Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Race to the Status Quo

There's one area of policy that I think President Obama is handling quite well, at least in the sense of using a federal executive branch apparatus to actually bring about positive change: education.

Back when he chose Arne Duncan as his education secretary, I wrote a column in BrainstormNW Magazine praising the selection and detailing Duncan's reform efforts as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools.

I watched the man closely over the years, and talked to him several times at various school reform conferences. His commitment to real, structural school reform is real, even though the implementation of his programs in Chicago were somewhat blunted through opposition and political compromise.

Duncan has maintained his committment to reform during his first year at the helm of the U.S. Dep't of Education. His #1 policy initiative is called the "Race to the Top." The program involves a $4 billion fund that he is allowing states to compete for, but they must first prove they are committed to a number of reform ideas such as merit pay and charter schools.

Probably only about ten states will be selected as Race to the Top (RttT) funds recipients. The stakes are high, because the awards will be in the range of $3-400 million per state. Oregon, of course, wants in.

An article in today's Oregonian by Betsy Hammond tells of the efforts Oregon is making to gin up a winning RttT proposal. The article has links to the five different committees that have been appointed to hammer out the policy statements and other confetti they think will convince Arne Duncan that Oregon is a serious reform state.

It's not going to work. Who can argue with a straight face that Oregon's political establishment is serious about school reform? Arne Duncan isn't going to buy it.

A look at the committees reveals a slew of folks who share one common bond: a steadfast commitment to the status quo. Look at their document titled "Core Values and Beliefs," reveals all the same drivel that the State Department of Education has yammered on and on about for years. Nothing innovative about it at all.

Of course it is authored by the President of the OEA and one of the longest serving school bureaucrats in Oregon history. Why would anyone expect anything different?

So the question really becomes one of this being almost a defining moment - not for Oregon, but for Arne Duncan and Barack Obama. If they are fooled by this pabulum, they aren't the reformers they pretend to be.

I'm betting they are. Oregon won't come close to qualifying for RttT funds.

More, 6:40 pm

I did a careful reading of the "Core Values"document linked above. It is really quite revealing.

It has always been a core philosophy of mine that if you want to solve a problem, don't look to the people who were running the show when the problem arose to provide the solution. After all - if they knew how to solve the problem that arose on their watch, it wouldn't have become a problem in the first place!

The problem in our school system is a shameful achievement gap, a shockingly high dropout rate, and an unacceptably low overall general rate of reading and math proficiency. That these are the problems is pretty much uncontroversial.

It's the solutions that separate the reformers from the pretenders. True reform doesn't mean doing the something slightly different using the same basic structures. It means changing the structure of the system.

Read the "Core Beliefs" document, and it is clear: there is nothing whatsoever in the way of structural change contemplated in this document. It is all about trying to improve what teachers do, the content they deliver, the data they analyze, the training they receive, etc.

My question: aren't these people who are on these committees and writing these documents, telling us how they will use the RttT funds to get better outcomes the same folks who are CURRENTLY running the show? Aren't they the same folks who designed the current curricula, teacher training programs, assessments, data analysis systems, etc?

So what was stopping them from improving the schools before now?

The truth is, they are proposing the very same stuff they proposed at every other juncture when there was money to be chased or political pressure on them to improve their product. All the same college-of-education jargon. All the same basic solutions. It has been intellectually bankrupt for decades.

Their solutions didn't work before, because they doesn't solve the root of the problem: The structure of the system.

Reform has to mean structural change. Everything else is just a song and dance that ends up simply further empowering the very same folks under whose watch the problems arose. We need to DISEMPOWER these folks, not give them hundreds of millions of dollars to err again!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Serena and Kanye

What a weekend for civility!

At first blush, the actions of Kanye West and Serena Williams appear to be pretty similar: two immature performers acting horribly on an international stage.

But if you drill down a bit, look at the context of what each of them did and consider how they handled the public scorn that resulted from their actions, and there starts to be a glaring difference.

Kanye West swerved completely off the pavement to insert himself into perhaps the biggest moment of Taylor Swift's singing career. It was the kind of thing that is so completely off base that almost no one could muster any sympathy at all for what he could have been thinking and what motivated him to do what he did.

Contrast that to Serena Williams. A very tight match, in the semi-finals of a major tournament. She is serving to tie the critical second set. The line judge calls a foot fault!

Now, I am not a tennis expert. Looking at the replay, it wasn't a foot fault. Her foot was very close to the line, just as it always is. It is hard to imagine what the judge was thinking.

The analogy would be: seventh game of the World Series, Red Sox ahead by a run, and Dodgers have two out and a man on third. Umpire calls a highly technical balk, sending the run home.

Or last few seconds of the seventh game of the NBA finals, Bulls down by 2, Michael Jordan drives the key for a shot - Whistle! Palming the ball! Game over!

It is just a call you don't make. Unless it is egregious. Whether you think Serena's toe touched the line or not, it wasn't a flagrant foot foul. The stupid line judge should have swallowed the whistle, and not inserted herself in the moment when it was completely unnecessary.

So I can absolutely sympathize with Serena's anger. Was her language and reaction wrong? Sure. But TOTALLY understandable.

Now, consider the aftermath. Serena Williams, after the officials basically made her forfeit the match, went to her opponent and shook her hand and congratulated her. Then in the press conference afterward, she repeatedly apologized, congratulated her opponent for a great match, and apologized again. She was dignified and forthright. She made no excuses, and didn't even discuss the stupid call (at least in the part I saw.) She didn't whine about it.

Contrast that to Kanye West. He was on the very first Jay Leno NBC broadcast last night. He sat down all contrite, said he was dealing with lots of hurt in his life and now he would have to deal with the fact he hurt another artist in her big moment. Leno asked him what his Mom would say to him (I guess she is dead) and he tried to choke himself up, but it looked phony. He said something incomprehensible about how he would have to improve as a person.

Everythiing he said was 100% focused on Kanye West. How what he did affected HIM. How HE would have to deal with the fallout. He never so much as apologized to Taylor Swift. Not once.

What a complete jerk. As if we needed any more confirmation.

So, my take is:

- Kanye is a self-obsessed idiot jerk.
- Serena is a classy lady who reacted badly in the heat of a very unfair moment.
- That stupid little bureaucrat line judge should never see another tennis match.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Live lavishly so others can simply live

The Oregonian today devoted almost the entire front page of the Sunday paper to cheerlead the new state energy conservation program that gives subsidized low interest 20 year loans to homeowners to install insulation and other energy savings stuff.

The huge article, which consumes almost two full pages complete with pictures, graphs, and illustrations, seems to almost go out of its way to obfuscate the inconvenient little fact: the money invested in saving energy costs more than the energy it saves.

Which, in the Oregonian's upside-down world, makes it a great investment. From the article: "The payoff would be huge ... avoid millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and eliminate 85 percent of the expected increase in electricity demand by 2029."

First of all, this statement is just blatant editorializing, as is the phrase from the paragraph before this, which said: "Doing so would not only cut consumers' power bills, but virtually eliminate the need to build new carbon-spewing power plants."

For God's sake. Carbon spewing?

Imagine applying this ridiculous logic to any other commercial activity. "If every Oregonian agreed to reduce his consumption of sugar by 4 grams a day, we could virtually eliminate the need to build new carbon-spewing sugar processing plants."

The world view that underlies this attitude is that producing stuff is an evil to be minimized. That there is virtue in producing less.

As per usual, this is entirely backwards. There is virtue in productive activity. The more we produce, the better off we collectively are. The more jobs there are, the more well being there is for even the least productive among us.

This is the same attitude that created that bumper sticker: "Live simply so others can simply live." Exactly, 180 degrees wrong. You want others to live better? Live as lavishly as you possibly can. Produce as much as you can, make as much money as you can, and spend that money to make your life as comfortable as you can possibly afford.

THAT is what will help others to live better. Because every little thing you buy in pursuit of your own hedonistic pleasure must be produced by someone else. They get paid for producing it, and are able to then afford the things they themselves want.

Imagine what would happen to the world economy if we took the advice of this bumber sticker? let's say every single one of us reduced our consumption of everthing we use by, say, 30%. Any idea how many people would lose their livelihoods and be thrown into poverty? Millions. Hundreds of millions worldwide.

Why don't these people understand this? Why do we have to constantly open up the Oregonian and get another lecture on why we should consume less?

Little wonder the Oregonian has found itself needing to produce fewer and fewer newspapers each day.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Sorry for the inconvenience!

Here's a very interesting story from Missouri about a woman complaining to the Sherriff about being inconvenienced by a funeral procession for a soldier killed in Afghanistan.

What an incredibly poignant response from the Sherriff who responded to her email. It read, in part:

"While you were being inconvenienced in your car on your way home, there were soldiers just like Sergeant Woods carrying 100+ pounds of equipment in 120 degree heat, up some mountain or in the middle of some desert. They will shower out of a helmet liner if they get the chance. They will eat a cold meal of MRE's; something most people would consider garbage. They cannot text their family or friends, or go to McDonalds, or watch TV. They can only continue the mission and look out after the guy to the left and right of them. They don't complain because they know they volunteered. The only thing they ask is that we do not forget the sacrifices they have made."