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.

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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.

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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.

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