Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Class Size Debate Really Shouldn't Be a Debate

I know that I really shouldn't even be acknowledging that Betsy DeVos has anything useful to say about education, but the vacant smile she wears when she doesn't know what she's talking about, which is pretty much most minutes of most days, is on brilliant display in this video where she gratuitously supports the idea that larger class size leads to more learning, at least for "some students."

Of course, my solution, then would be to put some students in a large class, but since the number of students who learn best in a large class is small, well, can you see my dilemma? Norman, please relate.

The truth that most every educator knows is that smaller classes are, shall we hedge and say, ALWAYS better than larger classes, because the truth is that the more time a teacher can spend with individual students during a day or class period is always better than spending less time with those students. Yes, it is important for students to collaborate and confer, but in the end, it's the teacher's job to deliver the curriculum to students and then to evaluate the extent to which those students have learned the information. And the most effective way of doing that is to interact with more students for as much time as possible every day.

Are there some students who learn more efficiently in larger classes? Yes, but those students are generally better at absorbing and synthesizing information on their own since they don't need, or get, as much direct teacher support. And of course there are those students who like larger classes because then they can hide or sit in the back or count on the fact that the teacher will not call on them as much. Those students, in fact, need smaller classes.

If this was only a Betsy DeVos issue, then we wouldn't have as much of a problem because she doesn't really support federal involvement in state public schools. But this is not just a DeVos problem. The large class know-nothings are alive and well in the leafy suburbs, employing suspect research that says that classes above 30 students are where education tends to break down. This is convenient for school boards because then they don't have to hire as many teachers and pay them salaries and benefits. This saves money on property taxes and facilities.

Now let's go back to the video. Notice that the first words Secretary DeVos uses to answer the question (around 1:38) are "Given education freedom initiatives, there are different kinds of environments in which students learn well." 

First of all, education freedom initiatives is code for privatizing education and using government money for non-public schools. Second, what does the first part of the sentence have to do with the second? It simply means that schools should feel free to make classes larger because that's what freedom means. I think. 

This administration is doing precious little in education and promoting large classes will do even more damage to children.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Mueller Watch Is Over

Have you seen the Mueller Report?

Me neither.

But I've certainly seen scores of  breathless posts, tweets and articles conjecturing on what it might say and what it might mean and what parts of it will be released or not released or released through a summary, which is merely Nixon's "edited transcripts" using different words.

Perhaps we ought to wait a bit before moving to a High Dudgeon Alert (HDA) or twisting our skivvies, which will only produce a high pitched wail when a sober-minded conversational tone will suffice.

In short, we will need time to mull over and process what the report says beyond the headlines and the breathless, usually fatuous real-time interpretations available to us through the wonders of technology. Because, in the end, this is important and we need to read carefully, provide context and make sure we don't jump to snap conclusions.

It will be up to us as citizens to put unyielding pressure on this administration to release the report in full as soon as possible, and it will be up to us to push for further action if it's warranted by its findings. Congress will then need to investigate further and square what Mueller found with other areas of investigation.

The president wants the report to be the final word on whether he or anyone in his campaign or administration did anything illegal. In fact, that process is just beginning.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Money See, Money Do

Yes, yes, the pursuit of money has always been a key component of American life, but the economic gains the wealthy have made since the election of Ronald Reagan borders on the obscene. The upper middle class has done pretty well too, and have been able to partake of the fruits of their success as few generations have in our past. We are awash in references to money and comparing ourselves to the measures that money represents. Think of box office receipts, athletes' salaries, the price of pricey cars and real estate, and of course, the media's fixation on big expensive...everything.

Given all of that, does it really surprise you that wealthy connected parents would use their money and influence to benefit their children? Maybe it's because I work in education and see the nefarious influence that money has had on students and parents. Maybe it's just the zeitgeist. Or maybe we have sold a part of our souls to the gods of capitalism. Whatever it is, perhaps this scandal will cause us to revisit some of our cherished beliefs.

Perhaps. I will not hold my breath.

As long as parents and students and the education system in general sees a university education as a jobs machine, then we will not make any headway in solving the problems that led to last weeks story. Most of my students say that the reason they are going to college is to get a good job. I've tried to fight against that mighty tide for decades, making the point that if that's your reason for going to college, then that's probably the only thing you'll get out of your experience. And you might not even get that good job.

But if you go for an education or an experience that you can't really replicate at any other time in your life, then you might find more pathways to a broader, more satisfying existence. After all, anyone can take a job away from you at any moment, but nobody can take away your education.

That's the real reason for why the pay-for-admission scandal is so distressing. It's right out of the resume-enhancing playbook that values the name and the money rather than the effort and the education. It's also a sad commentary on the trend in K-12 education that says that the goal of a child's schooling is to get them into college, as if all students can succeed in college.

There's a reason why the percentage of adults with a four year college degree has remained relatively steady at around 35% for many years, and why the college dropout rate approaches 50%.  Yes, there are students who cannot pay for their education or have personal issues that prevent them from completing their education, but most of the reason has to do with the nature of college itself. It's school. Difficult school. It demands executive function skills in addition to analytical, writing, and strategic thinking. Not everyone has those skills, yet the K-12 industry has been pushing all students in that direction for at least the last 30 years, sacrificing non-academic skills and learning or sloughing it off to district or county schools of technology.

And given the competition for jobs and status, it's no wonder that some parents will try to subvert the system or gain an unfair advantage. In the end, for them, academic skills or success means little compared to the opportunity to bypass what their child can actually do and focus on the school's name. Admission based on legacy or financial contribution is bad enough. Bribing a coach or having someone take the SAT or change a students's answers is immoral.

The clear lesson here is that pushing college for all students is not a reasonable strategy, nor should it be the goal of our education system. There are many pathways to success, and many measures of a successful life. Only one of them leads to college.

I hope that this is the worst of the scandals, but again, I won't hold my breath. Because I'll probably die.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Fighting Democrats? What Else is New?

Democrats are fighting amongst themselves? There's a brawl for the soul of the party? The far left and the moderates don't see eye-to-eye? And the conservative Democrats are nowhere to be found?

Do tell. And welcome to another presidential election season.

Democratic dysfunction has been the norm for every election cycle save for the ones where there is  a Democratic incumbent. Let's see; that would mean 1996 and 2012 in the most modern era. Other than that? What we have now.

I'll get this out of the way early: If the Democrats run on a decidedly left-wing agenda, then they will lose the election. Donald Trump won a minority of the popular vote, but he won in enough places where relatively conservative voters switched to him from Obama because they didn't like Hillary Clinton to win in 2016. That's exactly where the 2020 election will be won. 

Or lost. Forget about Texas. Forget about Arizona. Forget about Georgia. Forget, even, about Ohio and maybe Florida. The key is for the Democrats is going to be the Midwestern states that had hitherto been reliably in their column. And the key to winning those states back lies in a more moderate message about health care, security, and a return to a government that functions in the interests of the people. They can even talk about bringing respect and dignity back to the presidency, an immigration system that meets our economic and human rights needs, and a tax plan that doesn't ask middle class Americans to pay more than they did before the last tax act was passed.

And what about Medicare for all? Free college tuition? Higher taxes on the wealthy? The Green New Deal? Great ideas. Their time will come. Remember that it took the conservatives 40 years for their terrible ideas to become mainstream. It will take around 20 for the good ideas to replace them.  Trying to force them earlier will result in delays because Democrats will not win enough elections by moving to the far left. 

Move to the moderate left. The pragmatic left. Win majorities in statehouses and Congress. Move the state courts leftward. That's how it's done.

Joe Biden can win enough of the people who voted for Trump but are now tired of the president's incompetence and embarrassing behavior. Maybe some of the other announced, Kamala Harris, or unannounced, Kirsten Gillibrand can too. I don't think Bernie or Elizabeth Warren or Beto O'Rourke can. 

The other key is to make sure that Americans register to vote. There's enough time to continue the drive, file complaints, and educate the public on how important it is to participate. Especially those people who will support our issues.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Sunday, March 3, 2019

At Their Word

It was quite a week for trust, because, as you know, it's a matter of trust (and just who is that handsome fellow in the Brooks Brothers' suit at 00:32?).

This is the week where Michael Cohen asked us to believe what he had to say about Donald Trump, and Donald Trump asked us to believe that he believes Kim Jong-un at his word, and that we should too.

I'm guessing that you already know who I think is believable and who is not.

For those of us who have spent a good part of our adult lives being subjected to Donald Trump's exaggerations, lies, misdirections, bankruptcies, and social habits, Mr. Cohen seems awfully believable. There is no doubt that Trump had affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall and there is no doubt that he used both the National Enquirer and Mr. Cohen to suppress and pay them off in the run-up to the 2016 election. It's also fairly clear that the president has something massive to hide on his tax returns and campaign finance paperwork, and there's already hard evidence to show that he had a direct role in ordering campaign and government officials to lie for him and to work around protocols and ethics laws for his own gain.

But what really cemented his shoes was when he picked out one lonely fact about Cohen's testimony: that Cohen said that he had not seen evidence that Trump had worked with the Russians on the 2016 election. Trump gave away the store with that comment, essentially saying that Cohen told the truth about one thing, but lied about everything else. Improbable at best.

And not only that, none other than Chris Christie, and golly does it pain me to cite Chris Christie, said last week that the Mueller investigation is likely the least of the president's problems. Trump should be focusing more on the Southern District of New York's investigations into his business practices because it's not subject to any federal oversight, a statute of limitations, and virtually no limitation on what it can investigate or subpoena.

Remember when it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to be elected president and the Republicans promised to investigate her every day she was in office? No? Then it's a good thing I just reminded you because the hypocrisy is thick and steaming at the GOP lunch buffet. Now that the cement shoes are on the other feet, it's amusing to hear the right wing complain about witch hunts. In all likelihood, there would still be eight Supreme Court Justices if she had won. You win, you get to investigate. You investigate, you find stuff.

Which brings us to the president's love and respect for all things dictatorial, whether it's Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Rodrigo Duterte or others. Last week's winner was Kim Jong-un, who received the I Believe Him Because He Told Me It Was True Award from Trump over the case of Otto Warmbier. I'm not sure whether it's because Trump wants others to implicitly believe him when he tells whoppers or that he wants to be liked or some other pathology, but saying these things is not helpful for the United States nor does it make us in any way a better country.

After all, this is a president who trafficked in conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, denies climate science, and can't come to terms with the fact that he's just not as popular as he thinks he is as measured by his inauguration crowds and popular vote total. Plus, Trump was the one who asked Michael Cohen to do all of those wonderful deeds and then praised his loyalty.

Seems like an easy choice to me.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest