Friday, May 30, 2008

How Not to Count

After writing yesterday about what struck me as a fair way to count the popular vote, I spent the day reading about the Clinton campaign's latest claim to victory. Namely that she will have won the popular and delegate votes in primary states. That's right, she's not even going to count the caucus states (you know, because she didn't do so well there).

As Chris Beam points out on Slate, this claim to victory is pretty absurd. If nothing else, it requires the counting of states like Florida and Michigan (which we all know have problems), but not counting states like Iowa because it used a caucus. Wow.

The point we're at now is that the Clinton campaign is simultaneously saying that we should count every vote (Translation: Give her extra delegates from Florida and especially Michigan) but that she wins if we ignore a whole bunch of states for no real reason other than that they don't help her.

I have to admit that I don't get it. At this point, it's just getting ridiculous. It's also more than a little sad to see Clinton (once such a proud figure) resorting to Alice in Wonderland style math in order to claim victory in a race she's clearly losing. The dignity of the campaign is gone and now we're into sort of a pathetic begging phase. I just hope it ends soon.

Also, since it's Friday, you should check this out. It's a crazy world we're living in.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How to Count

By next Tuesday night, every single voter in the country will have had a chance to cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. You would think at that point that we would have a clear and unequivocal winner in the election. I don't think that's too likely. The problem here is that there are so many competing metrics of success (delegates, states, popular vote) that it's difficult to say which one really determines the winner.

Now, the system is set up so that the delegate count is what really matters. And in that realm, Obama is definitely the winner. Same with number of states won. Where it gets tricky is the popular vote. After all the hooting and hollering about the 2000 election going to Bush because of the electoral college when Gore won the popular vote, it would be a pretty strange sight to see the Democrats award their nomination to someone who had won the delegates, but not the popular vote.

So this raises an entirely new wrinkle. As it turns out, there are all sort of different ways to count even the popular vote. Do you count Florida? Michigan? The caucus states without official vote counts? Puerto Rico, which isn't allowed to vote in the general election?

See? It gets complicated quickly. Added to the confusion is that depending on how things are counted a different candidate may come out on top.

Here's my plan for counting the votes. I haven't done the math or anything to see how this turns out, so this is just me being as fair as I can. For practical purposes, the popular vote is a sort of straw poll that conveys a sense of legitimacy on the candidate who wins it. Haggle over the rules for seating delegates, but the popular vote should be as inclusive as popular. So I say count all the votes. That includes estimates from the caucus states as well as Florida and Michigan. A note on Michigan: given that the Clinton campaign's argument for counting Michigan is that the "uncommitted" voters were saying that they wanted Obama, give him all the uncommitted votes. Otherwise take the state totally out of play. I'm a little mixed on Puerto Rico because they won't be voting in the general election. In that sense it would almost be like taking a poll of Canada and counting that. On the other hand, PR is a U.S. territory and they're allowed to vote, so let's count 'em.

Add up all the votes and let the chips fall where they may. What a crazy election.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Educational Unspeak

I've mentioned the notion of unspeak in several previous posts, but never really expounded on the topic. The concept is fairly simple. Often, it's referred to as framing an issue. That is, casting the language of the debate in the way that is most favorable to your side. (You can read a column by Jack Shafer on unspeak here.)

Another way to conceptualize unspeak is that it's a method for making covert arguments in addition to the overt arguments you make. The classic example here is the abortion debate where you have pro-life debating pro-choice. While the actual arguments revolve around abortion, there are also covert arguments at work. Anyone supporting abortion must not be pro-life, which makes them pro-death? Same with people who are not pro-choice. They must be in favor of total state control over every decision. Obviously, neither of these is true, but that's the beauty of unspeak. It allows implication without ever actually making the argument. The other advantage if unspeak is that it allows you to place yourself in a virtually unassailable position. Who is honestly going to argue against life? When used truly effectively (and insidiously), unspeak is a way to preclude debate before it even begins.

The world of politics is most fraught with unspeak, but education, particularly education policy has its fair share as well. What follows is a (far from complete) list of the particularly gratuitous unspeak we encounter every day as we address educational issues.

Standards. We hear about it all the time. Kids need to meet the standards. What's missed in all of this talk, though, is that standards are anything but. We don't have any system of national standards in this country so the standards for each state are different from the standards of every other state. Not to make the point too obvious here, but if it's different it's not standard. Even within states there are key concepts that are assigned to grade levels (and labeled standards), but the level of proficiency required in those concepts varies widely from year to year. We don't have a standards system for comparison between states or between years within a state. Efforts are being made in the right direction and we're certainly better in this regard than we were 25 years ago. However, focusing on standards as a monolithic concept is misleading and implies greater uniformity than actually exists.

Accountability. Who could argue against accountability? You do what you do and accept the consequences (be they positive or negative) for what you've done. It's so basic and appealing that it's hard to argue against. Of course, in the educational world, accountability is a code word for punishment for not meeting "standards" (see above). Because of the way the system is structured we don't really hold kids accountable in any meaningful sense for the learning the do or don't do over the course of the year. But again, who can argue against it? Because accountability is such a powerful concept, a host of less desireable elements (e.g. constant high stakes testing) get brought in under the same umbrella.

Dumbing down. As test scores rise, so do the chorus of naysayers who claim that the tests have been "dumbed down" in order to make the tests easier to pass. Dumbing down is indisputably a bad thing. However, it's not always clear that's what's happening. I read an article several months ago (sorry, no link) saying that in New York the fourth grade reading test used to contain passages at an eighth grade level but that the test had been "dumbed down" so that the passages were now at only a fifth grade level. Is that really a bad thing? How reasonable was it to expect fourth graders to read at an eighth grade level? The test was reasonably adjusted to provide a more accurate gauge for how kids are performing. The provoked howls of rage from the anti-dumbing crowd, but if we're serious about "standards" and then holding kids "accountable" we ought to make sure that what we're doing makes sense.

Social promotion. Assuming that the test isn't "dumbed down" and a kid doesn't meet the "standards", how do we hold them "accountable." Well, at least in New York, we hold the kid back a year (or retain them in the gentler vocabulary). This is because the Mayor and the Chancellor have ended social promotion, which sounds like some sort of Communist self-esteem booster. You're going to have a hard time finding someone who will argue for social promotion because it definitionally precludes the notion that outside of self-esteem or a child's social well-being there's any reason for a child to be promoted who doesn't meet the "standards." This of course ignores the fact that there's no demonstrated educational benefit to making a child repeat a grade. But this isn't a debate we can have because unspeak has effectively decided the issue already.

Those are four examples that immediately come to mind for me. I'll be curious to hear any additional examples of educational unspeak that you can come up with.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Community Values and Education

I've written several posts before about my concerns with charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice. On the surface each one is virtually unassailable. Why not give kids a chance at better schools if we can? The propaganda surrounding each idea is such that it's hard to be taken seriously while saying that these programs aren't in the best interests of our children.

That's not even really the right way to say it. The problem, I guess, is not that the programs themselves are flawed. The problem is that as a society and as an educational system we are using these tools incorrectly.

While reading through the latest issue of New York Teacher, the newsletter of the state teachers' union, I cam across an opinion piece titled "Education needs to be a community value." In it, the author sums up my general complaint with the way charter schools in particular are used when she writes about the "prevailing emphasis on individualistic solutions to collective challenges."

Whenever I tell people that I don't think charter schools don't make much sense as an educational policy, I'm told some variation of, "But they work better than regular schools. Sure, they may not improve the system as a whole, but it's definitely better for the kids who are in them."

Let's set aside the debatable point that all charter schools are naturally better than public schools. My sense is that it's not true, but for the moment at least, let's assume it is true or at least irrelevant. The problem here is that helping one kid isn't enough.

The problems facing urban ghetto education are vast and tragic. Clearly something needs to be done. The logical solution (in my mind) is not to create a parallel school system. The logical solution is to fix the school system we have.

When we emphasize school choice, private school vouchers, or charter schools we are saying that the problems with public education are essentially unsolvable and that we need to give up on the whole system. That's not a leap I'm willing to make.

The catch for all of this is that the ostensible purpose of charter schools (to create a kind of pseudo-laboratory for educational methods) is not how the schools are actually used (to provide a refuge for a few lucky kids). I'm all for trying different things in the schools because clearly what we have now is not working as well as it should. But we don't need charter schools for that. We need public schools that are willing to try new things.

Public education is a community value and should be a community concern. Solutions that only target individuals aren't really solutions at all.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Zero Sum Funding

When a guy runs for office as the "Education Mayor" you'd tend to think that things wouldn't devolve the way they have in New York in the last few weeks. For those of you who don't read anything, the nation (as well as the states and cities in it) are facing a bit of a tough time coming up. Budgets are going to be tight and spending is almost certainly going to have to be cut. That's where things start getting interesting education-wise in New York.

A few years ago, a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity won a huge victory. The gist of it is that the state needed to do more to fund schools in New York City. After that landmark decision, both the state and the city pledged to fund the schools at certain levels over the next several years.

Enter the budget cuts.

The minute things got bad both the state and city started looking at cutting education spending. This naturally set off a political firestorm as no one really wants to see school spending reduced. The state legislature, seeing which way the wind was blowing, reversed itself and will now be funding city education at the level that it had promised. So all eyes turn to Bloomberg, who is defiantly not increasing the amount he'd indicated.

(Where it gets complicated is that spending will increase over the next fiscal year, but not as much as promised. Given the increases in the prices of food, gas, and everything else, though, the increase the mayor is currently proposing really just holds the schools even in an actual dollars sense.)

So after weeks of the Mayor saying he wasn't going to increase the amount of spending in schools, the Chancellor released a statement yesterday that just strikes a chill in me for how intentionally divisive it is. As reported in the New York Times, the Chancellor is claiming that the "good" schools in New York City are going to take a disproportionate cut in funding because state mandate (remember the CFE lawsuit) says that certain levels of funding need to go to underserved and low performing schools.

This is a disgusting tactic. It is clearly an attempt to play parents off against one another. Those with kids who go to good schools are going to feel cheated by their own success. Those in bad schools are going to have to deal with those resentments. The kicker of all this is (in the words of Governor Paterson), "If the City were not reducing its own promised spending for schools, it would have sufficient money to balance funds for other schools if it chose to do so."

In other words, Mayor Bloomberg is trying to set parents against each other because he doesn't want to have to pay what he said he would for schools.

The other point that's important to note here is that it makes sense to increase funding for the highest needs schools. Yes, every child needs to learn. However, some need more help than others. As has been drilled into me repeatedly: fair not everyone being treated equally, fair is everyone getting what they need. Clearly higher needs schools have greater needs.

It's a shame that the Mayor has tried to turn this into a zero sum game where the gains of one school are the loss of another. I can think of very little that he could do that would do more to set back the efforts of creating educational equality in the city. Coming from the "Education Mayor" that's just inexcusable.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Further Negotiation

As expected, Obama's insisted willingness to meet with leaders of enemy countries is not going down well in some (many) quarters. The charges of naivete and inexperience are out in force.

Before I go any further, I should reiterate that I'm not a foreign policy expert and don't really know what would actually come with negotiations. That being said, I think many of the arguments used against possible negotiations are faulty on the face.

The big one I've been hearing has to do with this notion of giving legitimacy to whoever we negotiate with. I guess the thinking is that by having the president sit down with a foreign leader we grant added stature to that leader. I'm not really sure if that's the case. Take the case of Iran. In whose eyes would we be granting Ahmadinejad legitimacy? He's already the leader of his country and is probably well respected among his allies. Furthermore, we acknowledge him as the leader of Iran, which in itself seems to be what would most confer legitimacy. It doesn't seem realistic that he would gain greater legitimacy by meeting with an enemy (like Obama wouldn't gain more legitimacy in this country through the meeting).

In terms of his enemies, Ahmadinejad wouldn't be gaining much legitmacy with them either. It's already clear that he's a force to be dealt with in one way or another. A meeting also wouldn't lead to a wide scale reassessment of him and cause western powers to say, "Maybe he's not so bad after all." So the legitimacy thing doesn't make sense for me.

There's also the danger of appearing weak and emboldening our enemies. That's not an argument against negotiations. That's an argument for having smart negotiations.

As Bill Clinton quotes repeatedly in his autobiography, Israeli leader Rabin commented before meeting Arafat, "You don't make peace with your friends." We can't act like fifth graders and say "I'll talk to you, but I won't talk to you because I don't like you." That policy only gets you so far. It certainly doesn't lead to peace. It's time to acknowledge that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

According to Plan

It's always nice when things run according to plan. Apparently the candidates and voters in Kentucky and Oregon agree. So in voting yesterday Clinton won a landslide in Kentucky and Obama carried a healthy majority in Oregon. Also as expected, Obama won a majority of the pledged delegates in the race. It is now impossible for Clinton to overcome his lead without a huge superdelegate defection to her camp. Obama also leads the popular vote if you use any reasonable figures (though not if you count Michigan where his name wasn't even on the ballot).

Unsurprisingly, Clinton vowed to fight on and continue her campaign. The bright side of all this is that there's really only two weeks left of campaigning. After the June 3rd primaries in Montana and South Dakota, every state and person will have had the chance to cast their votes. There will be no one left. No more miracle scenarios.

The way it's looking, Obama will definitely have the delegate lead and will likely have the popular vote lead (again, assuming you use reasonable figures). He'll also likely have a big superdelegate lead by that point. You can't argue with facts like that.

As the CNN article linked above indicated, the electorate is very divided between the Democrats. Two thirds of voters in Kentucky said they would not vote for Obama in November. We've been seeing facts like that on both sides of the divide for a while. I lay that entirely at the feet of Clinton. The longer she runs and the more divisive she makes her campaign, the more we're going to see figures like that. Now that the race is essentially over, it's time to start bringing everyone together under the same Democratic tent.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

To Negotiate or Not to Negotiate

Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton has yet to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination, the general election has gotten underway. So far, I have to say that I like what I see. Rather than the feared "You're old/You're black" barbs flying back and forth, we seem to be in for a substantive debate on what U.S. foreign policy should be in the coming years. Who'd have known that actual discussion was possible in this day and age?

In particular, the topic du jour has been the issue of the threat posed by Iran (particularly in relation to the threat of the old USSR) and whether or not negotiations with Iran make any sense. I'm not any sort of expert in foreign policy and so anything I write from this point on should be taken with a major grain of salt (or two). That being said, I think I've identified the major point if disagreement between the dueling senators.

What the argument really comes down to is the question of whether or not Iran is a rational actor on the global stage. Depending on how one answers that question, everything else falls into place. By rational, I don't mean reasonable necessarily. I mean, rational in the sense of holds a sense of self preservation and will try to promote its own interests.

Obama seems to think that Iran is a rational actor. In this thinking, Iran clearly poses a lesser threat than the USSR (another rational actor) did. Clearly the USSR had a larger army, greater international presence, and a more potent nuclear arsenal than Iran does today. However, you may have noticed that the world isn't a radioactive disaster zone. That's because rational thinking constrained the use of nuclear weapons and prevented outright war. Any use of nukes or any reversion to an outright ground war would have cost both sides so dearly that it wasn't in the rational interest of either country to initiate. Mutually assured destruction worked because neither side was willing to accept an assured destruction. If Iran is similarly unwilling to accept its own destruction (even if it means inflicting great harm on the U.S.), then it poses a lesser threat than the Soviet Union did.

However, that calculus changes hugely if Iran is an irrational actor as McCain seems to think. If Iran is willing to accept its own destruction (which clearly wouldn't be in its rational self interest) if it meant destroying the U.S., we're in real trouble. Mutually assured destruction during the Cold War only worked because neither side wanted to be destroyed. But if one side doesn't mind, there's no real disincentive to trying to destroy the other. Assuming that Iran is an irrational actor, it may be willing to accept its own destruction as the cost for destroying the United States. Assuming that this view is correct, Iran poses a significantly greater risk than anything that Soviet Union presented. Despite all the rhetoric, the rational USSR never really could have acted to destroy the U.S. There are no such assurances with an irrational Iran.

The question of ratonality vs. irrationality also holds implications for whether or not to negotiate with the country. If rational, negotiations that clearly lay out positive and negative consequences could be very beneficial. If irrational, negotiations will not do anything at all.

That's the point where I think Obama finally wins the debate. I can't pretend to know whether or not Iran is willing to act in a rational manner in its own self interest. My sense is that it would, but that's not based on much more than wishful thinking. However, looking at the possible outcomes seems to indicate that negotiations are worthwhile. If Iran is rational, good can come from talking and listening. If Iran is irrational, nothing more bad will happen. The situation won't get better, but I don't see how it would get worse in a practical sense either. It's not like Iran would say, "Well, I used to hate them and want them wiped off the earth, but now after meeting the president I really hate them and want them wiped off the earth." As long as our negotiators had the sense to not give away the farm, we wouldn't have anything to lose. We might even have something to gain.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Healthy Body, Health Mind

In what can hardly be considered a stop-the-presses moment, a report issued last week by the New York Zero-to-Three Network found that children in New York have "vastly different access to health care, good nutrition, and child care based on their socioeconomic status." Infant mortality and obesity is higher while access to regular medical care is lower for kids from poorer families. It seems pretty obvious once you see it in print, but I guess it's good to have some real data backing up the claims.

What sets this report apart from other studies on the topic (though it doesn't make the results any more unexpected) is that this study focuses entirely on the three and under crowd, a younger sample than is usually considered.

This is study also highlights one of the challenges set before teachers and principals in high poverty schools. The first three years of life are a critical time for developing a general awareness of the world and starting to build skills that will eventually be used in school. However, children who don't have access to good medical care (including all-important nutrition) are at an immediate disadvantage. That disadvantage starts way before the first day of school. By the time they get to school, the kids are ill-prepared to begin the process of formal learning and the results are pretty apparent.

What I'm getting at here is that school reform is good and necessary. But it's not the end. Education reform - the process of making sure that all children are ready and able to learn - takes more than just focusing on the schools. It means looking at the neighborhoods in which the schools exist and working to improve them as well. Otherwise, it's always going to be a ridiculously uphill battle for teachers.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

So Long West Virginia

I really was set to write a post this morning that didn't focus exclusively on the primary race between Clinton and Obama. But sometimes current events intercede and you've got to throw out the old plans.

In case you missed it, last night John Edwards announced that he was endorsing Barack Obama for president. I'll make a bold prediction here and say that the papers and blogs today are going to be simply jam packed with analysis of how this helps Obama/hurts Clinton/doesn't do anything for McCain/who knows what else.

For my part, I don't really know how much this endorsement is really going to help. At this point, Obama has the nomination pretty much sewn up, so it's not like this (or Edwards' 19 delegates) are really going to be what puts him over the top. What this endorsement does (and is brilliant for doing) is makes everyone forget about how badly Obama was shellacked in West Virginia. We went from a week's worth of stories about how white voters didn't want Obama to a week's worth of stories about how much the Edwards endorsement is going to help Obama. Pretty brilliant. It's about time that Obama started taking command of the news narrative again.

In terms of how this actually helps Obama, the main point you'll be seeing a lot of is how this is going to help him win those hardworking white Americans that Hillary talked about. Frankly, I'm not sure how much that's going to be the case. After all, do you really see Mr. $400 Haircut swaying the folks way out in the hills of West Virginia? It's a nice symbol for urban voters that Obama can win the hardworking white vote, but I'm not sure how much of a difference it's going to make when you actually get out to those areas where Obama does so poorly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Unity Gap

After winning big in West Virginia yesterday, Hillary Clinton says she is "more determined than ever to carry on this campaign." Great.

The results were pretty staggering. In the end, Obama only secured 26% of the vote while Hillary racked up 67%. That's a little more than two Hillary votes for every one Obama vote. As an interesting comparison, John McCain won 76% of the vote and he's running unopposed! It's incredible that Clinton was anywhere near him.

Now, this was obviously the expected result. Polls had been showing Clinton way ahead for a long time in WVA. Obama kind of just gave up on the state and didn't really do much campaigning there. So this was not a shocker.

Still, it's upsetting in terms of what it means for Democrats. At this point, there's really no question that Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee. The race has been all but called for him. He has the money, the votes, the states, the pledged delegates, and the super delegates.

So why is he still losing races?

Party leaders keep saying that no matter how divided the party is now they have no doubt that everyone will come together and support the nominee in the fall. And that may turn out to be true. But I'm troubled by the lack of unity coalescing behind the obvious standard bearer so far. When it became clear that McCain was going to be the nominee, the Republicans all jumped right in line. Four years ago, the same thing happened for the Democrats behind Kerry. For whatever reason, that isn't happening now.

It's tempting to blame Hillary for the lack of unity and there's no question that she's playing a part. But it's not all her. Whether it's race or ideology or something else entirely, there's something that's keeping the Democratic Party split. And unless we can figure out what it is and fix it, we're in real trouble come November.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

No Accounting

One thing I always find fascinating in political debates is the debate over terms. The abortion debate is a great example. It seems like half the battle is what to call each side. On the one hand, you have pro-life (which logically would be opposed by anti-life or pro-death). On the other side, you have pro-choice. Both sides are taking "pro" positions that don't really relate to the other one. You have life positioned against choice when most logical readings of those words would indicate that they are not mutually exclusive.

The environmental movement has also made a smart linguistic choice lately by shifting the focus from "conservation" to "sustainability." Conservation sounds static and limiting. In contrast, you can sustain a way of life, you can sustain growth, you can sustain the planet. A subtle shift, sure, but an important one.

Sometimes the words that get chosen are so powerful in themselves that it's next to impossible to argue against them, even if they are misused or apply to something that isn't all that desirable. In education, a great example is the recent focus on accountability.

Just saying the word you realize how impossible it is to argue against it. No one is going to argue for the right of teachers or administrators to be unaccountable. The very notion sounds so aloof and undemocratic. That's why every critique of NCLB starts, "I'm all in favor of teacher accountability, but ..." The very terms of the debate (such as it is) have skewed things entirely toward one side. The irony is that I'm not convinced how accountable the current systems in place actually make teachers and administrators.

Last week I posted my outline for a plan on how to improve education. It got generally good feedback (thank you) from readers, but the lack of testing and "accountability" in the plan was remarked on a few times. Where was the testing?

Frankly, I don't think that statewide high stakes testing does much to ensure accountability at all. Ahead of time it's unclear what the tests are going to be measuring. Afterwards it's not clear what contributed to success or failure. This, paired with the punitive response to test scores, make the accountability experiment a farce of itself.

Imagine that you work at a Starbucks. There are others in the area, but demand is such that your particular branch is open and filled most days. One day, a representative from corporate headquarters comes and gives you an evaluation. You knew the evaluation was coming, but all you know is that you're going to be evaluated on how good a Starbucks employee you are. Fine. You go about your day as usual. The representative thank you and leaves. You carry on as usual. Months later, you get your evaluation in the mail. Turns out you failed. No word on why, just that you did. Not only that, but a lot of other employees at your branch failed as well. Again, it's unclear what rubric you're being judged on. You don't get a raise and won't until you show on your evaluation that you can be a good employee. Not only that, but you're told that you'd darn well better improve before the next evaluation. However, in the meantime, Starbucks corporate headquarters will be trying to get some of your regular customers to go to other Starbucks locations. Your store is going to stay open because there's too much demand to be accommodated by the other stores, but you're going to be undermined as you stay open. So now you've got to improve in the amorphous area of being a good Starbucks employee as the system tilts against you. This way, the people at Starbucks headquarters say, you're accountable for your service.

Does this make sense? Is this accountability?

Obviously Starbucks doesn't do things that way. They run a successful business. They understand that accountability has to actually mean something.

Setting high expectatons, clearly stating standards, and offering meaningful feedback in a timely manner will all help (both the hypothetical Starbucks and the very real education system). But ultimately, high stakes tests are not the answer to creating better schools.

As I've witnessed it, the biggest difference between schools in the Bronx and schools on the Upper East Side is the level of parent involvement. And that goes back way before No Child Left Behind. The parents are there and that is what makes the school accountable. And that's also what makes the school successful. We need to start looking less at making schools "accountable" through high stakes testing and spend more time developing involved parents and communities so that the schools actually have someone to whom they can be held accountable.

Monday, May 12, 2008

So Hard to Say Goodbye

After last Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, I wrote that Hillary Clinton was now losing by every single valid metric (and even some that were not so valid). I was actually incorrect when I wrote that because she did still hold a superdelegate lead. Obviously, this is a flimsy thing because the super delegates aren't bound to one candidate or the other and because her once triple digit lead was down to a single digit.

Paltry though it may have been, even that has since vanished. According to CNN, the two are now tied. Real Clear Politics even gives Obama a superdelegate lead of four. So the race is drawing to a close. But, as is often the case in these kinds of things, it's so hard to say goodbye. So Hillary persists in her dogged pursuit of the nomination based around the argument that voters are racist and won't vote for Obama. (Oddly, this "electability" argument hasn't stopped him from being more electable than her.)

I try to assume the best of people's intentions, even in politics. But with that said, it's hard to approve of what Hillary said recently regarding her broader appeal. "I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on," she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article "that found how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me."

On first reading of that, it really seems to me like she's equating hard working Americans with white Americans who haven't graduated college. By extension she seems to be saying that black Americans or even white Americans who went to college were not hardworking Americans. Wow. Now, I'm willing to believe that she didn't mean it to come out that way, but that's pretty bad. Even the facade of running a positive campaign is gone now. Now it's about tearing down one nominee and setting different demographic groups against each other. I guess it really is hard to say goodbye.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Where Are the Grown Ups?

Every so often the pollsters ask Americans if we think the country is on the right or wrong tracks. Lately, the answers seem to be coming in more heavily on the wrong side of things. These answers usually get attributed to the war in Iraq or the economy or our energy policy or something like that. But there may be something even more fundamental than that.

I've been thinking that something has gone seriously wrong in our country since I read a Daily News article yesterday about grandmothers in their 30s (or younger). It's about teen mothers who had teen mothers. You do the math on two generations of 14-year-olds having kids and you get a grandmother at the age of 28.

That's when you know things are on the wrong track.

What made things worse in my mind was the general positive spin the article and the grandmothers themselves put on the situation. There is no positive spin for something like that. None. You can tell yourself that things are going to be okay. Maybe you even need to tell yourself that in order to get through. But it is not okay. It's just not.

Clearly there's a vicious cycle at play here. The kids of teenage mothers are more likely to become teenage mothers. So the problem goes round and round. In the South Bronx, one in five teenagers become pregnant. In the Lower East Side it's one in seven.

Where is the personal responsibility? Where is the sense of self respect? Where is the community who stands up and says this isn't okay? Where are the grown ups?

Maybe that's the problem. When you have 20% of your girls having babies before they can graduate from high school, there just aren't many grown ups around. They may become adults, but they're not grown ups.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

McCain's Maverick Myth

I've been saying for months now that John McCain's image as a maverick independent is a completely overblown media creation. I've been saying that he's actually quite conservative and nowhere near the center of the road. It's good to be right.

I figured that as the campaign went on, someone would get the bright idea to actually take a look at the facts behind the legend of the Straight Talk Express. I didn't really expect it to come from the Arizona Republic - a paper not known for taking shots at Republicans - but there it was in yesterday's paper. (In all reality, the paper was probably trying to reassure Arizona voters that John McCain really was conservative so they wouldn't feel bad about voting for him.)

The Republic looked at John McCain's voting record over the last 1o years to see how often he actually bucked the party on issues where it mattered because the vote was close. The answer: not often. In the last 10 years, McCain voted with Republicans 14 times when the vote was tied or settled by one vote. He voted with Democrats a mere 4 times during that stretch, including once when Dick Cheney could have cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the Republicans.

Casting a vote on the Democratic side once every two and a half years hardly makes someone a maverick. And the facts go on.

The article says that the Washington Post found that McCain voted with Republicans 88.3% of the time this term. That puts him on par with Lindsey Graham and ahead of Jon Kyl, who's the Minority Whip. McCain is truer to the Republican Party than party leadership is!

Furthermore, Congressional Quarterly found that during the last term McCain sided with the president's position on legislation 95% of the time. To get any more in line with the president you'd pretty much have to be George Bush.

Also, not to beat a deadhorse, but if there was ever a time for a maverick to break with the president, it would make sense to do it when the president's disapproval ratings were at an all-time historical high.

In sum, McCain is a much weaker candidate than he appears. For all the talk about how flawed it turns out the Democrats are, McCain has fully aligned himself with a failed presidency and out of step party. Pretty soon, the news of the maverick gap is going to spread beyond his hometown paper and the word will be out. Then we'll see how straight talking McCain is really willing to be.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

It's Over Now, Right?

It's not over yet, but last night's results sure helped things along a bit. With Obama barely losing Indiana and dominating the North Carolina vote things are looking pretty good right now. Obama added to his lead in the delegate race and is now closer than ever to having cinched the nomination.

Perhaps more importantly, he staked his claim to the popular vote, no matter how's it's counted. Since Pennsylvania, Clinton has been claiming that she was leading in the popular vote. Of course, her counting to get that fact meant counting Florida (which isn't being recognized by the DNC), counting Michigan (where Obama wasn't even on the ballot), and not counting Iowa, Nevada, Maine, or Washington (caucus states that didn't keep records of turnout (and which Obama won most of)). So her claim was already a little dubious. Now, according to Real Clear Politics, even if you use the Hillary Clinton fuzzy math, Obama still has a lead of 89,076 votes. If you do something fair (like count the votes in the states that count for the DNC) Obama has a lead of 822,379 votes. Obama is now the clear winner in terms of votes (no matter how they're counted), delegates, and states won.

Despite this, Hillary is pledging to go "full speed ahead." What? She's losing by every single metric and given the lack of big states left to vote, she doesn't really have a shot at overtaking Obama in any of them. As such, her claim to the nomination is pretty much nil. And yet she perseveres. Give her credit for persistence, but come on now. What does it take? Is she really going to go through all the way to the bitter end at the convention when rather than having the opportunity to bow out gracefully she'll be rejected by the party? I'll be looking forward to reading her increasingly desperate spin in the coming days.

The shame of there not being any more big contests coming up is that there won't really be another opportunity to knock Clinton out of the race with a decisive win. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the inevitable while the race slogs on. Not a pleasant thought. It's up to Obama now to seize the narrative of the campaign again so that people start to forget that there's anyone else in the race. Because for all intents and purposes, there isn't.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Another Tuesday

Well, it's Tuesday again and it's time for the latest round of everybody's favorite game show: Is it Finally Over? Because at this point it's just getting silly.

Whereas the last few rounds of IIFO have been almost painfully formulaic, we're actually going to see something a little different this time around. Namely we'll get to see if Obama's support holds out as well against late surges as Clinton's does.

The trend in recent primaries has been for Clinton to start way ahead, Obama to make a late surge, Clinton to shore up support and win. That's probably what's going to happen in Indiana where any momentum Obama had for the state seems to have hit a brick wall in the form of Jeremiah Wright.

It's North Carolina that bears watching. Obama was ahead in NC by as many as 17 points about a month ago. Now, Real Clear Politics averages have him up by about 8. That's almost a Clinton-esque slide in the polls. The question now is whether or not he will likewise emulate Clinton's election day rebound and score a double digit win.

I really am writing (Wrighting?) off Indiana for Obama. I've seen the same thing happen too many times to have any faith that he'll pull off an upset there. Maybe I'm wrong, but I wdoubt it.

It's North Carolina that has my full attention. If it's close there or if Clinton (somehow) pulls out an actual win then we're looking at a very different race than the one we grew accustomed to over the last two months or so. If Clinton wins North Carolina, I would expect to see a huge super delegate swing in her direction. That really would be the game changer she talks about. Obama hasn't had a must-win state (as opposed to an it-would-be-really-nice-if-he-won state) since Iowa. We'll see if the folks in North Carolina stick with him and keep the game the same as it has been. Because either way, I don't think IIFO will be finishing anytime too soon.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fixing Education: The Plan

I've written a lot on this blog about problems with education and problems with talking about the problems with education. I think I've offered hints as to where my brand of solution would work, but I don't think I've ever put it into a coherent form before. Given the importance of the issue and the need for clear direction in order to actually make effective change, here's my plan for saving public education.

1) Focus on where the problem is.
Say what you will about a Nation at Risk and all that, but it's not the entire education system that's a problem. In fact, many (if not most) schools work very well. Look at the public schools in upper middle class suburban neighborhoods and see if there's a crisis in those schools. Odds are, you won't be finding one. The crisis in education is located almost entirely in areas where there is extreme poverty and a lack of appropriate social services. Any plan to address the problems in education shouldn't be trying to focus on a solution that would apply equally to all schools. That's unneeded and counterproductive. Look at the schools that need the help.

2) Get parents more involved.
I've worked with schools in two vastly different New York City neighborhoods: the Bronx and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Both sets of schools are government-funded and operate under the same set of Chancellor's regulations. They operate under the same testing and curricular requirements. But they are not equal. Without question, if deciding where I was going to send my own children, the Bronx wouldn't merit more than about a tenth of a second of consideration.

So what's the difference?

In brief, it's the parents. While in the Bronx getting 1/3 of parents to parent/teacher conferences was considered a pretty high success rate. Having parents check in once a year or so on their child's progress was rare, to put it mildly. On the Upper East Side, it's almost the opposite problem. The parents are all over the place and are on the edge of being too pushy. Except that's not a problem. That's the solution. Where the parents care the schools will improve.

Increasing parental involvement will require a huge community organizing-style campaign to get parents interested and involved in the system. Parents need to be educated on what they can do and why they should do it. They should be taught to read to their kids every day, talk about school and homework, and come to conferences. Once the parents are on board, the kids will follow.

3) Increase investment in social services in high-poverty areas.
It's great to say that parents should just get involved in schools. But even with community organizing and education, parental involvement won't necessarily become a reality. An increased investment in social services like health care, day care, and more will help bring more parents - and their children - into the kind of stable situation that allows for parental involvement and student success.

4) Invest in early education.
We can't afford to continue waiting until kindergarten to begin educating children in high-needs areas. By that point the kids are already behind their more affluent counterparts. Experience has shown us that those problems don't diminish with time. In addition to reading to kids more at home we need to start building in kids the foundation that will carry them through their education. On the Upper East Side, the parents do this. Clearly, in underserved neighborhoods parents often don't or can't. This is where free public early education programs can step in to aid in the solution.

5) Increase teacher quality.
Repeatedly, studies have found that good teachers make the difference in the classroom. So, as a society, we need to work to make sure that we have the best possible teachers in every classroom. This means stepping up recruitment efforts to find dedicated teachers willing to teach in high poverty neighborhoods. It also means that we need to put a huge investment into professional development for teachers. Some people are naturals and walk in knowing what to do right away. Others need to be taught. We can't expect every teacher to be exceptional, but we can give every teacher the tools and training they need to be successful.

6) Create a system of national standards, but back off on testing.
Eighth grade students in New York City are expected to take at least 12 state or city mandated tests each year. That's simply absurd. The absurdity of the situation is rendered even more starkly by the fact that these tests are almost a sham. Right now the federal government mandates that each state have standards, test students on those standards, and that students make progress on meeting the standards. However, the standards themselves are up to the states as are the tests to measure student success in meeting the standards. This creates a system of perverse incentives where states are literally racing to the bottom. A system of national standards across the curriculum paired with a testing system that is not purely punitive will obviate that trend and give us actual data to work with as we plan our next steps in education reform.

And that's more or less it. Increasing funding and all that is great, but only if it's used intelligently. Throwing good money into bad programs doesn't help anyone. However, a plan that looks at the schools themselves and the environments in which they exist and tries to improve both is out best chance at creating an effectively working education system for all children.

Friday, May 2, 2008

History in the Making

Well, we're witnessing history in the making. A new poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corps. puts President George W. Bush's disapproval rating at nearly 71%. A truly astonishing accomplishment. This is the highest recorded disapproval rating of any president and the first time that a president's disapproval rating cracked the 70% mark. In fact, the previous worst mark was Harry Truman who in 1952 had 67% of people disapprove of his job performance. Lyndon Johnson at the height of the Vietnam War never got to that level. Even Nixon just before his resignation could only muster a 66% percent rate. So this is truly a thing to behold.

I read once a long time ago (meaning not a prayer of finding the link) that poll theorists thought it pretty much impossible to get beyond 2/3 of people disapproving of you. Given that 2/3 is the magic ratio for impeachment, that theory made a certain amount of sense. But George W. Bush is not one to be limited to historical precendent. So he's blasted his way right through that mark.

The other amazing thing (aside from the sheer historic-ness of it all) is that John McCain, who's basically running for a third Bush term - stay in Iraq, make the tax cuts permanent - is virtually tied with the Democratic candidates in head to head polling right now. This tells me two things. First, it means that it's very good to run for president basically unopposed. Second, once the Democrats choose a nominee and really start a campaign, John McCain is in big trouble. So let's get going.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Money Laundering and Energy Policy

It's not often that I laugh at loud while reading the op-ed pages in the New York Times. It's even more rare when I'm reading about energy policy and a presidential campaign. But I have to admit that Thomas Friedman's latest column on the Clinton-McCain plan to suspend the gas tax made me laugh.

You really should read the thing yourself and I won't get into it that much here except to say that I agree with him and am glad that I back the candidate who also agrees. Also I want to share the brilliant line: "This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country."

Again, I'll leave the energy policy analysis to Mr. Friedman, but I do want to use the point as a launching pad for the current state of this campaign. Does anyone else think it's odd that just a week or so after saying that we need a Democratic candidate who'll stand up to John McCain, Hillary Clinton is siding with him on energy/fiscal policy? This is standing up?

Also, as Friedman and others have pointed out, this is not a good plan. It will barely even provide temporary relief, let alone address the underlying issues that will make this keep coming back again and again. McCain seems to be backing it because in his latest incarnation he doesn't seem to be able to find a tax cut he doesn't like. Clinton seems to be in favor because it helps her appear more blue collar and in touch with average Americans than Obama.

And now Obama has the opportunity to tell the American people the hard truths he keeps saying he's going to tell them. What better opportunity? Here is a plan that on the surface sure sounds like a good idea to anyone about to pay $60 to fill up a tank of gas. Now's the time to educate and explain why we have to look out for our long term interests on this. Now can be Obama's time to show what a leader he's willing to be.

McCain and Clinton (who really do seem to be on the same side now) will assail him for being out of touch and elitist. Now's the time to hit back by saying it's not elitist to be looking out for the best interests of the country and its people. Now's the time to hit back by saying that leaders should look to the common good, not pander to the whims of the moment.

Will it help him win votes? Maybe. But not a lot. But if this election really is to be about change and transforming American politics, this might be a good place to start.