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?