Friday, August 30, 2013

Uniquely Unqualified

In case you missed it because it's the end of August and you're on a news embargo, Governor Christie has appointed a new Superintendent for the Camden City schools. The governor says that his new appointee, Paymon Rouhanifard, 34, has "a proven track record" in educational administration. I don't mean to knock someone who's trying to be a successful educator, having spent the last 30 years doing it myself, but a look at Mr. Rouhanifard's resume yields the following information:
Paymon Rouhanifard's Experience

Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer
Educational Institution; 5001-10,000 employees; Primary/Secondary Education industry
November 2012 – Present (10 months) Newark, NJ

Chief Executive Officer, Office of Portfolio Management
Government Agency; 10,001+ employees; Education Management industry
June 2010 – Present (3 years 3 months)

Chief of Staff to Deputy Chancellor
Government Agency; 10,001+ employees; Education Management industry
August 2009 – June 2010 (11 months)

Privately Held; 51-200 employees; Venture Capital & Private Equity industry
July 2007 – August 2009 (2 years 2 months)

Public Company; 10,001+ employees; GS; Investment Banking industry
July 2005 – July 2007 (2 years 1 month)

6th Grade Teacher
Nonprofit; 1001-5000 employees; Education Management industry
July 2003 – July 2005 (2 years 1 month)

Paymon Rouhanifard's Education
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
BAEconomics & Political Science
1999 – 2003 
So let's see. He has two years and one month of experience in the classroom, which is not even enough to know whether you're an effective teacher and to refine your craft, and then he takes the Teach for America "out," meaning that he put in his noble time and left to make more money. Now, with his BA (!) he's going to lead one of the most challenging, political, dysfunctional and poor school districts in the country? This is not a proven track record. Don't get me wrong; he might succeed brilliantly, in which case I will apologize profusely and sing his praises. But for Governor Christie to believe that this is the right person for the job is just one more example of his utter disdain for experienced educators and the public schools in general.

And if Christie gets reelected, he will have free reign to cause more mischief for schools as he tries to build a national portfolio of his own.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The High Schoolization Of College

Last week, President Obama made a series of speeches about making higher education affordable, which of course would be a great idea if we really had a socialist system and the government could tell schools what to charge. The problem is that we have a quasi-meritocracy with a bit of market capitalism mixed in, and that's created the idea that expensive colleges must be good and really expensive colleges must be terrific. Meanwhile, the competitive and not-so-competitive schools that scoop up most American teenagers are considered second-tier and many of the students who attend don't have the financial wherewithal or the intellectual stamina to stay in them.

Of course, this is not going to change any time soon because the Republicans in Congress won't approve anything Obama wants and there isn't enough money for the federal Government to get more involved in college financing. What's really needed is a radical restructuring of higher education where all truly gifted students can attend schools that will challenge them and all other students who want to go to college can find affordable financing to do so. College is still a great investment, but the division between the have and have-nots is beginning to mirror larger society, which will in turn solidify the status quo.

But the president didn't stop there. He is also proposing a rating system to rank colleges and universities by...wait for it...quantitative data that will separate schools by how much money their graduates make and how successful the schools are at making their students employable, cost and the advanced degrees graduates earn.

Let's see...where have I heard of a system that attempts to use quantifiable data like, for example, test scores, to rank school and educators. Oh yeah; the public K-12 schools. It's a terrible idea for them and it's a terrible idea for colleges.

The reason it's so bad is that the president's proposal, and the philosophy behind it, succumbs to the erroneous idea that the purpose of attending college is to find a job. If you accept that, then measuring college's performance by how many employable graduates it turns out makes sense. But that's not the purpose of college and it's a mistake to believe that it is.

A university education is an exercise in academic exploration, of ideas, of research, of trying to find truth and beauty and a sense of who you are. It is available so that a young person can have access to people who have studied a topic or subject so thoroughly that they have something nuanced to say about it and can analyze it at a deep level. It's there so you can take a course in something that you want to learn about, rather than what you think you have to learn. It's an exploration. It's difficult. Unsettling. Motivating.

But it's not job training. There's no such thing as a readily employable English, Philosophy, Communications or Media Ecology major. You need to apply your knowledge. And to be considered an educated person, you really do need to know about more than just finance or accounting or marine biology, though they might get you a high paying job down the road. I'll concede that an engineering or acting student has employable knowledge and skills, but even they will need to learn a great deal on the job. So when the president wants to tie all of this data to how successful a college is, I see that as bunk. What a job pays is in many ways out of a graduate's hands. Many people would like an advanced degree but can't afford the money, time or both.

And what of students who don't belong in college? The default attitude now is that everyone should go, but that's also bunk. We've dismantled the system we used to have that recognized that some jobs do not require a college education. We've even begun this in high school, where many districts have stopped offering actual job training classes because they don't feed the everyone-goes-to-college beast. Then when the students who would benefit from those programs find that college isn't for them and they have no discernible job skills, society suffers.

The president should find other means to boost education and job skills without turning universities into glorified high schools, where students ad parents have unreasonable expectations of what they're paying for.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Common Core Follies

You know it's late August because the school stories are coming fast and furious. And speaking of furious, how about the reaction to the Common Core standards that are supposed to prepare our schoolchildren for work and college? In New York, where the scores declined in the debut year for the standards, the knives came out to excise the Common Core and implement...well, that wasn't clear. Teachers, parents and administrators from both sides of the political spectrum were worried about what the test scores said about what students learned, and a few were so angry that they threatened charges.

This points to the problem inherent in using test scores to evaluate...anybody. Teachers didn't have the time, or the training, to fully implement the standards into their lessons. Students didn't have time to learn the material and were tested on material they didn't learn in a format that was alien to many of them. It was also the first year of the tests, and in most first years, scores drop.

The assumption, though, is that the Common Core standards are testable, or at least worthy of teaching. Why is it that every student has to go to college, or be college-ready? Clearly, and it is crystal clear to educators, not all students will go to college, and many who are there won't finish because higher education is not for them. I understand that this is educational heresy and that I am swimming in dangerous waters. After all, the classes that I teach are considered college preparatory. My standards are based on the assumption that students should be analytical learners who can write coherently and synthesize what they've learned. In that sense, the Common Core has caught up to me. But unlike the Core, I understand that not all students will reach readiness by the time they graduate from high school and that many of them will not succeed in an institution of higher learning. So, in a sense, I am preparing them for something they will not use. That's a waste of time and resources.

In addition, the tests will be administered on computers and only computers, the assumption being that all students have the same competency with technology. What of students who don't (and I know of plenty of them)? What happens when it is the technology itself, and not the student's knowledge, that is the problem? And what happens when it is the school district's inability to purchase technology equipment or schedule adequate rooms or provide quiet places for testing that is part of the problem? These concerns have been waved off by some states, including New Jersey where I have been the wavee. How does that help evaluate students and teachers.

The Common Core Standards, like other previous attempts at measuring student growth, are devoted to the essential education problem: that of trying to have every student master the same material by the same date and to be evaluated in the same way at the same time. When are we going to realize that this has not worked and will not work adequately in the future? It's even more vital that we get this right now, because teachers' jobs are on the line. Politicians don't understand this. Teachers do, but unfortunately, we are being shut out of the system for reasons that have nothing to do with pedagogy and everything to do with union politics and the unending search for those terrible teachers we keep hearing about.

There will be more about the Common Core in the school year to come, but keep in mind that any lockstep program is going to have problems. We are experience the latest one.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Excuse Me Mr. Berlin, But How Can Jews Write Christmas Songs?

You'll pardon me for being a bit tardy on this issue, but I just watched the FOX interview with Reza Aslan about his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Normally I assiduously follow the news but whenever I hear FOX I assume it's a story I can ignore and, well, now I'm paying the late dues on that one.

Aside from the anti-Muslim bias, the interview was an unfortunate example of the anti-intellectual stream that runs through America, and has since its inception. FOX interviewer Lauren Green, who is credited with being the network's religion correspondent, is a representative of the worst kind of baiting, ignorant, narrow thinking that's infected cable television over the past 20 years. She ignores the idea that someone other than the group associated with the material can actually write a book about it, which would disqualify millions of books from the FOX approved list. And she completely ignored Aslan's academic credentials and research in favor of making a snap, and biased, judgement that wiped away all of his educational accomplishments.

What's even more hypocritical is that American conservatives claim to oppose identity politics. Commentators on the right have traditionally accused the left of slicing and dicing the country into interest groups that compete for attention and resources and prevent the country from being a truly color-blind, race-blind, religion-blind society. Clearly that is all dangerous talk.

Of course, the major point is that this is a Muslim author writing about Jesus, as if our identifiers determine, or are reflective of, our beliefs and biases. Would Ms. Green have as much trouble with Mississippi Burning, a film directed by a white Englishman that makes the FBI seem like the friend of  every African-American civil rights agitator in the Magnolia State?

And what of Irving Berlin, the musical genius, and Jewish-American, who penned some of the most memorable Christmas and Easter songs ever written? Would FOX hound Mr. Berlin for attempting to write songs about holidays that weren't his? I think you can guess the answer.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest

Monday, August 5, 2013

State of the Unions

There's been a lot of talk recently about workers. You know, the people who do the work in this country and who expect to be paid a livable wage while earning a little respect from employers and customers. The problem is that somewhere along the way, the conservative revolution has been glorifying the wealthy while bashing the people who actually create the wealth. I'm not saying anything new, but a spate of reports have caught my eye and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if present trends continue, we could have another revolution, but this one will be messy.

First up are those pesky fast food workers, you know, the ones who serve the most meals in the country. They are holding one-day walkouts to protest the unlivable minimum wage, $7.25 an hour or about $30,000 per year if full time, that many of them can't really live on. Add in the lack of health care benfits and you have the fixin's of a major problem. Since many of the jobs being created these days are not full time, more people are earning a wage that doesn't support even a minimal existence.

So what to do? In DC, the City Council voted to require Wal-mart to pay its employees at least $12.50 per hour in all of its city stores. Wal-mart was considering building six stores in DC, but now that they actually have to pay a livable wage, they're threatening not to build three of them. This wage would also apply to other big box stores. Keep in mind that Wal-mart makes billions of dollars a year, as do other retailers such as Home Depot and Target, and they all pay their executives millions of dollars in salaries. But of course, they couldn't lower some of those high paying jobs just a little bit to cover the hourly workers. That would send the wrong message. Like, we care about our employees.

And it's not just in the United States. Amazon is currently finding that European governments (those darn socialists!) are pushing back against Amazon's attitude towards unions and the right to organize. Amazon is going to lose this battle, just as Google lost the privacy battle over its mapping service that also scooped up private information. In Europe, they take privacy and union rights seriously and that's complicating big American businesses who are used to allies on the right allowing companies to bust unions and pay people very little (while telling workers that they should be happy to just have a job).

I am certainly not advocating fighting in the streets, but over time, as people find it difficult, if not impossible, to earn a living wage, and politicians turn a blind eye to them, then what other recourse will people have? Social media and elections will help, but gerrymandered Congressional districts almost ensure that anti-worker politicians will continue to be reelected. The gap between wealthy and not wealthy in this country is as large as it's ever been, and that, in part, is why the economy is not growing a robustly as it should. Let's solve this problem before more people become desperate.

And yes, that's a warning.

For more, go to and on Twitter @rigrundfest