Monday, September 1, 2014

In Education, Teachers Must Lead the Way

Aside from the December holiday season, the back-to-school late August and early September rush has the most profound effects on the United States. Shopping patterns change, traffic gets worse, and the general tenor of every community shifts to accommodate the children and adults who work in education.

Welcome to this year's edition. Some things have changed, and other have stayed the same.

In most polls, a majority of Americans say that they respect their school's teachers and consider them, aside from parents, to be the most influential voices their children will encounter every day. The problem is that the evaluation systems that most states have set up do not accurately measure how effective the teachers are. Standardized tests have not proven to be reliable and systems that use Value Added measures, such as in California, are notoriously unstable. In addition, most Americans don't like the tenure system as it is applied to teachers and we've had one court weigh in and declare the California system to be unconstitutional. In Wisconsin, Indiana and a host of other states, teachers, and other public employees, have lost significant contract negotiation rights that impact their pay, benefits and work rules. Add all of these up and you get a picture of an education system that wants to change, but is ignoring or minimizing the very people who can affect that change most specifically. Teacher morale is low nationally. That's not good.

Most Americans also value education and consider education to be the major stepping stone to a better economic, social and democratic life. But the truth is that just below that surface, a roiling debate is under way about how much money schools should spend and on what materials, and what should schools actually teach anyway. This year is no different.

Along with going back to school, September is also when the Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, is released. This year is the 46th such poll, and it's being released in two parts; now and in October.

The most pressing issue in the poll is the reaction to the Common Core Curriculum Standards which is opposed by most of the respondents. A good deal of that opposition is related to the idea that Americans are wary about a national curriculum, especially one that seems to be prescriptive about what teachers can teach, and that local communities will have little say in what their children will learn. The Common Core is also the basis for national tests, which are anathema to many parents and strike most teachers as a waste of good instructional time.

While the standards are new, they are not as dangerous as many people would make them out to be. They do focus more on having students read nonfiction and analyzing in greater depth what they read, but otherwise, they give schools and teachers the leeway to choose reading materials and to tailor instruction to address local concerns. They ask that all students be conversant in research tools and to determine the reliability of sources, an especially important skill in the electronic era.

The mathematics standards are proving to be especially vexing since they ask students to explain their answers in both numbers and words. My experience with younger students is that they have a difficult time explaining how they came to an answer. Some do the calculations in their heads and others are not as articulate with explanations. This has lead to some famous YouTube videos of parents excoriating school board members for turning their child off to school and making homework time a tear-filled exercise in screaming and running away from the table.

As with anything new in education, and there have been many new programs in the thirty years that I've been teaching, the Common Core Standards will need some alterations, but in the long run, they will provide a useful map for student progress. The other advantage is that as students move from one town to the other, the standards will remain the same. That hasn't happened in the United States, and it's a major step forward.

Another interesting finding from the poll includes the (erroneous) idea that Charter Schools perform better than traditional public schools. The data does not support this. In fact, many charters are performing worse that local public schools.

We'll have to wait until October for more polling answers on questions relating to teacher evaluation and spending.

I've said this before, but it's worth saying again: The United States succeeds because its teachers succeed in educating generations of children with the resources we have available. Where schools do not have the resources or community support or high levels of social dysfunction, the job becomes that much more difficult. If we can equalize the curriculum, we should be able to equalize the educational opportunities for every child in this country.

And so to my teaching colleagues I say, have a wonderful school year. You do one of the most important paid jobs in this country and you deserve respect and appreciation.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pension Outrage

Last year, my personal investments provided over a 19% return and I paid no investment or broker fees.

Under Chris Christie's dysfunctional fiscal management, the New Jersey Public Pension fund returned 15.9% (2014) but paid $398.7 million dollars in fees (fiscal 2013). Since his term in office began in 2009, the pension fund had paid billions in fees, has underperformed the market, and the governor has not made a full payment to the system.

There's fiscal management for you. Imagine what he'd do to the country as president. On second thought, let's not.

All of this economic tomfoolery, detailed in a new report in the International Business Times, tell you all you need to know about why Chris Christie is not only unsuited to be president, but why his tenure would be a disaster for the United States' economy. He is steeped in the old trickle down theory that brought us the Great Recession and the Billionaire's Recovery. He's warming up in New Jersey by soaking the middle and working classes with higher payments, property taxes and fees, while insulating the wealthy by refusing to even entertain the idea of more revenue for needed state services.

And his latest gambit, a state commission to look into how to reform the state pension program, is led by a Christie campaign contributor and former Reagan Administration economist, Thomas J. Healy, who says that the commission is not political.  Should I be skeptical?

Or outraged?

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Christie: Proof He'll Run, Reasons He'll Lose

There can be no doubt that Governor Chris Christie will be running for president in 2016. He's taken trips to the states with the earliest primaries and caucuses and he's even begun commenting on foreign affairs. Not that he's at all qualified in that area, but when did that ever stop him from talking? The most convincing evidence of his intention to pursue a national run, though, comes from his latest actions in New Jersey, and ironically, those might actually cause his downfall.

First up is the New Jersey economy, which is limping along in no small part to the governor's refusal to do anything that will stimulate it. The jobs picture has not improved as much as the national numbers and Christie continues to blame middle class workers such as teachers, firefighters, police officers and government workers for the problem. Yes, he was able to get a landmark pensions and benefits bill through the Democratic legislature in 2011, but now, three years later, he's gone back on his promise to pay a full public pension payment because he says that the problem has not been fixed and that workers need to pay even more for their future benefits.

The "No Pain, No Gain"  tour has been a colossal failure so far mainly because the public is slowly coming around to the idea that public workers can't be squeezed any more and that Christie's refusal to ask wealthy New Jerseyans for more in taxes is good old fashioned Republican trickle down economics. The kind that hasn't worked since Ronald Reagan tried it back in 1981.  All it's lead to is wealthier wealthy people and a scramble for decent wages for the middle and working classes.

What's worse is that Christie appointed a committee to investigate why pensions and benefits need continued reform and
The head of a New Jersey board that determines how the state invests its pension money was in direct contact with top political and campaign fundraising aides for Gov. Chris Christie as the governor last fall mounted a successful bid for a second term.
So any chance that this committee will be an independent arbiter or that it will fairly assess the pros and cons of Christie's plan will be, say, nil.

The next clue to Christie's intentions comes from the fact that he and his adviser's are now becoming very stingy with information about the governor's public schedule. This is a guy who ran on transparency and openness and is now going all legalistic on the public and saying things like, "You guys want everything. You’re not entitled to everything. So we give you what you’re entitled to under the law. And I think that’s fair."

Fair, maybe. Politically smart? Not so much. If you want to be president, you should give the press the free stuff that it asks for and withhold the difficult information. That placates the press and makes it more likely that they'll give you a pass on the tough issues. And what's on the governor's schedule that would preclude him from fully disclosing it? More helicopter rides? Getaways to the Bahamas? It just doesn't make sense, and it belies Christie's desire to be known as an open politician. That's how he ran in 2009 and 2013. But now that he wants to be president, he's playing political word games.

And then there's that famous Christie personality, the one that yells at teachers, people in the military, retirees looking for answers, and anybody who deigns to disagree with him, available 24 hours a day on YouTube. Now we can add Twitter to the Governor's growing list of anti-social media harangues. Last week Christie involved himself in a discussion that frustrated commuters were having after yet another delay on the NJ Transit train system. They were also discussing the lack of another tunnel to and from New York and the fact that Christie's veto of a bill that would have provided money for a new tunnel leaves the prospect of relief far into the future. At a time when the governor could have provided for a little understanding and love, he again chose to argue, and that's not a good strategy when people are stuck in a station with no way to get home.

I suppose that Christie believes that yelling and belittling people who disagree with him is a sign of great leadership, but in the end, I think that this will ultimately sink him. Americans might be tiring of President Obama's cool detached manner, but they don't want a bully with a volatile personality in the Oval Office. We need a pragmatic, thoughtful person to interact with the country and the world.

We'll need to look elsewhere for that.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest