cheating story and edcol

Had another cheating story on the front page Saturday:

Texas officials have released the names of 241 more schools with suspicious patterns in their test scores. But none are likely to be targeted in the upcoming round of state investigations into possible cheating.

The new list, released Friday, brings the total number of schools with suspicious scores to 699. That’s almost one-tenth of all the Texas schools that administered the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2005.

Earlier, the Texas Education Agency had released the names of only 442 schools that had at least one classroom with suspicious scores. But Caveon – the test-security company the TEA hired to look for cheaters – also looked for schools that had suspicious score patterns schoolwide. Because of differences in the ways Caveon analyzed the scores, some schools were flagged as suspicious schoolwide without raising red flags in any specific classroom.

The TEA had not asked Caveon for the schoolwide list until The Dallas Morning News revealed its existence three weeks ago.

And my column ran today, which is probably more interesting:

Of all the layers of silliness in the No Child Left Behind law, it’s hard to come up with any more poorly thought out than the “persistently dangerous schools” clause. That’s the part of the law that is supposed to identify which schools are too scary and unsafe for kids to attend. If your school makes the list, it has to give you the chance to transfer to a safer school.

This year, five Texas schools were labeled persistently dangerous. Four are in the Valley, and I’ll admit I don’t know much about them. But the fifth one is a shocker: Cypress Ridge High School in Houston.

Cypress Ridge isn’t some gritty urban school with gangbangers roaming the halls. It’s a middle-class school in the suburbs. It’s in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the biggest suburban district in the state. The area has a lot of new growth; Cypress Ridge was built only four years ago and already has 3,500 students. Its test scores are usually better than the state average. If you want to imagine a Dallas-area high school for context, Cypress Ridge’s demographics are comparable to Newman Smith High in Carrollton.

So how did Cypress Ridge get labeled “persistently dangerous”? Was there a serial killer on the loose in AP Chemistry? Nope. Just a few kids snagging pills from Dad’s medicine cabinet.

MP3 Monday: August 14, 2006

Everyone loves story time. So this week’s MP3 Monday is all about the story song — tunes that tell tales. In particular, we’re looking at one of the masters of the craft: the British band Tindersticks. As always, the MP3s will be up for one week, so be quick with your downloading.
My Sister” by Tindersticks. From the album Tindersticks (II) (1995).
Tindersticks were one of my favorite bands in college. I was into moody, reflective, sad stuff at the time — I was at the age where moodiness makes you feel sophisticated and adult. (It also didn’t hurt that Tindersticks were as British a band as there ever was. Another layer of sophistication to poach!)
But while most of that stuff sounds half-baked and mopey today — to my ears at least — the first two Tindersticks albums (released in 1993 and 1995) remain amazing. And while their spoken-word story songs are not always their strongest, it’s a tradition they maintained for a number of albums.
This one, “My Sister,” is gorgeous. The words are sketches of a dark life, and with good headphones on you and a little liquor in you, it’s pure beauty. “Our life was a pillow-fight. We’d stand there on the quilt, our hands clenched ready. Her with her milky teeth, so late for her age, and a Stanley knife in her hand. She sliced the tires on my bike and I couldn’t forgive her.”
Harry’s Dilemma” by Tindersticks. From the album Working For The Man: The Island Years (2004).
Lyrics here. The narrator is bass player Mark Colwill, and the story is the sad tale of Harry, a big happy dog whose condition takes a turn for the worse, complete with a surprise ending. (Surprising musically, if not lyrically, since it comes only halfway through the song’s six minutes.) Originally a b-side from 1995; later released on the retrospective Working For The Man.
Ballad of Tindersticks” by Tindersticks. From the album Curtains (1997).
Lyrics here. This loungy track is the tale of the band’s second American tour and their interactions with the seedy denizens of both coasts. “We’re standing on our heads drinking sours of Crystal Schnapps. Now we’re unable to step back or forward. Swallowing a swallow, tasting it again, it’s not so unpleasant. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste. The first time, it makes you sick; then, little by little, it becomes delicious.”

spoon at the ridglea

Saw the greatness that is Spoon last night in Fort Worth. It was some sort of “secret” show, sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer whose name shall not be mentioned here, although I will say it is derived from an even-toed ungulate. (It’s remarkable how much the ban on most cigarette advertising has forced companies like Ungulate into lifestyle marketing — sponsoring concerts, nightclubs, and other allegedly VIP experiences.)
Anyway, it was a fine show, even though temps inside the Ridglea approached 2,000 degrees. Two songs that were new to me; potential titles include “Don’t Make Me A Target” and “Tune In Tokyo.” (MP3 of that first one available here.)
Of course, my attendance at a show means it’s time for another edition of Who Dat Drummer?, the special game. As I wrote some time ago: “It’s my attempt, the day after attending a fine indie-rock show, to describe the appearance of the performing bands’ drummers in terms of other historical or contemporary figures. Drummers are, of course, the quiet showboats of indie rock — free to cultivate a sartorial or facial-hair strangeness, but not burdened by the attempts at prettyness required of frontmen.”
But I saw Spoon last year too, and thus have already completed a Who Dat Drummer? profile of skins-pounder Jim Eno:
60 percent Dudley Moore, 40 percent Davy Jones.
At this point, however, I would like to revise said profile:
45 percent Dudley Moore, 30 percent Davy Jones, 15 percent Steve Carell, 10 percent Keith Moon.
Thank you for playing Who Dat Drummer?

dmn job cuts

Dallas Morning News To Slash 85 Newsroom Jobs.

The Dallas Morning News said this morning it is cutting 85 jobs in the newsroom, about 17% of the editorial staff, in preparation for a major restructuring.

The paper currently counts 500 employees in editorial, including interactive.

Executives are offering voluntary buyout packages to all employees. However, if not enough people apply, management could resort to laying off staffers.

the coming death of cajun french

The cover story in this week’s Independent is by my friend Mary. The headline: “The French Connection: Don’t believe the dire warnings about Creole and Cajun French dying out in Acadiana.”
Oh, if only it were true!
Reading the story actually seems to contradict that headline pretty strongly. Opening scene: People speaking French — who are in their late 40s or early 50s! And there’s a 68-year-old barber who speaks French! There’s a group of people who meet at a French table at a local cafeteria once a week, many of them in their 60s!
That there are old people who still speak French isn’t new, nor is it a sign of the strength of Cajun French. It’s a sign of weakness. Those people, bless them all, will die someday.
In my own family, French was spoken about as much as English when I was a kid. We lived for a while with my great-grandmother (b. 1907), who didn’t speak a word of English. Every week or so, I’d go with my grandmother to visit her aunt and uncle, who ran a small grocery store in town but couldn’t read English. My grandmother would read them their mail. That generation in my family grew up as Cajun rice farmers; French was a big part of our lives, up through the late 1970s and early 1980s.
But old people die. And when my great-grandmother did in 1988 — around the same time that the other remaining French-only people in my family did — the language ran dry. I haven’t heard anyone in my family have a conversation in French in the last 15 years. In the years before my grandmother (b. 1932) died in 2004, I’d sometimes try speaking in French with her. She’d have a heck of a time trying because, she said, she hadn’t spoken French to anyone in so many years.
And when I try to speak French today, it always comes out Spanish.
Mary writes about the great hope of Louisiana Francophiles, the French immersion programs in a handful of area schools. I think they’re great. Were I still living down there, I’d send my (fictional) kids there. But they’re small potatoes. In Lafayette, a district with over 30,000 students, there are about 900 in French immersion. There are probably fewer than 3,000 students statewide. That’s not enough to stop the language from dying — particularly since there’s little evidence that those kids will keep speaking French outside of school.
And of those kids who are learning French, they’re learning a version other than the Cajun their grandparents spoke. The only French teacher I ever had in a Louisiana public school was Belgian. Later, in private school, I had two Parisians and three Anglo (meaning non-Cajun) teachers. That’s one of the problems with language preservation efforts in south Louisiana — they’ve relied so strongly on outsider francophones. Mary writes about “Francomix,” the French-language program on the local public-radio station in Lafayette. Its host is…from France. Some of the early 1960s francophone activists (like Raymond Rodgers) were Canadian. Feufollet — the young Cajun band often cited as a victory for immersion programs — has a lead singer who grew up in Quebec. CODOFIL still gets in trouble with Cajuns for pushing French and Belgian and Senegalese teachers on Cajun kids, who are then inspired to start “correcting” their grandparents’ “non-standard” Cajun French.
You can also see that in the 2000 census data on language use in Louisiana. The census breaks down French speakers into “French,” “Cajun [French],” and “French Creole.” Nine percent of Louisiana French speakers over age 65 identified as Cajun or Creole speakers. Only three percent of French-speaking kids ages 5 to 18 did.
I’ve written about that census data before, but it’s really quite telling. There were, in 2000, 198,580 French speakers in Louisiana. But 37.3 percent of those francophones are age 65 or older. (By contrast, only 11.7 percent of English speakers in Louisiana are that old.)
Among kids ages 5 to 17, there are only 16,630 French speakers. That’s even fewer than the 20,690 in that age group who speak Spanish — in a state with a very low Hispanic population. (And that imbalance has no doubt grown substantially greater since Katrina.)
Finally, I suspect that the census numbers actually overstate the number of French-speaking kids. Remember, kids aren’t filling out the long form themselves; their parents are. I’d wager there are a disproportionate number of people who list their kids as French speakers out of pride when they’re really just taking French in school and not speaking one word of it outside class. To put it another way: I bet that, in other states, there are folks whose kids are taking Spanish or German or Latin in school but don’t mark them down as Spanish, German, or Latin speakers on the census. I’d wager that doesn’t happen as often in Louisiana.
Look, I wish it was different. I’d love south Louisiana to be truly bilingual. But it’s telling that all the regular folks that Mary finds speaking French in day-to-day life are older. For younger folks, French is a parlor trick — something a few people can break out once in a while for fun. Life isn’t lived in French for anyone under 40. And not even the best-intentioned immersion program will change that.
This isn’t a new problem. Check out this article from 1975. “Look What They’ve Done to my French, Mama: Attempts to Save Louisiana French,” goes the headline. And it’s true: People have been predicting the death of Cajun French for a long time. But the thing is, they’ve been right. Check this paragraph: “The 1970 Census showed, for example, that of the 21 parishes considered part of Acadiana, about 45 per cent of the people called French their mother tongue. In St. Martin Parish, for example, 79.1 per cent of the 32,453 inhabitants considered French their mother tongue. Even in the urban parish of Lafayette, 52.1 per cent of the 109,716 residents were French-speakers.” I don’t know the parish-by-parish breakdowns now, but the equivalent number statewide is now 4.3 percent, and I doubt there’s a single parish left that’s much over 10 percent. And 1970 wasn’t that long ago.
As for the idea that teaching kids how to speak French will save the language, that’s been tried before, too. “For the first time in years, children are speaking in French with their grandparents, since the middle generation missed out entirely on the French language,” a newspaper is quoted in the article — in 1975. That’s the year I was born. That non-French-speaking “middle generation” is now around 60 years old — they’re the ones we now think of as the most francophone folks around. And the children of 1975 don’t speak French at all.
One other quote from that article I find prescient, from someone named Richard Landry: “The French Acadian heritage will not be handed down through the ages by exposing school children to the Parisian French language in a classroom atmosphere, nor will it be handed down by a few people telling the public, through newspapers and television, that speaking French is the ‘in’ thing. A heritage is handed down by normal, everyday interaction between parents and children and friends and neighbors, in a natural setting where pride for a common land and language keep the heritage alive.”
Cajun culture isn’t going to die. The food, the music, the lifestyle, and the folkways will survive. (Cajun music, for instance, has a tremendous number of terrific young bands breathing life into the form these days, even as the oldest institutions of Cajun/zydeco die off. But that’s another post.) We’ll be different from the rest of the United States for a long, long time — or until our homes are all underwater, which ever comes first. But outside of bands singing old songs in the mother tongue, the French language isn’t going to be a big part of that, and we should be honest enough to admit it. The “dire warnings about Creole and Cajun French dying out in Acadiana” are all too true.