Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lucid Thoughts on the Future

Once again, divorcing himself from partisan and ideological hackery, David Brooks offers perhaps the most lucid commentary out there on business, government, and the future. Far from a "Yes" Man for the Administration, Brooks identifies the positives in an economy and country that has become the whipping boy of cynics and ideologues. Ultimately, rationale usually wins out at the ballot box, and Americans will hopefully respond to these ideas by doing what Americans do best - get to work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rachel's Challenge

I recently had the opportunity to attend an assembly for our students called Rachel's Challenge, given by Craig Scott, whose sister Rachel was the first student killed in the Columbine shootings eleven years ago. Rachel's Challenge is an extraordinary foundation and movement devoted to teaching and inspiring students to create a permanent positive culture change in their school by starting "a chain reaction of kindness and compassion."

Ironically, in the same week that Rachel's killers were in their basement creating a video in which they claimed they were about to start a "chain reaction" of violence and hate, Rachel was turning in an essay for English class called "My Ethics: My Codes of Life," in which she wrote that she "had this theory that if one person could go out of their way to show compassion, it can start a chain reaction of the same." She asked, "How do you know that trust, compassion, and beauty will not make this world a better place to be in?" "Test them for yourself," she wrote, "You just might start a chain reaction."

Craig Scott and his father have chosen and committed themselves to the idea that her short life will not be defined by tragedy, but instead by the kindness and compassion with which she lived her life. Her father posted a sign at her memorial that read "Rachel, your death will not be in vain." After her death, her family found an image of her hand that she had traced on the back of her dresser in which she had written, "These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of people's hearts."

As a teacher and a parent and a person, it is still difficult to recount the tragic events of that day, and I cannot fathom the depths of despair that have been faced by people like Craig Scott. He was in the library where two of his friends were killed in front of him. He later led a group of students to safety, shortly before the killers returned to the library, only to learn later of the loss of his sister. Yet, from this tragedy, Craig has become a man of uncommon courage who is committed to his sister's message of kindness and compassion. It is rare that I have seen one person convince a group of 900 seventeen-year-olds to stand up, arm-in-arm, many with tears in their eyes, and sing "Lean on Me" ... three times in a row. Yet, he did it. And that message rings true.

In Craig's presentation, he challenged us in five ways. They are:

1. Choose positive influences in your life.

2. Keep a record.

3. Practice acts of kindness daily.

4. Eliminate prejudice.

5. Tell people how much you love and care for them.

Craig closed with a video montage of his sister to a song called "Hands" by Jewell. She sings:

If I could tell the world just one thing it would be - we're all OK
And not to worry 'cause worry is useless in times like these
I won't be made useless
I won't be idle with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear

In the end only kindness matters.

That is the truth. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Center Right or Center Left?

Like many Americans, I don't consider myself ideological, and in survey after survey, I often end up right where I'd expect - moderate. That's why I'm a "recovering Republican" and a "disappointed Democrat." I'm part of the trend in Colorado, especially in the sixth district, of unaffiliated, independent voters. Colorado (and I), in that regards, are about as purple as can be. Though while the GOP likes to declare emphatically that America is a conservative country - or center right - to be more specific - and while some polls show the country moving slightly to the right, there is an ambiguity to that desire for ideological dominance. As EJ Dionne points out:

It’s important to note that there is a debate over what these ideological labels actually mean to voters. And polls that give respondents the chance of calling themselves “progressive” produce a substantially larger number on the left end of the spectrum, since many who won’t pick the “liberal” label do call themselves “progressive.” A study earlier this year by the Center for American Progress found that when progressive and libertarian were offered as additional options, the country was split almost exactly in half between left and right.

That discrepancy is key to the debate - and one that will never truly be addressed by what George H.W. Bush calls "the cables." [???] The reality is that whatever the parties want to say about the leanings of the country, the voters are choosing Democrats lately because the GOP just seems to have nothing to offer. This is more well articulated by David Brooks, but I get the gist of it.

Realistically, voters seek out what is real and valid in their lives. They support what works and they abandon what doesn't. That's pretty much the way it should be.

Most Prosperous And Free Countries Socialist?

For those who value their freedom of expression as much as health, wealth, and prosperity, then Finland is the place to be, with an index ranking the Nordic nation the best in the world.
The 2009 Legatum Prosperity Index, published on Tuesday and compiled by the Legatum Institute, an independent policy, advocacy and advisory organization, ranked 104 countries which are home to 90 percent of the world's population.

The index is based on a definition of prosperity that combines economic growth with the level of personal freedoms and democracy in a country as well as measures of happiness and quality of life. With the exception of Switzerland, which came in at number 2, Nordic countries dominated the top 5 slots, with Sweden in third place followed by Denmark and Norway.

Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity really ought to check this out. Of course, I remember an interview on the O'Reilly Factor years ago where Bill was discussing life with the Swedish Minister of Tourism. O'Reilly said, "OK, give me one good reason why I should move to Sweden."

The Swede responded, "Well, hopefully you won't."


Friday, October 23, 2009

College in Three Years - or Less?

According to Lamar Alexandar's piece in the latest edition of Newsweek:

Hartwick college, a small liberal-arts school in upstate New York, makes this offer to well-prepared students: earn your undergraduate degree in three years (six semesters) instead of four, and save about $43,000—the amount of one year's tuition and fees. A number of innovative colleges are making the same offer to students anxious about saving time and money. The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car. And that's both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world.

Finally, the word is spreading. With the average time for a bachelor's degree taking an astounding and baffling six year and seven months, a little shorter for some programs from on-line universities, it is time for a change. The acceptance of AP and IB scores for advance progress in degrees and the expansion of dual-credit, or concurrent enrollment, classes are imperatives. And schools who shun giving the credit where credit is due should be shunned and avoided at all costs.

Now, if we can get K-12 down to K-10, and the blending of 11/12 - 16, we will be getting somewhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Who Are We?

According to this report, The Secret Service is facing "unprecedented" threats to the President's life. They may have to relinquish all other duties with the Department of Treasury so they can devote full resources to keeping our President alive?

Sadly, it's shocking to even acknowledge that President Obama's message of hope of change and a better America could be considered as a factor in this sort of scary, disturbing, despicable news. That this could somehow be his fault - that he has somehow asked for it - is a reprehensible idea.

What has happened to this country when a man's message of hope and change can be considered to be responsible for this sort of insanity? If that's the case - and the news seems to imply it is - then the thing that happens if some nut takes action is that America will have lost her soul. We will have met the enemy, and the enemy will be us. What have we become when a leader's attempts to reform a damaged system can be met with such vitriolic contempt, forecasting catastrophic change to America? What a terrible gut check to even consider that the Secret Service's fears are even possible in this day and age. If President Obama responds to this news by coming to a realization and changing his course, then we will have seen the victory of truly homegrown terrorism.

I don't listen to much of the "noise" these days as the anti-Obama atmosphere has reached such a toxic level that it has departed from rational discourse. And, it simply feeds on itself. It feeds on this absurd notion that America - as a nation and an idea - is at risk. The fact that every action and every word and every initiative seems to draw hysterical responses about the need to "take our country back" is completely baffling, and truly, truly sad. The sort of discourse that scares people into believing their way of life is threatened and they have no choice but rash actions is terrifying.

People calmly and publicly talking of "watering the tree of liberty" is a image I never thought I'd live with. Some people are outraged, some news reports it, and then nothing. The fact that we don't vehemently denounce such terror, the fact that we don't run from such craziness, is beyond my comprehension. That sort of environment contributes to a rising hysteria that could become the proverbial straw, and I am deeply saddened by that realization.

The Secret Service is facing "unprecedented" threats to the President's life. They may have to relinquish all other duties with the Department of Treasury so they can devote full resources to keeping our President alive?

Where are we? What have we become?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Why Johnny Hates Sports

Years ago when I was living in Chicago in the late 1990s, the big news at the start of the school year was that Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton's son - who was an All-American soccer player as a junior - had surprised the sports community by going out for football his senior year at Barrington high school. He not only went out, but won the job of starting quarterback, no doubt due to his excellent athletic ability. Yet, the question remained as to why he quit soccer, a sport he'd played all his life and would assuredly have been playing in college, and even professionally. The reality, which he revealed in a press conference, was that he was "burned out." In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he literally said he come to "hate soccer."  The rise of club soccer had led to such an overload in time committment, that he came to hate the sport he loved. This is a phenomenon well documented in the book Why Johnny Hates Sport by Fred Engh.

While I didn't know this phenomenon all too well when I first read Engh's book, I was somewhat familiar with the intense competition and the growing force of club sports in youth culture.  Now, after working in coaching in high schools and raising two kids who are reaching the competitive levels, I am on board with Engh's criticism and concerns.  As an advocate for restraint and common sense in youth athletics, Engh documents the anxiety kids are facing as they are asked to choose a sport and specialize by as early as sixth grade.  As club sports expand all seasons into year round, a thirteen--year-old is threatened with losing his spot on one team because another sport has a tournament out of state during the tryouts for the first sport and .... ugh!  It just gets that crazy.  And Engh argues for a return to the good-natured fun of youth sports that focuses on the fundamental skills of the game, as well as the equally important aspects of teamwork, good sportsmanship, discipline, and fair play.  Engh's book is filled with anecdotes and insights about the foundations of youth sports and the problems of "Coaches Gone Wild."  In addition to this book, Engh is also affiliated with the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), where he serves as president and spokesman.

Additionally, the issue has a new voice in Denver-area high school student Scott Martin who recently published a piece of commentary in the Denver Post, where he revealed "Why I Can't Stand Youth Sports Anymore." It is an honest and sincere plea for some sanity in the world of youth sports, and a very well written argument at that. Scott begins by sharing the tragic stories of high school students who were "practiced to death," and then offers detailed commentary on the culture that has led to such situations. He also comments about his own struggles with the culture and laments the fact that parents at pee-wee sports competitions have to be urged, "Relax, it's just a game."

I must admit, I don't hold out hope for change in this arena, as the sound of youth coaches screaming at children makes me cringe every time I hear it. The stories of long weekends and short summers traveling around with club teams make it even worse. Certainly, any one has the opportunity to opt out of these "optional activities." But that doesn't make it any easier, especially for kids who just want to play for their school. Perhaps with future leaders like Scott, generations down the road will figure out the madness and stop killing "the love of the game."

Perhaps, hope can be found in the direction coaching takes, as coaches would seem to be the best hope for a change in the culture, as noted in this New York Times profile.  If more schools and athletic organizations would commit to the goals of the Positive Coaching Alliance, the focus and direction of our sports-obsessed youth could be redirected in a way that wouldn't lead to contempt and regret over that activity which once inspired joy and passion.  The Positive Coaching Alliance is an organization of coaches and leaders in youth sports who recognize the imperative of a positive and uplifting message on the athletic fields.

Sports are a wonderful part of our lives and culture.  The lessons learned on the athletic field as members of a team can be integral parts of character education, and we should take steps to guarantee that benefit.  There should never be a reason Why Johnny Hates Sports.

Picnic Time Sports Chair

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Praise for Mike Rowe and "Work"

Gail Pennington, columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is the latest to discover the important commentary coming from the mouth of Mike Rowe, star of the Discovery Channel's shows World's Dirtiest Jobs and Most Dangerous Catch. Pennington's recent column gives voice to Rowe again and his message that "America has declared war on work," and this attitude is detrimental to our future.

Rowe asks an important question: "Doesn't it seem strange we can have a shortage of skilled labor, a crumbling infrastructure, and rising unemployment? How did we get into this fix?"

How indeed.

It is particularly troubling that we continue to ignore the needs of our economy and assume that all Americans need a college degree or that America should lead the world in college degrees. Interestingly, according to the Department of Labor, the average four-year college graduate in this country makes $45000/yr while the average plumber/electrician makes $49800. Of course, we shouldn't forget that only 29% of Americans have a bachelor anyway, and many of them are over-educated for what they do.

However, I am not going to argue for or encourage kids to pursue career and technical education in this country if we continue to not only declare war on work, but also continue to devalue work by continually padding the corporate bottom line by decreasing wages and benefits. Europe and Asia can effectively increase education while maintaining skilled labor because they support their workers.

Hopefully, Americans will actually get a clue about what makes America "work."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Actual Conservative Health Care Reform

Knowing that something happening is going to be better than nothing happening, I'll settle for some version of the Baucus health reform plan, though I'm not completely in favor of it. I'll side with heart surgeon and former senator Bill Frist on that. Ultimately, something as logical as the Healthy Americans Act isn't going to happen, and many provisions in the legislation - like preventing the insurance companies from dropping my family when they get sick - are good ideas. Beyond that, it's a good idea to provide a marketplace where Cigna or Kaiser or United have to offer a plan at a price - as opposed to charging me and my employer five times as much as they do for the same plan to a company across the street.

However, there are other ideas. And they don't have to come from the Democrats. I truly wish the GOP would actually start listening to the smart conservatives in their party and actually use some of the intelligent - not ideological - Republicans and conservatives to present an actual plan for health care reform. Not an idea or a theory or a ideology or a tweak. But an actual plan.

The simplest solution would be for the government to issue a health-care credit card to every family along with the insurance voucher. The credit card would allow the family to charge any medical expenses below the deductible limit, or 15 percent of adjusted gross income. (With its information on card holders, the government is in a good position to be repaid or garnish wages if necessary.) No one would be required to use such a credit card. Individuals could pay cash at the time of care, could use a personal credit card or could arrange credit directly from the provider. But the government-issued credit card would be a back-up to reassure patients and providers that they would always be able to pay.

The combination of the 15 percent of income cap on out-of-pocket health spending and the credit card would solve the three basic problems of America's health-care system. Today's 45 million uninsured would all have coverage. The risk of bankruptcy triggered by large medical bills would be eliminated. And the structure of insurance would no longer be the source of rising health-care costs. All of this would happen without involving the government in the delivery or rationing of health care. It would not increase the national debt or require a rise in tax rates. Now isn't that a better way?

That is market reform that would work, and it would actually accomplish the goal of many conservatives which is to encourage people to understand what their health care actually costs because they are paying for it - not $5 premiums for a high quality plan picked up by the wealthier companies and people in the country.

It's a thought. Any Republicans out there smart enough to run with this?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brooks Gets Conservatism Right

There are few people in political commentary who get it as right, and say it as well, as David Brooks of the New York Times. Though he is often chastised by the neo-conservative-right-wing-noise machine who have called him a closet liberal or "conservative-light," Brooks, instead, represents that calm, rational, and rather engaging voice of conservatism that I regularly call for. He is, in many ways, the last hope we have after the loss of William Buckley and William Safire, though many, including Brooks, would argue he doesn't have quite their monolithic voice in the conservative crowd. Regardless, he is always a pleasure to read, and his insight is well represented in his piece today, introducing two views of the future, represented by Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume.

I’ve introduced you to my friends Mr. Bentham and Mr. Hume because they represent the choices we face on issue after issue. This country is about to have a big debate on the role of government. The polarizers on cable TV think it’s going to be a debate between socialism and free-market purism. But it’s really going to be a debate about how to promote innovation.

The people on Mr. Bentham’s side believe that government can get actively involved in organizing innovation. (I’ve taken his proposals from the Waxman-Markey energy bill and the Baucus health care bill.)

The people on Mr. Hume’s side believe government should actively tilt the playing field to promote social goods and set off decentralized networks of reform, but they don’t think government knows enough to intimately organize dynamic innovation.

So let’s have the debate. But before we do, let’s understand that Mr. Bentham is going to win. The lobbyists love Bentham’s intricacies and his stacks of spending proposals, which they need in order to advance their agendas. If you want to pass anything through Congress, Bentham’s your man.

Brooks is just so damn smart that his allusions are often lost on many. But he is drawing from classic enlightenment history with astute nods to Jeremy Bentham and David Hume. It is these historical allusions that make his commentary so rich, but it is also what leads neo-conservatives to criticize him. For the reality is Limbaugh and Hannity and Beck and O'Reilly don't really understand Brooks or his allusions, and by association don't really understand conservatism.

David Brooks calls himself a Burkean conservative, and it is a definition and a pragmatic ideology I support. Sadly, most in the Republican Party don't really - and here's the irony because they use this charge so much - don't really understand their history. They don't understand the nature of their ideology and how to apply it to a changing world. Instead they rely on soundbites that simply become a rant about "low taxes" and "limited government." Yet, they don't understand how to take those ideas and actually "govern." Brooks, to his credit, tries to explain how the GOP needs to move beyond the "government is the enemy" idea of the Buckley and Reagan eras. For, while Reagan was absolutely right about marginal tax rates when they were 80%, his argument doesn't apply when they are 36%. Neo-conservatives don't get that, and they have never been able to reconcile their ideas with the social conservatives and the Religious Right. It makes for a mess of a message and a mess of a party.

One man who knows this - though sadly forgot it for about six months when his party needed him most - is John McCain. McCain had built an entire - and rather impressive - career on similar Burkean philosophy. This was effectively profiled in The Atlantic. Sadly, I think, few conservatives read that, and the noise machine couldn't understand it, so they dissed that type of thinking.

But there is hope. Brooks makes that clear. But you have to read it and you have to "get" it for that hope to have any chance.

Yes, we can. [sic]

Monday, October 5, 2009

Zakaria on Iran's Non-Threat

There are few people in the news industry I respect more to speak about the Middle East than Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. And, generally, his views and perspective are pretty well received by people from both political parties. Thus, I hope his recent piece for Newsweek, "Containing a Nuclear Iran," is read and discussed, rationally and intelligently, by the powers that be. Some interesting points:

At the same time, we must stop exaggerating the Iranian threat. By hyping it, we only provide Iran with "free power," in Leslie Gelb's apt phrase. This is an insecure Third World country with a GDP that is one 40th the size of America's, a dysfunctional economy, a divided political class, and a government facing mass unrest at home. It has alienated most of its neighboring states and cuts a sorry figure on the world stage, with an international embarrassment for a president. Its forays in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza have had mixed results, with the locals often growing weary of the Iranian thugs who try to control them.

The country does not yet have even one nuclear weapon, and if and when it gets one—something that is far from certain—the world will not end. The Middle East has been home to nuclear weapons for decades. If Israel's estimated -arsenal of 200 warheads, including a "second-strike capacity," has not prompted Egypt to develop its own nukes, it's not clear that one Iranian bomb would do so. (Recall that Egypt has fought and lost three wars against Israel, so it should be far more concerned about an Israeli bomb than an Iranian one.) More crucially, Israel's massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon. Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide.

We should not fear to negotiate with these rulers.

Clearly, there will be many screeching voices from the right wing noise machine who oppose this "appeasement" and will liken it to Chamberlain and Hitler. But those voices have no real credibility in the foreign policy world, and they earn money by hyping fears and criticizing everything. By contrast, I have heard and seen support for Zakaria's view by people such as Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, and Charles Krauthammer. In fact, as far back as the Bush administration, Krauthammer offered the rational conclusion that if Iran wants the bomb, they will get it. But they can and will be persuaded not to use it. For, they don't want to become a parking lot, as much as some like to paint them a national of suicidal maniacs. That's no more true than it is in Pakistan or Korea.

Thus, perhaps, as Iran slowly moves out from under its theocratic control - hints of which were revealed in the last election - the world will control its more unsavory elements without making it worse.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Problems of "Info-tainment"

Though I used to watch a fair amount of "talk television" in the realm of of Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, I now avoid the white noise of talk television because I discern, beyond the ranting, that the goal is not to inform, but simply spark suspicion and even anger, for the simple purpose of ratings and revenue. However, that does not mean I an uninformed. I read more news than ever before. But I avoid the idiot box more and more. For, nothing new or insightful is offered on these shows. They simply "comment" on the news, and generally it's more inflammatory than anything else.

Lately the focus on Glenn Beck has challenged the "edginess" of these shows, arguing Beck does his job in a far more insidious manner than the others, or than he used to in his original show and first two books, which I read and actually enjoyed. That criticism is the focus of a piece of print commentary (generally more rational and not built on soundbites) that came from Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News. While Dreher is more critical of Beck than some others - and while he in my opinion goes on a bit of a tangent - there is much to consider about the increasingly dangerous world of (mainly) Fox News commentary.

From ridiculous charges of FEMA concentration camps to charges of Manchurian candidates to shameless accusations of subversive muslim congressman to a million people at the tea party in D.C. cited by a "university" that Beck "couldn't remember the name of to a "deep seated hatred of white people that one was a minute before Beck said "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people" to Vancouver losing billion dollars on an Olympics they hadn't held yet, Beck has fallen so far off the road of rational thought, that his anti-government fearmongering has actually become dangerous. And I would argue that I used to listen to Beck and agreed with much of his points. I've read all his books, and until his last one, had little criticism. However, his current arc is what leads Dreher to wonder where the William Buckleys of the conservative party are.

Well, they might be in South Carolina. At least that might be inferred from the recent statements - and consistent rational pragmatic conservatism - of Senator Lindsay Graham. From his evenhanded and just criticism (but ultimate vote for) Justice Sotomayor to his denouncement of craziness and cynicism in the conservative media, Graham is one of the few Republicans left that I could - and would - vote for on a national level. He might just be stepping up, in a Buckley-esque way to defeat the madness and extremism that has taken the microphone of his party.

This hope is, incidentally, supported in the New York Times today by one conservative voice I can trust and support, David Brooks. Brooks reminds us that, for the most part, the crazy voices of the conservative media aren't all that influential, as they'd like us to believe. While 15 million or so viewers and listeners will follow these guys each day, that doesn't turn into a reliable voting bloc for their far right, neo-conservative agenda. Instead, pragmatism still rules at the voting booth.

Or at least I'd like to hope.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summer Vacation at Risk Based on a Myth

It seems like every time Education Secretary Arne Duncan opens his mouth about reform of public education, he perpetuates myths and offers reforms based on those myths that I find very frustrating. For in the news today, President Obama and Duncan are both continuing with the argument that the American school day and week and year are too short. This is based on the erroneous idea that Asian and European kids who beat American kids on international tests spend more time in school. The Education Secretary again showed his ignorance of the history of public education when he said, "Our school calendar is based on the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today." This is, of course, fundamentally not true.

First of all, up until the late nineteenth century, the school year, especially in the cities, was actually all year long. This was driven by the desire to have the kids in school so their parents could work, especially in factories. In rural areas, kids were given release time in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting - not "summer vacation" to work in the fields. The "agrarian model" explanation is a myth, and up-to-date education researchers have known this for years. The school calendar was not set so kids could help on the farm. Most of the work on a farm is done during spring and fall - planting and harvesting. Clearly, that is when the kids were most needed. The summer vacation schedule was set to appeal to middle and upper class families (the ones who actually went beyond sixth grade) because these families wanted to get out of the hot, crowded cities (and classrooms) during the summer months, especially before the days of air conditioning.

The "myth of summer vacation" has been well-documented over the years, though misperception persists. Perhaps the most informative analysis of the history comes from a really good read by Kenneth Gold, entitled School's In: The History of Summer Vacation in American Public Schools.

While there are arguments for longer school, the agrarian model is not one of them. Additionally, the longer school day has shown a definitive impact in struggling, urban populations, but suburban middle and upper class populations have never shown the "summer loss," and they are well-served by a myriad of summer activities that enhance and add to their education as well-rounded citizens in ways that more classroom time drilling for standardized tests doesn't. If we are going to have effective discussion about education reform, we need to dispense with the perpetuation of myths by the misinformed. Additionally, the article I linked to noted that the belief that others countries' students spend more time in school is also not true:

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

As I noted after watching the movie Two Million Minutes, critics have argued that by the time they graduate from high school, Chinese and Indian students will have spent twice as much time in school as American students. But that leads to the following questions:

Are their economies twice as large or powerful? Are their buildings and bridges twice as strong? Are their doctors and scientists twice as effective and efficient and innovative? Are their products twice as durable? Are their workers twice as productive?

The answer is, of course, no.

Arne Duncan and President Obama need to do a little more research before they start speaking of reform in education. Clearly, there is evidence that a longer school day, week, and year is helpful for struggling populations. However, my high school has a 90% school-wide pass rate on AP exams in nearly all subjects, and we have more honors classes than regular levels. And we do it with the current schedule.

If anything, our students can get through K-12 effectively in less time, not more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dual-Credit is Key In Education Reform

As I've noted on several occasions, there is much inefficiency in the way we direct our students to bachelor degrees. Problematically, half the students who go on to a four-year college don't finish, and many people seeking careers that need an associate's degree end up going for a bachelor's. Additionally, we have established twelve years as being the standard for being ready for college, when that number is arbitrary at best, and completely overestimated for the top thirty percent in the country. Additionally, the rise of AP and IB could alleviate some of the waste in time and money for college classes, yet many colleges are now reducing the credit for those programs.

However, there is a growing trend in dual-credit courses where students can take core classes in high school, that if taught by a qualified teacher with appropriate rigor, can also count for college credit in associate degree programs. This concept is long overdue, and the Denver Post spotlights it in an article today about students who are moving more efficiently through the k-16 labyrinth. The story discusses several students who pursue college courses in high school. Notably there is Lauren Goh:

Goh, 18, fit the profile of the high achiever who was the traditional target of concurrent enrollment. For two years, she took most of her classes at Red Rocks Community College instead of Golden High — where she still was elected student body president.

"High school is definitely a unique experience, but I'd had enough of it," Goh said. "At Red Rocks, there were people in their 60s I'd make friends with, from all walks of life. That was the appeal to me."

She earned her high school diploma and associate degree on the same day. Eventually, she faced a choice: Transfer her credits and begin as a junior at any number of schools, or enroll at Harvard for four year.

A high school diploma and an associate's degree on the same day. I know so many students for whom this should apply, as I regularly tell my AP Lang juniors at the end of the year that they "are ready for college." Sadly, the AP system is arbitrary, and many schools won't give them credit and will make them re-take classes for which they are already qualified. This is a ridiculous waste of time and money.

Dual-credit, also called concurrent enrollment, is precisely the type of reform that can alleviate the logjam of public education, and ease many of the funding problems in schools. We can get kids out of school and on with their lives in a much more efficient and effective manner.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kurt Anderson and America's Reset

As Jesus Jones noted in their hit song "Right Here, Right Now," we are in the midst of "watching the world wake up from history." While the pop hit from the early 90s focused on the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Kurt Anderson's "Reset" is a calm, reflective meditation on the end of the bubble economy/bubble society that began in the 1980s and has finally and resoundingly ended after a near decimating crash. While Anderson is not big on specifics in terms of what the end of the party will bring, he is hopeful that America, and the world, will be moving into a more rational, pragmatic world view on issues of health, wealth, and well being.

As far as a predictor of trends and guru of solutions, the books of Matt Miller are more detailed and prescient. But Anderson's book is a nice short meditation, strong on hope and belief in American's ability to respond to the current crisis and be the better for it. Granted, Anderson's book was written and published during Obama's honeymoon period - and notably prior to the rage of the town hall meetings and the audacity of Joe Wilson's "You lie." However, knowing the generally moderate views of middle America, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Anderson's insight and hope for a more rational and simplified future in America society is on the horizon.

As we decrease our "lottery-winner" expectations of an early retirement in our McMansion based on our unrealistic mutual fund projections, Americans may begin to downsize their purchases and simplify their lives. More rational plans for education reform and immigration reform and health care and finance and materialism could potentially lead to a calmer, happier society.

The book is a nice, easy read - big on hope and brevity. A nice reflection.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Carter Finally Gets It

If John Hughes had ever written a young-adult novel, it would have been Carter Finally Gets It. This hysterically entertaining, and pleasantly insightful, debut from author Brent Crawford is one of the best YA novels I have read in years. In fact, there are few books that better capture the voice of a boy during his freshman year of high school, especially one with ADD, an occasional stutter, an overbearingly popular sister, and his "boys." These characteristics and characters are the main vehicles of Carter's conflicts as he navigates the trials of adolescence - football, girls, parties, girls, competition, girls, homework, girls, and, well, girls.

Carter tells his own story in a voice that is as honest as it is hilarious. The frustration that comes from the pressures of school and social situations moving just a bit too fast for an eternally distracted mind is always entertaining, and at times rather poignant. Carter can't seem to get a handle on his social or athletic or academic responsibilities, and at times he simply helplessly admits I've been in high school almost a month, and it's nothing like I thought it would be .... I want to feel comfortable ... I want people to think about me as much as I think about them, and I worry I'll always feel this way. Like I did on the first day of kindergarten. That sort of honesty is so refreshing, and it's nice to see in a character like Carter who isn't simply a stereotype of a dorky freshman. In fact, Carter is a popular, athletic kid who struggles with schools and the social expectations of an increasingly fast adolescent world. Carter is an Everyman, for whom many high school students will be able to relate.

This is the kind of book that I wish every adolescent girl would read - it might do a lot help them understand the adolescent boys that frustrate them so. Like so many of the movies from the classic young adult raconteur John Hughes, this book presents a fun, funny, and truly honest portrait of adolescence, in all its manic glory.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Civility and Decorum

Here's a thought:

Perhaps Joe Wilson, Kanye West, and Serena Williams could all get together for an idiot party.

We all make mistakes ... and we all should be roundly chastised for acting infantile in our adult years. Hubris is a terrible thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Words of Wisdom

During the course of the school year, I read a lot of selections to my students from various books by Robert Fulghum, author of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Generally, we will write about them, and occasionally these short pieces generate some nice personal essays. One of my favorites comes from Fulghum's time studying Zen buddhism in a Japanese monastery. Upon Fulghum's leaving, the zen master reads to him the following proverb:

There is really nothing you must be,
And there is nothing you must do.
There is really nothing you must have,
And there is nothing you must know.
There is really nothing you must become.

However, it helps to know that fire burns,
and, when it rains, the earth gets wet.

This sort of sentiment and insight is especially important for teenagers during these years of the search for identity and autonomy. Hopefully, as the country seeks its identity, the course of the future will be influenced by such level-headed wisdom.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Corporations are People, Too?

In a sad development for the roots of democratic republics - and a backdoor victory for oligarchy - the The Supreme Court's conservative bloc sounded poised Wednesday to decide, on free-speech grounds, to end the ban on corporations spending large amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates for Congress and the presidency. The "ironic" issue of money as "free" speech has always troubled me, though I understand the reasoning behind it. Of course, it wasn't nearly the problem thirty and eighty years ago before the rise of television, especially cable. Now we have trillions behind spent to promote agendas, and the concept of truth in politics and ideology becomes even more bent.

This development - corporations being freed to use their resources to specifically influence individual political races - is a nail in the coffin to any hope of campaign finance reform. Perhaps the most disturbing concept is the idea that "Corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment," said Olson, who represented Citizens United. This is an absolute affront to the rights of the individual and democratic republics. A corporation is NOT a person, and that was not the intention of the First Amendment. If individual members of a corporation want to exercise free speech, I support it. If the corporation wants the same right to use its massive funds to override representative voices of individuals, that's a move toward oligarchy.

Thom Hartmann - and I know he's very liberal - first brought this to my attention in his critical book What Would Jefferson Do. Issues like these really do bring Supreme Court appointments into prominence. While I was bothered by the Courts ruling on private property last year, I am equally, if not more, bothered by this one.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Great Book Choice

I'd like applaud Denver for choosing a truly remarkable book, a verifiable classic, To Kill a Mockingbird as its latest choice in its annual One Book, One Denver program. Unlike past years, when the mayor, or a group, chose the book, this year the book was voted the winner by popular demand.

I teach this classic "coming-of-age" novel each year in my freshman English classes, and I often introduce it as "nearly the perfect book." While there is no book that I would say is "sacred" in education and that every American student has to read, this is one that I would put on the list of "If-you-only-read-one-book-read-this-one." The allegorical nature of the work, and it's deeply thoughtful look inside the issue of prejudice and the essential nature of man is awe-inspiring.

I am fascinated by the way Lee weaves such an intricate tale of mystery and social criticism, in which the reader joins Scout in peeling away layers of prejudice she never knew existed in her hometown and her own heart.

A truly masterful and heartwarming work. Great choice, Denver!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Separate Peace

Some insight from the end of John Knowles quintessential coming-of-age novel, A Separate Peace:

Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart ....

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way - if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Clarity and the Joy of Living

Don't know what made me pick it up, but I am really enjoying The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret of Science and Happiness by Tibetan monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. An interesting thought for the day from a section on clarity:

As this [clarity] begins to happen, the sense of difference between "self" and "other" gives way to a gentler and more fluid sense of identification with other beings and the world around us. And it's through this sense of identification that we start to recognize that the world may not be such a scary place after all: that enemies aren't enemies but people like ourselves, longing for happiness and seeking it the best way they know how, and that everyone possesses the insight, wisdom, and the understanding to see past apparent differences and discover solutions that benefit not just ourselves but everyone around us.

If you agree, or find this insightful, be sure to pass it on.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Politics of Crazy

In the past eight years, I have been greatly disappointed - if not outright disgusted - at people comparing President Bush and President Obama to Adolf Hitler, or the Democrats and Republicans to Nazis. These sort of statements are not only absurd and inflammatory, they are immensely sad and disrespectful to people who actually suffered at the hands of one of the most evil men in history. I understand analogies and hyperbole as rhetorical techniques, but there is a point where political discourse simply veers into the land of "crazy talk."

That is the subject of Rick Pearlstein's op-ed in the Washington Post today. He begins with an irate citizen at a Congressional town-hall meeting. The citizen offered the following to his senator:

"One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill. And then you will get your just deserts." He was accusing Arlen Specter of being too kind to President Obama's proposals to make it easier for people to get health insurance.

Now, that's just crazy. It's not only crazy, but it is so counter-productive and depressing.

Pearlstein's article is slanted toward criticism of the most recent outrage and protests at the town hall meetings. Thus the "crazy" is definitely more represented by conservatives and Republicans in this case. He follows with explanations of other outrageous behavior by conservatives, and he posits that the real craziness seems to happen more with conservatives and Republicans than with liberals and Democrats. As I read his piece, and think back over the past thirty years, I fear he may be right.

Granted, there are some real nut jobs on the left. From the Earth Liberation Front spiking trees and burning down resorts to the bombings by the Weatherman to the conspiracy theories about the Bush Administration allowing, or even planning, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, there are some nuts out there in Democrat-land. However, when I think of the most deadly American terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, I see the right-wing. While the Weatherman and the eco-terrorists have set bombs, they seemed to try and avoid killing people en masse. Not McVeigh. When a man turned up at a town hall meeting on health care with a gun and talked of shedding "the blood of tyrants," he was right wing.

The frivolous talk of "tyranny" - over something like government stimulus spending nonetheless - comes from the right wing. People who - bizarrely - yell at their congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare" (?) are right wing. People who tend to talk about the end of American civilization if we raise taxes are right wing. Immigration brings out rabid responses from the right. On the left, we've had immigration advocates speaking with heartfelt concerns about poor families being torn apart over immigration law, while on the right we had a congressman in Colorado callously say after two latino children who were hit crossing a street, that they wouldn't be dead if they hadn't broken the law. Really? That's a lawmaker's response to two children dying in a hit-an-run accident?

I admit that too many people on both sides let their passion get in the weigh of their politics. But lately it seems that the right is more likely to cross the line into crazy and violence - abortion-rights advocates haven't, as far as I know, bombed pro-life centers. I mean, passion is one thing, but hanging a congressman in effigy - over health care - is downright disturbing. Believing that the Bush Administration or the Obama Administration has sold out American sovereignty to the United Nations is crazy. Fearing that the program Teach for America is going to be used to indoctrinate an "Obama Youth Corps" is crazy. Telling your Congressman you don't want our country to become Russia is crazy. Believing for even a nanosecond about the possibility of "death panels" in a health care bill is crazy. And using violence and aggression to address political issues such as taxes and health care in the United States is crazy.

There is simply too much irrationality these days, and I believe much of it comes from ignorance and naivete. And I have to say that these days it seems like conservatives and the right wing of the Republican Party have the monopoly on "crazy." So, where is the most "crazy" - liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans? Which side is the least rational? Which side is the most likely to spout off bizarre, conspiratorial positions? Which side is more violent? Which side is most likely to be dangerous? Which side is more easily manipulated by their demagogues? Which side is more easily whipped into a frenzy? Which side is scarier? Which side of "crazy" is worse for America?

What do you think?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Glenn Beck's "Common Sense" is a Sham

Well, I just finished Glenn Beck’s “Common Sense,” which, according to Beck, was “Inspired by Thomas Paine.” Beck has clearly never truly read Thomas Paine and knows very little about him, his history, or his beliefs. For many readers, pages one to seven seem to make a lot of sense. There are some general and specific criticisms about government spending and corruption in Congress I agree with. Who wouldn’t? But Beck’s attempt to connect his neo-conservative positions with Founding Father Thomas Paine is shockingly ignorant of both Paine and American history.

Beck uses this book – and Paine’s name – to criticize “Progressivism,” blaming it for much of what ails the country. Sadly, this is a complete distortion of Paine’s legacy. While the extent of most Americans’ knowledge of Paine is “he wrote Common Sense," I teach his work in class every year. I've use “The Crisis” and selections from “The Rights of Man” and “Age of Reason.” If you want to understand Paine and his vision for America, you should read them. Beck doesn’t understand Paine, but he does want to use the credibility of “The Founding Fathers” to promote an anti-government message.
Far from opposing “progressivism,” Thomas Paine is one of the original “Progressives,” though at the time he was called a radical for his liberal views. He is commonly associated with the origins of American liberalism. “Common Sense” was one small piece of his work – it was a pamphlet simply designed to encourage revolution against Britain. Paine later clearly outlined his vision of what he thought American government should look like. This is where Beck falls off the apple cart.

Beck uses this book to openly criticize progressive taxation, public education, social security, and “the progressive agenda.” But readers should know something – Thomas Paine was one of the earliest advocates of progressive taxation, even drawing up tables and rates.

He was also the first proponent of the estate tax. And in Agrarian Justice he proposed combating poverty and income inequality by taxing the wealthy to give jobs and “grants” to young people. He also proposed using this system to provide government-sponsored pensions for the elderly. Paine’s Agrarian Justice can be considered the earliest call for a national old-age pension – ie. Social Security. He wanted to tax the rich and give money to the poor.

He joined Thomas Jefferson in strongly advocating universal tax-supported public education, believing it was necessary to promote an educated electorate and was a necessary way to combat poverty. Paine also sought a federally guaranteed minimum wage, and long before Woodrow Wilson, Paine urged the establishment of, and US participation in, global organizations to help solve international problems and avoid wars.

Yet, this is all lost on Glenn Beck.

Beck criticizes Progressives for leading the United States away from its original purpose. He even goes as far as chastising Teddy Roosevelt. That’s pretty bold for a guy whose only contribution to the United States has been as an entertainer. Has Glenn Beck completely forgotten “The Gilded Age”? While Beck, for whatever reason, is disturbed by progressive ideals, he fails to concede the un-democratic conditions that led to the desire of Americans for the rise of progressive reforms.

In fact, if you look at American history from 1776 to 1900 and from 1900 to present, you will see that Beck is right in that progressives shaped America into the country that it is. It’s one with a thriving middle class, reasonably safe food and water, no child labor, forty hour workweeks, etc. If Beck wants to dismiss Progressives and return to life under President McKinley or Harding with robber barons running the economy and the atrocious work conditions chronicled by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, he’s crazy. Beck has never known what it would be like to live in an America not guided by the leadership of progressives. Instead, he lives comfortably in a nation defined by liberal and progressive policies, and then audaciously challenges the very notion of the peaceful prosperity they provide.
Beck ironically praises “our political leaders” that could inspire us to “defeat Nazism and fascism,” and then goes on to criticize that leader - FDR - as helping destroy the country. Beck doesn’t even concede that the United States would never have been able to wage WWII or build the Atomic Bomb or put a man on the moon or wage and win the Cold War if it weren’t for the large-scale ability of the federal government to raise revenue, mainly through progressive taxation. He reviews the original foundation of the United States government in the Articles of Confederation, acknowledging that it failed because it was too weak, and then heaps his praise on the Constitution. However, he doesn’t concede that the significant difference in power given to the federal government in the Constitution was the power to levy taxes. Even conservative Edmund Burke knew that “the revenue of the state is the state.” Thus, weak revenue gathering equals weak government. And a weak federal government would never have been able to respond to two World Wars, the Cold War, and two Iraq wars.

Beck goes on to criticize Hillary Clinton and the public education system for “suggesting the community has a vested interest in what each child is taught.” Who doesn’t believe that? He offers no alternative proposals for how education should be carried out. Though I hardly believe he is proposing the end of public education. That would be so un-Jeffersonian, another Founding Father.
On page 99, Beck shifts from a scathing criticism of public education to promote God and religion in public life. This is completely disingenuous in a book “inspired by Thomas Paine.” Paine was a deist who vigorously opposed Christianity or any organized religion. He often called himself an atheist. Paine was very anti-Christianity. He vehemently opposed the government supporting religion in any way. In fact, in his later life, he was practically exiled from the country because of his criticism of religion in America.

A few other criticisms:

On page 61, Beck paraphrases Barry Goldwater’s (or some attribute Gerald Ford) quote, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have,” and he doesn’t even give the original speaker credit.

On page 17, Beck paraphrases the well-known “You can’t save the poor by destroying the rich” quote from Reverend William J. H. Boetcke and again doesn’t give credit. Historians and English teachers call this plagiarism.

Finally, Beck writes a mere 111 pages, and then re-prints all of Paine’s “Common Sense” which is in the public domain – and he charges $12.00 for the book. What a sham. I’m glad I checked it out of the library, but I hate that my library spent taxpayer funds on it. They should have waited until it was in the bargain bin for $.99

That’s why Beck is disingenuous. He is a hack, and while I occasionally enjoyed some of his earlier work – I’ve read all three of his books – I am sadly disappointed in this mis-use of one of America’s Founding Fathers. Beck says Americans do not know their history, but he is one of them, and with this book he is counting on their ignorance. Ultimately, this book is a poorly-written piece of neo-conservative fear-mongering. Perhaps saddest of all in a book "inspired by" a Founding Father, Glenn Beck says he "fears" the end of the republic. What a profound lack of faith in the very people and institution he praises. What an absolute insult to every true patriot who has ever laid his life on the line for the republic. As Republican Bob Inglis recently noted, "This is a constitutional republic that can withstand any president I disagree with." If the United States has managed to survive all the trials it has - from the Civil War to the Gilded Age to the Great Depression and beyond, it will survive today.

It will even survive fear-peddling "rodeo clowns" who are ignorant of its history.

** And for those of you who haven't heard the latest nonsense, Glenn Beck is at it again.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Farewell, John Hughes

Sad news out of Chicago - or thereabouts - today. According to a press release, John Hughes, the legendary 80s teen-film director, passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, today at the age of 59. The statement was attributed to Rogers and Cowen, which I assume is a law firm or management company. Hughes was on vacation in Manhattan and had a heart attack while taking a walk.

As a child of the 80s, I am deeply saddened by this news. Perhaps no director in history has more accurately portrayed the lives of teens on film. He almost single-handedly re-defined cinema in the 1980s. Even today, when teens are polled about which movies most accurately resemble their lives, they quote such classics as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. That's a pretty powerful testament for films which are almost thirty years old. A recent documentary-in-progress entitled "Don't You Forget About Me" was meant to be a call to Hughes to come out of retirement and again make films that speak to teens, honestly and without condescension. Sadly, that is not to be.

In the words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around sometimes, you might miss it." Hughes helped all of us do that, and his impact will not soon be forgotten.

Rest in peace.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Nothing Is Rotten in Denmark

A recent post in the New York Times' on-going column, "Happy Days: the Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times," writer Eric Weiner confirmed and reported on the fact that in many polls the country of Denmark is considered "the happiest place on Earth." Weiner's observations center around his theory that the Danes are such happy people because they have lower expectations of happiness. If you read the story, you'll find that's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. There is, quite simply, a real sense of pragmatism about what life should be and how they define happiness in Denmark.

The story generated quite a bit of reader response, which became its own follow-up column. The general consensus from many who had, at one time or another, lived in Denmark, was that the people truly are among the happiest, and they don't work that hard to make it so. It's simply the way they live their lives. The "lower expectations" seems to be part of it, only in that they are not generally motivated by the "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" mentality, and rather than dreaming of the happiness they'll have when they get the house they want, they quite simply make the house they have as enjoyable as it can be. And for all the rabid capitalists out there, I don't think this means they don't aspire to greater success. They simply enjoy all the levels along the way.

A bit of research on Denmark turned up information like this:

Denmark, with a free market capitalist economy and a large welfare state ranks according to one measure, as having the world's highest level of income equality. From 2006 to 2008, surveys ranked Denmark as "the happiest place in the world," based on standards of health, welfare, and education. One survey ranks Denmark as the second most peaceful country in the world. Denmark was also ranked as the least corrupt country in the world in the 2008.

One writer to the Times thoughtfully said, "The Danes work very hard at living well, rather than pretentiously. They aren’t interested in displays of ostentation or status. But they are masters of genuine good living, and work very hard to achieve it."

Another posited, "The society and government there actually work for most of the people. In my first visit, I learned that “poor” and “welfare” were not economic terms used to demean people, and that teachers and physicians actually have the same incomes and respect. Those things sound “simple” perhaps, but they create a world of difference."

And another offered, "The Scandinavian countries have high taxation but can actually see their tax dollars working in better infrastructure, education, health care, etc. As a Norwegian American I can say that I find a level of happiness (or I should say contentment) in Norway that translates to every day life. They are healthy outdoors people who also revel in nature. And of course oil revenues help, but they are smart enough to keep many of the proceeds from revenues for a rainy day."

That is some pretty lofty praise, and worth considering whenever we feel compelled to spend some time in national self examination.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letter to Oprah

As the country seeks school reform, and states scramble to qualify for more stimulus funding in the Race to the Top, I’d like to see Oprah regularly address "what works" and "what we should be doing" in schools nationwide. This should not be a one-time show, but a regular, even weekly, feature of her programming.

Oprah could organize a weekly segment entitled "Best Practice" - which is a buzzword for figuring out what works in the classroom. One week she could focus on literacy and reading instruction by featuring Cris Tovani's books, "I Read It, but I Don't Get It" and "Do I Really Have to Teach Reading." She could follow this with shows on Everyday Math and other controversial math programs, and the issue of a "national curriculum," as well as issues of standardized testing and how much they should matter. She could discuss teacher training, foreign education systems, the importance of arts and activities, and controversies like charter schools, voucher systems, and equality in funding.

Other shows could spotlight "college readiness" and the need for more associate degree seekers and career and technical education. She could feature Dr. David Conley, a Pew Center researcher and author of "College Knowledge" - another great Oprah Book Club possibility. Related to this, Oprah could highlight a reform study called Tough Choices, Tough Times, and spotlight the reforms happening in New Hampshire which may allow high school graduation at sixteen for students entering community colleges and technical schools.

With the theme of "Change" in America, Oprah offers an excellent venue for the regular emphasis that the system needs. If you agree, do me a favor and cut and paste this post into the "Show Recommendation" section of Oprah's website.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Is Discrimination Standardized

One argument against the confirmation of Judge Sotomayor centers around her ruling in the New Haven firefighters case - when she supported the city's decision to throw out the results of standardized test for promotions when only white firefighters passed. The white firefighters sued - and were eventually supported in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. Thus, the big question is where the discrimination is happening .... and there are obviously two camps on this.

Mike Littwin of the Denver Post asks some good questions in this article:

This is not a new story. For whatever reason — skewed tests, too many failing schools, too many single-family homes, continuing effects of segregation, some other explanation short of a bell curve — blacks do not score nearly as well as whites on standardized tests.

If standardized tests play a key role in getting into college, in getting into law school, in becoming a lieutenant in the fire department, what are we, as a society that values opportunity, supposed to do if too few blacks and other minorities qualify?

One answer is to do nothing, except quote the Rev. Martin Luther King's line about the quality of our character — as if King wouldn't be on the side of affirmative action.

Another answer is to recognize the problem — as, say, the U.S. Army has done — and find a way to pick out otherwise qualified applicants.

New Haven clearly hadn't offered a test that was meant to discriminate. And yet, the test left the city, one with a majority-minority population, with a new class of nearly all white officers in its fire department. How do you resolve discrimination that isn't exactly discrimination?

There is validity to both sides. The white firefighters certainly don't deserve to have their results invalidated - we can and should be sympathetic to their cause. However, isn't there some pretty obvious problems with a test that seems to be systematically prohibitive to minorities.

Herein lies the problem with discrimination, affirmative action, and the use of standardized assessments.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Obama and Economics

While I am watching the government spending and deficits with interest - as I always have - I think it comes down to two questions:

One, with all we've learned over the past eight, and the past thirty, years: Do you really think President Obama and his economic team are just that stupid? Are they really that naive or clueless? Do people like Peter Orzag and Paul Volecker simply know nothing about economics? Could all their discussion and all their actions just be flat-out wrong?

Two, are you hoping that what the President and his team are doing doesn't work? Not do you fear it won't or think it might not or suspect that it wouldn't or know that it can't. But, do you hope it fails? Knowing that the action will be taken for the next two and four years - and knowing that voters will judge it then - do you hope it doesn't work? Is there something in your heart and mind that hopes two and four years from now the economy is in worse shape?

For my part, I am cautiously optimistic. I hope what the Obama Administration is doing works, and I will vote two and four years from now based on my conclusions about the state of the nation at that time.

Graduation Requirements Across States

The National Center for Educational Outcomes released a pretty comprehensive analysis of the requirements for graduation. Although this report is ten years old, I found it pretty interesting.

Another comprehensive analysis from the NCEST was published in 2004.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kentucky Reconsiders Diplomas

If a bill by State Senate Republicans passes in Kentucky, they will also be on board with New Hampshire and Louisiana. Why is no one talking about this in the national news?

FRANKFORT — High school students who complete required course work for graduation before their junior or senior years could enroll in college early and get state funding to help with tuition under a plan proposed by Senate Republicans. The bill also would reduce the 22 minimum credit hours for high school graduation to as low as 16, while candidates for early graduation would have to maintain a 2.8 grade-point average to go to a two-year college or 3.2 GPA to go to a four-year university in Kentucky. Students going on to a four-year university also would have to take at least two Advanced Placement classes, the bill says.

It sounds like some real reform is happening at the state level. Wonder what Arne Duncan thinks?

Career Diplomas in Louisiana

Louisiana is poised to join New Hampshire in plans to allow earlier graduation - specifically after sophomore year at the age of sixteen - for students who are not interested in attending four year colleges. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

High-schoolers in Louisiana will soon be able to opt for a "career diploma" – taking some alternative courses instead of a full college-prep curriculum. The new path to graduation – expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) in the coming days – bucks a trend in which many states are cranking up academic requirements. The legislation puts the state in the center of a national debate about where to set the bar for high school graduation.

Advocates of the new diploma option say it will keep more struggling students in school and will prepare them for jobs, technical training, or community college. Critics doubt the curriculum will be strong enough to accomplish such goals and say it shortchanges students in the long run, given the projections that a large number of future jobs will require a college degree.

While there is much to discuss - and a wide margin for error - there is a lot of practical wisdom in this action. The most significant problems are students who might change their minds later - as well as the notion that sixteen-year-olds might not make the "best" or most mature decision. And, of course, there is a significant chance that this will be disproportionately pursued by - and even recommended to - mainly poor and minority students.

I'd like to see the option available while resources are directed toward making sure each student makes his/her own best decision, and all students are guaranteed equal access to opportunities in education.

Millennials Struggling

According to this report:

The Millennial Generation, those born between 1976 and 1996, the heirs to our economic legacy and ultimately the bearers of our economic destiny, are being disproportionately affected by the crisis, but continue to go unnoticed. This is even though they face unemployment at a rate more than 8% higher than the national average, suffer under a crushing average of $27,000 in student loan, $2000 in credit card debt, and a healthcare crisis that leaves 30% of them without any insurance. In addition, as young people enter the workforce, they are being pitted against individuals with much more experience than they have for the same entry level jobs due to recent layoffs, making finding a job exponentially more difficult.

This perfect economic storm will have untold negative impacts if nothing is done by Congress to address these issues now by truly investing in the Millennial Generation.

Eliminating Seat Time Requirements

In the past year or two, I have come to question the concept of "seat time" or "contact hours" in public education, and I am more intrigued by a focus on accomplishment of core competencies. Earlier, I posted about the Adams 50 district in Colorado that was eliminating "grade levels" in preference for students progressing through skill levels or competencies - this has been found effective for struggling students and is in use at various alternative schools around the US. That, of course, leads me to question why it isn't being addressed at all levels for all students.

Interestingly, this issue came up in the most recent issue of Esquire where former governor Jeb Bush, who is of a similar mind, said, "We should have 'seat time' eliminated . . . You show up for 180 days, you graduate. It should be based on what you learned. People learn differently. It's a simple fact that our education system ignores." While that is a bit of an exaggeration, I was intrigued to hear someone talking about it. Certainly, it's not just 180 hours and a diploma - there are core requirements in those 180 days and thirteen years. However, there have been enough horror stories of illiterate graduates to indict the system for extremely low expectations of how that "seat time" is used.

After a little research, I learned that the state of Indiana feels the same way and has done something about it:

In its first meeting under the direction of Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, the State Board of Education approved a series of reforms aimed at facilitating student-centered learning and removing unnecessary regulations.

“Teachers and principals have repeatedly expressed to me their frustration with regulations that prevent them from delivering the best possible instruction to their students,” Bennett said. “The actions taken today by the State Board of Education are a first step toward eliminating unnecessary requirements that all too often get in the way of our primary focus which is the achievement of students.”

Among the actions taken by the state board today was the elimination of a requirement for 250 minutes of instruction per week to earn credit for high school courses. The removal of this requirement will give schools much needed flexibility in developing curriculum and creative scheduling options that best meet the needs of individual students.

“We need to measure success by what students are actually learning, not by how many minutes they’re sitting in a particular class each week,” Bennett said. “Principals, if they’re willing to be creative, now have a powerful new tool to help maximize educational opportunities for students.”

That sounds about right, and I am surprised there hasn't been more discussion of this type of change. It is an important part of the reform discussion, and one that I hope to see Colorado address this year as well. This scholarly paper notes:

The obsolete nature of current school structures is evident in the way large groups of students with the same birthdays move from subject expert to subject expert in incremental blocks of time, in the way success is measured by seat time and rote return of information, and in the way what is learned during the "school year" is lost during the summer, perpetuating the difference in learning levels for various socioeconomic groups. In this article, the author calls for a reinvention of how citizens are educated rather than continuously trying to improve the existing education "systems."

There is no doubt that students progress at different levels, and simply establishing thirteen years with a 1080 hours of teacher contact time a year as the standard model is nothing short of inefficient. As I've noted before, many of my AP students are certainly "ready" to start working on their bachelor degree - both in terms of knowledge/skill and maturity. Thus, there is little sense in restricting their ability to do that.

"Seat time" might need to become the next big discussion on the education reform stage.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Community Colleges and the Future

As I've noted before, the current emphasis on four-year colleges and bachelor's degrees is hugely inefficient, ignoring a myriad of realities in the US economy and education system. The focus is myopic at best, and it does an incredible disservice to many skilled students and workers who could be educated and trained in far less time for far less money with much greater success.

Clearly, many students do not need seventeen years of education - as most professions don't require it - and students should be empowered to get training and get on with their lives whenever they are ready. With many people never finishing bachelor degrees, the education system needs to re-evaluate associate degree programs. For, a student who quits a four-year college after two years has nothing, while a two-year program offers a degree and the option of applying the credit to a four-year degree.

Time Magazine is taking a look at this issue in this article, "Can Community Colleges Save the US economy?" My answer is yes.