Dowd and Friedman

In “Happily Never After?” MoDo says an unmodern court debates a modern issue, all of which has left a friend completely exhausted. He shares his perspective.  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question in “My Little (Global) School:”  Ever wonder how your kid’s school compares with one in China? Now you can find out.  Here’s MoDo:

I’m worried about the Supreme Court.

I’m worried about how the justices can properly debate same-sex marriage when some don’t even seem to realize that most Americans use the word “gay” now instead of “homosexual”; when Chief Justice John Roberts thinks gays are merely concerned with marriage as a desirable “label,” and when Justice Samuel Alito compares gay marriage to cellphones.

The Nine are back there in their Miss Havisham lairs mulling, disconcertingly disconnected. In his zeal to scare people about the “possible deleterious effect” of gay parents adopting, Justice Antonin Scalia did not seem fully cognizant that gays and lesbians can have their own biological children.

Max Mutchnick, who created and wrote “Will & Grace” with David Kohan, is worried as well. His landmark show came up as a cultural marker during the court proceedings challenging Prop 8. When I was in California covering that trial in 2010, I spent time in Los Angeles with Max, his husband, Erik Hyman, an entertainment lawyer, and their bewitching twin daughters born through a surrogate, Evan and Rose. (In an amazing biological feat, both men fertilized the eggs, so that one daughter looks like Erik and one like Max.)

Erik told me then that taking vows in front of a rabbi and their families (two weeks before Prop 8 passed) made him feel different. “Now that I’m actually married,” he said, “it drives me completely crazy when the other side talks about ‘the sanctity of marriage.’ I’m committed to my spouse. We’re faithful to each other. We’re raising twin girls together. It’s deeply offensive to hear someone say that what we’re doing is robbing them of the ‘sanctity’ of what they’re doing, as though my very existence is unholy.”

On Sunday, stealing a moment in the midst of taking Evan and Rose to a West Hollywood park and a stage version of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Pantages, Max e-mailed me about how discouraged he felt after last week’s arguments at the Supreme Court: “I’m like every other dad in this park: horn-rimmed glasses and baseball hat, New York Times folded in quarters, ignoring my kids dressed in Ralph Lauren Collection playing. But the difference is, every day I open the paper and read about the fact that I’m just kind of gross, according to a lot of people. It’s such an odd thing to live with. I’m so tired of it.”

I asked Max to elaborate. This is what he wrote:

One of my favorite episodes of “Will & Grace” was “Homo for the Holidays,” the story of Jack coming out to his mother. The gang finds out that Jack is not the “out and proud” poster child that he pretends to be, but, in fact, has been telling his mother that Grace was his ex-girlfriend. Will confronts his best friend about his lying and pointedly asks Jack, “Aren’t you tired yet?”

I believe if you’re a homosexual of a certain age or one born on the wrong block in this country, your first steps are inextricably fused with lying. It makes the journey of life much heavier. Like Jack, I eventually grew tired of lying and came out to everyone. Now, however, I find myself tired of telling the truth.

It’s tiring being a member of the last group in America subject to official discrimination. If the gay civil rights movement were a musical comedy, it might be titled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Supreme Court.”

More and more people think it’s wrong to hate gays. The support for same-sex marriage now exceeds the opposition to it. According to Rick Santorum, that’s all because of “Will & Grace.” (Thanks, cutie. DVD sales are way up!) But, if the good guys are on my side, why do I feel so depleted? I live in a place where all men are created equal, but, for some reason, I am not afforded the same rights. Should my take-away be: I am not a man? It feels as though the Supreme Court is O.K. with that notion. This court is speaking some of the same language that was being used before Stonewall.

Justice Alito raised the question of whether or not it’s too soon to allow gay people to marry. Is it better to keep doing what’s wrong until people are good and ready to do what’s right? Scalia uses the word “homosexual” the way George Wallace used the word “Negro.” There’s a tone to it. It’s humiliating and hurtful. I don’t think I’m being overly sensitive, merely vigilant. I once had to be vigilant for fear that people would find out what I am. Now I have to be vigilant for fear that I will be discriminated against for what I am. Then, as now, it’s a defense against danger.

No wonder I’m tired. I’m committed to fighting this battle until the war is won. I owe it to my inner gay child and my daughters. As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s the long part that’s kicking my butt.

Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There was a time when middle-class parents in America could be — and were — content to know that their kids’ public schools were better than those in the next neighborhood over. As the world has shrunk, though, the next neighborhood over is now Shanghai or Helsinki. So, last August, I wrote a column quoting Andreas Schleicher — who runs the global exam that compares how 15-year-olds in public schools around the world do in applied reading, math and science skills — as saying imagine, in a few years, that you could sign on to a Web site and see how your school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world. And then you could take this information to your superintendent and ask: “Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?”

Well, that day has come, thanks to a successful pilot project involving 105 U.S. schools recently completed by Schleicher’s team at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test, and Jon Schnur’s team at America Achieves, which partnered with the O.E.C.D. Starting this fall, any high school in America will be able to benchmark itself against the world’s best schools, using a new tool that schools can register for at www.americaachieves.org. It is comparable to PISA and measures how well students can apply their mastery of reading, math and science to real world problems.

The pilot study was described in an America Achieves report entitled “Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?” that is being released Wednesday. The report compares U.S. middle-class students to their global peers of similar socioeconomic status on the 2009 PISA exams.

The bad news is that U.S. middle-class students are badly lagging their peers globally. “Many assume that poverty in America is pulling down the overall U.S. scores,” the report said, “but when you divide each nation into socioeconomic quarters, you can see that even America’s middle-class students are falling behind not only students of comparable advantage, but also more disadvantaged students in several other countries.”

American students in the second quarter of socioeconomic advantage — mostly higher middle class — were significantly outperformed by 24 countries in math and by 15 countries in science, the study found. In the third quarter of socioeconomic advantage — mostly lower middle class — U.S. students were significantly outperformed by peers in 31 countries or regions in math and 25 in science.

The good news, though, said Schnur, “is that, for the first time, we have documented that there are individual U.S. schools that are literally outperforming every country in the world.”

“BASIS Tucson North, a nonselective high school serving an economically modest middle-class student population in Arizona, outperformed the average of every country in the world in reading, math, and science,” the report said. “Three nonselective high schools in Fairfax, Va., outperformed the average of virtually every country in the world.” One of them, Woodson, outperformed every region in the world in reading, except Shanghai. But the pilot also exposed some self-deception. “One school, serving students similar to Woodson’s, lags behind 29 countries in math but received an A on its state’s accountability system based primarily on that state’s own test,” Schnur said.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo is managing director of North Star Academies in Newark, an Uncommon Schools network of nine low-income charter schools that took part and cracked the world’s Top 10. “We have always had state tests and SATs,” he told me, “but we never had an international metric. This was a golden opportunity to see where we stand — if we have to prepare our kids to succeed not only in this country but in a global marketplace.” He said he was particularly motivated by the fact that Shanghai’s low-income kids “could outperform” most U.S. schools, because this gave his school a real international peer for a benchmark.

“We got 157 pages of feedback” from participating in the pilot, added Jack Dale, the superintendent of Fairfax County’s schools, which is so valuable because the PISA test exposes whether your high school students can apply their math, science and reading skills to 21st-century problems. “One of my principals said to me: ‘This is not your Virginia Standards of Learning Test.’ ”

So what’s the secret of the best-performing schools? It’s that there is no secret. The best schools, the study found, have strong fundamentals and cultures that believe anything is possible with any student: They “work hard to choose strong teachers with good content knowledge and dedication to continuous improvement.” They are “data-driven and transparent, not only around learning outcomes, but also around soft skills like completing work on time, resilience, perseverance — and punctuality.” And they promote “the active engagement of our parents and families.”

“If you look at all the data,” concluded Schnur, it’s clear that educational performance in the U.S. has not gone down. We’ve actually gotten a little better. The challenge is that changes in the world economy keep raising the bar for what our kids need to do to succeed. Our modest improvements are not keeping pace with this rising bar. Those who say we have failed are wrong. Those who say we are doing fine are wrong.” The truth is, America has world-beating K-12 schools. We just don’t have nearly enough.

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