Tuesday, November 29, 2022

College Admissions: More than a Test Score

The upcoming Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and considerations of race in college admissions - specifically in the lawsuit against Harvard - has sparked intense debate over the college admissions process. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

When the calendar flipped to November last week, most Americans didn’t notice the huge collective holding of breath as high school seniors pushed submit on their college applications. The first of November is the initial big deadline for many college programs, especially for students putting in their chips for an early decision or early action admission to top tier schools. Coincidentally, college admissions also made headlines last week as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a civil suit filed against Harvard University regarding affirmative action and the consideration of race in college admissions.

The lawsuit was filed by Edward Blum and the non-profit Students for Fair Admissions who, according to their website, “believe racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” They seek to prevent colleges which accept federal funds from considering race in the admissions process. According to testimony in the case, Megan McCardle of the Washington Post suggested “Asian-Americans would be 43% of Harvard admissions, as opposed to the current rate of 19%, if only academics’’ were considered. That term, “academics,” is the crux of the debate. For, while affirmative action is debatable, and people have different opinions on diversity, it’s tough to believe students were specifically denied based on their race.

The lawsuit claims Asians students are discriminated against because of affirmative action and Harvard considering race. However, when the lawsuit focuses on “academics,” it literally means GPA and test scores only, and that’s the problem. Claimants seem to want admission to be based solely on their higher test scores and GPA. However, colleges assess applications on a body of evidence with as many as twelve distinct categories. To claim Harvard, or any college, should only admit the students topping a list of GPA and test scores is incredibly myopic. Scores are simply one or two data points which measure an arguably narrow skill set. Colleges want to, can, and should be allowed to assess applicants and build their student body based on a full body of evidence including non-standardized factors.

Much talent and potential is simply not standardized. In fact, the EQ, or emotional quotient, is equally important if not more significant in predicting success. It’s also highly valued by employers, which is why interviews and portfolios are used rather than test scores for hiring. The top percent of SAT test takers and grade point accumulators aren’t automatically and necessarily the “best student body.” There are countless strong leaders in any school who make significant contributions and are impressive students and people even though, and maybe because, they don’t just have top grades. In fact, many successful people were “C” students, including some who went on to occupy the White House or start groundbreaking companies.

Another problem is the Harvard lawsuit singling out students on affirmative action, as opposed to targeting legacy admissions, athletes, donors’ kids, and students of faculty, who actually make up 40% of Harvards’ class. Those students’ scores aren’t necessarily as high as the plaintiffs either, but the lawsuit doesn’t claim discrimination there. Additionally, standardized tests are easily gameable and often representative of wealth. In the real world, employers can hire whoever they want, and a lawsuit claiming Goldman Sachs, or any other company, can’t hire a person because another applicant has higher SATs would be patently absurd. The same freedom to “hire,” or admit in this case, should be the right and freedom of schools. It’s not that the claimants didn’t get into college. They just didn’t get the one they wanted.

Ultimately, the lawsuit’s argument is negated by the nature of the complaint. It claims Asian students with higher GPA and test scores were not admitted but other students with lower scores were. And that’s fine. Colleges assess applicants holistically. They don’t, and shouldn’t be forced to, accept students based on a simple “cut list” of the top test scores and GPA. As an educator with a college student and a high school senior, I constantly hear from colleges that admission is not just scores – it’s a body of evidence, as it should be. A student with a 3.8 and 1350 SAT is not automatically a lesser applicant who brings less to the student body than one with a 4.3 and a 1580. Colleges want a diverse group of talents, strengths, backgrounds, and personalities, and they should have the freedom to build a student body based on that distinction. Test scores are one data point – there are myriad others.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Can Civics Class Make us More Civil?

In light of the recent election and the overwhelming barrage of negative media and ads on political issues, I wondered about the connection between education in civics and social studies and the ability of people to respectfully disagree on political issues. My thoughts in a recent column for The Villager:

Several years ago, the Colorado Legislature voted down a law which would have made the United States citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation. This rejection was necessary and appropriate because the reasoning behind the requirement was simply wrong. A high school diploma encompasses a body of evidence in competency for multiple disciplines and skills developed across thousands of hours: graduation is literally not about one test in one subset of one subject area. No school or society should invalidate a student’s entire body of work across multiple curricular areas and thousands of hours by disproportionately weighting a single standardized test of randomly chosen facts. However, beyond that obvious reason, Colorado rejected the law because the belief that answering simple multiple choice questions is a necessary and indispensable component of being a productive citizen is flawed.

Granted, citizens can easily understand why the law about the citizenship test was proposed. Obviously society should expect that all adults know the basic rules of representative government. And at times it seems like too many people are clueless about the nature of our representative democracy. However, in many ways the standardized test for citizenship is not much more than a trivia game, and factual knowledge does not correlate with civil behavior and citizenship. If that were true, the events of January 6, 2021 would never have happened. Civics is rooted in the idea of being “civil” and being citizens who understand and engage in the participatory role of a democratic republic. Of course, understanding how the government works and what the role of a citizen is are integral parts of civics knowledge. If we understand that, then we clearly know fact-based objective tests have no indication of true civics knowledge and good citizenship.

The citizenship test, like many content-based standardized tests, is nothing but a trivia contest, a bunch of Jeopardy questions masquerading as knowledge and wisdom. And that’s not what civics is really about. When looking at how students learn and understand civics, the data usually focuses on the small number of people who can “identify the three branches of government.” But the more important question is whether they truly know how the government works for them. Do they understand how representation works? Do they know how the state taxes their income and returns that money to them in benefits, infrastructure, defense, and yes even rebates? Do they really know what they mean when they claim to support smaller government or increased regulations? Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk explored the problems that arise when people don’t truly understand, and thus cannot appreciate, how their government systems and public institutions function.

Jason Kosanovich, a social studies teacher in the southeast Denver suburbs, believes teens are actually yearning to understand civics and participate in their government, but often they don’t know how. Helping them understand the local relevance is, or at least should be, at the heart of civics education. It’s far too easy for young people to be turned off by the logistics when government class is simply about basic definitions of structure and system and functions. “When we make it relevant and local,” he told me “they actually really care.”

Teens, in the experience of many educators like Mr. Kosanovich, are actually quite passionate about issues that directly affect them and which they experience everyday. They care about potholes in their neighborhood and the constitutionality of red light cameras. And while those issues aren’t exactly trivial, young people are also dialed in to serious political issues about the privacy of healthcare, public safety balanced against individual rights, and issues of labor and industrial policies. When given the opportunity to engage with real world issues, they will research what their HOA says about the property rights of homeowners to display a flag or a banner. When it comes to local government especially, they truly care about what it does. Civics class should capitalize on the natural curiosity of kids and their tendency to be passionate about their rights.

Civics should be about understanding the role of a citizen in our communities. Programs like “We the People” are a great way for kids to engage, though few schools actually implement it. Knowledge of civics imparts an understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of the individual’s participatory role in that government, including the responsibility to maintain it. As one civics teacher noted when asked whether civics class can make people more civil, “I certainly hope so.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Oil, Gas, & Energy Independence

When gas prices first started going through the ceiling earlier this year, I was asked about writing a column to explain why. Energy, commodities, and economics are not really my area of expertise, but I did ponder the issue for a while. My thoughts are in a recent column for The Villager.

The United States is the largest oil producer in the world. That might be hard to believe when you’re at a gas station, filling up and watching helplessly as those numbers scroll by. In fact, according to the US Energy Information Administration, America produces nearly double the oil output of its next closest competitor, Saudi Arabia. Thus, when news broke that OPEC, the multinational cartel of oil producing states, announced a cut in daily production of two million barrels, many Americans wondered how that would affect prices at the pump.

Because it’s election season, the price of gas leads to soundbites from candidates who use the oil industry as a campaign issue. Whenever politicians and pundits talk about oil and gas, someone inevitably uses the term “energy independence,” suggesting the United States could free itself from imported oil. However, because oil is a global commodity traded by international corporations, the belief that America could keep all domestic oil and be independent of foreign imports might be a myth rather than an accurate description of oil economics. As one graduate student at Princeton studying global finance and statistics told me, “commodity markets are complex beasts.”

However, regardless of whether energy independence is viable, he does believe “it’s important to have a diversified stream of generally friendly energy suppliers, the friendliest of course, being America herself.” The problem is that while America produces the most oil, it also consumes the most, and it will never produce enough domestic energy to meet its daily needs. Even if it could, oil would not stay within domestic borders because it goes wherever markets demand it. Guaranteeing the oil stays domestic would mean nationalizing the industry, and no one wants that. Even in countries where the industry is owned by the government, there are still exports and shortages. In fact, the Iranian government claims it pursues atomic energy because it exports much of its oil.

Shannon Osaka of the Washington Post reports, “even if U.S. production exactly matched U.S. demand, the country would still be importing and exporting oil constantly. Crude oil can be heavy or light, sweet or sour, and those qualities affect how much it needs to be refined and for what uses. U.S. oil companies constantly export crude oil and import refined oil, and vice versa.” Obviously, oil is an international commodity bought and sold across national boundaries. Thus, it’s somewhat of a myth to believe the United States would or could ever drill and refine all the oil it needs, effectively eliminating a need for imports and achieving what the public is told is “energy independence.” Osak also notes that while President “Biden has urged oil producers in the United States to drill more to help lower prices, the president simply doesn’t have authority to order companies to produce more. And oil companies, recently burned from price crashes in the beginning of 2020, are hesitant to repeat the same mistakes.”

Dan Haley of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association often uses the term “energy security,” as opposed to independence. It seems more accurate to develop policies around being “energy secure.” Haley explains that “For many people, energy independence means domestic energy production – the need for the United States to produce more of its own resources so we can rely less on foreign countries.” And the issue is not simply producing oil, but turning that raw material into usable consumer products. Haley points out that “our refineries were built at a time when we were importing more foreign crude, and they are designed to process that type of oil. I don’t believe we have built a new refinery in this country since the 1970s. So we will always rely on a certain amount of foreign oil, but the idea is to rely on trading partners and allies, not those who are hostile to our country.”

In terms of the global market and America’s role, the supply/demand of oil is truly a “complex beast.” America has been exporting oil for many years, even when supply seems short and prices at the pump skyrocket. That can be troubling for consumers to understand. Regardless, in talking about the health of the domestic industry, Haley explained that “In 2018, the U.S. became a net exporter of energy, and I think that’s good for the world.” I think we can all agree with Dan on that one.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Is Our Democracy Truly Representative?

As we head into election week, and people prepare to anxiously watch the returns, stoked by claims that the "democracy is on the ballot," I am wondering if the people who are elected tomorrow will truly represent their constituents, or just those who voted for them. My thoughts in a recent column:

As midterm elections approach, I’m just spit balling ideas here, and I think voters should honestly reflect on President George Washington’s advice upon leaving the Presidency – political parties need to take a back seat to representative democracy. Basically, it would be a great thing for the country if elected legislators and officials started representing their district and constituents, rather than representing special interests and their political parties. And representing district constituents should include all residents, not just 51 percent of them.

In his book The Conservative Sensibility, columnist George Will discusses the problems of majority rule, and explains how the Constitution and systems of the United States are intended to protect minority views from a tyranny of the majority. In a time when elections, votes, and polls are often divided by a couple percentage points or less, it seems all the more important for leaders to commit to more authentic representation of all their citizens.


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Thoreau: the Walden Pond Punk

Going back more than twenty years ago, a conversation with a colleague about punk led me to connect the life and work of Henry David Thoreau with the rebellious music and subculture which arose in New York and London in the 1970s and 80s. For many years, whenever I started a unit on transcendentalism in my English classes, I would play Bad Religion's "You Are (the Govt)" as I introduced Thoreau as the original American punk rocker. Recently I developed some writing on that idea, which included a conference paper at the recent Midwest Popular Culture Association conference in Chicago, and this shorter magazine piece for Pop Matters.  

Henry David Thoreau has played many roles as an American writer and philosopher – environmentalist, abolitionist, progressive, libertarian, and punk rock poet. While the punk label is less well known, if acknowledged at all, it’s every bit as valid and worthy of discussion. The punk of Thoreau, the transcendental punk whose lineage runs throughout American history, is not the stereotyped punk of spiked hair, tattered clothes, anarchy symbols spayed across leather jackets, mosh pits, slam dancing, and loud, fast, riveting guitar rock. It’s the punk of individual liberty, authenticity in the sense of self, and the rejection of conformity amidst a mindless society.

Those ideas from “The Punk Manifesto” by Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin remind me of Thoreau’s essays on individuality and self-reliance. Similarly, Thoreau’s philosophy resonates with countless punk rock songs and tenets of punk subculture. Thus, for as long as I’ve been teaching transcendentalism in my English classes, I have always introduced Henry David Thoreau’s ideas through Punk’s philosophy. 

Years ago, while teaching high school in southern Illinois, I spoke with a colleague and former punk musician in the ’80s St. Louis scene about Punk, punk rock, and various punks at our school. Some kids he mentored were always in trouble, drinking, fighting, and cutting class. He tried to help by explaining what Punk meant to him. “I tell them,” he said, “It’s never been about the music or the clothing or the clubs or the fighting or anything like that.” It’s always been about the attitude – the sense of self amidst a society that seeks to conform and crush it. 

Read the rest here on Pop Matters.