Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Remedial College Classes

The public education critics in Colorado gained more ammunition after the Denver Post reported that one-third of the state's high school grads need remedial classes when they start college. This may seem shocking to many, though it's important to keep in mind that only one-third of the country even has a college degree. Thus, it may be only one third of the country that is shocked and outraged by these statistics. Sadly, the issue is much more complex than a simple statistic on remedial classes in college. Instead, it should generate genuine discussion of the high school curriculum, college prep classes, and the necessity of a college-educated workforce.

Pew Researcher David Connelly has noted there is a fundamental difference between "college eligible" and "college ready," and that distinction is at the heart of this debate - a debate which reveals a lack of understanding of the goals and curriculum of public education in this country. We are sending twice as many students to college as we did in 1950, yet the number of people achieving bachelor degrees has remained virtually unchanged in that time. Clearly, we are sending a large number of students unprepared for college. The questions that need to be asked concern issues of standard versus college-prep curriculum, as well as the performance of the students on standard assessments.

In the United States, students can go to college after graduating high school with a D average, or not even graduating at all. That is true nowhere else in the world, and it reveals much about the need for remedial courses in college. By contrast, students who graduate from AP and IB programs rarely require such courses and are far more likely to achieve a degree. Thus, we should not be shocked by the remedial course issue until we understand who the students are and whether they should have been admitted, or even advised to go, to college.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Standards-based Learning

An old adage about learning goes, "when the student is ready, the master will appear." The focus on a child's "readiness" has been of interest me since my son was born six years ago and my daughter arrived three years later. Though I've been teaching for sixteen years, my rather traditional approach to education (no doubt influenced by Catholic schooling) never led me to consider anything other than the rigid guidelines of curriculum for each level. However, after my son was born and I started reading books about parenting and early childhood education, I began to wonder how I might feel if my child wasn't ready to read or write at first grade as standardized tests are now encouraging. Luckily for me, my children are already passing standard benchmarks for skills. However, I no longer fully accept the concept of a one-size-fits-all education system. I am more intrigued by Waldorf and Montessori models, (philosophies that, years ago, I would have flippantly referred to as "foo-foo" education).

Thus, I am intrigued by the decision of the Adams 50 school district in Colorado to make a move away from grades and approach schooling from a readiness and skill proficiency perspective for its struggling schools. There is a simple wisdom to allowing kids to proceed through proficiency of skills at their own pace. Of course, I have always worried about the kid who still isn't "ready" to read at the age of eighteen, and guaranteeing considerable levels of accountability is absolutely paramount in a reform-movement based on this idea. Yet, I recall a colleague from years ago who completed k-12 in the Waldorf model. He explained how he started reading and pres-school and his sister didn't read or write until the "third grade." Yet, he is a high school English teacher with a Master's degree, and his sister has a Ph.D. in Humanities. Thus, there is some validity to the argument behind "standards-based learning." I wish Adams 50 all the best, and we should be watching its progress with hope and scrutiny.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Health Care; Health Care

As the dawning of the Obama administration nears, there is much hope for systemic change, not the least among it being health care reform. Not since 1993 has there been such hope for developments in this perplexing industry that accounts for 16% of the nation's GDP. Morton Kondracke weighed in today with a comprehensive op-ed piece which attempts to address all the variables. However, I'm not entirely sure what to make of the piece other than noting the habitual scare-tactic ranting about the evils of the Canadian system. That aspect of the commentary saddens me, as it implies that any nationalized system would inherently mimic the style and the problems of Canadian or British health care systems. This ignores the possibility that the United States could do something better, or even emulate systems that blend public and private health care, as they do in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. I also suspect that this is one more case of a pundit criticizing something about which he has no personal experience. I have rarely met critics of foreign health care systems who have actually lived under those systems. More likely, they are wealthy individuals who have yet to feel the pain of increasing premiums and decreasing benefits. I am still holding out for a blended system that offers all Americans a base health insurance while allowing for the purchase of additional private coverage. At this point, I see the Wyden-Bennett plan as being the most feasible, and I hope it will continue to generate support.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Educated Electorate

In the realm of truly bad ideas in the world of government spending and education reform, Colorado state representative Don Marostica of Loveland has proposed cutting all state funding for higher education and privatizing all colleges and universities in Colorado. While this is a shocking statement for most educated people, it doesn't seem all that unusual in Colorado where conservatives are especially zealous in their anti-tax, anti-government crusade. This proposal was probably pretty well received by numerous Coloradans who oppose the idea that "government knows how to spend their money better than they do." This is despite the fact that Colorado has the distinction of being one the most well-educated states in the union while at the same time failing miserably at educating its own children. Though I am fiscally conservative, this issue is where I depart with the Republican Party in Colorado, as their support for TABOR (the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights) has severely curtailed higher education spending for a decade now, and the side effects are clear.

Regardless of most citizens' stances on taxes and government power, a majority of Americans have always accepted that funding of public education is a good investment for a state. The state mandates of free public education k-12 was a good idea. The establishment of state colleges and universities was a good idea. Public funding of the university system was a good idea. Despite all the criticism, much of it unfounded, the American public education system is still the envy of the world, and the U.S. educates a greater percentage of its population to the highest level than any other nation at any time in history. This serves us well, even as most other industrialized nations fund public education through college at a greater rate than we do. To consider moving in the opposite direction is, quite honestly, irrational, if not outright ludicrous. Yet, it just goes to show how blinding ideology can be.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pensions and Social Security

According to the Denver Post, officials for PERA (Colorado's public employee's retirement fund) are discovering conditions are worse than imagined and "face steep legal, political and financial hurdles in climbing out of the $12 billion funding hole that chaotic markets dug for the state's largest public pension plan." Because I taught abroad for five years after college, as well as five years in Illinois and a year in parochial schools, I will be unable to take full retirement from PERA until I'm sixty-two, and that seems perfectly reasonable to me. I have long been shocked, or at least unnerved, by public employees retiring with full benefits in their early fifties. Clearly, there are components of the system that few outside of the system understand, such as the fact that teachers and public employees don't pay into Social Security, so they will never draw it.  Additionally, many are paid below free market value.  However, none of these conditions counters the reality of the insolvency of the system.  To be perfectly honest, I find the situation to be ridiculous, and the criticism the criticism the system receives is entirely justified.

The answer to budget shortfalls has always been obvious - increase the age minimum and decrease benefits. Social Security has and should operate on the same principle - especially since the initial retirement age of 62 was set when the average American lived until 66, and health care costs were incredibly low. Social Security was never meant to fully fund a middle class retirement, certainly not for twenty-plus years. It was supposed to supplement retirement savings and simply keep seniors above the poverty line. PERA and all pensions should operate on the same principle, making people aware they should fund their own retirement with the knowledge that PERA/SS will keep them out of poverty.

A little self-reliance, backed by a reasonable safety net, is the most American of ideals, and public workers and politicians need to acknowledge that immediately for the sake of the entire system

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Take My GM Stock, Please

While I hate to take the loss, I'm coming to the conclusion that GM might need to to fail. The right thing might be for me, and all of us, to watch the company go down, as it has seemed determined to do for many years now. The financial planning side of me, of course, would love to see the government continue to support, and even bailout, this company. That's the part that has been buying the stock and waiting patiently for the Chevy Volt to hit the stores and revitalize the industry in a way the Prius only dreams of doing. Alas, that's the fool in me. There are too many other variables, from pension and health care costs, to poor administration and design systems, as well as an inclination in buyers that this just isn't a good product. I've never owned anything but an American car (and that doesn't include Toyotas made in Texas or Missouri), and I've always lamented the choices by so many Americans to do the opposite. Yet, I understand.

When I learn that the average UAW worker is earning $70 an hour, compared with$40 for auto workers at other manufacturers, I truly begin to doubt it's possible to fix this problem. If the government decided to bail this company out, a complete redesign of their labor contract would have to be part of the deal. That's a shame, considering the expectations of people who might have bought a house or enrolled their kid in college expecting a higher wage. But that's the reality. It's truly too bad, considering the news of health costs for the company, that GM didn't lead the charge fifteen years ago to back the Clinton health care plan which would have alleviated much of their problems. Now, many companies are getting on board, and it might be too late for these dinosaurs of American industry. Even the UAW tried to get the company to back a national pension and health care system fifty years ago, and when the company balked (out of absurd fears of "socialism"), the workers had no choice but to push for the best deals they could get. I don't blame them for inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot.

Then again, even if the company had been smart enough to foresee its health care and pension problems, the management would have still driven the company to its knees by making Tahoes and F150s when the world wanted Camrys and Priuses. So, I'll swallow the medicine and take the loss. It's the right thing to do. How sad.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Retirement Funds and Government

Well, it appears that TRS, the teachers retirement system in Illinois, is in rough water with the recent economic downturn. That news comes on top of the revelation that TRS is only 56% funded. Of course, when I moved to Colorado, I heard from advisers out here to "leave your money in Illinois," and that made sense considering the projected payouts. Now, I might be wishing I'd taken the money and run. Of course, Colorado's PERA system is facing funding shortfalls as well. Perhaps I'd be better off if teachers paid into Social Security. Hmmm. All
these developments tend to bring criticism of the government and cries about the evils of socialism. However, I'm not complaining. It is what it is.

My thoughts on leaving my money in Illinois, rather than switching it PERA or investing it myself are simple. I made the decision to do so based on a fair amount of market research. Subsequently, the money could have been in worse shape if I'd pulled it and invested it myself (or better shape depending on my savvy). Ultimately, the money I left in Illinois is one source of my retirement, the money I put in PERA is another, and the money I invest myself is a third. There is also the small sum I will get from Social Security from non-teaching work. Thus, I feel pretty good about all my prospects precisely because I am so well-informed (and diversified), and I am not lamenting my decision to leave the money in Illinois. It was an investment decision, and like all, it had its risks and rewards.

There is a point to be made about the misuse of funds, as well as underfunding, and I'm no fan of what has happened to Illinois government under Blagoivich. However, it's truly no worse than if I'd invested it in AIG, Merril Lynch, IndyBank, Ford, WorldCom, Enron, etc. Governments aren't more likely to mis-invest the money than the private sector. Of course, once Enron folded, investors were left with no one to sue. The government funds, on the other hand, still have to answer to voters and taxpayers. When my Ford stock goes bust, or when the railroads abdicated their pension responsibilities, the free market leaves investors with nothing. Those pensions were eventually picked up by the government. And, Social Security will always be honored - Enron stock is worthless. Additionally, I should note that Social Security was never meant to be the sole retirement income for people. It has certainly gotten off track.

If I won the lottery these days, I'm inclined to take the payouts over twenty years because I know I will see the full amount. If I took a lump sum and invested it, I could lose half my value. The government (as noted by President Bush to be the only entity that can solve the mortgage problem precisely because its stability) offers consistency and a responsible party that can't walk away. Voters know where to find them.

I am fiscally conservative and a free market proponent, but I'm not naive about it. I believe the free market is the best answer to most questions, and free trade will do more than protectionism. I am heavily invested in, knowledgeable about, and supportive of free market capitalism. However, like both Adam Smith and Teddy Roosevelt, I acknowledge the pimples on the system, and accept the need to occasionally regulate what TR called its "more unsavory elements."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tough Choices, Tough Times

New Hampshire hit the front lines in the education reform battle this week with a plan that allows the potential for high school graduation at sixteen. That's not the ability to drop out at sixteen, but graduate. Before you react, however, you may want to check out the caveats. The plan which apparently passed the legislature on October 30th allows students to take a test at sixteen, or the conclusion of sophomore year, and if they pass, they are admitted to community colleges or trade schools. Students who remain in school will take a more rigorous college-prep curriculum based on the AP or IB model, and they will subsequently take a test for admittance into a four-year university. There is much more to the plan, but I am intrigued by the premise. It bears resemblance to a school reform model that premiered earlier this year called Tough Choices, Tough Times, and it resembles the philosophy of European- and Asian-based school systems, many of which are often envied and mentioned by critics of American public schools.

Over the years, I have gone back and forth on the idea of college-prep for all, and having taught in Taiwan, I am familiar with the philosophy that not all are meant for college. It's a valid assertion, though the problem has always been determining who is and who isn't. Can one test determine that? Does that put too much pressure on thirteen and fourteen-year-olds to know who they are? Or, have the early teens been too free from responsibility for too long, as noted recently by Newt Gingrich in an interview about adolescence and college readiness. As Gingrich notes, adolescence is pretty much an invention of the twentieth century, and people like Benjamin Franklin graduated high school at thirteen; I believe he finished Harvard by sixteen. Ultimately, I have long felt that we need a little more of the rigor from Europe and Asia while maintaining the belief that all students can go to college if they want, and our system should always afford the opportunity for that.

After Tough Choices, Tough Times, some Colorado legislators mentioned they'd like Colorado to be the lab for this experiment in school models. I was hoping they might. It looks like New Hampshire will be the place to watch now.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Joy of Learning

My son is currently working on his first research project, which could be a bit intimidating, as he is only in first grade. Yet, it is going quite well, and I just had to record some thoughts. The days of Show-and-Tell have passed at my son's school (it is a magnet school for G/T students), and we've moved into the world of Teach-and-Tell. So, rather than grab a toy or a picture and talk about it, my son is developing a seven-minute presentation on Cherry Creek State Park, which is about one minute from our house and a favorite playground for the two of us. Originally, he came home and asked to go over to the park to "look for something to talk about." As we rode our bikes through encountering, among other things, a huge glossy snake crossing the path, a hawk swooping in to take a rabbit or squirrel, a mother deer and her fawn, and several birds we'd never seen before from the watcher's perch, we concluded that the entire park should become his subject. He decided to share his personal playground with his classmates.

Because the project is in a couple weeks and we are home on fall break, I thought it would be a good time to begin. As my son sat on the couch looking through his Insects of North America book, and I started a few housecleaning projects, I suggested he begin looking through some of the books we checked out of the library, as he needs three sources for the presentation. Initially, he was a little frustrated, claiming he didn't know what to say or what to write. So, I asked him to just look at the books and if he saw anything interesting he'd like to tell his friends, he could write it down. By the time I got a load of laundry in, his sister bathed, and the floor mopped, he was engaged, calling out different facts as he wrote them down. We've now started "post-it noting" the books and making lists of favorite facts and activities. These are research skills that I teach my juniors in high school, and I can introduce the skills with no problem to a six-year-old who is having fun making a list of "neat things" about the park.

This has been quite fascinating, as I help my son become engaged in the formality of research, he remains focused on the joy of discovery. There is much to learn from this, and that is what my job as both a teacher and a parent is all about.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Progressive Conservative

In one of my posts about pragmatic, effective government, I referred to myself as a "fiscal conservative," and a reader posted a criticism implying that I couldn't possibly understand what conservatism means if I talked about "effective use of government." Yet, this week one of my favorite conservative op-ed columnists David Brooks argued exactly the same position as he pointed out the sadness of a lost campaign by John McCain. I couldn't agree more with Brooks' notion of "Burkean conservatism," a description I have used numerous times recently in discussions with conservatives on blogs. Burke insightfully noted, "the revenue of the state is the state," clearly accepting that government has certain responsibilities which must be funded effectively. A conservatism in the vein of Hamilton or Lincoln or TR is precisely what has made the United States the great nation it is. Obviously, Ronald Reagan was a man of conservative principles, but he also oversaw one of the government's largest expansions, and he raised taxes numerous times when it was the rational approach.

However, John McCain's rigid adherence to a conservatism that was failing to meet the needs of electorate has, instead, driven the moderate, unaffiliated voters to a man whose philosophy and voting record appears to be truly liberal. I will note, however, that I believe Obama to be a far more pragmatic politician than a "government-agenda-driven liberal." There is much in his demeanor and his record that implies he will govern in the Reagan mode of negotiating
and conceding the opposing view while making decisions he truly believes to be in the best interest of all Americans. One of these will be a health care system that is overseen, but not administered, by the government. Another is a economic policy driven by Volcker- and Rubin-esque practicality, not simple ideology.

As an unaffiliated voter who regularly splits his votes between the two parties, I'm firmly in support of Brooks' "progressive conservatism," and I truly hope it becomes the New Deal of the 21st century. When asked about my philosophy, I often note I am fiscally conservative but socially conscious. Ultimately, I simply feel I am pragmatic, and I hope the next Congress and the next President are as well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obama and McCain

Well, the way I see the situation (and sadness of it) is this:

A few months ago, I had an email conversation with a conservative columnist from the Claremont Institute. I argued that regardless of who is elected, the country will be OK. As I asserted that Obama isn’t going to ruin the country, and he’s not a terrible or risky choice, I also explained how I often disagreed with Democrats who claimed Bush, both in 2000 and 2004, was going to be a disaster. While I have many disagreements with policies of the past eight years, and I think the country is in worse shape, I refused to buy into the “Bush is a simple-minded fascist who will destroy America” rant. The same should be said for Obama.

Surprisingly, he agreed with me. He noted, quite honestly, that while he thought Obama was too young and had the wrong ideas about taxes and health care, he agreed Obama was a good person who had great potential as a leader, and that, yes, the country would be fine. Sadly, he recently published a rather snide column about how Obama is a “dangerous choice” who will be a “disaster” for the country. Clearly, he thinks it’s his job to be disingenuous, but I think his public pronunciations are indicative of much that is wrong with the political process.

When it comes down to it, both John McCain and Barack Obama are great men who will serve proudly and honorably as President of the United States. To believe anything less is a sad commentary on America. Had John McCain been the nominee in 2000 or 2004, I would have voted for him. At this point, however, I think he’s wrong on taxes, spending (or not spending), debt and deficit reduction, Iran, and, most especially, health care. I also disagree with the campaign he’s run, though that alone wouldn’t cost him my vote.

In terms of Obama, issues of character and experience are certainly important. I completely agree that the Wright and Ayers stories should have been raised, as they were. Most Americans now acknowledge them, and a majority is considering them, but most are likely dismissing them as inconsequential. That’s fine, and America is not weaker because of this. Sadly, however, charges of “terrorist,” anti-American, Muslim, Arab, black nationalist, socialist/Marxist, continue to surface, and I think that represents the ugly side of America. Many voters have been reduced to the lowest common denominator by this side of the campaign.

McCain and Obama have clear distinctions on domestic, economic, and foreign policy. Those issues should be analyzed in depth. However, neither of these men is “dangerous” for America. Both are fine Americans with many years of service to this country, though to two different ideologies. Both are patriotic men who love their country, and both will serve with always the country’s best interest at heart. McCain and Obama are good men. The country will be fine.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Game Night

"Mr. Mazenko, do you have game night at your house?"

That question has been asked numerous times over the years in my classroom, and the answer is always the same. "Game night? Every night is game night at my house." In the past three nights, my family - my wife, my three-year-old daughter, my six-year-old son, and me - has played Uno, Zingo, and Monopoly Jr. after dinner and before bed. We always play after dinner - all summer long, if it's nice, the neighborhood kids are out on the driveway playing ball tag, kickball, four square, hide-and-seek, wall ball, or other games. When it's rainy or cold, which is coming with winter, our kids are inside playing board games, or hide-and-seek, or any variation of indoor ball games. Thus, the concept of "game night" is rather odd, and it's sad but indicative of contemporary culture that we think that way. Even as I write this, my kids and three neighbors (ages 8, 10, and 12) are in our house on a rainy day playing Monopoly, Jr. (If I can I'm joining the next game, which I'm hoping is Trouble).

Whenever my students ask me about game night, I posit that the world would be a far better place if they asked the question, "Mr. Mazenko, do you have "TV night" at your house?" What if TV weren't the norm, but something families did occasionally on the few nights they weren't playing together? Granted, it's easy for me now, with such young children, to spend a lot of time playing. We don't have many extracurricular activities and homework, and my kids are in bed by 8:00 every night. However, it's not just easy; it's so important to developing skills and relationships and cognitive functions. My son learned his numbers very early - and we spent a lot of time playing the game sorry. My children's verbal skills are often complimented by friends, teachers, and complete strangers - and we spend a lot of time talking to our kids.

Game playing and interpersonal relationship development are integral to raising healthy, confident, productive kids. Perhaps, someday it will be the norm in contemporary families.

Friday, October 3, 2008

O'Reilly Goes Ballistic

In case you haven't seen it, on Jay Greene's blog, I watched six minutes off Bill O'Reilly going completely crazy while interviewing Barney Frank. As disturbing as it was, I’m glad I watched the painful six minutes of this clip because it is indicative of much that is wrong with American culture in terms of political discourse. Years ago, I ran across the Bill O’Reilly show and was amused for a while, and I thought, “Hey, this is interesting. This guy is like Morton Downey, Jr., but with a brain.” Sadly, I overestimated the “brain” part.

Certainly, Barney Frank and the Democrats need to answer for the status of FNM/FRE, but this display was, quite simply, a disgusting display of ranting “info-tainment.” Nothing good can come from people tuning in to this show seeking information. I can’t imagine why anyone, including Bill O’Reilly, thinks this is productive. Sadly, 10-14 million people get their news from shows like this each week.

Years ago, in his work “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman noted that all the information contained in an hour-long television news show could be found on one page of a newspaper. That is a disturbing statistic, especially when the amount is probably lessened by a “Factor” of ten when Bill O’Reilly is screaming “that’s Bull!”

Being an educator, I weep for the days before this kind of drivel, and I hold out hope that someday shows like this will again become the realm of only cheap, late-night, local cable access like Morton Downey, Jr.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Shrek Factor

“Mr. Mazenko, has your son seen …” That question, followed by the title of the latest offering from Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, has opened up endless discussion in my classes about choices parents make in raising their children.

My students, as well as colleagues and other parents, are often shocked to know that my four-year-old son has never seen any of the movies they mention. It gets worse when people learn my son has never seen any movies. Inevitably, my answer comes, creating groans as countless hands shoot in the air to offer a comment. “No,” I say, “my son hasn’t seen Shrek. He’s only four years old.”

Though it may seem snide, I tend to qualify my answer by giving my son’s age, implying to my audience that it’s obvious why he hasn’t seen it. He’s too young. However, knowing my belief is not the norm, I’m certain this will extend the conversation, rather than bring it to a conclusion. I’m under no illusion that my audience will hear my son’s age and think, “Oh, of course he hasn’t seen it. Shrek isn’t appropriate for young children.” Instead, I know they believe that the movie is entirely acceptable for him.

They often know, or at least anticipate my objections, but they have an answer. The movie, they believe, offers the best of both worlds. It’s a movie that has qualities both young children and adults will enjoy. “But he won’t even get the adult humor,” they tell me. “It goes right over kids’ heads.” Here is where we part ways in the discussion. They believe this blend of adult material into children’s films doesn’t matter. I fundamentally disagree.

I think the essence of the argument comes down to a common belief that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. If my son doesn’t understand the sexual innuendoes uttered by the donkey in Shrek or the genie in Alladin, then it shouldn’t matter that he hears them. As a parent, however, I don’t want to make decisions that way. For me, it’s not about whether or not it will hurt my children. It’s about whether it will help them. Parenting decisions should be made on what is best for the child. Will he suffer psychological scarring if he sees the movie? Maybe not. Probably not. But neither will he suffer if he doesn’t see it. His life will not be lessened for lack of a movie. “But it’s so funny,” they say. “You’re depriving your son of one the great joys in life. Movies like Shrek and Aladdin and The Lion King are part of childhood.” That perspective saddens me.

Childhood is not about any one movie or story or toy or food or activity. Childhood is not about commodities at all. I truly believe my son will benefit more and will deprive more pleasure from digging for worms and chasing butterflies and riding his bike. I will see more joy on his face when he is tickling and being tickled by his younger sister than I will when he is staring at a movie or TV screen and giggling every once in a while.

In books such as The Disappearance of Childhood and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, social critic Neil Postman explains that childhood is really an invention of the contemporary world. Prior to that time, children were predominantly dressed the same, viewed the same, and treated the same as adults. It wasn’t until people like Rousseau in his seminal work Emille that society began to look at the different cognitive and emotional development of children. Children should have different thoughts than adults. They should use different language, they should wear different clothes, and, in terms of Shrek, they should have different forms of entertainment.

According to Postman, the fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood is access to information. Adults quite simply know things that children don’t. There are adult words and adult conversations. There are adult situations and adult activities. If you think about it, in all coming-of-age literature, the loss of innocence comes when the children become aware of the adult world. The original loss of innocence came when man ate from the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve discovered shame. They were no longer innocent because they had gained more information.

If information is different for adults and children, then it’s not a stretch for entertainment to be different as well. I can watch a half-hour of Clifford with my son and not be bored simply because there is no adult humor. Media corporations, however, have figured out that they can double their revenues by creating animated films that will draw audiences both young and old. Thus, based on the idea of access to information, if we develop entertainment, such as Shrek, which is marketed to kids and adults, we have effectively eliminated childhood.

Interestingly, contemporary television, notably sitcoms, adds to this societal dilemma by blurring the lines between children’s and adult’s roles. Watching shows such as According to Jim and Two and a Half Men, I am struck by the fact that the adult and child characters are predominantly the same. They use the same language. There is no discernable difference between the words and patterns they use, nor the topics they discuss. Contemporary fashion is important, too, as both the adults and children wear the same styles of clothing. At times, the kids are portrayed as more mature than their parents. Obviously, it is the irony and sarcasm of these situations that makes them humorous. I will concede that that is precisely the writers’ point. But a line is blurred if this becomes entertainment for all ages. When a five-year-old tells me that American Idol is her favorite show, I cringe, knowing the harshness of Simon’s language is inappropriate for her once-innocent ears.

People say you can’t shelter your children from the harsh realities of the world forever, and I most certainly agree. As an educator who teaches countless examples of coming-of-age literature, I couldn’t agree more. Teaching high school, it is my job to be with children as they grow into adults. I can’t protect my son forever, but I can certainly shelter him at the age of four. That is a far cry from shielding him from the teachings of Darwin when he is in high school. Though many critics of my choices make that comparison.

“No,” I tell them. “My son hasn’t seen Shrek.” This always shocks and disappoints them. Imagine what they’ll think when they learn he doesn’t eat candy.



Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Crisis in Boys' Education?

Is there a crisis in the academic achievement of boys? Are boys in trouble? Does gender matter? There has been much written of this in the past few years, and Newsweek adds to the discussion this week with an article entitled "Struggling School-Age Boys." I have no clear answer to my first two questions, but the third is undoubtedly "yes." Each year I begin my freshman English classes with a study of The Lord of the Flies, and the class discusses the issue of gender. Because the book begins with the line, "The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down ..." I ask my students to ponder why it's about boys. William Golding once opined that when you get right down to it, the fourteen-year-old boy is the closest manifestation of true evil you'll find anywhere in the world. This always draws smiles from the girls, shrugs from the boys. However, it's a serious question. We discuss the reality that girls sometimes outnumber boys 3 to 1 in honors classes, whereas boys outnumber girls 10 to 1 in disciplinary referrals and suspensions. Clearly, there is a problem, and clearly gender matters.

Dr. Leonard Sax has written extensively about this issue in the book Why Gender Matters, and it is a book that I recommend each year to teachers and parents. Interestingly, Sax notes such issues as the research that shows boys don't hear as well as girls. Now, consider that reality when 90% of kindergarten and primary teachers are female with soft voices. Is it that Johnny is being bad in the back of the class, or does he just not hear what is going on? Could this influence disciplinary situations? Could this be a rationale behind the skyrocketing diagnoses of ADD/ADHD in children, predominantly boys, as young as three? What about the research on psycho-motor skills development that puts girls as much as 14 months out in front? Should we consider this when we put pencils in the hands of kindergarteners and expect them to write? How does Johnny feel when Suzie's penmanship is praised, but he's asked to try a little harder.

These are all issues that society needs to spend much more time discussing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Immigrants and English

As if they read my blog last night, the Denver Post published a story today entitled "Americanizing New Arrivals," which addressed the issue of English acquisition among immigrants. According to the story, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Citizenship (so much for Republicans reducing bureaucracy) will offer new programs designed to help immigrants assimilate. No word on whether they'll be checking papers at the door, but the implication is that various offices will be opened and businesses enlisted to aid in the study of English and tutoring for the citizenship test. In all honesty, this seems like a great idea, though I am wondering how it will play among the English-only/deport-the-illegals wing of the Republicans. The plan is certainly a practical approach, though its impetus smacks of naivete in terms of immigrants and the history of assimilation in this country.

The story begins by noting "Foreign-language signs touting Spanish-language preschool, Vietnamese groceries, Ethiopian church services, Korean car repair and Russian money-exchange hint at Denver's fast-growing immigrant cocoons that nurture ties to the old country." Clearly, there are many people in the country who are quite unnerved that immigrants don't immediately abandon their native culture, not to mention the language (because acquiring a new language is just so easy, especially for populations not necessarily well-educated in their first language). However, there have always been Little Italys, Greektowns, Chinatowns, etc. In my small hometown of Alton, Illinois, I grew up with three Catholic churches within blocks of each other - each had historically different ethnicities. I've also heard of many people whose great-grandparents never really picked up English, though their grandparents and parents were fluent English speakers.

That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it will always be. Critics tend to be naive about the history of the United States, and that ignorance often leads people to be afraid of the wrong things.

Monday, September 8, 2008

English and the Language Police

Recently, someone forwarded a YouTube video to me entitled "A Second American Revolution," and among the somewhat extreme rants about the demise of America and the threat to American culture was a clear emphasis on the need to make English the national language of the United States. I'll admit I've often been baffled by this issue, and while I don't know why I'd have any serious problem with the concept, something about the people who rail about it puts me off, and I tend to oppose it. Thus, I am an English teacher who is not in favor of making English the national language of the United States. However, that's true only in the sense that I'm not in favor of making any language the national language of the United States. For me, it is a rather redundant situation that is the equivalent of letting the world, as well as our own citizens, know that our country borders Mexico and Canada.

I've heard the frustration from people who are shocked that in America they need to "press 1 for English," and I can honestly understand the sense of bewilderment. Yet, I have to say that I don't imagine passing a law declaring English as the national language will eliminate that phone message. This being a free country, I would imagine any business can put whatever they want on their directory, and we will all still be pressing 1 for English. And, if the business gets a lot of Spanish-speaking callers, they're going to leave the option to press 2. It's not like a national language law will stop people from speaking other languages, nor should it. Really, how is the government going to stop all the Spanish speakers (code word for illegal immigrants) if they can't find them in the first place?

I've heard that the law would prevent licensing exams from being offered in foreign languages, but I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for this, but I would imagine a working knowledge of English is necessary to run most businesses. Additionally, the degree of fluency necessary to test well is not the same as being able to adequately run a shop or do manual labor. When I lived in Taiwan teaching English, I never passed the proficiency of a three-year-old in speaking Chinese, yet I was able to live a productive life for five years. All the research shows that by the second generation, 90% of American immigrants are fluent in English. While the parents may not ever acquire fluency - mainly because they're working too hard to support their family to take English classes - the children almost always are. Considering how bad Americans are at retaining their high school Spanish or French, perhaps we should cut some people some slack.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Government Versus the Free Market

In today's Denver Post I was intrigued by John Andrew's citing of "Ten Principles" from Joe Bast of the Heartland Institute, so I did what all educated voters should do which is follow up on the source. Surprisingly, the alleged "non-partisan" source is actually heading a clearly conservative, most likely libertarian, think tank. Bast is listed as president of the Heartland Institute, and while his biography refers to his history as a high school debater who went to college, there is no information to qualify him as a source on energy, pollution, climate change, or health care. There are no clear credentials for his "academics" listed either. However, Andrews implies his principles are the last word on all these issues.

I would concur with his position that energy independence is an illusion, at least while we are using the internal combustion engine, though that's not a given. While using oil, we will always be importing it, but there's no reason to commit to always using it. When the Chevy Volt or Honda's new hydrogen fuel cell hit the road, we may be well on our way to independence, considering coal is not scarce here. I realize these are long term solutions; however, I wouldn't say we will always depend on oil, especially considering new drilling will take years to go on-line. Andrews does note that oil is a global commodity. Thus, drilling here does not mean the oil will stay here - Shell, BP, and Chevron will sell all oil - even that found in ANWAR - on the open market; sadly, American voters don't realize this.

However, Mr. Bast and Mr. Andrews should realize that the free market won't provide health insurance freely, and the current system is becoming unbearable for many voters. From a market perspective, health insurance companies are in the business of collecting premiums and denying claims - that is how money is made. That is why no business would choose to cover - for anything less than astronomical premiums - people with pre-existing conditions. It is in the interest of all nations to have their citizens covered. If I have a child with leukemia, a shift to HSAs or the ability to buy insurance across state lines is not going to help me at all. That is why large pools work effectively; they disperse the risk. That said, a blend of public and private coverage like the Wyden-Bennett plan or extending FEHPB to all Americans is the only thing that middle class voters are going to accept. Otherwise, they will be eventually priced out of free market coverage. Giving a $5000 tax credit to cover premiums that average $12000 for a population with an income of $420000 is the same fuzzy math we've seen for eight years, at which time we've seen an increasingly de-regulated economy run by conservatives generate huge deficits, debt, and financial precariousness.

In terms of the free market, I concur that less regulation can free up markets to respond to need. However, we must also admit that the free market can be irresponsible in search of quick profits. Let's not pretend that both Paulson and Bernancke don't acknowledge that an overly de-regulated mortgage industry has contributed to, if not outright caused, our current crisis. Similar criticisms can be said of the credit and energy industry. No "non-partisan" critic or researcher would argue that de-regulation didn't contribute to Enron's collapse. No one can logically argue that if we didn't regulate industry we wouldn't return to eras of widespread pollution that led to such tragedies as the Cuyahoga River in the 1970s. In terms of industry regulation, a logical, rational voter would follow Reagan's mantra of "trust, but verify." If we have a problem with illegal immigrants in the country, we must admit that industry will hire them if we don't regulate them. This seems to be common sense to me. Belief in free-market capitalism can't be purely ideological; we must be pragmatic.

I'm a fiscal conservative, but, like Ronald Reagan - the true not mythical one, I'm a pragmatist. I'm hoping voters will be seek to be more informed on the actual statistics before choosing McCain's fiscal warts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Taxes and Government Investment

Two recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times have argued for the importance of taxpayer funded research as the lifeblood of innovation in American society. In this election year that comes on top of an economy struggling to right itself, the differences in philosophy concerning the role of government in the economy is of paramount importance. Though I am generally a proponent of fiscal conservatism, I do not walk lock-in-step with the anti-tax, limited-to-the-point-of-incompetent-government crowd. Being a teacher as well, I am not inclined to accept that government employees cannot do things well, though questions of efficiency are always valid. In an article titled "Tax. Spend. Create Jobs" John E. Schwarz of the Washington Post explained that the Democrats have yet to create a compelling narrative about the way the economy performs under Democrats versus the way it does under Republicans. Because the Democrats are more likely to invest in research and infrastructure improvements, the credit should go to the side that believes the government should play a more active role in the economy.

This idea is mirrored in a piece titled "Ideas Need Sowing" by Clair Cain Miller of the New York Times. Miller describes concerns by people such as Judy Estrin, a chief technology officer for Cisco Systems, who worry about decreasing innovation in American business. She recently published her ideas in a book called "Closing the Innovation Gap," where she laments a lag in new product development among many business. She points to ideas such as the iPod which are actually close to a decade old. One of the problems that both Schwarz and Estrin see is a lack of investment in innovation. Venture capitalists have never been big on investing in the early stages of research, and up until this decade, the federal government was there instead as the impetus. Of note is the idea that the growth of innovation in business is often supported by strong financing from the government at the university and institute levels. The business world is often reluctant to fund projects without immediate promise of return, whereas the government will, or at least has in the heyday of American business.

Thus, much of our innovation from aerospace to communications to computers to the internet to medicine was initially funded at the federal level. When that funding dries up due to the anti-tax crowd, so does American innovation.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The First Week of School

The first week of school this year coincided with the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Needless to say, I have been overwhelmed by the excitement and promise of a new group of students at the same time as we were witnessing a truly historic moment with the nomination and acceptance speech of Barack Obama. The moment was not lost on any of us, and like the start of a new year always does for me, this convention and that speech energized this town and inspired people in many ways. Good for Obama, and good for America. I am proud of us all, and I continue to have faith in the nations ability to be "that shining city on the hill." Regardless of our political views, it seemed that the monumental significance of Obama's nomination was not lost on many. I was proud to see no one who sought to diminish the progress this represents for America, and it was great to see the commercial from Senator McCain acknowledging that as well.

There is hope for us all. God bless America.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Republican and Democratic Values

Maybe you've received this email recently; it's an example of what I call "internet philosophy," and it's worth deconstructing the argument.

"I was talking to a neighbor's little girl the other day. I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she replied, 'I want to be President!' Both of her parents are liberal Democrats and were standing there. So I asked her, 'If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?'

She replied, 'I'd give houses to all the homeless people.'

'Wow - what a worthy goal.' I told her. ' But, you don't have to wait until you're President to do that. You can come over to my house and mow, pull weeds, and sweep my yard, and I'll pay you $50. Then I'll take you over to the grocery store where this homeless guy hangs out, and you can give him the $50 to use toward a new house.'

Since she is only 6, she thought that over for a few seconds. She looked me straight in the eye and asked, 'Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?'

And I said, 'Welcome to the Republican Party.'

Her folks still aren't talking to me."

This is a great story except for the fact that the homeless guy is a mentally ill, drug-addicted, veteran of the Vietnam war who was institutionalized for many years for severe post-traumatic stress disorder until spending cuts put him out on the street with no marketable skills and no ability to take care of himself.

It would be nice if the world were as black and white as "internet philosophy" makes it out to be. However, these sound bites add little to the argument. Clearly, the Democrats have erred far too often in providing handouts rather than hands up. Yet, the Democrats would rather err on the side of accidentally helping someone who doesn't need it than neglecting to help those who truly can't help themselves.

It's a tough call, and it's one of the reasons I'm unaffiliated, preferring to find the most pragmatic of leaders who can bridge the gaps of both parties' platforms.

Friday, August 22, 2008

University Presidents on the Drinking Age

This issue, and the recent position taken by one hundred university presidents, begs the question of how effectively we can legislate behavior and whether legalizing a behavior makes it less dangerous. It is our culture's unhealthy attitude toward alcohol that encourages binge drinking, not current laws. In fact, the drinking age has worked quite well for many years; though there has been an increase in binge drinking in the last ten years, the percentage of underage drinking has gone down. I concur that some students "load up" with alcohol before going out, but a lower drinking age will not suddenly create a society where college students are drinking casually (and in less quantity) in bars under the watchful eyes of police and university administrators. Additionally a majority of Americans favor maintaining the current drinking age.

While there is a legitimate argument that an individual who is a "legal adult" at the age of eighteen should have access to full rights and privileges, it is a bit of a non sequiter to associate military service with alcohol consumption. The argument that if a young man/woman is going to fight and die for his/her country, he should be able to legally get drunk before he goes is not exactly a sound argument. What does one have to do with the other? Additionally, though I know it is not the primary reason for the law, there is significant research that shows considerably greater damage to brain development in consumption before the age of about twenty-one. That may not have been the original intent of the current age restriction, its benefit shouldn't be discounted. Finally, while MADD activists may be hyperbolic, they are accurate in their assertions about decreased drunk driving statistics.

The argument that "everybody's doing it anyway" has never been a valid position for legalizing behavior. To paraphrase Rush Limbaugh on handing out condoms to kids: "If kids are going to do it anyway why doesn't the state provide a dorm full of in-house, disease-free hookers, with ample supplies of drugs and alcohol, for students to have safe relations with under the watchful eye of government nurses and administrators."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Nudge - Libertarian Paternalism

Certainly, the most important quality of the American spirit and American culture is a self-reliance and a rugged individuality. However, it is unreasonable to conclude that people always, or even often, make the decision that is in their own best interest. In fact, recent developments have shown that markets are not inherently rationale, and people will vote and act in direct conflict to the own self interest - often for simple reasons of inertia. For this reason, we have laws and regulations - speed limits are a good example.

An excellent analysis of this situation, as well as a practical position on what "government" could and should do, is the new book "Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The government, as well as society, should not seek to force or mandate good behavior, but there is much that can be done to encourage and offer incentives for behavior that benefits the individual as well as society. One of their most basic examples is a hypothetical description of how cafeterias offer food. While not limiting choice and freedom at all, authorities can encourage people to make healthier choices simply based on arrangement of food.

It's an interesting and pragmatic blend of conservative and liberal approaches which they call "libertarian paternalism." I recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Health Care Debacle

It's the health care system, Stupid.

Currently, I carry a low-premium (not really that low) high deductible, catastrophic health care plan for my family because the family coverage through my employer is not only cost-prohibitive, but it would require that my children give up the pediatrician they've always known.  I remembering hearing that as a major criticism of the Clinton nationalized health care system, yet, alas, here it is in the same old system we're stuck with.  And, considering that my children are incredibly healthy - that is, in six years they have only seen the doctor for their yearly well visits - my wife and I concluded this is the best plan.  Though it's far from optimum, and here's why.

On vacation this summer, my daughter developed an ear infection (first time for any serious sickness) and we were faced with the issue of finding a doctor.  Normally, for ear infections there is little that can be done, and we weren't going to go with any antibiotics.  However, we had been out in rural Wisconsin, where the kids were playing in the woods which are known for ticks, and we were a little worried that something had crawled in her ear.  All we wanted was a nurse or doctor to take a look, so we visited the Urgent Care Clinic of Anderson Hospital in Maryville, Illinois.  After a quick look from a physician's assistant, followed by an even quicker look from the doctor, our fears of a tick were relieved, and we left.  The ear cleared up in a couple days.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when we received a bill from the hospital for $200, which is not covered by our insurance.  We negotiated that down to $160, though we were still livid, having expected it to be half that.  However, the situation got worse when we received an additional bill for another $150 from the doctor who is apparently represented by Midwest Emergency Management, Inc.  Needless to say, we are completely baffled by this ridiculous billing, and our negative opinion of health care continues to grow.  For me, at this point, future elections may be all about health care.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Judgment versus Experience

As Mitt Romney and Tom Daschle discussed the presidential election on This Week with George Stephanopolous today, the standard issue of experience was raised as the differentiation between John McCain and Barack Obama. Romney argued, as has been a standard party line lately, that John McCain, as a result of years of service in the Senate has the necessary experience to be president that Obama lacks. The issue is of relevance this week, as the conflict between Russia and Georgia gathers headlines. While Daschle argued that voters should focus on judgment, meaning Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, Romney claimed that he would always take experience as the key to choosing a successful president. Sadly, Daschle - always the weak speaker and thinker - failed to ask the most important question about foreign policy experience.

If foreign policy experience is the necessary prerequisite for a strong president, how does Romney explain the legacy of Ronald Reagan? At the time Reagan ran for president, he had absolutely no foreign policy experience, yet he emerged to battle the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and is remembered as one of the strongest foreign policy presidents in history. Granted, there were numerous mis-steps such as the pullout of Lebanon after the Marine barracks bombing, the support for Saddam Hussein and the predecessors of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and the Iran-Contra debacle. However, in terms of the campaign of 1980, Reagan was roundly criticized - even by Republicans in the primaries - for his lack of foreign policy experience and his rather bland and generalized knowledge of global politics. In fact, the 1980 election pamphlet emphasizes how Reagan is going to surround himself with numerous qualified and experienced foreign policy experts when he his elected.

Clearly, there is no one who is truly ready to be president, and foreign policy experience is not a prerequisite for leadership. It wasn't for Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and it won't be the deciding factor in the success of the next president. Experience certainly did not serve other leaders such as LBJ very well, and Kennedy was even failed by his experience in his early problems with the Bay of Pigs, though he responded admirably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, it becomes a matter of knowledge and judgment rather than simple years of experience.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rise of Democratic Independents in Colorado

Colorado is an anomaly in contemporary politics, as it is a consistently Republican state that nonetheless has a Democratic governor, legislature, mayor of its largest city, and, soon, two Democratic senators. What brought about this support for the Democrats is a suspicion among voters that conservative ideology has led to the current state of dissatisfaction and economic precariousness. Lately, Democrats have run on positions of fixing the problems, while Republicans generally campaign on the position of being the next Ronald Reagan – that message has gotten tired. It’s not that the state is suddenly liberal. Coloradans are still fiercely independent and conservative in many ways. But while they voted for TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights) based on a desire to approve tax increases, they've seen the problems of the convoluted formula for computing the spending of funds already collected. Voters logically blame the anti-tax crowd for the states' serious financial problems that led voters to suspend TABOR tax rebates in 2005. The subsequent rise of independents in Colorado voter registration actually shows an increase in critical thinking whereby voters are more carefully evaluating the positions of each party. Clearly, no party or platform is always right.

Like Ronald Reagan (a brilliant leader who came at a unique time for his message), most Coloradans are pragmatic people. Support for TABOR on principle became a realistic decision to support referendums to fix it. It is a practical realism and a decision to pay attention to both sides of the debate that has led voters to support the recent economic pragmatism of the Democrats. Simply put, voters are showing they are not for or against any taxes. There are many issues and projects in the state – from roads to schools to parks to public health – that require large sums of money, which must be spent with honest transparency and practicality. For those voters who stay informed, comptroller David Walker’s tour on the country’s financial state has been revealing, and his recommendations are necessary. Walker – an independent who was once a conservative Democrat and more recently a moderate Republican – has clearly pointed out that in order to fix the government’s financial mess so it doesn’t end up on the shoulders of my six-year-old son, we will need to cut spending AND raise some taxes. Reading the numbers objectively, I am OK with that, as are many Coloradans. The sooner conservative Republicans realize this, the sooner they may be able to offer more practical positions voters believe will work for Colorado.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Just Say No to HFCS

If my students leave my class with one consistent piece of information not related to the study of English, it is to avoid consuming products that contain high fructose corn syrup. The issue is digression, or you might say a "rant," that occurs early in the year in my class as students come walking in with a soda, or worse, a Powerade (I wonder why they need an energy drink after a grueling walk from across the hall). I roundly (and good-naturedly) chastise them for putting such a toxic product into their body, everyone laughs and argues a bit, and then we move. The issue, however, never completely dies, as it comes up when we analyze an op-ed piece about it or we do a rhetorical deconstruction of the movie Super-size Me or when we have a class debate and write a synthesis essay about whether there should be a ban on endorsement contracts between soda companies and schools. Reasonably, it is an issue for which kids have interest and opinion.

I stopped using products with HFCS about six years ago, and the more I read, the more I am inclined to stick with my boycott and urge others to do the same. Simply by cutting it out of my diet, I lost fifteen pounds. Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen - Oprah's health gurus and authors of You: the Owners Manual - advise patients to end or at least radically limit consumption of the sweetener that, these days, seems to be in just about everything. One of the biggest problems is that it inhibits the body's/mind's ability to discern when it was full. That is why people can consume a 64 oz. Big Gulp. Realistically, the body is not meant to consume that much liquid, especially one made of sugar. Additionally, there is much research to note the connection between the rise of HFCS in foods and the rise in America's weight problem.

There is no doubt that we can all do a few small things to be a bit healthier. If you're looking for one small change, I recommend saying goodbye to HFCS.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I Could Never Be Your Woman - Review

It seems somewhat surprising that a movie from the writer-director of both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless could go straight to DVD, but that's the case with Amy Heckerling's I Could Never Be Your Woman. Great movie, bad title, unfortunate turn of events regarding its release. The movie, which stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd, is a satirical romantic comedy about about forty-something Hollywood writer/single mom falling for the twenty-something star of her hit - but fading - sitcom. As romantic-comedy it is pretty standard entertainment, but as a satire of contemporary American society via Hollywood stereotypes, it is, in a word, hilarious. Heckerling's plot and dialogue are every bit is entertaining, realistic, perceptive, and funny as her best known movies. Pfeiffer is engaging as always, and Rudd is hysterical. The movie is also a great start for young actress Saoirse Ronan who "wowed" everyone with her Golden Globe nominated performance in Atonement. The satire of contemporary music via Ronan singing altered versions of hit pop songs is a highlight of the movie. Additionally, Tracy Ulmann is featured throughout the movie as "Mother Nature" who converses with Pfeiffer about the pitfalls of aging. It is mildly amusing criticism of the aging Baby Boom generation and its obsession with staying young.

Apparently, the film was originally scheduled for release in 2005, but was bumped repeatedly until it was shelved. Various explanations include mismanagement from its small indie producer, conflict over financing and marketing from major studios, opposition to the satire that hit too close to home in Hollywood (this one seems hard to believe), and simple unfortunate twists of fate. It's a shame that a satirical gem like this can be shelved while mindless and poorly written movies such as "My Bosses Daughter" or "What Happens in Vegas" are released and endlessly hyped. Regardless of its past, this movie is quite entertaining, and it's worth renting.





Monday, August 11, 2008

The Right and Wrong of Taxes

To follow up on my assertion about taxes, I'd like to re-print my letter printed in the community section of the Denver Post on May 9, 2008.

I was disappointed by Mr. Lou Schroeder's groundless anti-tax rant against the proposed budget and bond issues of the Cherry Creek School District. Sadly, his argument that CCSD should prove they need the money, as well as dispel any concerns voters have about "waste, fraud, and abuse," has revealed him to be uninformed and ignorant of the district's budget issues. Informed voters already know the reasons given by the district, and they also know that no school district ever proposes an increase without explaining why. In fact, that's what a proposal is; it's an explanation. Cherry Creek School District's budget is extremely transparent, as is the explanation for the necessary budget and bond election. If Mr. Schroeder wants the information, he merely needs to show up at school board meetings, check the information on the website, or call the district. Secondly, if he wants to accuse the district of misusing funds, he should back up his claims with detailed evidence.

Thomas Jefferson said we need an "educated electorate" for representative government to succeed. For Mr. Schroeder to base his opposition to the referendum simply because it is his "own money," is to claim no responsibility in the needs of the community. To oppose all taxes simply on principle with no understanding of the issues is immature and irrational, as was his shameless analogy to "uneducated rodents." Thus, I urge voters and Mr. Schroeder to actually become educated about the issue before issuing blanket statements of opposition. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." In comparison to the citizens of other industrialized countries, Mr. Schroeder keeps a large percentage of his money. However, the money he does pay goes for our roads, our parks, our clean water, our police and fire departments, our public sanitation systems, our military, and the education of our children.

Lou Schroeder lives in Greenwood Village, which is an incredibly safe community with great roads, extensive community events, effective law enforcement, and a beautiful network of well-maintained parks and trails. These bountiful services are a direct result of the huge tax base of the Denver Tech Center, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. Lou also lives near Cherry Creek High School, which Newsweek has ranked as one of the top 250 high schools in the country. With nearly 20,000 high schools nationwide, it appears the residents of Greenwood Village are being well served by the Cherry Creek School District.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pragmatic Effective Government

Taxes - curse or necessity? Is the government just stealing the common man's money, or are taxes "the price we pay for a civilized society"? Is government the problem, or is it the solution. The answer to all these questions is "both." And, the problem with all these questions is the word "or." Clearly, there are no absolutes in questions like government, and that's why I am unaffiliated, having been a registered Republican and a registered Democrat. Now, I am looking for some common sense answers to common problems, and I've realized that pragmatism is the key. P.J. O'Rourke was fond of saying that Republicans campaign on the idea that government can't work, and when they get elected, they prove it. At the very least, I know a reasonably large government is a necessity, so I'd hope to elect the most efficient people to run it.

In terms of taxes, I've concluded that I'm neither for nor against taxes on principle. As part of the "educated electorate" that Jefferson envisioned, I know I must look at each tax individually and weigh its merits. There is a clear wisdom to the idea that more money left in the private sector is a boon to the economy. There is also a logic to an individual, or individual communities, knowing how to best spend his/her/their own money. However, voters must also understand that individuals don't build highways or aircraft carriers and those things cost a lot of money.

The key to effective government is leadership, and when the government is not working as it should, we can do nothing but blame whoever is in charge. Our best leaders have always been the most pragmatic. For example, tax hikes might have been anathema to conservatives, but Ronald Reagan raised them four times between 1982 and 1986. When Bill Clinton proposed tax increases in 1993, conservatives swore he'd wreck the economy. Instead, the economy responded with the largest economic expansion in history. Currently, the nation is $9 trillion in debt, and there's no way to argue that's good. At this point, I'm looking for a pragmatic group of people who can simply solve the problems.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

America, America

If you haven’t yet read Fareed Zakaria’s Post-American World, you should. In fact, this book should be required reading for anyone who wants to weigh in with social criticism of contemporary America. Zakaria, an editor for Newsweek, is one of the most astute observers of global society writing today, and he writes with insight and wisdom that seeks to separate the “hype” from the facts. In my previous post about “optimism” in American society, I referenced Zakaria along with David Brooks of the New York Times. The perspective of both these men is surprisingly helpful and necessary, especially with all the negative noise being raised by talk radio and talk television. While there are many problems and much to criticize about American society, the country really is still filled with triumph and promise. It is still that “shining city upon a hill.” There is a reason it is still the most desired destination for people seeking to emigrate. Even as other countries make great progress – and we should applaud their efforts and successes – America is still the place to be.

Zakaria is quick to point out that his reference to a “post-American world” is not about the decline of America but instead about “the rise of the rest.” When an excerpt from the first chapter was published in Newsweek, there were many voices – doubtless few of them had actually read the article – that were quick to criticize Zakaria’s contempt for America. However, a negative few of America is just about the last thing anyone can expect from Zakaria. It’s not that American companies and workers are suddenly failing, it’s that for the first time in the modern era, many other countries can actually compete. It’s not that American students are suddenly ignorant, unskilled, and illiterate. The best of our best still compete at the top of the scale with the best of the rest. Sadly, this is hard for many Americans to accept – that we can’t dominate with no competition for the rest of the history. When half of the graduate students in America are foreign born, people gasp. Yet, it’s unrealistic to think that all the best graduate students should only be American. Americans should be proud that their universities are the first choice of the world’s best and brightest, and they should hope these students choose to stay here as well.

From iPods to aircraft carriers, America is still on the cutting edge of human progress. Though we gripe about our obstacles, we are still the world’s premier superpower. Read this book, and you will come to understand that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “the news of [America’s] death has been greatly exaggerated.”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Public Funding

While criticizing the inadequacy of public education, John Stossel, host of ABC News’ show 20/20, told a Denver newspaper he’d “give readers $100 if they can tell [him] one thing the government does better than the private sector.” In all fairness, I enjoy Stossel, but where should I start?

The most obvious answer is national defense. There is no way to argue that a private sector militia could more effectively defend the United States. In fact, I can’t think of any time in history when a privatized military force has defended a nation’s citizens. Would the private sector have been able to assemble the forces currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? To quote Bill O’Reilly, “that’s ridiculous.” Not even Grover Norquist, who wants to “shrink government until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub,” would eliminate the nation’s military. Stossel has reached the point where anti-government rhetoric becomes absurd. Having enjoyed numerous episodes of Stossel’s “Myths, Lies, and Stupidity,” I understand and agree with his core philosophy. The government is too big, too corrupt, and too expensive. Being fiscally conservative, I regularly lament Alaskan “bridges to nowhere” and other examples of bureaucratic disasters. However, I will concede that the government is best at providing not-for-profit services. Fire protection is another obvious example. I support volunteer fire departments, but no private organization could or should replace tax-supported firefighters.

Additionally, as scandalized as many police departments have become in recent years, I can’t imagine a single community in America choosing to disband its police force. Stossel cannot rationally argue that private security forces – the likes of which patrol malls and gated communities – could adequately replace police departments. When government programs such as these become corrupt, the only logical solution is to reform them, not eliminate them. There are simply some tasks that must be done by the government. Interstate highway construction, nuclear energy regulation, NASA, The Clean Water Act, the Center for Disease Control, and the National Institute of Health are other examples of effective government. As America’s original libertarian Henry David Thoreau said, “I ask not at once for no government, but for a better government.”

Stossel’s comment was made in criticism of American public education. It’s easy to blame ineffective government for that. Anyone who has seen Stossel’s special “Stupid in America” knows he provides ample evidence of absurd inadequacies in schools nationwide. His examination of the New York City public school’s union contract is enough to make me lose faith in the system, and I’m a teacher. The problem is Stossel’s generalizations. No one can reasonably argue that “public education does not work.” Consider Cherry Creek High School, a suburban public school in Greenwood Village, Colorado. By all accounts – including comments from real estate agents who say parents regularly limit their housing searches to the surrounding neighborhoods – Cherry Creek is an extremely successful public school. Additionally, I have friends and family who attended New Trier High School and Stevenson High School in the Chicago suburbs. Anyone from Chicago knows there’s nothing wrong with “public education” in those neighborhoods. I’ve had students transfer to schools like Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida. Readers of Newsweek’s Best High Schools list will recognize that one. Scarsdale High School in New York and Bellevue High School in Washington are certainly not having any problems, despite being publicly funded. All of these schools, as well as thousands of others, are phenomenal public schools.

These schools are not failures of a government program. Nor do they support the belief that teacher’s unions and tenure are the reasons that public schools fail. Obviously, the success or failure of a school isn’t simply linked to public funding. Sadly, the issue is far more complex than that. Thus, Stossel does his profession a disservice by oversimplifying such an important issue in American society. He is guilty of such obvious flawed logic that my AP Language students would enjoy deconstructing his argument.

I am all for social criticism. Teaching novels of social criticism is a fundamental component of my job. However, I am also a teacher of critical thinking. In that respect, Stossel fails as badly as many of the programs he criticizes. Mr. Stossel, you can make the check out to Michael P. Mazenko, and you can send it care of Cherry Creek High School.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Oprah's Book Club

Oprah is ducking me. While I’m a fan of her book club, and while I believe she may be, other than J.K. Rowling, the greatest proponent of reading in the last fifty years, there is one key issue she's missing. I've emailed countless times with a book recommendation to address this. Yet, she’s ducking me. Before Oprah does another Book Club episode, she needs to address basic literacy and the fact that as much 50% of her audience is "dys-fluent" in reading. Realistically, that means many people in the country, and in her audience, can’t read. They’re not illiterate, but they can’t truly read. In the field of reading instruction we’d say they’re “fake readers.” Their eyes may be able to skim the words and their brains can pronounce them, but they don’t truly comprehend what they are reading.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I encountered the phenomenon of “fake reading.” And, I’ve been teaching English for fifteen years. Sadly, there has been little discussion of the need to teach reading throughout high school and even college. In reality, most school systems teach students to "decode" in first and second grade. After that schools simply assign reading. The problem is as texts get harder and material becomes more complex, students need assistance in how to tackle the more challenging texts. Especially at the upper levels, all teachers need to teach students how to read for their class. Reading is a learning skill, not an English skill. However, most teachers simply tell students they need to “read it again” or “read it more carefully.”

Each time Oprah chooses another literary saga by an accomplished author, I groan. Not because I am opposed to the choice, but because I know statistically half of her audience will not understand the book, and many won’t finish it. That’s because they can’t read. Thus, the one book she needs to ask people in America to read is by a local Denver teacher and educational researcher named Cris Tovani. The book, based on her efforts to work with struggling readers, is called “I Read It, but I Don’t Get It.” It literally changed my life as a teacher, moving me from assigning reading to teaching it.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), 44% of high school students are “dys-fluent” in reading even when encountering grade-level, familiar text. 80% of the colleges in the United States have courses in remedial reading. That includes the Ivy League. Is it any wonder that half the kids who go to college after high school don’t finish? Currently, we are approaching a point where three quarters of high school graduates go on college. Yet, no more than 45% actually earn a degree. Thus, we have twice as many kids going on to college as we did in 1950, though the degree rates haven’t changed. Clearly, many kids are unprepared for the rigors of college, especially reading and writing. If you’re a teacher, if you’re a student, if you’re a parent, heck, if you’re a citizen of the United States who cares about the state of public education, you owe it to yourself to read Tovani’s book.

And when you’re done, do me a favor and call Oprah. She’s been ducking me.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hope for America

OK, back to the state of education - and of America - for a moment.

After my op-ed piece entitled "The Mis-education of Sean Hannity" was published on the Denver Post's website, I read some rather pessimistic feedback about education. Obviously, the readers ignored the clear concessions I made to the argument that there are problems with the education system. My point, of course, was to take exception to Hannity's use of the term "ruined." There is far too much caustic, negative, pessimistic commentary about American society. And, it's not helping us. While contemporary American society is no utopia - what place is? - life is good, and opportunity abounds. That point - one often made by conservative critics like Hannity - gets overlooked when we refer to America's schools or government or environment or families as "ruined."

Optimistic viewpoints about the future can be found in the writings of people like David Brooks of the New York Times and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek. They are often the voices of reason in contemporary commentary, pointing out the positives in the economy, the education system, the government, and even the Middle East. Sadly, their viewpoints are often overlooked, though I encourage you to read them. Zakaria, for example, recently published a book called "The Post-American World." In many critical circles, there was outrage about the supposed negativity in the title. However, the book is a surprisingly insightful and optimistic evaluation of the contemporary world, focusing not on the fall of America, but instead of "the rise of the rest." It's not that America is failing, but that the rest of the world is finally "catching up." This is a good thing, and we should view it that way.

Last week I attended an education conference sponsored by the Denver Post/Rocky Mountain News Service that focused on the 1908 and 2008 Democratic National Conventions. Many historians spoke about the comparable aspects of both eras. One of the most enjoyable and insightful presentations came from an economist named Erik Erickson who compared the finances of both eras. When he was asked about the current and future state of the economy, he noted, "I'm quite optimistic." Compared to life one-hundred years ago, Americans are, by all measures, doing quite well. We are healthier, wealthier (at all levels), and wiser. That's something to feel good about, and that was my point for Sean Hannity.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

OK, Let's Talk About Tenure

“Why do teachers get a lifetime guarantee of employment?” The simple answer is “they don’t.”

Far from being an irrevocable guarantee of employment regardless of performance, tenure actually gives teachers the same protection any employee in any profession takes for granted. “Tenure” simply means that a teacher who has passed a probationary period – usually three years – cannot be dismissed without cause. That’s a revolutionary idea, isn’t it? By contrast, probationary periods for other jobs are often 30 to 90 days. Any organization that employs someone for three years ought to be able to determine whether he or she is a quality employee. Tenure also requires that a dismissed teacher be given due process – another standard right of any profession.

Tenure is necessary simply because probationary teachers can be dismissed without cause or justification – a precarious situation that doesn’t exist in any other profession. In that time, school boards have unlimited authority. Thus, tenure is designed to prevent proven, competent teachers from being dismissed for reasons unrelated to their job – reasons such as personal beliefs, low grades or disciplining of influential students, personality conflicts with parents or administration, changing administrations, union activity, etc.

Of course, people argue that it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers; that simply isn’t true. Any school district in the country can dismiss tenured teachers for incompetence, and they should. North High School in Denver replaced roughly a third of its staff several years ago by requiring that all teachers – even tenured ones – reapply for their jobs. The school simply didn’t rehire the teachers it found to be ineffective. This practice is not unheard of in struggling schools, and it debunks the notion of “invincibility.” Yet, this is not to say some schools don’t have trouble. Anyone who has seen John Stossel’s “Stupid in America” can point to the ridiculously convoluted teachers’ contract in New York City. The obvious question, though, is why any school board or administration would have signed such a disaster. Clearly, that system should follow North High School’s lead and start from scratch.

Sadly, I’ve read reports – of dubious validity – that describe schools that claim they can’t dismiss teachers who were drunk in class, teachers who sold drugs, and teachers who were unable to demonstrate basic math and literacy skills. That is ridiculous. Any school board or administration that can’t dismiss teachers in those situations is completely incompetent. When I talk to friends who work in the private sector, they often speak of the ridiculous bureaucracies that protect – and even promote – incompetent workers and administrators. Thus, there is no reason to oppose tenure for qualified teachers after a lengthy probationary period; doing so simply gives those teachers the same rights as anyone else.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mis-education of Sean Hannity

“The government has ruined the education system.”

Sean Hannity made this claim during a series of rants the other day as he argued down another liberal who was foolish enough to call in and debate him.

Ruined? The system may be troubled, inconsistent, inefficient, faltering, even damaged – but ruined? I have to disagree, and it’s not just because I’m a teacher. As for the government being responsible, I was surprised by Sean’s focus, as he usually blames the teachers and the unions.

The word “ruined” implies that at one time it was in good, even excellent, condition, but it no longer has any redeeming qualities. Both aspects of that assertion are flawed. In regards to past success, remember that Rudolph Flesch wrote “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in 1955. Additionally, Harvard researcher Dianne Ravitch has documented the perpetual ups and downs of public education in “Left Back: a Century of Failed Public School Reform.” Certainly, many schools in America have problems, and far too many inadequately educate their students. But ruined? No redeeming qualities? To quote Bill O’Reilly, “that’s ridiculous.”

There are countless examples of excellent public schools that are accomplishing more today with their students than I ever could have fathomed as a student twenty years ago – about the same time as the publication of that dire education warning “A Nation at Risk.” I know this because I teach at one. Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado, is regularly ranked as one the top high schools in the nation. Cherry Creek has an incredibly successful student population. Its large percentage of students in Advanced Placement classes, for which many teachers have pass rates on the national exam of 90% or more, regularly accomplish tasks I didn’t see until graduate school. Sean might want to take a look at the AP Calculus or European History exams before he decides that the system is in a state of “ruin.” Another example – a couple years ago two students at Cherry Creek were featured on ABC News for their work on a new treatment for muscular dystrophy. Their education is hardly in a state of “ruin.”

If you ask parents who send their children to Stevenson High School or New Trier High School in Chicago, Scarsdale High School in New York, Bellevue International School in Seattle, or Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida – not to mention others regularly ranked on Newsweek’s list of the Best 100 Schools – you will find people who are extremely satisfied with public education. Descriptions of the accomplishments of students at these schools are truly staggering, and they give me great hope for the future. Perhaps Sean might want to do some research into the successes of this “ruined” system.

At the same time that Sean was declaring public education “ruined,” Mort Zuckerman’s column in U.S. News and World Reports noted that “education is another great American success story.” According to Zuckerman, “nearly 90 percent of adults today complete high school compared with 33 percent in 1947.” Additionally, nearly 30 percent of the American population today has a college degree compared with 5 percent in 1947. That seems like some rather impressive progress. It’s hardly a ruined education system. While Americans regularly cite concerns about public schools, Gallup polls show seventy-five percent of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their children’s school. An even greater percentage of Americans (85%) are satisfied with their own education. So why all the criticism? Well, they’re obviously talking about other people’s schools. This disconnect is similar to the contrast between the low approval ratings of Congress and the regular re-election of incumbents.

Certainly, many teenagers can’t name the three branches of government or complete higher-level math. But how many could in 1947 when only 30 percent completed high school? While many adults are aghast at the students’ lack of knowledge, the kids aren’t much worse than some adults who end up as jokes on Jay Leno. These kids are often surprisingly knowledgeable in other areas, such as information technology, and they may very well acquire the historical information when they’re older. Keep in mind, they’re only seventeen, and there are many things they value more than the exact date of the Civil War. I’m not justifying the ignorance, just understanding it.

For someone who is regularly critical of people who hate America, Sean reveals a sad lack of faith in America’s youth, parents, teachers, communities, and the freedom the American government offers its schools. There are certainly failing schools in this country. Without doubt there are ineffective and even bad teachers who do nothing for their students. However, the failing schools and the ill-prepared students are as victimized by a myriad of socio-economic issues as they are by “the government.” Student performance is as affected by parental involvement and a neighborhood’s economics as it is by government policies. Does the education system have problems? Of course. But it’s far from ruined. When listening to Sean, I need to keep in mind that he also claimed the government has ruined the health care system, even though he regularly argues that America has the greatest health care system in the world. I guess the lesson for callers is that it’s a waste of time to argue with irrational people, or at least with “info-tainers” who make a living off of erroneous, inflammatory claims.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Welcome To This Place

As a high school English teacher, I am often asked for my opinion or perspective - or in keeping with the theme of this blog - my "view" on a myriad of issues in contemporary culture. My friends, my family, and, most especially, my students will attest that I am never at a loss to oblige anyone this request. However, there may be something unique about a teacher's perspective. Other than parents, teachers are the first people we learn to look to for answers - for knowledge, for skills, for opinions, for advice, for education. Perhaps, it's that knowledge is our game. Teachers specialize in knowing the answers, as well as in assisting others in accessing them. It might also be that the position of teacher gives us access to a great cross-section of society. In other words, we see a lot.

Having never been anything but a teacher, I can't speak to how often an accountant or a lawyer or a businessperson or a laborer is asked for some insight into society. However, I would assert that it's not more often than most teachers are asked. When people first learn I am an English teacher, there is a often a bit of hesitancy, and then a flood of questions come. "Being a teacher," they say, "what do you think about ...?" It might be about parenting or politics, college or popular culture, economics or exercise. Of course, as an English teacher, I also regularly get the question about when to use "who" and "whom." The answer, by the way, is to use "who" when you can substitute the word "he" and use "whom" when you can substitute the word "him."

Most often the questions are related to education. However, because education and the education system is intrinsically linked to nearly every other aspect of our lives, there are a lot of questions. And, while there might not be as many answers, there are certainly plenty of opinions, plenty of perspectives, plenty of "views." That said, this site is designed to convey mine. Surely, there are people who will wonder why my classroom isn't a large enough forum for my two cents. That's a valid question. I don't, however, have a valid answer, other than to say, it's not.

Most often questions about education come from the public's distance from or lack of understanding of the complexities of the education system. Sean Hannity is one of these people, and he will be the subject of my next post.