Sunday, April 29, 2012

Apple Avoids Paying Taxes for Benefits It Reaps

Regardless of your views on taxes, it's hard to support a company operating fully in one state - California - and benefiting from its infrastructure, culture, workforce, quality of life, etc., while setting up an "office" in another state - Nevada which has no state income tax - so the company avoids paying for the very services it uses to great profit.  And, that's exactly the case of Apple, as exposed in this story from the New York Times.

This oligarchic manipulation of the system has been exposed numerous times over the years, especially when American corporations operate fully in the United States - benefiting from infrastructure, legal foundations, stability, workforce, etc., - but setting up the corporate "headquarters" in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying taxes.  The corruption was documented in great detail in the book Perfectly Legal by David Cay Johnston, though despite that books publication in 2003, nothing has changed.  It is absolute fraud, and it's a shameless lack of integrity.  In fact, just like the expose on Dateline tonight about teenagers, it's a culture of cheating, clear and simple.  Sadly, we have reached a sad point in our republic when people will willingly break the rules - or bend the ethics - all in the name of making money.  Sure, they can do it.  And, of course it's just good business to maximize profit while minimizing expenses.  But how we can justify this as logical, ethical, righteous, or simply not a big deal, is beyond me.  And that's what's happened to the American character.

I have to thank Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast for linking to this story, though we disagree on this issue.

Make College Less Affordable

It's no surprise I have promoted the idea of less college for all.  Despite the desires of Bill Gates and the Obama Administration to lead the world in college graduates and have 80% of adults with a bachelor's degree, more degrees is not the answer to America's ills,  and it will not revive the economy.  In fact, more college degree holders simply drives down the demand for such highly skilled workers while increasing the demand for jobs - thus, voila, lower wages for traditionally middle class fields.

Now, Ed Quillen of the Denver Post has offered an insightful contribution to the college loan/college debt/college-for-all debate.  In Quillen's lucid analysis, increasing the guaranteed money available for college loans only leads to colleges raising tuition.  And, there is no reason that so many employers have decreed that a bachelor degree is the screening device for a job.  Thus, Quillen believe employers should no longer be allowed to use education credentials as a screening process.  Imagine that.  Of course, it could be a logistical nightmare.  But if employers simply had to screen candidates based on individual testing processes, fewer would feel the need to pursue a degree that may very well be useless in their field.

The classic example Quillen throws out is our wise "rail-splitting"President, Abe Lincoln, who earned his license to practice law through a simply display of knowledge, rather than a degree.  And, seriously.  If someone can pass the bar exam, does he really need the degree to back it up?  Does someone really need the education degree to step into a classroom?  Can't a scientist design rocket without attending a university?

Can't a surgeon operate on your brain without ... ?

OK, there are some caveats.

But Quillen has a good point.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tips for Teaching Writing

I am sharing my favorite tips for superb writing as a part of the Superb Writers’ Blogathon. In partnership with Grammarly grammar checker, this series is bringing helpful hints to aspiring superb writers all across the world wide web. 

“It’s about readin’. It’s about writin’. It’s about thinkin’.”

That’s the advice of an old-school professor of rhetoric when asked about the goal of AP Language and Composition and freshman writing classes. In an era of complicated state standards and debates about the Common Core, English teachers need to remind themselves of the basic mission. Of course, many English teachers love the literature side of the job because they love their books and the themes. That handles the reading and the thinking.

But what about the writing?

English teachers are tasked with teaching students how to write - and this is often the most neglected part of the job. In fact, many English instructors don’t consider themselves composition teachers. For one, it’s hard. The reason is obvious: to assess writing, teachers end up buried under mountains of essays. Secondly, teachers too often use writing as simply summative assessment. The kids write an essay to show what they know. And many teachers do not know how to teach the craft – for writing truly is a craft, an art form.

The key to effective writing instruction is the opportunity to write. Students must practice the craft, and they must do so in a variety of genres for a variety of purposes. And it’s OK for writing to simply be practice. A colleague once told me, “If you’re grading everything they’re writing, they are not writing enough.” Whether it’s journaling and free-writing or copying famous speeches and essays in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, regular practice of writing is integral to success. Thus, students should occasionally just write. One of my favorite free response activities is to read the students a short essay to begin class – generally it’s from the works of Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His essays are great conversation starters.

So, how do we move from assigning writing to teaching it?

We all want our students' writing to sing. Creating voice where there is little to none, however, is a challenge. Thus, as my AP Language students progress in their writing and ability to argue and deconstruct style, I reach a point where top students wonder if their scores will ever improve. The key to higher scores is often sophistication of language. It's diction, syntax, tone, style, voice, mood, attitude, and command of language. Top papers just sound better. And it's the way they command the language that makes the difference. Thus, breaking the task down into its various components is fundamental. It’s what many people call Six-trait.

To that end, I use an assignment writing op-ed commentary as a way to model effective style/voice, and as a way to help them find their own. We analyze numerous pieces of commentary during the year, as they are great pieces for style and opinion/argumentation. In crafting their own, students are then challenged with finding some topic on which they have something interesting to say. To begin, we do a few short journal entries entitled "Angry Talk," Happy Talk," and "Interesting Talk." They often share their ideas - and even a few choice sentences - as a way of generating ideas and discussion. Often, this assignment produces some of the best writing I see from them all year.

The issue of teaching and grading conventions – that is, grammar and mechanics – is also a tricky aspect of the job. While grammar is only one aspect of effective writing, a poorly edited paper is distracting and ultimately ineffective. Thus, teachers are remiss if they don’t hold students accountable. In a standard, holistic rubric, conventions are certainly considered, but they are not the predominant part of the grade.

Certain practices in writing instruction can improve grammatical fluency. For example, one of the most effective is the practice of sentence combining. Giving students a deconstructed and simplistic passage in single sentences and asking them to combine the sentences is a helpful tool for improving command of language. Sentence combining not only improves sentence fluency and sophistication of syntax, but it also dramatically impacts mechanics and punctuation.

Finally, the task of editing and revising is integral to developing the craft. In this area, the use of exemplar essays is foundational to good instruction. Showing students how it’s done well is a step beyond simply assigning and returning writing. Whenever I discuss exemplar papers, I always urge – even require – that students copy some of the sample sentences that I’ve highlighted. This work goes in their writing journal along with a reflection on their own paper. Students must always copy and take note of sentences I’ve edited. Revising and re-writing a troubling sentence effectively internalizes the improvement. Early in the year, I ask students to circle all the weak word choice – especially “be” verbs – in their sentences and revise the sentences with a stronger, action verb. Giving them a list of such verbs, analytical terms, and tone words is also helpful.

Ultimately, the craft of writing can – and actually must be – taught. Students learn through the opportunity to write and create, the freedom to make mistakes, the practice of peer and exemplar review, the act of editing and revision. While few of us wield the magical pen of Shakespeare or Mark Twain, all of us can – with effective instruction – become competent and effective writers.

Franklin Advanced Merriam-Webster Dictionary & Thesaurus with Spell

Jumpstart 4th to 6th Grade 20414

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Schools Weeding Out Veteran Teachers to Save Money?

In a well-run school district with strong administration, a good teacher never has anything to worry about. At least that is my general assumption about my profession. However, stories creep out every once in a while that reinforce the reasons teacher associations hold tightly to tenure, due process, seniority, and other standards of teacher contracts. Because, we've all heard rumors and accusations that school districts seek to save money by dumping veteran teachers in search of young, inexperienced, and ultimately cheaper staff.

That's the charge coming out of Denver Public Schools, according to veteran teacher Cynthia Masters.

I've heard similar stories of teacher turnover recently from different school districts. And in one particular district, I have no doubt the superintendent has intentionally sought a younger and younger staff that he could control while keeping costs down. Of course, there are bad apples in any profession, and it shouldn't surprise us that these stories occasionally surface. However, as school districts face increasingly tight budgets, and the public perception of teachers and government workers continues to plummet, the attrition of veteran teachers to save money is a situation to watch for very carefully.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Health Care & Insurance is Not a Free Market

As someone who purchases family health insurance not through my employer but as an individual consumer, I have carefully watched the Supreme Court hearings on the Affordable Care Act - pejoratively reviled by insurance holding members of the GOP as "Obamacare." As arguments about the "market" and the commerce clause applicability have been made to the insurance issue, many consumers have frustratedly tried to remind critics, this is not a free market issue. It's not an open market.

And, I have been baffled by the inability of the Obama administration to make this argument both in the public and in the actual court hearing. Now, finally, op-ed writer Donna Dubinsky has effectively and succinctly clarified these concerns:

As best as I can tell, the recent arguments at the Supreme Court did not touch on a critical part of the discussion about government’s role in health care: the broken market for private insurance. It was as if the court forgot that the private insurance market does not function as a normal market. If you are not employed and you want to purchase insurance in the private market, you cannot unilaterally decide to do so. An insurer has to accept you as a customer. And quite often, they don’t. Insurers prefer group plans, with lots of people enrolled to spread the risk. Can you blame them? The individual consumer is a lot of work, is a higher risk, and produces relatively little revenue.

The justices repeatedly asked: If the government can require you to purchase insurance, what else could it require you to do? What are the limiting conditions to this breadth of control?

The government muffed its response. To me, the answer is obvious. There are two simple limiting conditions, both of which must be present: (1) it must be a service or product that everybody must have at some point in their lives and (2) the market for that service or product does not function, meaning that sellers turn away buyers. In other words, you need something, but you may not be able to buy it.

Let’s test the examples presented to the high court: Can the government force you to eat broccoli? This proposition fails on both counts. Nobody must eat broccoli during their lives, and the market for broccoli is normal. If you want broccoli, go buy it. Nothing stops you.

Clearly, these are the issues which drove the move for universal coverage in the first place. And I have significant criticisms of the ACA - especially the mandates it requires for coverage to be provided for free. While I agree colonoscopies and well-visits should be covered - nothing should be for free. The consumer must contribute to the payment for all health services.

But, the private market is in serious trouble. It's not a free market, and no GOP alternatives to the ACA address that disparity.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Turn Fitness into a Game

Why will people put hours into beating a video game, but not minutes into beating the scale? Well, obviously the easy answer is that sitting on a couch is engaging but not physically hard. But maybe there's something to the lack of level-up competition that inspires people to devote hours to beat a new video game, but not any to beat their health risks from excessive weight and lack of fitness.

Thus, a new website and application seeks to change that paradigm. The Slimkicker Calorie Counter and Level-up Weight Loss Game is an online app designed to aid in weight loss and fitness by making it a game.

To be fair I don't know much about the site, and I haven't used it yet. But I learned about the idea a while back and was intrigued by the concept. Is it possible for an app to make living healthy, and fitness into a RPG game, where users earn points, and "level up' as they accomplish their health goals? For example, what if every time a user adds something healthy like veggies to their diet, or completes a workout, they earn points. Then, as they achieve more and more, they can be entered into challenges for the chance to earn prizes.

Sounds intriguing.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sugar is the Devil

It's been about ten years since I began to seriously consider the negative effects that sugar can have on the diet and overall health. And, in that time the research has continued to reveal the negative, toxic, even lethal consequences that come with consumption of sugar. From the rise of high fructose corn syrup - and its ubiquitous presence in everything from bread to ketchup - to the shocking increased consumption of sugary drinks, sugar has nearly overtaken the American diet. And, for the most part, Americans are unaware and naive to the problem.

The basic idea is this - fifty years ago Americans consumed a couple teaspoons of sugar a day. Now, it's often one-hundred times that. So, while eating dessert is one thing - and even reasonable at times - Americans are consuming monstrous amounts of sugar. And, as Sanjay Gupta exposes in the following segment on 60 minutes, it is impacting far more than our waste lines. It's a factor in heart disease and cancer in ways no one ever imagined. And, it's simply not a factor in other populations the way it is in America. For example, forty years ago, we declared war on fat - and heart disease rates have skyrocketed. That's because the fat was replaced with sugar, and it's every bit as destructive, if not more so.

The basic facts of the case are clear. Sugar is absolutely no good. So, the daily consumption has to drop. Even a soda a day is too much. In fact, many doctors such as Dr. Oz have long argued that if you can or will only make one change in your diet, it's to cut out the soda. Start consuming more food and join SugarBusters. Interestingly, when most of our oldest citizens are studied and polled, one key factor in their diets is that it is surprisingly low on sugar. Cut back on the sugar.

Your life truly depends on it.