Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Old Poem About Roy Orbison, and Other Such Stuff

Tonight, driving home from work, my iPod shuffled along and played this one from Roy Orbison's last album, Mystery Girl, which he did not live to see released, having suffered a stroke after recording it.  

Produced by Bono and written by him and the Edge, it's a triumph on a par with Orbison's magnificent dramatic songs of a generation earlier.   I've always associated it with a moment in time from my past.  And yes, it involved a girl...

At the time I was earning an MFA in poetry writing, and trying to get over a crushing heartache.  Here's a typical line I was writing:  "Pop songs/remind me of you/especially when I eat alone/ in Chinese restaurants."  (That was from a  poem called "Jackie Wilson's Tears.")  Orbison's song often chilled me as I thought about this girl. A long time after I last saw her, the song could still take me back.  Here's a poem I wrote which makes much use of "She's a Mystery to Me."

Turns To Hell

for Roy Orbison

     Night falls, I’m cast beneath her spell,
     Daylight comes, our heaven turns to hell,
     Am I left to burn, and burn eternally,
     She’s a mystery to me.
                   From Mystery Girl

Just after you died, Lee asked:
well, Tom, which of us
is gonna write his tribute poem?
I smiled, said I didn’t know.  Did scribble some notes
about being eleven and playing “Pretty Woman”
from a K-Tel collection so much that the vinyl
was scarred white, unplayable
after just a few months,
and then, that incredible 87 Cinemax special:
stunned I sat in my living room
you hitting every high note to “Crying”
and “Only the Lonely” as Springsteen smiled
in awe of his master.

Two years later I bought your last album, Mystery Girl
played the title song as obsessively as I did “Pretty Woman”
over a decade ago.  On my walkman, train slowly rolling
across the bridge, I feel I’m in a video, watching cars
stopped along the FDR, with every word you sing
remembering Alexandra

how she returned from Costa Rica unengaged
how she invited me over one December night
how I wanted to write my Milton paper but ended up
taking that train over this bridge
spending that night in those arms
knowing (for she told me)
she wasn’t in love with me anymore
how two weeks later she said
she was going back to Costa Rica 

January 1, 1991: back in Pittsburgh,
jamming with Lee, Al, and Del
guitars very loud pounding on
dilapidated drumkit drinking cheap wine.
Now lying on Al’s couch reading Milton
I understand why you always wore the sunglasses
not to hide any tears, nor to shield your eyes
from the fires of the hells you sang about.
It’s because those eyes remained so calm, never flinching
no matter what the heartache,
no matter the turns to hell taken or mistaken,
you just keep going, the song ends, you play the next.
Besides, people forget the fires of hell are dark
as a subway tunnel when the train is stopped
and silent. 


I always thought that if I ever read the poem in performance I should bring a boom box and play the song behind me.   Of the many poems I wrote about that relationship, I like the insights of this one, though I think I stole a bit from something Dave Marsh wrote about Orbison from a book called The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (Plume, 1989).  Milton also reminded me about the fires of hell being dark. 

As I drove home tonight, listening to Orbison, I realized:I'm just over twice the age I was when I wrote that poem, when I lived that experience.  I've grown up, found steady work, trying now to raise two kids without losing my mind.  I wasn't connecting to the chills that drove me twenty-three years ago.  I just heard the gifted voice, the great production.  It's comforting to know that I've lived another life since the emotional earthquakes.  

I wish I could let my kids understand this stuff, that the heart is a resilient muscle, as Woody Allen once put it in a movie.  But the truth is you have to take those turns to hell, without being sure there is an other side to come out of. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Retiring Numbers: What's the Rule?

Just before the story broke about the Rutgers basketball coach, ESPN Radio's Mike Greenberg and Colin Cowherd were talking (on Greenberg's Mike and Mike in the Morning show, where Cowherd was filling in for Greenberg's partner Mike Golic) about retired numbers, what the rules should be that govern when a team should retire a player's number.  I don't recall how the conversation got started; I think it was because NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy had mentioned in passing that one day the Orlando Magic will probably retire their former center Dwight Howard's number, even though he left the organization via  a trade that left a bitter taste in the mouths of the fans. 

Greenberg's standards, living on the east coast from childhood, are much tougher than Cowherd's, the latter admitted.  New York and Boston have so many championships, and so players generally don't get their jerseys hung unless they've won a few (or in the case of Bill Russell, 11, or Yogi Berra, 10).  As he perused through the NBA list, he was very shocked to see more than a few discrepancies, but one he mentioned on the air was this: The Portland Trailblazers have ten players with retired numbers.  They have one won title since their inception in 1970.  The Chicago Bulls have won six titles since their inception in 1966.  They have four players' numbers retired, and only two from those six championship teams.  (If you don't know who those two are; you probably stopped reading this already.)  The Phoenix Suns have eight player numbers retired and they've won zero titles since their inception in 1968 -- a lot of great players on their list, and a few in the Hall of Fame, but to have twice as many as the Bulls? 

Cowherd is more forgiving of teams, especially west coast teams not in L.A.  Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, he was not accustomed to seeing teams win a lot; the east coast gets tons, with the Yankees, the Celtics, the football Giants, UConn college basketball, etc.  So there may be some lesser guys, guys who have no shot at ever getting into the HOF, who get their numbers retired; they meant a lot to their fans, so it's more for them.  Okay, it's idiotic that the San Diego Padres retired Steve Garvey's number when he played most of his career for the L.A. Dodgers, and that the Tampa Bay Rays retired Wade Boggs' number when he was at the very very end of his career when he got there.

Generally speaking, I would say that baseball does a very good job in the retired number department, those obvious idiocies notwithstanding.  The Seattle Mariners have no retired numbers, though Ken Griffey Jr's will be the first soon enough.  (The Seattle SuperSonics, who no longer exist -- the franchise moved to Oklahoma City -- have six. They won one title.)  Football is pretty stingy, too, with retiring numbers; again, the Seattle Seahawks have one retired number.

I tend to side with Greenberg on this: a player should be one of the very best; in a handful of cases a "fan favorite" probably deserves consideration, like a Cedric Maxwell.  The player should be instantly associated, mentally, with that team -- or even teams.  Examples:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first played with the Milwaukee Bucks, winning their only title in 1971.  After many years there, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers and won five titles.  Wilt Chamberlain was also associated with multiple NBA teams and was great everywhere he went.  Reggie White's number was retired by the Philadelphia Eagles, where he earned his reputation, and by the Green Bay Packers, who won their first title in decades with White as the defensive leader.  In an example similar to that of White, Mark Messier played on those amazing Edmonton Oiler teams that won a bunch of Stanley Cups -- with and without the greatest player who ever lived, Wayne Gretzky -- and then in 1991 came to New York, still a very good player but no longer at the top of his game -- but did something no star had done for fifty-four years: win a Cup for the Rangers.  Messier's importance to the 1994 team that won it cannot be overstated; he famously guaranteed that the Rangers, down three games to two in a classic series against their cross-tunnel rivals the New Jersey Devils, would win game six in New Jersey -- and then backed up his words by scoring a hat trick in the third period to win it.  That's why his number hangs at Madison Square Garden, along with those of three others who were so pivotal in the victory. 

I'm sure you can cut the lists down for many teams, especially in the NBA.  If you're not making your sport's hall of fame, you have to make a really good case for why your number should be retired.  The New York Knicks, whose history in the NBA goes back to the league's beginning, have eight players' numbers retired.  Only one comes from the early days, Dick McGuire.  One comes from more recent times, Patrick Ewing.  The rest come from the teams that won their two titles in the early seventies.  Yes, that's more than the Bulls teams that have six titles in a lot less time, but remember: of the six players from those championship teams, five are in the Hall of Fame; the 1973 championship team's entire starting lineup is in the Hall of Fame, and the sixth player, Dick Barnett, the starting point guard on the 1970 team, was a borderline hall of famer. 

You can't be so tough that you make championships the standard; you'd have no Cub jerseys retired.  The Boston Red Sox had a general rule: a certain length of time with the team and being in the Hall.  The Mets have retired one player's number: 41, and that's as it should be.  As great as that 1986 championship team was, none of those players stayed long enough with the team to deserve the honor.  Gary Carter was not here long enough, nor was Keith Hernandez.  The two players whose numbers should  have been retired were Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, but their substance abuse wrecked their Hall of Fame trajectories.  

There are always exceptions to the general policies of sustained greatness for one team, the earning of titles, and enduring popularity/significance to the fans.  Some players get honored because of tragic circumstances: the New Jersey Nets retired Drazen Petrovic's number 3, after he was killed in a car crash.  Petro was a very good player whose career was cut way too short to ordinarily justifying such an honor. 

There are always a few fan favorites that maybe should be considered.  As a Met fan I kinda wish they'd retired Ed Kranepool's number 7; he was the Last Original Met, a local kid who made good and became in his final years a masterful pinch-hitter.  That's sentiment talking for sure.

But I think the biggest amnesty should be for the following circumstances.

First, every starter for the 2004 Boston Red Sox -- position players and pitchers, and probably a few key bench players and closer Jonathan Papelbohn -- should have his number retired as soon as they are out of baseball.  Pedro. Schilling. Manny. Big Papi.  All of them.  For chrissake they broke the curse, and did so in ridiculously dramatic fashion.  I absolutely think the Red Sox should do that.  The same will apply to the 2109 Chicago Cubs, when they finally break their curse.

And just one more: I think the Mets should retire no. 57, for the man who threw the team's first no-hitter in its 50-year history, and may have paid the ultimate price for it, Johann Santana.  Some things you just hafta do.

Here's links: NFL list of retired numbers; NHL's list (from wikipedia, which probably tells you something about the sport's popularity in the US), and one list each for both the American and National Leagues of baseball.  Worth noting: the NBA list did not have Dick Barnett included, so if you see any other missing numbers, go contact the league or team's webmaster. 

Aero: Another Sign of Doom for Broadcasters... and Cable Providers...and...

In yesterday's post, I mentioned the challenges facing broadcasters because television's audience is much more mobile; they have access to a range of content via the internet, and they no longer rely on a cable or dish or antenna to get programs they want.

Recently another threat has begun to pop up.  A company called Aereo has challenged the status quo that has existed between broadcasters and cable providers, and it's costing the broadcasters money, or will cost them as Aereo and like companies proliferate.  And broadcasters are getting nervous.

In many respects, the premise of Aereo is not all that different from the initial premises of cable television.  "CATV" originally stood for "Community Antenna Television."  In regions of the country where receiving an over-the-air signal was not easy, local companies set up large antenna towers to receive signals, and via cable hookups broadcast the signals into subscriber homes.   You could pay for a basic service and get the stations nearest to your town; as satellite technology expanded, cable providers could offer more channels.  A key tipping point in the expansion of cable tv even into major cities like New York, where a good set of "rabbit ears" could allow you to pull in about a dozen channels clearly, was the re-broadcasting fees that cable providers would pay to broadcasters for the rights to retransmit signals from the stations to the cable companies, who of course would charge their subscribers accordingly.

How much is Aereo paying to the broadcasters?  Zero.  Instead, they are using their "remote anntennas" to catch the signals, sending them to their online servers, and making the signals available to subscribers at ridiculously cheap prices, including a free version.  So far, Aereo customers in New York have access to the over-the-air local stations, including a few in Spanish and in Chinese, essentially replicating the signals my old black and white set pulled in back in the 1970s, but with HD digital signals and a few more options because of the expansion of the HD spectrum.  Their package does not include the "basic," or "classic," cable networks like ESPN or CNN, or any of the Turner networks, and I don't know that it will, at least not for the same fees being charged now.  (And remember, one very limited option is free.)

The broadcasters took Aereo to court, claiming it is stealing their transmissions. (I wonder if they took to heart the famous warning sports announcers have to give at some point during the game about any unauthorized re-broadcast or transmission without the express written permission etc.)  Broadcasters made similar arguments back in the seventies, when the VCR threatened to change the way people consumed television.  In this case, the complaint was that Aereo had no right to transmit the signals live, though the broadcasters conceded that Aereo could record the transmissions for later broadcast. The courts, so far, have decided in favor of Aereo.

Broadcasters have begun to shake their fists, as they did in the seventies with the VCR and in the eighties with cable companies.  The latest threat: we'll stop transmitting our signals.  Interesting. And how will that yield revenue, I wonder? Fox's threat was to be exclusively a cable/satellite broadcaster, but as more and more of us cut the cable cord, who's going to find the programming there?

The cable companies have enjoyed a very long monopoly on pay-tv service.  Government regulation and de-regulation (paradoxical yes but true) have allowed the corporate giants to dominate, regionally (you live in one part of Brooklyn, you get Cablevision, but for most of the Borough it's Time Warner) and nationally.  With services like Areo and the mobility of the tablet and smartphone, this monopoly is coming to an end.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Zero TV": a New Designation, and a Sign of Doom for Broadcasters

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook about a new designation by the A.C.Nielsen company, one noted in their March 2013 report, that five percent of all U.S. homes either don't have a television set or don't use a cable, antenna, or satellite dish to receive transmissions.  While some in the industry are not certain that the number of "Zero TV" homes will increase, I'm absolutely certain it will.  And this spells the end for those who broadcast in traditional manners.

Content providers -- the media conglomerates making programs -- will continue to seek their audiences on their mobile devices.  But your old-fashioned tv station with the homey news anchors and amusing sports and weather anchors?  Adapt or die.  Those signals have to get on line.  As people have become quite comfortable with on-demand access to programming content, they don't feel the desperate need to watch a favorite show; they'll wait til it's available via netflix or amazon -- or, increasingly, via content providers' apps or directly online.  It makes a lot of sense for, say, NBC, to make recent episodes of SNL available through their Hulu site, since they can still force you to watch commercials. The networks don't have to worry; they are part of giant conglomerates that have their fingers in the broadband pie.  (NBC is owned by Comcast; Time Warner may no longer be a part of AOL but as a broadband provider they are still relevant.)   But local stations affiliated with networks may not have the luxury of broadcasting the network content on-line the way they do over the regular airwaves. 

That said, over one hundred stations do send their signals on line; this is super important because the viewer is much more mobile than ever before.  Advertisers will still commit to the local stations because it's easy enough to run ads across a computer screen as well as on mobile devices.  (It may be the case that stations will charge a fee to consumers to avoid ads, the way many mobile apps like Pandora radio do.)  Stations also need to be active in the social media, getting audiences to follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook.  

Of course, such mobility begs the question: is what broadcasters are doing now, by engaging in online platforms to send their signals, really broadcasting?  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

33 1/3 Series: Let's Get Small?

(The following is a modest essay I'd love to turn into a full-fledged monograph for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series of books about "classic" albums.  I'm not insane enough actually to send this, but it sure is tempting.)

"Mind if I Smoke?"
"Not at all. Mind if I fart?"

I'm pretty sure that's the first joke i heard from Steve Martin's landmark debut comedy album, Let's Get Small.  When it came out I was ten; there were a couple of guys on the block a few years older than I was who'd had a copy of the record and would quote it.  Not too long after the album was released, Martin had become a big star: his appearances on Saturday Night Live were pivotal in making the show a legend, and he was working on his first film, The Jerk, with his screenplay and Carl Reiner's direction.  By the time the film was released, I knew many of the bits off his second LP, A Wild and Crazy Guy, and borrowed a friend's copy of Cruel Shoes, the absurdist paperback published to cash in on Martin's success.  (One of the pieces in the book is called "How to Fold Soup." Nuff said.)

But sitting down and listening to the entire record?  That waited a long while.  Hell, I actually bought his final standup album, The Steve Martin Brothers, before I'd got to listen to Let's Get Small.  (An awful contractual obligation record; half the album consisted of a few funny bits recorded at the Comedy Store, but the other half was Martin performing straight, on his banjo.)  And even when I got to listen to it, it was on my friend's 8-track tape, which presented the album out of sequence from the original LP release.   So Let's Get Small has always been about hearing only snippets of routines, inflected by the imitations of so many friends.  But eventually, I knew every line, every intonation, every note played on the banjo, including that chord that you're supposed to play part of with your nose for the bass.

Growing up in SoCal, Martin was well-acquainted with the showbiz milieu; he worked at Disneyland and learned juggling and other side-show tricks.   He also went to college and majored in philosophy. (No joke.  Really.)  Eventually, he got a job writing on the legendary Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, making occasional appearances in some of the bits.   He was part of a team that won an Emmy for best comedy writing during the show's final season, the one that was clipped by CBS over disputes with Tom Smothers.  While the Smothers Brothers show had been an edgy satiric program, Martin's own standup act never went for controversy.  Rather, he sought a tone that embraced two separate modes of thought: the silly and the esoteric.  (In an interview from Scenario magazine, Martin cites Monty Python as a model for that diversity of tone, though again, Martin's comedy is rarely satiric.)  Mastering the banjo was one of his gimmicks, as was balloon-folding (and wearing an arrow through his head).

After working on his act for many years, his manager arranged for some of his shows to be recorded, at the Boarding House in San Francisco.   At one point, Martin even tells his audience: "you guys are gonna be on a record!" But after the cheering dies down, he retorts, "maybe, someday, not mine, of course!"   Thus, we have Let's Get Small.

Martin's act was a playful sendup of "professional show-business."  He spoke about the idea of entertainment, and at times called his own act into question, though never as biting as Letterman and certainly never as daring as Andy Kaufman, whose performance art wholly deconstructed the very notion of what could be entertainment.  The humor was surreal: "to open the show I always try to do one thing that is impossible, so tonight I'm going to suck this piano into my lungs."  When explaining how come he's so funny, he says, "before I go on I put a slice of bologna in each one of my shoes, that way when I'm on stage, I feel funny."  The banjo was used in service to this silliness: as he plays the thing for a minute, he points out that "you just can't sing a depressing song when you're playing the banjo... you can't just go, 'oh, death, and grief, and sorrow, and murder.' ... I always thought the banjo was the one thing that could have saved Nixon."  In a funny bit prefacing his rap on Vegas, Martin tells his audience, hey, you paid four bucks, four-fifty?  I might come out here, and do a 4.75 show!

At different parts of his act, he talks about the kinds of jokes he tells and doesn't tell.  He tells the San Francisco audience, "I don't do any fag jokes" because he doesn't want to offend people, and then asks, "well how many fags do we have here tonight?" It's a variation on Lenny Bruce's famous routine about racist epithets, though it's not intended to provoke in the same way.  The joke may seem in poor taste in 2013, but I hear it as another example of Martin's sending up the idea of what a comedian is supposed to do.

His most brilliant example of this is the plumber joke.  "I don't like to gear my material to the audience," he says, but, having heard a convention of plumbers was in town and in attendance, "I've worked up a special joke" for them.  It's an hilarious, jargon-laden joke that probably wouldn't make sense even to the plumbers, and when the audience merely chuckles at the stupidity of the bit, he says, "were those plumbers supposed to be here this show?"  We've been telling this joke for years; a friend of mine once told the joke the night he hosted a dance at college. 
Martin was capable of straightforward bits, like the title track, which begins with a joke about a drug that gets one "small" instead of "high."  The grandmother song is as hilarious as it gets in its absurdity: "be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant..."  The bit "one way to leave your lover" is a joke about an ex-girlfriend and why Martin is correct to "kind of blame [him]self for her death."   But the best bits are about the entertainment world: his summary of the opening act in Vegas is dead-on for its smarmy-ness and speed.  The classic "Excuse Me!" line comes from a bit where he's not getting a spotlight when he wants one and tees off on the backstage crew.  The most brutally honest moment comes when, after singing a few lines about "having some fun here at the fabulous Boarding House in San Francisco in California,"  he explains that he's playing a difficult chord, then goes back to the song:

but you know,
I see people goin' to college for fourteen years, studyin' to be doctors n lawyers, 
I see people gettin' up at seven-thirty every morning, going to work at the drug store to sell Flair pens,
but the most amazing thing to me is...

get paid
doing this....

What makes Let's Get Small succeed, beyond all other elements, is Martin's delivery.  He is a twisted game show host, one part panderer and one part deconstructionist.   His explanation of how he ended the fight with his girlfriend succeeds because of how he delivers it.  The way he says "I'm sorry" after his "excuuuuuuse me!" is perfect in its mock-penitence. "How many people are here tonight?" he asks at one point.

Let's Get Small is not Carlin's Class Clown, nor is it Pryor's Bicentennial Nigger.  But it may be as much of its time as the works of those iconoclasts, and perhaps tells the story of the seventies even more clearly: it was a smarmy, superficial, semi-professional time. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Film Friday: From Up on Poppy Hill

Don't go to see the "new" Miyazaki film expecting a fantasy story: From Up on Poppy Hill has no witches, nor is it set in some mythical place with flying cities and humans who transform into beasts (or other magical creatures).  based on a 1980 manga comic, the film, directed by Goro Miyazaki from a script co-authored by his father Hayao (who seems somewhat settled into retirement after directing so many of the masterpieces from Studio Ghibli), Poppy Hill looks back at a Japanese society trying to embrace its future place in the global scene while determining what elements of its past are important to maintain. 

The setting is Yokohama, 1963, and nearby Tokyo is hosting next year's Olympics.  (They are the second Axis power to host; Rome was awarded the games in 1960, and Munich will host in 1972.)  Japan is modernizing in preparation, but the past is not so willing to step aside.  

The film's plot, a bit too precious at that, centers around a teenage girl named Umi, who attends school but also manages her grandmother's boarding house: she prepares the morning and evening meals and makes sure the rents are paid.  Her mother is in America studying medicine; her father's supply ship was destroyed in the Korean war.  One of her daily tasks is to hoist the semaphore flags as a message to her father, hoping against hope that one day he will return.  At school, she befriends Shun, a boy who is a year older (if memory serves me) and who is working very hard to preserve an old club building the boys have used for decades, known as the Latin Quarter.  Shun is an editor of the school paper and uses that medium to spread the word about the coming demolition of the building in an attempt to organize protest against it.  Umi urges the boys to clean the place up to show its historical significance, and she organizes the female students to help. 

Yes, love blooms, an innocent, half-spoken one. The plot twists in a manner that is, as one of the two kids says, is an absurd melodrama, and that melodrama doesn't really come off all that well. (Just because you self-consciously acknowledge your story is a bit sickly-sweet doesn't mean you intend it to be ironic.)  What is much more interesting in the film is the viewing of ordinary, daily life for the students, and for the boarders at Umi's home.  One of them is an intern who leaves the house to work at a hospital in another town.  Another is an artist who paints a seascape with a ship that flies the same flags that Umi hoists, leading to a minor mystery.  The grandmother is not infirm, and she worries that perhaps Umi has too much responsibility, but it is also clear that Umi does her work out of deep respect for her elders.  There are little scenes that fascinate, like one where Umi arrives late from school (having helped Shun out with preparing mock tests to be published by the paper) and asks her younger sister to go and buy some pork for the evening meal.  She and her younger brother are watching tv with grandmother, and she simply says, but the program just started.  And so Umi dashes off to the butcher. 

Details like this, and the scenes of the smaller town of Yokohama and the big city of Tokyo (where Umi and Shun go to meet with the director of the school's board of trustees to persuade him not to destroy the clubhouse) give the viewer an insight to a culture looking forward with an eye to its past.  Both the Korean war and the Second World War are evoked; one important reference is to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. There's no sudden appearance of a Totoro waiting for the bus, or a castle in the sky.  And while Umi is referred to as the boys' clubs' "good luck goddess," she doesn't have special powers like the young witch-in-training Kiki.  In order to appreciate From Up on Poppy Hill, you have to put aside its melodramatic plot and consider the relationships you see, between the characters, between the characters and their landscapes, and between the characters and their pasts.  Through the eyes of the young students, we see a nation accepting its role on the global stage without completely forgetting what it has been. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

After Atlanta: Cheating and the Price of Testing

A few days ago the Superintendent of the Atlanta public school system was indicted in relation to a cheating scandal involving herself and principals and teachers throughout the city.  Unlike the scandal recently exposed at New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, the scandal in Atlanta did not involve students, but school representatives who altered tests to improve student scores.  Ironically, the massive improvements in the students' scores may have actually cost the system money; having such great numbers meant that some schools were no longer eligible for state or federal aid.   But obviously, the purpose of the cheating was to demonstrate that the superintendent was doing her job of turning around a troubled system. 

Atlanta is not the only city where school officials have cooked the books, and it is pretty easy to see some correlation between an increased emphasis on standardized tests to measure school performance and cheating.  As economic futures become determined by a single test, a lot of people will feel the pressure to make sure they don't get sent to the chopping block. 

But this kind of problem doesn't just happen in elementary and secondary education.  The phrase "cooked the books" is of course an accounting term, and the scandals involving Enron and its accounting firm should also be considered in this light.  Why do corporations cook their books? For much the same reason that school officials would alter tests.  Companies have responsibilities to their stockholders, and they too are under pressure to succeed.  (Okay, such corporate heads are in a better position to screw their stockholders and walk away with gobs of cash, but often unethical and illegal behavior begins with a sense of responsibility to the mission statement of the company.) 

I'm an educator at an institution who trains teachers.  I am well aware of the standards my state has set for teacher certification, and if my department cannot get its students to meet those standards, I could lose my job.  I am also teaching my students to uphold an important set of core values where one assumes responsibility for one's actions and behaves in an honorable and ethical manner.   I don't want them to cheat on their exams, and I don't expect them to permit cheating by their younger charges when they get in front of a classroom. 

I'm also the parent of two children in a public school system where how they do on standardized tests will dictate their futures to a significant degree, and I find that prospect frightening and absurd.  My kids' teachers spend a lot of time preparing students to take these tests. Are they learning anything besides how to take a test?  Some days I have my doubts.    Stuyvesant is one of just under a dozen specialized high schools in the city where admission is based on the performance of a single test, and only that test.  That's right. It doesn't matter what kind of student my kid is; it doesn't matter that she might have a 98 average in middle school for three years; it doesn't matter that her teachers all think she's brilliant; if her score is high enough, she gets in to the school of her choice, and if she does not, she won't. 

The kids who go to these schools get it: the competition is fierce for scholarships, and in the current economy, with students becoming crushed by debt, the drive for a free ride is getting deeper than ever, and the competition for jobs even that much harder.   The "win at all costs" mentality has driven us to this point, where students are overworked and overstressed.  (And with our recent changes in social mores, I don't know if they are more likely or less likely to start smoking and drinking at earlier ages than my generation did.)

The other insidious aspect about all this testing is that there is an entire industry that profits by these rules.  The publishers like Pearson, who have a bigtime contract with New York State, make billions producing tests.  States spend about a billion per year administrating tests.   Institutions like Kaplan charge thousands of dollars to help students prepare for all sorts of tests, from the classic SATs to the various tests for pre-K students to be admitted to gifted and talented kindergarten programs.  A lot of money has been made thanks to these standardized tests.  Do our children get what they need from curricula that are based on making sure they pass them? 

I don't think so.   First of all, the tests themselves are not really very good measurements of students' abilities (nor of their teachers').   You need to invest more in real evaluation systems to get a sense of how good both student and teacher are doing.  Second, apart from any specific biases in the tests themselves, there is the cultural and economic bias that is a part of the test-prep industry: parents who have resources both financial and informational can get their kids into test-prep programs and increase their children's chances of success, and those who don't have those resources can't do that.  Third, if it were really possible to get all the students to get acceptable scores on these tests, and if it were achieved through massive test preparation in class, then what is the real value of the test?  All it means is that the kids can take a test.  It doesn't mean they have grown in a psychologically meaningful way, or can form positive relationships, or have the confidence to stand up to bullying, or whatever.  The only thing these programs do is prepare them for a world of work that also doesn't particularly care about anything but results.  

Those are the hidden costs of all this testing.