Sunday, January 25, 2015

Salting the PARRCing Lot

Educators, are you getting excited? No, not about the next snowstorm, which looks like a whopper, but about the PARCC tests? You'd better be, because they are on the way and the impact will be measurable and unpredictable.

For those non-educators, the PARCC tests are the standardized tests that students in grades 3-11 will take in two administrations; March and April/May. They are tied to the Common Core Curriculum Standards and claim to be the newest, latest, greatest, most bestest tests to evaluate teacher performance and to prepare our students for further leaning, college, and the working world. Parents, teachers, administrators and politicians have debated whether these new tests, and the Common Core, are appropriate or will even measure what they purport to measure. Some states adopted the Common Core and the tests, then un-adopted them.

The bottom line, though, is that they are almost here.

I've taken some sample tests, and so can you. Go ahead and give it a try. Notice what students are being asked to do and how they are being asked to do it. My assumption is that it's different from what you were asked to do in school. This is the point: The standards and tests are asking educators and students to approach education from a different perspective. In some ways, it's a more productive, intuitive approach, and in others, it's downright confounding.

One of the main issues in New Jersey and, I suspect, in most other states, is the availability and reliability of the school's technology. All of the tests are taken on computers and all of the students will probably log on to their school's systems at the same time. This will probably cause some networks to slow down and/or crash. Also, many schools do not have enough computers for all of their students, which will result in significant disruptions to the school schedule as students will need to test in shifts.

And as much as adults like to fool themselves into thinking that children are all adept at using computers, the facts are that many students can't keyboard quickly, do not understand how technology works, or how to manipulate the screens as these tests require. There is a section of the high school language arts test where students will need to read and manage three sources on three different windows with three different scroll bars and write an essay using all of the readings. That can be a challenge. For younger students, actual keyboarding will be a problem. There are no computer bubble sheets or booklets on these tests. A slow typist will have trouble.

The actual testing, though, is still only part of the issue. These tests will be used to evaluate teachers, which is, and always has been, a terrible idea. Using any high-stakes test, especially one given for the first time on unpredictable technology by students who haven't had a full school year of Common Core instruction, is folly.

Besides, the tests really are only high-stakes for the teachers, not the students. How's that for sound policy? If a student decides the test is too difficult or they can't type or didn't eat a good breakfast that morning, then a teacher could get fired. This is what you get when know-nothing politicians decide, without significant teacher input, what's best for education.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Advantage Obama

It's been apparent for a long time, almost the whole of Barack Obama's presidency, that the national government has wasted a great deal of time and energy on obstruction, fights over small, petty issues, and grandstanding by both parties on wedge issues where each blamed the other for declaring war on some segment of the population.

There are two years left in Obama's term. Can we please get something done?

The Republicans have shown their hand rather early by passing legislation that would force the administration to fund and build the XL pipeline, but the battle over the pipeline is probably not as important as either side says. In fact, there are other pipelines that already have been built, or are in the process of being built, that would do more damage or good than XL that don't cross our border with Canada, so they don't need to be reviewed by the federal government. It's politics over facts, as it usually is in DC, and even lower gas prices will not put an end to this debate. Besides, the president has already said that he will veto XL, so it's pretty much a moot point.

The GOP-led house has also voted to undo Obama's executive order on immigration. This would expose many undocumented immigrants to deportation and would split up families whose children were born in this country, and are citizens, but whose parents could be sent back to their country of origin. That the conservatives were able to insert this language into the bill tells us that they are still alive and well and have the ability to push Speaker John Boehner to the right. The question is how much damage the caucus has done to the party, especially after the loss of Hispanic voters in the 2012 election.

The president has countered with some ideas that will appeal to the Democratic base and to the independent voter. First up is his plan for the government to pay for two years of community college for many prospective students. This is an excellent idea, but doesn't go far enough. If this country truly wants to be a meritocracy, then the government should pay for tuition for every student enrolled in an undergraduate program. Colleges can still keep their standards, but this will allow them to choose the truly deserving without have the ability to pay be an insurmountable roadblock. Will it be expensive? Yes, but the rewards will come back to us exponentially in knowledge, productivity, ingenuity and promise. It is time for such an investment in our future.

Obama has also called for a middle class tax cut to be funded mostly by having the top earners pay more and for the tax code to be reformed. This is an overdue policy, especially because it would end many tax breaks and lower rates that have traditionally gone to the top wage earners. A middle class cut would help those people still struggling with the aftereffects of the recession and, together with the drop in gas prices (for now) would put needed funds back in people's pockets and bank accounts.

Of course, both Obama initiatives will not survive in the Republican-controlled Congress but, like most good ideas, they will eventually become law because they will help the country. If the GOP wants to run against them in 2016 and believe they can win the election, then they should go ahead and do that. The Republican leadership has said that they want to work with the president. Here are some great ways to start doing just that.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Latest GOP Swimsuit Competition

My apologies if the image of Chris Christie in a swimsuit finds you eating a meal while reading this. It's one of the hardships of the blogging trade, I know.

As mid-January hurries into late-January (a month of Mondays if there ever was one), we find ourselves confronted with news from the right side of the political spectrum as Hillary Clinton and any other would-be Democrats are seemingly taking the month off.

The big news, as usual, comes from New Jersey where the main question revolves around whether the Governor's actions in Dallas last weekend dealt a fatal blow to his presidential hopes. The thinking is that Christie's awkward embrace of Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones while wearing an orange sweater, was akin to Michael Dukakis in a tank or Howard Dean screaming. That is, an unpresidential image so egregious that it renders a candidate unelectable. My sense is that, no, this did not end Christie's run before it began (and it will begin later this month), but it did project Christie as the wanna-be he clearly is. And it also reinforces the notion that the man just doesn't think before he acts sometimes. He believes that he is always right and his aides reinforce that daily. The Dallas escapade might not be the end, but it presages another event that will hurt him sometime down the road. Bank on that.

More bigger than Christie, though, is the news that Mitt Romney is strongly considering a third run for the White House. This would be a very bad idea because third time candidates tend to become parodies and, then, national jokes.

William Jennings Bryan ran for the Democratic nomination four times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, matching the Buffalo Bills for important national losses. Bryan, though, will always be remembered for his Cross of Gold speech, where he attempted to tie the business-friendly Republicans to a policy that would increase the suffering of the lower classes at the expense of the wealthy. Sound familiar? Today, Romney would more likely make a speech saying that a Cross of Gold would be a sound investment.

Even Teddy Roosevelt lost some luster when he ran for a third time in 1912, but he had the extra added legitimacy of having previously been president for almost eight years, and for being a firm advocate for responsible corporate behavior and for his solid conservation record. You know those national parks that Romney wants to open for drilling, exploration and timber? Roosevelt made them happen. Romney can only dream of that kind of influence, even if he does manage to get out of the primaries. Which he won't.

And finally, there's Jeb Bush, who apparently is evolving as we speak. And for someone whose view on evolution is somewhat suspect, it's refreshing to read that:
“There is an evolution in temperament and an evolution in judgment and an evolution in wisdom — and there is an evolution in his respect for others’ point of view,” said Al Cardenas, a longtime friend who insisted that Mr. Bush had “not changed his conservative values.”
Perhaps by the end of the campaign, Mr. Bush will evolve into a Democrat. OK, OK, I know, but a fella can dream, can't he?

So there you have it: the early mid-January political report. By the end of the month I would suspect that Mitt and Chris will join Jeb in the money-raising competition and then they'll all jump head first into the campaign sometime after the Supreme Court affirms the Affordable Care Act.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Christie Back From Dallas. Why Is Everyone Else Leaving?

As if the Cowboy kerfuffle wasn't enough of a distraction for the governor, along comes another story where 'Boys owner Jerry Jones condescends to Christie's fandom by saying that having Christie in the owner's box is payback for when the not-governor was too poor to pay for parking. Jones also said that he will support Christie if he decides to run for president.

Which he will. And apparently he will make that announcement by the end of the month. It would certainly be a delicious treat for the candidate-in-waiting to be able to announce his intentions a day or two after the Cowboys win the Super Bowl on February 1, but I don't believe that is in the offing if the Green Bay Packers have anything to say about that. A Cowboys loss this Sunday would clear the news cycle for Christie's announcement, which I assume will come during the week when there's no game scheduled. The man might be unsuitable to be president, but he does have a knack for public relations.

But, oh! the complications. First up is a report that one of New Jersey's marquee employers, Mercedes-Benz, is leaving the state and heading for Georgia, which is cheaper and has lower taxes. This doesn't help Christie with the pro-business crowd and will further reduce the chance that New Jersey's economy has a robust recovery in time for the governor to run on a miracle.

Then comes another story that says that of people involved in an interstate move involving New Jersey, the vast majority are leaving the state--fleeing is the headline word--rather than moving in. This is not a scientific survey as the data is being supplied by United Van Lines, a moving company, but it does attest to what anecdotal evidence has suggested for years. The Governor will probably seize on these numbers to continue to argue against a millionaire's tax because his main argument has always been that more people will leave the state rather than pay. But since people seem to be leaving anyway, it doesn't say much about his improving things in the state.

The real damage, though, comes because these are more negative stories about New Jersey. Christie can go around the country and tell tales about bipartisanship and how he got the Democratic legislature to pass a pension and benefits bill, but his refusal to actually make a mandated payment will also follow him. As will the videos of him yelling at veterans and public employees. Americans do want someone who will fight for them, but they don't want someone who will fight them because he disagrees with them.

Finally, there's that darned Bush family. Yes, Jeb Bush is off and raising money for a White House bid that will directly compete for the same voters Christie needs for support during the primaries. And Jeb's talking about big issues like immigration and income inequality, while Christie is huddling with foreign policy experts to learn what to say in interviews. 

It's clear that Christie will rise above the silliness of the Dallas story, but the pertinent point is that once he declares himself a candidate for president, he will have precious little to run on.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Christie Does Dallas

It's one thing to sit in the owner's box and discuss politics or bidness with a somewhat straight face and and unemotional posture.

Then there's what Governor Chris Christie did on Sunday evening with Dallas Cowboy's owner Jerry Jones. Christie looked like an unabashed fan who had just won a side of beef in a bet after America's Team came back from 13 points down to win their playoff game against the Detroit Lions. He never got to actually hug Jones, so much as wrapping his hands near the owner's underarms and besides,  Christie never looks good when his feet leave the ground.

So now to the political fallout. This was not a good moment for the Governor. First of all, he has three teams from which to choose in his own market--the Giants, Jets and Eagles--yet he chose to go halfway across the country to essentially be a win-chaser and to actually look like he was in thrall to Jerry Jones. Christie wants to appear as a lunch pail every day Jersey guy, but now that's been jettisoned as the Presidential-Candidate-In-Waiting shows his true colors. I'm sure that he's had the money conversation with Jones and they look like they're real pals, which means something in a race that will also feature the former Governor of Texas.

Then came Christie's reaction, which was, as usual, defensive, heavy handed, sanctimonious and humor-free. 
Mr. Christie, characteristically, doubled down in the face of criticism. He seemed happy to replay the incident when he called into the Boomer and Carton show on New York’s WFAN sports radio, as it gave him another chance to boast of his closeness to Mr. Jones. He gave details on the locker room celebration that the camera did not capture, saying that Dez Bryant, the wide receiver, was the first person to hug him. “Dez knows exactly who I am, yes,” the governor assured his hosts.
Why would the governor want to boast of his closeness to Jones? Aren't the Tisch's and the Johnson's wealthy enough? Or do they see right through Christie's act?

This is but one episode in what will become a complete circus once Christie enters the presidential race and unveils his true persona to the American people. They will then learn what we in New Jersey already know; Christie has no shame and no filter. These will be his greatest strengths at the beginning of the campaign, but will ultimately prove to be his undoing.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Pendulum Swings Both Ways

It took about 35 years, but the Republican Party is just where it wants to be. They have a Congressional majority and are flush with the optimism of a political movement that they believe has broad popular support. They are looking forward to perhaps winning the presidency in 2016 and finally being able to implement the agenda that Ronald Reagan gave voice to in 1980. Democrats are supposed to be on the run. President Obama is spent.

It's a nice tale, this one. The problem is that it's full of inaccurate assumptions and leaves out the fact that the Republican Party is split and the far right has so far given no indication that they are in any mood to compromise. They will pass bills and send them to the president, and he will veto most of them. Obama will propose legislation that the Congress will not consider. In many ways, the gridlock will continue.

But there is cause for optimism on both sides. The GOP knows that they will be burnt toast in 2016 if they can't pass some kind of immigration bill that allows people to stay in this country with their families. They also know that they are on the wrong side of history when it comes to marriage equality and that very soon most southern states will be forced to recognize all marriages performed in other states. After all, this is the party that wants government out of people's lives and wants United States citizens to be free to follow the lives that they choose to live.

On health care, the Republicans will vote one more time, probably within a week or so, to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Then they will need to get serious about how they would implement health care without taking it away from the approximately 10 million people who've bought it on the exchanges or qualified for it under the expanded Medicaid program. It is true that the party could wait until the Supreme Court rules in June on whether people who bought policies on the federal exchange qualify for subsidies, but I believe that they will be disappointed. Supreme Court justices read the news and they know that denying people subsidies would cause a mammoth disruption in the lives of millions of people. John Roberts will once again come to President Obama's rescue and provide the fifth vote to uphold the law.

Democrats have essentially lost the fracking debate because not enough people are having their tap water catch fire to offset the millions of people who are now paying $2.00 for unleaded gasoline. Yes, Governor Cuomo outlawed fracking in New York State last year, but that will mean that upstate will remain an economic wasteland for years to come, but at least will have casinos so people with little money can lose it on their own rather than having to pay higher taxes.

The low gas prices will also make the XL Pipeline a moot point. There is little need now to push for more oil when oil producing states will be experiencing budget crises over the next year or so. If anything, many Republican lawmakers will need to hope that gas prices moderate a bit so they can pay for the services their constituents sorely need. That was a joke, by the way. In the end, though, low gas prices will provide a nice boost to the economy and another boost to American foreign policy, which will see much more pain for Russia, Iran and Venezuela.

What the GOP cannot argue, thought, is that much of this optimism and hope will greatly help President Obama. The economy is already improving and having people spend less on gas will help it more. Does the right believe that people will give the president no credit? If Russia and Iran have to pull back their dastardly initiatives because of falling revenue, does the GOP believe that they will get credit for that? Of course not. The president gets the blame when things go wrong and the credit when things go right, and an expanding economy is the number one issue on most Americans' minds.

Perhaps this is the moment when both parties realize that they do need to work together if they want to achieve anything, and activists on both sides will need to recognize that they will have to give something up in order for legislation to move forward. I can confidently say that there will be no broad tax cut this year, nor will an immigration bill contain a path to citizenship. There will be no carbon tax or an increase in the gasoline tax. The Common Core is not going away. Neither is Social Security or Medicare.

Our country was born of compromise. It's the only way we will move forward.

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