Category Archives: Education

Today’s Breakfast: Healthcare Rehash

So the House decided to repeal the healthcare law. Great use of the people’s time and money, but it happened so let’s talk about it for a minute. My humorous side is real unhappy about this. Mostly because they called it “The Repealing the Job-Killing Healthcare Law Act.” That’s just a ridiculous name. First of all, it’s a little early to call it “Job-Killing.” Second, the Law Act part seems redundant. Third, what do Republican’s hope to possibly gain from this stunt.

As soon as John Boehner said this was going to happen, Democrats got real excited.  The get a second chance to record all the sound bites about wildly popular parts of the bill. Democrats came down with healthcare Tourette’s. Everybody was talking about “no more preexisting conditions, no more dropped coverage.” They even brought out people who are excited because they can keep their kids covered to age 26.

All Republicans did was say it was a government takeover. Obamacare is socialism. Americans like a lot of this bill though. The only thing people really seem to have a problem with in the bill is the mandate to buy insurance. Republicans are challenging that across the U.S. The real problem is that they aren’t opposed to individual mandates. They came up with them. It had broad support from Republicans in the 1993 healthcare law that President Clinton failed to pass, and in the Wyden-Bennet bill in 2008. As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post argues, the problem is purely partisan.

I think that’s where Republicans lose. Sure, they will fire up the base. Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachman will go on a rampage. Sean Hannity’s head might just explode. The real issue is that House Republicans are saying we have to repeal everything. So they want insurance companies to drop people’s coverage when they get sick. They want insurance companies to discriminate against those who already have medical conditions. If Republicans were saying they wanted to repeal the mandate, it would still be hypocritical, but it wouldn’t be such blatant politics. They want the grand showmanship of total repeal, because they don’t care about healthcare. They care about winning, and they think this is the easiest way to do that. They are banking on the idea that Americans won’t do their homework. Rank and file Republicans and Democrats won’t. They will vote with their party because they always do. Those of us who choose to be independent of the parties must do ours. It’s important that people realize that these issues are much more complex than either side wants you to think about.

The individual mandate may seem wrong, but insurance is a tricky business. If they are going to cover everyone who walks through the door, someone has to pay. It takes the monthly premiums of a whole bunch of people to pay the monthly cost of cancer treatment for one person.  If we want insurance coverage when we need it. We have to be willing to pay for it when we don’t.  In other countries it is considered a civic duty to be insured. If Americans felt that way we would all be better off.

As Americans we tend to cling to our freedoms in the most peculiar way.  Opponents of the mandate have said it suppresses their freedom. They should be able to choose to be uninsured.  For virtually everyone that’s just crazy. No one who has any common sense would choose to be uninsured unless they were filthy rich. I must admit that I was uninsured for a long period of time once in my life. I was in my early twenties, and I will readily admit that I had no common sense. As a nation we have to act with some common sense. If we believe that people should be able to afford health insurance then it will take the work of the government and the insurance industry. The American people must also be willing to pitch in.

The biggest hurdle is thwarting the business lobby. The law requires companies to provide insurance or face penalties. Business doesn’t like that.  You would have to be crazy to think that this week’s repeal measure doesn’t have something to do with Republicans shoring up support among Big business. There is a ton of cash in business and they want it when the next election rolls around. With all the money corporations put into our campaigns, it’s fairly amazing that any elected official was willing to vote for the healthcare bill. This is why the right has taken to opposing Obama so passionately.  I’m not even sure how many people who yell about fiscal responsibility realize that Obama’s first budget brought the budget deficit down for the first time in nearly a decade. The healthcare bill is projected to reduce the deficit by another one hundred billion and change over the next ten years. The right-wing business community doesn’t want people to realize. So they have funded Tea Party rallies across the nation pointing the finger at Obama, and stirring the fear. People say the Tea Party is about fiscal responsibility, and the rank and file may be. The people running the show don’t give a damn about fiscal responsibility. They are playing on the fear of white America. They are people from Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Americans for Prosperity. Both groups with ultra right-wing agendas formed by billionaires to protect their own money. If a business friendly president gets elected the Tea Party will disappear, because those who organize them will have gotten their way. That’s why the Tea Party didn’t exist for the 8 years of record-setting deficits under Pres. Bush. That’s why they fought the stimulus but not TARP. The people may feel that they are pushing for fiscal responsibility but the ones with power are using them for their own agenda. We should be scared. They know how to win elections. Pick an issue, this time healthcare, make people afraid of it, and tell them whose to blame for it. That way the healthcare law will be repealed and they aren’t on the hook to give health insurance to their employees.

I know there are people out there who genuinely have paid attention to the issues and oppose healthcare reform. I know there are those at Tea Party rallies who are seriously concerned with the national debt. Those could be valid viewpoints, but it is a stretch to believe that the repeal this week was a genuine attempt to do what’s right. Total repeal doesn’t make sense. There are good parts to the bill. We need to keep those and tweak other things to make them better. As an example, every President takes up education reform. Since Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the 60’s it has been regularly modified and reauthorized. In 2001 it was passed as No Child Left Behind.  A lot of people didn’t like a large part of NCLB, but no one is talking about repealing it. It wasn’t all bad and a total repeal would be of great detriment to our nations schools. We will once again try to fix the problems and enhance the strengths of the bill with the ultimate goal of providing the best possible education to our children.  We need to approach healthcare reform in the same manner. We need genuine discussion and modification to make healthcare in this country better.

We need less political grandstanding


The Beauty of Being First Lady

So I’ve decided to never be President. I can hear a few of you laughing already. Yes, I know it was unlikely that I was ever going to be President anyway. Now the fact is: I don’t want to be President. Barack Obama and the 43 men who preceded him, not to mention the men who ran and didn’t win, are crazy. People truly believe the President is some insanely powerful man who can do nearly anything. The simple truth is that he can’t.  He can’t go to war just because he wants to. Many people think that Pres. Bush did that. He didn’t. The Congress was behind him all the way. In fact, at the onset of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars , the majority of Americans said they backed him.

Abortion is a big one that I’ve talked about before. People will vote for a particular candidate because of his views on abortion.  The President has somewhat more control here.  He does nominate Supreme Court Justices. The nomination process is so rigorous and partisan today that it would be hard to confirm someone with a strong for or against position on abortion. If you couple that with the fact that the Court rarely overturns precedent, it turns out that not one President but many would likely account for any change in the law.  Once the Supreme Court rules, the President’s power wanes drastically.

My favorite misconception is that the President can do something about the economy.  Presidents like to act like this is true and the public is ready to believe it.  It’s complete nonsense though. First, we must understand that the economy is not scientific. To an extent,  there is math and theory behind it, but that can all be misleading.  Adam Smith talked about an “Invisible Hand” that guided the capitalist economy. Attached to that hand is a fickle, and nearly psychopathic, American public. You and I make up the economy. It is driven by consumption. We, and businesses, have to buy stuff to keep it going. Presidents try things like stimulus bills, and rebate checks, but if the American public doesn’t do what they are supposed to, it doesn’t work. The Fed can raise and lower interest rates to affect lending,l but banks then have to go along. It’s this uncertainty that allows economists to say one action will help, while others say it will hurt.

Caught in the middle of this is the President. The public pressures him to improve and affect things that he cannot.  And all of this ignores the fact that politics is always in the way. For every President who wishes to succeed there is a person who wants to be President that would be happy to make him fail.  That is why I don’t want to be President.  They go in with grand ideas and goals only to find a system bent on stopping them. One person doesn’t suffer from nearly as many of the political constraints, but still has a budget to do something good. That is the First Lady.

Since the beginning of the modern American Presidency (which I’m defining as FDR and after) First Ladies have been given the ability to advocate for causes they cared about.  To list a few from the past fifty years:

Betty Ford raised awareness for breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy shortly after becoming First Lady. As one of the most candid First Ladies she spoke openly about everything from sex to drugs.

Rosalynn Carter was a fierce advocate for mental health awareness. As well as being an active advisor to her husband she was an honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

Nancy Reagan spent her time as First Lady raising awareness about drug use. The famous “Just Say No” campaign was her primary initiative. In support of it Reagan drew upon her earlier career of acting and did guest spots on the t.v. shows “Dynasty”, and “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Both Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law  Laura Bush, pushed for awareness about literacy and education. Laura Bush partnered with the Library of Congress to start the National Book Festival.

Most recently, Michelle Obama has taken on the cause of childhood obesity. She said she hoped her initiative called “Let’s Move.” She is also the only First Lady to plant a White house vegetable garden since Eleanor Roosevelt.

What’s the point of all this. First Ladies get a huge budget and enormous resources to focus on issues that matter. They can avoid all the politicalcrap that gets thrown around.  One could say that First Ladies have a chance to make a difference that Presidents don’t. So I’ve decided to marry a woman who wants to be President, because God knows I don’t.

First Gentleman, sounds pretty good though.


Lowering the Voting Age, and Making America Better

Recently, I was asked what I thought about the prospect of lowering the voting age. My gut reaction, “Let kids vote? There are a lot of adults I don’t think should be allowed to vote.”  As I considered the question more I realized that there is a reason I don’t want a lot of adults to vote, and lowering the voting age, if combined with education, might help fix that problem.

Winston Churchill reportedly said, “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter.”  My biggest problem with the American public has been that I agree with Churchill.  I spent a large part of my adult life being angry with other adults because of their knowledge of issues in an election, or more often their apathy.  On average about 60% of eligible voters participate in a presidential election, only 40% in a midterm election. Those numbers are ridiculously low. We all have a large stake in what these elections mean. Yet, we do not participate. Voting is not a societal norm in this country. When you ask someone if they voted, their answer is largely inconsequential. It’s more small talk than important talk.  So, one would ask, “How would lowering  the voting age help?”  I’m not sure it would, but with participation by schools I think it could.

I’ve long thought Election Day should be a federal holiday.  What better message of support for democracy could we send than saying on Election Day everyone takes the day off to go be part of the process.  It could be extraordinary. Imagine a day when our officials our elected by 80% of eligible voters.  We could really begin to see what America believes. Now, imagine a day when that 80% is well-informed about the issues. It could be even better.

So how does this relate to lowering the voting age? I’m glad you asked. We need to teach people to participate.  Think about this. If math were taken out of the curriculum except for a semester in you senior year, you wouldn’t learn much about math.  That is exactly how much government and civics is taught to our youth.  I can’t speak for everywhere in the country but I took “social studies” for a long time. I took one semester of “government.”

Some things about the structure of government are covered in a social studies class, but not enough. We need to include government in all levels of education.  Some of these would be minor. I remember having a small mock election in 1st grade. It was 1988. Then Vice President Bush was running against Micheal Dukakis.  We didn’t know anything about the candidates, but I distinctly remember it as my first exposure to the election process.  The next one I remember was 1992, we had a mock election where we actually went into a voting booth and filled out a small paper ballot for President. Ross Perot won in a landslide. I don’t remember being taught to much about the process again until my senior year. That would have been Aug. 1999-May 2000. There was no election that year. In Nov. 2000, the first election I could have voted in, I didn’t.  Voting, as a civic duty, had not been instilled in me.  I guess I still haven’t answered how lowering the voting age helps, so let me. If we lower the voting age, we can teach teenagers to participate. We can teach them to look at candidates, and the issues, not the attack ads. We can teach them that America is about everyone voicing their opinion.

Imagine for a moment that every election every child took part. In younger grades it would be like the mock elections of my memory.  We would be showing kids that voting is important.  We would also be instilling the value that participation is important. In high school everything would take on more importance. What if every year that there was an election, every child had to take one hour of civics, or government, or election class; whatever you want to call it.  Every high school student would spend one hour of their day in a class where they discussed the process of elections; how to vote, where to vote, why to vote. Then, by the time Election day rolled around they went to a polling place and cast their vote, for real.  If the voting age was 14, then every student who came out of high school would have voted in at least one Presidential and one midterm election.  They could be taught to look at candidates and issues. When the voting was over, they would have time to discuss what that election meant to them.

If we made voting something that every high school graduate had already done before, we would make it something they will do again.  We will never get everyone to participate. Some see their lack of participation as a protest. Others are disillusioned with the process. However, we are not trying to make the electoral process important. We could. We should. And America will only be better for the more voices that are heard.

Education Reform Solutions

Recently, I wrote about the problems with a few of Pres. Obama’s ideas for education reform. I don’t like it when people just say what we’re doing is wrong. That’s the problem with political attack ads. They focus on something they don’t like and generally don’t provide alternatives. So I feel it is important for me to say what I think the government could do to help education in this country.  I can even boil it down to a catchphrase: “Think outside the classroom.”

Federal education law over the past 50 years has always focused on what schools and teachers need to do.  Recently, it’s been all about accountability.  The theory says if teachers are held accountable for their students success (or lack thereof) that they will teach better. Much of No Child Left Behind is based on this concept.  I’ve long had a problem with this theory.  On average I don’t believe that teachers are just getting by. If you work from this assumption, then you have to ask, “If teachers aren’t the problem, what is?”

The answer isn’t completely clear, but some things seem probable. Most failing schools are in the inner-city. A few things are generally true about the inner-city.  The people have lower incomes, they are predominately minorities, and will likely have more people for which English is not their native language.  The children in this environment attend these schools and on average they don’t perform as well as others.

Government looks at education with a very narrow lens. They see failing schools as an education problem, but it is actually a socioeconomic problem.  Poverty has long-lasting effects on everyone it touches.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty,  19% of kids live below the poverty level. More depressing than that is the fact that 41% live in low-income families, which are families whose income is not enough to provide essentials for their children.  These kids come to school hungry, and tired. They have little parental guidance because parents often work two or three jobs just to pay the rent if they’re lucky. If these kids are unlucky, their parents are drug addicts or worse.  Addressing the problem of children in poverty will go a long way to helping education.  Some will say that if they wanted these kids could work hard and break free from this condition. In theory that’s great, but the fact is theory is not reality. These kids grow up with the daily sight that school doesn’t get them where they want to be. The rich people in these neighborhoods didn’t go to college. They’re pimps and drug dealers.  If we want to improve inner-city education we need drastic reforms. Schools need money to provide free meals; starting at breakfast. We need more money for after school programs that help keep kids off the streets. If you like incentive based programs, we need more incentives for teachers to go to the inner city. We need to forgive student loans for teachers who spend enough time in certain districts.  It is important to make sure teachers are skilled, but it is equally important that we put children in a position to learn. That happens before regular schooling. We must expand pre-K programs like HeadStart.

Unfortunately, most of these ideas would fall on deaf ears. No, they would fall on the ears of those who don’t care to listen.  Republicans have long tried to eliminate at-risk preschool programs like HeadStart. They say that these programs don’t work. Often cited is the so-called “washout effect.”  At risk preschoolers who attend HeadStart and those who don’t generally score the same on standardized tests by about the 2nd grade. This leads to the belief that HeadStart, and programs like it, are not successful. Recently, economists have published reports that show kids in at-risk programs have higher graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates, and higher average lifetime earnings. This comes out to an average of $320,000 in a lifetime. I believe that is success.

We also must look at teacher education in this country.  I have a number of friends who have gone into the education field. They all seem to have the same feeling about their college programs. They had a lot of knowledge about subjects but not about kids.  Teacher eduction programs need to put students in the classroom more. After college new teachers need to work under experienced teachers in serious mentor programs. Nothing in the world can account for what a person who has been teaching for 20 years knows.  Experience is key in education and we need to be tapping that in our teacher education programs.

Improving education in the U.S. isn’t going to be easy. It will require the political will to engage in programs we can’t measure for years.  It will require the President and Congress to be more creative than ever before. We must acknowledge the fact that education is tied to other issues in society. Only by addressing all of these can we be successful. We must “think outside the classroom.”

The Problem with Education Reform

In the coming year education reform is likely to be taken up by the President and the next Congress.    Some of the main reform ideas  floating around include more charter schools and the  concept of merit pay.

The simple problem with charter schools is that virtually no one in the education world really thinks they’ll make a difference. Research has shown that on the whole charter schools perform no better than public schools.  They are exempted from most regulations so while the idea is that they are accountable to parents, parents have to hold them accountable.  In traditional schools people have full time jobs ensuring accountability in schools.  I feel that few parents have the time for that.  Charter schools often have high turnover rates. It is much easier for a charter school to fire teachers who do not perform to a certain standard. This seems logical but the resulting turnover rates make it difficult for them to find people and can undermine student achievement. Also some schools (operated by for-profit corporations) refuse to take on students with special needs because it would not be profitable.

Charter schools have been very successful in some places. In failing districts, charter schools seem to improve student performance.  However, they are not subject to the same scrutiny of public schools. You don’t always know what your getting. The biggest problem with the idea that we just expand charter school funding and build more of these schools is that we’re not really sure how well they work and how to best implement them.

Merit pay sounds great. Essentially, the better your  students test scores are the more money you make.  Wonderful, let’s give teachers a bonus for doing a great job.  I can tell you from experience that merit pay works.  Well, it works sometimes, in some jobs.  Teaching isn’t one of them.

The problems are many. The basic assumption that merit pay requires is offensive to teachers. It implies that teachers aren’t already trying the best they can.  I’ve worked with teachers for many years, and I’ve probably known of a few who were just collecting a paycheck. The vast majority of them are not. The reason merit pay is an idea talked about in Congress is that they think teaching is just another middle-class job. They don’t have a concept of why people become teachers. They are teachers because that’s what they have to do. The clergy often talk about a “spiritual calling” a feeling that they must devote their lives to God. Teacher’s get that same calling. People become teachers because the intrinsic reward of success is unlike anything else.  I worked in an autism program for awhile.  There is no way merit pay would work there, because the daily grind and stress of that job is so great. You have to want these kids to succeed. You have try your hardest everyday. Otherwise, you would quit before your first day was over.

The other problem is kids.  Merit pay works in jobs where variables can be accounted for.  I worked in screen printing for a time.  In that job, if your production was at a certain level you were eligible for a raise, but if your production fell you would lose that raise.  It worked great because printers would try to produce more. Any variables like the number of colors on the design, the type of garment, or whatever were worked into a formula that determined a certain person’s “efficiency.”  You can’t account for the class a teacher may have from year to year.  Take forty kids and put them into two randomly selected classes. Then do it again and again.  Every different combination you come up with leads to an entirely different classroom dynamic.  As smart as humanity has become, one thing we understand so little of how we interact with one another.  We can’t explain why you like one person and can’t stand another. Every child in a classroom has to deal with every other child and the teacher.  How all those people gel affects learning.  While successful teachers will always help their students learn, how much learning goes on is subject to too much unknown.

Finally, you have to ask the big question. “How do you determine student success?”  Currently we use a bunch of tests and your score says you have or have not learned enough.  Clearly, it’s a system that doesn’t work. We know that. We have known that. So why haven’t we fixed it? I’m afraid we don’t have a better idea. We can’t get away from standardized tests  because we don’t know what to do instead.  The reality is that really measuring student success takes years. How good your kindergarten teacher was could have a huge affect on your life, but we don’t know it until you’ve lived your life. Tests are just a single point on a graph but we need to see the whole line.  Testing does give us information, but it will never give us the whole story.  We can’t reward the best teachers based on student test scores because test scores don’t show you who the best teachers are.

Teachers today would love to have me in their classes. I’m a test taker. I knew someone who was basically failing a college astronomy course so her final test, whatever she couldn’t answer I did. She got a 92.  I’m good at multiple choice tests, because I’m a good guesser. I also have a brain full of facts that most people don’t need to know. I watch a lot of Jeopardy. But the fact that my test scores were always good didn’t matter when I didn’t do homework.  I got all the knowledge in school, because that was easy for me. I didn’t get as much of the intangible things teachers give you. Motivation, inspiration, discipline.  The best teachers teach those things. They teach children to learn.  In today’s world you don’t need school for knowledge. Knowledge is out their. Hell, you can learn almost anything you want on a cell phone anymore. Everything is available on the Internet. You could teach yourself physics and order a pizza from your couch. If you want to know something you just have to go looking. In the two hours I’ve been writing this I’ve read a dozen articles on education reform and the Wikipedia entry on charter schools. Finding the information is easy. School has to make you want to find it. School has to teach you how to look at something and decide whether you agree or not, and why you agree or not.  The best teachers teach children how to be adults. You can’t measure that with a test.