Sunday, June 28, 2009

Can Charters Save Us?

Time Magazine asks the "profound" question, "Can Charter Execs Turn Around Failing Public Schools?" Of course, this is nowhere near a yes/no question, as the past twenty years have shown that some charters can dramatically improve student achievement, while others perform as poorly - and at times worse, with cases of abuse and corruption - as the neighborhood schools they were created to oppose.

As I've noted before, I think Colorado's model of open enrollment and generous support of charters is the best approach to the issue of school reform, especially in relation to the issue of "school choice." The issue with charters now, is not whether they can create a new "start-up" and provide an alternative for kids, but actually go into failing schools and improve them as is by applying their "charter model" to an existing student population.

Remains to be seen.

License to Graduate

Thomas Friedman, writing for the New York Times, offers this:

Craig Barrett, the former chairman of Intel, [when asked] about how America should get out of its current economic crisis. His first proposal was this: Any American kid who wants to get a driver’s license has to finish high school. No diploma — no license. Hey, why would we want to put a kid who can barely add, read or write behind the wheel of a car?

There is a lot of sense in this idea, though it must be in conjunction with proposals to allow graduation and entry into trade schools and associate degree programs after tenth grade, at age sixteen.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

In Praise of Work II

As I noted in a previous post, Mike Rowe of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" is challenging the culture of America that has "waged war on work." In the speech featured on, Rowe offered the enlightened view that "we have collectively agreed, stupidly, that work is the enemy." This is a problem - especially in a country devoted to overspending on the over-education of many people as it shames many skilled workers into thinking they need a bachelor's degree to bring meaning to their lives, and jobs.

In a challenge to this conventional wisdom, Rowe works hard on "Dirty Jobs" to honestly and accurately portray the lives of working people. And there is much insight to his commentary - as he asks us, "Why does the guy picking up roadkill seem like a more enjoyable sort to sit down and share a beer with?"  To that end, Rowe has launched a website devoted to the acknowledgment - if not praise - of work. Check out his site and commentary at

The United States is facing a serious problem with its demeaning attitude toward labor - good old fashioned "work" as a career.  I've been writing about the area where this is most serious which is the myopic focus in schools on college-for-all.  As the nation faces a serious shortage of skilled labor - four million jobs by some counts - millions of young people are steered toward college as the key to "a better job."  However, most people don't need a bachelor degree for work that is meaningful and lucrative.  As the nation lacks welders and electricians, we are putting out too many people with general education degrees.

By the way, a great read on the value of labor is Shopcraft as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford.  This is an excellent reflection on work, and is well worth the read.

Sean Hannity is No Good

When I was in college, a friend of mine used to sarcastically warn my girlfriend, "He's no good for you. In fact, he's no good for anybody."

The more I listen and watch, and the more I think about it, the more I realize these comments accurately describe Sean Hannity. This revelation dawned on me the other day as I listened to Hannity continue his daily condemnation of every single move of the Obama Administration.

Certainly, I expect that Hannity is going to criticize the President - that is the nature of his job - and he has made tens of millions of dollars working in the "preaching-to-the-choir" field. In fact, the criticism is why I tune in. However, there is something unseemly about the disingenuous nature of Hannity's rants. The other day, he pointed out that the Obama Administration's actions have done absolutely nothing to mitigate the recession, evidenced clearly because the unemployment rate has continued to rise. That's his evidence - and he delivers it as obvious. Yet, there's a disconnect. Did unemployment not continue to rise during the Recession of 1982-83 - topping out at 10% - following the Reagan tax cuts that Hannity regularly praises as saving America? Would he argue that the tax cuts did nothing for two years? Isn't it more complex than that?

It's the disingenuous over-simplification to which I object.  Several years ago, I penned an op-ed for the Denver Post in which I exposed and criticized The Mis-Education of Sean Hannity. That criticism is still appropriate, for he has certainly not become any more "fair and balanced."  And, keep this in mind: he's not supposed to. Sean Hannity has made an incredible amount of money "preaching to the choir," and it is his job to sow dissent and profit off that. To be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure Sean believes most of what he says because nothing in his youth indicates a strong political leaning. His reason for being on the radio and FoxNews is simply to make money - he found a very willing market for his brand of pessimism, and he has profited extravagantly from feeding people's unease.

Unlike many commentators, he is so reviled by his critics that numerous websites have sprung up to criticize and mock him.  In fact, there is speculation that he is not even liked in his own camp at FoxNews.  Most of the criticism is geared at the fact that Sean Hannity doesn't really think for himself - or even care about the issues - but simply serves as a lap dog for conservative media. I'm not really opposed to that perspective because I've truly always felt that this is just a lucrative deal for Hannity. And while I don't always agree with Bill O'Reilly, I don't feel that way about him. He is conservative, but he has his convictions, and like Chris Matthews he is likely to skewer both sides and complement either ideology or party when it's, in their opinion, correct or doing a fair job.  But that's not Hannity.

Hannity's no good for us.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Louisiana Joins the College-is-not-for-all Plan

Joanne Jacobs spotlights this article about Louisiana joining New Hampshire in plans to move toward a new educational model which is in line with every other industrialized country in the world. The state plans to offer an early graduation diploma for students who "choose" with "parents permission" to leave the four-year-college track and enter trade schools instead.

As I noted in this article in the Denver Post, the college-for-all track is biased and incredibly inefficient. While we certainly want every child to have an opportunity to take his education as far as he desires, we should not assume that college is for everyone - especially when only 29% of the country currently has a bachelor's degree.

Clarence Thomas is Crazy

There are times to stand on principal - and I guess offering the lone dissenting vote poses no danger - and there are times that doing so just makes you look like a complete idiot. Exhibit A for today is the dissenting vote from Clarence Thomas in the decision to rule an Arizona middle school's strip search of a thirteen-year-old girl unconstitutional. According to the Denver Post:

The case, Safford Unified School District #1 vs. Redding, began when another student was found with prescription- strength ibuprofen and said she received it from Redding.

Safford Middle School assistant principal Kerry Wilson pulled the honors student out of class, and she consented in his office to a search of her backpack and outer clothes. When that turned up no pills, he had a school nurse take Redding to her office, where she was told to remove her clothes, shake out her bra and pull her underwear away from her body, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

No drugs were found, and Redding said she was so humiliated that she never returned to the school. Her mother filed suit against the school district, as well as Wilson.

Justice David Souter rationally argued "there was no indication of any danger to the student from the power or quantity of the drugs, no any reason to suspect [she] was carrying any pills in her underwear." In the dissent, Thomas mindlessly argued "judges are not qualified to second-guess the best manner for maintaining quiet and order in a school environment."

However, judges are allowed to use common sense and rational. Maintaining "quiet"? I've never really thought highly of Thomas' perspectives - this is just reason number 75 why he aligns himself with the crazier side of conservatism.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Look to Portugal on Schools

According to Don Tapscott, an author of thirteen books on the positive influence of technology, the United States should look to Portugal for a model to reform the education system. In 2005, Portugal was struggling economically, and its students were struggling with some of the lowest test scores in Europe. At that point Prime Minister Jose Socrates invested heavily in technology and tech skills to bring the people of Portugal more in line with the advancement of the 21st Century.

Some interesting comments on equipping kids with laptops and allowing them to regularly access the information they need in class, as opposed to lecturing them on it, and requiring they remember it for later.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Senator Graham's Deceit on Health Care

While I generally like much of what Senator Lindsay Graham has to say, I was rather disappointed in his comment on ABC's This Week concerning the "public option" in any health care reform bill. While much debate is necessary, the country can do without truly disingenuous and ideological statements like this.

Graham criticized a proposed system where "the bureaucrat sits between the doctor and the patient" and "you'll wait longer to get treated and you'll get the treatment the government decides for you, not your doctor." How that is any different from a system where "the insurance adjuster or HMO executive or financial manager sits between you and your doctor"? How is that different from "the insurance company or HMO deciding what treatment you get and not your doctor"? How is that different from the current system where I wait seven weeks to see a specialists and a colleague waits a year for an MRI and another for the necessary back surgery?

Clearly, his opposition to the "public option" has validity, but his comments are simply dishonest, and that sort of ideological use of sound-bites doesn't contribute to the discussion. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Senator Graham's comments is that he has government-sponsored insurance. Is he having problems with bureaucrats (namely himself) getting between him and his doctor? Is he having his care rationed? Is he letting the government decide which of his treatments are covered? The FEHBP preserves the private sector by allowing providers to bid to a pool of nine million employees, including Congress. Satisfaction with the plan is extremely high - Senator Graham certainly isn't pushing to change his plan.

I hope the Senator will consider revisiting his position on the public option, and seek to build a comprehensive understanding of the issue. He might also consider the reality that polls show 70 - 75% of Americans support the "option" of a government plan, and those statistics include Republicans. Therefore, in the spirit of a democratic republic, I am opposed to Congress refusing to give voters "an option." That doesn't mean people will have to choose it or will want to. But fearing the giving of a choice to voters shows a real lack of faith in the American people.

That said, I am not in favor of a public plan, but I think Senator Graham and the Republicans are missing a real opportunity to offer a comprehensive plan that legally "preserves" the private sector control of providing health care and insurance. This could be found in the bi-partisan Wyden-Bennett Plan, also known as The Healthy Americans Act (HAA). It is, in many ways, an extension of the FEHBP to all Americans where as many as 300 providers bid to serve a pool of 300 million Americans, and people purchase as much or as little as they need. It is a good plan, it resembles all the best parts of the American system, and it blends in the positive qualities of systems such as Switzerland or France.

If nothing else, I hope Senator Graham will answer the questions about his own health insurance and refrain from truly disingenuous and ideological malarky when discussing the issue - or just refrain from talking about it at all. I'd rather he be silent than actively deceiving people.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Free Speech Fights Hate

The Missouri legislature took the free speech fight straight to the neo-Nazi groups that trouble many communities when they seek to sponsor sections of highways. We'll see how the Nazi's like taking care of a highway stretch named after a Jewish rabbi and civil rights advocate.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Health Care Wake-up Call

Congress is "utterly asleep" and "clueless" on the whole health care debate, and the members need a wake-up call about the realities of the system, according to Dr. Jeffrey Feldman, editor of political blog Frameshop, and contributor to the Huffington Post. Ultimately, there is a lot of blowing smoke and soundbites on the issue, as well as entrenched outrage and suspicion. Thus, I am with Dr. Feldman on the need to cut through the politics and solve the problem.

Supposedly, the health care debate is between one group of people who make fortunes via the insanely profitable insurance and pharmaceutical industries and another group of people who want to make sure everybody in American has access to 'affordable' health care. Consider this simple fact: The number of Americans without health care coverage is so big, and has been growing for such a long time, that we can now simply say that the United States is a country with a systemic lack of health care for its citizens.

This is a salient point that needs much honesty. The reality is that America has the best available health care in one of the worst possible systems. And that's just not right. So, how to maintain the quality care without sacrificing it for efficiency and universality.

In a nation with a systemic lack of health care, there is a radical divide between the haves and the have-nots. Those with health care live in a world that is radically different from those who live in a world without it. The haves are able to treat their health like any other good or service in the economy. Because health care is a privilege of income, the haves can go out and buy health care whenever they want, even to the point of excess. And so health care becomes not just a means to feeling better, but a luxury good to be consumed with lavish abandon.

As much as the tone of this can be disconcerting, and it invokes passionate ideological responses, there is much validity to the statement.

Those without health care, by contrast, live in a much different world. For the have-nots, appetite for procedures and pills in the health care market is replaced by constant concern about a future health crisis or incident. Life without health care becomes a constant game of odds making: I if I spend X dollars on this procedure, will I be able to afford Y and Z 18 months down the road? How long, at my age, would it be wise to go uninsured? Can I risk coverage for my children, but not for myself? Is 5 years too long to go without getting a full physical? How about 7? If the lump in my breast does not hurt, can it be that bad? And so on, and so forth. What happens when millions of people spend decades without health care is so shocking and so heartbreaking, that anyone who thinks about it would be instantly offended by the current Congressional debate.

Again, I understand the emotional and ideological hairs going up on the back of some necks. Yet, the only conclusion I can draw is this: It's just not right. This sort of discrepancy and systemic failure is just not right. What the answer is? Well, that's the problem. But the fact is we have a problem. And the realities of today are just not right.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Charters Avoiding Special Needs

Interesting development on the "charter-school" front, as the Denver Post reports:

Colorado charter schools on average enroll fewer students with disabilities than noncharters — lending weight to long-held criticism of the publicly funded schools that are supposed to serve everyone.

While I have advocated Colorado's focus on "open enrollment" and charter schools as the best possible approach to reform, the long-held criticism that charters succeed simply by cherry-picking the best students away from neighborhood schools is definitely still a viable criticism. Even in Colorado, where the law states allegedly states there can be no conditions put on acceptance, it's obviously true.

Is this the problem that critics make it out to be?  Does it diminish the arguments of "choice" advocates for competition improving schools?  Does the "choice" movement simply ensure that some children will be "left behind"?

Friday, June 12, 2009

According to the Denver Post, Gov. Bill Ritter says his administration is working on a master plan to change the face of education in Colorado and that he'll present his proposals to lawmakers in two years.  Ritter says too much money is being wasted without substantial improvement in education.

I'm hoping he takes into consideration the op-ed commentary I had published in the Denver Post a few weeks ago, when I argued that reform should break from the obsession with bachelor degrees and consider offering graduation at sixteen for those entering associate degree programs and trades.  There is much to be done in the field of education to bring about a more efficient system, the likes of which is common in Europe and Asia, and which is mentioned in books like Tony Wagner's "The Global Achievement Gap" and Richard Rothstein's "Grading Education."  

Additionally, there has been much discussion about the need for all students to pursue at least one year of education beyond high school.  While that seems reasonable to some, I see a glaring discrepancy in efficiency in that idea.  It seems a bit ridiculous, to me, that students are not prepared for many opportunities as adults after thirteen years and more than a $100,000 invested in the education of each individual.  If that is the case, then that is the starting place for reform.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jobs for High School Grads

Of course we've all heard about the projected life time earnings difference between high school and college graduates.  People who dig deeper discover the caveats as well.  While some estimates run as high as one million dollars, others conclude that if you you factor out issues like mega-billionaires and the cost of tuition at elite schools and the time taken to earn the degree and the difference between associates and bachelors degrees, it might be less than two-hundred thousand.  Not chump change to be sure, but there is the practical reality of who can earn the bachelor degree and how many of them the economy can truly support.

For those looking no further than high school. MSN offers this story, or list, of good jobs for high school grads.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is SAT stress good?

File this one under the "Give-me-a-break" category:

According to Time Magazine, "Stress and Exhaustion May Improve Test Scores."

I can think of countless ways that this story can be a problem.  At least I don't have to worry about discussing it - and its myriad of implications and complications - for nine weeks.  School's out.

Perspectives on Health Care and Politics

The Denver Post devoted the cover of its Sunday's opinion section to the controversy over plans for a public option on health insurance. Featured were a Canadian clinical psychologist named Rhonda Hackett who focused on "Debunking Canadian Health Care Myths" and a local citizen who asked "What Do We Pay for, Anyway?" Both of these pieces offered important insight and perspective, and simply reinforced the idea that reform is necessary and change is coming. What that is remains to be seen. Of course, there is plenty of evidence that many people who are still clueless about the current system and alternatives. I recently spoke with a man who lambasted national health care and said we should pay for ourselves, ignoring the fact that he has, has always had, and is very satisfied with his veterans benefits.

For some perspective on the public option, there is much debate and commentary going on in the papers and on the blogs, though sifting through it all could take hours, if not days. One notable piece recently featured on the Huffington Post argued "Fixing Health Care Does not Require a bi-partisan Bill - It Does Require a Public Health Insurance Option. Creamer offers some insight into the politics involved when he says, "it won't matter one whit to average Americans whether the bill passed by Congress is "bi-partisan." That's true. He goes on to explain that while the bill may not be bi-partisan, the feelings of country are. For example:

A poll conducted earlier this year by the highly respected Lake Research Partners found that voters overwhelmingly want everyone to have a choice of private health insurance or a public health insurance plan (73%), while just 15% prefer everyone having private health insurance.

And the preference for a choice between public and private health insurance plans extends across all demographic and partisan groups, including Democrats (77%), Independents (79%) and Republicans (63%). So in fact, President Obama's proposal that creates a choice of a public health insurance option is a bi-partisan plan - whether is has "bi-partisan" support in Congress or not.

I'd say Creamer is right especially when he notes:

If private insurers can't compete with an efficient public health insurance plan, they have no business being in the market place. After all, they would be the first to argue that the "private sector" is always more "efficient" than government.

What they're really worried about is that in order to compete they would have to cut massive CEO salaries like the $26 million Cigna paid last year to its CEO - a figure that is 65 times higher than the salary paid to the CEO of the Federal Government - President Obama. Insurance companies are worried that they would have to become more efficient and cut their profit margins in order to compete. Of course from the point of view of the taxpayer, that is one of the major goals of health care reform: to control skyrocketing costs and incentiv-ize efficiency instead of waste.

Newsweek's List - Top Schools

Well, here it is:

Newsweek's annual list of the top high schools, based on Jay Matthew's Challenge Index of ranking schools simply by dividing the number of AP exams taken and the number of graduating seniors, has been released for 2009. The "formula" has been quite controversial among the education crowd, though it has generated some great discussion of what a "top school" is, and it is based on Jay's firm belief that "the best education for the best is the best education for all."

We'll see.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Getting Accountability Right

We should hold public schools accountable for effectively spending the funds with which they've been entrusted. But policies like NCLB, based exclusively on math and reading scores, have narrowed the curriculum, misidentified both failing and successful schools, and established irresponsible expectations for what schools can accomplish.

Instead of just grading progress in one or two narrow subjects, we should hold schools accountable for the broad outcomes we expect from public education - basic knowledge and skills, critical thinking, an appreciation of the arts, and preparation for skilled employment - and then develop means to measure, and ensure, schools' success in achieving them.

Grading Education
describes a new kid of accountability plan for public education. It relies upon both higher quality testing and professional evaluation. This new plan is practical and builds upon capacities we already possess. It requires a big commitment, but one necessary to fulfill responsibilities to provide for our youth and the nation's future.

After reading, Tony Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap, I have launched myself into Grading Education by Richard Rothstein, just in time for summer. It looks for some engaging reading, simply from the back of the book posted above. The concept of "broad outcomes we expect" - but don't evaluate - is important, and I am intrigued by the premise. Hopefully, many will be reading and discussing this book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Charter Growth in Colorado

Colorado charter schools continue to grow — adding schools, students and more diversity, according to a study released Tuesday by the Colorado Department of Education.

"It's fascinating to see as time goes on, statistics and laws of nature take over and charters end up looking like everyone else," said Jim Griffin, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

As I've noted before, in Colorado, open enrollment and the growth of charters is the preferred model. This is preferable to a general statewide voucher system which is not needed or desired because for at least three quarters of families, the neighborhood school is preferable, and people move into neighborhoods for the schools. Thus, a voucher system isn't necessary, nor in demand, though I would concede that some voucher advocates want the option of private schools, and that concern should be addressed.

It's also important to remember there is regular opposition from the communities of struggling schools when districts attempt to close them. Thus, the support for the neighborhood model is still high. I applaud the growth of charter schools as well, and I will continue to support the system of choice that exists in Colorado.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Evaluating Teachers is the Problem

According to the Denver Post:

Excellent teaching goes unrecognized and poor teaching is ignored across the country and in Denver, according to a national study that says failed policies make teachers as interchangeable as widgets. The two-year study called "The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness" examined four states and 12 school districts, including those in Denver and Pueblo. It found common patterns: that teacher effectiveness rarely factors into decisions, such as how teachers are hired, fired or promoted.

"If you ask a superintendent and head of a union to name the top teachers and the bottom teachers, they couldn't tell you," said Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy for the New Teacher Project — the national nonprofit that conducted the study. "It goes back to the widget effect, which is the flawed assumption that each teacher is as good as the next."

While there is much to criticize in teaching today, there is much more to criticize in school administration. Granted, there are many stories of the difficulty schools face when they try to dismiss or discipline teachers. However, that does not excuse districts from managing their staff. Far too often, stories are revealed of all teachers receiving "satisfactory" evaluations when there are clearly ineffective and underperforming teachers on staff. In fact, Tony Wagner recounted, in his book the Global Achievement Gap, the story of his first evaluation in which he was called into the office to sign his "satisfactory" report, though he'd never been observed.

Again, start at the top people. The Rockies just fired their manager because the team was losing. Take a memo.