Sunday, February 25, 2024

Stuck in the Middle

Country singer Scott McCreery sings about how he is “not all holy water and not all Jim Beam,” but he’s “somewhere in between.” That’s kinda like many people in the United States of America. And, interestingly, that “in between” perspective accurately describes the political views and affiliations of Americans, who are generally a moderate center-right bunch and more likely independent voters, unaffiliated with either major party. Unfortunately, the two-party system in our age of divisive politics has left no middle ground. It seems there is no in-between anymore.

I recently saw an editorial cartoon of a man holding two different boxes of Girl Scout cookies as he stands at a table, asking which are the Republican and which are the Democrat cookies. It’s satire, of course, but not actually far off from the feelings of too many Americans. It’s literally become that absurd. People have started to act as if the clothes they wear, the beer they drink, the entertainment they watch, and sadly even the neighborhoods where they live are either one party or another. Too many Americans believe there are just two sides to every issue, and one is always right and the other is always wrong.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 80s, I can recall numerous times when my dad would say, “I still haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for yet.” That might be surprising to anyone who knew my father after the late nineties, when it appeared he was a one-ideology-straight-party-ticket voter. Yet, he had been registered as both a Democrat and a Republican at different times in his life. I recall when I first heard the pejorative term RINO, which stands for “Republican in Name Only,” and it struck me as the most ridiculous idea.

The idea of party purity and straight-ticket voting is in many ways the opposite of freedom. The idea that voters and candidates don’t feel like they have the autonomy to decide issues and choose leaders based on their individual merits as opposed to preconceived alignment seems counterintuitive in a country and political system based on individual rights. Unfortunately, many independent, free-thinking voters feel “stuck in the middle” between two political parties which are neither truly liberal nor conservative and which don’t really seem to know or care what those terms actually mean.

In the 1960s and 70s, party unity on roll call votes in Congress averaged about 60%, with representatives voting the party line just under two-thirds of the time. Similar percentages could be found among voters aligning with just one party. However, by 2020 the roll call vote had reached highs of 95%. That’s simply not healthy for a democratic republic. Too many representatives are clearly not voting their conscience nor are they actually representing all their constituents. In “safe voting districts,” where the incumbents have 60% of the vote and never face a challenge, 40% of their constituents are effectively disenfranchised. That is terrible for America. It can lead to people feeling they must leave their communities and even states to go live where they have a voice and where they are with “people like them.”

As an educator, I believe it’s difficult to teach kids to simply think critically and develop their own opinions when they don’t see that modeled anywhere else. Teachers should teach students how to think, not what to think. Yet, everywhere else students are told what to think by leaders and role models who have narrow, inflexible ideas. While Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney are firmly opposed to re-nominating Donald Trump, they can hardly urge a vote for Democrats after they’ve spent their careers demonizing the other party. Similarly, it’s difficult for leaders like Hakeem Jefferies or Chuck Shumer to concede opposition to Joe Biden or progressive politics when they’ve spent a career claiming Democrats are the only answer.

The new independent political organization called the No Labels Party is designed to unite moderate Democrats, Republicans, and middle-of-the-road independents, giving a voice and option to those who feel stuck in the middle. These voters are neither Fox News nor MSNBC, and they see the current political climate as “clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right.” Sadly, the nature of contemporary politics suggests third parties have no legitimate chance in a system designed to protect the major parties. This will continue to disenfranchise and alienate all those who are feeling somewhere in between.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

College Enrollment is Down – That’s Ok

Why would anyone want to go to college?

It’s a rather important question that would have seemed unnecessary to ask just five or ten years ago. However, college-for-all is not a good idea or policy – I’ve been writing about that for years. In fact, college has always been unnecessary for most people in the contemporary economy. In fact, it has largely been a waste of time and money for many students in the past thirty years as colleges expanded enrollment and states promoted college-prep as the only path. Many people have pursued degrees to end up working in fields that never required one.

Most estimates suggest a four-year bachelor’s degree is a necessary prerequisite for less than four in ten jobs in the American economy. In a recent column on declines in higher education enrollment, conservative Washington Post column George Will cited data that indicated “38 percent of recent college graduates, and one-third of all college graduates, hold jobs that do not require a college degree.” With unemployment at a fifty-year low, clear evidence of a strong and growing economy, people entering or currently in the workforce have plenty of options.

And, let’s face it. Employers and the business world at large have long used the college diploma as simply a screening system and gatekeeper for job applicants. While the degree process for many fields can specifically be connected to future employment, the bachelor degree is not like an apprenticeship program. Bachelor’s degrees are not specifically job training, nor were they ever intended to be. For many jobs, the employer has little interest in what the student learned in college. Instead, they simply want to know the person has the ability to earn the degree, to put in the time and meet the requirements. That says much more than the actual skills learned.

In a recent editorial for USA Today, Jim Gash, the president of Pepperdine University, discussed that idea. He began by sharing feedback the school received after posting a question on a billboard in Times Square about the purpose and reasoning for going to college. While some respondents noted the necessary credentialing required for jobs in medicine and law, others noted careers in skilled trades or even generalized fields like marketing that don’t require college. And Gash pointed to a “Gallup survey which found that just 39 percent of Gen Z, defined as ages 12-26, think college is "very important."

George Will’s column about dropping college enrollments, posits that “As enrollments plummet, academia gets schooled about where it went wrong.” Specifically, Will believes students are choosing options other than college because they are turned off by the political environment on campus and the political stances taken by school administrators. While I generally agree with Will, he's naive to believe enrollment is dropping because of progressive politics. The reasons are simply economic — cost/benefit for degree in relation to job potential. And, of course, the burden versus payoff for taking on college debt.

That said, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal recently lamented what many major colleges and universities have “done to themselves.” In my view, both Noonan and Will are exaggerating and overemphasizing the politics on campus. Though the recent congressional testimony and resignations of three elite university presidents lend credence to their criticism. As likely as colleges being political action committees is the schools simply becoming semi- professional sports training facilities. With the establishment of NIL payments to student-athletes and the astronomical salaries of elite football coaches, it seems education is just a side-hustle.

The history of the university system in the United States was not based on job training and economy-based skills – it was about character and personal growth. The system was founded on the idea of a classical liberal arts education grounded in the classics. The goal was to create well-educated, well-rounded citizens who would provide the educated electorate that the newly formed republic needed to function and support a system of individual rights and self-determination. As Pepperdine President Gash laments in his column “the college experience has failed to provide far too many students the character-forming experiences necessary for a free and flourishing society.”

The classical liberal arts foundation is still an excellent reason to pursue higher education. If people need college degrees for their careers, or they have the luxury of paying for a few years to figure that out, higher education makes sense. Otherwise, working and credentials are the better choice.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The Rent is Too High

Though I’m no economist, I have a theory about inflation. The “general increase in prices and the fall in the buying power of money,” commonly known as inflation, has been dominating financial news for several years. Even now, as prices drop and inflation cools, economists and pundits and politicians are talking about the causes of inflation and how to ease it. Well, I have some suspicions about what is causing the most recent wave across the Denver metro area and the country at large.

It’s the landlords’ fault.

Landlords cause inflation. Property speculation with a specific focus on rental properties leads to an increase in prices that is not specifically related to other market forces. When taxes and utilities and repairs do not cost more, but rents rise dramatically, there can be only one answer. Basically, landlords are raising rents simply because they can. The astronomical rent increases across Colorado in the past ten years are personal choices by landlords, as opposed to any other relative increase in costs.

Because housing costs are the highest percentage of most individual budgets, renters can easily be priced out of access to shelter. That disproportionate cost of housing is nowhere more evident than in the mountains, especially Summit and Eagle counties. Resort communities have long passed the time when local residents and service workers could afford to live there. This disparity has led to communities such as Breckenridge taking action to build affordable housing specifically for resort workers. While that’s an admirable idea, it would be unnecessary if landlords in Summit County were not gouging renters by raising prices to unsustainable levels.

A similar conundrum can be found in communities across the state where public employees, specifically teachers, are unable to afford housing. Granted, the demand side of the equation obviously lends to the increase. As popular areas draw increased desire to live there, landlords can easily increase prices, and that often means forcing one renter out in order to charge a new renter more. Now, clearly, in a capitalist free market economy, it is the right of any business owner to make as much money as possible. That said, there are residual effects that are not healthy for individuals, communities, and the economy overall.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Denver area is $1700, a 50% increase over ten years. Clearly, other costs have not risen 50%, certainly not taxes and utilities. Thus, rent increases came simply because landlords could charge more and did. The problem is the residual effects. If housing costs more, employers are pressured to pay employees more, so they can afford to live where they work. That irrational rise in wages subsequently leads to product prices increases – hence inflation. It all happened because landlords started raising rent simply because they wanted to and could.

When my wife and I first moved to Greenwood Village twenty-one years ago, we loved many local independent businesses, and we particularly enjoyed shopping at Cooks Fresh Market in Belleview Promenade. We would often pop in for picnic supplies on weekends or pick up deli selections for weeknight dinners. Sadly, we heard the popular store was forced out of its location by rent increases, but fortunately found a prosperous location on the Sixteenth Street Mall. Cooks Fresh market closed permanently last year, but they had a great two-decade run in downtown Denver.

I’d imagine a new Denver landlord killed the business just like one did in Greenwood Village years ago. Denver has recently seen a rash of business closures, specifically independent restaurants, due to rent increases and relative wage increases. What’s particularly sad is these closures have come post-pandemic when the economy has recharged. In Greenwood Village, we’ve lost mainstays like Tokyo Joe’s and the Starbucks at Belleview Square, and word is those exits were forced by unreasonable and inexplicable rent increases by Regency Centers.

I’ve lived in the same duplex house for two decades, just a short walk from Cherry Creek High School. The other townhouses in my neighborhood rent for two-and-a-half to three times my monthly mortgage payment. In all honesty, that is simply ridiculous. What’s particularly troubling is that many housing units are being bought up by hedge funds and foreign-owned investment companies. They have no connection to the community and no concern for residents. They just raise rents because they can.

Simply put, as the single-issue political party in New York says: “the rent is too damn high.”

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Knee Pain? Start Running

I've never understood or agreed with people who don't run because it "hurts the knees." Or worse, they don't run anymore because being a runner in high school and college "ruined their knees." If running hurts your knees, it's likely you're just doing it wrong. And, if a person has bad knees, which like resulted from running incorrectly for most of their life, then the best thing they can do for their knees might be to start running.

The "heel strike" is the primary cause of pain for people whose knees hurt while running. When people run, their heels should not really hit the ground at all, except as a secondary impact. Runners, true runners, run on the balls of their feet, and it's the quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles that absorb the shock. Thus, the knee is not the target of force in running. Knees have very little to do with running form – or, at least knees should have very little to do with it. And, these days there is an ever-growing body of research that supports the idea that running is actually good for your knees.

Gretchen Reynolds, a health columnist for the New York Times and Washington Post, has spotlighted the research that speculates running not only won't ruin your knees but is actually good for them. In fact, results even propose the idea that running may prompt cartilage self repair. In reviewing several studies of the impact running has on knees, she writes “running likely also fortifies and bulks up the cartilage, the rubbery tissue that cushions the ends of bones. The findings raise the beguiling possibility that, instead of harming knees, running might fortify them and help to stave off knee arthritis.”

When I was shoe shopping recently, I noticed the common trend in shoe design that features thick cushioned soles in shoes. In recent years, however, elite running has steered away from that trend, and pure runners have gravitated toward shoes with less obvious structure and a style that mimics the foot in its natural form. With that shift toward minimalism came the rise of the barefoot running craze. This movement was greatly influenced by Chris McDougal's excellent sociological work Born to Run, which spotlights the emergence of barefoot-running "shoes" like the Vibram Five Fingers.

While running barefoot seems counterintuitive on concrete roads or rocky trails, it’s actually better form. The key is to run, as if sprinting – or as McDougal says, "like you would if you had to chase a toddler into the street while in bare feet." Basically, natural runners land on the balls of their feet, not the heels. The heel strike – and the potential damage from wear and tear of impact – results from the more padded shoes of the past thirty years that allowed runners to land on their heels. That's not what a runner should do. And, in fact, for many years the running shoe companies contributed to the problem.

Nike is undoubtedly the running shoe behemoth, and it has been since the 1970s when Phil Knight hooked up with the running coaches at the University of Oregon and Stanford and began peddling more structurally padded shoes. The effect was the launch of a new industry and fitness craze, as jogging entered the lexicon. As the shoe industry developed, the style became focused on bigger shoes with more cushion and added support.

In fact, that extra support is unnatural and might have actually weakened knees and ankles, contributing to injuries rather than preventing them. While many running shoes feature thick soles to allegedly absorb impact, Nike saw the trend toward barefoot running ten years ago, and in 2013 came out with the Nike Flyknit, a “barefoot-style” shoe made of a single piece of fabric. Nike was actually late to the game with their shoes. Companies like Merrel, Newton, and Adidas have offered shoes with minimal cushion for years.

Certainly, there is no specific shoe for someone who wants to revert to less structure and more natural barefoot-style running. In fact, anyone in nearly any shoe can "run barefoot while wearing shoes." In reality, barefoot running is all about the gait and not really at all about the shoes. So, for people with New Year’s resolutions to get healthier, there’s no reason bad knees should keep them out of the running game.

But run a 5K instead of a marathon. And that’s a whole other story.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Are American Kids Old Enough?

When “Old Enough,” the Japanese reality television show from the early 90s, came to Netflix last year, American audiences were introduced to amusing and at times hilarious video clips of toddlers running errands around town while a camera crew followed them. The show, known as “My First Errand” in Japan, was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live with the toddlers replaced by pathetic twentysomething boyfriends.

The concept of the show Old Enough has me thinking, as both a parent and a teacher, about the expectations we have or don’t have for children at various ages. Certainly the ages at which we bestow responsibilities are inherently arbitrary. At age five we’re ready for school, and we should be reading by age eight. We can operate motor vehicles at sixteen, vote and serve in the military at eighteen, buy and consume alcohol or marijuana at twenty-one, and rent a car or hotel room at age twenty-five. Obviously many people can handle these at the designated age, while many others are ready somewhat earlier or far later.

The latest news from studies about Generation Z, the kids aged eleven to twenty-six, is that they are trailing previous in classic markers of adult responsibility. For example, fewer kids are choosing to get a driver's license at the age of sixteen. Fewer teens have jobs these days, and that has always been a hallmark of growth and maturity. Some delays may be positive – fewer are drinking earlier and more abstain longer from sexual activity. But the concern is that the current generation of young people are unusually risk-averse to the point of being limited in their ability to navigate the adult world.

Some people blame the helicopter and snowplow parenting that has become the standard of new parents over the past twenty years. New York Sun writer Lenore Skenazy raised the ire of parents and critics back in 2008 when she allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home alone from Bloomingdales in Midtown Manhattan. She wrote a column about shopping with her son and then giving him a Metro card, subway map, and $20, telling him she’d see him when he got home. He made it home safely, of course.

Many readers responded positively, noting the freedom they had in childhood, while others rabidly chastised her, criticizing the decision as reckless and even negligent. In her column Skenazy wrote about her feelings toward people who wanted to charge her with child abuse: “Half the people I've told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It's not. It's debilitating — for us and for them.” There is much truth to her insight.

Skenazy actually got off easy, despite nationwide media attention, compared to the parents in Connecticut who were literally arrested for letting their children walk a few blocks to Duncan Donuts. Skenazy wrote another column about Cynthia Rivers of Killingly, Connecticut, who was arrested along with her husband after neighbors apparently called the police about young children walking unescorted. While the charges were dropped, the parents were later also investigated by DCFS for child neglect.

The show Old Enough is quite telling as much for what it says about the society as it does about the individual kids or families. In Japan, elementary school students regularly take public transportation and high speed trains by themselves to school, or even to places like Disneyland. NPR reporter and writer T.R. Reid documented numerous stories like this in his book Confucius Lives Next Door. In many countries throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, the transition between childhood and adulthood can be smoother because it’s not complicated by the age of adolescence. Young people are often in apprenticeships and working full-time by age sixteen.

In fact, American society may actually harm kids more through being overly cautious and convincing them they are not old enough. Robert Epstein, an editor at Psychology Today published a book about the subject called The Case Against Adolescence – Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Basically, Epstein suggests that childhood and specifically adolescence is a uniquely contemporary invention which actually hinders development of children in becoming adults and productive members of the community. Research suggests that for many young people, isolation from responsibility and separation from the adult world results in teens not actually learning to be adults.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Did a Robot Write This Column?

As I sat down at my computer in early January, I planned to share a few musings about “embracing change and navigating the rapids of life in colorful Colorado.” Of course, just like the unpredictable weather up in the Rockies, life has a way of throwing curveballs our way, especially when a publication deadline is looming. So, as I stared at a blank Google Doc, I decided to investigate the phenomenon of ChatGPT.

Technology such as ChatGPT needs a prompt to give it direction, and it allegedly produces “original” writing in the style of other writers. This ability is based on scanning the internet for previously published work, of which I have plenty. So, I prompted the AI software with my name, the words “voice” and “style,” and I added the word “Colorado” for geographical reference.

I instantly received a short essay about standing at the cusp of a new year, reflecting on the inevitable truth that change is as much a part of our lives as the sunshine on a crisp Colorado morning. Whether we’re dealing with the ups and downs of the job market, the ever-shifting landscape of relationships, or the unexpected challenges Mother Nature herself throws our way, change is the one constant we can count on. That change, at least in regards to this column, was some of the most superficial, cliched, and cheesy writing ever done in my name.

Alas, it was then my challenge to take that computer-generated column of babbling nonsense and craft it into something resembling a column. I mean, we all must embrace change, and as a writer and writing teacher, the use of AI is inevitable, so we might as well get used to it. That’s the Colorado spirit, to be sure. Whether it’s a small-town business reimagining its offerings to meet the demands of the modern era or a community coming together to support one another during tough times, our state exemplifies the spirit of resilience.

Of course, just like our favorite hiking trails winding through the mountains, life’s journey is full of twists and turns. As I embraced the unexpected, I thought I should also ask the computer to share some thoughts about education, which is the primary focus of my column. The column is called “Unpacking the Backpack,” suggesting these columns will explain the issues and nuances of public education, such as the complicated nature of how to deal with AI and ChatGPT.

Now, I don’t claim to have all the answers — I’m just a humble observer. So, I asked AI to dive into the bubbling cauldron of thoughts swirling around public education. Apparently, public education is a bit like a hike up a majestic Colorado mountain. It’s challenging, rewarding, and sometimes you might stumble on a loose rock, but the view from the top makes it all worthwhile. Our schools are the training grounds for the next generation of thinkers, dreamers, and doers – the very fabric that weaves our community together.

As a parent and teacher, I’ve seen the strengths and challenges our public education system faces. It’s a complex landscape, much like the diverse terrain of our state, and it requires thoughtful consideration and collective effort to navigate successfully. The educators who dedicate their days to nurturing young minds are like trail guides, helping our students navigate the twists and turns of knowledge and critical thinking. It’s a tough job, and they deserve our admiration as well as the resources and support to help them do their best work.

Of course, just as Colorado weather can be unpredictable, so too are the disparities in our education system. The gap between schools with ample resources and those facing challenges can be as wide as the Continental Divide. It’s time for our communities to ensure every student has access to quality education, regardless of their ZIP code. We need to foster creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability – skills that will serve our students well in the ever-changing landscape of the 21st century.

As we ponder public education in Colorado, we need to come together to discuss, debate, and ultimately shape the education system we want for our kids. We are the stewards of their future, and our decisions today will echo in the halls of tomorrow. And while I still don’t have all the answers, I will say this about education, writing, and ChatGPT – this is undoubtedly the worst I column I have ever not written.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Who’s the College Applicant?

In 1968, iconic American essayist Joan Didion penned a column for the Saturday Evening Post about being rejected from Stanford back in 1952. She describes her utter despair during the experience, as she relates to her seventeen-year-old cousin who “is unable to eat or sleep” as she awaits the college admissions decision from her top choice. And if that was the situation back in the 1950s and 60s, I can’t imagine what Didion would think of the pressure cooker high school seniors face today.

As the December college admissions dates approach, I’m struck by Didion’s insight that too often the college application process is more about the parents than the kids. Didion explains the wisdom she realized decades after her college disappointment. As a successful writer at that point, she explained, “none of it matters very much … these early successes, early failures.” In pondering her cousin’s struggle, Didion hoped people could “find some way to let our children know this … [because] finding one’s role at seventeen is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.”

Didion’s advice was mirrored recently by writer Allison Tate in a piece for the Washington Post titled “College Admissions are Tough Enough – Parents, Don’t Make it Any Worse.” As the mother of two college-aged children, Tate recalled angst-filled conversations she’s had with young people about applying to college. They wonder if they should start a club, if they’re taking the right classes, if their parents will be proud of them if they don’t get into the right school. One student mentioned a college he liked and which was a good fit, but then lamented, “I can’t apply there. My dad says it’s not a good school.”

Too often, successful, high-achieving students who just want to get into “a good college” are left feeling inadequate and disappointed in their accomplishments. Just for perspective, there are roughly 6000 post-secondary institutions in the United States, and more than 3000 degree-granting colleges and universities. So, when students aim for the top ten percent of colleges, they have literally hundreds of options. Even on the most selective lists, there are more than thirty schools in the top one percent. Sadly, however, too many people believe there are really only a few that are even worth considering.

This misleading and myopic view of higher education has spawned an entire industry which exploits the anxiety of the college admissions process. Many people believe they can, or must, play the college admissions game by getting advice from specialized college admissions counselors. However, unless there’s some sort of corrupt deal-making like in the Varsity Blues scandal a few years ago, none of these counselors are actually getting a kid into the college. It’s more likely the private college counselor industry is simply preying on the insecurities of families who have been led to believe their child is not going to get into a good college, or better said “the right college.”

This obsessive pursuit of admission to the right school was the focus of a recent New York Times article on elite colleges. The impetus was an interview with actress Felicity Huffman who went to jail for her part in the college admissions scandal. In a statement that is “both shocking and illuminating,” Huffman justified her actions by saying “I felt like I had to give my daughter a future.” The pressure that led an affluent, well-connected celebrity to pay someone to “fix” her daughter’s SAT score reflects the mystifying actions some parents will take to gain an advantage to their children’s college process.

New York Times writer Frank Bruni has researched the college admissions process, and he is particularly critical of ideas like a “good college” or “the right school.” Bruni, who turned down Yale University to attend North Carolina, published his findings in his book Where You Go is not Who You’ll Be. Alison Tate believes terms like “reach school,” “dream college,” and “safety school” should be abolished from any authentic conservation about colleges between students and their parents. Seriously, what child would be proud and excited to attend their safety school?

As Didion pointed out years ago, growing up is hard enough without the pressure of “the right school.” Several years ago I listened to a parent of a graduating senior give some advice to the parents of incoming freshmen who were about to embark on their high school career. “Remember,” she said, “you’re raising a child, not a college applicant.”

Monday, December 4, 2023

It’s Probably the Cell Phones

A recent column for The Villager

“Hey! Look up! Stop texting and just walk.”

The number of times teachers these days have to say that to students simply to avoid a collision in the hallway is truly staggering. Gen Z and now Generation Alpha are so glued to their phones they can barely look away for a few minutes walking from one class to another. And, of course, the minute they arrive in their classrooms before the bell, they sit at their desks hunched over the screen again, scrolling an endless stream of addictive media.

NBC News recently reported on the overwhelming digital stimulus kids are bombarded with every day. According to a report from Common Sense Media, the average kid and teenager receives nearly 300 messages or notifications every day. Some users report getting as many as 5000 in a twenty-four hour period. That sort of sensory and emotional overload simply can’t be beneficial to the brain. Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, laments how young people "literally wake up and before they go to the bathroom, they're on their phone.”

The problem – truly a sociological epidemic – has become so pervasive and detrimental that the state of Florida recently passed legislation virtually banning the use of cell phones, especially the social media app Tik-Tok, by students during class time. All districts must develop clear specific policies which prevent the use of cell phones by students during school hours unless directed to use them for instructional purposes. And, of course, in places where students have laptops or computer access, the cell phone is completely unnecessary at school. In signing the bill, Florida governor Ron DeSantis noted social media “does more harm than good.”

The incessant presence of cell phones is clearly playing a key role in social problems with teens. Noah Smith, a researcher and columnist for Bloomberg media, notes a strong correlation between rising rates of unhappiness in teens and their pervasive cell phone existence. From rising absenteeism to stagnant academic results to stunning levels of reported anxiety and depression, along with an overwhelming ennui and sense of detached hopelessness, there’s little doubt kids are struggling in ways they haven’t before.

While many people blame the isolation of the pandemic for teen mental health issues, Smith’s analysis of the data suggests the problems began to rise exponentially in about 2012, which is about the time smartphones became a common accessory for people. Psychologist Jean Twenge agrees, naming the young people of today “iGen,” the title of her book which is subtitled “Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

Tik-Tok is undoubtedly fueling dissatisfaction with the world, especially among young people. A New York Times story recently suggested “Tik-Tok economics” is the reason young people fret about the economy despite key indicators trending positive. In fact, one social media creator has even coined the phrase “Vibecession” to reflect the economic despair young people are expressing on social media in contrast to positive economic news. And research suggests young people predominantly get their news from Tik-Tok, using it as a search engine more than Google.

Years ago on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, comedian Louis C.K. gave an amusing but sincere explanation for why he wouldn’t get his daughter a cell phone. He decried what he called “the forever empty,” which is our constant need for stimulus and validation. People continuously reach for their cell phones because they can’t be alone, having lost the ability to simply “be yourself and not be doing something.” This constant craving for entertainment or distraction or validation consumes people so much they can’t even sit in their cars at a stoplight for forty-five seconds without reaching for their cell phone. From the dentist’s office to the barber shop to the line at the post office, everyone is scrolling.

Cell phones are not going away, but we can take a few basic steps to decrease the corrosive influence they have on our lives. One simple bit of advice – ok, it’s kind of a directive – that I give my students everyday is to simply not walk with their cell phones in their hands. Put it in a pocket or in their backpack. Stop texting, stop scrolling, stop Snapping, stop streaming, and just walk.

As everyone takes a few days off this week to celebrate Thanksgiving and hopefully reconnect with friends and families, let’s try to leave the cell phones out of it.

Monday, November 6, 2023

The New SAT is a Joke

This week's column for The Villager.

As an AP English teacher and a former standardized test coordinator, I have ample reason to complain about the College Board, the non-profit organization responsible for the SAT, the PSAT, and Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school. The most significant concern for teachers is that AP classes have a proscribed, limited curriculum because the class is focused on passing a single national exam. Teaching to a single test limits the content and skills teachers can emphasize. As for being a test coordinator, don’t even get me started on the days of my life spent on hold with College Board’s customer service line.

Those concerns, however, pale in comparison to my disappointment in College Board’s decision to change the format of the SAT and PSAT tests and to switch to an all-digital test. When the state of Colorado’s contract with College Board comes up for renewal, the state should immediately cut ties with the company and switch back to the ACT for state testing. The new SAT and PSAT tests can no longer be trusted as an accurate measure of a student’s reading ability and potential to understand complex materials at the college level. In fact, the new SAT can no longer be considered a reading test at all.

The new test format is inherently easier, but also inauthentic as a legitimate measure of literacy. According to information provided by College Board, the new digital format is shorter than the paper version. The SAT is now two hours, rather than three, and it has 56 fewer questions. Simply based on averages, fewer questions decreases the margin of error. Students can get fewer questions wrong and still receive high scores – except of course for College Board adjusting the difficulty level. That’s because the test is now adaptive – meaning as students shift sections, they receive more or less challenging questions based on their success in the first module.

However, the most egregious change is in the question format. In the past, students would read long passages and answer ten or so comprehensive questions about each passage to reflect their full understanding of broad ideas and individual language choices. The new test, however, has no long passages. Students read short pieces of just a couple sentences or so, and they answer a single question. As a veteran English teacher and writer, I do not understand how College Board can in any way claim to colleges and universities that their test measures a student’s ability to read and comprehend complex materials. Because they are no longer reading passages. And, I haven’t even delved into changes to the math test which eliminated the “no calculator” section.

Forbes magazine recently spoke with Shaan Patel, MD, MBA, and founder/CEO of Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation, about the changes to the test. In no uncertain terms, Patel explained that College Board is simply a business, and changes are designed to increase profits. According to Patel, “The College Board purposely makes the SAT easier with every redesign because it wants more students to take the SAT.” The AP exams, which are used to grant college credit, are also getting easier at an alarming rate. For example, according to released data, the pass rate for the AP English Literature exam was 43% in 2021. Yet, just one year later, the pass rate in 2022 had risen to an astonishing 77%.

Clearly, the College Board is not really an educational services company. It’s simply a major international business focused on making a lot of money. It’s mystifying that the company is granted non-profit status, especially when CEO David Coleman reportedly had a $2.5 million salary in 2020. And profits continue to grow. The company has radically decreased its costs by eliminating paper tests, yet they still charge the same price. With no paper or transportation costs, they can eliminate huge numbers of workers. Heck, at this point, the College Board could be run by three tech bros in their dorm room or parents’ basement. And, honestly, with these changes that feels like the case.

While there will always be legitimate concerns about the predictive factors of any standardized test, the ACT is certainly now more authentic than the SAT. Thus, states, school districts, and universities should reconsider the faith they place in SAT tests. Now, if we could just convince the ACT to extend the time for its reading tests.

Friday, October 27, 2023

School Board Candidates Have Much to Learn

My recent column for The Villager focuses on issues raised in a few school board races here in southeast Denver.

Discussing public education with people reveals an odd dichotomy – a majority of Americans have a negative view of education while at the same time viewing their own schools and personal education positively. That’s not surprising in a society which has nothing but contempt for politicians and politics in general while simultaneously re-electing 92% of political incumbents. Americans often criticize every politician and school in the country … except their own.

As ballots were delivered last week, and Coloradans considered local races and statewide initiatives, the school board elections in the south Denver metro area have been drawing attention. Two local school board candidates have created a website to explain their vision for how they would “fix schools” in their district. For them, it’s pretty easy – just identify the good teachers and have the “not-as-good” teachers simply copy their lesson plans and mimic their behavior after watching a video of the good teacher in action.

There are two problems with this seemingly logical solution – one, it begs the question by suggesting teachers don’t already practice collaboration and modeling as part of their professional development; and two, it’s already been proven not to work. Back in 2012, the Gates Foundation had a similar idea called the Measures of Effective Teaching. Gates spent $600 million trying to identify, quantify, and replicate what it means to be a good teacher.

After several years of study, the Rand Corporation concluded the experiment simply made no difference. That makes sense when looked at practically. For example, we’ve all watched master chefs work culinary magic on the Food Network yet failed to replicate those dinners ourselves. Most of us understand that watching a master do something successfully and even following the exact recipe for the dish does not always work out so well in our home kitchens.

Comparing schools and districts can also be misleading, though some candidates like to do that in their campaigns. Case in point: the stark contrast in test scores at two middle schools in the Cherry Creek District – The Challenge School and Prairie Middle School. Challenge, for voters who are unaware, is a magnet school for gifted and academically advanced students. It’s not a neighborhood school any student can attend, but instead a “magnet” which draws top students from around the district. Students must apply and are tested for advanced abilities prior to admission. By contrast, Prairie is a neighborhood school that serves any student in its boundaries.

Additionally, it’s worth noting the poverty rate for Challenge is 13% whereas the poverty rate at Prairie is 71%. Poverty is a significant consideration in judging schools for one simple reason – the most significant and accurate metric for predicting academic success is the socioeconomic status of the parents. Wealthier students simply perform better in school than students living in poverty. There are myriad reasons for the disparity, and while it doesn’t suggest poor students cannot be academically successful, it does warrant close consideration.

All school board members and candidates are rightfully concerned about test scores. That said, there’s never been a time all students achieve at or above grade level. In 2002, Congress and President Bush passed an education reform bill with a goal that 100% of students would be proficient by 2014. Clearly, that didn’t happen, for it’s only in fiction like Garrison Keillor’s famous town of Lake Wobegon that “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” And regarding literacy scores, it’s worth remembering that Rudolph Flesch published “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in America way back in 1955.

We should admire anyone willing to run for public office in hopes of improving their communities. However, we should also expect all candidates and elected officials to have deep familiarity with the schools they would represent. I urge all candidates for local school boards to begin by becoming actively involved in their schools. For example, they should spend time attending accountability meetings at the school and district level, as well as board meetings and the PTCO.

In fact, I would like to see school board members actually work in schools. I believe it would be enlightening if school board members were expected to have a substitute teacher license and work in the schools of their community at least one day a month. As one school board candidate acknowledged during a recent public forum, “I’m still learning a lot about the district.” Spending actual time in schools is a good place to start.

Friday, October 13, 2023

The Village Loses a “Third Place”

How dumb does a landlord have to be to drive out a Starbucks? That sad story is this week's column.

The first time I walked into the Starbucks at Belleview Square was in March of 2003, during the epic blizzard which left four feet of snow across the metro area. I’d flown into Denver the night before – my first ever trip to Colorado – to interview for a job at Cherry Creek High School. The English coordinator Steve Kascht let me know that after four days of snow, everything was closed except King Soopers and the local Starbucks, so that’s where we’d meet the school principal, Dr. Kathy Smith.

The buzz in the store that day was palpable, and not just because of the caffeine. People were emerging from days stuck at home, excitedly catching up with friends, sharing stories and updates from the storm clean up. As I interviewed for my job, Kathy’s daughter and several friends – all students at Creek – came into the store and stopped by our table. When Kathy needed to take a phone call and Steve went to refresh his coffee, I sat and chatted with the kids about what I do as a teacher. When Kathy returned and asked how it was going, her daughter looked at her and said, “Hire him, Mom.”

Clearly, the local Starbucks is a rather special place for me, as it is for so many. From playing board games with my kids during winter breaks, drinking hot chocolate and peppermint mochas, to my Friday morning coffee walks with the admin team at Cherry Creek, to Thursday afternoons in the summer when the kids got ice cream and the adults sipped iced lattes on the patio, that store is a pretty special place. It’s a part of our community. And now, it’s being taken away.

The Creek community and Greenwood Village was dealt a serious blow last week when a sign appeared in the store window announcing Starbucks would permanently close on October 13. After more than two decades in the same location, one of the most stable, popular, and successful businesses in the area is closing. To patrons of the store, that makes no sense. According to a representative from Regency Centers, which is the property owner and landlord for Belleview Square, the lease was up, and the parties were unable to reach a deal. And so we lose a beloved “Third Place.”

The Third Place is a sociological term for social environments that are separate from the two primary places in most people’s lives, home and work. These social places are integral to a sense of community and civic engagement. They are gathering spaces for friends and families in the tradition of the public house, or pub, and since the time of the Enlightenment, the local coffee house has been an integral part of our society.

Writers like Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (1995) and Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place (1989) stress the importance of these places to maintain civic ties and social engagement that contribute to a thriving society. In establishing what sociologists call a “sense of place,” gathering locations promote and cultivate a sense of belonging.

In this regard, commercial property owners have a responsibility beyond simple commerce – they are stewards of the community. While I was not privy to the negotiations that failed, it seems fairly obvious Regency has failed its duty to the community of Greenwood Village and Cherry Creek. I can’t imagine after twenty-five years as loyal renters that Starbucks made unreasonable demands. In fact, word on the street is that Starbucks did not want to leave, but the landlord made staying untenable. I’ve heard from a third party that Starbucks confirmed they could not reach an agreement, indicating they “need to make a profit.”

Thus, I would not at all be surprised to learn Regency raised the rent beyond a reasonable rate simply because they can. A reasonable rate for a coffee shop, a business with a slim revenue margin, is a pretty obvious number. And after two-plus decades at that location, I’d think a stellar company like Starbucks knows its business. Ultimately, everyone loses in this case. Starbucks loses a prime location. Regency loses rent during the time the store is vacant. No other coffee shop will survive there if Starbucks can’t. So, the community can expect the space to turn over numerous times.

Empty storefronts are never good for a community, and this wound seems self-inflicted. I know as a member of the community, I would rather see Regency leave than Starbucks.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

In Defense of the Oxford Comma

To comma or not to comma, that is the debate in the world of writers and writing teachers. Few grammatical issues get English teachers as worked up as the optionality of the Oxford comma. While many writers, educators, and organizations deem the use of the comma simply a style issue, one at the whim of the writer, others stand their ground on the sacrosanct necessity of the punctuation mark. In the professional world, the primary advice on using the comma is to simply be consistent. I, however, respectfully disagree.

For the uninitiated, the Oxford comma, also known as the “serial comma,” is the final comma before the conjunction in a list, or words in a series. For example, “I am a writer, a teacher, and an artist.” The final comma before the word “and” is the Oxford comma. As a traditionalist and a product of an old-school Catholic education, I’m an ardent, uncompromising proponent of the Oxford comma. Sister Brennan would never forgive me for deeming grammatical rules to be arbitrary and loose, the very antithesis a rule.

For comma proponents, there doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to eliminate the mark. In technical writing, or more specifically business documents and legal paperwork, the comma can be a game changer. For as long as I’ve taught English, specifically grammar mechanics and usage with an eye toward standardized test prep, I have always heard praise and support from one very specific group of parents – those who are attorneys. Commas matter a great deal in the legal profession.

I can’t tell you the number of times that parents who are lawyers make it a point to thank me for teaching grammar and specifically punctuation. As they tell me, in legal contracts a single comma added or eliminated can be of monumental importance. The example I always share with my students is specifically related to inheritance of property.

Say three sisters – Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia – have rather wealthy parents who pass away after a long and illustrious life. At the reading of the will, the following is stated: “The estate shall be divided among Elizabeth, Jane, and Lydia.” In that situation, family harmony is likely preserved when each sister receives an equal share of 33.3%. However, minus the Oxford comma when “The estate shall be divided among Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia,” there is a potential conflict if parties read that to mean Elizabeth receives 50% and the other two get 25% each.

These hypotheticals, of course, have real world implications as well. That was the case in 2018 with a legal dispute in Portland, Maine between Oakhurst Dairy and its drivers. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the missing comma in a contract created enough uncertainty that the court must side with the drivers, resulting in the company paying out $10 million in settlement. There are numerous other cases of “costly commas” throughout legal history, and with such a precarious distinction, it poses the question of why might anyone leave the issue up to chance.

Some people speculate that the optional use of the comma began with the media, specifically print journalism. With the Associated Press Stylebook officially standing on the side of eliminating the comma, it seems the journalism field certainly has influence. The financial argument comes down to a matter of cost – eliminating the comma literally saves ink. To those outside the field, the cost of ink for a single comma seems miniscule and insignificant. However, when a publication like the New York Times prints millions of copies, that ink adds up.

While eliminating the comma could save money on the front end, let’s hope they don’t end up losing far more in a legal dispute that hinges upon the presence of that punctuation mark. As an English teacher whose students take ACT, SAT, and PSAT tests, I’ll continue to encourage the use of the comma. In standardized test format, the serial comma has long been the standard. If they’re going to err on the side of caution, I advise using the comma.

Clearly good grammar and punctuation can save a lot of money. More importantly, though, it can even save lives. For example, don't forget there’s a huge difference between the sentence, “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” And, of course, no one would think twice if they learned, “Joe likes cooking, his family, and his dog.” However, if they were to learn that “Joe likes cooking his family and his dog,” well then …