Sunday, February 22, 2015

Round One:The Fight On the Right Gets Ugly

It's so early, we're at the beginning of the beginning of the 2016 presidential election yet the Republican Party is clearly intent on making sure that they nominate a candidate who is farther to the right than Mitt Romney claimed to be in 2012. That might make the right wing base very happy, but it could turn out to be a problem for more moderate voters and independents who've shown an inclination, though not a clear majority, to support candidates who want to keep the social safety net and the Affordable Care Act while making sure that the middle class can have access to economic security, college educations, reproductive rights and immigration reform.


Rudy Giuliani is, thankfully, not running for president this cycle, but his nostalgia for the good old days of questioning President Obama's patriotism, love of country and otherness is quite touching, if what we're touching is the backs of our throats with our fingers. Today, in fact, marks the fourth day in a row that Rudy has questioned Obama's American bona-fides. I understand that the Republican Party has cornered the market on who's a real American, a monopoly they've had since Senator Joe McCarthy infected the Senate with his unproven accusations in 1950, but these attacks do nothing but remind us that many on the right still see the president as an alien. As we celebrate George Washington's birthday today, I could see Rudy in 1789 questioning the great man's patriotism because, after all, GW wasn't born in the United States, but in the colonies.

And speaking of ad nausem, or at least, just the nauseum part, I've already written about Governor Chris Christie's sudden epiphany on the Common Core Curriculum and education in general. Christie will release his budget for the next fiscal year this week and he's going to have to make some clear choices. One is whether to call for tax increases in order to fund the soon-to-be-bankrupt Transportation Trust Fund and to make a full state payment to the New Jersey Pension system. Both are starving for money, but raising taxes will not make the far right and the Koch Brothers happy, yet letting the fund go under would be an unmitigated disaster for the state. And if Christie is going to run on the pension and benefits reform bill, yet not abide by its provisions, then he'll have a problem with moderate voters. Perhaps he'll just tell us all to shut up and claim that he's just being Chris Christie so at least we know what we're getting. My view is that this is exactly the problem.

Finally, the latest dreamboat candidate, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, has clearly gone all-in to the right on abortion by chucking his previous let's leave “the final decision to a woman and her doctor,” to now championing personhood amendments. He's also refused to reject Rudy Giuliani's attacks on the president and hasn't yet made a decision on immigration or marriage equality. The Supreme Court will relieve him of having to use brain power on the latter issue, but his answers and non-answers are disturbing. And this from a guy whose most potent decision, in my mind, was to leave college in the spring semester of his senior year. And he never went back.

Jeb Bush has kept to the narrow middle trail for now, and for good reason, but he'll pop up with some right wing chum soon enough. The party is demanding that from its candidates. And the maw must be stuffed.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest    

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Christie Tells It Like It Isn't

It's getting a bit too easy finding contradictions and hypocritical statements in what Governor Chris Christie is saying these days. That must mean he's running for president.

On his signature issue, pension and benefit reform, the governor went back on his promise to make a full payment for 2014, and his administration even argued in court that the 2011 reform bill is unconstitutional. These are both odd turns, but they are simply a matter of doing business under a man who shamelessly switches policy positions, excoriates those who disagree with him, and simply does what is politically expedient with no central philosophy or plan to guide him.

And through all of this hypocrisy, Christie has the nerve to say that he "tells it like it is." As a keen observer of national and state politics, I can say with 100% confidence that people who rely on that phrase do not tell it anything near what it is and are, in fact, blowhards who like to hear themselves talk.

The latest example of Christie's flip-flop road show occurred this week on the issue of the Common Core educational standards. Two years ago, the governor was all for the national standards and agreed with President Obama that the country would be better off with benchmarks on which all states could be evaluated. He even said that this issue should not be politicized.

Clearly, things have changed. Last week in Iowa, he said,

"I have grave concerns about the way this has been done, especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying federal funding to these things. And that changes the entire nature of it, from what was initially supposed to be voluntary type system and states could decide on their own to now having federal money tied to it in ways that really, really give me grave concerns.
"So we're in the midst of re-examination of it in New Jersey....It is something I'm very concerned about, because in the end education needs to be a local issue."

Yes, he even used the word "grave" twice. This is a man who is definitely running for president.

The problem is that he is mistrusted among the conservatives who will decide two of the first three Republican popularity tests, Iowa and South Carolina, and is mistrusted in New Hampshire, the third test, because he has no record to run on. In fact, he's running fourth among the early names being bandied about for the GOP nod, which wouldn't be terrible, except that two of the four ahead of him, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, are competing for the same voters as Christie is. He's going to have to muscle past those two, and they don't have the scandals and YouTube rantings that he does. I would never count Christie out, but pandering to the right is not the road that "tell it like it is" Chris wants to navigate.

This also comes on the heels of a poll in New Jersey that shows the governor's popularity and approval ratings at their four year lows. That's not the political environment in which you'd like to start a national run, but that's what the man has done since being reelected rather emphatically in November 2013. For a politician who says he knows how to safeguard public money, he sure has spent and wasted a great deal of political capital.

If Christie really wanted to reverse himself, I'd rather it be that he decides next week to build the third rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Or by fully funding public education. Those would definitely show that he knows how to tell it like it is. I'm not holding my breath, though.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest    

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Best and Brightest Have Let Us Down

I get very tired very quickly when I hear that we need the best and brightest to become classroom teachers in the United States. For one, it's incredibly insulting because it assumes that the teachers we have now in public schools are somehow subpar, which is not true. Further, it also assumes that the elite students at elite colleges need to swoop down and save education because the best students make the best teachers, right?

Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

Don't misunderstand me: I support all effective teachers across the country who want to make a difference in any type of school, public or private, and who want to educate students. This includes those from Teach for America, the program that began in 1990 at Princeton University and places the best and brightest into urban schools for specified periods of time, usually three years. The program has been criticized for providing a short-term conscience break for smarties who then leave the classroom and make billions as hedge fund managers and tech company start-up junkies. It has also been lauded for enabling the most difficult school districts to staff their classes with committed teachers who knew what they were getting into they signed up for TFA.

For 15 years, the program grew. For the past two, growth has stopped. That's bad news for the districts that rely on TFA graduates, but it might be the beginning of good news for the rest of public education. Why? Although TFA was founded on a laudable goal, the program was also responsible for pushing some of the worst reforms education has seen in decades. From the article:
Teach for America has sent hundreds of graduates to Capitol Hill, school superintendents’ offices and education reform groups, seeding a movement that has supported testing and standards, teacher evaluations tethered to student test scores, and a weakening of teacher tenure.
It seems that the best and brightest are neither when it comes to new ideas on how to improve education. They, along with the conservative know-nothings who inhabit statehouse governments and education commissionerships, relied on untested data purporting to show a connection between student test scores and teacher effectiveness, and supported ever more Charter schools that take public money away from public schools that have legal mandates to deliver a quality education to all students. Weakening teacher tenure and injecting market competition in the schools round out the final failures on their list as both destroy the culture and ethos that have protected the public schools from unwanted political interference, commercialization and data-mongers of all political stripes.

Ten years from now, those still left in education will look back on this era as not only misguided, but destructive; an era from which it will take a few years to recover and reclaim the ideas that actually work in the classroom. By then, the best and brightest will be back on Wall Street or law school or boardrooms touting their latest ventures and perhaps reflecting on the years they spent in the program. I applaud their efforts as teachers. For many, it will inform the rest of their lives. For others, it allowed them to realize a community service dream in a neglected corner of the country. 
But for their support of ideas that have wreaked havoc in the classroom and resulted in a culture of testing that undermines effective teaching, I will forever rue the day that they joined the reform conversation. I have met far better and far brighter minds who didn't attend elite schools and who have enriched teaching and learning across the United States.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest    

Sunday, February 1, 2015

PARCC Storm II: Sunshine Peeks Through

Another week, and more snow is expected in the northeast. There's more over the PARCC testing storm as well, but this time, there is a ray of sane sunshine.

Here in New Jersey, State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, has introduced a bill that would detail a procedure for how parents could opt out of the tests. He's working on another bill that would delay the use of the tests to evaluate students and teachers for up to three years. Not that using tests for such evaluation is ever a good idea, whether it's now or in 2018, but a delay might give testing opponents, which include most educators who work in classrooms, an opportunity to put the movement out of our misery.

The other good news is that another bill sponsored by state Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth) would put limits on how student data is used and disseminated. The Christie administration has said that student privacy protections are in place, but that's quickly becoming the most laughable line in any industry, much less in education. See Target, Home Depot, and anyone involved in The Interview. Plus, Christie can't even keep his political operatives from talking about their political contretemps. How is he going to safeguard the privacy of all of the schoolchildren in New Jersey?

New FAQs about the PARCC tests released by the state Department of Education do say that the tests are not mandatory even though many districts are sending the implicit message that they are. Other districts and organizations are sponsoring evenings where members of the community can come and take a sample test to see what their children will experience. These evenings are being presented as informational sessions, but clearly if parents don't like what they see, they could take action.

Right now, the opt-out movement is small, but it is growing. As we get closer to the March administration, I would expect that more parents will take their children out of the tests. There might even be more opt-outs after the March tests once students go home and tell their parents/caregivers about their experiences. The final administration is in late April or early May.

For all of the talk about the procedural aspects of PARCC, the real issue is what the tests actually measure and whether students are doing their best, either because they've decided that they don't want to bother or are flummoxed by technology issues.

These are high stakes tests for only one group: teachers, because student scores can determine whether one is retained or fired. The ultimate irony is that the people who will be most affected will be the ones with the least amount of control on test day.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest