All posts by Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Teacher Reform

Brookins Head Shot*Andrew Cuomo, the governor of my state, recently gave the state of the state address in which he proposed reform to the public education system.

A major portion of his vision is holding teachers accountable for helping their students achieve and eventually terminating them if a teacher displays incompetence.

On the other hand Cuomo would like to allow for financial bonuses to those teachers whose students do achieve highly.

I appreciate the bind that politicians find themselves in when areas that are comparatively affluent do not achieve in areas where affluence should give an advantage. This is true with the United States among the nations of the world, and more specifically with New York among the states of this country. New York has the third highest GDP in the United States but ranks 38th in high school graduation rate. If I were governor this would concern me as well.

As Cuomo sees it, the problem is that teachers are not doing their job well enough. In the days since Cuomo gave his speech (January 21st, 2015) there have been various teacher voices to assert that the problem doesn’t lie with them. But the truth is probably somewhere in between.

In the world of K-12 education student achievement is the result of three entities being on the same page: the student, the family unit, and the teacher. If one of these components is pulling in a different direction, it takes a Herculean effort by the other two. Think about the effort a student and teacher have to put in to overcome a chaotic home situation; think about how difficult it is for a teacher and parent to get a kid to learn who doesn’t care; consider that when good parents believe their child’s teacher is substandard they demand a different class – proof that in their eyes the effort would be so big as to not even warrant trying. If two of the three components are lacking, the odds that the student will have a stellar academic career are next to zero.

One issue is that teachers have too much job security. In truth teachers proven to be repeatedly ineffective should be able to be fired more quickly. And effectiveness in one year does not automatically result in effectiveness the next year. Good teachers know that different students respond to different things. Cuomo’s education reform aims at rectifying this issue.

But another, equally problematic, issue is that student/parent engagement is lacking in many situations. Teachers can assign homework but cannot ensure that the student does it (as kids get older, even parents can’t make a kid do something they don’t want to). The student and parent components are just as important in student success. Unfortunately Cuomo does very little to address this. And in truth this is the harder issue to correct. No one will (and I’m not suggesting anyone should) proclaim that students who consistently fail to do their homework should be taken away from their parents (the equivalent of firing the parent). But in most instances teachers aren’t the only ones who need to be held responsible.

Circling back to the issue of financial incentives…

This sounds great in theory. But allow me to throw a few monkey wrenches into the setup. How do we account for an average or even below average teacher who benefits from a student population that is highly affluent? Specifically teachers in certain parts of New York have to put in less effort to have their students achieve on a satisfactory level than their colleagues from districts of a lower socio-economic status. To return to the parent part of the equation, even though parents have the right to pay for private tutoring teachers should not get credit for parents this parental effort when student achievement increases. In addition, how do we assess teacher performance for those grades and subjects where there isn’t a statewide exam? Specifically how could an art teacher earn a financial bonus?

I believe that Governor Cuomo has identified a real issue for New York and begun the very important conversation about how to address the issue but I’m not sure the proposed solution is feasible yet.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Religious Fundamentalism

Brookins Head Shot*A little while ago I wrote that the freedom of religion is the most important civil liberty protected by the 1st Amendment. Below is the dark side of that freedom..

The freedom of speech (which I argued is second to religion) is important because it helps to defuse the powder keg that is the freedom of religion. Religion has the potential to be more destructive than anything else because of fundamentalism. Free speech undermines fundamentalism.

Religious fundamentalism is the belief that a specific perspective is the only valid way of seeing things. Religious fundamentalism (specifically fundamental Christianity and Islam) dictates that everyone else conform to that one perspective and that resources should be enjoyed by those who conform to that one perspective. In addition anyone who doesn’t conform doesn’t deserve the same rights, privileges, and/or access to resources.

In this way religious fundamentalism justifies selfishness and leads to violent confrontations.

We are all familiar with the current version of Islamic fundamentalism and the episodes of violence it spawns – the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo as the latest example.

But looking a bit further back in history shows that Christian fundamentalism was the basis for the colonial expansion of Western European countries. All of those countries sent people out to sail and claim land for God and king because God wanted their king and country to possess more.

Even the United States with its freedom of religion was born with a similar impetus. The decision to declare independence from Great Britain was a result of the belief that Americans should not be made to share resources with the British folks who had recently protected them in a war. The Founding Fathers were liberal in some key areas but they retained the belief that God wanted them to prosper. And they used that belief to justify expansion across an already inhabited continent.

A popular assumption is that religion has caused the most violence throughout history. I’m not sure if that statement is true, but if it is true we can only point to religious fundamentalism as the reason. Half hearted believers (to put a negative connotation out there) or liberal thinking believers (the more positive way of viewing people) generally try to come to a middle ground rather than insisting and ignoring their opposition.

I don’t mean to speak negatively about religion in general. But religious fundamentalism deserves some bad ink.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Stuart Scott

The Socialist’s Journal: Stuart Scott

stuart scott

*When Stuart Scott died last week I didn’t appreciate his legacy.

When I first started watching ESPN Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were the headliners of Sportscenter. It seemed like every anchor had some sort of signature catchphrase. In that context Scott didn’t seem so unique.

But upon further review Scott’s appearance on ESPN was definitely noteworthy. Scott was the first black male to be a featured anchor on Sportscenter. And while Scott was one of many talents that created memorable phraseology for highlight packages, he was the only one that used vernacular and cultural references from African-American culture. In fact I remember younger me hearing Scott do a highlight package and questioning his decision to use ethnic nicknames as a gimmick; it seemed like Scott was trading on his blackness to advance his career.

And perhaps he was but as time went on I realized Scott’s vocabulary was not a shtick. He was being true to himself and his heritage. If he was trading on his blackness it was organic. I went from frowning on Scott’s highlights to rooting for him to get more camera time.

Talking to my brother helped me realize there is an entire generation of sports fans who either went to sleep listening to his voice, waking up to his voice, or both. In other words he was extremely influential. And even though I wasn’t all that aware of his being the first African American male to lead SportsCenter at the time, I have been acutely aware of how good an example he must have set so that we now look at multiple African American men on various ESPN properties daily.

Lastly Scott’s appearance on the national landscape helped transform our natural culture. African American culture has always been a significant subject of American culture as a whole. But from the 1980s until today African American culture has been getting further and further integrated into the popular culture at large. If cultural critics point to Jay-Z as someone who has normalized black culture to the country at large every year with a new album, if you can cite The Cosby Show for putting a black family in front of the nation every week, then likewise we must include Stuart Scott in that group and applaud him for helping to standardize black culture every night.

Rest in peace.

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: Quick Hits 2014 Pt. 3

Brookins Head Shot*I have been told Happy Holidays on numerous occasions over the past few weeks and it has always been a pleasant experience. Certainly there are more people in the United States that celebrate Christmas than any other holiday this time of year, but to take a more cautious approach and avoid the assumption that the person you are speaking to is celebrating Christmas is the polite thing to do. In other parts of society we want to be as inclusive as possible so why should this be any different? I’m glad the so called war on Christmas hasn’t gotten as much coverage this year. And it seems the sun will continue to rise even though Happy Holidays was the phrase I heard more often than not this year.

Everyone who thought the Ebola outbreak earlier this year would mark the downfall of the United States have been keeping quiet as their mouths are full with humble pie. Yes Ebola is a serious health issue. But it must be kept in mind that we were all aware of the seriousness of the disease and where it was coming from. Given that awareness it would have been very difficult for lots of infected people to slip into the country undetected. And who would these people be who want to spread a deadly disease without getting treatment for themselves. I don’t mean to minimize the effort that went into containing Ebola because I’m sure lots of people worked overtime. But I do want to highlight the fact that when there is a collective push, like there was against Ebola, that push will likely do what it is meant to do.

Imagine I am a popular figure in the United States. Millions of people have read and enjoyed my column over the years; I have no enemies to speak of that might want to destroy my positive reputation. When accusations come out that I am a rampant drug user, many would want to deny this possibility at first. But if more and more stories come out about incidents in which I was using drugs, and these stories are offered by people not looking to extort money from me or otherwise benefit, the public would probably admit I had a bit of a drug problem (hello Whitney). Change drug use to substance enabled sexual assault and we arrive at Bill Cosby. I don’t know the particulars of every incident that has been alleged, but I think it is safe to conclude that everyone isn’t lying on Dr. Huxtable.

Which brings me to my favorite observation about The Cosby Show which I didn’t realize as a kid watching on Thursday nights, but as an adult watching reruns. An Ob-Gyn who operates out of the basement of his home? How many of us would make an appointment with that doctor for our sister? Was that Cosby’s Freudian slip?

I think I’m a fairly liberal person. However my perspective on liberalism is generally constrained by the national borders of the United States. I believe civil liberties should be enjoyed by everyone on earth but I don’t believe it is the duty of the United States government to ensure that everyone gets them. This arbitrary line (I admit I could cutoff my liberalism anywhere) is how I justify a no holds barred approach to dealing with enemy combatants of other countries. It is silly to try to enact war actions while also trying to be civil.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

jameis winston

The Socialist’s Journal: Jameis Winston

jameis winston

Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates after their 37-35 victory over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at the ACC Championship game on December 6, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina

*Ray Rice and Jameis Winston have both been accused of violence against women albeit in very different ways.

Winston’s alleged victim was simply a young woman who made a poor decision and was allegedly sexually assaulted as a result. To be clear, I have no information regarding this case that isn’t already known. But from what I understand, the odds were against this lady every getting a fair hearing of her grievance.

I will admit to holding a bias in favor of the man in these kinds of situations. But I am also aware of this prejudice and I work to overcome it and look at the issue even handedly.

In this case I wonder what are the odds that a college student was awed by the fact that Winston took an interest in her: very high I’d say. What are the odds that she went back to his apartment with the intention of having sex: very high I’d say. What are the odds that she was still willing to have sex despite the presence of his friends and teammates: not as high. What are the odds that if she in fact changed her mind that Winston, who is an elite athlete and used to people pandering to his whim, was okay with not getting his way and simply said to himself “it’s not my night.” – very low. What are the odds that he pressured/coerced/forced her to do things she did want to: pretty good. And most importantly, what are the odds that his friends and teammates supported his version of events: 100%.

In this case while I can imagine a scenario in which a woman wants to falsely claim victimization by a soon to be rich athlete, I don’t think that is more likely than her trying to befriend him. And the way this situation has played out has made a friendship unlikely.

When a person who was abused as a child grows up and abuses children we point the finger at the perpetrator but also those who created him/her. In the same way Winston should be held accountable for his actions (perhaps he already has been and I just disagree – I recognize the fact that I could be wrong about what I have determined likely happened). But we should also look at how Winston came to be in a position where he would allegedly take such actions.

The financial stakes of big time college football make it possible for a university to repeatedly cover up misdeeds of its highest profile athlete. This is the problem. I have argued that athletes in revenue producing collegiate sports should be able to profit from their image. And I admit that a car dealership sponsorship would exacerbate the problem. But at least at that point we could all be honest about a young man who is worth a certain number of dollars getting in trouble instead of lying to ourselves about a good “kid” who is a student and needs to be shielded by the university.

When Ray Rice got in trouble I stated that it makes sense that he got an initial two game suspension; then I said it made sense that his suspension was extended. The key detail in Rice’s initial situation was that his wife was the victim and didn’t want to press charges. That isn’t the case with Winston’s alleged victim.

Furthermore when Rice’s situation became untenable to his team because of the potential financial backlash, they released him. The idea of due process aside, at least we all knew what we were dealing with. With Winston we are being sold the idea of amateurism which gives the impression that everything is less serious than it really is.

The structure of college football not only exploits the players but it facilitates the assault of those around the players. The structure must change.

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.

Trevor Brookins

The Socialist’s Journal: The Acquittal of Darren Wilson

Brookins Head Shot*The above title is misleading because the criminal justice system of Ferguson, Missouri raised the ante.

Instead of finding Officer Darren Wilson not guilty of any crime associated with killing Michael Brown – a result that most African-Americans would have expected, a grand jury decided that Brown’s death didn’t even warrant a trial.

The incident between Wilson and Brown, and the lack of consequences, highlights the inadequacy of the protests by people of color regarding their safety in the face of police power. In the 1950s and 1960s acts of passive resistance were very effective in changing the social status of ethnic minorities and solidifying their citizenship privileges. Unfortunately since then the blatant acts of discrimination that passive resistance is most effective at combating have been largely eliminated; marches, speeches, and sit-ins have become white noise.

Something new, something different must be done.

The fact that a change in tactics is necessary naturally leads to the question of militancy – that is: how violent should the new tactics be. This is especially tricky because non-violent tactics were so successful in the past and because the people who lived through that era are still alive to tout the social revolution of that time. But the idea of a more assertive kind of activism makes those in leadership positions, especially white people in those positions, nervous.

That nervousness comes from the fact that there are more people that have been harmed than helped by Caucasians. And the fact that there are far more people of color on earth than not. Looking simply at numbers gives insight as to why a country like France started tightening their immigration policies once African immigration increased. Hitting more close to home, the fact that Latinos are projected to surpass Caucasians as the majority ethnic group in the United States sometime in this century.

No consideration for the lives of people of color + new tactics on the horizon + a majority of non-whites = a sticky situation.

I proclaim myself to be a liberal not a revolutionary, nor do I wish harm upon anyone. So I do not write to incite revolts and pogroms. But if this is the reality that people of color must live in (where their death at the hands of law enforcement agents is not deemed worthy of a trial) we cannot be surprised if some people act violently. That is the lesson of the 1992 Rodney King riots.

And the simple fact is that a lot of negative feelings could have been avoided by simply allowing a trial to go forward. Any evidence that allowed the grand jury to decide not to go to trial could presumably also be used to instill reasonable doubt and allow for Wilson to be acquitted. I know, logically, that a grand jury made the decision (after looking at the evidence found in the investigation) and I wouldn’t advocate a change in the country’s criminal justice system.

Still something must be done about the value of certain lives in our country. And I suspect that a change in tactics is forthcoming.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.