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.