which means that over the last thirty years he has probably seen as many football games as anyone else in America. In his DVD player was his homework for the evening's big game—an edited video of the Tigers' previous contest, against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Shonka methodically made his way through the video, stopping and re-winding whenever he saw something that caught his eye. He liked Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, two of the Mizzou receivers. He loved William Moore, the team's bruising strong safety. But, most of all, he was interested in the Tigers' quarterback and star, a stocky, strong-armed senior named Chase Daniel.
"I like to see that the quarterback can hit a receiver in stride, so he doesn't have to slow for the ball," Shonka began. He had a stack of evaluation forms next to him and, as he watched the game, he was charting and grading every throw that Daniel made. "Then judgment. Hey, if it's not there, throw it away and play another day. Will he stand in there and take a hit, with a guy breathing down his face? Will he be able to step right in there, throw, and still take that hit? Does the guy throw better when he's in the pocket, or does he throw equally well when he's on the move? You want a great competitor. Durability. Can they hold up, their strength, toughness? Can they make big plays? Can they lead a team down the field and score late in the game? Can they see the field? When your team's way ahead, that's fine. But when you're getting your ass kicked I want to see what you're going to do."
He pointed to his screen. Daniel had thrown a dart, and, just as he did, a defensive player had hit him squarely. "See how he popped up?" Shonka said. "He stood right there and threw the ball in the face of that rush. This kid has got a lot of courage." Daniel was six feet tall and weighed two hundred and twenty-five pounds: thick through the chest and trunk. He carried himself with a self-assurance that bordered on cockiness. He threw quickly and in rhythm. He nimbly evaded defenders. He made short throws with touch and longer throws with accuracy. By the game's end, he had completed an astonishing seventy-eight per cent of his passes, and handed Nebraska its worst home defeat in fifty-three years. "He can zip it," Shonka said. "He can really gun, when he has to." Shonka had seen all the promising college quarterbacks, charted and graded their throws, and to his mind Daniel was special: "He might be one of the best college quarterbacks in the country."
But then Shonka began to talk about when he was on the staff of the Philadelphia Eagles, in 1999. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.
The year before, the same thing happened with Ryan Leaf, who was the Chase Daniel of 1998. The San Diego Chargers made him the second player taken over all in the draft, and gave him an eleven-million-dollar signing bonus. Leaf turned out to be terrible. In 2002, it was Joey Harrington's turn. Harrington was a golden boy out of the University of Oregon, and the third player taken in the draft. Shonka still can't get over what happened to him.
"I tell you, I saw Joey live," he said. "This guy threw lasers, he could throw under tight spots, he had the arm strength, he had the size, he had the intelligence." Shonka got as misty as a two-hundred-and-eighty-pound ex-linebacker in a black tracksuit can get. "He's a concert pianist, you know? I really—I mean, I really—liked Joey." And yet Harrington's career consisted of a failed stint with the Detroit Lions and a slide into obscurity. Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. "How will that ability translate to the National Football League?" He shook his head slowly. "Shoot."
This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.
One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is "value added" analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher's classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown's class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith's students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students' rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.
It's only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students' test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What's more—and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world—the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.
Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there's a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.
Kickoff time for Missouri's game against Oklahoma State was seven o'clock. It was a perfect evening for football: cloudless skies and a light fall breeze. For hours, fans had been tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium. Cars lined the roads leading to the university, many with fuzzy yellow-and-black Tiger tails hanging from their trunks. It was one of Mizzou's biggest games in years. The Tigers were undefeated, and had a chance to become the No. 1 college football team in the country. Shonka made his way through the milling crowds and took a seat in the press box. Below him, the players on the field looked like pieces on a chessboard.
The Tigers held the ball first. Chase Daniel stood a good seven yards behind his offensive line. He had five receivers, two to his left and three to his right, spaced from one side of the field to the other. His linemen were widely spaced as well. In play after play, Daniel caught the snap from his center, planted his feet, and threw the ball in quick seven- and eight-yard diagonal passes to one of his five receivers.
The style of offense that the Tigers run is called the "spread," and most of the top quarterbacks in college football—the players who will be drafted into the pros—are spread quarterbacks. By spacing out the offensive linemen and wide receivers, the system makes it easy for the quarterback to figure out the intentions of the opposing defense before the ball is snapped: he can look up and down the line, "read" the defense, and decide where to throw the ball before anyone has moved a muscle. Daniel had been playing in the spread since high school; he was its master. "Look how quickly he gets the ball out," Shonka said. "You can hardly go a thousand and one, a thousand and two, and it's out of his hand. He knows right where he's going. When everyone is spread out like that, the defense can't disguise its coverage. Chase knows right away what they are going to do. The system simplifies the quarterback's decisions."
But for Shonka this didn't help matters. It had always been hard to predict how a college quarterback would fare in the pros. The professional game was, simply, faster and more complicated. With the advent of the spread, though, the correspondence between the two levels of play had broken down almost entirely. N.F.L. teams don't run the spread. They can't. The defenders in the pros are so much faster than their college counterparts that they would shoot through those big gaps in the offensive line and flatten the quarterback. In the N.F.L., the offensive line is bunched closely together. Daniel wouldn't have five receivers. Most of the time, he'd have just three or four. He wouldn't have the luxury of standing seven yards behind the center, planting his feet, and knowing instantly where to throw. He'd have to crouch right behind the center, take the snap directly, and run backward before planting his feet to throw. The onrushing defenders wouldn't be seven yards away. They would be all around him, from the start. The defense would no longer have to show its hand, because the field would not be so spread out. It could now disguise its intentions. Daniel wouldn't be able to read the defense before the snap was taken. He'd have to read it in the seconds after the play began.
"In the spread, you see a lot of guys wide open," Shonka said. "But when a guy like Chase goes to the N.F.L. he's never going to see his receivers that open—only in some rare case, like someone slips or there's a bust in the coverage. When that ball's leaving your hands in the pros, if you don't use your eyes to move the defender a little bit, they'll break on the ball and intercept it. The athletic ability that they're playing against in the league is unbelievable."
As Shonka talked, Daniel was moving his team down the field. But he was almost always throwing those quick, diagonal passes. In the N.F.L., he would have to do much more than that—he would have to throw long, vertical passes over the top of the defense. Could he make that kind of throw? Shonka didn't know. There was also the matter of his height. Six feet was fine in a spread system, where the big gaps in the offensive line gave Daniel plenty of opportunity to throw the ball and see downfield. But in the N.F.L. there wouldn't be gaps, and the linemen rushing at him would be six-five, not six-one.
"I wonder," Shonka went on. "Can he see? Can he be productive in a new kind of offense? How will he handle that? I'd like to see him set up quickly from center. I'd like to see his ability to read coverages that are not in the spread. I'd like to see him in the pocket. I'd like to see him move his feet. I'd like to see him do a deep dig, or deep comeback. You know, like a throw twenty to twenty-five yards down the field."
It was clear that Shonka didn't feel the same hesitancy in evaluating the other Mizzou stars—the safety Moore, the receivers Maclin and Coffman. The game that they would play in the pros would also be different from the game they were playing in college, but the difference was merely one of degree. They had succeeded at Missouri because they were strong and fast and skilled, and these traits translate in kind to professional football.
A college quarterback joining the N.F.L., by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. "They used to put five garbage cans on the field," Shonka recalled, shaking his head, "and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one." But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn't that professional quarterbacks didn't need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.
Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test—the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores—which are routinely leaked to the press—they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.
We're used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors. We now realize that being a good doctor requires the ability to communicate, listen, and empathize—and so there is increasing pressure on medical schools to pay attention to interpersonal skills as well as to test scores. We can have better physicians if we're just smarter about how we choose medical-school students. But no one is saying that Dan Shonka is somehow missing some key ingredient in his analysis; that if he were only more perceptive he could predict Chase Daniel's career trajectory. The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.
The entire time that Chase Daniel was on the field against Oklahoma State, his backup, Chase Patton, stood on the sidelines, watching. Patton didn't play a single down. In his four years at Missouri, up to that point, he had thrown a total of twenty-six passes. And yet there were people in Shonka's world who thought that Patton would end up as a better professional quarterback than Daniel. The week of the Oklahoma State game, the national sports magazine ESPN even put the two players on its cover, with the title "CHASE DANIEL MIGHT WIN THE HEISMAN"—referring to the trophy given to college football's best player. "HIS BACKUP COULD WIN THE SUPER BOWL." Why did everyone like Patton so much? It wasn't clear. Maybe he looked good in practice. Maybe it was because this season in the N.F.L. a quarterback who had also never started in a single college game is playing superbly for the New England Patriots. It sounds absurd to put an athlete on the cover of a magazine for no particular reason. But perhaps that's just the quarterback problem taken to an extreme. If college performance doesn't tell us anything, why shouldn't we value someone who hasn't had the chance to play as highly as someone who plays as well as anyone in the land?
Picture a young preschool teacher, sitting on a classroom floor surrounded by seven children. She is holding an alphabet book, and working through the letters with the children, one by one: " 'A' is for apple. . . . 'C' is for cow." The session was taped, and the videotape is being watched by a group of experts, who are charting and grading each of the teacher's moves.
After thirty seconds, the leader of the group—Bob Pianta, the dean of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education—stops the tape. He points to two little girls on the right side of the circle. They are unusually active, leaning into the circle and reaching out to touch the book.
"What I'm struck by is how lively the affect is in this room," Pianta said. "One of the things the teacher is doing is creating a holding space for that. And what distinguishes her from other teachers is that she flexibly allows the kids to move and point to the book. She's not rigidly forcing the kids to sit back."
Pianta's team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is "regard for student perspective"; that is, a teacher's knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom. Pianta stopped and rewound the tape twice, until what the teacher had managed to achieve became plain: the children were active, but somehow the class hadn't become a free-for-all.
"A lesser teacher would have responded to the kids' leaning over as misbehavior," Pianta went on. " 'We can't do this right now. You need to be sitting still.' She would have turned this off."
Bridget Hamre, one of Pianta's colleagues, chimed in: "These are three- and four-year-olds. At this age, when kids show their engagement it's not like the way we show our engagement, where we look alert. They're leaning forward and wriggling. That's their way of doing it. And a good teacher doesn't interpret that as bad behavior. You can see how hard it is to teach new teachers this idea, because the minute you teach them to have regard for the student's perspective, they think you have to give up control of the classroom."
The lesson continued. Pianta pointed out how the teacher managed to personalize the material. " 'C' is for cow" turned into a short discussion of which of the kids had ever visited a farm. "Almost every time a child says something, she responds to it, which is what we describe as teacher sensitivity," Hamre said.
The teacher then asked the children if anyone's name began with that letter. "Calvin," a boy named Calvin says. The teacher nods, and says, "Calvin starts with 'C.' " A little girl in the middle says, "Me!" The teacher turns to her. "Your name's Venisha. Letter 'V.' Venisha."
It was a key moment. Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success. Not only did the teacher catch the "Me!" amid the wiggling and tumult; she addressed it directly.
"Mind you, that's not great feedback," Hamre said. "High-quality feedback is where there is a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding." The perfect way to handle that moment would have been for the teacher to pause and pull out Venisha's name card, point to the letter "V," show her how different it is from "C," and make the class sound out both letters. But the teacher didn't do that—either because it didn't occur to her or because she was distracted by the wiggling of the girls to her right.
"On the other hand, she could have completely ignored the girl, which happens a lot," Hamre went on. "The other thing that happens a lot is the teacher will just say, 'You're wrong.' Yes-no feedback is probably the predominant kind of feedback, which provides almost no information for the kid in terms of learning."
Pianta showed another tape, of a nearly identical situation: a circle of pre-schoolers around a teacher. The lesson was about how we can tell when someone is happy or sad. The teacher began by acting out a short conversation between two hand puppets, Henrietta and Twiggle: Twiggle is sad until Henrietta shares some watermelon with him.
"The idea that the teacher is trying to get across is that you can tell by looking at somebody's face how they're feeling, whether they're feeling sad or happy," Hamre said. "What kids of this age tend to say is you can tell how they're feeling because of something that happened to them. They lost their puppy and that's why they're sad. They don't really get this idea. So she's been challenged, and she's struggling."
The teacher begins, "Remember when we did something and we drew our face?" She touches her face, pointing out her eyes and mouth. "When somebody is happy, their face tells us that they're happy. And their eyes tell us." The children look on blankly. The teacher plunges on: "Watch, watch." She smiles broadly. "This is happy! How can you tell that I'm happy? Look at my face. Tell me what changes about my face when I'm happy. No, no, look at my face. . . . No. . . ."
A little girl next to her says, "Eyes," providing the teacher with an opportunity to use one of her students to draw the lesson out. But the teacher doesn't hear her. Again, she asks, "What's changed about my face?" She smiles and she frowns, as if she can reach the children by sheer force of repetition. Pianta stopped the tape. One problem, he pointed out, was that Henrietta made Twiggle happy by sharing watermelon with him, which doesn't illustrate what the lesson is about.
"You know, a better way to handle this would be to anchor something around the kids," Pianta said. "She should ask, 'What makes you feel happy?' The kids could answer. Then she could say, 'Show me your face when you have that feeling? O.K., what does So-and-So's face look like? Now tell me what makes you sad. Show me your face when you're sad. Oh, look, her face changed!' You've basically made the point. And then you could have the kids practice, or something. But this is going to go nowhere."
"What's changed about my face?" the teacher repeated, for what seemed like the hundredth time. One boy leaned forward into the circle, trying to engage himself in the lesson, in the way that little children do. His eyes were on the teacher. "Sit up!" she snapped at him.
As Pianta played one tape after another, the patterns started to become clear. Here was a teacher who read out sentences, in a spelling test, and every sentence came from her own life—"I went to a wedding last week"—which meant she was missing an opportunity to say something that engaged her students. Another teacher walked over to a computer to do a PowerPoint presentation, only to realize that she hadn't turned it on. As she waited for it to boot up, the classroom slid into chaos.
Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. "So let's see," he began, standing up at the blackboard. "Special right triangles. We're going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas." He drew two triangles. "Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can't, we'll all do it." He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn't easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can't, we'll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who'd evidently missed a few classes. "See what you can remember, Ben," the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: "I'm going to give you a way to get to it." He made a quick suggestion: "How about that?" Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. "That's all right!" He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.
"In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he's at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he's doing and who doesn't know," Pianta said. "But he's giving individualized feedback. He's off the charts on feedback." Pianta and his team watched in awe.
Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you've watched Pianta's tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. The preschool teacher with the alphabet book was sensitive to her students' needs and knew how to let the two girls on the right wiggle and squirm without disrupting the rest of the students; the trigonometry teacher knew how to complete a circuit of his classroom in two and a half minutes and make everyone feel as if he or she were getting his personal attention. But these aren't cognitive skills.
A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard's school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.
Another educational researcher, Jacob Kounin, once did an analysis of "desist" events, in which a teacher has to stop some kind of misbehavior. In one instance, "Mary leans toward the table to her right and whispers to Jane. Both she and Jane giggle. The teacher says, 'Mary and Jane, stop that!' " That's a desist event. But how a teacher desists—her tone of voice, her attitudes, her choice of words—appears to make no difference at all in maintaining an orderly classroom. How can that be? Kounin went back over the videotape and noticed that forty-five seconds before Mary whispered to Jane, Lucy and John had started whispering. Then Robert had noticed and joined in, making Jane giggle, whereupon Jane said something to John. Then Mary whispered to Jane. It was a contagious chain of misbehavior, and what really was significant was not how a teacher stopped the deviancy at the end of the chain but whether she was able to stop the chain before it started. Kounin called that ability "withitness," which he defined as "a teacher's communicating to the children by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: 'I know what's going on') that she knows what the children are doing, or has the proverbial 'eyes in the back of her head.' " It stands to reason that to be a great teacher you have to have withitness. But how do you know whether someone has withitness until she stands up in front of a classroom of twenty-five wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts and tries to impose order?
Perhaps no profession has taken the implications of the quarterback problem more seriously than the financial-advice field, and the experience of financial advisers is a useful guide to what could happen in teaching as well. There are no formal qualifications for entering the field except a college degree. Financial-services firms don't look for only the best students, or require graduate degrees or specify a list of prerequisites. No one knows beforehand what makes a high-performing financial adviser different from a low-performing one, so the field throws the door wide open.
"A question I ask is, 'Give me a typical day,' " Ed Deutschlander, the co-president of North Star Resource Group, in Minneapolis, says. "If that person says, 'I get up at five-thirty, hit the gym, go to the library, go to class, go to my job, do homework until eleven,' that person has a chance." Deutschlander, in other words, begins by looking for the same general traits that every corporate recruiter looks for.
Deutschlander says that last year his firm interviewed about a thousand people, and found forty-nine it liked, a ratio of twenty interviewees to one candidate. Those candidates were put through a four-month "training camp," in which they tried to act like real financial advisers. "They should be able to obtain in that four-month period a minimum of ten official clients," Deutschlander said. "If someone can obtain ten clients, and is able to maintain a minimum of ten meetings a week, that means that person has gathered over a hundred introductions in that four-month period. Then we know that person is at least fast enough to play this game."
Of the forty-nine people invited to the training camp, twenty-three made the cut and were hired as apprentice advisers. Then the real sorting began. "Even with the top performers, it really takes three to four years to see whether someone can make it," Deutschlander says. "You're just scratching the surface at the beginning. Four years from now, I expect to hang on to at least thirty to forty per cent of that twenty-three."
People like Deutschlander are referred to as gatekeepers, a title that suggests that those at the door of a profession are expected to discriminate—to select who gets through the gate and who doesn't. But Deutschlander sees his role as keeping the gate as wide open as possible: to find ten new financial advisers, he's willing to interview a thousand people. The equivalent of that approach, in the N.F.L., would be for a team to give up trying to figure out who the "best" college quarterback is, and, instead, try out three or four "good" candidates.
In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn't be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don't track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander's training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you'd probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can't be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half's material in one year, we're going to have to pay them a lot—both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.
Is this solution to teaching's quarterback problem politically possible? Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one. Teachers' unions have been resistant to even the slightest move away from the current tenure arrangement. But all the reformers want is for the teaching profession to copy what firms like North Star have been doing for years. Deutschlander interviews a thousand people to find ten advisers. He spends large amounts of money to figure out who has the particular mixture of abilities to do the job. "Between hard and soft costs," he says, "most firms sink between a hundred thousand dollars and two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on someone in their first three or four years," and in most cases, of course, that investment comes to naught. But, if you were willing to make that kind of investment and show that kind of patience, you wound up with a truly high-performing financial adviser. "We have a hundred and twenty-five full-time advisers," Deutschlander says. "Last year, we had seventy-one of them qualify for the Million Dollar Round Table"—the industry's association of its most successful practitioners. "We're seventy-one out of a hundred and twenty-five in that élite group." What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?
Midway through the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma State–Missouri game, the Tigers were in trouble. For the first time all year, they were behind late in the game. They needed to score, or they'd lose any chance of a national championship. Daniel took the snap from his center, and planted his feet to pass. His receivers were covered. He began to run. The Oklahoma State defenders closed in on him. He was under pressure, something that rarely happened to him in the spread. Desperate, he heaved the ball downfield, right into the arms of a Cowboy defender.
Shonka jumped up. "That's not like him!" he cried out. "He doesn't throw stuff up like that."
Next to Shonka, a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs looked crestfallen. "Chase never throws something up for grabs!"
It was tempting to see Daniel's mistake as definitive. The spread had broken down. He was finally under pressure. This was what it would be like to be an N.F.L. quarterback, wasn't it? But there is nothing like being an N.F.L. quarterback except being an N.F.L. quarterback. A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice. Maybe that interception means that Daniel won't be a good professional quarterback, or maybe he made a mistake that he'll learn from. "In a great big piece of pie," Shonka said, "that was just a little slice." ♦
Dec 22, 2008
Forward: "Tradition and (50 Years of) Change" by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove
Thu. Dec 18, 2008
Few books have an iconic status specifically for Conservative Jews, but it is fair to say that "Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism" is one of them. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of this landmark volume of essays on movement ideology, edited by the late Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. For a half-century, it has served as a veritable reference manual — the vade mecum — for anyone interested in the intellectual roots of Conservative Judaism and its institutional arms. Today, "Tradition and Change" continues to illuminate Conservative Judaism's rich past, but it also offers valuable insights for a movement that has been struggling with uncertainty about its future.
In order to understand Waxman's effort, we must first turn to another study published a few years prior — Marshall Sklare's "Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Tradition." Sklare, who would go on to become the doyen of sociologists of American Jewry, characterized Conservative Judaism in terms of its social and cultural context. "The signal contribution of Conservatism," Sklare wrote, "would seem to be that of offering an acceptable pattern of adjustment to the American environment for many Eastern European Jews." The movement's synagogues, Hebrew schools, men's clubs, sisterhoods and umbrella organizations all reflected the need of an upwardly mobile Jewish middle class to translate its Old World faith and practices into an American context. So too, the Jewish Theological Seminary sought to train rabbis able to serve the shifting observance patterns of American Jews. As Solomon Schechter once quipped, the American rabbi would have to be both traditionally learned and understand how to play baseball.
Waxman's "Tradition and Change" may be understood as a response to Sklare's basic thesis. Indeed, on the very first page of the book Waxman writes: "It is the contention of this article that there is a clearly defined Conservative Movement, that it has an ideology, and that it is considerably more than the product of American sociological forces."
Waxman believed that Conservative Judaism reflected the evolutionary dynamism that has always been the calling card of the Jewish tradition. But he was understandably troubled by Sklare's contention that Conservative Judaism was merely the product of circumstance, trends and context. No Jew, certainly no rabbi, wants to be told that the things he or she holds most sacred and believes to be eternal are really just reflections of sociology. Religion, if anything, should be the one thing in our lives that transcends a particular context and connects us to God and to a people, extending both back in time and into the future.
Waxman responds to Sklare by pushing the starting line back to 19th-century German Judaism — indicating that Conservative Judaism was not some Johnny-come-lately on the American Jewish scene but the product of the great scholar-rabbis of European Jewry. Actually, Waxman pushes the starting line back even further, all the way to the beginning of Judaism, writing: "The Conservative movement has always clung to the position that it is not a denomination in the Jewish fold. It holds that it is Judaism." Reading Waxman's book, one is left with a feeling that Conservative Judaism represents a coherent tradition: anchored in our sources, internally dynamic, able to house a plurality of opinions, Zionist, intellectually rigorous but still reverential of our sacred texts. Most importantly, these values are not particular to any one slice of the American Jewish experience but traceable back to Mount Sinai itself.
So who was right? Sklare or Waxman? After all, if Sklare was right, then Conservative Jews living in 2008 may rightfully ask whether the movement has run its course and is woefully inadequate for the needs of the present. On the other hand, if Waxman was right, then the ideas that animate Conservative Judaism have the power to speak anew to future generations of Jews, just as they have done in the past.
To quote the tradition: Elu v'Elu. Both Sklare and Waxman were right. Sklare was correct that the meteoric rise of the Conservative movement was due to a series of demographic forces in American Jewish life. Waxman was correct that the underpinnings of Conservative Judaism are deeply rooted in our tradition and, more importantly, have enduring relevance.
American Jewry, of course, has changed immensely in the half-century since Waxman's book was first published. The question in 2008 is no longer how to provide Jews of Eastern European background with a Judaism able to co-exist with modern American society. Today, the question is how to provide Jews immersed in American culture with a bridge via which to reconnect with their Jewish roots — to return to Sinai, so to speak.
Conservative Judaism has always understood its mission to be one of providing the tools by which American Jews can negotiate the tensions between their Jewish and secular identities, their love for Israel and their ingrained universalism, their devotion to Torah and their critical faculties. The problem with Conservative Judaism isn't ideological — its spiritual pedigree is remarkably well positioned to meet the spiritual needs of Jews in our time. The challenge facing the Conservative movement is whether it is able to reorient itself to the sociology of our present moment.
The Conservative movement is in desperate need of reorganization. In a time when multi-billion-dollar industries are engaged in massive restructuring, who are we to stand on ceremony and act as if we are above a little bit of self-reflection? Who is to say that the structures we used in 1958 — whether it is our models for Hebrew schools, for synagogues or for movement institutions — are those that are best suited for the needs of 2008? We live in a different world than Waxman and Sklare, and if Conservative Judaism is to survive another 50 years, we need to recognize that fact — while remaining faithful to our religious roots.
Tradition and change — it is time for the Conservative movement to recommit to Rabbi Waxman's charge.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is the senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.
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