Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Forward

It seems to be the season of making predictions for the next year, and I certainly don't want to be the only self-appointed chronicler of the age to miss that boat, so herewith is my take on what we can expect for 2014.

The year will be unpredictable. A bold assertion, I know, but look at where we were a year ago. Obama had just been resoundingly reelected and the right was on the run. They gave in on taxes and spending and agreed to extend unemployment benefits for another year. They were talking about immigration reform and a bargain on spending. It seemed that the left had the right ideas and, led by the president, it would be a year of progress.

How did that work out? We know. Immigration passed the Senate. Sequestration clawed its way through all of the doomsday scenarios and became the budget template for the year. The House became the place where all good ideas went to die. The website was doomed to failure because nobody thought or had the money to test it. The right shut down the government. Unemployment payments have not been renewed. Our privacy either being stolen from Target or abused by the NSA.

So why am I so optimistic about the upcoming year? Because there are some terrific trends in American life that are trending in the right direction. Marriage equality is close to becoming the law of all the land. The Supreme Court will probably slow it down and rule at some point that states do have the power to prohibit it through their constitutions, but that will just be a temporary delay.  State barriers to marriage, and by extension to rights for all LGBTIH and GSD and other capital letters, is in our near future. This is a profound change and one that we need to be thankful, thoughtful and diligent about enforcing.

The next year will also see health care for all. Think about that one and smile. Health care for all. The United States will join the rest of the industrialized world, and some of the less industrialized, in making sure that sickness or injury doesn't mean bankruptcy or worse. There will be more bumps next year related to insurance company payments and recalcitrant GOP obstruction, but this law is here to stay. And the better part is that the law will be strengthened in the next few years. It has problems that need attention and we are looking at the possibility that more employers will begin moving employees to the exchanges rather than covering them through company plans. As one of my conservative friends says, if you thought the fuss over six million people being told their insurance didn't measure up to the ACA and had their coverage canceled, wait until sixty million people who have insurance through work lose it. This is your only warning.

There are other hopeful trends to watch in 2014. The move towards a livable minimum wage is not going away and will probably gather steam next year. The criminal justice system is recognizing that mandatory sentences were a fevered reaction to inner city crime related to drugs and has done more to create a new economy based on prisons, especially in rural areas. President Obama's sentence commutations are a first step towards making sentencing more flexible without going back to the instability of the 1960s and 70s. The Dodd-Frank bill will force financial institutions to curb or make transparent some of the practices that led to the financial crisis. Wall Street will kick and scream, but they will need to abide by the new rules.

And immigration reform will, I think find some success in the coming year. The Senate bill will not be passed by the House, and a path to citizenship might not survive the political process, but this is an idea whose time has come. It might take four or six more years before it comes to fruition, but it will.

The House will stay Republican in November and the Senate will stay Democratic, if only by 51-49 or by a Vice-President Biden Tie-Breaking Constitution Special 50-50. Someone you never considered will announce, by year's end, that they will be a candidate for president in 2016. Someone you thought was a no-brainer will say that they will not run.

And no, it will not snow on Super Bowl Sunday.

Have a very Happy New Year and continue to work to make the United States, and the world, a better, more humane, just place to hang out in.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Imagining the Schools We Need

Wondering why American students are not performing at their best? Or why we struggle to solve the problems of children getting adequate resources so they can compete in the global race for knowledge, opportunity and equity?

No need. The answer's right here and it doesn't take much to figure it out. We've made education a commodity to be traded, cut, neglected and manipulated for the better part of the economic downturn, and even before, and the policy is catching up to us. School districts all over the country had to cut back on teachers, other staff, educational resources and worse, a commitment to enable all children to take part in what should be the world's premier public school system.

It shouldn't have worked out that way.

The corporate know-nothings who have wheedled their way into the public policy debate and, worse, have been elected to offices where they've had direct experience slashing budgets, blaming public employees and pulling money out of the system because they think it spends too much. Now we've reached the crisis point where schools are packing in too many students into classrooms without proper staffing and educational materials. The results are disappointing at best.

But they point to something that's been underreported, and that is that America's public school teachers are doing a fabulous job keeping the system afloat and educating our students to the best of their abilities. The shame is imagining just how much better the country would be if we committed to funding and supporting the people who do one of the most important paid jobs in the economy.

Imagine what we could do with class sizes that allow for debate, discussion and hands-on learning in every class. Imagine having enough staff to enable struggling students and those with classifiable learning problems to get the support they both need and are entitled to by law. Imagine having enough money to take students on more than one outside academic trip per year so that they could apply their knowledge to real-world situations.

Imagine a teaching staff that is respected, emboldened and confident that the culture supported its efforts. Imagine governors making full pension payments so the system doesn't become a political battleground and an excuse to blame teachers and other public employees from being blamed for shortfalls. Remember that the only people making reliable pension contributions are the teachers; every paycheck. Imagine a system where teachers have input into curricular implementation, and where tests are not the end result of every learning task. Imagine a collaborative, supportive environment where veteran educators are respected for their knowledge, not blamed for being too expensive.

If you can imagine such a system, then we have our work cut out for us because if we keep going as we have for the past 10 years, then we will sink further behind countries that don't need to imagine those school systems--they already have them.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Political See-Thaw

Yes, that sound you heard out of Washington was not just John Boehner's rant against his conservative brethren, it might have been the long-awaited thaw in relations between the two parties in the Congress over the budget.

And you probably thought that Republicans didn't believe in warming.

Well, don't get too excited. After all, 94 House members voted against the bill and it looks like the Senate will manage only four GOP supporters when the bill lands on their desks. And this is a bill that I might have voted against because it basically sacrifices the long-term unemployed on the alter of perceived laziness and blame-the-victim politics that's the hallmark of the Republican Party (though Patty Murray must be terrific at selling unpopular ideas). The bill does modify and correct some of the most egregious sequestration cuts, but this budget deal was played on the Republican side of the field.

Is this a thaw? Possibly, though there are significant snowstorms ahead. The immigration bill is stalled in the House and it would be a monumental achievement for a law that includes a path to citizenship to pass in that chamber. Then again, Boehner is not a dumb politician and understands that the Republicans need to begin courting the Hispanic vote, so maybe he can shepherd a modified version of the bill through his caucus. Of course, Democrats will jump all over any perceived weakness int he GOP approach and will run with it in 2014 and 2016.

The Senate provides another ice sheet for progress. Although the two sides came to an agreement to pause the confirm-a-thon until Monday, the Republicans are still smarting from having the filibuster rug pulled from under their Gucci-shoed feet. Two of the president's DC Circuit nominees have been approved at the EPA Chief is up next. I see this as great progress and a future bulwark against Republican mischief via the courts in the years to come. "Young Democratic Judges" is a phrase I love hearing over and over.

So I'm not looking for a grand love-in on the floor of the legislative bodies over the course of the next year, but I do see a grudging push in the direction of getting things done, especially on the right. They can run against the health care law and probably keep the House and make inroads in the Senate in 2014. Their main concern, and a shiver up the spine, has to be the prospect of a Tea Party presidential candidate and the thought of defending 24 Senate seats in 2016. They won't win the former contest and could do serious damage to themselves in the latter if they persist with the nonsense they've been peddling since 2010.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Teaching, Unions and Social Justice

Giving of course my humble opinion, I believe we are at the high water mark of the anti-union, pro-market-force, evaluation-by-testing mania that's gripped education. Or I could be seriously deluded and education is going through a profound change that will see radically different protocols for years to come.

Monday is the National Day of Action, where schools and community organizations are rallying to focus public attention on how to improve schools and promote social justice. There is a set of principles behind this, and it represents a concerted effort to fight back against the corporitization of schools that started on the far right, but has been moving to the center for a few years. Even President Obama supports the principle of more testing and teacher evaluation models that erroneously support it.

But a larger issue is also part of this debate, and that's the role of unions and associations in public education. Perhaps it is true that teachers unions are facing a moment of truth and that they will need to adapt to the changing landscape rather that being able to pull the country back to a position that supports the idea of collective rights. Many people who should be supporting unions and what they've won for workers are in fact opposing them on the grounds that everyone should suffer in a free-agent world, not that they should demand the rights that unionized workers have. Employers have gained the upper hand in salary negotiations and with the coming of the new health care landscape, will most likely be able to stop offering insurance and tell employees to buy on the exchanges. Teachers generally have better protections because they have representation, but that's led mostly to resentment, not mobilization by other industries.

Another challenge, and perhaps the biggest, is that the teaching staff population is getting younger. Far younger. Most teachers have been on the job for less than ten years. More importantly, they grew up in a nation that didn't value unions. Yes, Ronald Reagan did say that he supported unions, but his actions in firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 is a far more potent reminder of the power of the president to shape the national agenda through actions rather than words. Most of the newest teachers were young during the 1980s and 90s when the anti-union rhetoric became louder and there were fewer steel workers, miners, and automobile workers to remind them what unions could do. The technology economy rendered union protections less important when the ethos was that you could create your own wealth. It's still a powerful message. The problem is that it only applies to a few workers. Evidence is showing that many of these younger teachers are not as committed to unions or at least want them to change in ways that unions might not want to. The NEA and AFT will need to adapt, and at the moment it's unclear what direction they will take.

The infusion of right wing money into the privatization and testing movement has also undermined effective education because it essentially said that teachers were to blame and that unions were anti-reform because they stood in the way of change. Yes they did, and for good reason; using tests to evaluate teachers and students is a terrible strategy. It saps energy from the system because teachers are tethered even more closely to a curriculum that defines what's important to learn, what's on the test, and discards everything else.

My subject, history (not social studies by the way; HISTORY) has been left in the educational dust for years as math and language arts skills have become the de facto national curriculum. Then science was added. I have no problem with this. But we are raising a nation of students who have limited historical knowledge because they have limited access to ideas because history is not a tested subject, therefore it must be less important. The same goes for the practical, industrial, visual and performing arts. This is the legacy of the corporate influence in education. Will the Common Core Standards help? We'll see, but if they don't, we'll have wasted time that could have been better utilized.

Monday's National Day of Action should be a day that reminds us of what effect the power of people can have when it's channeled for social justice and education. These are the bedrocks of solid citizenship and point to a return of a society where all people, not just those who can pay for SAT Preparation classes, have access to a quality education and control over their own lives. The promise of corporatization and testing is a false hope that will leave students on the sidelines and teachers in a system that rejects the basic premise of effective schools that have a collegial staff and a collective ethic meant to educate every child.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest  

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Race to the Bottom

The know-nothings who decided that market-based reforms were just what the public schools needed can look to New Jersey for proof that what they have wrought is having its intended terrible effect on education. The corporate takeover is going according to plan. The worst victims are the students themselves.

One of the warnings that veteran educators tried to sound was that the growth of charter schools would create two levels of opportunity: one for parents who were proactive and worked to get their children into top charter schools, and the rest of the population that either couldn't compete or was shut out and stuck in the now-depleted public system. That seems to be happening in Newark, if this article is accurate. Yes, there are some significant successes if you count the students who are thriving in schools that can skim the best off the top and can generally avoid recruiting the poorest and least-able students. Test scores are up. There are fewer disruptions.

But it's a false success if it means that other students are denied that quality of education. Free market principles are great for businesses, stock markets, and competitions for talent and ability. It can be deadly, however, when it comes to education.

Public schools by law must educate all children. Think about that: all children. Not one exception. And they need to educate them so they will be productive members of society. What the know-nothings have done is to criticize the public schools as unwieldy, rife with union activism, and failing our children. What they've created are academies that are exempt from the public school's rules and worse, have created winners and losers. That's not what education is about. As a matter of fact, it runs against every rational, reasonable and moral imperative that undergirds an education system in a compassionate society. It's wonderful that more students are doing well and are thriving in these new schools. For the losers, though, it's a life sentence.

As for the teachers, the know-nothings created a new evaluation system  that is supposed to weed out the less effective educators from the classroom. What they're created in reality is a time-wasting, money-sucking, mathematically-skewed nightmare that is taking money from school programs and budgets that can best be used in the classroom, and not on software that shows faculty members what an effective lesson looks like. We already know that.  

With the Common Core Standards breathing down our necks, educators need more resources that students can use to learn, such as technology that works, interactive readings and mathematics lessons, and more time to plan collaboratively with teachers of other disciplines, grades, and expertise.

What we're getting is a system that requires teachers to spend hours writing or rewriting lesson plans to meet the new guidelines, to meet with administrators to coordinate scoring rubrics, and to defend what we've always done in every other year, but now have to write down. If the goal was to create evaluations that mimicked the business world, then congratulations; it's just as ineffective as your average corporate annual review.

Again, it's the students who will really pay for the damage in time, in money and in lost resources. I give this new teacher ratings system about five years before the corporate world and the Koch brothers move on to something else they can try to ruin. Until then, the race to the bottom will be quick.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Wages Are Sinful

You've heard about the healthcare website. You've heard about Iran. You've heard about the fiscal negotiations. You've eaten, shopped, dozed, decorated and lit candles.

Get ready for the wage fight, which could be the most important issue we'll face in the next few months. On Thursday, fast food workers in 100 cities plan to strike at fast food outlets across the country to publicize the fight for a livable minimum wage. Right now, that wage is $7.25 per hour and hasn't kept pace with the cost of living or the rate of inflation...ever. To give you some perspective, and to show just how old I am, I remember my first job at Korvettes making $2.50 per hour in 1977. The present wage isn't even three times that much and over 35 years have passed.

The protests now are asking for a wage of $15 dollars per hour, which still isn't much, but would allow some people to actually live a middle class existence without having to get more than one job. Consider these statistics from this article about one such person who is trying to survive on the minimum wage:
According to a study released in October, only 13 percent of fast-food workers get health-insurance benefits at work. In New York State, three in five have received some form of government assistance in the last five years. Meanwhile, executive pay and profits in the industry are on the rise. Last winter, Bloomberg News determined that it would take a Chicago McDonald’s worker who earns $8.25 an hour more than a century on the clock to match the $8.75 million that the company’s chief executive made in 2011.

The classic image of the high-school student flipping Big Macs after class is sorely out of date. Because of lingering unemployment and a relative abundance of fast-food jobs, older workers are increasingly entering the industry. These days, according to the National Employment Law Project, the average age of fast-food workers is 29. Forty percent are 25 or older; 31 percent have at least attempted college; more than 26 percent are parents raising children. Union organizers say that one-third to one-half of them have more than one job — like Mr. Shoy, who is 58 and supports a wife and children.

The argument against a rise on the minimum wage has always centered around the notion that raising the wage would force small businesses to lay off workers because labor costs would eat into profits. I can see this happening to a certain extent to local businesses and independent stores, but there's simply not a lot of evidence to suggest that this would be an issue for large retail outlets, fast-food restaurants or national chain stores. In fact, the data suggests that raising the wage would even help the economy and lift spending, which would then allow companies to hire more workers to meet demand.

The other problem is that this is a moral issue that is reaching far beyond what many people consider to be a teenage, burger-flipping concern. More and more families rely on the minimum wage to get by and more adults, whose higher paying jobs have fled or disappeared, are now working the lower paying jobs. Children are now in danger of living below the poverty line. That's a huge concern.

We are living in a country where the top wage earners have seen a fabulous rise in their incomes, and for the most part they have earned that. But if we don't help those who struggle at the bottom--people who are working--then what does that say about our country?

There's an argument about what might happen if we raise the wage, but we know what will happen if we don't raise it. Make this a personal issue. Respect the fast food strike on Thursday. Make sure that all people get their shot at the American Dream.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest