"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

We Are Left With The Professors To Lead Us

For those of our readers who are so incredibly on top of things that they have time to read MEW today, I offer this prophetic insight from the Epilogue of Rose Martin's The Fabian Freeway: The High Road To Socialism in the U.S.A. copyright 1966. This is where they were heading back then.
"Particularly in England and the United States where the public is indifferent to ideology, the psychological approach is used, as was suggested long ago by the British Fabian, Graham Wallas, in his book The Great Society. Developed in depth over the years by Fabian-inspired researchers, that method has been graded and refined with a view to reaching every level of modern society—labor, business, the professions, the bureaucracy, senior citizens, career-minded youth, even pre-school children. It calls for the permeation of colleges, universities, and religious seminaries by Fabian Socialist-oriented educators and administrators, as well as the introduction of uniform “standards” and “guidelines” into federally financed educational systems. For total effect, it requires total control of communications and entertainment media, a state of affairs already in being, if not in full force.

The professor is still the main channel through which the Fabian Socialist outlook percolates to society at large. As the venerable Walter Lippmann said, in a keynote speech opening “The University in America” Convocation at Los Angeles in May, 1966: “Professors have become in the modem world the best available source of guidance and authority in the field of knowledge . . . There is no other court to which men can turn and find what they once found in tradition and custom. Because modern man in his search for truth has turned away from kings, priests, commissars and bureaucrats, he is left, for better or worse, with the professor.” 
Seems like we are there today.

For all we do to get Common Core out of our classrooms, we will still have the professor telling us why it needs to be in there, or telling his students why everything they learned from us was wrong, and we will pay for the privilege of having our children indoctrinated by him whether directly or through state taxes.

If you are looking for some reading material during the break, download the pdf of Rose Martin's work which one reader called " The Rosetta stone for understanding Fabian socialism, Communitarianism, and the past 100 years of world events."

Makes me think we will need more institutions like Hillsdale College which accepts NO federal or state funding so that they retain " academic excellence and institutional independence." Their mission, as stated in their College Honor Code, is to "develop the minds and improve the hearts of students, through which they rise to the challenge of self-government in a free republic."

Friday, December 21, 2012

How The Mighty Finland Fell

Ask most people how American students are doing compared to their counterparts overseas and they will tell you that we are middling at best and failing at worst. Ask who is doing it right and you will most likely hear, "Finland!" This northern country has been the utopia of education for many years,  growing as an edutourism destination to capitalize on her students' test scores on the PISA exam. Let's all be like Finland! Not so fast. A review of the most recent data reveals that this education envy may be misplaced.

Education Week compared Finland's 2011 performance on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) to the US's. "The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average in the 2011. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as 'benchmarking education systems' on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana."

Even more revealing is an observation by Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack," he said, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Another comparison is Finland vs the state of Florida on the PIRLS test. In this match up of 4th graders on the subject of reading, the scores were about the same. Florida was the only state to voluntarily particiapte in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and is known to focus on literacy in the 3rd grade. Finland did score above the U.S. average in reading in 4th grade.

Pasi Sahlberg, the director general of the Center for International Mobility at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, in Helsinki, attempted to explain the various test results. "With specific regard to math, I was not really surprised. ... Finnish math curricula put strong emphasis on problem-solving and applying mathematical knowledge rather than mastery of content. PISA measures the former, TIMSS the latter."

What does this mean to U.S. students?  Sandra Stotsky, a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, answered the question of whether this difference in the approach to teaching mattered. "...the answer depends on whether one wants this country to produce its own engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, or to depend on high school students with advanced math knowledge and skills coming from other countries to our universities."

What is striking in the article is the number of ways the state of Massachusetts comes out on top in the international ranking, yet the Massachusetts standards and curriculum are not the basis for the upcoming Common Core standards. How very odd if our goal is to have students prepared to compete in the global job market.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Whose Side are you on in the Common Core Standards War?

The Common Core Wars are heating up.  Today we will write about one battle brewing over at Diane Ravitch's site.  Ms. Ravitch published a small posting entitled In Defense of the Common Core Standards:

Roz Linder is tired of reading uninformed rants against the Common Core standards. She says most of the comments come from people who have never read them.

She says that it would be a worthy exercise to read the Common Core standards as informational text before making unfounded claims about what they recommend.

You can find them here. Please read them.

Dr. Linder writes:

Throw in the opportunity to read informational text about his plays, to explore themes and central idea, to stop being told what to think and just be given the tools to think. We have those tools nicely packaged…Common Core.

With stories emerging every day about teachers lamenting having to use them and questioning their effectiveness, I wondered why Dr. Linder (a former teacher according to her biography) supports them.  It looks as if she has become a capitalist offering her services to district so teachers/administrators can learn implementation techniques.  From her website:

Ready to bring professional learning to your city, school, or district? Email us at scheduleme@rozlinder.com for a customized quote or info@rozlinder.com for more information or questions.

I didn't see any of Ravitch's readers writing about this possible conflict of interest in her positive reviews of CCSS I applaud Dr. Linder for her enthusiastic support of the standards and that she can now be paid for helping districts to implement them.  The readers took her to task for her views on Common Core in the comment section.  An interesting comment came from a now famous ex-teacher in the education reform circles:

Kris Nielsen
Read them and was named a “specialist” at one of my schools. Here’s my take…freshly pressed: http://mgmfocus.com/2012/12/18/this-is-how-democracy-ends-an-apology/

Mr. Nielsen was the teacher who garnered much attention from his resignation letter sent to his North Carolina school district.  He entitled it "I Quit" and he spelled out the reasons which included his inability to teach students utilizing Common Core standards.  He speaks to Dr. Linder's praise of Common Core standards with his experience as a teacher and former CCSS facilitator. He DID read the standards.  He was "for the standards before he was against them" and he explains how he came to the realization that CSSS is misguided in This is How Democracy Ends--An Apology:


Almost a year ago, I offered my time to the middle school at which I was employed to give a two-night presentation that promised to ease parents’ concerns about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Connected Mathematics Program (CMP).  I was given kudos by my boss, my coworkers, and many of those parents.  We talked about the future, the upcoming tests by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), and we even did some hands-on math demonstrations.  It was a good time for me, and I hope those parents can say the same.  My message was simple: trust us–we got this!

Some of them were still skeptical, and they should be praised for that skepticism.

First, I want to offer you my apologies.  It wasn’t long after my presentation that I had a crushing realization that the entire thing (minus the hands-on stuff) was completely misguided.  I felt like a flip-flopper, but I’ve always valued the truth more than feeling good.  So, I’m here to clear the air.  The truth hurts and it should start scaring the hell out of you, because your children are your most precious gift and you will do anything to protect them.

The whole reason I was part of the team that put those presentations together was to ease your worry about the changes that were coming.  I’m here to retract everything I said.  You should be worried.  Very worried!

I was wrong.  The Common Core State Standards is a sham, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is an instrument of devastation, and it’s all run by the process you see in the following Venn diagram (don’t you love Venn diagrams?):
(MEW note: For better diagram clarity, visit Nielsen's website).

Before I start sounding too nutty, let me get down to the reality.  You’ll see that I’m not exaggerating.

America has long been known–despite our problems–as the country of freedom, innovation, and wealth. 

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is our democratic and free public education system. Prior to NCLB in 2002 and Race to the Top eight years later, standardization was limited to SAT and ACT tests, NAEP and PISA tests, and graduation exams for Advanced Placement courses.  We valued music, art, drama, languages and the humanities just as much as valued science, math, and English (for the most part).  We believed in the well-rounded education.

Now, the Common Core State Standards has one goal: to create common people.  The accompanying standardized tests have one purpose: to create standardized people.  Why?  Because the movers and the shakers have a vested interest in it.  It’s about money and it’s about making sure all that money stays in one place.

It’s been happening for a few years already.  StudentsFirst, ALEC, the Walton and Broad and Gates Foundations, and other lobbying groups have created a false crisis in American education.  They want you to believe that America is in sad educational shape so that they can play the hero.  However, what they’ve begun is a snowball effect of legislation that devastates public education, teachers, and an already underfunded school system so that they can replace the public system, the unions, and the government employees with private systems that promise to pay less, bust unions, and remove benefits and pensions.
Teach For America is a prime example of a way to steal government funding, place it in the hands of private corporations, and remove that pesky career (tenure) teacher problem.  It’s worked like a dream–the average TFA teacher stays in the classroom for about 2-3 years.  Only a few remain for 5 or more years.  So, the new American teacher is a mass-produced, temporary worker in an ongoing assembly line.  Cheaper?  Usually.  And they don’t complain about pay, pensions, or benefits, since this is just a step in their career ladders.

Which means that students don’t have highly-qualified and seasoned teachers leading their learning anymore.  Even worse that that, TFA teachers are prepared and trained with test data as the be-all-to-end-all of priorities.  These teachers only know effectiveness by the scores their students receive on standardized tests.

Cooperation? Collaboration? Creativity? Communication? Critical thinking?  Life skills?  Only if there’s time (which there isn’t) and don’t expect it to be integrated or cohesive.  That’s not what the training is for.  Our students are now part of a larger plan–to prepare them for the “college and career readiness” laid out by the “job creators” on Wall Street–the ones that want your kids to understand that a job is what they’re trained for and that they are lucky to have, so stop whining about your pensions and benefits.  And forget about belonging to one of those pesky unions–we will have outlawed them completely by then.

But more importantly, all of the skills linked above lead our students to be profound, critical, and meaningful participants in a modern democracy.  Some would argue that our days as a free country for the people and by the people are limited, and running out fast.  If we continue to support the path that our nation’s educational system is on, we will speed up the end of our democracy.  When students are forced to learn for the sake of a score and are denied the opportunity to think and reason and question and appreciate the world in which they live, they are all the more easy to control and deny basic rights.

It’s already happening.  I despise watching people discuss and debate issues in this country these days.  No one knows how to do it.

America did not become what it is today because of common people.  We celebrate our diversity, exceptionality, and bravery at the same time that we are attempting to bury those traits.  The world is following our educational models of the past few decades at the same time that we are turning our backs on those successful models.  We are digging a grave for our democratic process at a time when we should be paying extra special attention to keeping it healthy.

Our next generation of learners can save us and keep us strong through their diversity, ingenuity, creativity, friendliness, cooperation, and forward thinking.  And their dreams.  The Common Core State Standards, standardized tests, and privatized teacher corps are stifling those dreams.  Our democracy will ultimately be the victim.


In the Common Core Wars, I think I'll join Mr. Nielsen's army.  Skepticism about unproven/untested theories being taught to students while others cash in on questionable practices should be forefront in these battles.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Education Views - Two Ends of the Spectrum

Before anyone can answer the question, "What do we do to fix education," they first must answer, "What is the purpose of education?" There is not as much consensus on the answer as you would think. The next question that should be asked is, "What is the best delivery mechanism for education?" Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes it is the public school system. But then again, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Is school the best way to deliver education?

This young man from the UK gives his answer to both these questions in a very thought provoking way in his video "Why I Hate School But Love Education."

Contrast his viewpoint with that of Sec. Duncan who was interviewed by Reuters.

Duncan states, "We have invested massively in school-improvement grants ... and we have, partly as a result today, 700,000 less children in what we call "drop-out factories." (But) we have about a million young people who drop out of school each year in this country, and that is obviously economically unsustainable and it is morally unacceptable."

Children drop out of school for any number of reasons; to start working, pregnancy, apathy, because the family moves, mental challenges that make traditional learning very difficult to impossible. The tracking for drop outs is very poor so we don't always know the reason. We also don't know if they remain in the drop out category or simply move to another education opportunity. Some of the kids who drop out simply aren't ready to make it in the mass production system that is public education. When they are ready, they often get their GED. The point is, society has provided the school to the best of its economic ability, but the student decides not to avail him/herself of it. How exactly is that a moral failure on the part of society? It is very annoying when government bureaucrats throw around highly emotionally charged words like morality to make their issue (and themselves) seem vitally important.

When asked about equal access to higher education, Duncan's response included, "(For) the jobs of the future you've got to have some form higher education…. If you drop out, there is nothing out there for you. And if you just graduate from high school, very few of the high-wage jobs are there."

This young man's video challenges that common perception. IF you plan to simply participate in the school process (note he's not saying education), where you memorize facts or processes in order to spit them back out on an exam and then promptly forget them, and IF you then plan to wait for someone else to come up with an idea and then wait for them to hire you to help them bring that idea to market hoping that your college degree will be assurance enough for them that you can be taught to jump through the right hoops, then YES a college degree is necessary to have a job.

There is plenty of evidence that a college degree is not necessary for economic success.  The young man in the video happens to point out the extreme examples that everyone is familiar with, but there are plenty of examples out there are people who have had reasonable economic success without the degree. What separates them from those who are unsuccessful without a degree is their personal drive and interest in education which can be obtained from many sources besides college.  Reuters at least had the journalistic integrity to ask the follow-up question: "Research suggests, and conservatives argue, that just creating a highly educated workforce doesn't spark economic growth. For example, North Carolina has had better growth than Massachusetts. Do you agree?"

Unfortunately Sec. Duncan just can't help pounding the nail. "I think this is a huge piece of the answer and not the exclusive answer.… I think a skills crisis is a significant part of the challenge. So, again, it is just so critically important that we again lead the world in college-graduation rates. I think that would be a huge step forward in strengthening our economy, keeping good jobs in this country rather than going overseas… and reducing unemployment rates."

Just guaranteeing that kids graduate from college is the key to future success? Having graduates with massive student loan debt and a corresponding high expectation for high salaries to pay that back as a result is somehow going to keep jobs in this country? Flooding the market with educated labor (because skilled labor comes from other places than traditional college) is going to reduce unemployment? Perhaps Mr. Duncan should have stayed for Econ 102.

The critical mistake that Duncan and so many others make with a college education is the assumption that college is a transformative process. Underlying the focus on a college education is the belief that colleges and universitieis can take any raw material (student) that comes to them and transform them into people who will be successful in the business world.

The real push to get kids into college comes from historic statistics which show that people with a college education tend to make more in a lifetime than people without. This is true, but placing the credit for their success on the old sheepskin is a false correlation. Traditionally colleges and universities only accepted students with a proven track record for acedemic excellence and a personal drive to learn and succeed. If this were not the case, then Harvard would just take the first 2,000 students who apply. Instead, they only accept the cream of the crop. Is it any wonder that their graduates go on to be leaders in industry and very successful financially? They were driven to do so on their way in. The same is true of lesser esteemed institutions of high learning just on a lower scale. Yet even state schools have certain minimum scores and academic standards.

The push to put everyone through institutions of higher education believing them to be transformative is like taking a random group of kids to Neiman Marcus, dressing all of them in high end clothes and expecting them to suddenly start acting like cultured individuals. It is not the outer dressing, it is the person inside who matters.

Reuters also addressed the issue of inequality by citing Massachusetts which has seen "one of the biggest increases in inequality in the past 20 years." Forgetting that the state's nick name is Taxachusetts, they ignore certain economic realities that have little to do with education and a lot to do with human nature. There are fewer middle class living in MA because the cost of living is so high. Having parents who still live there I can attest to this problem. Their home is now worth more than 10x what they bought it for. That's great for them if they decide to move, but it is a killer for retired folks to pay the property taxes on that value. With high state income and sales tax, it is an expensive place to live. Neighboring states like New Hampshire have no state income tax so many middle income Massachusans have moved there. It is in our nature to make the most of our limited personal resources. The only people who can afford to stay in MA are the very wealthy and the very poor who live off government entitlements and subsidies. To lay this split at the foot of education is more than a bit disingenuous.

Sec Duncan, however, seeing another nail, is happy to pound away. He sees the split as a reason to step on the gas with changes to education. "... this movement towards quality, toward access and toward early-childhood education has to reach every child and every community who needs it. And that is simply not the case yet in Massachusetts and around the country. So it's not a reason to back off. It's a reason frankly to double down and to accelerate the pace of change."

The USDoEd would like everyone to run out and plop down a whole bunch of cash to buy a nail gun, and ignore the fact that many times some glue, or tongue in groove, or nuts and bolts would work much better. In the end it looks like we are going to get screwed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How Much Should/Can the Government Do to Shrink the Achievement Gap?

How many more governmental programs can address/solve the achievement gap? Can they make a difference?

Madison WI government officials have met and have some ideas on how to address the achievement gap present in the school district. I've linked two articles not only to read for the plans by these officials, but for the comments by the readers.  They seem skeptical and underwhelmed by instituting policies that are unfunded or underfunded and create more governmental support and/or control of children and families. 

The Wisconsin State Journal wrote Achievement gap in Madison School District under scrutiny:

Closing the achievement gap in the Madison School District will require a strong core curriculum in school and more support from outside of school, leaders of the district, city and county said Wednesday.
Madison School District Superintendent Jane Belmore, Mayor Paul Soglin and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi met Wednesday before the city’s Education Committee to discuss collaborative ways to help struggling students.

The three were in agreement about needs to improve student attendance, foster parent involvement and increase access to after-school programs. Other issues, such as increasing the amount of summer programming, received less attention.

"I would suggest that we not worry about funding. In other words: Design the best programs possible. Then we’ll worry about funding them," Soglin said.

Ann Althouse, based in Madison, picked up on the article and wrote in her blog:

"I would suggest that we not worry about funding."

"In other words: Design the best programs possible. Then we’ll worry about funding them."

The quote is from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, and the issue is "the achievement gap" in Madison schools. Soglin has suggested "expanding access to nutritious food outside of school, supporting transportation for students and parents, and increasing the amount of time children spend in learning environments."

Increasing the amount of time children spend in learning environments sounds like a polite way of saying keep them away from their parents as much as possible.

Both articles spurred interesting discussions via the comment section on why readers are skeptical of the government leaders' ideas on how to improve achievement gaps.  Most apparently believe many of educational problems are out of the hands of government officials.

Snippets from the Journal's comment section:

Whazzat - December 13, 2012 8:04 am
MagnusP - you are spot on. There is another major issue responsible for the failure of minorities in the school system. Children should not be having children. We cannot expect good parenting skills from 16-17-18-19-20 year olds. The underachievement problem will not go away until leaders in the minority community address the issue. Kaleem doesn't want to talk about it because there is no money to be made tackling the real problem.

MagnusP - December 13, 2012 7:38 am

It is very simple. Parents do not demand that their kids stay in school, do their homework and get  passing grades. Until that happens don't worry about enhancing the educational experience.

wipolitics - December 13, 2012 7:23 am
"You cannot fail to parent your children at home, then expect teachers to work miracles with them in the classroom."

EnuMPowers - December 13, 2012 7:03 am
Is that an elephant in the room? Shhhhh, nobody mention it.
Hint - This isn't a school problem.

Althouse readers had comments about parenting (or lack thereof) and delved into other issues about fiduciary responsibility, testing for these gaps (and why) and the groups behind this push for increased governmental involvement:
bpm4532 said...
Sounds like a guy who is opposed to open enrollment.

If he believes his stuff he should start with one school and all those things should be funded by the education funds available to that school. Unfortunately, these big thinkers who have access to other people's money, dream this stuff up and impose it like a blanket. A hot, stifling blanket, underwhich you suffocate.

When it doesn't work, they want to expand it, coerce students from leaving and insisting that just a little/lot more money is required to achieve the goal.
Dave said...
"expanding access to nutritious food outside of school"

Um, isn't feeding kids the parents' responsibility? And now nutritious the food that parents feed the kids is isn't a matter of money. It's a matter mostly of convenience/laziness - nutritious food generally requires a bit more work than just throwing it in the microwave.

But even if you're on food stamps (and use only food stamps to buy food) for a family of 3, it's over $6000/year. That's over $500/month, which is more than I spend to feed my family of 6.

Nevermind the redundancy of food stamps and the school lunch program.

Or is he advocating universal boarding school, so the State can have full, interrupted access to kids, without parental influence, to turn them into good unthinking drones?
Dust Bunny Queen said...
"expanding access to nutritious food outside of school, supporting transportation for students and parents, and increasing the amount of time children spend in learning environments."

Expanding access to nutritious food outside of school? How is he going to do that. Come into the kitchen, raid the fridge and pantry and throw out the junk food. Supervise the cooking or non cooking of meals? He's gonna need a bigger army.

Transportation. YES. Chevy Volts for everyone.

Learning environment? What does he mean by that? Just sitting in a classroom for longer hours and having an incompetent teacher drone on at you and spouting politically correct talking points at you is NOT a learning environment.

No wonder our schools are failures at education. The people at the top levels can only spout meaningless claptrap and think mushy thoughts.
ricpic said...
Gaps are bad? Only to mad, as in crazy, egalitarians who refuse REFUSE to acknowledge that everything is hierarchical. Everything.
Shouting Thomas said...
You've inadvertently entered into Steve Sailer territory here.

He's written often about the "nice white lady" educational initiative.

I.e., taking black and hispanic kids out of their dysfunctional homes and passing them off to the nice white ladies for proper rearing. Pre-school and after-school programs, enrichment programs, school lunches, etc.

He's also noted that long, term, this will backfire, and he points to the "Lost Child" controversy in Australia. Literally, aborigine children were taken from their parents to be raised by "nice white ladies." This is now viewed as almost a form of cultural genocide.
Is the "elephant in the room" comment (from a State Journal writer) connected with this Althouse reader's thoughts?  

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...
All those proposals are doomed to failure.

I'm 5'8". You can bring in the best coach in the world, and I can be as motivated as can be, but the coach will never succeed in getting me to dunk a basketball.

All he/she will be able to do is get me to vertical jump the highest that I can, given my height, muscle characteristics, and proper technique.

With other people of different starting-gate potential and attributes, he/she will succeed - easily in some cases.

But as long as the coache's metrics are "# of persons able to dunk", rather than "each person jumping as high as THEY can", results will be disappointing, and (oh my) you may even see racial disparate impact in results, which will also be correlated with racial difference is average height.

All that to say that - the 10000lb elephant in the room is that students come in with widely varying IQ, and so achievement metrics that can only be achieved by persons of certain IQs (like dunks for tall people), will be under-achieved by those without those IQs, despite the best coaching, the smallest class size, the longest hours, the best study habits, etc.

If you're 4'l1", you can't dunk. If you're 70 IQ, you can't reach some academic metrics.

And it is wrong to punish coaches and teachers for anything other than "getting the best, given the limits of the starting materials".

And also, grouping results by Race is NOT a good idea. You will always be disappointed at the disparate impact, because like many other attributes that have a strong genetic component, it is not evenly distributed across all the Races of Man.

Reality's a serious bitch, but there it is. Ignoring it never works.

Now, let the un-informed charges of "racism" , begin.
Reread the first paragraph and this sentence:  

They seem skeptical and underwhelmed by instituting policies that are unfunded or underfunded and create more governmental support and/or control of children and families. 

So why do governmental bodies insist they have the answer by implementing more programs and regulations? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Mother's Plea: Is it Now Time to Tackle the Issue of Mental Illness?

What does mental illness look like and what can we do as a society to address the issue?

Here is a parent's heartbreaking account of living with a mentally ill child and navigating the educational and mental health system.  From The Anarchist Soccer Mom and Thinking the Unthinkable.

The Blue Review had the article entitled, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother".


In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.  

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties with....at what age did your child....were there any problems with...has your child ever experienced...does your child have....”  

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. (http://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons-quadrupled)

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail, and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011 (http://www.npr.org/2011/09/04/140167676/nations-jails-struggle-with-mentally-ill-prisoners)

 No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all. 

This story was first published online by the Blue Review. Read more on current events at www.thebluereview.org

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