Sunday, December 27, 2015

College Is For Everyone. Except for Those It's Not

Seeing as how I'm an education dinosaur, having taught for the past 32 years, I've seen many a fad, meme, phase and reform come and go during my career. Each of these aforesaid events was billed as the new reality and the change that would ignite the staid and conservative field into a dynamo that would catapult American students into the learning stratosphere, nay, outer space, when it came to classroom success and global competition.

It turns out that all of that change resulted in a lot of change which resulted in a lot of public money going to programs that were quickly abandoned for the next change. As for the students, well, SAT scores are up and more students are taking Advanced Placement tests in the suburbs, but poverty has increased and with it so has the attainment and achievement gap in the less wealthy areas of the country. This does not auger well for the latest and, perhaps, greatest new education focus which is, that all students must go to college.

Education has run into this "all" problem before. Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush proposed education programs that required that all students become proficient in their subjects and that all students pass either state or national tests to prove their learning. Of course, this is impossible; not all students can pass all tests and not all students can become proficient in every subject as measured by a test. So we know that, at least in statistics, all three of these presidents were substandard. All students can certainly learn, but not all students can achieve at the level they need in order to succeed in higher education. And the dirty little secret is that they should not be forced into doing so.

One of the consequences of this race to college is playing out across the country, and is laid bare in this article about the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district in New Jersey. The problem there is endemic to other suburban, wealthier school districts where the focus is on competition, grades, extracurricular activities and building a resume for college. I can say from first hand experience that this is the norm in many of these districts and it is also the norm that many students to feel too much pressure to succeed, to earn high grades consistently, and to be busy at all hours of the day doing homework, or not, as some districts including West Windsor have adopted a modified no-homework policy, playing sports, which has become a major conduit for girls to get scholarships for college, performing community service, or taking part in the arts, especially the Off-Broadway quality of many schools' music, dance and theater programs (and no, they are not Broadway quality. Sorry.).

The problem is that schools are now starting to abandon their roles as educational institutions and are quietly becoming warehouses where students spend a less-than-engaging part of their day until they can get to the fun stuff. The issue is that the school day places enormous pressure on the students to do things that do not come naturally, such as analyzing data and writing, manipulating ideas, and creating new knowledge out of disparate theories. They also need to, here goes, fail. That's right. If you truly want to learn, you need to fail a few times before you can master ideas. It's necessary to fail, but failure--goodness, even a C--is not an option. So parents put pressure on children. The school puts pressure on children. Children put pressure on themselves, and society says that if you don't go to college your life will be ruined.

Thus, the problem described in the article. I do not agree with relaxing standards or enacting less or no-homework policies (another fad), but I do think that we need to rethink the college part. It's not an admission of failure if your child does not go to college right away or ever if that's truly in their best interests. Not all students are academically inclined, and that's what higher education is all about. Colleges and universities are not job factories or technical-training institutions. They are laboratories for academic and theoretical research. They do provide internships and work experiences, but very few students who graduate with a BA or BS are well qualified or ready to actually work. That's another step in the process that all adults need to master.

Students who do well in college are proficient readers and can organize their time. They can sit for long periods and can absorb sophisticated and often contradictory ideas. They can navigate the social structure of an institution that might be radically different in scope, size and demographics from the community in which they lived, grew up and were educated. Does that sound like everyone? No, it does not. It's no wonder that 35% of adults in this country have a college degree. It's not for everyone and it wasn't meant to be for everyone.

Our challenge is not to shoehorn (dinosaur term) all students into an experience that is not meant for them but rather to find experiences in which they can succeed, enjoy and challenge themselves. Many parents want colleges to be those kinds of institutions, and that's why colleges are fighting back and saying that their purpose lies in other areas. We would do far better as a nation if we recognized that there are, or at least should be, other avenues for students who can be productive citizens without academic work. Then we can reduce some of the pressures that students feel and address
the problems associated with outrageous and unnecessary expectations.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ugliness in the Season of Beauty

I usually look forward to the December holidays because, for at least one month, people in the United States tend to he hopeful, helpful, optimistic and happy. They look backward at the year that was and take stock, and they look forward with anticipation at what the new year will bring.

This year, things are most certainly different. The terrorist attacks here at home and in France, Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales have sapped some of the love and light from the season. We are a scared nation with no clear path forward for our national leaders to take us. Want to bomb Syria far more brutally? An option. Want to send ground troops to Syria and Iraq? Another option. Want to create a coalition of American, European and Middle Eastern countries to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups? A third option. But none of them seems like THE option and they all involve terrible risks both overseas and at home.

President Obama has been steadfast in his insistence that we will not send masses of American troops to Syria or Iraq and I think that's exactly the correct strategy for now. He has rightly been criticized for downplaying the ISIS threat and for not standing behind his threat to attack Syria if Assad used Chemical weapons in the war, but most Americans do not want to see our men and women coming home in body bags. The old joke is that we shouldn't elect anyone who actually wants to be president because it's a terrible, impossible job. These are the times.

The focus on attacks from radical terrorists has overshadowed the home-grown terror that has also shaken the nation.  The killings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was quickly forgotten in the wake of San Bernardino, but both were shocking events by people who were motivated by hatred, a misplaced fanaticism, and unbending ideology. In both shootings, the perpetrators should never have been allowed to get their guns, but because we are rapidly making the Second Amendment more important than the First, more people will get guns and use them on innocent people.

The other event that is dampening the holiday spirit is the presidential election. The Republican candidates are falling over themselves to blame Muslims and immigrants for our problems and have created an atmosphere where attacks on American Muslims are rising, and overreactions to a school assignment in Virginia that led to the entire school system being shut down because a teacher asked her students to copy a passage from the Koran using calligraphy. Dangerous, inflammatory rhetoric has its consequences and we are now living them large.

The left also has its problems when it comes to these issues. Calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses only serve to segregate students and ideas, making common cause that much more difficult. If a person doesn't feel safe in the general population, that's a problem that needs to be addressed head-on. The answer is not to provide areas where people can retreat or have their ideological bubble reinflated.

The unfortunate aspect of this particular racist, phobic spasm we're living in now is that it's a very American trait. In fact, it's more a part of our history than acceptance of different people and ideas. We eventually do make room in our society for those we first shun and isolate, but it takes too long and we backslide far too often. One need only look at how African-Americans are being treated by police forces to understand just how much more work we need to do on justice, even as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

We will eventually move forward as a country and I'm looking forward to a shift in tone from politicians and a shift in attitude from many of my fellow Americans. In the meantime, I wish you peace and joy, humility and introspection, thoughtfulness and forthrightness, love and honor. And let's turn the ugliness around. Now.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Climate Changes, But it Needs to Change More

I'm not sure which I enjoy more; the GOP underestimating Barack Obama's political durability or the fact that the Republican Party is against most policies that would make sense in this world.

The GOP is already under pressure for allowing those that are on no-fly lists to buy guns, as if any interference in the 2nd Amendment is tantamount to treason. I understand that some people who are on the no-fly lists are on there erroneously, but should the bias be to assume that they're on their erroneously? Doesn't Donald Trump's call for keeping all Muslims out of the United States assume, for safety's sake, that all Muslims are terrorists, even the one's that aren't? Or that all Mexicans who want to come here or are here withour proper papers are criminals, even the one's who aren't? I think it makes sense to err on the side of safety and not allow those on the lists to buy guns. That would be prudent.

And speaking of guns, it turns out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan had a chat last week about the budget and also about lifting the ban on federally funded research into gun violence, an especially noxious provision that was foisted on the government by the NRA. Just think about that for a second. In a world that's been taken over by data and metrics and crowdsourcing and research, the greatest democracy in the world cannot fund research into gun violence. How does anyone stand for that? Imagine what we might...oh, what's the word...oh yes--LEARN--if such studies were allowed. Ignorance is cheap and the last vestige of the truly frightened. No wonder Donald Trump is leading in the polls.

Which brings us to climate and the real possibility that the world will begin to actually do something to mitigate climate change. It's true that the new accord reached in Paris will not solve the issue. After all, you don't solve an issue that's been around since the 1750s in a 50 year period, but it's a real step and president Obama can rightly add this to the list of historic accomplishments that history will remember and thank him for. It is true that many of the accord's provisions will need further support from the next president, but I have every confidence that the next president will be supportive of the deal.

But again, the GOP seems out-of-sorts when it comes to the climate issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems oblivious to the fact that the coal industry both in the United States and a good part of the world, is on its deathbed. It's not coming back to West Virginia or Kentucky or Pennsylvania and to try and hang on to it and essentially lie to the inhabitants of those states that the coal economy is coming back is dishonest.

Even the oil and gas industry is on the decline, but it doesn't realize how greasy the slope is. Yes, there is a load of oil and gas in the economy now and prices are cheap and getting cheaper. The OPEC nations, who were once the bane of our existence, are reeling and continue to pump more. Why? Because they need every penny they can get and if they stanch the supply and prices go up, they lose again because more people will buy alternative energy automobiles, drive less and look for ways to save money. Saudi Arabia and Iran and Iraq and Russia and Venezuela rely heavily on oil revenues. My fear is that political and economic unrest from falling national revenues will further inflame the world.
That's why this new climate agreement is so important. The President, and many Americans of all political persuasions, understands that addressing the effects of climate change are vital to our economic and political interests. Many of the rebellions that started in the Arab world in 2010 are tied to the lack of water, limited harvests and high food prices. Other uprisings are certainly possible. It is vital that we at least take some action now. This agreement is a first step. And the public is behind the president.

The GOP candidates who continue to deny that the climate is changing because of human activity are in danger of becoming outliers in their own party, and certainly the world. If we are to lead on this issue, and we must, then the national government needs a leader who recognizes that this is an issue to address now. We risk being marginalized or ridiculed by the rest of the world if our president reverses course in 2017 and undoes what Obama has carefully and diplomatically wrought.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Let's Get This Straight: Trump Will Not Be President

He won't even be the Republican nominee in 2016.

Yes, I know, the New York Times just published a poll that has Trump high atop the GOP field and gaining strength as the one candidate who will keep us safe. He's everywhere on cable and network news and is a constant topic of conversation on social media. Even Hillary Clinton has stopped dismissing him as a joke and is responding to his absurd claims. This is necessary for now because Trump will not go away on his own. He has to be shown the door and that will happen. It will be messy, but it will happen.

Why am I so sure about the Donald? Because he's essentially an excellent salesman but a political fraud who knows how to sell himself, and he's attached himself to a message and a persona that insulates him from criticism for saying outrageously xenophobic, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and just plain wrong things on a daily basis. What he has done marvelously well is to tap into the country's fears about terrorism and he has accused the president of not only not doing enough, but of purposely allowing us to be vulnerable.

Trump doesn't need to repeat the lie about Obama not being a citizen because he has better ammunition: the president is the problem, the other, the un-American, them.He's also been able to reduce Jeb Bush to a quivering mass of jello, make fun of Marco Rubio's youth, calls Ben Carson a know-nothing, and says that of course Chris Christie knew about the GW Bridge lane closings despite the fact that not one shred of evidence has been credibly produced that he did.

My question, then, is this: Is this what we want in a President? The answer is no.

The simple reason is that not even Donald Trump can continue to run his campaign as he has been. As soon as Trump stops saying vile things, he's finished, because the truth is that he really has no platform, no singular idea other than hate, no economic plan, no foreign policy, no domestic policy and a lifetime of conflicting views on issues on which most Republicans will not ever compromise.

Right now he gets a pass at the debates because of the sheer number of GOP candidates still in the race. Come January, the real campaign begins and I'm assuming that Trump is not going to be prepared for it. Voters will want real answers for their economic problems and they'll want details as to how Trump is going to carry out his plan to throw out 11 million people from this country and what it would take to barricade us so that other people can't come in. They'll want to know what he wants to do with taxes, legal issues, health care and business policy. He's said some thinga about these, but the media and the people will demand answers.  And he either won't have them or he'll give vague answers or he'll do what he's doing now about national security--he'll try to fake it. This isn't the midterm or the early semester quiz. It's the final exam and Trump is going to fail.

In addition, as the GOP field narrows, he's going to need to say even more because there will be fewer voices to take up precious airtime. This is where he will falter because he will need to become less radical and say fewer provocative things. Trump has built his campaign on those two pillars. Once he stops, his reason for running will be gone. The Republican Party is hoping that this happens in January before he can do real damage. I'm not sure the party will get its wish, but ultimately the balloon will deflate.

I've certainly been caught off-guard by Trump's durability and political stamina. It's delayed the ascent of a viable candidate and will only hurt the GOP for as long as his campaign lingers.

But rest assured my fellow Americans--Donald Trump will not be elected president in 2016. And for that, we can be thankful.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Our Answer to Terror: Do Nothing on Guns

On December 9, the Supreme Court is going to hear arguments concerning how far the Fourteenth Amendment goes towards protecting diversity programs in university admissions.

On October 5, the Court decided that a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights to counsel were not violated and a Maryland Court's decision was overturned.

Last June, the Court ruled in a case that questioned just how far the Environmental Protection Agency can go when it tries to regulate and issue rules concerning clean air and water requirements.

In each of these cases, and the overwhelming majority of others, the Court has, or will, rule based upon the Justices' interpretation of the laws. History has shown that the Constitution is a fluid document that can be applied in many ways and that the text and amendments are not absolutes.

Except for guns. To hear the debate now and over the past 25 years, you would think that the Second Amendment was the most important, most sacrosanct, indeed, the most sacred of all amendments and that it must not ever be changed because having a gun to protect yourself against the most liberal, most open, most democratic state ever invented by man must never be violated. This thinking is a testament to people's fears and the rather warped assumption that our number one enemy is the government created by those fairly wise men back in the 18th century.

I say fairly wise because aside from protecting and allowing slavery to survive, they included the amendment about having guns as a right tied to a militia. They never saw the NRA coming and now that it has, I'm certain they are ruing the day that they were not crystal clear with the amendment's language. What's worse is that the same five guys who stick together when it comes to unsettling interpretations of the constitution were the same five votes that led to the Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that the pesky clause about the militia meant nothing and that having a gun is a personal right.

I know some people who are Second Amendment absolutists and the first thing they'll say when they read this is that I want to take their guns away. I do not. If people want to arm themselves, then go ahead (and they are, if news reports are accurate). What I want is for the states and the national government to know who has a legal gun and a license to use it, since 40% of gun sales come from unlicensed dealers that don't require a background check. I want a limit on how many bullets one person can purchase overall, not in singular purchases. I want the same kind of background checks on guns that many legislators--Democrats and Republicans--voted on when it comes to refugees. If you're good, you get your gun. Mazel tov. If not, tough. We don't have an absolute right to speech or religion or assembly. We also don't have an unfettered right to a gun under any circumstance.

It continues to boggle my mind that people who are on the federal terrorist watch list can still legally purchase a gun. And there are other instances where legislators in states have gone out of their way to protect the right to a gun above safety issues.

The terrorist massacre in San Bernardino was a scary tragedy and there has to be a way that we can address both terrorism and our rights at the same time. Many politicians and those running for president will no doubt tell us that since we at war with ISIS, we will need to give up some freedoms in an effort to defeat our foe. That was certainly true after September 11 and we are still subject to surveillance despite Edward Snowden's efforts. But to say that everything is on the table except for gun legislation is foolish and blind.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Swift Fall of Testing. What Comes Next?

I've been in the education business for 31 years and I've seen many a fad come and go, from Teacher-proof curricula to shared decision making to Differentiation to Cooperative Learning, Curriculum Mapping, Goals 2000 and various reading programs that focus on inventive spelling, phonics, whole language and learning vocabulary in context. Many of my colleagues didn't believe me when I said that our present testing fetish would also shuffle off the educational stage at some point. What caught me by surprise was just how quickly that would happen.

The focus on testing and corporate-style accountability began with the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, a report that essentially regarded the American education system as having failed our students, our economy, and our values. It repudiated many of the reforms that liberals had foisted on the system in the 1960s and 70s and said that if we didn't correct those flaws we would fall behind other countries whose schools were beginning to produce students who knew more math, science and analytical skills. Conservatives adopted the report as the clarion call for privatization, a back-to-basics curriculum that stressed factual recall, and of course, tests to measure not just students, but teachers, with the secondary goals of loosening the grip that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers had on school policy and defeating Democrats who relied on union support.

And they almost succeeded. The testing movement, which reached its pinnacle last year and is now under more assault that that which we are using to fight ISIS, is in rapid decline. Lat year 44 states gave the PARCC tests, which measure how thoroughly students have learned the Common Core Curriculum Standards. This school year 7 states, including New Jersey, will be giving those tests. The rest will be giving a test adopted by their own Education Departments. Further, some states, most notably New York, won't be using the tests to evaluate teachers. The retreat is notable.

Is the assault over? Not by a long shot, but it is weakening. Conservative groups are still trying to get states to funnel money to Charter Schools, which, on average, do no better than public schools. Many charters do better within certain geographic areas, but much of that has to do with state governments that are abandoning public schools that are in poor urban centers. The fight to limit collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers reached its height in 2013 and has since paused, although the damage done to teachers' pay and benefits has been significant. And although New York is backing away from using tests to evaluate teachers, more states need to follow them for the good of education everywhere.

The bottom line is that teachers are doing a magnificent job with the dwindling resources and increased scrutiny that came with the rise of the know-nothing conservatives. Aligning teacher evaluation with student test scores only illustrated that the overwhelming majority of teachers were effective. Clearly, the know-nothing's intent was to use the test scores to fire teachers they thought were failing our students. That hasn't happened because their assumption was incorrect. They won't admit it, but it's true.

The next fight will now be on the state level as we return to local standards and local tests. In the past, most states have created tests where 90% of the students scored in the proficient range. That's just not statistically feasible. We do need national standards and we do need to measure how students are learning. The reaction to the Common Core and PARCC will not make this possible, and that's to the country's detriment.

Have no fear, though: If history is any guide, this reaction will only last a few years and something else will come along and replace it. Will it be better or will it be worse?

My answer? Yes.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Refugees From Reality

Leave it to the GOP (and some uninformed Democrats) to make a frightening situation something to panic over. The Paris attacks were terrible. The threat of more terrorist attacks on Europe is very real. But if you want to stop terrorists from coming into the United States, tampering with the refugee system is exactly the wrong place to start.

The United States has accepted about 70,00 refugees into this country since 2009.  And there's a lengthy process. One-third of them were from countries that, on first glance, might supply potential terrorists. How many of these refugees turned out to be terrorists or involved in potential terrorist plots? None.  Further, if ISIS or any other group wanted to send potential terrorists to the United States, why would they choose a process that could take up to two years? It makes no sense. Which is why, I'm sure, the Republicans are pursuing legislation that would affect the refugee program.

It would be far easier for a potential bomber to come in as a tourist. Or as a worker who doesn't need a visa. Or as a student.  But of course, no politician wants to shut down tourism or interfere with students who want to come to the U.S. to study or with someone who will do a job that an American won't or can't (including high tech jobs that require math, which seems to be another GOP weakness). That would be an economic catastrophe. So instead, they're going after the one program that vets all applicants over a specified period of time as their target.

Even better, Donald Trump leads the GOP with a policy of building a very high wall on the Mexican border to stop the hordes who are coming to the United States. The truth is that more people are leaving the US for Mexico than are trying to come to this country.  The people who really want to come in, the drug smugglers, have built sophisticated tunnels. A wall won't stop them.

President Obama is exactly right to veto any legislation that is built on fear, xenophobia and ignorance, which the right seems to think will win it an election next year. Hillary Clinton has proposed a specific, pragmatic policy for dealing with ISIS that goes beyond mere rhetoric and fearful slogans. It's a policy that even conservatives view as thoughtful and worth considering.

Fear has been the coin of the realm for the Republican Party since 2001. They've run on a platform that says only they can keep us safe and I'm sure they'll plug that exhausted line until November. What they need to do is to detail a plan for actually fighting ISIS both militarily and diplomatically with our allies. It will take thought and political will rather than blame. So far, I haven't heard anything that gives me confidence in their ability to confront the threat.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Does This Mean War?

I'm being a bit of a coward by posing my title as a question, but I do firmly believe that the western world is headed towards a much larger, more coordinated and, ultimately, more deadly military conflict. If it sounds like war, smells like war, destroys like war, breeds intolerance like war, then it must be a war.

And we're in one.

I fear that there are more attacks coming in places that think they're prepared, but are not. After all, Vladimir Putin thought he was going to help Assad is Syria and escape the fate that has befallen the United States, France and Great Britain. He was wrong, and 224 Russians savagely and tragically lost their lives. The French have been attacked twice this year. Israel is under constant threat.Who's next?

I went on Facebook on Friday night after reading about the attacks and saw many people who had attached the peace sign with the Eiffel Tower in it, the French flag, and pictures of the people I know from their Paris vacations. But I also saw some vitriolic hatred directed towards all Muslim, and I mean ALL Muslims, even though they are not terrorists, and I saw the requisite number of posts calling President Obama a Muslim and blaming him for this, and seemingly every other, attack, whether it was on US soil or not. It's still gauche, evidently, to blame GW Bush for September 11, but blaming Obama for an attack on Paris is de rigueur, at least among a certain segment of the population.

Foreign policy will be a key factor in the upcoming presidential election and the GOP field had better begin focusing on policies other than building a very high wall on the Mexican border, throwing people out of the country and reestablishing the fortress America that served us so badly from 1924 to 1965. It also means that Bernie Sanders had better come up with a foreign policy plank that offers Democrats a choice between him and Hillary Clinton. Obviously, she has the most experience in the field by a wide margin. She's got to make Americans believe that she can keep us safe, but engaged in the world. We need to stay strong.

My heart goes out to those who lost a loved one or who was injured in the attacks. The world has now shifted. 

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mrs. MacDowell 1 Exxon 0: Why I Knew in 1970 What Big Oil Still Denies

OK, let's go back to the halcyon days of the 1969-70 school year when I was in fourth grade. My teacher was one of those cool, hip, young people who knew how to reach children, to excite them to learn, and to inject a bit of reality and responsibility into them as they began to navigate the world. She was the kind of teacher that every child has, I hope, at least once during their schooling. I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher twice.

One of the great activities I clearly remember from that school year was a unit we studied on pollution that included not only classwork on the issue but an assembly in front of the school. We made posters. We wrote skits. We listened to CCR's Who'll Stop the Rain  (lyrics).

And we wrote songs.

One of them was based on the Pepsi Cola jingle, "You've Got a Lot to Give." Sing along with me:

It's the pollution generation
Comin' at ya, goin' strong.
Put yourself behind pollution
If you're livin'
You won't for long.

I also seem to remember a pollution song based on the Marseillaise, but I can't seem to recall the words.

We were a cheeky group. She was a great teacher.

And Mrs. MacDowell also knew a heck of a lot more than Exxon did, if contemporary news reports are believable. How is that possible? Because Exxon and other energy companies are not telling the truth about what their scientists were telling them about air pollution and the environment. Even in 1970, as a ten year old, I had heard about the "Greenhouse Effect" and how pollutants in the air were being trapped and were causing the planet to heat up.

But Exxon? They say they didn't know. I don't blame the scientists who work(ed) for the company. I'm going to assume that they stuck to science and dutifully reported what they knew to the best of their ability. To believe otherwise would call into question their credibility and morality. I'm going to blame the company because it has shown time and time again to be on the wrong side of propriety, from the Valdez tragedy to employee protections to today's allegations about covering up what it knew about the effects of fossil fuels on climate.

 I certainly understand that institutions will do whatever they need to do to survive, and the oil and gas industry is no exception. After all, this is the group that came up with the oxymoronic term "clean coal" to try and make the world's greatest pollutant and killer of far too many miners sound acceptable. It's also an industry that probably sees low gas prices as a short-to-medium-term good for its survival since many Americans have moved away from hybrid cars in response to lower prices. We even seem to be acting irrationally by taking the savings we're seeing in low prices and buying slightly pricier premium fuel.

And then there's the political angle. President Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline project became a formality because of the low price of oil, the glut in the very refineries and storage tanks that the Canadian oil was supposed to occupy, and the plain fact that the promised jobs from the pipeline project were not going to approach the economy-saving levels that many conservatives, and labor unions, envisioned. Plus, the Canadian oil is actually getting to the United States through other means, so destroying the Midwestern landscape for a pipeline was not necessary. Obama rightly measured the impact on the environment and cannily waited until a great Labor Department employment report materialized, then mercifully killed the proposal.

As for the Republicans running for president, their views on the environment, climate and energy policy are, to be kind, ignorant. They see no reason to act on what is clearly happening to the earth, preferring to stick their heads in the sand and wait for the Montana banana industry to flourish (catchy as the jingle would be). Forget about Carson and Trump, who will not be elected president in 2016. Certainly, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have seen the devastation wrought by climate change on eco-sensitive Florida, and Chris Christie, who used to be somewhat reliable on the issue, certainly saw what happened during Sandy and the October snowstorm of the previous year. All of them are in favor of more drilling, more oil company benefits and, most tragically, more United States involvement in the Middle East, which is rapidly coming undone by climate, politics and religion. For these reasons alone they are unelectable.

So thank you Mrs. MacDowell for being one of the early few who knew about the climate problem and doing what terrific teachers do: Telling your students, waking them up, getting them to act.

If only Exxon, other energy companies and the Republican party were as smart as you are.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Education's Dirty Little Secret

The week began with the president saying that there was too much emphasis on testing in schools. 
In the middle of the week, the New York Times published a story about Success Academy Charter Schools that, among other things, noted the following:
The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention. Ms. Moskowitz has said she believes children learn better with structure and consistency in the classroom. Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten.
Backs straight? Hands clasped? Candy as a reward for good behavior? More homework as a punishment for bad behavior? Any public school teacher who attempted any of these would be severely reprimanded. In addition, this is not the way we're supposed to be teaching in the 21st century. What happened to cooperative activities? Differentiation? Healthy snacks? Imagination?

By the time the week was over, the entire know-nothing education reform movement was in question.  Not that teachers and others who actually work in education didn't already know this. Because they lived with the terrible reforms every day and had little influence on whether those reforms should have been imposed in the first place. After all, the political process is slow and those right-wing money machines that were attempting not just to change the schools but also to destroy the teacher's unions had a vested interest in drawing out the process so that the public could catch a ride on the train as it crashed in Conjunction Junction.

Not so bad, right? At least we only messed up one generation of children.

Yes, friends, education came roaring back as a national priority with the release of both the PARCC and the NAEP exams this week. In a nutshell, students did not perform very well on the tests. The reasons? Well, there's the rub. According to those who comment on such things, they range from the fact that more students are living in poverty to the truth that the Common Core Standards, which are the basis for the PARCC exams, have not been around long enough for students to have internalized them. As for the NAEP, the answer is even muddier, but the consensus seems to be that last year's exam asked questions about curriculum that students have not been taught.

Really? If I gave tests on information I hadn't taught my students, I could be fired. That hasn't stopped the know-nothings from using tests to evaluate teacher performance and use the information to retain or let teachers go. This year we're using flawed tests created by people who are not in classrooms based on standards that have not been sufficiently implemented.

But there's a bigger problem. The NAEP has generally shown that students do not perform well in math and reading. If you want evidence, take a look at this report by the NAEP on the 2009 test administration. Scroll down to page 9, then look at pages 10 through 14. I'll wait.

Interesting, yes? It shows that students in almost every state, save Massachusetts, do not perform proficiently on the test. Remember; the NAEP is called "The Nation's Report Card" because it is given in every state, so it gives us an unsparing look at the differences in each state's curriculum strength and delivery.

Want more stark proof? I knew that you did. Take a look at the 2013 NAEP Report that graphically shows the remarkable differences between student performance on the NAEP with their performance on their state's end-of-year evaluation. Scroll yourself down to pages 3 and 4. Those graphs tell you the difference between NAEP scores and state tests scores. In every state but two--NY and MA--there was a gap between how students performed on state tests versus the NAEP.  Isn't it scary enough to be posted on Halloween? Many states were clearly giving easy tests and skewing the results.

And, no, these numbers are not confined to 2009 and 2013. They are similar in every year the NAEP has been given.You could look it up. And you should, because this has been education's dirty little secret for too long.

The lesson here? There are many. One is that both the NAEP and the PARCC are difficult tests that hold students accountable to standards that require much more reinforcement over time. The PARCC has not been in existence long enough for us to adequately measure its accuracy. The NAEP has been showing us for years that students across the country are not getting a rigorous enough training in content and skills that a truly educated person should have.

More important is that for years, at least since the No Child Left Behind Act began mandating tests in the early 2000s, most states have been giving easy tests based on easy curricula and calling themselves satisfied with their education systems. This is the main reason why we need the Common Core Standards. They will ensure that students throughout the country be held to the same standards no matter where they live. The political opposition to the Core Curriculum has been centered on federal government involvement in what should be a state concern. The state test scores invalidate that argument. Many of the states have been committing educational fraud. National standards will go a long way towards fixing that.

The president was correct in saying that we are focusing too much on testing, but testing is not going away and it shouldn't. What we need are tests that measure what students know based on verifiable standards and that ask students to perform evaluative tasks that stretch their brains and their imaginations. We haven't achieved either of those yet. That will require that classroom educators be intimately involved in the evaluative process. It will happen, but we need the know-nothings to step aside and let the teachers take over this process.

Let's not waste another generation.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Thursday, October 29, 2015

More Bold Predictions: This Debate Changed Everything

October 28 is a very special day in my life. It was 43 years ago that I became a man and realized the meaning of that old, old adage, "That's the first time I stood up in front of people, bored them, and they gave me money afterwards." Mazel tov indeed.

So it was with a nostalgic eye that I sat down and watched Episode 3 of the Far Right Follies, otherwise known as the GOP presidential debate. It was a rough affair for the moderators and included some captivating moments, such as when Ted Cruz took all of his time to call out the CNBC network and accuse the Democrats of being Communists or when Marco Rubio rhetorically punched Jeb! Bush (a guy with glasses on) or when Chris Christie almost knocked over his podium trying to tell us that Congress has stolen our Social Security.

The result?

Well, that thudding sound you heard later Wednesday night was the sound of four campaigns hitting Loser's Gulch: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Jeb! That's right folks; it looks like none of these four will ever be elected president. Now, I will hedge a bit and say that Jeb could bounce back, but I find that rather unlikely. It's also possible that many of Trump's supporters could find their way to Christie, but the net effect of that would be the good Guv'nor polling at 3% instead of 1%. Then again, Christie always wanted to be in the 1%, didn't he?

Trump, Carson and Fiorina are done because they didn't so enough to rouse their campaigns beyond the protest votes that are the cornerstones of their combined millions. Carson is in the best position to stick around, but his past comments about guns and the Holocaust and Muslims will make him radioactive to the larger Republican, and general, population.

As for Jeb!, my view is that his performance on Wednesday now makes it easier for the Republican establishment, which was never crazy about his candidacy, to finally break free of their Bush III concerns. Put more succinctly, the GOP doesn't need him anymore. They have Marco. And Ted. And even Johnny the K. from oHIo.

Jeb's answers and his demeanor were underwhelming at best, and he hasn't really seemed presidential since he entered the race. He might be the smart one, but there's something to be said for the son who wanted so badly to both please and punish his father that he sold his soul to the reborn and allied himself with Karl Rove. Jeb's timing is just as bad as Chris Christie. Their electoral opportunities have passed them by and they might be the only ones who didn't get the text.

The realignment of the GOP field will take a little time to adjust, but by the holidays the lineup should look radically different, if not in numbers, then at least in the polls. I expect the GOP primary electorate to shift themselves to candidates who have some experience in governance even as they call for the actual end of governance itself. Marco Rubio is now the favorite, followed by Ted Cruz.; Trump and Carson will fade. Bush will crash.

As for the national election, this realignment will make Hillary Clinton the favorite until further notice. She will be able to unite the Democratic Party around her by the end of March and can then spend time honing her general election message and raising obscene amounts of cash in the hopes that she gets elected, replaces a conservative justice and gets the Citizens United case reversed. Then she can raise modestly obscene amounts of cash for her next run.

Ain't democracy great? Amen.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Atop the GOP Polls But Destined to Lose

Silly me. I thought that the most excellent gnarly GOP crash occurred in the election of 2012, but this year's scrum is shaping up to be the Hurricane Patricia of political wipeouts (and by the by, if a Republican was president they would never allow a Mexican hurricane to come to the United States). After all, Mitt lost the last election because he appeared to be too rich, too quick to dismiss those on government programs as takers, and too oblivious to see that asking people to self-deport was one of the all-time losingest phrases a politician has even uttered.

Ahh, but this year's GOP crop is a real bumper. It's not enough to say that you'll throw out all of the undocumented immigrants and their children. Now you get to the top of the polls by "suggesting that a Muslim should never be president and that the Holocaust could have been prevented if the Jewish people in Germany were armed." 

And people say that Americans don't understand history.

Even better, some conservatives wanted to drop Advanced Placement US History courses because there weren't enough conservative voices in the curriculum and that teachers only taught what is bad about America. Cooler heads in Oklahoma prevailed, but still. Ben Carson's view of history fits right in with the skewed, distorted vision the far right has about America. They want to arm the country and glorify weapons, which is  a characteristic of militaristic regimes, but they call Barack Obama a fascist for issuing executive orders on...the care...immigration...gun control. I think the best way to experience how the right wing sees this country is to stand on one's head until all of the blood rushes to it, and then stand up very quickly.

It all makes sense now.

I'll say this until it becomes a fact: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz will not be elected president in 2016. They will not. Will not. That's not wishful thinking; that's the truth. Even with a dysfunctional Republican Party, the citizens of the United States do not elect people with predominantly negative messages.

We do not support throwing out 11 million people from this country.
We do not want to arm every college student and elementary school teacher.
We do not want to ban abortions.
We do not deny that the climate is changing.
We do not want to give the wealthy even more tax breaks.
We do not support keeping wages so low that workers cannot meet basic necessities.

Yet that is exactly what even the candidates with government experience, such as Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie are saying. Each of these candidates will have a difficult time getting elected in 2016, much less one of those that are leading the polls today.

After every presidential election, the media takes itself to task for focusing on the horse race at the expense of the issues. That's exactly what they're doing now, and in the process they are giving outsize influence to the candidates who are saying the most outrageous things. In the end, they will fade. Count on it.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Never Caucus

Later this week the country will celebrate a milestone: the date that Marty McFly used to travel to the future in Back to the Future II, the second movie of the trilogy that represents the greatest expression of Reagan-era optimism that Hollywood has yet produced. If only the remaining GOP candidates would sit down and watch all three movies. Then again, they'd reject their sunny demeanor and hopeful message as liberal claptrap and probably only find succor in the fact that almost everyone in the future has a gun.

If anything, this past week's Democratic debate uncovered the starkest difference between the two parties, and it's almost the opposite of the 1980s. In this election, it looks like the Democrats will be the ones looking confidently forward, while the Republicans will continue to paint a distinctly negative picture of the country.

According to the right, we are being invaded by hordes of illegal immigrants who are sucking up our resources, taking our jobs and marrying our women. The EPA is bent on destroying free enterprise by covering us in regulations, and the president wants to take our guns. And those are the more moderate accusations. Meanwhile, the Democrats put forward a future that included a higher minimum wage, expanded child care and paid time off, health care and a narrowing of the gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

For those of us who remember the politics of the 1980s, it is a stark contrast. Reagan was the smiling optimist and the Democrats were the scowling pessimists warning the country about the threat of nuclear war. Of course, many of the Reagan-era policies did lead to significantly negative outcomes, such as the orgy of prison building that now houses more prisoners than any other country, and the wealth gap created by Reagan and Bush tax cuts, but other policies did clean up some of the entitlement messes and the economy took off and helped a large number of people.

Today, the Republican Party is not just the party of "no", it's the party of "never." They will never raise taxes. They will never acknowledge climate change. They will never recognize a women's right to an abortion. They will never acquiesce to gay marriages. They will never allow anyone who came to this country illegally any chance at either becoming a legal resident or a citizen. They will never talk to Putin or the Iranians. Never, never, never.

How incredibly dangerous.

Yet, they continue to say never in their debates and on the campaign trail, especially the three candidate who will never (I borrowed the word) be elected president, namely Trump, Fiorina and Carson. But even the candidates who do have a chance--Bush, Rubio, Paul and Christie (I'm telling you, do not count him out just yet)--are part of the never caucus.

The Democrats, by contrast, were a far more voluble on what is possible in this country. They spoke about how we can address the wage gap, address the changing climate and protect people's rights. Hillary still has problems with Benghazi and the e-mail issue, but recent Republican comments clearly show that their investigations are political, and that gave her the opening she needed at the debate to claim the high ground, at least for the moment.

Once the primaries are done and the nominees chosen, it will be more difficult for the Republican to move credibly to the political center and still maintain the far right's blessing than it will be for Clinton to appease Bernie Sanders' supporters and gain their votes in November. In a general election, most voters want an upbeat message about how the candidates will lead the country forward and solve its problems, not a general indictment of how terrible things are. The problem for the GOP is that the longer their message is carried by the unelectable three, the more difficult it will be for pragmatic voice to be heard.

If they can find one.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The GOP's Ryan Hope

Haven't we heard the Paul-Ryan-Is-Going-To-Save-Our-Party cry before? Oh yes. It was during the 2012 presidential campaign and he had just been named as Mitt's VP and all-around brodudecrushbratwurstbeeerguy. Ryan's inclusion was going to mean that the campaign would now be fought with ideas and policy and a serious purpose and all of the things the mainstream media gets hard and wet over but never seems to become the focus of the parties. Turns out that 2012 was not a policy-driven campaign but one in which a master campaigner and tactician, President Barack Obama, wiped the floor with Mr. 47% and Mr. I'mgoingtocutMedicareforyourwngood. It was not a great campaign, but a win's a win and Ryan was on the losing side.

Thus spake history.

And here we go again. Ryan is now being heavily courted to become the next Speaker of the House by the same people who lost control of the Republican Party in 2010 and have been battling its right rear haunch ever since. If Ryan is as smart as people say he is, and not only is the jury out on that, it's likely a hung jury, he'll run straight to the Wisconsin Dells and hide behind a heifer until this episode is over.

The bottom line absolute truth is that there is no savior for the Republican Party. Whoever becomes the next Speaker will get about a week's honeymoon before Trey Gowdy, Jason Chaffetz and Daniel Webster (who's no Daniel Webster, by the way) turn on him or her (OK, definitely him--it is the GOP after all) and start plotting the next government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding. This is not a job for someone who wants to be seen as a strong leader because the Tea Party will not let it happen. In fact, they want to weaken the power and influence of that position because they stand for citizen control of the government and they're going to take the government down with them if they don't get what they want.

That all of this is happening just when many people are starting to pay attention to the party primaries is not good long-term news for the GOP. The far right is going to get their pound of flesh and the will parade it in front of the remaining Republican candidates and ask for their blessing. This will be a defining moment for Jeb!, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie (never count him out) and Rand Paul because they'll have to choose between the pragmatic route to the presidency or the expedient way to the nomination. I am not confident about what their answers will be.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes and generally out of ear-and-mugshot, is the wiliest politician in the country, Nancy Pelosi. She's managed to keep what's becoming a more fractious (in context, of course) Democratic caucus unified and strong. She's worked with Boehner and has let him take the headlines because any deal with her would be a deal-breaker for much of the right. The Speaker needs Democratic votes to keep the government funded and to possibly get a highway bill passed before he leaves and Pelosi has been there to keep the country on the, well, right track.

Boehner can now ask for votes from the left because he doesn't need to keep the far right happy anymore. And that's going to be the first problem for Ryan or anyone who becomes the next Speaker. If it's one of the Tea Partiers, they will find that what passes for moderates will balk at the most extreme legislative proposals and Democrats will, of course, stay away. If it's a more mainstream Republican, then the far right will block the laws. Does Ryan really want this headache? No. He does not.

Congress has adjourned for a couple of weeks so that members can go back to their districts and get an earful about abortion and the banks and the health care law and guns. When they come back, the stark reality of actually helping to govern the country will stare menacingly back at them.


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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Guns Again? Ho-hum.

Please don't think me flip, or accuse me of taking advantage of a terrible tragedy, but conservatives are tremendously fortunate that Pope Francis left the United States before the unconscionable, probably preventable, if we had some background check laws, shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon late last week. I can only imagine that the Pope would take the gun lobby to task for being as anti-life as the anti-choice crowd, further muddying every attempt by both right and left to shoehorn Francis into their tidy ideological boots. Even his misguided meeting, and subsequent Vatican public relations fiasco, with Kentucky's favorite law-breaker, Kim Davis wouldn't have been able to calm the right wing if he was here for the massacre.

And here we are, again, having this same conversation about guns and how the only answer is to arm all students and faculty in every school in the country. That is folly. Madness. An invitation to more tragedies. But it passes for considered, thoughtful policy in one corner of American politics. I live in the most crowded, anxious, tense corridor in the country and most of the people I know and come in contact with would not even think of carrying a gun, much less buy one for their college-aged children, yet people who live in the rural, more remote regions are armed to the hilt, convinced that this president (This President) is bent on taking away the gun that's protecting their family against...what?

Really. Please tell me what's so frightening? It doesn't make sense to me.

There will be no legislation anytime soon, what with John Boehner gone and a far more conservative leadership about to take the helm of the House. And even if a Democrat is elected president in 2016, Republicans will have at least the House, if not the Senate, in which to thwart any attempt at reasonable laws that might prevent a future tragedy.

Yes, we certainly have a mental health problem in this country, but we also have a gun problem. Mentally ill people without guns don't pose the same threat as those with them. But listening to the right, you'd get the idea that they are two completely different issues at all times; an empty middle in the right's Venn Diagram.

So when Jeb Bush flicks away the shooting last week as "stuff happens," and he's supposed to be a bit more moderate than others in the race, it sends an unambiguous message that the Republican Party doesn't value life as much as it says it does. It's a tremendously callous thing to say from someone who's supposed to be the smart brother. The other candidates have been silent.

I don't know which is worse.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Forget Iran: The GOP Goes Nuclear

Francis comes in, John Boehner bows out. There is a certain symmetry to some world events and this is one of those moments.

Here we have a Pope who is speaking forcefully and eloquently about how the issues of the day are having, and will continue to have, an effect on how people live, work and survive in the world and all the right wing can do is reject his message as an ill-conceived interference into the political realm. Stay away from climate change and gay rights, they say, and for heaven's sake, stop talking about immigration. Yet Francis has stayed on message in a way that would make House Speaker John Boehner proud.


Well, former House Speaker John Boehner, that is. Or at least he will be at the end of October. Poor John tried his best to reign in a fractious caucus of elected government officials who detest government and want it flushed down the sink, or at least shut down so it can't do any more damage to the country. Like pay out Social Security benefits. Or Medicare. Medicaid. Or keep the national parks open. Get people passports. Inspect our food. Defend the country. Provide funds for the less fortunate. Health care. Investigate crimes. It's terrible, this United States government we have today.

It's funny how conservatives have been saying for years that we need to base our actions on religious values and that we have lost our way morally under the weight of godless liberal social policies over the past 70 years. Yet here comes an infallible Pope who can be ignored at will because he has the temerity to say that the United States needs to do more, not less. Take in more Syrian refugees. Care more for the poor. Stop demonizing Muslims. Care for the environment and the globe.

When you put the right wing's agenda together with the rejection of Francis's message and stir in the fact that the next Speaker of the House is likely to be an even more conservative Republican than John Boehner, then you will get a party that simply doesn't like anything. And how do you run and win on that?

Mark this week down as the one that will eventually define the presidential election for the GOP. They have been saying no for far too long and the no backbenchers are about to get a more sympathetic ear for them to yell into. The elites are fighting to rid the field of Donald Trump, and he'll go eventually, but he won't go quietly or without tearing down enough of the other contenders to make their jobs more difficult. And the new House leadership is likely to allow some of the less savory bills that Boehner was able to squash to get out of the caucus room and onto the floor.

Pope Francis is actually leading the way for conservatives to re-engage in a balanced conversation. He's no liberal by any stretch of the imagination. But he is a humanist and he understands that if we don't take care of everyone, than we really don't take care of anyone.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 20, 2015


That's really all you need to know about Carly Fiorina's chances of becoming either the Republican nominee or president of this great country. She's an accomplished woman with plenty of money and a great speaking style, but when it came to getting votes, she couldn't win, even in the great Republican year of 2010.

Fiorina lost to Barbara Boxer in the 2010 California Senate race by 52%-42%. We will have a woman as United States President, but it won't be Carly Fiorina. When your best line has nothing to do with policy, but is instead a necessary rebuttal to Trump calling you ugly, then you will get press, but not solid voter support. And when your other policy proposal concerns building up the Sixth Fleet and spending huge amounts of money on defense rather than actually speaking to Vladimir Putin, then you have nothing more to say about responsible foreign policy. And those comments about the Planned Parenthood videos? All anybody has to do is watch them to know how utterly wrong Firoina was.

I am still of the opinion that we have a long way to go on the Republican side before we get a sense as to which one of the candidates will be the nominee. Each of them will get their day in the media spotlight and each one will be found wanting in some way. Donald Trump will not win. Ben Carson will not win. Carly Fiorina will not win.


Chris Christie is getting some nice press about his performance in the debate, especially his opening statement, which was the longest he got to speak. He still has plenty of money, so perhaps he will get the media's attention next, although the press is still not done with Jeb! and Marco Rubio.

If the debate was any guide, then the Democrats will still have the upper hand entering the general election campaign late next spring. The Republicans are still talking nonsense about how hard they'll come down on immigration, how they'll shut off money to the main source of women's health care in many states (Planned Parenthood), how they'll carve up the Constitution to preserve a religious right that's found nowhere in the document, and how they won't meet with world leaders until they do what we want them to do.

And they have other problems. The Republican Party elites reduced the number of debates and made many states winner-take-all when it comes to primaries in the hope that a nominee would emerge early enough in the process to begin running against the Democrat and to raise gobs of money. Now they're looking at a scenario where the nominee will be pulled farther to the right than Mitt Romney was four years ago and the prospect that Donald Trump will win some of those states where the winner takes the whole delegate bundle and becomes a power broker at the convention. The Citizens United case opened up the money spigot and one of the nastier effects, at least for the GOP, is that now even some of the fringe candidates will have enough cash to cause a great deal of mischief.

Now comes word that Vice President Biden will be entering the Democratic race ahead of the October 13 debate. This will give him the opportunity to gauge his support and will also give him an out if he feels that his emotions and his family will not support a long run. Hillary Clinton's campaign should be worried about Biden because they are at a vulnerable stage with all of the talk about lost momentum due to the e-mail problems she's had. Bernie Sanders will also get the loud applause at the debate because he'll give the base what Hillary probably can't if she wants to move to the center in the general campaign. Biden can pick and choose which Obama policies he wants to continue supporting and Hillary will be in the position where she'll need to distance herself from some of his programs. It's shaping up to be a fun night.

The presidential campaign seems like it's been dragging on forever, but we are still in its early stages as primary voters try each candidate on for size before they settle on the one they believe can win.

As presidents Giuliani, Dean and Cain used to say...

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Don't You Know How Bad Things Are?

When political movements move beyond their useful stage and devolve into extremism, ad hominem attacks, conspiracy theories and exaggerated accounts of wrongdoing, then those movements are in their dying days.

Thus it is with the conservative Republican movement.

While the right-wing wave has been swelling and crashing since 2012, this year's presidential mash-up is a textbook, laboratory, peer-reviewed example of the party's continued descent. Don't get me wrong; there will still be a Republican Party, and a strong, rational one is vital to our political system. It will just look very different by 2020.

Each of the candidates left in the race, after Rick Perry's shocking! (not really) exit last week, is painting the United States as a declining, morally bankrupt, ineffectual, soft country. They are blaming President Obama for all of the country's ills, although they do have a particular section of real estate in Hell reserved for the Supreme Court justices who affirmed marriage equality and upheld the Affordable Care Act.


And they're saying that the country is lawless and unsafe because our law enforcement officials are now hesitant to act because they don't want their body camera videos to end up on YouTube. You can see the frustration and anger in the candidates' faces and feel their campaign rage at every turn.

And all of this is occurring amidst an improving economy, a rising stock market (for the most part), declining unemployment numbers, improved consumer protections and a health care landscape that is taking care of many more people at a more affordable price. Do we have work to do? You bet, but part of the problem is the GOP itself. They continue to protect the coal industry by using the phrase "clean coal" in a way that probably has George Carlin contemplating the deliciousness of the contradictions while spinning in his grave, they continue to deny the practical effects of global warming and its origins in man-made pollutants, they criticize Obama's foreign policies with no discernible platform of their own except to defeat terrorism, and they just can't come to grips with the fact that they've lost the marriage equality argument.


The problem, of course, as they see it, is Barack Obama. Like Bill Clinton, the conservative right wing doesn't really see Obama as a legitimate president. That's why you have the arguments over his birth certificate and whether he's a Muslim or whether he created the high gas prices in 2009 and the low gas prices now. And whether he's secretly in league with the Iranians and that's why the agreement was so soft on them, or is the real reason because he hates Israel.

These dark conspiracies, which are given full lighting by the conservative press remind me of the JFK assassination conspiracy theories, but instead of choosing one of those to believe, you'd have to believe all of them. That would make Dealey Plaza awash in Cubans, mobsters, American military personnel, Communist spies and lovers who were jilted by women who had affairs with the president. The problem now is that the right wing believes that all of the accusations against Obama are true.

And did I mention race? I know, I know; that's bad form, especially given recent contemporary race relations in our country. Forget I even mentioned it.

This week Republican debate will feature all of the candidates telling us how terrible the state of the country is and how their angry, knee-jerk responses will make it sunnier and better. All we need to do is build the wall, police it, chuck out the undocumented, lower taxes, allow religious exemptions for whatever we happen to not agree with, destroy all of the unions, and tell women that they have to carry every pregnancy to term no matter what the circumstances. That's the ticket to a happier, Reaganesque revival, right?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest  

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Iran Deal Will Survive

Foreign affairs used to be the one area where the country supported the president to show the world that, although we might have messy domestic issues, the United States was indeed united when confronting the world.

Oh how things have changed.

I support the Iran deal for three basic reasons:

1. I assume that Iran already has a nuclear weapon or are very close to developing one. If there's one thing that we should have learned by now, it's that scientific knowledge cannot be stopped. If Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon or two at this point, they will in a few years. The key is what they are willing to do with them and what the rest of the world is willing to do about them. My firm belief is...nothing on both accounts. The Iranian government likes to talk tough about how they're going to destroy the Great Satan and Israel, but that's just jawboning from a regime whose clock is ticking. Because the other truth of the matter is that Israel has between 80 and 100 nuclear weapons and Iran knows that they will be turned to dust if they throw one or two weapons towards Jerusalem. That's not likely to happen. Nuclear weapons have still only been used once in the world and rational governments know that they simply will not get away with their wanton use. Despite media reports and overblown hype from the left and the right, Iran's government, and most importantly its people, want to live in the world. So even if they get more weapons within fifteen years, it's important to remember that...

2. Capitalism destroys religion and always has. Think about it. The Catholic Church reached the zenith of its power on the eve of the First Crusade in 1095. It's been downhill from there. And the reasons for its continued decline, and the decline of most western religions, is capitalism and trade and money and banking and the secular pursuit of tangible, materialistic objects that make our economic system hum. So let's throw open the Iranian economy to the rapacious pursuit of stuff and let that do our dirty work for us. The religious leaders in Iran will try to invoke laws that attempt to limit western influence in the country as it tries to hold on to the revolutionary ideals under which it was founded, but that won't work. Iran has a long history of capitalism and western ideals and it has a middle class that is modern and enthusiastic to join the capitalist system. Yes, economic sanctions are taking their toll on the country, but they are also inhibiting the fertile, educated minds of the very people we want to engage in trade and business.

You want a model? Look at what's happening in China. The Communist government said that it would give its citizens the power to get rich if the citizens accepted the power of the intrusive, repressive state. That's all well and good, but what happens when the money stops flowing? We're seeing that now. The Communists can't control a capitalist economy for very long and neither can a religious one. The Saudis are finding that out now as the price of oil is devastating their balance sheets. The money they earn goes into the same type of repressive religious state that the mullahs in Iran want to keep. Both states will find it extremely difficult to maintain this. There was a reason that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi; there was intense governmental repression against any opposition and Al Qaeda exploited that. In Iran, the radicalism will not come from the religious as it did in the 1979 revolution. It will come from the capitalists and they will win.

This then brings us to reason number...

3. Fifteen years is a very long time. Time does seem to be flying, but think back to the world of 15 years ago. It was 2000. A Clinton was president. The Internet bubble was underway. Boris Yeltsin was drinking his way out of the Kremlin. There was a presidential election between two very boring white guys. You get the point. The world was very different. Fifteen years from now...well, who knows? But fifteen years of Iran being watched by the US, Russia, China and western European countries will have some effect on their development. Putin will likely be gone and so might the hardliners in Beijing, both of whom support Tehran. The nuclear deal puts eyes on the Iranians and allows for inspections and testing that will likely turn something up that the regime, if it lasts that long, will not be able to finesse.

The deal will now go through, either as an Obama veto or, if 3 more Democrats support the deal, as a filibustered footnote to the summer of 2015. So let's get this out of the way and focus on North Korea and Pakistan, which are the real, irrational threats to the world today.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest     

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Great Teachers Make Great Schools

Another school year. It's my 32nd as a teacher and I can still say that I love what I'm doing and believe that I am contributing to the betterment of society. I just wish that at some point before I go to the Great Faculty Room in the Sky, you know, the one where the microwave works, the carpet doesn't smell and the walls aren't made of cinder block, I could feel that society's attitudes about my work would improve and that the United States would value education as much as it does entertainment, sports and the stock market.

The public's attitudes on education are on display in this year's new PDK/Gallup Poll on the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools, and the results are encouraging. Most Americans do not think that standardized tests should be used to evaluate teachers and indeed say that there are too many of these high-stakes tests being administered to children. Most people surveyed also don't like the Common Core Education Standards, both because they are tied to the tests and because most people don't think that comparing American students' scores with other countries is a worthy endeavor.  But more important is the finding that most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, say that it's important that the public schools are adequately funded. 

Which brings us to how important teachers are to the success of the system. You would think that this would be a given and, for the most part, parents in local communities support efforts to bring in excellent teachers and to keep them in their schools. When schools are not fully funded, though, the system begins to break down. In most parts of the American economy, consumers understand that you get what you pay for and that sometimes you need to economize and think short term because of family limitations, emergencies, or good old American low wages.

In education, though, the argument get mangled a bit. Much of the (incorrect) literature suggests that more money doesn't necessarily translate into better schools. Politicians and a segment of the public like to lean on the idea that teachers don't go into teaching for the money, using that argument for keeping pay low relative to teachers' experience and education. They also say that they want the best and brightest to go into teaching,

The insulting thing about this argument is the assumption that the best and brightest are not in teaching to begin with and that we need to attract them to the field. That's wrong. Most of America's teachers are smart, engaging, sharp, inquisitive, analytical and effective at what they do. Teaching is an incredibly difficult job to do well and the expectation is that you will do well with each and every one of that year's students. You want the best and brightest? You're getting them. It's now time to make sure that they get the resources and financial recognition they've earned. Other countries do it; it's time we did it too.

What would help is untying education money from property taxes and finding a more secure, and less intrusive, funding source. My idea is for the Congress to impose a 1% tax on all corporate earnings and a 1% income tax increase on the top earners and earmark it specifically for education. After all, who benefits the most economically from America's great schools? American businesses, that's who, so it makes sense for the corporate sector to pay more for their lifeblood. This would take the pressure off of middle and working class Americans who struggle with high property taxes and a system of funding that tilts towards the wealthy communities that can support higher valuations.

As we know, poverty is the main cause of educational inequality in this country. If we don't address it, then we will never solve the problems associated with fewer educational opportunities, fewer students going on to higher education and the wage gap that accompanies it.

What we also really need is for the best and brightest to go into politics and to be part of the solution, not the problem. Most of the Republican candidates favor vouchers, which the Gallup poll shows is not enthusiastically shared by the general public. Governors Christie and Walker are proudly running on their efforts to minimize teacher input regarding educational reforms and are blaming teachers for the economic problems in their states. Neither of them have said anything remotely positive about teaching and, at least in New Jersey, morale among the teachers is abysmally low.

Not that the Obama administration is shying away from standardized tests and No Child Left Behind. Although a major Democratic constituency favors lessening the impact of tests, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with the president's support, is still doggedly applying the law to the public schools. And supporting Charter Schools.

So what to do? Involve the teachers. Use their expertise. Include them in decision making at the local, state and national levels. Leverage their knowledge. It seems so simple, but for the better part of 20 years, teachers have been methodically excluded from the major educational decisions of the day. This simply doesn't happen in other industries. Exclude doctors from health care decisions? Attorneys from legal reviews? Never. But somehow the not best and less bright politicians have decided that they know best when it comes to the schools and that teachers are shills for the National Education Association and are not to be trusted. It's a terrible situation and is threatening to get worse.

Meanwhile, the nation's teachers will continue to do their level best to educate all children across the country.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest    

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The August Election

OK, I'll play along.

According to the polls, the guesses, the conventional wisdom, the money and the low-down, scandal-mongering, hyper-partisan, yellow-dog press, we now know who's going to win that all-important August 2015 presidential election. I'm sure you know that this election is a rather unusual one in American politics because it doesn't take place in every state and candidates can say the most outrageous things and still be considered Oval Office material.

We all know that Donald Trump is going to be our next president because he'll defeat Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton and Jeb! Bush all at one time because he can speak the loudest and say the meanest things out of all of them. Then again, Hillary is beating Donald in the latest national polls and the money race, so she'll likely be our next Chief Executive. Except that she's got an e-mail scandal hanging over her and Benghazi! nipping at her heels like a small yippee dog. No worries, though: when you have a FOX contributor on your side, especially one that advised your husband, you're going to be fine.

Jeb! is having trouble keeping up his fundraising pace and three money people have just left his campaign so he might as well fold up the tent and go live with his brother down in Texas.  Chris Christie is teetering on the edge of being excluded from the varsity debate in September, but he's 7th in money-raising which means that there are a few very wealthy people who really have nothing to do with their millions than put it on a guy who has nothing to run on. Perhaps his immigration policy, now known as "When Your Fruit Picker Absolutely, Positively Has to Leave Overnight" might gain him some valuable Tea Party votes.

Scott Walker is going to win this election because apparently he can say that he's going to defeat ISIS and can harangue Democrats all in the same speech. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of college when he could see the light of graduation in front of him or who said that his foreign policy chops were on display when he faced down some protesters on the statehouse steps in Madison.  Makes you think he'll get nominated, then withdraw from the race in October because, well, Wisconsin needs him more.

This, of course, is all silly conjecture because the real winner of the August election is John Kasich, the moderate Governor of Ohio who manages to say pretty much what every other Republican candidate says but he says it with a nice Ohio accent so he doesn't sound too threatening.

But wait! Who's that gaining major ground on the other wealthier candidates? Why, it's Carly Fiorina! The wonder executive who managed to almost destroy one of Silicon Valley's most venerable companies. She's, well, she's polling in some high single digits and clearly has momentum as we enter the all-important August 31 period of the race. In fact, she's hoping to make the adult table debate next month but CNN is playing funny with the numbers so we might have to listen to Chris Christie pick a fight with someone again. Maybe he could yell at Ben Carson just to remind people that Ben's still in the race. Carson is currently in second place in the Iowa polls, so clearly he's running away with the election and will be the nation's second African-American president. I do so like consistency.

Sun glasses on campers because who's just entered the room and will be moving his stuff the shortest distance out of everyone? It's Vice-President Joe Biden--the savior of the Democrats. The anti-Hillary. The politician-superhero whose special power is to actually work with members of both parties to get something done. Too old? Balderdash; only Republicans can be too old to be president. Joe will win and take his oath of office at Rehoboth Beach on Monday afternoon when there's no traffic.

Of course, I'm only kidding about those people winning the presidency. The real victor will be Marco Rubio. The young guy. The guy who supports an actual immigration bill. The one who wants to re-isolate Cuba because recognizing the Castros really upsets his dad. The one who would be really tough on China. Until the Chinese market exploded. They're not so tough after all, right Marco?

Is anybody else running for president? Of course, and they're all going to win, except for Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Martin O'Neill and George Pataki, who still insists that he is a candidate.

I'm so glad I was able to clear everything up for you because this has been a close election and gee I'm pleased that it's all going to be over by the middle of the week.

Isn't it?

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest   

Sunday, August 23, 2015

And On Your Left...

With so much of the interesting political maneuvering happening on the right, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there will be Democratic debates in the fall, and they could be just as interesting as the Republican candidate-a-thons.

While Hillary Clinton still leads in every match-up with one or the other GOP candidate, she's being pressed by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. Bernie's doing his best to electrify the base with his talk about tighter government control of banks and higher wages and corporate child care centers and things that the US should already have but doesn't because the right believes that Americans feel better by earning these things individually and that if you can't afford them then it's your fault. Sucker. And now Joe Biden is thinking about a run. He would most likely be a very good president if he could get beyond the verbal improvisations that have haunted him in campaigns past. Yes, there are other candidates running--Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee--but they are having a difficult time breaking through a national media that can only handle a few at a time.

In a twist, this election could see the Democrats painted as the older party, with Hillary, Bernie and Joe all much older than their Republican counterparts. In addition, there's a bit of a rift going through the left as the Warren-Sanders far left wing battles with the establishment, more centrist views of the Hillary, and perhaps Biden, wing. There's been so much attention over the past few years about the yawning divide on the right, that a leftish split is certainly news and could be a potential problem unless the party unites in time for the convention, and that's pretty much what I would expect to happen.

Hillary's e-mails are making people nervous and the right will shout Benghazi whenever they get the chance, but on the main issues she seems to have most of the country on her side. Her recent confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists shows her to be empathetic and realistic, and her contrasting views with Republicans on marriage equality, gender equality, wages, climate change, education and foreign policy experience show her to be a more forward-looking candidate than any of the Republicans who only seem to be able to run negative campaigns.

Democrats need to be careful about being overconfident based on the Obama electoral map, with Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Colorado possibly presenting some serious challenges. Overall, though, demographics do provide the party with an advantage the Republicans will find difficult to overcome.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest