Kris Delmhorst Drives The Cars



Signature Sounds 51-2040

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Were The Cars an influential band, or symbolic of the vacuity of the post-punk, pre-grunge early 1980s? Should tribute albums be sweet-voiced faithful renditions, or raw, radical revamps? I’m a big Kris Delmhorst fan, but whether you’ll like her new album depends entirely upon how you answer those two questions. Delmhorst bounces the beat on “Shake It Up,” is off-kilter on “You Might Think,” and coy on “My Best Friend’s Girl,” though her gorgeous straight-up folk take of “Magic” gets my vote for best of show. She grew up listening to The Cars, which poses another conundrum. Some of the music of our youth is classic; some now embarrasses us like old photos of bad haircuts. So is this album a precious small jewel or the sort of inconsequential tshatshke you’d pick up at a sidewalk sale closeout? It depends.


Waiting for Superman a Kryptonite-Filled Piece of Deception


Directed and written by Davis Guggenheim

111 minutes


September generally means three things: football games, prides of backpack-laden kids trudging along in formations suggestive of mass mountaineering expeditions, and rightwing rants on how to fix the “broken” educational system. The latter involves force-feeding the following ideas: school vouchers, standardized tests, more charter schools, standardized tests, firing bad teachers, standardized tests, breaking the power of teachers’ unions, standardized tests, privatizing education, standardized tests, school uniforms, standardized tests, local control, and the ever-popular standardized tests.

Enter Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film Waiting for Superman, which garnered an Oscar nomination for best documentary. I just got around to watching it and am very glad that Oscar spurned this slick piece of propaganda. It’s deception masquerading as reason, replete with emotional appeals that drown out reason: hardworking, caring parents (single moms and married couples), a passionate black teacher (Geoffrey Canada), and cute kids vying to get into charter schools. In a faux attempt at “balance,” Guggenheim gives us a rainbow: black kids, Latino and Hispanic kids, and even a white kid. To show his “fairness,” he picks schools in inner cities and one in suburbia. (Guess which one the white kid attends?) In good American filmmaking style--which is to say the schlock shock method--Guggenheim offers “drama” in the form of a contest: Which students will escape their nightmare schools--though the suburban one hardly qualifies--and win the lottery to attend academically challenging charter schools? And what would the drama be without a villain, which Guggenheim provides in the form of the National Educational Association (NEA).

The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are portrayed as agents of reaction standing in the way of “reform,” another film buzzword. Unions are shown battling District of Columbia School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, one of the candidates for Superman. Rhee wants to fire all the bad teachers, but everyone wants more good teachers, it seems, except the NEA and AFT. It’s clear that Guggenheim thinks that charter schools are the answer. He also makes the incredulous claim that poor student performance and high drop out rates are not linked to money, and believes we could educate students more cheaply if we had less union control and more charter schools. He does admit, though, that great teachers are the difference between success and failure.

No one would dispute the importance of master educators. You’d have to be nuts not to want Geoffrey Canada teaching your kid! But here are some things you won’t learn in Guggenheim’s simplistic screed. In 80% of the cases, charter schools perform no better than public schools, and their success rate plummets even lower when students are chosen via blind rather than competitive lotteries. Social problems appear only incidentally in the film, but they are at the core of why inner-city schools are so bleak. Guggenheim’s lottery drama makes for compelling viewing and we sit on the edge of our seats as kids we get to know and root for face odds of 10-1 or higher to win entry to a charter school. But does Guggneheim ask why it’s only 10:1? Shouldn’t there be thousands of parents vying to get their kid into one of the precious slots? The fact that there are scores rather than thousands has at least as much to do with poor schools as bad teachers.

Guggenheim certainly doesn’t tell you that Michelle Rhee might be the biggest fraud since Piltdown Man. He shows the NEA refusing even to discuss Rhee’s reforms. Well, in 2010 the union caved a bit and gave Rhee more control. She promptly fired 241 teachers, but only 76 of them for suspected cause. She also laid-off 737 other school employees; some of those let go were teachers and administrators in high-performing schools and several were her own hires! Rhee claimed that her get-tough approach led to increases in reading and math scores. She’s not chancellor any more; it turns out that 103 DC schools are being investigated for suspiciously high wrong-to-right erasures on standardized tests (58% in one elementary school). Those looking into her record allege she also exaggerated her own (thin) teaching record and test tampering now appears to be the reason for any “success” experienced by her or DC schools.

But hey, I applaud anyone who exposes the bankruptcy of standardized testing, even if they cheat to do so. Standardized testing is to education what a crocheted cover is to a teapot: it can make the container look more attractive, but it won’t compensate for a rancid brew. Don’t take my word for it. Go to your own Geoffrey Canada. Ask the educator who has been the most important in your life if he or she thinks that standardized tests reveal how well students learn. Then ask that person how he or she knows when a student is learning.

Right after watching the putrid Waiting for Superman I read about Finland, whose schools rank number one in the world. That hasn’t always been the case; in the early 1960s, Finnish schools had very high dropout rates and student achievement was low. So the Finns didn’t just talk about reform; they actually revamped their educational system (with the blessing of unions). The Finns spend less per pupil than in the United States. What did they do?

First, they depoliticized schools by taking away local control. The Finns have a national curriculum and they mandate the same spending in each district. Neighborhoods may be wealthy or poor, but the schools are the same. (No ideological textbooks or urban/suburban biases here.) They also imposed the odd idea that educators ought to run schools, not politicians, accountants, or school boards. Classes are kept small and the job of pedagogy is entrusted to those who actually educate. (Why is that such a radical idea? Don’t we leave the practice of medicine to physicians, and that of house wiring to electricians?) If teachers wish to combine classes when it makes sense, they do so; if a kid is falling behind, a teacher might shadow that kid and act as an individual tutor while others take on some of his classroom duties. All children are mainstreamed; special education is used sparingly. Most kids don’t go to school until age seven, by the way.

There are no standardized tests of any sort and Finnish teachers recoil at the very idea, which they see it as antithetical to teaching students how to learn. (And isn’t how to learn ultimately more useful than what we learn?) About the only thing Finns have in common with Americans is that they share the belief that good teachers are key to good learning. They’ve taken steps to secure master teachers that would make the Texas Board of Education choke. It’s not enough to want to work with kids; if you’re not in the top 10 percent of your college class, you can’t be a teacher in Finland! Why would anyone try? Because the Finns pay teachers rates comparable to doctors and lawyers. Oh yeah; they’re also unionized!

Does it pay off? 93 percent of Finns graduate; 17.5 percent higher than the US. And the Finns kick our butts by every objective standard. Lest you think it’s because Finnish society is so heterogeneous, consider that Norway is more so. Its schools operate akin to those in the US and they’ve obtained American-like results. All of this tells me that school reform isn’t a matter of waiting for Superman; it’s a matter of schools run by educators, not politicians, demagogues, or fluff-peddling documentary filmmakers.


Sweetback Sisters Sassy Brooklyn-Style Country Gems


Looking for a Fight

Signature Sounds 2038

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I did a triple take when I read that The Sweetback Sisters were from Brooklyn. Their sassy, badass take on retro country is more like what you’d expect from good ole’ boys living in the part of Texas where the Pecos meets the Rio Grande, not from back-talking gals living near where Flatbush crosses Atlantic.

Vocalists Zara Bode and Emily Miller, who also play acoustic guitar, front the Sweetback Sisters. The instrumentation is anchored by Jesse Milnes (fiddle, vovals) Stefan Amidon (drums, vocals), Ross Bellenoit (electric guitar), and Peter Bitenc (bass). It’s a solid lineup capable of fancy razzle-dazzle, but The Sweetback Sisters are more interested in having fun than making people admire their hot licks. They take us back to a time in which country music and Western swing were equal parts insouciant and corny, and theirs is a modern-day mash of the sensibilities of Patsy Cline, The Sons of the Pioneers, and Hank Williams, with a little bit of Appalachia and the pop charts thrown in for good measure. The title song is a Milnes original, but it sounds as if it could have been lifted from the repertoire of a 1950s bar West Texas bar band writing from real-life experience.

The Sweetback Sisters do a nice job of mixing retro originals with covers of everyone from Dwight Yokam (“It Won’t Hurt When I Fall Down from This Bar Stool”) to the Traveling Wilburys (“Rattled”). Every song on this CD is a gem, but let me give extra shout outs for their crisp cover of the Hazel Dickens hill country feminist ditty “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” and Milnes’s hysterical “Too Many Experts.” The latter says everything you’ve ever thought about when overhearing bar chat but were too timid to vocalize.

The Sweetback Sisters can be favorably compared to Hot Club of Cowtown and, like their material, you’d be hard pressed to find music that ranks higher on the pure fun scale. Brooklyn, eh?