Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Happened to Middle Class Stability?

America news and media is certainly not at a loss for discussions of economic insecurity - from declining upward mobility to ballooning health insurance costs to tax reform and/or "tax cuts for the rich" - the issue of class warfare has been running heavy through the American psyche lately. And, I'm not entirely sure what is getting better, what is getting worse, and what the true extent of the narrative is. But for those interested in exploring, a couple recent headlines caught my attention.

More than a decade and a half ago, investigative journalist and writer Barbara Erhrenreich spotlighted the struggles of America's working poor to make ends meet. The seminal and thought-provoking Nickled and Dimed explored the challenge of getting by on minimum wage, and Erhrenreich provided real world insight with her immersion in the struggle, working numerous entry-level jobs while living (barely) in hotels and low-rent apartments. That issue has been given an update with a somewhat surprising focus on similar and growing struggles among middle class American workers who are often college-educated with experience in careers, rather than just jobs.

Writer Jessica Bruder brings attention to "casualties of the Great Recession" in her new book-length investigation of the new breed of homeless people living in the cars or RVs while they criss-cross the country doing seasonal work for companies like during the holiday season. Bruder's work, Nomadland: Surving America in the Twenty-First Century, offers stories of a struggling segment of the population who are facing the prospect of never retiring as they simply hope to get by until their bodies simply wear out.

As far as human inventions go, retirement is shockingly recent, and proving fragile. A fringe idea until the 20th century — and one that outraged many — it took tenuous hold in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Today, only 17 percent of Americans imagine they will be able to afford to stop working someday.“Nomadland,” by Jessica Bruder, an important if frustrating new work influenced by such classics of immersion journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” looks at one strategy older workers have devised for “surviving America.” Tens of thousands have traded in their homes for “wheel estate.” They are “the Okies of the Great Recession”: grandparents living in school buses and vans seeking seasonal work cleaning toilets at campgrounds, picking blueberries in Kentucky, sometimes for wages, sometimes for just a parking spot — “not necessarily paved but hopefully level.”

Books about the rising "gig economy" have coincided with interesting discussions about the middle class and what that even means in America anymore. In my own town of Greenwood Village, CO, there is a debate about the prospect of "high density housing" and "urbanization" that is fueling an intense City Council election. In a place like GV, where the "average" home price is north of $1 million, the challenge for middle class earners to find housing is becoming truly strained. Of course, in a neighborhood where homes can reach $10+ million, the idea of middle class seems almost absurd. The Denver Post recently reported on the concept when it asked "Is $100,000 a middle class income in America?" Growing up in small town Illinois in the 1970s, I have a hard time talking about $100K as middle class and "middle class suburban" homes going for $1.5 million.

Who knows where this goes next?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Does The Athletic Want to Ruin Sports Journalism

Let's start here: I still subscribe to my local newspaper, The Denver Post, and I will for as long as it exists, knowing as I do the integral role that newspapers and print journalism play in maintaining our communities, society, and republic. My mother was a print journalist (reporter, editor, and features writer) for thirty years, and I grew up with a respect for the industry and a warmth in my heart for the sound of the newspaper landing on the driveway each morning. Thus, it was with profound disappointment and a genuine bit of queasiness that I read this morning (in the print version of the New York Times) about radical entrepreneur named Alex Mather and his plan to destroy local sports journalism and monopolize sports reporting.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

My first - and lingering - response was "Geez, what a tool."

Mather, who is 37, and his partner Adam Hansmann, a green 29, plan to gut local newspapers of their premier sportswriters by hiring them away to work at a subscription sports site, The Athletic, which they intend to ultimately be the Amazon or Neftlix or Spotify of sports journalism. The "vulture"-like strategy of luring away the talent from print sources that face a shrinking market amidst free online content and amateur-reporting on blogs and open sites like Bleacher Report is certainly a workable business model. Mather and Hansmann know they can poach the reporters and use venture capital to absorb losses until the original bundle-service news source, the newspaper, folds. At that point, they hope to have the monopoly on quality sports writing, and they are banking on millions of current sports writing fans being willing to pay yearly fees for sports news.

It could work. But it will more than likely ruin local news organizations' ability to continue providing content, and then fade on a naive and unsustainable model. Then it will leave consumers mostly willing to accept mediocre reporting from whatever source their social media friends post.

Sadly, both Alex and Adam are still too young and under-educated to understand that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Do Students Need Four Years of English .... or homework?

I once taught in a school where a single research paper in English class, including the creation of "fifty note cards," was an actual graduation requirement. It was a stupid idea at best, but it more likely bordered on educational malpractice.

As an English teacher with a passion for teaching reading and writing and roughly twenty-five years of experience in the classroom, I probably shouldn't be asking this, but do high school students really need four years of high school English class? It is a pretty standard mantra nationwide that high school graduation requirements include an indisputable "four years of English" and then variations of two to four years of math, science, social studies, foreign language, and the fine/practical arts. And, I'm thinking that this conventional wisdom is naive at best, but probably more ineffective and even detrimental to the K-12 education process in this country. It is, of course, colleges and universities that drive this requirement, or expectation, (which is really a mandate). But let's be honest:  if a student took five years of math, four years of  science, and two or three of English, social studies, and fine arts, would he be "less prepared" for college and university classes?

Of course not.

Granted, the general roles of reading  and writing in the success of college students cannot be disputed. Certainly, "Composition 101" remains the flunk out course for so many colleges nationwide, and if a student can't read and understand his textbooks or write decent essays and research papers, he will truly stuggle and probably not finish his degree, which is a very real problem in this country. That said, the expectation that four years of English class will solve the problem and equip students with all the study skills they need to be successful is a bit of an exaggeration, if not an actual absurd assumption. Merely taking four years of English in high school is not a guarantee of college readiness, and students may cultivate reading and writing skills just as effectively in a social studies or science class. It's undeniable that many high school classes nationwide simply aren't that challenging - and a high school creative writing class won't automatically included a quality and rigorous workload of college prep writing. And, over several decades I have been frustrated and disappointed by knowledge of students who "didn't graduate" because they had all their credits except one semester of English or a single research paper. It's simply ridiculous.

For far too long, I have worried about the expectation and understanding that the high school English class is the only place where students actually learn to read and write. They should be learning those skill in all the content areas. Few English teachers, I believe, would disagree with me. Yet, if the understanding is that students learn the skills of reading and writing and thinking in all classes, then we must let go of the misguided belief that all students need more English classes than any other curriculum, core or otherwise.

Of course, this won't end until colleges and universities ease their dictatorial control of the classes that they mandate high school students must take in order to be "college ready."

Let's start an honest conversation about "what students really need to know."

Oh, and to be true to my post title: we need to cut down on the homework at the high school level. School should be like Disneyland because the classroom is "where the magic happens."

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Who is trying to "Save Our Village" - and from What?

Who’s Trying to “Save Our Village,” and From What?

Last week many voters in Greenwood Village received a mass email endorsing a slate of candidates for City Council from the “Save Our Village” campaign. It expressed a desire but inability to “reach everyone … to talk about our issues and values” and asked for help in “urging your neighbors to vote for our candidates.” Yet, the one important piece of information it lacked is any explanation of “Why?” An online search for Save Our Village revealed a bare-bones website, which contained no members’ names, no platform, and no list of issues. In fact, the tab for the organization’s “Vision” contained no information at all. So what are those issues and values, and who exactly is Save Our Village?

As informed community members, we should question why an anonymous PAC is sending a mass email promoting candidates with no explanation of their experience, platform, views, or positions on pertinent community issues. In fact, there is no mention of any specific issue on the agendas – past or future – of Greenwood Village City Council. Most voters know the previous Save Our Village group was organized on one specific issue – the proposed re-zoning of the Orchard Area. Clearly, voters voiced their opinion on that issue, and it’s now time to move on and return to discussion of numerous issues facing the Village in coming years. Yet, if the websites of some candidates are used as a measure, Save Our Village seems to be reigniting the divisiveness of that vote and pursuing election based on a fear of property development.

The phrase Save Our Village also requires greater clarity from this group and candidates. Certainly, many residents know the original platform opposed changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow mixed-use development, including space for residential units, small businesses like restaurants and shops, and community space. Yet, many residents believed the vote was about allowing one “high density housing” plan, and they rejected it based on that assumption. Voters expressed fears about subsequent traffic congestion, though traffic is far more impacted by the 70,000 commuters to DTC than it is by residents. Voters also expressed concerns about overcrowded schools, though no data supports that claim, especially west of I-25. In fact, no one seems to acknowledge that the Landmark Towers are “high density” housing, and no one connects them to school enrollment problems. All these concerns are valid, yet far too many are based on misinformation. And candidates or PACs who warn of “high density urbanism” and pledge to uphold “Village Values” should be careful with such hyperbole and loaded words.

Additionally, if candidates are directly involved in the organization, voters deserve transparency on those associations. Currently two SOV-promoted candidates seem to be directly connected. Specifically, the address on the email for the group appears to be Dave Kerber's house, and Jerry Presley had directly responded to emails to the group. Thus, it appears Kerber and Presley may have organized what seems to be a third-party PAC which they in turn use to anonymously endorse themselves. Now, that may not be illegal or unethical in some people’s views, but it certainly seems a bit suspect to an average voter. At the very least, it lacks the necessary transparency desired by voters and promoted by candidates.

Voters might also consider greater scrutiny of the candidacies of Dave Kerber, Jerry Presley, and Anne Ingebretsen over the precedent it would set. Each of these people is a long-standing community member who has served on City Council. Yet, as most voters know, Greenwood Village has term limits for the Council and Mayor’s office. While a loophole allows the law to be circumvented for candidates to serve non-consecutive terms, that is hardly the spirit of term limits. Granted, these three individuals have experience in public service. However, in a city of fifteen-thousand people, voters should be able to find new, qualified voices to help the Council stay fresh and avoid the downside of unchecked incumbency.

Voters should be curious about who SOV is. Are they connecting the election to the referendum? If so, how and why? What is their ultimate goal? What are those “issues and values?” What is this yet undisclosed “Vision?” Will they disclose who the organizing and leading members are? Will candidates and members make themselves available in public forums? Village voters deserve some transparency.

NOTE: A shorter version of this commentary appeared this week in The Villager