Sunday, December 28, 2014

The New Smart

Yes, I know it's the holiday break and students and teachers across the country are off, but really, this is just the calm before the storm. There are only two more months until the new PARCC tests are administered. Then there's a 6 to 8 week break. Then more PARCC tests will be administered.

These tests will wreak some serious havoc on school district calendars and teacher's lesson plans nationwide. They will cause anxiety across the student population and will result in hand-wringing and head-shaking amongst the parents and caregivers. In many states, the tests will determine, artificially of course, who is an effective teacher and whether schools are doing all they can to teach students the 21st century skills they'll need to succeed in college and work.

But the biggest effect of the tests is that they will redefine smart for a new generation.

Prior to the Common Core and the new tests, it was enough for smart students to be able to read, memorize, manipulate and give back facts on an examination. The educational model was based on teachers giving students information or coaching them through their learning as the local curriculum dictated. There were some major modifications in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, but most of them addressed how the information was imparted to students, such as cooperative learning, differentiated instruction and directed learning, that was based on the corporate model of education and teamwork that was then in vogue in the working world.

Even the modifications that teachers were legally required to implement to satisfy students who had classifiable learning disabilities, such as giving out notes, providing word banks, redirecting students who had trouble paying attention, or modifying test questions, were only meant to address content delivery. The skills that students needed remained the same.

That's all changed now. The new Common Core standards require that students know how to read on a more sophisticated level and to master themes rather than discrete facts. They require that students explain how they arrived at an answer, either in written or verbal form, in order to justify and support their thinking. The new standards reward students who can analyze a reading excerpt, any excerpt, and identify the main idea and bias behind the writing. If a student can't do these things, then they will not do well on the tests.

Many students who have been doing well in school will find that their skills are not valued anymore. Others who had trouble memorizing and recalling, but could spot larger themes and issues, will be rewarded. I suspect that this was the real intent of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan's unfortunate remarks about why people are opposed to the Common Core. He didn't help himself by saying that “white suburban moms who realize — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” The truth, though, is that many parents will find that their child doesn't respond well to the new standards because they ask the children to manipulate information in different ways. Students will need to be taught how to do that, and once they are, many will succeed. For the first year, though, scores will not be what some people expect them to be. And even if the PARCC tests went away tomorrow, the Common Core standards won't, so students would still need to master the new academic skills. We're not going back to the old ways. Bank on that.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Barack: Hack Attack Lacks Tact, but Raoul Is Cool

As I said before, it really doesn't feel like the holidays, and with the events of the past week I would guess that others are wondering where the spirit went. Or when it's really going to arrive.

The Sony hacking is certainly a wake-up call for anyone who doubts the severity of our online, privacy-free, abc123 password-protected culture. That a foreign government, and one that we consider to be a running joke, could inflict such pain on us and our free time is disturbing and frightening. Sony employees are rightfully feeling exposed, not to mention that, evidently, Hollywood backstabbing culture is still alive and well as evidenced by the hacked e-mails from company executives.

Honestly, though; did the creators of The Interview really have to use actual names? One of the first rules of comedy, or at least the ones I learned, was that funny comes from imagination and suggestion, rather than always bashing someone on the head with facts. I'm not in favor of naming any world leader and then killing them on film unless that's what actually happened to them. It would have been more funny if the film's creators had made up a country and a leader, given him the same hairdo, so that, yes, even American audiences would have recognized who the character was supposed to be, and done the film that way. Killing a real name? Bad form, no matter who it is.

President Obama has promised a proportional response, but I'm not sure what that means in this context. A proportional cultural action is not really possible given North Korea's film industry, which seems to consist of one person with a camera following Kim Jong-un around all day. We could also hack into their e-mail and read more messages that promise a fiery death to America. That's comedy.

And while we're speaking of hermit countries who whine over Olympic sanctions, President Obama's Cuba gambit is everything that absolutely drives the Republicans nuts about the man. Just when they think they have him humbled by the terrible results of last month's congressional elections, the president comes out and reminds everyone that the executive is an equal branch to the others and has certain powers at its disposal. And make no mistake about his announcement; this is a big deal that will reshape the hemisphere in the short term and the world in the long term.

Raul Castro can say all he wants about how Cuba is going to stay a Communist country. In 10 years he might be gone and Cuba will have a capitalist economy and, I'm thinking, democratic reform. Yes, I know that many pundits are saying that Cuba will be like Chine or Vietnam--one party states that allow their people to get wealthy while repressing them politically.

I'm, guessing otherwise. My sense is that proximity to the United States will work in freedom's favor by blunting foreign adventurers who want to gain some favor on the island. Vladimir Putin might want to play the history card, but we will never stand for that. And it's likely that we will do all we can to blunt China's influence too. In fact, our main competitors in Cuba will be other Latin American countries who already see a compatriot waking up and wanting to join the region's economic system. No, Cuba will be different. There will be growing pains, but it will be different.

Back in Congress, Obama had masterfully put the Republicans back in their Cold War box. By opposing his opening to Cuba, he's reinforced the idea that the right has no new ideas on what to do about the island and would continue the embargo for another 50 years if they could find a way to win a presidential election during that time. Senator Marco Rubio's fiery response is exactly the wrong message at a time when economic and cultural engagement are what's needed.

Besides, it wasn't that long ago when the right wing was lauding Vladimir Putin and his shirtless foreign policy that seemed to compare favorably with Obama's more composed, measured approach. That's what always backing the hare in a marathon will get you. Putin is lording over an economy that is tanking, while the United States has seen steady growth for the past six years, and now with an added bonus of rising wages. Gas prices are sharply down. The XL pipeline might become superfluous if they go any lower. The US is a major contributor to a landmark climate agreement. Things can turn around quickly in this world.

Gee, maybe it's feeling holidayish after all.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Wealth, Inequality Rules

So I'm perusing through the news and I see this article about a Pew Research study on median wealth in the United States and how the Great Recession impacted household worth.

It is a stunning indictment of our fiscal, social and moral progress as a nation. If there's anyone out there who needs a basic primer on why we are facing some months of unrest, then they need to take a look at this. What's happened is that the wealth of white households has grown to 13 times that of African-American households since the end of the recession. In 2010, the gap was 8 times the wealth. For Hispanic households, the gap between their wealth and whites grew to 10 times the wealth, from 9 times in 2010.

In plain numbers, the results are even more shocking. In 2013, the median net worth of white households, which includes real estate, savings, stocks, bonds, etc., was $141,900, while that of African-Americans was $11,000, and the Hispanic household average was $13,700.

Linger over those numbers. How is it that we can address any kind of racial, ethnic or economic tensions when large groups of people in the United States have so little and fewer opportunities than whites to avail themselves of large parts of American society? These numbers are not well-publicized at all, but they need to be. Send them around social media. Put them on a poster. Talk to your friends.

But do something.

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Is It Just Me?

Is it just me, or does it still not feel like the holidays yet? Perhaps the warmish, wet weather we've been having here in the Northeast is partly to blame, or maybe it's that the calendar has jammed the buying season into one less week this year because of a late Thanksgiving. Yes, yes, Chanukah, for once, is neither early nor late, which is rare for a Jewish holiday, but I think there's something more than this going on in the country that's partly clouding the season.

We have other things on our minds. Ferguson. Staten Island. ISIS. Oil prices. Wages. Equality issues relating to gender, age, sexual preference and orientation. Supreme Court arguments over worker disability rights and whether someone can post noxious, threatening dreck on Facebook, call it rap, and never mind the effect on the intended target. Even sports won't let us relax and enjoy, what with players being suspended, unsuspended, arrested, concussed and, heaven forbid, involved in some of the aforementioned social issues. Why can't they just me like Mike and play the game?

It seems as if the country is a bit more serious than normal this holiday season, weighing the price of our freedoms against the responsibilities that come with them. We're looking at race and wondering why we still have problems and why whites and African-Americans still have such differing perspectives on how they are treated by police, the courts, storekeepers and mall security. We're looking at income inequality and wondering why companies that make billions can't lead by example and pay workers what they are worth, which is a wage that allows them to live a decent life. We're looking at who is an American and how we can make sure that people who live here and contribute to their families and communities can stay here without the fear that the government is going to deport them because of a long-ago action. In short, we're looking at justice and trying to make sure that everyone gets it because more than any other freedom afforded us, justice must be applied equally at all times.

In the end, I think this makes us stronger, and makes the season of giving that much more important. When we discuss, protest and even engage in some civil disobedience, we are reminded that we have given ourselves the greatest gifts of all: to live in a free society where we can air our concerns and make others realize that many groups in the United States are uncomfortable and unwealthy and insecure, and that each of us is responsible to make sure that every citizen is safe. That way, we can give other gifts, the material ones, knowing that we have done our part to make this a better country. The holidays we are about to celebrate are religious, but we need to remember that our national religion is democracy, and as such, we must all practice it.

So although it might not feel like the holidays just yet, I'm a little more optimistic that this season will see us do more good for ourselves and our neighbors.

Is it just me?

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

2016 Starts in 2015

Yes, I know that we just had a round of midterm elections and not every race from early in the month has been settled. Yes, I know the new Congress has not even been seated. Yes, I know the first NFL coach has yet to be fired so far this season. None of that matters because we're now on to the 2016 presidential election season.

At least I let you digest from Thanksgiving. Time to limber up and get your long-distance political mojo going. It's going to be a long campaign.

President Obama has done his level best to maintain his relevance, and I am firmly on the side of any chief executive who can hold onto the media cycle well into their sixth year. We'll see if he can do that. The Republicans are livid because they thought they actually won the elections and figured that Obama would cave in to their demands to deport all undocumented immigrants, give subsidies to the coal industry, and call for more heavy-handed police tactics in areas where the officers are mostly white and the population is mostly African-American or Hispanic. Just as he expected, after winning reelection in 2012, that the GOP would cave in on taxes and entitlement reform and immigration. So I guess we're all even.

As for actual legislation, I don't think that much will pass through the House, Senate and White House. It looks like congressional lawsuits against the executive on health care and the environment will have to suffice as the democratic process for the time being, and I doubt that a disaster, such as a collapsed bridge or more  extreme weather, will get the parties together.

And you know what that means, don't you? More time for politics, polling, breathless cable news pronouncements, pundit speculation and, of course, Twitter and Facebook explosions on race, women, the minimum wage, the war on coal and privacy.

This is just a friendly warning. I'm not going to prognosticate just yet. We have a holiday season to get through and I don't want to deter anyone from shopping or saving the economy. But the election is coming and it's best that we prepare.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Thirty Years An Educator

Thirty years ago today, I walked into York Preparatory School on New York's Upper East Side for my first day as a high school history teacher. I had no formal training as a teacher except for my degree in History from Syracuse University. I had been working in advertising for a Madison Avenue firm that no longer exists using the other major I completed at Syracuse, in Telecommunications Management from the Newhouse School of Public Communications. I liked the work, liked the atmosphere, liked the potential for advancement and economic gain.

And yet.

From the time I was about 15 or 16, I had thought about teaching and knew that I could be successful at it, but I didn't pursue it for all of the logical reasons: low pay, lack of societal respect, and low pay. I loved history, and obviously still do, and had fun taking courses. I went into acting and stand-up comedy, worked in television in New Jersey and advertising in New York. The turn to teaching came, as many great things in life, by happenstance.

I had a friend from college who was a teacher and she told me there was an opening at the private school where she taught, and she also said that you didn't need a teaching certificate to teach in private schools. I called and was able to schedule an interview. Turns out the headmaster went to graduate school with my father. He was a nice guy. The head of the history department wanted someone with more experience. I figured I had come to the end of the string.

Four months later, a different headmaster called me and said he'd gotten my name from this other headmaster, who happened to be his brother-in-law. It turned out that one of the teachers wasn't working out and was I interested in teaching? I interviewed. The headmaster was a very nice guy, and so was the department chair. We talked history for an hour. They hired me.

I wore a three piece suit with Allen Edmonds wing tips on the first day. Reported at 8:00, while my first class wasn't until 11:30. During that crucial three hour stretch, I received my teaching degree from the Ronald P. Klein School of Teacher Preparedness. Ron was a fellow history teacher and over the four years I was at York Prep we became very good friends. They were probably the most productive hours in teacher training I've ever spent. He told me to focus on classroom management and to engage the students at every turn. He said to be respectful, but not to smile before January. He said to make students think and write, write, write. It was terrific advice. I still follow it, except maybe for the smiling part.

But the best part was that I loved it, as I thought I would. Loved being with the students studying history. Loved the energy and inquisitiveness that most of the students exhibited. Loved the atmosphere. Loved the schedule. Loved it.

And I still do. Yes, I have written over the years about how teachers aren't as respected in American society as they need to be, and I don't see that changing any time soon. And yes, pay increases are not keeping up with the cost of living in New Jersey, and many teachers are actually taking home less pay despite some salary increases because they are paying more for their health and pension benefits.

Oh, and then there is the constant, cyclical adoption of trendy educational ideas that are supposed to guarantee student success in the classroom and in life. Back-to-basic education, Whole Language instruction, Reading in Context, Cooperative Education, Differentiation, Phonics, New Math, Self-Esteem, Learning Clusters, and now Common Core Standards. I've missed many, but they're all fads including the new teacher evaluation system in many of the states. These too will be replaced soon because they don't do what they promise to do, and that's to improve both teacher and student performance.

What will guarantee education excellence is to have excellent teachers in the classrooms. So far we've done a good job of that, but we need to do more to ensure that the next generation of teachers is more widely respected, paid according to their societal worth and make sure phony politicians have as little to do with what happens in schools as possible.

I consider myself lucky to be able to say that I still enjoy getting up at 5:30am to teach history. Still enjoy being in the classroom interacting with students. Still enjoy the give-and-take of academic discourse. Still enjoy the positive comments I receive about the work I've done.

Have a great day, and Happy Thanksgiving.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Let the Underestimation Begin...Again

We've seen so many patterns develop over the course or Barack Obama's presidency, from the rise of the Tea Party and their attendant obstinacy and insistence that the president is an illegal alien who's usurped the office and ruled illegally, to foreign leaders who see Obama as weak and unable to guarantee that efforts to change world events will pass muster in the US Congress, to liberals who are disturbed that he hasn't closed Guantanamo and continues to try and negotiate or compromise with a Republican party that will not do either, and then will turn around and accuse him of not negotiating or compromising. (That was all one sentence. Breathe.)

But now both right and left will make their third, and final, mistake, when it comes to the Obama presidency: underestimating him.

The GOP has made underestimating the president, and overestimating its own power and influence, an industry worthy of investment by the one-percent. They didn't think he'd be able to get things done in his first two years, then they thought that health reform was dead when Scott Brown was elected Senator. They then believed that they could stall his agenda long enough to stall the economy, then defeat him in 2012. Finally, they thought that the results of the elections two weeks ago would mean the effective end of his term, and that he would suddenly respect their power so much that he will now support the XL pipeline, slash taxes to the wealthy, militarize the southern border, and convince two Supreme Court justices to resign so he could appoint both Koch brothers to the bench.

So what does the president do? Signs a major climate agreement with China. Signs a trade agreement with China. Talks about sending more military reinforcements to Syria. And this week he will sign executive orders that will give up to 5 million immigrants the ability to obtain Social Security cards, driver's licenses and the peace of mind to know that families with illegal or undocumented parents will not be broken up. Meanwhile, people who try to cross the border will be stopped and deported, and not one immigrant will get legal status or citizenship, despite the GOP's interpretation.

Looks like this lame duck is roaring like a lion and stalking like a tiger.

Let the final underestimation begin.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Left Lost. It's Temporary. Move On.

Democratic hand-wringing continues over last week's election results, but really, I don't understand the angst. The party ran a message-less campaign, didn't allow it's most valuable asset, the president, to defend his record, ran away from its soul  and against better GOP candidates, and was fighting ages-old historical tides that pointed to losses as far back as the spring. The polls were way off in terms of victory margins and many Democrats practiced what Republicans perfected in 2012: fiddling with the numbers until they said what they wanted them to say.

I, for one, am not surprised at the outcome, nor am I devastated by the turn of power in the Senate and the loss of more House seats. This was going to happen. The point now is to figure out how to regroup for 2016.

The Republicans made great strides in their technology and that helped them this fall. They also ran candidates who were slightly less conservative than the Tea Party folk who stuck large shoes in their mouths in 2010 and 2014. And their voters showed up at the polls. How can you beat that?

Voter turnout for this election was abysmal in many states, so the real issue for me is how to get more people to become engaged in the political process. People who vote are more likely to be active in their communities and to care more about issues. Young people came out in better numbers in 2008 and 2012, but they stayed home this year. It's up to all of us to try and get them, and other constituencies, to vote in all elections.

There is some talk about younger people not supporting Democrats as they did in the past, but mostly because these youngsters believe that the culture wars are over and the Republicans lost. That means they can vote for GOP candidates based on their free-market values. We'll see how long that lasts, especially if the Republicans continue to deny climate change and support anti-choice legislation.

As for the president, he is clearly moving at his own pace, and the climate deal with China, along with his promised executive orders on immigration are the latest signs that he's not going to back down. This clearly bothers Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, but I think they're bothered simply because Barack Obama is president. Anything he does just produces bonus disgust.

Reason enough for me to feel better.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Post-Modern Mortem

The days after elections are so much fun. Sort of like the day after Thanksgiving when the turkey and fixin's get a chance to mature and mellow and the remembrance of a holiday is still fresh in the memory.

Well, at least it's like that for the Republicans. They get a chance to gloat and tell the country just how much they're loved and how the voters want them to change the tenor and direction of the debate in Washington and how the war on women didn't work and Hispanics are more interested in the economy than immigration and that the president is not relevant any more and other things that, take a breath please, just aren't true.

Democrats did a terrific job with those rose-tinted political spectacles on their noses hoping that the poll numbers were under-counting the young and African-American and female voters who were poised to spring out of their homes and rescue the party one final time before Obama takes his techno-laden GOTV effort back to... well, wherever he's going come January 20, 2017.

What this election will be remembered for is that the South went all Republican, completing a 150 year flip from solidly Democratic and segregationist to solidly Republican and conservative. We can talk all we want about how diverse the country is becoming; the South is having none of it, even in Georgia where the left left its heart in the not very capable hands of the descendants of Carters and Nunns. What, none of the Mondales or McGoverns wanted to run? And who's up next? A Clinton? We might need to rethink this one.

This election will also be remembered for how ordinary it turned out to be. The unpopular president's party took a beating in his sixth year. Yawn.

The Republicans had better candidates who mentioned rape not once and found that they could win more votes than the Democrats who ran Usain Bolt-like from Obama. Yawn, roll over.

The right finally learned how to use the new media and mobile landscape to close the techno gap that the Democrats owned for two election cycles. Bound to happen. Yawn, toll over, hit the snooze button.

We also got the day-after sermons from the pulpit about how Boehner, McConnell and Obama will now learn to work with one another for the good of the country and find common ground on the major issues that concern Americans in their daily lives. And they said all of these things with straight faces.

What will really happen is that the Republicans will take out their pent-up frustrations with Harry Reid with laser-like precision, using their slim majority to pass as many bills as they can using reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes, rather than submitting legislation that could be filibustered. There will be no climate change regulations or carbon taxes, but we will get the XL Pipeline. There will be no immigration bill with a path to at least being able to stay in the country, but we will get a bigger, thicker, more secure fence in Arizona and New Mexico, ensuring that fruit prices will skyrocket because it will be rotting on the vines and in the fields for lack of pickers. We might even get some modifications to the ACA, but just enough to mess the law up for those who need it most. And we won't get any judicial nominees through the Senate. Period.

The country will muddle through for the next two years with the economy continuing its slow $8.25 per hour recovery, states will continue to lead on marriage equality and legalization of marijuana, lower gas prices will help squeezed households, and technology will wow us anew with its ability to make us more productive and efficient.

Big change, though will need to wait.

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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Election Season: Was It Good For You?

I am willing to concede that the Republicans will most likely win enough seats in Tuesday's Senate elections to take control of the chamber and... and... deny the heck out of President Obama's judicial appointments for the next two years. Other than that, a GOP-run, Mitch McConnell-led august debating chamber will do little more. They can try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash taxes to deserving millionaires, vote to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, fund more coal-fired power plants, rail against unions and decry the evil intentions of those who would dare to support the Common Core Curriculum standards, and all it will get them is... nothing.

And two years from now, when the Obama coalition comes back to the polls, the GOP will most likely lose their majority and, by the by, the presidential election for the third straight time.

This means that next Tuesday will need to be a mass right-wing orgasm, followed by a mass right-wing cigarette, whose afterglow shudders will need to reverberate until 2020.

Consider the landscape. Most Republicans are locked into very close races in states that Obama lost in 2012. Couple that with the fact that Obama's approval numbers are in Bush-Nixon territory and you have a scenario where the opposition party should be cleaning up. Now here comes the threesome: Despite being ahead in the polls, most of these Republicans aren't attracting newer Obama voters to their campaigns. They're actually struggling with the voters who should be most enthusiastic about a GOP takeover of the Senate. But it's not happening. The fact that the Tea Party is staying fairly quiet through this cycle also tells you a great deal about enthusiasm on and for the right.

If more Obama voters, the young, the female, the Hispanic, the African-American, come out to vote on Tuesday than are currently projected, then these elections will get very interesting. I don't see that happening but it does bode well for the Democrats' future because those voters will come out in 2016.

And as bad as losing the Senate might be for the left, the fact that the GOP is not running on repealing the ACA and is even giving a bit of credence to the idea that we might need to address this climate issue, tells us that the American people want action. This should put pressure on the GOP Congress because now they will be responsible for actually doing something other than saying no.

It is true that the country is in an especially sour mood over a lot of issues that we'll need to address over the next two years, but Ebola will go away and the economy will continue to improve. More people will have health insurance. And perhaps the parties will begin to work together again.

Ever the optimist.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Polls 1 Issues 0

The Republicans are surging on the prediction markets, leading pundits to write that the Senate races are all but over.

But Michelle Nunn, the Democrat, now has a 3 point lead in the latest poll for the Georgia Senate race.

President Obama, though, seems to be a real drag on Democratic candidates who are running from him as fast as they ran to him in 2012.

Meanwhile, an internal Democratic poll has Mark Udall in the lad in the Colorado Senate race, while a Republican polling firm shows Democrat Mark Begich up 10 points in Alaska.

With just over a week to go until election day, it's still anyone's Senate and don't let anyone tell you differently. New polls contradict old polls and wild swings in some states are showing that trying to gauge public attitudes is not for the feint of heart.

What we're missing, though, are issues. Yes, state races do tend to be won or lost on state concerns, but after four years of bashing President Obama you'd think the Republicans would run on something positive and the Democrats would run on the legislation they were elected to pass. There are some exceptions, such as this Representative in Florida who is running on environmental concerns by framing them in terms of clean water and flood control,  but mostly GOP candidates are running on governmental ineptitude regarding Ebola and ISIS, and Democrats are running on...well, that's even more difficult to determine since most are running away from health care, the environment, financial reform and guns.

Poll after poll shows the voters supporting what Democrats generally support and give Republicans lower ratings on governing, but that doesn't seem to matter. A few Senate incumbents will lose, but 96% of House members will be reelected. So much for throwing out the gridlockers.

And for those of you who need a history lesson, Bill Clinton is here to tell us that partisanship was worse in the 1990s, but that he and Newt got some things done. And Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill got even more done while sniping at each other all day, then sipping scotch and swapping stories come 5 o'clock. I can't help but think that the real difference between then and now is that we've elected a bunch of entitled, wealthy, spoiled brats to the Congress and that once we get some real adults in there we'll start moving some legislation.

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Real Scare

Ain't nobody does scary like the Republicans. Even Democrats, who've been scaring the elderly for years saying that the GOP would cut their Medicare, can't hold a candle to the right wing fright machine once it gets enough cheap American gasoline inside it. This week was a banner week for scary, and it's going to grease the midterm slide so completely, that the Democrats won't need Joe Biden around anyhow.

Never mind that Ebola is devastating West Africa and wreaking havoc on international travel and national psyches. It's now a political issue and a subject for conspriacy theories. Some are comparing the government's response to the outbreak to GW Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina, though the scale is, at this point, much smaller. And of course the anti-government crowd is blaming the government, the CDC and local administrations for fumbling the response. There is an element of truth in this. Potential carriers should not have flown on commercial airlines, nor should hospitals be unprepared for possible outbreaks.

Now, here comes the fear. If it's not Ebola, it's ISIS and the scary possibility that our borders are so porous that diseases and Islamic terrorists are pouring into the American southwest. With the economy growing slowly and the stock market sagging, it's more evidence to many that the Democrats do not deserve to keep their majority and since most of the Senate races are in red states, well, the writing's on the wall. I have been saying that the Democrats will hold their majority in November, but that will now depend almost solely on turnout.

So make sure you get out and vote. And don't be afraid.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Political Muddle

If the sentiments expressed in this article in the New York Times today is any indication, then the Democrats are in deep trouble in the November Senate elections. President Obama still has his fans, but even people who voted for him are losing some faith that he can lead the country out of its present political torpor in the last two years of his term. His opponents, and at this point there are more than ever, are downright gleeful at the thought of having the GOP take both houses of Congress, though they do express frustration and anger at his failures.

RealClearPolitics is being a bit coy about it, but most of the recent polling gives the Republicans leads in the states they need to win to take control of the chamber. The same is true over at Electoral-Vote, except the Votemaster is not being coy at all and is saying at this point that the GOP will claim at least 52 seats after the elections. And even over at the Princeton Election Consortium the news for Democrats is not positive, with the prognostication currently calling for 51 Republicans come January.

Does this mean that it's over? Not at all. Democrats famously under-perform in midterm election polling and there's still a half-month to go before the votes are counted. President Obama has lent his also famous get-out-the-vote apparatus to the national party and most polling organizations make an assumption that the electorate in 2014 will look a lot like that of 2010. If that's true, then the GOP will win. If not, and more of the Democrats' constituents come out to vote, then there will be many surprises on election night.

The mood of the country will have a good deal to do with the outcome, and right now the Republicans have the upper hand. Of course, they are running on the fear of Ebola and ISIS, which they are convinced will both run through the United States over the next couple of weeks. It also doesn't help that the seats the Democrats have to defend are in mostly red states.

If the Republicans win this year, then payback will most likely come during a more favorable cycle for Democrats in 2016. In the meantime, look for Congress to try to repeal the ACA, continue to investigate Benghazi, fortify the Mexican border against terrorists, and lower taxes on the wealthy.

You know, the real issues.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Attack on History

I suppose that many Americans will see the report that the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado has decided not to blatantly impose its view of United States history on the district's students as a victory for common sense and educational policy. For those who need a refresher, here's the basic idea, from the article:
After two weeks of student protests and a fierce backlash across Colorado and beyond, the Jefferson County School Board backed away from a proposal to teach students the “benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights,” while avoiding lessons that condoned “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
So far, so good. The students and staff did a masterful job leading a peaceful protest against the proposed alterations and even shut two high schools down with a sickout last week. This paragraph ends, however, with a rather chilling sentence:
But the board did vote 3-to-2 to reorganize its curriculum-review committee to include students, teachers and board-appointed community members.
Which is then followed by the hammer blow:
The Jefferson County schools superintendent, Dan McMinimee, who suggested the compromise, said it represented the “middle ground” in a fevered debate that pitted the board’s three conservative members against students, parents, the teachers’ union and other critics who opposed the effort to steer lessons toward the “positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”
You see, the dispute has not been solved. The Superintendent and the conservatives have merely made their viewpoint a position that needs to be debated and taken seriously as an opening gambit in a larger attack on public school curricula. The other side, which includes students, educators and parents, now has to come up with a counter-argument for a discussion that doesn't have a counter-argument. Cutting out events you don't like or that don't satisfy your agenda is not how history should be taught. There is no "middle ground" when it comes to school boards injecting politics into what's taught in the classroom.

Even worse, the school board made this decision originally without the input of teachers, who should be the first ones consulted on any change to the curriculum, and the larger community, which clearly opposes the board's agenda.

There is a larger issue at work here that's operating under the radar of many citizens. There has been a heady debate over the past 10 to 15 years in education about whether the curriculum should focus more on teaching students skills or academic content. The Common Core Curriculum Standards and the Advanced Placement curriculum that's the basis of the Colorado argument, have sided demonstrably on the side of skills. The reasoning is that if students are taught how to conduct research, write coherent essays, solve equations and theorems, and apply experimental designs to scientific problems, then they will be able to use those skills for any educational endeavor. After all, the argument goes, middle and high school teachers are not training historians or mathematicians or research scientists.

I beg, humbly, to differ.

I'm a content guy. I can teach anyone how to structure an essay or to read a historical document and apply step-by-step analyses that will render a deeper understanding of its message, and the over 3,000 students, now adults, who have been in my classroom over the past 30 years can attest to my abilities and their growth. But if you don't have the knowledge, the "conceptual capital," as my former Rutgers University Graduate School Professor Wayne Hoy used to say at every turn, then you got...nothing. I am training budding historians because students need to see how history is written and debated and for that they need a detailed body of evidence, facts, conjecture and sources that will allow them to debate, judge, interpret and synthesize what they've learned. THEN, they can write an essay with a specific and relevant thesis and support their assertions with solid historical evidence. The same goes for every academic discipline. Unfortunately, the trend is towards skills at the expense of content.

A colleague and I wrote the new Advanced Placement United States History curriculum this past summer and I am now teaching my school's two section of that AP class. The College Board, which administers the AP program, has done a fine job re-imagining much of the new course. It's broken down into historical themes and focuses on the requisites skills that historians need to use to decipher the meaning of the past. There are content outlines that divide U.S. History into nine historical periods and tests that use documents and sources as the basis for evaluation and assessment.

At an AP seminar my colleague attended last spring, though, the leader could not adequately answer the question of what content knowledge the students would need to master in order to score well on the AP test. The best he could say was that students would need to know the usual facts. I think if you put 20 history educators in a room they could give you a rough outline of what the usual facts are, but this is the AP. They should be more specific. And the reason they can't be more specific is that the skills have won.

So how does that relate back to Jefferson County, Colorado, or any other mischief-making school board that wants to create more patriotic children who avoid conflicts and always respect authority (remember, we're talking teenagers here)? According to the article above, the AP has warned Jefferson County not to alter the curriculum because if they did then they can't call it Advanced Placement, but in the end, that won't matter. Why? Because now the content can be subtly manipulated to reflect anyone's agenda. When content and facts matter less, what people are actually taught can be chopped, rearranged or simply dropped while skills are used to fill the void. That's the danger, and as a nation, we have embarked on a new educational paradigm that will result in the striking contradiction of students practicing more, but learning less.

The Common Core makes the same skills-based assumption, and for me, that's a far more dangerous problem than the time lost for testing or the fear of the federal government injecting itself into state education standards. I cannot abide the thought of a generation schooled on how to perform tasks, but taught less content with which to provide context or relevance. We need to create analytical thinkers who know a specific body of knowledge. Then we can teach skills.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Senate Sense

I have gone on record as saying that the Democrats will somehow come out of the midterm elections still controlling the Senate, if only because Vice president Joe Biden will be the deciding vote in a 50-50 chamber.

That was last week. And a new spate of polls has the left in a bit of a tizzy, since they seem to show the GOP potentially picking up 7 seats, which would give them clear control. Let's take a look.

RealClearPolitics shows nine tossup races on their election map, but new polls last week also show Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado and Georgia moving to the right. One notable poll, from Qinnipiac, is clearly and outlier, but especially in Colorado, the trend is towards the Republican. Electoral-vote also shows the same trends, although a mouse-over some of the more contested states shows razor-thin majorities in Colorado, Arkansas and Iowa. And over at the Princeton Election Consortium, the Meta-margin is currently at R+0.9 using a polls-only model.

So what does this mean?

That the races are still too close to call and that we need many more polls to make some sense of where we stand. No candidate in any of the contentious states has 50% in any poll or poll average, making it difficult to gauge anything other than movement towards one candidate or the other. In the end, the Senate race will be one of bragging rights since President Obama will veto anything he doesn't like. The big repercussions will have to do with judicial and other nominees, where the Senate will most likely advise, but not consent. And in 2016 the GOP will be at the disadvantage, having to defend 23 seats.

The best news for the left, though, is the news that the GOP is still moving farther to the right, as evidenced by this past weeks Values Voter Summit.  As long as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Perry are the faces of the Republicans, they will continue to lose national races.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Go Home

I came across this article by Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard because I happened to be trolling around right wing sites and thought he had a provocative, interesting idea. I also found a site that castigated Progressives for Palin Derangement Syndrome. You know, that knee-jerk negative reaction the left has whenever Palins's name comes up. The author seemed to suggest that those on the left were offended by Palin's obvious feminism and suggested that the left loved women's rights and opinions, but not Palin's. Especially when she was shown shooting a gun. What the author missed is that Sarah Palin just sounds uninformed whenever she speaks. I have plenty of respect for her as a woman, as a mother, as someone who wanted to serve the people of Alaska. I just happen to disagree with every single word she utters. Nothing more, nothing less.

But I digress.

Fred Barnes wants the GOP to Go Big or Go Home, hence the title of my response. He says that if only the Republicans would advocate abolishing the IRS and a stronger, more muscular foreign policy, then they would win the hearts and minds of the American people. He does say that these positions might not win the GOP the Senate this fall, but would provide a template for action that the party could run on in 2016.

The problem is that most Americans do not want to get rid of the IRS, even though they hate its very guts. Deep down, they understand that if the United States is going to make good on its mission to protect the homeland and the common good, then it will need funds and a means by which to collect them. That's what the IRS does. What Mr. Barnes should really be advocating is that all the companies that evade U.S. corporate taxes should actually pay up. That might lessen the burden on the overburdened middle class and it might provide more funds for, you know, schools, roads, bridges, job programs and Medicare.

Barnes is not at all specific when he talks about why the country needs a more muscular foreign policy, or even what that looks like. I have a suspicion that it looks like a foreign policy that throws bombs and bullets on people who are either innocent or who already hate us to the point that more bombs and bullets will help their recruiting efforts. But he doesn't say, so this is all conjecture.

The article is instructive because these positions are precisely why the GOP has only won one big election since 2008, when they took over the House in 2010. Every other election has gone to the Democrats despite the baying from the right that Obama is abusing his power and is wrong on every issue. Clearly, America does not agree with that.

And that's why the Republicans will not win a majority in the Senate this fall, nor will they win the presidency in 2016.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

ALICE In Christie-Land

Governor coy-about-running-for-president-when-it's-clear-that-both-he-and-Hillary Clinton-are-definitely-in-the-race now has another problem.

Its name is ALICE. This is not a shouting person, as the name and all-CAPS might suggest, but an acronym for New Jersey's still-struggling middle class during the governor's tenure.

It stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, and along with the other economic fundamentals that are presently working against the governor, this measure be difficult for him to overcome. The data comes from a study conducted by the United Way of Northern New Jersey and the results are depressing. From the article:
Data compiled by the group show that 38 percent of New Jersey households are struggling to meet basic needs. These households are just scraping by, one lost job or medical emergency away from potential fiscal ruin.

While 11 percent of state residents fall below the Federal Poverty Line, which stands at an annual income of $22,811 for a family of four, the report found that when adjusted for cost of living the same family needs nearly triple that -- $61,200 – just to meet a basic survival budget.

In one of the wealthiest states in the country, 1.2 million households fall below this threshold. And while the state’s economy has shown signs of recovery in the wake of the Great Recession, the number of households struggling by the United Way measure increased by about 24 percent from 2007 to 2012, the most recent data available. 
Yes, I understand that this is not just a New Jersey problem, but it is, well...a New Jersey problem. And it has persisted under the Christie administration that only a few months ago was talking about a Jersey Comeback and proposing a tax cut that would have further devastated the economy and the middle and working classes. Christie has also vetoed a law that would have earned revenue from those wealthy residents who are doing very well because of the stock market rally and continues to threaten vetoes whenever such a law reaches his desk.

Take a moment and consider the components of the acronym. These are struggling New Jerseyans who have limited assets because they don't have a lot of paper or real investments, their incomes are constrained because wages have not kept up with either inflation or the value of the jobs they do, yet these residents are employed. They work a full day so they don't count under other government statistics, but they struggle mightily to make their bills and expand their, and their family's, horizons.

It's one thing if  the unemployed struggle. We expect that to happen and there are some programs that can help. But when people are working and struggling, then that's an added tragedy made worse by the governor's refusal to search for solutions that haven't been written by ALEC or vetted by the conservatives whose support he will desperately need in 2016. Public workers are now seeing an erosion of their take-home pay as they are required to contribute more for their pensions and benefits, and the governor wants them to pay more. Property taxes, long the main issue in statewide races, are still going up and will rise more as housing prices recover.

It all adds up to a mathematics that reduces New Jersey's middle class to treadmill animals running just to stay in place. The rest of the country needs to beware.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

From Summer to Serious

I've always found it interesting when the calendar changes to the day after Labor Day and the country gets serious. The rest of the world doesn't know from this holiday and I'm sure there's a great deal of literature on how the calendar affects world affairs. Thus, here we are.

The world continues to be on fire. ISIS, Syria, Israel, Palestine, West Africa, and English towns that breed terrorists are mainstays of the 24-hour news cycle. The president is excoriated for suggesting that we are at a loss over what to do about increasing threats overseas. Texas is on alert for possible infiltration across the Mexican border. But don't worry about that too much because Chris Christie was just in Mexico and I'm sure he'll scare off the militants. Of course, he hasn't a clue about foreign policy, but at least he didn't pull a Romney on his first foreign trip.

On the domestic political front, the big issue is that Congress is going to meet for a few days, adjourn, and go home to run for those all-important safe seats that 96% of the members occupy. Excepting, of course, those few Senate seats that are up for grabs. It's interesting to note that except for 2010, a big exception, I know, the Republican moon-bayers have been unable to defeat Obama and the Democrats and scare the country into giving the conservatives the control they will never, ever have. Yes, the House has been able to wreak havoc on the country and, by the by, their own party, but they have not been successful at implementing their agenda. They've only stymied the Democrats but for the 2009-2011 Congressional session.

Oh, and that ACA law thing? It's working fairly well. You know, millions of people now have health insurance, doctors are able to give elderly people more care, poor people can get Medicaid, except in states that don't take free money but say they are fiscally responsible. But no worries on that because those states that deny the money are actually paying so that the states that did take free Medicaid money can cover their populations. I live in one of those states. My governor wants to be president. Scared yet?

But if the Senate goes to the GOP, then both houses of Congress will vote to repeal the ACA, right? Well, possibly, but right now the GOP isn't taking the Senate. And chances are good that they won't. You heard it here third.

Did we even have a summer?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

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 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 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 or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and Me: A Comic Reminiscence

When I got out of college in 1982 a friend of mine, Michael "Smooth" Carrington, and I became a comedy team called Bob and Smooth and embarked on a grand adventure to New York to become stand up comedians. Our home club was the Comic Strip on Second Avenue and we did the late, late, late night spots that all budding comics have to cover to hone their craft and not embarrass themselves in front of too many people. By 1983 we were finding a modicum of success, had played some important clubs in New York and had done some out-of-town touring. It was a magical time.

In the fall of 1983, some of the Comic Strip regulars started an improvisation group that performed on Monday nights. Word quickly spread and we were performing before some pretty decent crowds and, if I can be so bold, the troupe was pretty darned funny.

In October, Robin Williams showed up and said that he wanted to perform with us. Turns out that he was in New York to film the movie, "Moscow on the Hudson" and had heard of the improv group. Of course, he knew all about the Comic Strip, which, with the Improv and Catch a Rising Star was one of the big three clubs for comedy in the city. To say that we were thrilled was an understatement and of course we all wanted to perform with Robin, which made for some interesting choices once the improv games commenced.

What I clearly remember was that Robin Williams was both one of the most confident, and one of the most scared individiuals I have ever met. When we were on stage together (tickles me to get to say that) his was a comic beast who spewed funny lines (and some unfunny ones) as easily as most people breathe. He was a joy to work with because, well, anything was fair game, any word was acceptable and any clunker could be turned into a laugh.

I particularly remember Williams' eyes while we interacted with him. His face and body might be in overdrive, but his eyes were very nurturing, giving us a look that said, "it's OK, just say what you want and have confidence in the joke." It was a terrific feeling because those of us in the improv group were certainly very nervous to be on stage with him. If one of us said something particularity inspired, those eyes smiled and winked (without winking) and he would take off with whatever line we had fed him. He was also generous while being a straight man, feeding us lines like comic t-ball stands that we could easily hit out of the park.

Of course, we all wanted to be on stage with Robin Williams and that led to some interesting turns. We played an improv game called tag, which is pretty self-explanatory; two people start a scene and then another comic tags one on stage, the scene stops, that comic leaves, and the new comic takes over. What happened was that we would all tag each other and leave Williams on the stage for an extended time (not that he minded), but it looked like a tutorial with eager comics approaching the guru and giving him lines that he would manically churn into his own private routine. The audience didn't care. Neither did we.

But Williams also appeared scared at times. Perhaps it was the fear that all comics experience when they're thrown into a new situation without a script and need to be funny. Sometimes he would continue to talk even though what he was saying was not very funny, hoping that the next thing out of his mouth would get the crowd going. There were also periods when he would disappear. It was difficult to do that when we played the tag game, but in other games he would say one thing and then withdraw, and he'd have this blank, scared look on his face. It didn't last long, but I noticed it. He also was one of those comics who was always "on," telling jokes but never revealing himself to any of us. I certainly understand that this might have been a function of his not knowing any of us, but my experience with comics who are always doing material is that they really don't know what else to say.

And for all of his fame, even in 1983, he came to the Comic Strip alone, left alone and always said the same thing when he went out the door. He had one of those huge down jackets that were fashionable in the 1970s and 80s and he would hold it close to his chest when the night was over and say, "I've got to go home and feed this thing."  Not terribly funny, but that's what he said.

I also saw Robin Williams utterly destroy another 1980s comic, Eddie Murphy in a performance that, looking back on it now, anticipated their career trajectories. At the time, Murphy was a star on Saturday Night Live and his two movies, "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Trading Places" had put him on the mega-star map. The Comic Strip was also Murphy's home club, (the club's owners were his managers), and he was using it to test out and hone material for his first national tour. The other club's comics, including me, stood in the back to see what Murphy had, and for the most part it was funny, but not spectacular.

In the middle of his routine, though, Murphy made a big mistake. Robin Williams was in the audience and Murphy asked him to come up on the stage and improv with him. Murphy never had a chance. Williams ran comic rings around him and was so stunningly funny that the audience didn't want him to leave. Murphy took back the stage, but the rest of his routine paled in comparison to what we had just seen.

My favorite Robin Williams story, or at least the one that I can connect to him personally, came after Williams finished filming "Moscow on the Hudson" and didn't perform with us anymore. One of the other improv games we played was called Expert, where 5 or 6 comics sit on stage and the audience tells us what subject we are experts in. We were then free to adopt a personality and, hopefully, be funny (I was an expert on water, hubcaps, and WD-40).  A comic named Rob (I forget his last name) had a character he created named Dr. Vinnie, a crude, rude, sexually-obsessed Brooklyn pseudo-doctor. He was very funny and performed the character every week that Williams was with us.

A couple of weeks later, Rob came into the Comic Strip and was very excited. He gathered us around and told us that he and his girlfriend were dining at a large restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center when Williams entered the restaurant. Of course, the place began buzzing as patrons noticed who had just walked in. Williams surveyed the scene, noticed Rob at one of the tables at the far end of the restaurant, and at the top of his lungs bellowed, "Look! It's Doctor Vinnie!" Imagine being in a restaurant and a star recognizes you.

That was Robin Williams. He was accessible and aloof, confident and unsure, always looking for the funny and frequently finding it. I will leave the psychoanalysis of his demons to those more qualified than I to discuss them, but his untimely death has me thinking about the shortness of life and making sure that we experience what we can.

I will say that I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have crossed paths with him and I will never forget those few weeks in the fall of 1983.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Education Reform Silly Season

It might be summer, but the education know-nothings are clearly not at the beach. The latest case-in-point is former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown's incredibly uninformed comments on teacher tenure that, unfortunately, millions of people saw and didn't stick around for the fact-checking. Her musings come on the heels of a California decision in which a judge ruled that tenure is unconstitutional because it deprives some students of a quality education. There is another case against tenure in New York States and I will assume that many other states will soon join in. It is true that there are some teachers who should not be in classrooms because they are ineffective or burned out, but depriving teachers of a due process right and subjecting them to firing because of issues unrelated to their job performance is the height of irresponsibility.

In Campbell Brown's case, she quotes the popular half-truth that the teacher is far and away the most important factor in a child's success, and that if all classrooms had effective teachers, then all students would learn. I suppose we could read this as a compliment for great teachers, but I also read it for the folly of what it implies.

What she and other education know-nothings are essentially saying here is that an effective teacher can overcome poverty, child abuse, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, dysfunctional and nonfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, developmental disabilities, ADHD, the autism spectrum, lack of sleep, entitled parents and students, and general ennui and make productive citizens out of every child. This is what teachers see in their classrooms and every one of these factors, or a combination of many of them, is a distraction or an impediment to learning. If effective teachers could negate them and educate children in spite of them, then we also need to elect teachers to Congress and the Presidency because the country clearly needs them.

The truth is that teachers do overcome these obstacles, but not at the pace that society needs in order to help all students. What then happens, and the education know-nothings are quick with the response, the teachers, whose students do not perform well on the latest misuse of data, the teacher evaluation metrics, are labeled incompetent and worthy of firing. Since tenure is in the way, getting rid of it is the know-nothing's illogical retort.

The proper response would be for those with microphones and cameras to focus their attention on providing living conditions in all communities that allow for jobs with livable wages, responsive public services, adequate public health care, affordable housing, enrichment opportunities for the children, and safe neighborhoods. Those teachers who work in such communities know why their students are more prepared than others. It's not rocket science, but it is science; and we know how the right wing feels about science.

To further the folly of their arguments, though, the know-nothings have managed to institute teacher evaluation systems throughout the land that will do everything except provide for a valid measure of an effective teacher. They've made testing the default activity in schools when there is little research to support a system based on such testing. And for those teachers who don't teach a testable subject, there's the SGO, or Student Growth Objective. But now those measures are under review because, surprise, SGOs don't provide for a valid measure either.

In New Jersey, teachers who have questioned the testing/SGO folly are finally being heard. Tests, which were going to count for 30% of a teacher's evaluation, will now only count as 10% for the coming school year, and SGO's will be under scrutiny for how they are used for evaluation. Neither measure has been shown to predict or confirm a teacher's effectiveness, and putting them under a microscope should confirm that. Of course, with Governor Christie now running for president, the chances of further reform are nonexistent, but perhaps in a few years things will change. Still, many otherwise qualified teachers will be affected by the evaluation system. That's the shame of it all.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Forty Years Ago

If I was a conspiracy theorist, which I am decidedly not, I would posit that the Democrats maneuvered the Watergate scandal to end right smack in the middle of the summer doldrums so that it wouldn't be drowned out by other political news. The truth is that Richard Nixon was enough to keep the story in the news for years after he resigned, so compelling a figure was he that he is still both loved as a foreign policy practitioner and loathed as a petty, selfish democratic tyrant.

The fortieth anniversary of his resignation on August 9 will find the country still in a state of political gridlock with both parties blaming the other for starting and perpetuating the problem. Television programs this week will look back on Nixon and his summer of discontent using newly released White House tapes and interviews with people who were there, and who now speak with more candor. There are a couple of new books about Watergate. The paradox is that as much as we think we know about the scandal, there is still more to learn. More people will talk. Papers stashed away with strict orders not to open them until the owner dies will reveal more. Perhaps the digital revolution will uncover the 18 and a half minute gap that has tantalized historians for forty years. These are tasty possibilities.

Watergate summer, though, can also be used as the first year of our present political troubles. Many Republicans have never forgiven Democrats for making the Watergate scandal more than what they thought it was; a minor political issue relating to the election of 1972 and nothing more. Democrats have blamed Republicans for using the Nixonian campaign manual for splitting the country and playing on white's fears of minorities and social programs that take money from middle class Americans and redistribute it to the poor.

It gets deeper. Robert Bork was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in part because he played a role in the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. From this point on, Supreme Court nominees have faced blistering questions about every aspect of their lives while giving stoic non-answers in reply. Democrats threatened to consider impeaching Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans made good on their promise by impeaching Bill Clinton. The current House of Representatives is suing the president over perceived unconstitutional actions. Gerrymandered seats protect representatives of both parties from having to make tough policy decisions.

Watergate and the political climate it engendered has not helped the United States. Congress did pass some reforms, but many of them have been overturned by the Supreme Court, especially the ones having to do with the corrosive influence of unregulated money in the political system. And in foreign policy, Nixon's actions helped open the door for more globalization, but we have no blueprint for a world in which the United States plays a less forceful role in international affairs.

More than half of all Americans living today were born after the Watergate scandal. That's good news because although we do need to remember and learn from the past, we also need to purge the emotion from our system. Political cultures tend to do better in the generation after a traumatic event has occurred. Ours will be no different.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Obama: This Duck Is Still Mobile

You would think, from all the talk about the midterm elections and the final two years of the Obama Administration, that the president doesn't matter anymore or that absolutely nothing will get done in Washington between now and January 2017. While we may be fighting political gridlock, and the possibility that few if any consequential laws will be passed soon, the rest of the wold is not stopping nor is our country's need for attention to our very real problems. The Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they do not want to work with Barack Obama or give him any victories from which the Democrats can claim any advantage going into the 2016 election season. This is no way to run a country, and we will pay a price in the future for our inability to act now.

There is no shortage of media stories purporting to paint Obama as a lame duck before his time, abandoning his legislative agenda in favor of executive orders and agency rule-writing. The problem with this interpretation is that Obama's actions, especially on the environment, will have a profound effect on business and industry. New rules that detail how much a company can pollute and whether they need to clean up their emissions is no small matter. If it was, then the various business groups that oppose these changes wouldn't be making so much noise.

The same is true with the Affordable Care Act. Yes, two Circuit Courts did issue contradictory rulings last week about whether people who buy policies on the federal exchange are entitled to subsidies, but in the end I believe that the law will be upheld and the subsidies will remain in place. I base this not on my fine reading of the law, but on the fact that by the time the Supreme Court gets the case, upwards of 30 million people will be covered by federal subsidies and the cost of ending them will be too much of a disruption to the country. Just as the Supreme Court ruled that police can't search cell phones without a warrant mainly because the justices understood first hand what that would entail, so they will understand what it means to take health care away from people or make it unaffordable. Either Roberts or Kennedy will provide the deciding vote in any future case; the former to maintain his legacy, the latter because he tends to see applicability more than the other conservatives. The result of any case will be the president having to issue orders or to order executive branch offices to maintain the law so that it continues to honor its promises.

The president is never a lame duck when it comes to foreign policy, and Obama will not be an exception. The world is on fire as we speak and the United States will play a role in unwinding many of the conflicts that engulf it. Critics have been unsparing in their denunciations of Obama's seemingly uninspiring handling of foreign affairs, but many on the right are calling for actions that the United States will not, and should not, take, such as sending troops or issuing ultimatums. Economic sanctions will have an effect on Vladimir Putin, and I think he understands this which is why he continues to push for separatist actions in Ukraine. Obama's continuing contact with Benjamin Netanyahu will result in a cease fire and long-term cessation of hostilities because the American president still carries great weight in the region. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya look hopeless, but a concerted American effort will yield some results. Ultimately, these countries will have to solve problems on their ow, but each will look abroad for help. Obama will be there.

Labeling a president as a lame duck is dangerous business in today's world because technology has made everything faster and response time smaller. The economy is improving, but if the stock market gains prove to be a bubble, then the president will need to act quickly. Any number of natural disasters would require a response. And if the GOP ever gets the message that tax policy, infrastructure improvements and immigration really do need more attention than suing or impeaching Obama, then perhaps we could have a significant bill before the next election.

I can dream, no?

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Christie: If You Want Pain, I'm Your Man

Yes, we have seen this before.

If there was any doubt that Governor Chris Christie wants to be president, let the dispelling commence. His full-throated diatribe against public worker pensions and benefits today marks the moment when he unofficially officially began his run. And if anyone thinks he's a moderate, sensible Republican, then that person is seriously fooling himself.

As opposed to 2011, when Christie was able to use his alliances with key Democrats to get a pension and benefits bill through the legislature, this attempt at making not only current workers but also retirees pay more for their retirements will be a far more difficult sell. The New Jersey Education Association has recovered from its lackluster response three years ago and is now ready to properly defend itself and its members. Representatives of the police and firefighters were protesting outside the hall where Christie was speaking in Belmar, and it's never a good idea to present yourself as a healer and unifying force when the people who fight fires, protect and educate the public are behind the barricades. Christie can make the argument that the 2011 reform was necessary, but this time it has "appeal to the right-wing" written all over it.

From an economic viewpoint, taking more money out of the pockets of middle and working class people makes little sense. Less money means less spending. Less spending means slower growth. What the state's economy needs is an infusion of money to stimulate spending and investment. Remember that only Illinois stands between New Jersey and the terrible 50th ranking on the economic growth charts. This is hardly the economy Christie wants to run on in 2016. There's no New Jersey Miracle; the only miracle is that Christie thinks he's doing a good job.

Christie apparently has not learned the lesson of Mitt Romney's run in 2012, because his plan protects the wealthy from any kind of pain. Christie's argument has always been that if the state raises taxes on the wealthy, that they will then leave the state and take their money with them. Never mind that there's little statistical evidence of that happening. In fact, in New York, more working class people left than wealthy people when taxes went up.

Christie's math must then assume that middle class residents will not be able to leave the state because, with their houses under water literally and figuratively, they'll be stuck. The workers pay more so that the wealthy can stay. That's been his position ever since he became governor and that's going to be his downfall.

What complicates Christie's position even further is that the New Jersey Pension system is seeing larger than expected gains because of the rise in the stock market. While this will not last, it supports the Democrats' arguments that if Christie had only authorized full state pension payments since the reform law was passed, then there would be even less of a shortfall. But the Republican argument since the economic crash of 2008 is that the country needs radical fiscal restructuring on taxes and the debt. A growing economy works against them because it means a lower deficit and more money in people's pockets. GOP scare tactics don't work when consumers feel better.

In the end, my sense is that this proposal is dead on arrival at the Democratic legislature's door, but I've been wrong before. This sounds like a campaign platform pure and simple, and one that will not only not solve the problem, it will make it worse. If the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has taught us anything, it's that supply side economics is alive and well in the country and is holding back the recovery. Electing Christie would be a disaster for the middle and working classes.

Let the campaign begin.

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