Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Vacation

Due to holiday travel and my lack of regular access to a computer, Teachable Moment will be going on vacation until January 5. Happy holidays and best wishes for a great new year.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting a Head Start

It's nice when they get it right. Shortly after announcing that Arne Duncan would be the next Secretary of Education (a choice about which I'm cautiously optimistic), the report is that the Obama administration is going to be putting a massive investment into early childhood education. Estimates say it will be in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Amen to that.

I think that this is one of the smartest educational investments that we could make. Like drug dealers, we have to get to the kids early. The earlier, the better. We know that the achievement gap exists even before kids enter school. Kids in underserved communities start off their first day of kindergarten behind their more affluent peers. As time goes on, those problems get worse and the gap widens. Rather than invest heroic (and essentially unreplicable) efforts into the later grades a la KIPP, why not really focus our attention on preventing the gap from ever opening in the first place?

Here's the catch. Just throwing huge amounts of money at the problem won't solve it. Obviously, not all early childhood programs are the equally effective and so investment would need to be in programs that work. In addition, while we know that Head Start programs are effective at increasing school-readiness for at-risk children, we also know that the effects of Head Start dissipate over time to the point that it's as if they were never in the program to begin with.

The investment in early childhood education and making moves to create as near as possible a universal pre-k program is great. Now we need to make sure that effective programs are selected and that the support continues even after the kids enter school. There are some big problems on the road still, but this is a good first step.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Looking at Facts

Even after the selection of Arne Duncan t be the new Secretary of Education, the battle for the educational heart and mind of the Obama administration continues. Duncan is seen as a middle of the roader who could break in either direction for which direction to take school reform (because, yes, there are multiple ways to reform the schools).

Before Duncan's selection, the Boston Globe ran an editorial saying that Obama needs to appoint "an education secretary wedded to reform - not one inclined to settle for low standards." I could rant and rave now about how the choice is not between monolithic reform and the evil status quo, but I've covered that ground already so I'll let it slide this time. Suffice it to say that the Globe would prefer Obama to tack to the idealocratic side of the reform divide. (That's what they meant, even if they didn't know it.) This would mean adopting on a national scale the kinds of reforms that we've seen in New York and Washington D.C.

What's missing is an analysis beyond the hype of how effective those reforms really are. As was raised in the last issue of City Hall News, the New York reforms may not be all they're cracked up to be. Of course, Eduwonkette has made her blogging name establishing just that, so it's no great surprise.

In the debate over where the schools should go there's a lot of people shouting "Follow me!" and "Go that way!" What's missing (at least in the mainstream press) is a look at which direction actually makes the most sense after you cut out all the hyperbole and hype.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Matter of Conclusions

One thing that never fails to amaze me is how two people can start with an almost identical premise and set of facts and then leap to two radically different conclusions. My case in point is Malcolm Gladwell's meditation on teacher recruitment in last week's New Yorker.

Gladwell starts from the position that teacher quality has huge impacts on student achievement. Great teachers produce great results and bad teachers produce bad results. I'm with him so far. He then goes on to compare the process of finding great teachers to the process of finding great NFL quarterbacks. That is to say, it's pretty much impossible to do in advance. The only way to really know if someone is going to be a great quarterback is by putting them into an NFL game and seeing how they do. That's because there's nothing really like being in the NFL. Similarly, there's no truly equivalent experience to teaching in a classroom. (I've been there. I know.)

So far, I'm totally with him. Good teachers are important and it's next to impossible to tell who they'll be in advance. Makes perfect sense. But it's also where things start to come off the rails.

Gladwell's solution to the problem is that we should forget about teacher training programs, forget about teacher tenure, and rework the salary structure for educators. In theory I'm in favor of a reworked salary structure and I can even go along with some changes to the practice of tenure. But ditching teacher training? Isn't that the exact wrong thing to do?

The mistake Gladwell seems to be making is in thinking that teaching ability (like NFL quarterbacking) is an immutable trait – either you've got it or you don't. This is patently absurd and disregards any notion that teachers (or quarterbacks) can improve. Just because a teacher has a bad first year doesn't mean they won't have a great second year. Or fourth year. Rather than focus our efforts on bouncing people from the system, let's focus on making sure the people we do have are best equipped to handle the job we're giving them.

When I see that teacher quality is important and that we don't know who great teachers are going to be ahead of time, the conclusion I come to is that we'd better be investing our energy and resources into helping ensure that all teachers can become great teachers. It just makes sense.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beyond Either/Or

I have to admit that I'm shooting from the hip a little bit with today's post because I don't really know all that much about Arne Duncan, Obama's pick for Secretary of Education. I've read a couple of things about him (not all positive) and have to say that I'm pretty happy with this pick.

It seems like right now a lot of people aren't sure entirely what to make of the choice. After all, ths guy is supported by both Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein. When faced with two petitions for Obama over the summer - one pushing the idealocrat get-tough approach and the other pushing the broader, bolder approach - Duncan signed both. Some are going to see this as a sign of wishy washiness or political opportunism. I see it as an indication that he doesn't view this debate as an either/or. In this sense, he could be the anti-Michelle Rhee, which may be the best thing to happen to the education debate in a long time.

Let's assume the best about Duncan and say that his straddling of the middle is because there are ideas of merit on both sides of the issue and that he recognizes that one side is not totally right and acting in good faith while the other side is trying to ruin the lives of millions of children. He would be absolutely right. There is no one silver bullet that will solve all of the educational problems in America. Anyone who honestly looks at the situation can see that.

The Times article says, "[Duncan] argued that the nation’s schools needed to be held accountable for student progress, but also needed major new investments, new talent and new teacher-training efforts." Obama could do a lot worse than to have someone with that attitude working for him.

Monday, December 15, 2008

More Phony Accountability

In case you were having even a moment of doubt, let me assure you that accountability is the educational mantra of the moment. In an editorial last Friday, the New York Times praised a program in Louisiana for gauging teacher and teacher training program effectiveness. The Times writes:
"The most striking innovation is an evaluation system that judges teacher-preparation programs based on how much their graduates improve student performances in important areas, including reading, math and science. Once the evaluation system is in place throughout the state, officials would be able to determine which programs are turning out first-class teachers and which ones still need work."

What's not mentioned is that the way that the state will be judging improvement in student performance is through standardized testing. Let's ignore for a moment that (as Eduwonkette has posted) the standardized tests given across the country can't really be used for measuring student progress from year to year. What really concerns me is how abstracted these accountability measures are becoming from real learning.

Consider this. What the Louisiana program is really measuring is which teacher-preparation programs best teacher teachers to teach to the test. That's what it comes down to. A college of education would be judged by the results twice removed from its actual program. In addition, a well-regarded school like Bank Street College of Education in New York would probably get panned in such a system because of it's progressive, test de-emphasizing approach.

Now, there may be a debate to be had over whether Bank Street is better or worse than a more traditional schooling approach. But let's actually have that debate. Let's not just assume the debate is over and now it's time to start measuring the results.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Get Them Early

As USA Today reported yesterday, a group of college presidents wants more students in this country to go to and graduate from college. Given the source, this is not terribly surprising news. As it stands now there are 3.64 million students enrolled in first grade. There are 1.49 million in their second year of college. Clearly something is getting lost in the middle to the tune of about 2.15 million kids. As the presidents phrased it, "a torrent of talent entering the nation's schools in kindergarten is reduced to a trickle 16 years later." Not a bad quote.

What's interesting then about the report (and USA Today's reporting on it) is that these college presidents focused on early childhood education - particularly a universal, voluntary pre-school program in low-income comunities - as one of the most promising ways to boost college graduation rates. It's like they've been reading this blog! The most promising way to close the achievement gap and make sure that all children are ready and able to learn is to start early so that no gap ever opens. It just makes sense.

This notion seems to be the prevailing counterweight to the idealocrat reforms of heavy-handed accountability and high stakes testing. I think the difference couldn't be more stark. One approach offers a solution. The other approach offers nothing more than a measuring stick. It will be interesting to see which gains greater prominence in the years ahead.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brain Damage

Here's some food for thought for you. According to a new study, kids who grew up in poverty have less developed brains than those who grew up in a more affluent setting. The difference is so pronounced that children's brains in this environment resemble those of adults who have suffered brain damage.

I like studies like this because they take what everyone kind of intuitively knows (kids who grow up in poverty are at a major disadvantage to kids who don't) and puts it in really stark terms (poverty = brain damage).

Strikes me as a pretty good argument for focusing our education reform efforts on more than the schools. That's definitely important, but we also need to look at the conditions that put those kids at a disadvantage in the first place. Schools can be part of the solution, but they are not the only cause.

(Thanks to Gotham Schools for highlighting this study.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What Was He Thinking?

Ahh, winter. The time when a major state's governor turns to thoughts of how to ruin themselves spectacularly.

It was about a year ago that New York Governor Elliot Spitzer imploded in what has to be one of the most incredible sex scandals in U.S. history, ending his reign in the Empire State. Not to be outdone, the Land of Lincoln has produced a pretty incredible political flop in its own right. Apparently, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was trying to sell Obama's seat in the senate. In Illinois, as in New York, when there is a vacancy in the Senate, the governor has the sole discretion to appoint a successor. Kind of like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Apparently, Blagojevich is on tape saying at one point, "I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden. And I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not going to do it." Incredible.

The question that jumps immediately to mind is: how did you think you were going to get away with this? What sort of crazed egotism must you be suffering from to think, "You know, I'll bet no one will catch me if I try to sell the senate seat of the president-elect to forward my own personal fortune." Moron. Keep in mind, this guy was the subject of a New York Times profile on November 13th under the headline Picking Obama Successor Puts Spotlight on Governor. The New York Times (kind of a well-known paper) is saying that there's a spotlight on you and you're engaging in blatant corruption? How dumb can you be?

As you can tell, I don't really have much to say about this other than that Governor Bonehead is dumber than I can fathom and that I can't imagine his successor won't be better. Of course, that may be what they said in Illinois last time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Trouble in the Tribune

It's kind of weird that yesterday's news that the Tribune Company was filing for bankruptcy wasn't bigger news than it was. I mean, this is the company that operates the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and 10 other newspapers as well as 23 TV stations and a bunch of other "media holdings." When a company like that declares bankruptcy, you'd think that its headline on the New York Times front page would be at least slightly bigger than the headline: In a New Tux, Obama Seeks the Proper Tone.

Rather than be greeted as big news, most coverage seems to be taking the tone of: well, what did you expect? Everyone knows that newspapers are in trouble with declining readership, declining ad sales, and a general loss of revenue on all fronts. So when a huge chain like this hits the skids, it's taken as a matter of course.

I should point out that though it's filing for bankruptcy protections, Tribune is planning to continue its operations as before. (The fact that they're able to do so seems like a weird quirk in the bankruptcy code, but what do I know.) The point is, these major newspapers aren't shutting down. Yet.

The danger in my mind is that as the news gets more and more expensive, we're going to see it getting taken over by fewer and fewer mega companies. We've already been seeing that with chains like Gannett and Tribune owning scads of papers. If even the mega companies are starting to fail, we may see the rise of mega mega companies. The worry is that you'll end up with only one or two actual newspapers that just have branch offices to slap a different banner on to the same product. I can't help but think that fewer voices is not good for our democracy.

Thomas Jefferson once said that if he had to choose between having newspapers or a government, he would pick newspapers. There's no word about his preference if there's only one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Need to Break Free

There are very few things that get me actually upset, but the column that David Brooks wrote last Friday did the trick. I'd just written the day before that the choice in education reform was not a stark one between the Rhee/Klein/Idealocrat reform and nothing. That's a false choice put forward by people who want their ideas to be the only ones considered. Obviously, David Brooks doesn't read this site or he wouldn't have written a lead like this:
"On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms."
That's right, the choice is between charter schools and superficial reforms. Nice try David.

First of all, there's more evidence to support the idea that smaller class sizes (an apparently superficial reform) support student learning than that charter schools have a similar impact. For someone who's into tough accountability standards, you'd think that evidence would play a part in his reasoning.

Of course, Brooks probably didn't do a whole lot of research for this column. He's not an education specialist and so he went along with what the mainstream theme of education coverage tells people to think. Namely that Michelle Rhee stands for education reform and everyone else stands for the status quo of failing schools. Until we can break through that barrier, we aren't going to be able to have a real discussion about education reform.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Testing Mania

If you're interested in getting the mental gears turning, check out this piece by John Goodlad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It goes on a little bit long, but it's worth reading as it kind of gives the history of how we came to our current educational state under No Child Left Behind.

My favorite part in the article comes pretty early when Goodland writes, "I did not see any point in trying to fix what was not broken but should be terminated. ... Our proclivity for testing has been around a long time and probably will continue to be. The challenge is to choose wisely what and how we test."

The point I'm taking from that is not that NCLB is not working the way it's supposed to, it's that the program is working, but that it's just a bad idea. Hear, hear.

NCLB was not what brought us to our testing mania. Goodland pretty convincingly lays out that we were on a long road toward that end. NCLB is the culmination of that mania. It's the official enshrinement of the "accountability" movement at a national level.

I'm not against accountability. I am against the obsession of casting a single test score as the sole basis for our educational system. As Diane Ravitch writes in a pretty great posting on her blog, "By making test scores the sole gauge of progress, one can expect to see cheating and test prepping, and other quasi-legitimate and outright illegitimate ways of reaching the only goal that matters. When teachers, principals, and students are given rewards and punishments for only one measure, that measure may well rise, but at a cost."

That cost is becoming more and more clear as our testing mania continues.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Human Capital Gap

For all the talk about the failures of our public schools to get kids prepared for college, it's kind of easy to forget that even kids who are qualified may not be able to go. According to a report released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the cost of college is increasing to the point where it's going to become more and more of a luxury, even without a recession.

According to the report, from 1982 to 2007 the median family income rose by 147%. During that same time, the cost of attending college skyrocketed 439%! That's almost three times as high. The cost of attending a four year public college eats up 28% of the median family income while attending private college would drain 76% of that income. The way that things are going, it's looking like it may not matter how well we prepare kids to be ready for college. If they can't afford to go, they won't. And then where will we be?

Robert Reich correctly points out that for all the billions we're spending bailing out various sectors of our economy, we're not focusing our attention on the human capital that will drive our economy forward in the future.

I've frequently said that we should set up a system in this country whereby tuition to state colleges is paid for for all qualified students who enroll. That payment could come in the form of tax credits or just outright payments to the schools. I know that the costs of such a program would probably be staggering. But what's the cost of making college a luxury that few can afford? How much are we really willing to pay for that?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

With Her or Against Her

In case there was any doubt, Michelle Rhee has officially hit the big time both in the world of education and in the wider world of magazine readers with her cover profile in Time Magazine. While I'm glad that issues of educational advocacy and reform are deemed worthy of being on the cover of Time, I'm not 100% sure that I like that Rhee is the face of the movement.

I was originally going to call this post "I Hate Michelle Rhee." It would be a much more provacative title, to be sure, but it also wouldn't be particularly accurate. In the first place, I don't know her, so saying that I hate her would be a little unfair. I don't even really hate what she's trying to do with the DC schools system. I mean, she's trying her best to fix problems that have seemed intractable for decades now. I even agree with some of her solutions.

What worries me about Rhee is her stylistic similarities to George W. Bush.

I know that seems like unfair criticism. After all, Rhee talks in coherent sentences, is clearly intellectually curious, and cannot fairly be called a lightweight for her job. But beneath those surface differences lies the core of sameness.

As Bush famously declared early in the war on terror, "You're either with us or you're against us," so too does Rhee paint a manichean picture of school reform. You're either with her version of how to change the schools or you're in favor of preserving the status quo of a failing system. As Bush was immune to criticism (or at least it didn't change his actions) Rhee writes off those who oppose her. As she says, "Have I rubbed some people the wrong way? Definitely. If I changed my style, I might make people a little more comfortable. But I think there's real danger in acting in a way that makes adults feel better. Because where does that stop?" Where Bush was content to basically go it alone in Iraq, Rhee is following the same course in the DC schools. And we know where that stops. Everyone needs allies and in her unwillingness to compromise on anything in order to make "adults feel better" she is alienating many of the people she will need if she actually wants to create real change in the system.

We've seen where a purely black and white worldview gets us in the world. There needs to be some acknowledgement that there are shades of grey. This isn't to say that Rhee should give up and capitulate to the forces of intertia, but that's not really the choice here. The choice is between working with people who share your goals (because who's really against providing kids with a good education?) but may disagree with your methods and choosing not to work with people unless they're willing to support you 100%.

I worry that Michelle Rhee, in choosing the path of most resistance, is setting herself up to be less successful than she could otherwise be. Given her prominence on the issue, if she fails it's going to have huge impacts on education reform for years to come.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The System Isn't Broken

I've been saying for years now (and even put it into one of my first posts on this site) that the entire educational system is not broken. We keep hearing about how all schools are a mess and how the only way to fix things is to demolish the whole system and start over. This simply isn't true. Anecdotally, we all know that there are great public schools and even public school systems out there. I was the product of one myself. We also know that if there's an achievement gap there have to be some schools that are working otherwise instead of a gap we'd just have everyone on the bottom rung of educational achievement.

It's not that the entire school system doesn't work. For most people it works pretty well.

Not content to just have you take my word for it, here's some data. First, the United States ranks second of all the countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita and GDP per employed person. In terms of GDP per hour worked, the U.S. is fourth in the world. Obviously, we're somehow managing to produce an effective, efficient workforce. Not only that, but we're the world leader in patent applications. We file twice as many patent applications as the next closest country. So not only are we effective and efficient, we're also innovators.

Does any of this sound like a country with an irretrievably broken education system? If the entire system were really failing, would we still be able to produce as well as we do as a country?

I don't think we would. I'll say again, the system as a whole is not broken. What is broken is the schools that serve low income students in urban and rural settings. There's no question that we have an achievement gap and that it needs to be closed. We just don't need to blow up the whole system in order to do it. Rather, we need to target our efforts on those schools and school systems that aren't working. As our president-elect might say: this is a job for a scalpel, not a hatchet. We need to keep that in mind when we talk about education reform.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Truly Black Friday

Every so often something happens that makes me start to doubt the very fabric of our civilization. I'm not talking today about terrorism in India or famines or plagues or anything like that. I'm talking about the Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by shoppers last Friday. First, thousands of shoppers burst their way into the store, trampling one of the workers who had opened the doors. The throng was so intense that it took several minutes for police to clear space around the trampled man in order to give aid. Even then, people continued to jostle and push the police.

This is civilization?

I get that Friday was the start of holiday shopping season and I know how people can get swept up into a group mentality. But if all it takes for order to break down like that is for Wal-Mart to offer a sale, we may be in trouble here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Need for Offense

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai show us that the world is still a very dangerous place with lots of people who want to cause panic in general and kill Americans in particular. That's a fact that we forget at our own peril.

Nearly 50 years ago in his book The Conscience of a Conservative Barry Goldwater explained the rationale for an aggressive approach toward combatting the Soviet Union. He wrote that if one side was playing offense and the other side was only playing defense, the group on the offensive would always win eventually. This makes a pretty good amount of sense if you think about it.

And so here we are in the fight against terrorism. We just received another reminder that we need to be on the offensive to find and kill these terrorists before they do the same to us.

That is not to say that we should immediately embark on a mission of military adventurism in all corners of the globe. We can't go around invading and occupying every country that may now or in the past have had a terrorist. What it does mean is that we need to have a lean, focused military with a lean, focused mission: find the terrorists and eliminate them.

Despite the posturing, this is something that George Bush has not done. Now we're poised to have a new president. Let's see if he understands things any better.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rights Matter

So the battle over gay rights in this country is heating up again. I'm not even talking about California's Prop 8 right now. I'm talking about e-Harmony, the website matchmaking service. E-Harmony had resisted (a polite way of saying refused) offering services for same sex couples. However, after a lawsuit was filed, the group agreed to settle and provide gay matches for those that want them.

Showing the kind of level-headed open mindedness that has always marked her writing career, Michelle Malkin immediately branded the move the work of "tolerance bullies" for ensuring that "homosexuals will no longer be denied the inalienable 'right' to hook up with same-sex partners on eHarmony." While I find Malkin to be odious, I couldn't help but wonder about the points she raised. After all, e-Harmony is a private company operating within the bounds of the law. Malkin writes that this move is akin to ordering a vegetarian restaurant to serve steaks. It requires them to provide a service that they simply don't provide as a matter of business. This is compelling to an extent.

What tipped the scales for me, though, was to replace the operative word "homosexual" with "black." If e-Harmony refused to offer services for blacks (or whites or any other race) would it still even be debateable?

I don't think it would be. Long ago we, as a society, decided that even private businesses weren't allowed to discriminate based on race. That's why you don't see segregated lunch counters anymore. This isn't just some PC argument either. This is a fundamental issue of fairness and how we treat people in this country. If we wouldn't (and shouldn't) allow it based on race, then we shouldn't do it for sexual orientation either. It's just a question of fairness.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Screen Doors and Schools

Yesterday was a big day for education in the New York City papers. First, the Daily News discovered the achievement gap. (I told you it was a big day.) They found that schools receiving D's and F's on the DOE-issued report cards tended to have a higher percentage of minority students (particularly black and Latino) than schools receiving better grades. Given that these grades are based largely on achievement on standardized test scores, it's hard to see that this report shocked too many people. Still, the headline ("Bad New York City Schools trap many minorities, study says") provides a nice implicit argument for charter schools and voucher programs. Not that the News would seek to inject their opinion or anything.

The bigger and more interesting news of the day was reported in the New York Times. According to a newly released study, New York City children who live in public housing perform worse in school than their peers who do not live in public housing. On the surface, this is another not terribly surprising statistic given that public housing in the city goes predominantly to low-income minorities. We know from reading the Daily News that this demographic doesn't do as well on standardized tests. What's interesting about the study reported in the Times is that kids in public housing perform worse in school, even compared to students at the same school who share similar demographic factors like race, gender, and poverty. That's a hugely important point. It's not just that the kids in public housing tend to share the traits that we know are indicators of the achievement gap. There is something about living in public housing itself that depresses school achievement even farther.

The authors of the study very professionally refuse to speculate as to what about living in public housing has this negative impact on school achievement. In their words, "We don’t have the data that would enable us to pin it down."

However, the inescapable conclusion is that homelife matters; it has an impact on a child's success at school. To my mind, this has to be a major focus of any real efforts to reform public education. We can't focus just on schools because there are so many factors beyond the schools that impact a child's ability to learn and succeed. As I have been told and say repeatedly, trying to fix education by focusing entirely on schools is like trying to clean the air on only one side of a screen door. Certainly, the schools are important and that's where we can and should focus resources and energy. However, it cannot be our only focus. This study shows us that there's more to schooling than school.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The New Paternalism

There's a new discovery in the field of education. This one comes from John Dewey. One of Dewey's ideas was that public schools would serve a socializing function in a democratic society. That is to say, that after attending school for however many years, children would not only know their reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they would also know how to function within society. They would know how to behave in order to successfully interact with other members of the society. Now we're coming back to this very basic idea.

The latest issue of City Journal has a review of the book Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism. The gist of the book seems to be summed up by saying that schools must teach, "not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional middle-class values.” Somewhere Dewey is smiling.

From looking at six KIPP-like schools around the country that help spur high achievement in their kids, the author, David Whitman, finds that these schools also act as a father figure in the lives of children who too-often don't have a father. The schools provide the tough love approach. In addition, the schools explcitly teach the kids how to shake hands, dress professionally, and speak courteously in proper English.

If we are hoping to really make a difference in education for inner-city youth, then this education is going to be critical. In order to really teach, there must be a receptive audience who are willing to learn. Furthermore, all the knowledge in the world won't do any good if it can't be appropriately packaged and presented. The education battles in our ghetto communities has to be about more than knowledge. It has to be about culture and values. If those are not coming from the families, then it needs to be coming from the schools.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Perils of the Presidency

I guess that one of the perils of the presidency is that everything you do matters. So on that front, Obama is now facing two major decisions that will play out in the realm of educational policy. First, he has to pick a secretary of education. Second, he needs to pick a school for his daughters to attend. Frankly, in comparison, the first choice is looking like the easy one right now.

Who would have thought that the usually private decision of family schooling would take on such monumental consequences? Advocates rallied in Times Square on Wednesday to urge the Obama's to pick a charter school. USA Today published an op-ed piece saying that they should pick home schooling for the girls. Both public and private schools are all but begging to have the chance to educate the president's children.

The kicker of all this is that whichever he chooses is going to be seen as some sort of indication of where his educational priorities lie. If he picks public school it will send one message. If he picks a private or charter school or opts for home schooling it will send a very different message. No matter his pick, it will please some, anger others, and probably draw cries of hypocrisy.

But here's the deal. What the president picks for his children is not necessarily what he thinks is the best policy for the whole of the nation. Being president (or the children of the president) has a set of issues and considerations that no other person in the country has to deal with. So here's my take on it all: back off and let the family decide. It's not your decision and you're not in their shoes.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Everyone's an Expert

I don't know what exactly it is about education that makes everyone an expert about it. Maybe it comes down to the fact that everyone went to school at one time or another and so think they have a pretty good idea about how things should work. After all, what could be hard about creating pedagogically sound, age-appropriate lessons to millions of individual children across the country? Seems like anyone could chime in on how to improve that.

In that vein, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, has his solution. In short, he wants to run the school system nationally more like a business. Never mind that running businesses like a business hasn't been terribly successful lately. This makes sense to Lou and, because everyone's an expert on schools, he can get attention for saying it.

Now, there are some diamonds in the dunghill of his "solution." He does favor a system of national standards, which as I've written before makes a certain amount of sense. Assuming that we actually are going to focus on accountability (beware the unspeak), then we need goals to hold schools accountable to. Letting states set their own goals is just a race to the bottom. So he may be onto something there.

Where he goes off the rails in my mind is in his plan to consolidate all the districts in the country into 50 to 70 mega-districts. From a business perspective, I can see how centralizing production and all that makes sense. But we aren't mass producing here. We're not trying to sell the same product a bajillion times to make lots of money. In education, we're trying to reach each individual student on an individual level and move them forward as far as we can each year. The school system isn't an assembly line where one teacher dumps a vat of knowledge into a kid's brain before sending them on to the next teacher for another vat to be dumped. That's just not how education works and we forget that at our peril.

The government's last big attempt at centralizing pedagogy has been something less than an overwhelming success. The Reading First program was one of the centerpieces of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, $6 billion (that's right, 9 zeroes) into the program, we find out that the students in the program made no greater gains in reading comprehension than students not in the program. Once again we see that a one size fits all solution didn't work for every child in America. Do we get it yet?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hail the Idealocrats

Over at Gotham Schools they've been wrestling with what to call the group of education advocates who follow the Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Jon Schnur model of thought. While those three would probably declare themselves to be reformers, that's kind of a loaded word to use. After all, everyone working on education advocacy would probably describe themselves as reformers so that isn't a particularly useful appelation. Furthermore, it's loaded in the sense that reform automatically implies good. Have you ever heard of negative reform? I'm sure it's happened, but it's just not how the word is used. While what these advocates are doing may or may not be positive, giving them the label of reformer automatically implies that they are doing good, which is a disservice to our discussions on the issue.

So over at Gotham Schools they threw open the question to the readers to hear what other people had to say. The suggestions ranged from the pretty good to the pretty inane. My personal favorite (though it could never be used) is the Axis of Eval. That one's pretty loaded too, but also extremely clever, especially given the focus these people put on accountability and high stakes testing.

The one that I'm actually going to start advocating for, though, is similarly brilliant and sums up so many aspects of this particular "reform" movement. I'm voting for Idealocrats.

The blending together of idealists and bureaucrats is a pretty accurate summation of the idea. On the one hand, you have the naked idealism (perhaps best exemplified in Teach for America corps members) that the system can work, that all children can learn, and that by working to ensure all children are learning we may very well be saving the world. The flip side of that is the bureaucratic focus on data, testing, working within the system, and following a business-like model to achieve quantifiable goals. The melding together of these two seemingly different ideologies is what makes the "reforms" of people like Klein and Rhee different from what has come before.

So all hail the Idealocrats! Now they have a name.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Lieberman Dilemma

I have to admit that I don't really get the whole Lieberman thing. It just doesn't make sense to me from two perspectives. I don't get why he would want to stay in the Democratic caucus and I don't get why the other Democrats would want to let him. Yet, according to CNN's sources, that seems to be what's happening.

First, for Lieberman. He spent the last however many months vigorously campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate. This wasn't an issue of a non-endorsement of Obama. He was out there actively working to elect the other guy. To his credit (or not), I think that Lieberman was doing that because he thought it was the right thing to do. I mean, the signs were pretty clear that the Republicans weren't going to win back a majority of the Senate so it's not like he was seeking out their favor so he could keep his committee posts. He was campaigning for McCain because he honestly thought the Republican nominee would be better than the Democratic nominee. Usually that's a pretty good sign that you're a Republican. So why does he want to stay with the Democrats?

And why would the Democrats want to keep him? Here's a guy who they nominated to be vice president eight years ago now running around campaigning for the other side. I get that you don't want to punish someone for acting in their conscience, but is it really punishment to suggest that someone join the party they should probably belong to? Obama has said that he wants to work with both sides of the aisle. This would be a great opportunity. He can work with Lieberman on the other side of the aisle. Everyone wins. Except Lieberman, that is, who would lose his committee chairmanships. But you've got to figure that's what happens when you lose the election.

I don't think the Democratic caucus should punish people for acting their conscience. I just don't think they should reward party rebellion either.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Because I Said So

The media is kind of starting to drive me crazy. No, I'm not talking about their continued focus on Sarah Palin. I'm referring to the way they just accept what people tell them about education without actually analyzing it at all. Case in point is this article from yesterday's New York Times headlined: Most City High Schools Improved This Year.

At first that seems like a pretty okay headline. It's nice to see some positive news about education once in a whole too, so what could be the problem?

Well, anyone who reads into the article at all would see that the way we know the schools have improved is because the DOE is telling us they did through their progress report system. Never mind that they progress reports have really been pretty well discredited as giving more significance to statistical noise than actual achievement. Just look at the results. 83% of high schools earned an A or a B on the progress report. Despite the fact that nearly all of the schools are abovev average, the city still has a graduation rate below 50%. But the DOE says they're improving. It says so right on the progress reports.

I have a little problem with the way the DOE continually massages data to show what a great job they're doing. I have a big problem when the press just buys it. Would we believe it if George W. Bush gave himself an A or B on his job performance? Would we buy it if it came from AIG? So why does the Times give it an uncritical headline just because it comes from the schools?

Also, the second paragraph of the story says, "Chancellor Joel I. Klein, who has made accountability a cornerstone of his reform efforts ..." I love that sentence because it sounds like it came right out of the DOE press release. It's full of educational unspeak. I've already written about the phony accountability that the DOE supposedly accomplishes through high stakes tests. And reform is a great word because it always sounds positive. Is there even such a thing as negative reform? So we have a "reformer" pushing "accountability" and that has caused the high schools to "improve."

Words matter, people! Let's not buy into the hype just because Joel Klein says to.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Holiday Season

You know that the holiday season is upon us when people starting arguing about things like putting the Christ back in Christmas. This has been going on every year for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Phoenix and reading the Arizona Republic I can remember countless op-eds and letters to the editor about how we need to restore religion to the holiday. The letters usually called for a boycott of stores that put up signs saying "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." They also refused to write X-mas.

Not to be outdone by their more religious counterparts, the American Humanist Association is putting together an ad campaign in Washington D.C. saying, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

The AHA says that they're "trying to plant a seed of rational thought and critical thinking and questioning in people's minds." The American Family Association says that it's a "stupid ad."

Hardly a compelling rebuttal. Fortunately, he follows it up with this stellar line of reasoning: "How do we define 'good' if we don't believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what's good and bad and right and wrong."

I hate this argument so much. I hate the line of thinking that we need a deity to tell us how to live our lives. First of all, there's so many different religions that it's tough to say which god really gets to decide what's good and bad and right and wrong. So just saying that God tells us isn't good enough. God has told us a lot of things through the years.

Secondly, can't we agree that there is a general set of rules that people should follow and that we can come to rationally without being told be a higher power? I'm thinking here of the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Doesn't that just make sense? Do we really need an omnipotent deity to tell us that? Couldn't we kind of figure that out on their own? It's not really that radical of a concept.

I'm sure the American Family Association (because atheists are against families) would disagree with me. Of course, they may be too busy putting Christ into Christmas to care.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Obama's Guns

It's not often that a headline makes me sit up straighter and take notice. Sure, some make we want to read the story more than others, but actual focused attention is something else entirely. However, that threshold was crossed yesterday when I saw this headline on CNN:

Gun Sales Surge After Obama's Election

Boy, if that doesn't get your attention, what will?

It turns out that people are buying all sorts of guns because they think that with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, the Second Amendment is not long for the world, at least as it stands now. Never mind that Obama says that he's in favor of the personal right to bear arms. After all, this is the guy who said that bitter people cling to guns. And religion.

It's amazing the amount of distrust that people have for their government actually doing what they say they'll do. Obama says that he's not against guns and that it's a low priority for him anyway (he kept talking about the economy or something like that). However, people who really like their guns (cling to them, some might say) don't trust the words and go out to stock up.

The gun shop owners love it. Does this count as Obama stimulating the economy?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Divide or Unify

I think I only have one or two more days of election reaction posts. That's the problem with only writing once a day. It was either cram it all into one really long post or stretch it out over a week. So here comes more of the never-ending analysis.

With the Democrats firmly in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency and with a seeming mandate to run with a very progressive agenda, there's been some talk in the press of a major party realignment that marks the start of a liberal Democrat controlled era. If that's true, so much the better. However, I'm not certain. It seems like not too long ago we were hearing about a permanent Republican majority. You can see how that panned out.

It is instructive to notice, though, the differences between the 2004 Bush/Rove realignment and the 2008 Obama/Axelrod version. We know that the 2004 "permanent" realignment lasted for all of two years. So hopefully that's a big difference between the two scenarios.

Another point to consider is how the majorities were created. The Bush/Rove campaign was one of mobilizing the base at the expense of the rest. It was a 50 plus 1 strategy for control. Especially in 2004, there was no great effort to reach out to the middle. Rather, it was an effort to activate the hard core Republicans and get them to the polls.

In contrast, the Obama/Axelrod campaign (which had a large amount of base activating also) wass focused on reaching out to new voters and red states to build a coalition. That's why you saw Bush in 2004 mainly focus on holding the states he'd won four years ago. Obama on the other hand, turned several swing states and several traditionally Republican states (Indiana, North Carolina, almost Montana). The Democratic method for realignment is to bring everyone together. The Republican method was to pick wedge issues (gay marriage ban amendments), mobilize the hardcore base, and work on depressing turnout for the other side.

I'm in no way saying that the only strategy the Republicans can use for building majorities is this divide and conquer strategy. Ronald Reagan is an obvious counter-example in recent memory. However, that was the strategy that the Republicans did use. It's certainly nice to see that the other way works too.

Friday, November 7, 2008

History vs. Meaning

A huge amount of the coverage I've been seeing about Obama's election has been focusing on the historic nature of America electing its first black president. And truly, that is a historic occasion. However, I worry that in the history of the moment, we're losing sight of the meaning of the moment.

The campaign we just went through was not fundamentally a choice between whether America wanted a black man or a white man to lead the country. Debates did not consist of Obama saying, "I'm black", McCain saying, "I'm white", and Tom Brokaw asking a follow-up question. Rather, this election was about which view of government should have dominance over the next four years. It was a question of whether America wanted to stick with the conservative mode of the last eight years or to try for a more progressive approach. That the progressive approach won is the real meaning of this election.

Years from now, regardless of what happens in Obama's presidency, the fact that America chose to elect a black man president will be a historic point. However, looking to the future obscures the meaning of right now. The meaning of right now is that America wants to move left as a nation. The question for now is will it work?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Nation of Lefties

I've seen a lot of writing over the last two days about how Obama needs to be careful as he moves ahead with his presidency because he's so liberal and the country is fundamentally conservative. I've seen and heard the phrase "center-right nation" more times than I can count. Newsweek, always on the lookout for a scoop, printed a cover story a few weeks ago declaring, America the Conservative. (That hasn't stopped them from running at least two major stories on the end of conservativism in the last year, though.) Here's my issue: I don't know how true this talk is.

We heard throughout the entire campaign that Obama was the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. We heard that he was the most liberal candidate ever nominated in our nation's history. Over the last two weeks or so we heard he was a wealth spreading, redistributionist, socialist. The word was out on this guy. He's a lefty. I think he even writes with his left hand.

So if we have a candidate who everyone knows is a liberal and he's elected by a huge electoral margin and a decent sized popular margin and Democrats gain seats in both the House and Senate and Democrats acrss the country do so well, how center-right are we really?

I agree with the idea that we are not a nation of radicals. We don't favor huge revolutionary changes. But this kind of tempermental conservativism is very different from political conservativism. Tempermentally I agree that we as a nation favor gradual changes. However, I think history has shown us that we tend to favor those changes in a progressive, left-leaning direction. That's why we have a progressive income tax, Social Security, the FDIC, civil rights legislation, and more.

I guess we'll find out for sure what Americans think when President Obama starts implementing his policy agenda. All I'm saying is that when the left wins everything it's hard to say that we're a right leaning nation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes We Can

I don't even know where to start this morning. Barack Obama has been elected the 44th President of the United States. Not only did he win, but he really win. As I suggested might happen, the popular vote was not exactly a landslide, but the electoral college was a blow out.

A lot of attention is being paid to the fact that Obama is the first black president this country has ever elected. John McCain made that fact a central point in his concession speech last night. And clearly, that's a big deal. But from listening to McCain and some of the pundits last night, you might think that this was just the time that America was going to elect a black person to office. As if this moment was destined to be of historical importance and Obama happened to be there. I don't think anything could be farther from the truth.

This became a moment of historical importance because Obama made it a moment of historical importance. He was an exciting candidate with a great campaign promising change at a moment when that's what Americans were looking for. That was his doing.

The amazing thing about the electoral map was not just how many votes Obama got, but where he got them from. According to CNN's map, it looks like Obama is going to win both North Carolina and Indiana. The last time around, North Carolina went for Bush by almost 13 percentage points and Indiana went for Bush by over 20. That's a remarkable turnaround.

I wrote months and months ago in describing the race between Hillary Clinton and Obama that the election of either one would be a historic moment. The difference was that I thought (and still think) that the election of Obama has the potential to start a historic era. With a huge electoral win, increased majorities in Congress, and a mandate for change, we're about to see if I'm right.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Oh Frabjous Day

I just voted. I've officially exercised my franchise and I'm ready for the day. I think. I had trouble sleeping last night because I was so excited. It seems like we're so close to winning and yet I can't help but think back to New Hampshire.

I was there on primary day knocking on doors trying to get out the vote. Obama had won Iowa and the polls showed him far ahead in New Hampshire. The exit polls looked good. So I was standing in the gym of a high school in (I think) Nashua with a ton of other volunteers as we watched the results come in on the giant screens projecting MSNBC. And the results were not good, but it didn't seem very believeable. Sure he was down by 10 percent now, but that margin was bound to close. It never did. All the polls had been wrong and as the night dragged on it became clear that Obama was going to lose the state. It was a rough night made significantly better by the fact that Obama came out and gave a great speech, even in defeat. The point is, I'm having New Hampshire induced stress that's probably going to last through the night until I'm either elated or crushed, depending on who wins.

CNN tells me that the first polls are going to be closing in a little over 10 hours now. Then we'll see if the beamish boy has it in him. In the meantime, I'll be developing an ulcer.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Like Christmas

Do you remember that feeling right before Christmas when you were little? It's like you had all this excitement and you knew that the big day was right around the corner? I kind of feel like that right now. It's going to be a long day today, I can just tell.

At this point, I don't really have anything more to add to the conversation about the election. Barring some sort of major catastrophe today, I think that the die has pretty much been cast. Now it's a matter of seeing who shows up at the polls. Obama is supposed to have the great "ground game" so hopefully we see that in action. Of course, McCain has already come back from the political dead a few times this campaign, so he's not out of it.

From the way it's looking on Real Clear Politics (which I've been checking about 50 times a day to see if polls have been update) it'll be a fairly close popular vote with a fairly large spread in the electoral count.

I just can't wait. Is it tomorow yet?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Start Early

In their relentless pursuit of "reform" the DOE implemented a new gifted and talented admissions policy this year. Every interested child entering kindergarten and first grade took two tests. Those scoring in the 90th percentile or above got to enroll in the gifted and talented program. At the time the new policy was announced, it was painted in terms of fairness and equity. I seem to remember reading that this uniform policy was going to make G&T programs available to more kids across a wider demographic gain. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I kind of new that wasn't actually going to happen. Turns out, I was right.

According to the New York Times, the new policy has resulted in a smaller, whiter cohort of children entering the G&T programs across the city. All I can say is, what did you expect?

I think that there are probably some pretty good justifications about running the system the way the DOE is trying to do now. It does provide a certain standard bar that eliminates the "friend of the principal" possibilities that used to exist. It also ensures that being in a G&T program means that at least at some level, the children are gifted and talented. Both of those are valild justifications for running the program this way.

It was always ridiculous, from the very start, to say that this was going to increase access and diversity in the programs. Haven't these people heard of the achievement gap? Haven't they heard that it starts at a young age?

The possible value of this program for education researchers and reformers is that it pretty convincingly demonstrates that the achievement gap exists before the kids ever enter the school building. Keep in mind that these are kids entering kindergarten and first grade. At least half of them have never set foot in a school building. And yet, black and hispanic children do not score as well as their white counterparts. My guess is that this would track along economic lines too, but I don't see the data on that in the Times article.

To me, this sets out in pretty clear terms that when we talk about the achievement gap, we cannot blame its existence entirely on substandard schools. True, the schools are where this can change, but we need to look beyond the schools also. Early childhood education, parenting classes, nutrition and health care - these are the things we need to look at before children ever walk into their first day of kindergarten.

Either a car or an insurance company is running ads now that says the safest way to survive an accident is to never get in one. Well, the best way to close the achievement gap is to never let one open. These test results give us a better clue of where we can start working.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Other Fall Classic

Last night, after the resumption of a game suspended due to rain, the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays to win the world series. Honestly, I didn't watch more than about 5 minutes of the entire series because I don't much care about either team. However, now that baseball's new king has been crowned, it's time to analyze what impact it's going to have on the other fall classic - the presidential election.

Of course, I don't think that there's actually going to be an impact. Let me lay that out right from the beginning. However, in the worlds of symbolism, metaphor, and wild speculation, here are some thoughts.

The team from Pennsylvania beat the team from Florida. Both states are considered battleground states. So if it's a choice of putting resources into Pennsylvania or Florida, look to Pennsylvania. Of course, polls are showing Obama leading in both races, so that may not be a key point. Advantage: Obama.

The team (Phillies) that knocked off the favorite from New York (Mets) won it all. Could that be a metaphor for Obama's victory over Hillary Clinton (the NY senator heavily favored to get the nomination)? Of course, Tampa Bay also beat out a New York favorite (the Yankees), but that was early on and the Yankees didn't even make the postseason. Kind of like McCain beating out Rudy Giuliani early on in the primary season. Advantage: Obama.

The Rays were a fresh-faced team pretty much out of nowhere; the surprise of the season. They had tons of raw talent, but not much experience. They got beaten by the team with more experience. Advantage: McCain.

The offensive barrage of Ryan Howard and the Phillies beat out the usually solid defense of the Rays. Going on the attack worked. Advantage: McCain.

The Phillies had a much larger payroll than the Rays. The team with more money wins it all. Advantage: Obama.

I could probably go on, but it's time to go to work. If you have any baseball as politics metaphors (and trust me, they're fun to think of), post them in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Still Don't Get It

As I was writing yesterday about the failures of No Child Left Behind to provide a meaningful sort of accountability on high school drop out rates, the Department of Education was preparing to release new rules designed to boost that accountability. The only problem is that when the new rules were released, there was nothing in them that will actually boost accountability. The administration still just doesn't get it.

According to the new rules, states must show they are making progress in raising graduation rates not only across the board, but also within each demographic group. This has actually been one of the good things about NCLB. It requires reporting that shows where the achievement gap is happening. It doesn't allow for one group's results to hide the results of another. So in order for states to say they're making progress in their graduation rates, the states need to show that they're making progress for all students. I like that idea.

Where the new rules don't do anything meaningful is that they leave it up to the states to say what constitutes appropriate progress. I went over this yesterday, but it's frankly ridiculous. Given the system that's in place with the law (make progress or lose funding) there's no incentive for states to set ambitious goals. Instead, there's a very strong incentive to set the bar very low. That's what New York is doing. And it's hardly alone in that.

The Department of Education can talk all they want about holding schools accountable. Obviously it makes good press for them. But as long as the ones being held "accountable" get to make their own rules, we aren't going to get very far. I mean, imagine if we let all those kids being tested in third through eighth grade decide what score they needed to get to show they're ready for the next grade. We wouldn't even be able to pretend that we were holding standards. So why do we allow it when it's states instead of kids?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

When the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, it was supposed to fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations" by testing all kids and making sure that each state had specific goals that it had to meet and would be held accountable to. The only problem is that no one at the federal level said what those goals had to be. Given that states lose money in NCLB if they don't meet their goals, guess what happened. The states set ridiculously low goals.

If you check out the chart here you can see the high school graduation goals as set by state. Some states like Indiana have the bar set at what looks to be about 95%, meaning their goal for 95% of Indiana school kids to graduate from high school. That's a nice ambitious and meaningful goal. A few other states have the bar set at about 90%. But then you get down to the New York section of the chart. New York, the cultural center of the nation, has set as its goal a graduation rate of 55%. That's not even where we are now, that's the goal! Just incredible. The state set as its goal 0.1% progress each year. How is that a goal? How is that really going to be helping kids? What happened to getting rid of the low expectations?

Perhaps even more than the unfunded mandate part of NCLB, the thing that bugs me most is how it looks like we're holding schools and teachers and kids accountable, but we aren't actually doing any of those things. It's just a big show to look busy in case anyone happens to look over and see what we're doing.

Given this, it's not a huge surprise that kids today are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school. That's right. The system is regressing so that kids today have less opportunity than their parents. Kind of like the American Dream in reverse.

That's bad enough. It's worse that we're pretending to make progress when we aren't actually progressing.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Going Rogue

I don't know quite what to make of the story that VP candidate Sarah Palin may be "going rogue" from her own running mate. At least, that's what CNN is reporting some McCain aides are saying. It seems like there's a couple of possibilities here, none of which paint a particularly rosy picture of what we're going to see over the next week.

The first possbility is that Palin actually is going rogue and is setting off on her own against the wishes of the McCain campaign. That would pretty much be a sign that the campaign was collapsing. Not terrible news if you're on the Democratic side of things, but it will make for an ugly week of infighting and potential nastiness before it's all over.

The other possibility is that she's not actually going rogue, but that the campaign is trying to set her up that way so that she can really go after Obama while providing a level of plausible deniability to McCain and his campaign. In that case we'll see an ugly week of fake infighting and nastiness before it's all over.

The upside of all this is that in eight days now, this campaign will be finished. After such a long season, it's kind of hard to believe that it will ever end. Depending on how this week goes it may feel even longer.

Friday, October 24, 2008

They Did It

Well, they did it. Despite a poll showing that 89% of New Yorkers wanted the issue put to a public referendum, the City Council voted to extend term limits from two terms to three. This will allow Mayor Bloomberg and roughly two thirds of the Council to run for an extra term. Even though the Council got it wrong, I'm glad that this whole thing is finally over. Sure, there's probably a few court challenges left, but nothing like what we've been seeing. Maybe there'll be some room in the papers for other stories now. Maybe.

I have been on record as opposing this move by the Council pretty much since the Mayor proposed it. That being said, I think that many of my fellow opposers may have gone a little off the deep end. Here's Councilman Bill DeBlasio (who, FYI, a few years ago whole heartedly supported a similar measure): “We are stealing like a thief in the night [the people's] right to decide the shape of their democracy."

Somehow I doubt that many thieves hold public hearings about their thefts covered by every news outlet in the city. But maybe I'm wrong.

The fact is that people still have a choice. Now, in fact, the choice is expanded by one person. If people don't like the Mayor, they can vote him out of office, even if he does spend $80 million on his campaign. The shape of the democracy still comes down to an election every four years. It's up to the people to use it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

In Defense of Spreading the Wealth

Lately, McCain's campaign has been focusing a lot on Obama's comment that he wants to spread the wealth around. This comment has given rise to charges of closet socialism and repeated references to Joe the Plumber. It's pretty much universally taken as a bad thing to have said. But I'm not so sure. I mean, isn't spreading the wealth exactly why we have a government in the first place?

First of all, every single government service from national defense to education is premised on the idea that we as individuals should pay into a common fund for the common good. That's how we have roads and firemen and schools. Given that some people pay more than others but receive essentially the same services, this is one form of spreading the wealth. I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Second, government isn't the only institution that looks to spread wealth around a little. For this, take a look at insurance companies. Every covered member pays in a similar amount and then people withdraw from the central fund based on their need. Holy privatized socialism! That's just how the system works. Again, I'm not sure if this is necessarily a negative.

Third, like an insurance policy in which the sick and infirm take more than their fair share compared to the healthy, shouldn't government serve a similar function in our society? I agree with everyone who says that government should not do for people what they can do for themselves. But what about the things that people can't do for themselves? Doesn't it make sense that we have some sort of common safety net to keep help protect and care for our society? Yes, that involves spreading the wealth, but it's also the right thing to do.

The bottom line on all this, though, is that Obama isn't even proposing Stalin-style redistribution of wealth in order to make sure that everyone is exactly equal on all financial matters. Rather he's proposing a kind of broad based national insurance policy. Everyone pays into it and, yes, some people pay more and get out less. But since we're all in this together and you never know when you're going to be the one on the bottom, it just makes sense.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just Not There

With all that's been going on in the presidential election recently, I haven't been focusing much attention on education. It turns out that I'm not alone in not looking to the schools. According to a report by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, 20 percent of New York City public school elementary school students missed more than a month of school last year. That's 90,000 students who each missed more than 20 days of school. Incredible. The problem is even worse for middle and high school students. Unsurprisingly, the problems are concentrated mostly in Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. Most of the disturbing trends in New York City public schools are concentrated in those neighborhoods.

In the New York Times article I linked to above, "city officials" put most of the blame on school principals who are supposed to manage and deal with chronic absenteeism. There may be some merit in blaming the principals. The real blame, though, I think has to lie with parents. Ultimately, they are the ones who are responsible for their children's lives. They are the ones who need to make sure the kid gets to school.

Just thinking back on my own academic record, I think that I probably didn't miss much more than 20 days of school during my entire schooling. Going to school was just something you did. It wasn't an option. You just went to school. That was the value that my parents had and they made sure that it was the value that I had. They were good parents.

A parent who allows their child to miss a month of school during a single year is not a good parent. That's the bottom line. Being a parent is about giving your child the opportunities to have the best possible life. Allowing them to miss that much school effectively undermines that goal. It shows that education is not valued. It shows that consistency and attendance and punctuality (all skills that are valued in the job market) are not valued. The city can blame principals if it wants. But the real blame lies much closer to home.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Still Not Over

Shockingly, the race for President isn't over yet. Despite the last few weeks of pundits declaring that Obama was in command and McCain was slipping, the fact remains that Obama is not yet President. In fact, CNN's polls show that his numbers may be slipping somewhat. This is the kind of thing that I was warning about when I wrote on the subject just recently. In the rush to break news, the media often seems to break stories that aren't technically true yet. So while Obama does still have the lead and the electoral count looks pretty promising, there's still some time left. Let's not forget that as we move forward.

Speaking of forgetting, is anyone going to remember that Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama when it actually comes times to vote? It's one of those splashy things that at first looks really good. After all, you have a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State (for the Bush administration, no less) saying that Obama is the best choice for president. Wow! What a coup! Now it's really over. Except that who was sitting on the fence waiting for Colin Powell's endorsement before deciding who they're going to vote for. It certainly doesn't hurt Obama's campaign and it probably will help him a little. But I don't think it's going to be ay sort of "game changer."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dispatch from Anti-America

Every so often during a campaign a candidate will say something that they probably didn't mean to say but did probably mean. Republicans have been harping on the comment by Obama to "Joe the plumber" about spreading the wealth around. Not to be outdone, Palin came out with her own statement about "the real America." Here it is in her own words:

"We believe that the best of America is in the small towns that we get to visit, and in the wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation."

There's already been a fair amount of outrage tossed around on the campaign trail about this, so I won't go too far down that road (Biden's response was pretty good). I do want to say, though, that in a country in which the majority of the population lives in urban areas (a trend that is growing, by the way) , saying that small towns are the "real America" is a little silly. I have a bit of a personal stake in this as I live in New York City, which is almost certainly outside of Palin's "real America." Frankly, that's just ludicrous. More and more it seems like Palin is playing the role of Ann Coulter, saying shocking things mainly to get attention and rouse a hardcore base. The only difference is that there's no chance for Ann Coulter to be in the position to make actual decisions for our country.

It seems to me that in Palin's estimation, the pro-America areas of this country magically happen to correspond to the pro-McCain parts of this country. If only voting in November was restricted to those areas as well, I'm sure Palin would be pretty happy.

Friday, October 17, 2008

In Praise of Howard Dean

If Obama wins the presidency there's not going to be anyone happier than Howard Dean.

Dean, whose own presidential aspirations dissolved shockingly quickly after his Iowa primary defeat (and scream), could fairly be called the godfather of the Obama campaign. He's the one who ran to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party" and said that we couldn't beat George Bush by running as Bush-lite. He was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and proponent of a definitively progressive agenda. He used the internet in new and exciting ways and (tried to) mobilize young people to vote in large numbers. When the campaign collapsed, he became head of the DNC and vowed to implement a 50-state strategy to build a nationwide network or grassroots Democratic activists. On each of these points he was called unrealistic or downright crazy.

Well who's laughing now?

Using pretty much the same playbook, Obama has put himself in a strong position to win the presidency in less than a month. I know it's not a terribly original insight, but I think we should take a moment to think some good thoughts for Howard Dean. Turns out maybe he wasn't crazy after all.

Also, because it's Friday you should check out this video. Guaranteed to get stuck in your head.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Final Round

It's almost becoming a cliche, but last night's debate was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be. McCain came out significantly more aggressive than he had in the previous two debates. Obama did not rise to take the bait nor say anything that would torpedo his chances (i.e. "You're right! I am a terrorist!"). Given that, it's hard to see much of a change in the race stemming from last night's debate. I think that the dynamic of the last three weeks is pretty set in place at this point and it's just a matter of seeing how everything resolves itself.

That said, of course I think Obama won. That's the advantage of being right on the issues.

Also, a few points that I want to look at a little more. First, McCain tried a couple of times to paint Obama as an extremist. One of his positions put him in league with the extreme environmentalists. Another put him in the extreme pro-abortion camp. But let's look at those positions. Obama says that if we want to use nuclear energy, we need to make sure that it's safe. Apparently that's an extremist position. So a mainstream perspective is that it's okay to use unsafe nuclear technology? I'm not sure who is really advocating for that kind of approach. Same thing on abortion. Being concerned for the health and life of a mother is an extreme position? Maybe McCain and I use that word differently.

Speaking of viewing the world differently, did anyone else hear McCain say that the ACORN voter registration scandal might threaten the very fabric of our democracy? I forget the exact quote, but it was something along those lines. Again, really? The fabric of our democracy? I may be underestimating the problem this poses, but that's definitely overestimating it.

It was also fitting, I thought, that it wasn't until the last question of the last debate that someone thought to ask about education. That could be a metaphor for education's place in this campaign - an afterthought if we have time. In McCain's answer, he stuck to his line that choice and vouchers are the way to improve schools. That would be a fine claim if the evidence actually supported him. However, even the DC voucher system he was so in love with didn't work all that well. The kids who got the vouchers didn't do any better in school than the kids whose parents applied for the vouchers but were not accepted. That's not reform. That's sticking with a failing policy.

And that may be a metaphor for McCain's campaign and platform. He may call it reform, but it's just more of the same.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Lamest Duck

As of last Sunday, there were only 100 days remaining in the presidency of George W. Bush. He says he has "a lot of work to do" and that may be true. But it's also true that he is probably the lamest of ducks right now.

I know that the phrase lame duck was invented for this kind of period where the president doesn't really matter that much. People are taken in by the election of the new president and so they spend their time focusing on what the potential incoming chief executives are saying rather than the aged outgoing boss. That even makes a certain amount of sense. However, the degree to which George Bush seems irrelevant, even in the midst of major events, is somewhat stunning.

During the whole plan over the bailout, where was Bush? Yes, he addressed the nation and said that Congress had to pass the bailout, but that didn't even work. The House initially voted it down. Paulson got the credit/blame for being the head person on the bailout. Press coverage focused a lot on what Obama and McCain were doing about things. In all of that it sort of got lost that, oh yeah, Bush is still president.

As I think about it, I've heard barely anything from W. in months now. Again, part of that has to be attributed to the fact that he's the lame duck president in the midst of an exciting presidential election. We can also attribute it to the fact that this president has simply made himself irrelevant by his poor judgement and leadership on issue after issue over the last eight years. And now there's only 97 days left. Start your countdowns.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

This is Reform?

If you read a lead paragraph of a news story that went, "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin abused her power as Alaska's governor and violated state ethics law by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police, a state investigator's report concluded Friday," wouldn't you think that would get a lot of attention? I'm not saying that it should be banner headlines from coast to coast, but it seems like it should be something that people are talking about. Maybe I'm just out of the loop with the long weekend and all, but I'm not seeing much on this. Very strange.

It's not that the findings themselves were especially shocking. After all, we've kind of known this was coming for a while now. Within about 15 minutes of being announced as McCain's running mate, the news got out that she was under investigation in Alaska for abusing her power as governor. So for the whole time that we in the lower 48 have known of her existence, we've also known of the existence of this investigation.

You would think that a finding by a bi-partisan panel that Palin abused her power as governor would hurt her ability to say that she was running as a maverick reformer who's going to clean up Washington. When that's your only claim to vice presidential worthiness and it turns out to be undermined by your actual actions, that would seem to put your candidacy in a lot of trouble.

Then again, maybe it is. According to Real Clear Politics this morning, Obama is on track to get 313 electoral votes without even throwing in potential toss-up state wins. That's enough to handily win the election. There's still time left, but I like the way it's looking.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bloomberg and Washington

If you haven't read a good, old-fashioned rant lately, I would recommend Ron Rosenbaum's piece posted on Slate yesterday. As screeds go, this one is pretty angry. I actually got tired of it and stopped reading in the middle of the second page, but he seemed like he'd built up enough momentum to go for a while longer still. The subject was Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to overturn term limits in New York City. Rosebaum is against that plan.

From reading the New York papers recently, you'd think there were only three stories left in the world: the economy, how unhappy Yankees fans are because they aren't in the playoffs, and term limits. Occasionally something gets dropped in about the election, but that's mainly just to fill space if there's any extra room on a page.

Rosenbaum's point (before he launches his ongoing rhetorical nuclear assault) is that Bloomberg is running a sort of cult of personality where one person assumes all authority to deal with all the ills facing a city. He says that's the kind of thing that happens in a Bannana Republic (a phrase that isn't used much anymore), but not in New York.

Underneath all the bluster, I tend to agree with Rosenbaum. I think Bloomberg has been, on the whole, a good mayor for the city. I think that he's done lots of things to really improve New York in a forward-thinking way. However, I don't think that he's the only one who can do good things for the city. The implicit assumption in overturning term limits is that during tough times, the normal rules of our society don't matter and all that matters is finding an extraordinary person to guide the rest of us through.

I think that idea is undemocratic and unAmerican. After all, if George Washington (as close as one man has ever come to being indispensible for his country) could step down after two terms and the country could continue, I think New York will be able to muddle through without Mike Bloomberg.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

It Ain't Over ...

I think my alarm must not have gone on this morning because when I woke up it seemed like the election was over and Barack Obama had already won. Don't get me wrong. This is not an unpleasant thing to wake up to. Hopefully it's true. I just think we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.

The facts as they stand are looking pretty good. According to Real Clear Politics, the electoral count isn't even going to be close. They have Obama six electoral votes away from winning without factoring in any of the toss-up states. Obama has done an excellent job appearing presidential and in-command at the debates and the main issues facing Americans seem to favor him right now.

Meanwhile, the punditocracy has lost their collective minds in proclaiming Obama the winner. Even Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, is standing athwart history yelling "Obama looks like he's going to win!" When the National Review is buying into the momentum hype about the Democratic candidate, you know things are looking good.

Yet there's this feeling that I just can't shake. It comes back to numbers again. Namely that two weeks ago this race was pretty much a dead heat with McCain even leading. Now Obama is way ahead. But there's still three weeks left. In other words, plenty of room for yet another wild swing in the polls. I hope that doesn't happen. I really do. But this election has made pretty clear that no lead is safe and there's a lot of news cycles left until November 4.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate Thoughts

On the whole, I think that last night's debate (like the first one) was pretty much a tie. Neither candidate delivered any sort of knockout punch that's going to settle this election a month before the actual voting. Obama didn't say anything about bitter, small-minded Main Streeters and McCain didn't go off into a raving rant about Obama being friends with terrorists. Both clearly presented their views, which while contrasting, don't necessarily give one side an advantage over the other.

That said, I think that another tie probably favors Obama. Remember, McCain is the one who's experienced - the "steady hand on the tiller" as he said. But now in two debates, he's not been able to come across as noticeably more presidential or in command than Obama. If the concern with Obama is that he's too "green behind the ears" (a new one to me) then being able to stand toe to toe with McCain and appear plausible as president is a victory. Despite a slow start where my panic level was beginning to rise, I think he did just that. I don't think polls will show one candidate "winning" the debate by any great margin over their opponent. However, I do think that the election polls are going to continue to slide over to Obama's favor.

Now for some random thoughts.

John McCain should stop trying to be funny in the debates. He just isn't and the attempts at it come across as very awkward. Obama isn't an especially funny guy either, but he didn't make as many attempts.

Newsweek's cover a few weeks back showed "Mr. Cool and Mr. Hot." I thought those personalities were on vivid display last night. Where McCain paced around and spoke like he was always pressing an important point, Obama stayed mainly in one place and had a fluid, point-by-point answer. I don't think that either personality - as we saw them in display last night - makes one better or worse suited for the presidency. It was just a clear picture in contrasts.

The exchange on Pakistan was interesting. McCain wasn't saying that he wouldn't launch an attack into Pakistan if Osama bin Laden were there. He was just saying that we shouldn't say we're going to do that. I'm not sure if that makes a whole lot of sense. Also, his assertion that "I'll get bin Laden. I'll get him" would have been more convincing if he'd followed it up with anything to say how.

Lastly, I thought Tom Brokaw was terrible last night. The telling moment came at the end when the candidates went to shake hands and he was trying to read his teleprompter. He basically said, "Hey, you presidential candidates, get out of my way. I'm trying to read something here." The whole debate was kind of like that. He was continually whining (is there another word for it) about the candidates not sticking to time constraints. Also, his "follow-up" questions were overly wordy/complicated and seldom actually followed up on the original question asked or the answers that the candidates gave. It's like he really wanted to be moderating a debate on his own, rather than hosting the town hall debate. Who would have guessed after the first debate that we'd be longing for the good old days of Jim Lehrer moderating?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Guilt By Association

Yesterday I bemoaned the state of mudslinging in the campaign and laid the blame squarely in the McCain camp. While I'm still moaning (and still blaming McCain), I also want to level some criticism at the Obama campaign, in the interests of fairness.

Personally, I'm of the opinion that the Keating Economics video that the campaign is circulating is similar in spirit to the Ayers accusations that McCain and Co. are throwing at Obama. Of course, there are numerous differences. McCain was involved with Keating at the time that he (Keating) was doing bad things. Obama was 8 when Ayers was doing his dirty work. There was an investigation into McCain's dealings with Keating and he was chastised by the Senate Ethics Committee. But that investigation is exactly the point I want to bring up. Remember, the investigation found that McCain did nothing wrong. His judgement was poor and that allowed him to be put in a position where it looked like he might be doing something wrong, but he didn't take part in any wrongdoing himself. As we start throwing criticisms around, we should remember that facts matter. Any unfounded attempts to paint someone with the guilt by association brush are lamentable, no matter which side they come from.

Clearly McCain started this round of character attacks (he even said he was going to be). But saying, "He started it" isn't a great reason for doing something. I'd also like to point out that the "Oh yeah?" response isn't really a recipe for raising the level of political discourse. If I were advising Obama I'd say to focus relentlessly on the fact that McCain isn't putting forward any plans to help the middle class or to end the war in Iraq. Every time McCain says anything I'd say, "Once again, Senator McCain chooses to focus on X rather than present a plan for how he's going to help the middle class and end the war in Iraq." That's a change we can believe in.

On a slightly related note, you should really read this article from the New Yorker. It's their editorial board's endorsement of Obama for president. It presents a comprehensive, thoughtful, and thorough take down of the McCain campaign and at the same time builds up Obama's. It was one of the clearest articulations of the choice in this election that I've seen. Just brilliant. I didn't even know the New Yorker did endorsements.

Of course, for a candidate being accused of East Coast liberal elitism, the New Yorker endorsement may not be the most coveted one out there.