Archive for the ‘education’ category

Time To Wake Up

January 10, 2017

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is about to lead the country’s largest teachers union into battle. Weingarten has called the Union to attention in anticipation the Trump Administration will declare war on public schools under the umbrella of “more choice”. Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos, is expected to push for more Charter Schools and more “vouchers” for parents to sent their children to the school of their choice. Does this sound American or what?

Before Weingarten begins to rant and rave about teachers contracts she would do well to re-educate Americans on the great success story Public Education has been. The public school system and education it brought to Americans from all walks of life has been envied around the world. American public schools are often credited with building a more productive work force (white and blue color) when compared to other systems around the world which attempt to maximize the education of the most gifted while losing sight of the average and less able students.

In the recent past American public school test scores have slipped when compared to other leading countries. In most major cities, public schools have become source of concern for students safety as well as education. In Philadelphia, however, Central High School still sends more graduates to Ivy League schools than any other high school in the country.

Across the country. many school districts face severe funding shortfalls as flight to the suburbs has decreased the tax base. Negotiation with Unions more often than not has been confrontational rather than collaborative. Tax payers object to paying higher taxes, cities object to meeting teachers’ unions wage and benefit demands, and teachers unions object to being targeted for failing schools when the resources (in their opinion) are denied.

Many believe Charter schools have served a useful wedge in this regard. Charters have promised a superior education compared to public schools and do not cost tax payers more. Since there are no free lunches and Charters are private, for profit, businesses, Charters must spend less for teachers pay and benefits. Charter supporters then point to the generous public school teachers remuneration and imply public school teachers are over paid. Hmmm.

Suddenly an important conversation is off the tracks. Attention is directed away from whether Charters are delivering superior educational results or simply allowing parents to choose a more desirable environment than public schools.

With the Republican majorities, and a demonstrated fondness for turning a phrase, “more choice” will easily mask the real results Charters bring. To date Charters have not clearly demonstrated a model which is superior to public schools. Simply skimming the best students and leaving the rest in public schools is not a prescription for raising education levels in the US.

To be sure there are Charters which have performed extremely well turning around previously failing schools. Most Charters, however, have not performed as well and on top of that, have selected a subgroup of students (read no difficult to educate or mentally challenged).

Randi Weingarten will do all Americans and her Union members a great service if she puts the emphasis on quality of education given equivalent circumstances (social, economic, challenged students) at the cost per student. And Ms Weingarten might as well call out the trojan horse Charter School advocates are readying.  “More choice” is also code for “vouchers” which would allow parents to send their children to private schools instead of public charters.  Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have been lobbying for this for years.

Public schools educate all students regardless of background or capability.  In addition to the 1st Amendment, Ms Weingarten might remind Americans that private schools could include Islamic “Madrassas” or ideological schools which teach communism for example.

As vouchers send more students to private schools. public schools will be left with what’s not wanted. Sound like a self fulfilling prophecy?

Lastly, Ms Weingarten would do well if she decided which was more important, teachers’ salary and benefits or work rules.  Labor laws support unions negotiating for both but that has gotten matters to the current statement which encouraged Charters in the first place.  If teacher unions continue to remain adamant, they may wake up one day with very few public schools.

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When Both Sides Are Missing The Point

January 12, 2016

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Friedrich v California Teachers Association. The case has been billed as a 1st Amendment test but it looks a lot more like a political act designed to break unions in general beginning with the California Teachers Federation. This suit’s focus, however, is whether all teachers must pay dues when some teachers may not support the union’s political spending.

Given the Justices questions and comments, pundits have concluded the Court will change precedent and prohibit the California Teachers Association from demanding “dues” from its members. Were the Court’s political make up 5 Democrats – 4 Republicans, there would be little question on how the Court would hold. Under Chief Justice Roberts, the Court has not been concerned with observing “stare decisis” (past decisions). I guess being an “activist” court is just how one looks at it.

The GOP has been trying in many States to weaken, if not break unions, particularly public sector ones. Democrats almost always the beneficiary of union donations, not surprisingly try to maintain legal protections for unions. Are both sides missing the point?

There is little ambiguity that Unions, particularly Teacher unions, argue for equal treatment for all members regardless of merit. This adamant position runs in the face of the need for school innovations given conditions in many of our schools. Unions points to the contract and says “no way, end of discussion”.

School Administrators are not without criticism too. Administrators have tried to use test scores, for example, as a teacher rating method. This demand has come without the Administrators laying out how or why a student’s score measure a teacher’s performance.

There is no easy answer to this stand off. Unions have historically gotten the power they now possess because management had been unwilling to pay adequately or provide safe work places. Unions, so to speak, have balanced the tables.

Breaking the unions is a potentially dangerous event. “Spanking” the union, figuratively, might be acceptable but outright defanging the union will leave all teachers (and subsequently all workers) relatively defenseless against the whims of cash strapped municipalities and capricious school boards. Instead of improving education, this could be a faster route to the bottom.

The Supreme Court, as in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, would have done itself more honor by avoiding hearing the case at all. It appears, however, that enough Justices are more concerned with their Constitutional interpretation (instead of accepting past decisions) and seem in no way to care about unwanted consequences.

Feeling Uncomfortable

December 31, 2015

Recently Friends Central, a Suburban Philadelphia private Quaker High School removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its teaching curriculum. The school said the book, with its wide use of the N-word, made some of its students uncomfortable. The school went on to say it thought removal was not censorship but rather a testament to listening “to our students”. Hmmm.

Any school’s teaching curriculum can only be so big. All the possible important pieces of literature cannot be included, simply due to teaching time. So one must assume that Friends Central had included the classic Huck Finn for an academic reason. To remove it because some students felt uncomfortable must raise eyebrows. Aren’t students in school to learn from those who presumably have the benefit of greater knowledge and experience?

Huck Finn is considered important because it describes a segregated America which current white generation have not experienced. While the text may make some African American students uncomfortable, do these students (and their adult supporters) recognize that Huck Finn does not endorse segregation. Rather Mark Twain uses the book in an attempt to open the minds of white Americans to a period of insensitivity and hypocrisy. Hmmm.

This past year has also seen a number of college protests (Missouri, Ithaca College, Virginia Commonwealth, Yale for examples) where African American students have alleged school policies were not inclusive enough and racial insensitivity made them feel uncomfortable. Some of these “uncomfortable” situations lead to the resignation of senior Administrators. These incidents, however, differ markedly from removing a classic text from the curriculum. The college incidents involved the overall learning environment while the Friends Central involved learning materials.

Feeling uncomfortable in the learning process is a natural by-product of education. Feeling uncomfortable in a social setting is not a necessary condition. Improving the University level social setting could spell a more productive learning environment. At the end of the day, however, the burden to learn still falls back to the student.

Feeling uncomfortable with the teaching curriculum begs the question of whether the material was academically worthy in the first place. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a well established reputation.

If Friends Central felt there was a book more important than Huck Finn and used the new book to replaced Finn in the curriculum, the decision could be tested on the basis of academic merit. Removing a book for “comfort” reasons begs the question of whether Friends Central has “dumbed down” its curriculum in an effort to achieve comfort.

Is that what learning is about?

Woodrow Wilson and Black Lives Matter

November 25, 2015

There have been a number of college campus protests recently initiated allegedly over claims these institutions engaged in racial discrimination. The unrest at University of Missouri resulted the President’s and Chancellor’s resignation as demanded by the protesting students.

Now Princeton is looking at a set of “demands” which include eliminating all public references to former President Woodrow Wilson (as in 28th US President and Princeton’s “Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs”). Hmmm.

Black Lives Matter seems to have arisen following a series of police shootings where African Americans were killed during run ins with police. In many of the incidents, two characteristics seemed present. First, excessive lethal force was apparently employed and second, incident investigation exonerated the accused.

Even though data shows that police have killed almost twice as many white persons as African Americans, when the data is corrected for population, the disproportioned African American police shootings jumps out.

These two issues are tempting to conflate. Racism and Police prejudice may seem potentially interrelated.

Being human, the tendency is to assign behavior of some to the group as a whole.   The charge of prejudice is unavoidable. For the police, dealing regularly with dangerous people, they could easily see most everyone (like those in the poor areas) as a criminal and justify lethal force.

Racism and racist policies are not always that easy to detect. Universities have been under pressure to open enrollment to a more “diverse” group and clearly now feel betrayed when minority students bite back.

Looking back most higher learning institutions some group had to be the minority. Each of these groups would have struggled with slights and often outright prejudices. Over time the schools evolved to be more inclusive and probably the minority group grew thicker skin. One might see the current African American discrimination claims as simply they are going through the same process. Hmmm.

Woodrow Wilson and Princeton represent something a little different. African Americans have a legitimate grievance if Wilson is presented as a great man without flaws. Having his name on a prestigious University School could certainly convey this. But to suggest all will be ok if Wilson name was struck from the school’s official name borders on naive if not short sighted.

Renaming institutions cannot change what the historical record already says. It is far more to everyone’s benefit that Wilson be remembered as a Statesman and College President who endorsed many good beliefs and who unfortunately also held other discredited beliefs.

Championing the “League of Nations” does not make his segregation views any more acceptable, nor does his views on race subtract from his contributions in other areas.

The excessive use of force in police matters can arise from a great many causes, not just racism. Emotional aptitude, training, and supervision can all contribute to a mind set that is ready to employ excess force.

Black lives must matter and so should all lives matter. If we allow police excesses (that African Americans are calling out) to continue, all other groups may live to experience these same excesses should police be ever called into confront some other type of protest or demonstration.

African American leaders will do well by their peers to emphasize education and acquiring the emotional and executive skills to compete and succeed in life after school. While some protesting and push back on perceived organizational slights is part of human nature, the victim would be wise to match, no double, their protest efforts with even greater academic work.

Excessive police force is a danger to all Americans. Since we can not do without police support of law and order, we all need to support proper police selection, training and supervision.

Running Without The Lights On

November 2, 2015

Congress’ single digit approval rating did not just happen. It has been earned. The reasons for this dishonor, however, are not always clear or as simple as a few bad Senators or Representatives. The malaise of Congress reflects underlying changes in America itself.

Congress has always been about conflict followed by compromise and “horse trading”. These are the keys to avoiding outright fighting and ultimately dissolution of the Union. And special interests are not a new phenomena and probably are as old as time itself. In fact the American political process, including the Constitution, is built upon respecting minority views against the tyranny of the majority. So what’s so wrong with today’s Congress?

IMO, one cannot determine what is wrong if one only looks at Congress. The Congressional malaise runs far wider and deeper in the overall American fabric than one might quickly imagine. Here’s an opinion.

Around the 1960’s or 70’s, following the building of “oh so many” Levittowns, the American growth engine began to slow down. There were simply too few new frontiers which needed to be settled, bridges to build, and other infrastructure to established. And there were many other countries who wanted to settle their frontiers by themselves. This made it more and more difficult for American industry, broadly speaking, to “export US know-how, goods, and services for profit. With less total profit flowing into America, the growth of US per capita wealth slowed.

A shining plus for the US is its free and open society built upon a wild west mentality. Under this psyche, shared growth and shared wealth was scoffed at in favor of the “best and brightest” garnering as much as they could manage. Never the less, wages and productivity gains were shared far more fairly than today.

The American social change process has taken place slowly and much of it out of the public eye. For example, the average family income has stagnated while productivity gains have flowed mainly to the wealthy and higher levels of management.
Institutions of higher learning have forgotten (despite their claims otherwise) their main task of “educating the whole person” in favor of attracting students (read tuition income). Slowly America produced more and more bright engineers and scientist who could invent and build but thought little about any social fallout. Business graduates learned to run businesses well but when confronted with profit at any cost, chose the options which benefited themselves the most. Lawyers and too many doctors put themselves in the light of personal profit rather than justice or medical “do no harm”. And just as sad graduates from community colleges and general university degrees entered the outside world with few skills and little or no appreciation of what has occurred before.

Elected officials (who were also products of these same educational institutions) began to envy their private sector counter parts who were earning eye popping remunerations and wondered, “why not me”?

Lobbyist filled the need when legislators began to expect larger contributions “for their campaigns”. The private sector saw an opportunity to make even more wealth by spending more through lobbyists and direct campaign contributions. Life was good.

The media also evolved. While there was plenty of demand for entertainment and sports, media companies suddenly discovered they could market and make money from news shows. Major media enterprises quickly began to appreciate the money politicians and political parties were willing to spend on advertisements aired or printed by these media companies. Hmmm.

The country has slowly moved to a rudderless (morally and ethically) educated class leading the private and public sectors. Chief Executives have become comfortable earning 300 or more times as much as their average employee increasing this ratio by a factor of 10 from the past. Is this so wrong?

If one is honest and realistic, one realizes the problems we see today have existed before and today simply differ by matters of degree. Wealth accumulations has always driven American leaders and American leaders have always tried to set up rules (laws and regulations) so that their interests were favored. Legislators write the laws and the special interests have always tried to gain their favor. But there is a difference.

Higher education, business leaders, mid-level executives, professionals, Wall Street types, and the holders of old money all are operating with a defective internal compass. Too many see the world as a zero sum game and see their mission as to accumulate personally as much as possible. Rather than look at the long term or what historic events teach about today’s decisions, this broad cross section instead chooses to take first and ask about consequences later.

Congress’ pendulum has certainly drifted to far from center, this is true. So have so many other American institutions. For Americans it is difficult to look at other mature, slower growing countries and examine what they have done to ensure life is better for everyone. Democratic socialism is the term used to describe most of Europe, Canada, and Japan. In these countries, the national wealth is shared in a way that the bottom groups can live with dignity.

Democratic socialism is not a cure for what ails America today. Rather, when our citizens say no to “me first” American society and bring the balance of wealth distribution back to models like the 50’s and 60’s, the utility of Democratic Socialism to lock in these gain will become clear. And then, America will choose Universal Health Care, National Retirement Plans, and Universal public education through college.

The only question in my mind is how much worse things have to become (like a dysfunctional government, wide scale bankruptcy over college loans, unaffordable medical care, a broken infrastructure, and an even starker separation of the haves and have nots before change begins.

Hillary’s Free College Flyer

August 11, 2015

Democrat Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed that college education should be free, or at least no one should incur debt when pursuing the first four years. Hmmm.

When one examines the current state of higher education, there are some glaring short comings which smack you right away, For example,

  • Many Americans are racking up $100,000+ personal debt to attain undergraduate and graduate degrees.
  • On top of that, many of these debt loaded graduates are unable to land jobs and if successful, too often these jobs do not pay enough to live and make debt payments.
  • And worst of all, many students run up huge amounts of debt only to drop out of school without a degree.

Not a pretty picture.

The Progressive answer seems to hinge upon the Government somehow shielding students from the debt burden. Advertised as “free” education, we are once again pursuing the preverbal free lunch. Nothing is going to happen with this proposal.

Free college education is certainly a government service which voters could decide was a good thing. Free public schools and universal health care (single payer) are two other government services voters have or could decide were essential. Reality, however, will demand that “government” deal with four associated issues,

  • nothing is free
  • tax revenues must be raised to cover the actual costs.
  • there needs to be a control method to keep the costs of these services from skyrocketing. (Any business will seek to expand its offering and the selling price that goes with the offering. When the government is the “payor”, there is often little reason not to raise the price as much as possible.)
  • It should not be overlooked that any such “free education” system also needs some method to ensure the product delivered is “as advertised”.

Hillary’s “campaign appealing” suggestion has the potential to (1) tax a minority of Americans to help educate many Americans, (2) unintentionally increase the cost of education for all Americans, and (3) still deliver a substandard product or one simply unsuited for gaining “good” paying jobs in real life. Is that a trifecta?

Hillary’s “free college education” pledge may have long term benefits but not without provisions that control the prices college charge and ensure the education product is both appropriate and of consistent quality necessary to obtain a “good” job.

Pragmatically, it seems funding must ultimately involve a broadly based tax base where each person using government funded education pays too (taxes or maybe community service) so they know they are covering the “free education” for the next person.

Sadly, a GOP proposal for “free college” education would be suspected as disingenuous (probably a proposal never meant for implementation or if sincere, meant only for certain groups).  On the other hand, a Democrat proposal would be (should be) suspected of being naively formulated (good in intent, poorly thought through for unintended consequences).  Hmmm.

That’s politics, I guess.

What Does South Carolina Teach Us?

June 19, 2015

I have resisted writing about the senseless murder of 9 AME church members in South Carolina. The killings were clearly the results of a warped, delusional mind who thought he had a motive, knew he had the means, and found, for his purposes, a perfect opportunity.

Why, most sensible people are asking themselves? And trust me on this, God’s will is not the answer.

There is a vanishingly small chance investigators will find a silver bullet cause. Rather, prosecutors and pundits will toss back and forth reasons that may have contributed but from these assertions, there will be unlikely a single cause found.

It seems ironic that on the same day, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas could deny references to the Confederacy from State license plates without violating the first Amendment rights of those wishing to have such plates. The symbolism of this slave bound era seems eerie.  Hmmm. I wonder whether people still advocating for the glory of the Confederacy may have in a little way contributed?

Also occurring recently was the announcement that the storied fire arms make “Colt” was putting itself into bankruptcy. The gun that won the West might soon be relegated to history books. The gun which the South Carolina killer used was a 45 caliber hand gun. What might have happened had the maker of this weapon already have gone out of business before it issued this fire arm?

And the place most pundits are running towards is linking the killings to race. Hmmm. Well, maybe but that seems a cop-out answer to me. Sure the killer utters nonsensical words about race but frankly, African Americans look different from caucasians and to ignore the recognition that these AME worshipers were different from the killer is to ignore the obvious. Of course these victims were African American and racially they were different from the shooter.  But why these African Americans, why not some at a mall or movie theater?

IMO, American has a far bigger problem than racial hatred. It has a problem of gross ignorance and the inability to separate fact from fiction.  This weakness is abetted by the political and media industries who amasses huge profits from fostering divisive public opinions.

While there are senseless killings around the world, Americans appear to have more.  Americans appear ignorant of why so many countries limit gun ownership and demand guns stay out of public places. This same ignorance keeps Americans thinking the current US healthcare system is state of the art if not the best in the world. Americans also think our education system is still number one and the “American dream” still is open to everyone.

An inquisitive mind would check the data and know that while America is a great place to live, it imprisoned more people than another other country, it has more gun related murders than any other country, its healthcare system cost twice as much as more that two dozen other modern country, does not cover all citizens, and provides poorer health outcomes. Americans would also realize our education system ranked someplace between 15 and 20 against other comparable countries and upward mobility was better in Europe than in America. Hmmm.

I don’t know if there was anything that could have been done to have avoided these senseless killings. There have always been crazy people in the world. I strongly believe, however, that the institutional denial of fact and the political spin applied to all sorts of issue in order the divert attention from root causes (and facilitate personal profit), is developing a generation of people who cannot discern reality from dreams.

Dylann Roof, the 21 year old shooter, may point to some specific hate filled reason for justifying his shootings at the Charleston AME church. This irrational act, however, can not be explained by some clear just motivation. Rather, Roof like many other Americans thinks there are no responsibilities attached to guns and that these weapons can speak in ways stronger than words. Roof most probably does not know also about healthcare, education, or the rest of the world.

He does think he knows that the American dream, however, is not within reasonable reach for himself.  He just doesn’t know why.