Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Party's Over

The signs of decline are everywhere. No ideas. No strategy except saying no. Extreme candidates. An unbending view of the constitution that allows no other interpretation. An aging, angry, declining electorate. Technology that doesn't work and that isn't attracting the best young talent in Silicon Valley. A pollster who was so wrong last November it actually skewed the numbers in many election forecasts is saying that the president is in trouble. And perhaps worse, a Ronald Reagan fetish that misinterprets what Reagan really accomplished, and how he accomplished it. Tell me what's positive about the Republicans.

It's as if the party is driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with its eyes closed. Nothing good can come of this. They've already alienated a majority of people by voting down background checks. And now they're making noise that they will reject an immigration bill that has wide support and will address serious deficiencies in our system. Siding with big business on tax reform would be a sweet third strike as we move into next year's election season. In fact, 2010 will be seen as the swan song of the far right; the last gasp of a fading and rudderless movement that will take up residence in the south and fight the good fight, 150 years after the last major battles.

The Democrats, by contrast, are beginning to move out of the morass they found themselves in after the 2010 elections. Yes, they are presently mired in scandal muck, but this too shall pass. The scandals might slow down their momentum, but as the GOP will use them as an excuse to do nothing, the population will see their tactics for what they are, and have always been, and will vote accordingly. The Democrats will probably not take the House, but they will make inroads on the path to a majority in 2016. They'll also hold on to the Senate, but perhaps by a smaller margin than today.

From there, it will be up to the Republicans who are left to either help make this country better or continue their obstruction. Yes, they have Rubio, Paul, Ryan and Christie. But up against O'Malley, Cuomo, Clinton and Malloy, they don't stand a chance.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Smoking Gun Shoots Blanks

There's something telling about Mitch McConnell saying that the health care act will be the major issue in the 2014 midterm elections. It means that he realizes that the GOP will smoke its triple scandal orgasm cigarette and move on before the year is out. It also means that he operates in the same blindered echo-chamber the far right has occupied since March of 2010. Yes, the IRS does have a role to play in the ACA's rollout and implementation, but it's not going to be responsible for the death of the Republican Party. The party faithful are doing a good enough job of that.

After a week of terrible news, two major polls--CNN/ORC and Gallup--are showing that President Obama's approval ratings are holding steady in the low 50s, but that many Americans are not satisfied with many of the answers the members of his administration, and he, are giving. That's understandable. These are undeniably poor governmental practices, and if anybody has broken the law, then they should be punished. But that will be difficult.

What happened at the IRS office in Cincinnati sounds suspicioulsy like the office of any other overworked, understaffed institution in the United States. People made choices on their own, seemingly without a lot of oversight, and they tried to be efficient in the face of technology inefficiencies and a dash of confusion. There's no conspiracy here, despite the right wing's continuing bleating, because there were some left wing groups that got caught up in the excess scrutiny. Plus, at the time, most of the new groups asking for tax-exempts status were Tea Party affiliated because that's when they rose to power, so that was the bulk of the applications to begin with. And there's no evidence (yet) that a majority or even a large cohort of these groups was denied their tax-exempt status because of their affiliation. This is not a scandal: It's incompetence, and that's not criminal.

The ongoing drama in Benghazi is likewise a government muddle, but it looks like it's mostly a CIA-State Department fight that resulted in terrible editing and a tragic miscalculation of what was happening on the ground. Again, is there  evidence of illegal activity? Probably not, but the GOP will spend more time than it needs to trying to unearth something that isn't there.

The Justice Department's rummaging through the Associated Press' phone records is the most chilling of the three issues because it combines the worst of the War on Terror with a violation of the trust that journalists have with their sources. Its' also the most disappointing aspect of the Obama Administration's continuation of policies put in place during George W. Bush's tenure in the White House. Perhaps this will result in a national shield law, something that, until now, the Obama administration has been against.

The right wing has been waiting for the opportunity to investigate the president for over four years, and they've finally received their opportunity. They will probably be disappointed, but not until they've extracted some political coinage for their trouble. This will boomerang on them if it means that immigration and tax reform are sacrificed in the name of non-existent conspiracies.

And really, if you want to compare Obama to Nixon, then you probably weren't alive during the 1970s, and if you were, you learned the wrong lessons.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Commencement Address

Now that it's graduation season, the press can't help but write articles like this one that discuss the terrible job market and how recent college graduates don't feel prepared to enter the work force. 

To that I say, welcome to reality.

College is not job training; it's academic training, and any university worth its books will operate on that premise. Graduates who think that they are now ready for the working world are living under a false assumption that's been sold to the public for decades. High school guidance counselors, college consultants and many teachers peddle this connection as if it was always true and that the main reason one should go to college is simply to get a job. Institutions of higher education have bought into this line of illogic and are even going to far as to tailor their recruiting messages to highlight the terrific jobs their graduates have found. 

What the colleges don't tell you is whether those jobs are related to what you majored in. That is sometimes an inconvenient measure, akin to the one your high school used to keep property values in your town elevated. The school highlights the wonderful colleges its graduates attend, but does zero follow-up to see who's staying in school, who's graduating, and where they're working. And all it costs is a zillion dollars, most if it in indebtedness that's crushing the wannabe middle class.

So back to the question: Do you want job training? Find an apprenticeship or a school that focuses on technical skills. Don't go to a pricey university and then complain that you don't believe that you are ready for the working world.

A university degree confers upon you the affirmation that you've studied an academic discipline, thought about it, questioned its assumptions and come out the other side a more EDUCATED person. Along the way, perhaps you took that odd course that had nothing to do with your major or making money simply because it was interesting or the professor was exceptional or the guy/gal you liked was also signed up. A university is not a job factory, and people ignore that fact at their peril. 

When I graduated in the early 80s, all full of myself for having gone to the premier Communications school in the country, I was asked the same question on every interview:

How fast can you type?

Mazel tov to all recent graduates. Your work education begins now.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Worst Political Era Ever. Except For All The Others

After two weeks of not writing, a function of both intellectual blockage and a terrifically busy work schedule, I find myself confronted with the same news and political reality as existed 14 days ago, only more so. Stories about how dysfunctional our political system is litter the websites, newspapers and social media outlets we visit.

Is it true that we live in the worst of all possible worlds? That our system has become so mired in petty squabbles that it qualifies as the most terrible atmosphere in United States history? Depends on your definition.

Ask Thomas Jefferson, who was accused of hating religion so much that the opposition, John Adams of all people, spread rumors that Jefferson was going to outlaw it. How about "King" Andrew Jackson, who was supposed to be all-powerful and who ignored a Supreme Court decision prohibiting him from moving Native American tribes from Georgia, where there was gold on their land, to Oklahoma, where the land tended to dry up and blow away. Or Andrew Johnson, who was impeached and almost convicted in 1868 for violating a law that was probably unconstitutional to begin with, and had numerous vetoes overridden by a Congress that treated him as an afterthought. Or Harry Truman, who was thought to be harboring Communists in his government, Johnson and Nixon, who were hated for the Vietnam War, violations of civil liberties and the Watergate scandal, and Bill Clinton, ignored, impeached and politically impotent in the face of a concerted Republican majority. Each of these presidents were the targets of opposition slings and arrows who squawked that the end of the republic was at hand.

The genius, and the curse, of our political system is that it's based on three competing political branches, each of whom is forever concerned about maintaining its power. Cooperation is rare and mostly occurs when one party has a significant majority in both houses. FDR was able to get major New Deal legislation through Congress with large Democratic majorities, and LBJ did the same with the Great Society programs. Both Nixon and Reagan were able to work with Democratic majorities and that's why their successes were less ideological than they otherwise would be. GW Bush had Republican majorities in the middle of his term, but Social Security reform was anathema to the left, and immigration reform died because of right wing opposition. As I recall, these were all pitched battles with ruin promised by both sides if their legislation wasn't passed.

Thus it is today. President Obama had great success in his first two years with Democratic majorities and an important 60 votes in the Senate. After the 2010 elections? Not so much. Yes, the right has an irrational opposition to him and successfully fought back on guns. We'll get an immigration bill this year because the political stakes for the Republicans are too high for failure. We might even get tax reform. But it would take Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to finish the work that Obama was elected to accomplish, including energy, environmental and bank reform.

So let's all calm down a bit and understand that while our era is contentious, it's not the end of the political world. The events of the past four years will reach an endpoint with one party breaking out and leading a new push in their direction. My hunch, and hope, is that it will be the Democrats, but it will probably take a couple of election cycles to achieve.

Until then, the media machine will crank out apocalyptic pronouncements about how bad things are. Don't you believe it.

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

Sunday, May 5, 2013

But Zero Percent Confidence: Teacher Reform Gets Squishy

Imagine what would happen if the so-called education reformers knew what they were talking about. Could actually articulate a meaningful program that would improve teaching and learning. Didn't have an agenda that blamed unions and teachers, and relied on privatizing the public schools.


Unfortunately, that's not the kind of reform movement we have in this country. What we have is a reactionary movement of right wing ideologues who want to impose market-based principles on a system that must serve all children in the United States. They also want to thin the ranks of union membership and rely on self-selecting administrators to run the schools without input from the very people who have been trained to educate its students. The worst part, though, is that these reformers seem to be making this all up as they go along.


This past week, the New Jersey State Board of Education agreed to lower the percentage by which standardized tests will be used to evaluate teacher performance from 35% to 30%. They also raised the amount of time a student would need to be enrolled in a particular teacher's classroom for their tests to count for that teacher's evaluation from 60% to 70%. Impressive numbers that show a marked concern for teaching, learning, effective evaluation and a nod towards the science of educational assessment, no?

No. Emphatically, no.

These numbers mean absolutely nothing. There is no research to suggest that 30%, 35% or any other numbers will accurately measure the teacher's role in a student's learning. It's being made up. In fact, about the only number that would accurately measure the student-teacher learning relationship would be zero percent, because standardized tests should not be used for that purpose.

Further, the State Board did nothing to raise the student level of concern for these tests. They mean very little to the children, but everything for the teachers, and I'm sure that parents, and the students themselves, understand that it's OK for them to not do well on the tests especially if the student has test anxiety or simply doesn't care. Thirty percent of nothing still means nothing.

The larger point, though, is that Governor Christie, Commissioner Cerf, and the true believers in the Department of Education see this as a negotiable percentage. It proves that there isn't a percentage that's tied to effective teaching and lowering it by 5% in New Jersey is a political decision, not an educational one. They are simply making it up as they go along. Any teacher who did that wouldn't last two months in the classroom. The Governor wants another four years.


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