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Category — Public Policy

Of Budget Deficits, Tax Cuts, and Small-Mindedness

Getting educated on the national debt – no room for politics.

Like most Americans, I am worried about our country. One of my worries, given my penchant for frugality, is the idea of proposing a federal budget with a deficit of nearly $1.5 trillion one year and $1.3 trillion the next. Such numbers truly scare the be-jesus out of me.

That comes even as I acknowledge another penchant, of listening to Princeton economist and New York Times blogger Paul Krugman. To hear Krugman tell it, government deficits are precisely the right thing to do at this moment.

iStock_000005323432XSmallHe goes on to insist that the Republican fear-mongering over the current steps taken by the Obama administration is akin to the same group-think that led to the War in Iraq.

According to Krugman:

….the current sense of panic is that deficit fear-mongering has become a key part of Republican political strategy, doing double duty: it damages President Obama’s image even as it cripples his policy agenda. And if the hypocrisy is breathtaking — politicians who voted for budget-busting tax cuts posing as apostles of fiscal rectitude, politicians demonizing attempts to rein in Medicare costs one day (death panels!), then denouncing excessive government spending the next — well, what else is new?

The trouble, however, is that it’s apparently hard for many people to tell the difference between cynical posturing and serious economic argument. And that is having tragic consequences.

An American Issue

Yet, while it is easy to point fingers right now, to cast Republicans as naysayers and the Democrats as liberal spenders, the truth is the problem transcends party lines. And finally, a growing number of folks are pointing out some simple facts, that we could get the budget back on track with some very basic steps if the two political parties were to seek some middle ground and simply work towards solutions

One of the best tutorials was laid out recently by analyst Fareed Zakaria over at CNN. First, Zakaria notes that the issue really does not belong at the feet of Obama. Like Krugman, he believes that what has been done in recent months has been entirely necessary including the rescue of the financial system and the stimulus package to jump-start the American economy.

Her calls these short term decisions “understandable choices” that America has to make but “we have probably five years to try to bring our budget into some kind of manageable situation.”

And, instead of casting President Obama as an out-of-control free-spending liberal, Zakaria goes on to lay the issue at the feet of our past president and three fateful decisions made during that time:

The first was to have massive tax cuts, which was a decision made in the wake of the Clinton surpluses.

The second decision was to have a massive new entitlement program — prescription drugs for the elderly — which took the fastest growing part of the American population and joined it to the fastest-rising costs in American health care, which is prescription drugs. It was therefore a marriage made in budgetary hell.

And the third, of course, was to have two wars that were going to be funded without any tax increases, the first time in modern American history that that decision was made. … A partial exception was Vietnam, which produced an economic catastrophe in the 1970s.

Political Posturing

Of course, such statements immediately start one on the basic path that is so popular in Washington today, the blame game. Referencing these give rise to the start of the he-said, she-said phenomena.

Of course, the answer is to take a different approach. We could attempt to get beyond the blame, get our so-called leaders to look at the current situation as it is and begin to search for collective solutions.

But instead, we have a toxic environment, one described by Zakaria thus:

if one side proposes any solution to these problems, the other side does not ask itself: How can we have a compromise that solves this problem?

iStock_000005314688XSmallInstead they think: How can we demagogue this issue to fundraise, to win votes, to scare people, to polarize the political climate and gain advantage from it? It’s almost that the entire strategy now is how can we take any proposal that anyone makes and turn it into a fundraising opportunity for our extreme wing.

And if you do that, you’re never going to actually solve the problems of the country because every proposal can be demagogued.

But amidst these harsh, but entirely accurate criticisms, Zakaria goes on to offer some concrete solutions. They include: the importance of containing health care costs especially and concerns that the current health care proposal “is mostly about expansion and adding to the costs;” tackling sacred cows in the federal budget such as the $250 billion a year hole in the federal budget due to employer tax deductions for health care plans; and the deduction of mortgage interest.

As Zakaria notes, “the real big money is in all these middle class entitlements that are regarded as sacred cows.”

But the third part, the anti-Republican measure, is about taxes, that we cannot balance our budget solely with tax cuts. As a suggestion, he offers a modest value added tax that would raise about $150-$250 billion a year while discouraging excessive consumption and encouraging savings.

Add to that some modest trimming of social security benefits and we could begin again to have a fiscally solvent government.

The Real Issue

I began by announcing my concern for our future and these massive budget deficits. But it is interesting to see what Zakaria sees as the real issue.

Around the world there is great unease about these negative numbers notes Zakaria, but:

the real unease is about the sense that Washington is no longer working, that you cannot count on the United States to be able to make hard decisions, to sort its own internal affairs out.

Zakaria goes on to point out:

One European CEO said to me, what worries us more than anything else is that problems you’re facing now are the same problems you were facing 10 or 15 years ago.

They don’t seem to go away. In other words, we keep kicking the can down the road.

Submitting a VoteAnd so in my fear, I say simply, forget these ideologue tea baggers that are drawing attention. It seems to me they are more of the same element.

What we need are centrists and individuals with a desire to move our country forward, folks who will willingly distance themselves from the left and right wings fringes. Folks who run for political office to serve rather than be served, who use their elected authority to solve problems instead of seeing it as a pathway to power.

Given the current blight that hovers over our two party system, it seems highly unlikely that we will readily see such candidates emerge from within the system.

Krugman and Zakaria are right – it is not the current deficit we should be fearful of – instead the fear is of a system that continually elects small-minded people to perform roles that demand so much more.

And as for real blame, we actually need to look beyond these small minded politicians. We, the electorate, continually allow our elected officials to demagogue important issues at our expense.

February 11, 2010   1 Comment

New Data Emerges on Abstinence-Only Sexual Education

Despite the George W. Bush administration supporting abstinence-only sexual education, there previously had been little to no evidence that such programs worked. Even more significantly, notwithstanding this enormous influx of funding for such programming, recent data indicated that sexual activity, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases were increasing among teens.

Such information lead us to proclaim on at least two prior occasions, Final Nail and Doesn’t Work, that funding abstinence-only education was a waste of taxpayer’s money. However, earlier this week proponents of abstinence-only education were finally given some reason to cheer with the release of the first ever study indicating the format may work.

iStock_000003483564XSmallAccording to the LA Times:

“A new study shows for the first time that a sex education class emphasizing abstinence only — ignoring moral implications of sexual activity — can reduce sexual activity by nearly a third in 12- and 13-year-olds compared with students who received no sex education.”

The results were considered extremely significant:

“This study, in our view, is game-changing science,” Bill Albert, chief program officer at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Washington, told the Times. “It provides, for the first time, evidence that abstinence-only intervention helped young teens delay sexual activity.”

But while proponents of abstinence-only education were quick to pounce, the Times also went on to write:

“Other forms of sex education also worked, however, reducing sexual activity by about 20% and reducing multiple sexual partners by about 40%, according to the study reported Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.”

Moreover, an editorial accompanying the report insisted that “no public policy should be based on the results of one study, nor should policymakers selectively use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets preconceived ideologies.”

In addition, it is important for readers to realize that the curriculum used did not match the approach of most of the previously funded, religiously-based programs. Instead, the option producing some positive results focused on the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and skipped the moral value or sex is negative approach.

According to the Washington Post, many deemed that aspect very significant:

iStock_000004762963XSmall“….. critics of an abstinence-only approach said that the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.”

And before proponents get too excited, it must be noted that when it comes to effectiveness, the criteria used to measure the impact involved self-reporting by young teens of their sexual behavior over the two year period following the class. According to the Times, “diseases and pregnancies were not monitored.”

In addition, much of our prior criticism was based upon the Cochrane Collaboration study which previously indicated no enduring implications for abstinence-only approaches. We are assuming that two years cited in the recent study would not constitute a long term impact.

But the proponents of abstinence-only education have to be heartened by the response of the Obama administration. Citing the same studies we have mentioned previously, the administration has reduced funding for abstinence-only education as part of an overall approach to move away from all programs that are not scientifically proven to provide results.

Early indications had the administration adjusting their stance and considering funding this new program based upon the evidence of effectiveness.

February 3, 2010   No Comments

Online, Higher Education Models – Enter the New York Times

We have read on many occasions of new higher education models. One blogger, John Robb, noted that one catalyst could be the economic downturn we have experienced.

Most certainly, a number of folks have expressed dismay that in tough economic times, one constant remains – next year’s university fees and tuition costs will be significantly more than what students had to shell out this year. While most tend to chastise higher education, this development no doubt has caught the attention of entrepreneurs who see education as a source of revenue.

A More Profitable New York Times?

iStock_000009137974XSmallHowever, we may not have been paying enough attention to this combination of factors. We would have never guessed the latest educational entry might come from an industry that is floundering, the newspaper business, and from one of the most venerable of news outlets, the New York Times.

But as media conglomerates search for new revenue models that could help them to return to financial stability, they are apparently leaving no stone unturned. But most people are focusing on the fact that the NY Times is once again considering charging online readers access to its web site.

It seems that Times leadership is about to reintroduce a paywall format whereby readers without a subscription will get a limited number of free peeks at the site per month. Critics insist that it will not enhance that much-needed revenue stream in the long run.

Since bloggers provide enormous referrals when citing articles, even readership at the Times is greatly enhanced by online linking. If a paywall is put in place, those bloggers would no longer be able to refer readers to a specific article with the certainty that those readers would be able to access that story when they click.

Fewer readers in the long run means fewer dollars as well.

But in an even more interesting move, in addition to charging for story access, it now appears that the Times is moving into the field of education. According to the Guardian, beginning this spring the Times “will start awarding certificates in conjunction with several universities to students who pay to take its online courses.”

The Guardian notes the step serves two critical purposes: earning the Times some extra bucks as it works to extend the company’s brand name.

Not Entirely New

It was two years ago the paper launched the New York Times Knowledge Network. Offering online courses with editors and journalists, the program initially involved the offering of non-credit courses that provided continuing education expertise for journalists.

istock_000007229384xsmall-300x299The difference, though shades of gray must be mentioned here, is that it now appears the model is designed to produce a stream of income. The latest model involves far more than non-credit, continuing education classes; instead the Times will partner with other universities to offer courses that grant credits and can be used for certificate programs.

Felice Nudelman, director of education for the Times, recently explained the concept to Inside High Ed. “It is, for many institutions, a profit center,” she acknowledged.

Teaming up with Ball State University and Rosemont College, courses will range from $235 for a six-week video storytelling course ($199 if no credit is to be awarded) to a six-course certification in entrepreneurship at $1,950 per course. The video course is one of nine courses students must complete to obtain a joint certificate in “emerging media journalism” from the Times and Ball State.

Other options include immigration law courses taken in conjunction with the City University of New York and separate 45-week programs in paralegal studies and nurse paralegal studies from Thomas Edison State College.

The format has the Times and the specific universities sharing course revenues. The colleges will provide the professors for each course while the Times will offer access to news archives back to 1851, subject-specific content modules designed by the paper, and newsroom specialists for guest lectures.

Future of Education

As a new education model, the concept could well be the harbinger of things to come. The Times certainly offers an incredible library of material to say nothing of employing enormous reporting expertise.

One could certainly see students flocking to courses that might feature not only a competent professor, but the possibility of interacting with the likes of a Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, or Paul Krugman (provided Princeton might allow) would no doubt be incredibly marketable.

And as Nudleman told InsideHigherEducation, “If you look at the content of the pages of New York Times,” she is not stretching the truth too much when she asserts “we probably have as much depth and breadth as a good liberal arts curriculum.”

Robb was right, the current economics constitutes a chance for new models and it appears the NY Times is ready to deliver a very unique option. The question, ultimately, is will this help return an esteemed brand to financial stability.

January 19, 2010   No Comments

Of Science, Social Policy and the War on Drugs

There is a saying I admit to using way too often:

Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts – I Know What I Think!

I used it as a title for a recent post on students and the belief that their writing abilities were disintegrating in the midst of the digital age. Today we take the statement to another level by taking a look at one of our nation’s most significant problems, our expensive war on drugs.

In our discussion we will forgo any debate on whether or not we are winning the war, or as others suggest, the war has already been lost. What we will discuss is the notion of science, the impact of drugs on society and our inability to utilize science to inform public policy.

Basing Policy on Hard Science

Stem cell cloningFirst you can count me among the initial Obama supporters. Once upon a time, I had strong hopes that he was going to be the antithesis of our prior leader.

Obama’s intellect, and yes campaign promises, had me believing we might actually begin to make our most important decisions on something other than political rhetoric. I even harbored hopes that the really critical decisions would be made using information gleaned from science.

It began well – there was the initial thrust related to stem cell research. Whether or not the idea should have been or could have been the poster child for the idea that science would rule, the very idea that Obama was stepping beyond this emotionally charged issue to deal with it on a factual level was news that I welcomed.

But alas, we have quickly fallen away from any ongoing intellectual plateau. To get a sense, we turn to Merton Bernstein, Professor of Law Emeritus at Washington University, who had this to say about the former issue, stem cells, and the continued focal point of the Obama administration, the push for health care reform:

Science does not permit ideology to foreclose inquiry; it requires facing facts and following where they and logic lead. Hence many cheered when President Barack Obama announced that science is back, that predisposition will no longer be permitted to trump reality. Everyone knew he was talking about stem cell research.

Who could have guessed that the Obama administration and key congressional players would exclude single-payer/Medicare-for-all programs from consideration even though that means ignoring the cost savings of hundreds of billions of dollars in private plans’ nonbenefit costs? Further, administration health experts advertise their focus on avoiding incentives for unnecessary treatment, but pay no mind to the expensive distortions that follow from physicians’ ownership interests in high-cost equipment and services. Odd that the scientific method does not apply to medical care where science should govern.

With that in mind, let us return to the war on drugs notion.

Drugs and Science

It seems that British researchers have studied the harmfulness of twenty of the most popular drugs according to three respective criteria. The study, Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harms of Drugs of Potential Misuse, revealed researchers attempting “to arrive at a science-based assessment of the comparative harms of various substances, both licit and illicit.”

iStock_000009219310XSmallUsing a scale of 0 to 3 for each area, the researchers assessed the 20 drugs according to physical harm, the risk of dependency, and the subsequent social costs of the drug.

Heroin stood at the top of the list, scoring a total of 8.32 out of a potential 9. Not too surprisingly, the three drugs that follow heroin in negative overall impact are cocaine (6.89), barbiturates (6.24) and street methadone (5.81). Given such data, one can easily begin to see some rationale for making these drugs illegal.

Then comes the kicker, the blow between one’s eyes that makes me refer to that statement, forget the facts, I know what I think. Item number five on the list just so happens to be alcohol. To get just a tad more perspective on the issue we find tobacco number nine on the list, directly after amphetamines.

So, we find that items five and nine on our list just so happen to be legal, while drugs six through eight (ketamine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines continue to be illegal.

Then, to get a full perspective, we find cannabis at number 11 on the list with a rating of 4.00, LSD 14th with a total impact of 3.68 and anabolic steroids 16th, with a rating of 3.46. Just for our reader’s perspective, we note that numbers 18 through 20 happen to be ecstasy (3.27), alkyl nitrates (2.77) and khat (2.39).

Supporting Science Can Cost You Your Job

To get a sense as to how dangerous today’s political environment is, how as a globe we simply do not want to use science as a basis for decision-making, we turn to Mark Pothier’s recent discussion of the situation involving the U.K.’s top drug adviser.

Seems that folks simply “can’t handle the truth” when it comes to drug policies. Respected scientist, Dr. David Nutt, was recently terminated for his public criticism of the government’s drug laws.

Nutt had the audacity to reiterate the findings that we previously noted. Not only did he offer that alcohol was more hazardous than many substances deemed illegal, he also suggested that the United Kingdom might be “making a mistake in throwing marijuana smokers in jail.”

Pothier summarized the recent termination, noting how quickly we attach adjectives to those who postulate unpopular positions, even if they are based on science:

“The buzz over his sacking has yet to subside: Nutt has become the talk of pubs and Parliament, as well as the subject of tabloid headlines like: ‘Drug advisor on wacky baccy?’”

For his part, Pothier went on to note that Nutt “was fired for saying out loud” what science has already determined:

joint“Overall, alcohol is far worse than many illegal drugs. So is tobacco. Smoking pot is less harmful than drinking, and LSD is less damaging yet.”

Pothier also noted that Nutt “didn’t see himself as promoting drug use or trying to subvert the government” but was simply “pressing the point that a government policy, especially a health-related one like a drug law, should be grounded in factual information.”

The Implications for Policy

Of course, the data can be addressed in two distinctly different ways – a hue and cry to criminalize alcohol and tobacco given their destructiveness. Or the more sensible approach would be to rethink the current laws regarding other substances.

Today, collectively, our society tends to match that mindset, don’t confuse me with the facts, I know what I think. For drug laws, what we have is a policy that accepts those that are legal and categorizes those as illegal as dangerous.

Or as Pothier offers from Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, thus: “the fact that a drug is against the law makes people overestimate its risks” while the legal status of alcohol and tobacco “causes them to underestimate dangers.”

Of course, our previous attempts to outlaw alcohol represented a great example of failed policy. Prohibition led to significant criminal behavior and was a period defined by enormous violence.

One might think we would have learned something from that experience, that we would take a hard look at that period and compare it with the issues being created by our current policy.

Most importantly, as we begin to realize that our resources are truly limited, science would indicate that some rethinking of our current practice just might be in order.

But just imagine what our political machines would do if someone had the audacity to suggest what Nutt recently postulated, that the U.K. policy regarding marijuana is “infantile and embarrassing.”

Medical Records & StethoscopeWe certainly could do without the rhetoric Nutt himself offers – such colorful language has consistently undermined our political effort on several other key fronts: stem cell research, health care and global warming to name three.

Instead, we dare to think that one day we might be able to drop the adjectives and address the facts before us. We also dare to wonder aloud, at what point will we as a society begin to incorporate science into our social policy.

And even more to the point, we ask, will there ever come a time when our political leadership will actually move beyond that sad, ongoing statement:

Don’t confuse me with the facts – I know what I think.

December 21, 2009   No Comments

Teaching and Learning – Study Reveals “How Teachers See the Profession Today”

For those in the business of setting educational policy, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today by Jean Johnson, Andrew Yarrow, Jonathan Rochkind and Amber Ott reveals some remarkable insights from current practitioners.

iStock_000000275835XSmallConducted by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan and nonprofit agency that seeks to bridge “the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues,” the research raises a few eyebrows regarding the way it categorizes those interviewed. However, once one gets by the language chosen for the three broad, but distinct categories of teachers, there is some extremely important data regarding the role of the principal, the current testing practices in vogue, and the push towards merit pay for teachers.

Categorizing Respondents – Disheartened, Contented and Idealists

Using the phrase “three distinct sensibilities” as a subheader, the researchers cluster analyzed the “unique individual characteristics” and “attitudes about the profession” of more than 900 teacher respondents. Based on those two criteria, the researchers indicated that teachers naturally fell into three broad categories: the “Disheartened,” the “Contented,” and the “Idealists.”

Those categorized as Disheartened (about 40% of all teachers) tended to agree with the notion that teaching was “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out.” The report indicated that “members of that group tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists.” They also noted that most members of this group were concerned with their working conditions (more than half of this group taught in low-income schools).

Those in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) offered a more positive overall view. The majority indicated their schools were “orderly, safe, and respectful.” They also indicated they were satisfied with their administrators. Like the disheartened group, the contented teachers tended to be veterans – 94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years. But in direct contrast to the disheartened, about two-thirds of those deemed contented taught in middle-income or affluent schools.

As one might expect from the word chosen to describe the third group, the Idealists (23% overall) voiced the most positive viewpoints regarding the profession. In fact, “nearly 9 in 10 idealists believe that ‘good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.'” Perhaps not too surprisingly, more than half of this group were 32 years-of-age or younger. At the same time, instead of viewing their current role as lifelong, more than one third of idealists indicated they would eventually leave the classroom for other jobs in the field.

iStock_000007246008XSmallAny teacher reading the report, including this one, would no doubt take some time to try and place themselves in one of the selected categories. But it is important to recognize that the researchers went on to clarify their categories did not insinuate a rating of teacher effectiveness. Instead, their three sensibilities represented only the respondents’ attitudes towards the profession.

Common Themes for Policy Makers

As the Obama administration gets ready to pump billions into education, it is important to see the commonalities that emerge when one examines viewpoints. While many will no doubt write about the disheartened group and whether or not these individuals should still be leading classrooms, the research is far more important in revealing the shared views of each of the disparate groups. It would also be the best place for policymakers to gather some direct insight regarding the profession from those in the trenches.

Increasing Number of Teacher Candidates

For those wanting to create greater interest in the profession and somehow bring our best and brightest into the classroom, it is clear that one catalyst comes from the profession itself. When asked as to what were the important factors leading to the decision to go into teaching, the respondents indicated that the most powerful influence was a teacher who inspired them. Specifically, 68% of the contented, 64% of the disheartened and 66% of the idealists indicated that an inspirational teacher was a major or one of the most important factors for their choice of profession.

And while most tend to think of families of teachers, that teachers raise future educators, more than 60% from each group indicated that having a parent of family member who was a teacher played no role in their selecting the profession.

As for those thinking of extending the school year, it should be noted that roughly 50% of each of the three teacher groups indicated that the practical job benefits (summers off and more time with family) were a major factor or one of the most important factors in their choice of the profession.

And the real catalyst for each group centered upon the desire to teach a subject that he or she loved and to subsequently get kids excited about it. Ninety percent of contented, 91% of disheartened and 87% of idealists called this one of the most important factors for selecting the profession.

Issue of Teacher Pay

Classroom SeriesAs for drawbacks to entering the profession, teacher pay was clearly a problem for all groups. Seventy-six percent of contented teachers and 78% of idealists called it at least a minor drawback. But as one might expect, pay was a greater issue for the disheartened. More than half saw it as a major drawback and 96% saw it as at least a minor issue.

“Increasing teacher salaries to levels similar to other professional jobs such as lawyers and doctors” was definitely seen as a step towards improving teacher effectiveness by all three groups. Surprisingly, even 84% of contented teachers and 90% of idealists saw the step as either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher quality.

Lack of prestige was also an issue, at least to a certain extent for all three groups. But it was here that the variations were more pronounced. For contented, 53% called the lack of prestige at least a minor drawback. Idealists saw it as less of an issue with 45% calling it a minor or major problem. But for the disheartened, this was a real issue; 77% called it a major or minor drawback.

Those focused on increased accountability and the testing push that forms the fundamental component of NCLB should note that a major drawback for all three groups was the amount of testing going on in schools today. The issue was seen as at least a minor drawback by 90% of all idealists and was deemed a major issue by 70% of the disheartened.

Only one-quarter of each group thought it was “very important to use test scores to monitor student progress.” Roughly three-quarters of each group called test scores less important than a lot of other assessment measures.

Improving the Classroom Environment

Student discipline issues were a major concern for all in the profession. While 70% of the disheartened called kids with discipline and behavior issues a major drawback, 86% of contented and 70% of idealists called the issue at least a minor problem. At least 93% of each group thought that if students “who are severe discipline problems” were to be “removed from the classroom and placed in alternative programs more suited to them” the action would prove either very or somewhat effective in improving teacher effectiveness.

What was very interesting to note is that the disheartened strongly agreed with the statement, “teaching is so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” (73%). However, it should be noted that contented teachers indicated they at least somewhat agreed with the statement at an 84% rate (and idealists at a 77% rate).

At the same time, 90% of both contented and idealists agreed with the statement “teaching is exactly what I wanted.”

As to what they would rank as the most difficult thing about being a teacher, the disheartened indicated lack of support from administrators was nearly as significant an issue as lack of effort from students. In direct contrast, the contented and the idealists saw the lack of support from parents and lack of effort from students as more of an issue than administrative support. Nearly one-third of each group indicated that one of the most difficult things about being a teacher was “unreasonable pressure to raise student achievement.”

Writing leadership on a blackboard.Clearly one disparate view came from how each teacher group rated their current principal. When it came to supporting them as teachers, 95% of contented and 92% of idealists rated their principals as either good or excellent. In contrast, only 41% of the disheartened saw their principal’s support as good or excellent.

And whereas nearly 80% of the contented and idealist groups would categorize their current principal as providing good or excellent instructional feedback, just 32% of the disheartened rated their principals in a similar manner. Perhaps most telling, more than half of contented and idealist teachers rated their current principal as excellent; but just 8% of the disheartened rated their principal excellent.

A last disparate element was the varied viewpoints on two relatively interesting components of achievement. Less than a quarter of idealists thought “the effort students make is mainly determined by the level of motivation they bring to the classroom” yet nearly half of all disheartened teachers felt effort was more a function of what the students brought to the classroom. But all thought teachers mattered and “what teachers do to motivate them once they get there” was seen as the most important element by all three groups.

General Noteworthy Elements

Policy makers would likely be pleased to see that one third of each teacher group thought that “making it easier to terminate ineffective teachers” could prove to be a very effective step “in terms of improving teacher effectiveness.” In addition, when it comes to teacher attitudes, school safety served as enormous correlate with a positive view of the profession. More than half of all disheartened teachers called it a major or minor drawback while less than a third of the other two teacher categories called it a problem.

And contented and idealists offered a more positive view regarding room for growth in the profession. Only 29% of disheartened said it was not a drawback. In contrast, 70% of the contented insisted it was not a problem.

School Reform Measures

With all the evidence related to student achievement correlating to the quality of instruction in the classroom, How Teachers See the Profession Today offers some strong insights for policy makers. And while it is easy to be critical of the teachers categorized as disheartened, it is clear that the majority of these individuals work in school environments all would see negatively.

More importantly, as one would expect from the study of successful businesses, leadership is the place to start. But reformers should note the changing perception of teachers regarding pay and the need for feeling a greater sense of prestige.

Add to that the concern for classrooms that may have too many discipline issues and disappointment over the ever-growing emphasis on testing and we have a clear view of the current issues facing those in the profession.

December 7, 2009   2 Comments

Ted Sizer and Gerald Bracey – The Loss of Two Influential Giants

In late October, the educational world lost two disparate giants from the world of education. On October 21st, we learned of the death of the quintessential educational reformer, Theodore Sizer. A native New Englander, Sizer dramatically influenced the instructional practices of thousands of educators including those of yours truly.

One day earlier, we lost Gerald Bracey, a longtime education researcher who had the audacity to truly analyze statistics. Bracey, considered one of the foremost defenders of American public schools used long-term international comparisons to demonstrate that America’s public school actually performed much better than critics would suggest.

Ted Sizer

Ted Sizer was the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a group that boasts about 600 members. These schools have adopted a specific school reform concept that construct learning experiences for students by focusing on a core set of principles.

Instead of the traditional comprehensive approach to high school Coalition schools focus on ten core principles:

  • Learning to use one’s mind well
  • Less is more, depth over coverage
  • Goals apply to all students
  • Personalization
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Demonstration of mastery
  • A tone of decency and trust
  • Commitment to the entire school
  • Resources dedicated to teaching and learning
  • Democracy and equity

Those of us who never taught in a Coalition school wondered aloud about some principles until we had the chance to read his groundbreaking book, Horace’s Compromise. Page by page, the book revealed the shortcomings of the 1980’s high school construct, offering a set of ideas that collectively had one wondering how we were able to accomplish anything of note in the factory model of education.

sizerThough I never met Mr.Sizer, after reading Horace’s Compromise and his later follow-ups, Horace’s School and Horace’s Hope, I felt somehow like I actually knew him, or at least had a sense of what he was all about. At times, Mr. Sizer took on the image of his character, “Horace,” the fictionalized English teacher doing his very best to provide a meaningful educational environment for some 100 plus students a day. At other times, I was Horace, the one making all the compromises to survive, and Sizer my administrator, deftly observing and pointing out that I too was often settling for good enough.

My understanding is that Ted Sizer was the epitome of what an educational leader should be. The former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover was a brilliant yet reflective practitioner. He clearly subscribed to the Robert Kennedy school of thought, seeing things as they could be and wondering why not.

People spoke highly of his style and his propensity to listen to teachers. His respect for the educational process also meant he spent time with students seeking to determine their views on school and what they had learned.

Most importantly, Sizer’s work represented the antithesis of the current NCLB push, that somehow educational reform can be simplified and codified. Sizer understood real learning was not linear and that mastery could and should be demonstrated in multiple ways.

The current emphases on making larger schools feel smaller and on high expectations for all students were fundamental to Sizer’s principles. Other concepts like the change in teacher role from the “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” were fueled by Sizer’s teacher as coach model.

Gerald Bracey

Reportedly fearless in the face of power, Bracey was often described in very different terms than Sizer. Adjectives like pugnacious and abrasive were generally used to describe the man who saw Washington as being ignorant and intellectually lazy.

In 1991 he founded the Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency or EDDRA. To most folks it did not seem to matter the subject – whether it was charter schools, teacher merit pay, or high-stakes testing — Bracey stood in opposition.
Even when it came to the concept of standards, Bracey stood in opposition. He was reported as offering this as one of his last Tweets:

“Thinking that the light at the end of the education tunnel is a standards freight train coming our way. Gonna hurt bad.”
Bracey taught the non-statistical world about Simpson’s paradox and the concept of averages. The concept reveals the possibility that data collectively could contradict what happened within subgroups creating the total.

braceySuch was the case with American SAT scores. While minorities and white majorities were each increasing their scores, the large number of minorities now taking the test meant the overall average test scores were decreasing.

Once a person begins to understand Simpson’s Paradox, any thought of supporting NCLB and its various subgroup expectations goes out the window.

Bracey also pointed out in his book, Reading Educational Research, How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, the workings of former President George Bush and his tax cuts. Bush used the concept of average to create the illusion that Americans as a group were seeing significant tax reductions, about $1500 per person per year.

However, Bracey pointed out that was “on average.” Citing the work of the Washington Post, Bracey noted how the typical teacher would receive a tax reduction equal to the cost of a new television set while someone earning a million dollars a year received a tax break that was roughly twice as large as the typical teacher’s salary. But when these amounts were averaged, every American appeared to receive a substantial break.

Each year Bracey would offer his annual Rotten Apples in Education awards and with it he would take no prisoners. It must be noted that while an enormous critic of George Bush and a one time advocate and campaigner for Barack Obama, he was quick to call Obama to task earlier this year regarding his assertions that three-fourths of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma.

“Not really,” Bracey was quoted. “Look it up.”

It was classic Bracey who had one consistent response to many of the claims being asserted regarding public education, “Show me the data.”

November 17, 2009   No Comments

The High Cost of College – Is the Three-Year Bachelor Degree Program the Answer?

America would do well to adopt the European Model – but for more than just financial reasons.

Given that one in every ten Americans is out of work, the ever-increasing cost of college has brought about a renewed interest in an old concept, the three-year bachelor’s degree option. With Hartwick College in New York and Manchester College in Indiana creating new programs last year, the topic is once again at the forefront of educational discussions.

However, the resurgence in the concept, fueled further by the recent Newsweek article featuring the insight of former education secretary Lamar Alexander, appears centered solely upon the goal of providing a more affordable college degree option for students. Of course, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Black Mortarboard and dollarAt Hartwick for example, the idea theoretically will save students one full year of tuition and fees, or about $42,000. That is because Hartwick has taken the extraordinary step of pricing tuition for the program independent of the number of semester credit hours.

Instead of the traditional 30 credits a year, students in the three-year bachelor’s program at Hartwick take 40. Yet, the school offers the additional five credit hours per semester, or ten per year, at the same pricing level as the 15 credit hour per semester price.

At Manchester, students continue to pay the same cost per credit hour, so tuition remains the same. Instead, the savings center more upon the reduction of one full year of room and board costs (the school is using a savings figure of $25,000).

Other schools are certainly implementing the concept but the current push is offered primarily as a way of offsetting those soaring tuition costs and reducing the enormous debt students have been taking on in recent years. It rarely ever receives attention in terms of academic rationale, either taking an in-depth look as to the reasons for the longstanding, 120-credit, four-year standard most colleges utilize today or if another standard might actually be appropriate.

Opposition by Faculty, Trustees and Students

Somewhat surprisingly, the general consensus on the three-year bachelor’s option is one of opposition to the concept. We say surprisingly as that opposition exists in three separate populations.

As one might expect, some faculty members and university trustees remain opposed. Each camp often offers different reasons for that view.

Some suggest that a student’s academic and social experience would be weakened by shortening the standard program to three years. Yet another group, the real traditionalists, fear the change would result in a shift from the idea of higher education as a broad-based learning experience to one that is focused on job training. Still others insist that such an option will produce less revenue overall for the school and potentially longer hours for faculty.

The biggest surprise is that the idea does not appear to be all that popular with students either. Most appear to prefer spending a minimum of four years in college, apparently wanting a four-year experience that offers the full package, academic, social, and athletic.

Proponents of the three-year option might suggest that students may not be all that interested in growing up quite so fast. Whatever the case, they are the clients and the fact is there has been relatively little student interest in three-year programs in prior years.

Three-Year Model Popular in other Countries

iStock_000000678142XSmallIn a sign that it just might be time for review, the four-year bachelor’s degree dates back to the time of the American Revolution. The idea was to provide a broad-based education to ensure the ability of citizens to properly participate in a civic democracy.

However, in the last dozen years, the three-year degree model has become commonplace overseas. It was in June of 1999 that European countries entered into the Bologna Accord, a set of universal educational standards for the continent. The agreement brought with it the acceptance of a three-year Bachelor Degree program though most students enrolled only after completing a further year of education at the secondary level.

In addition to Europe, countries like India and Pakistan have offered three-year degree programs for quite some time. In both countries, the three years of higher education comes after twelve years of elementary and secondary education.

Of course, there is nothing noteworthy about three or even four years for that matter. If a degree is a measurement of learning, then there should be an agreed upon set of very specific learning outcomes required for earning such a degree. When those outcomes have been accomplished and a student can demonstrate mastery, a degree should be awarded.

That is precisely what the Bologna Accord provides and what America lacks. Instead, American colleges require a collection of 120 credits and individual documentation of completion of the courses making up those credits.

It is extremely interesting to note that once upon a time American high schools required a total of 16 or 17 credits for graduation. As standards have increased, students now must collect 20+ in most school districts.

But the move nationally is to develop and implement a uniform set of standards that are used to measure the knowledge base accumulated while taking those courses. The move away from seat time as the primary measurement tool is considered long overdue. Given that sentiment, one would think such a move would be underway at the collegiate level as well.

Time for New Options May Have Come

In addition to the tuition and room and board cost savings, proponents of the three year program also note that such an option would enable students to enter the workforce a full year earlier. Such a move would of course allow students to tackle the potential issue of debt from both sides.

Right or wrong, the three year idea is catching on. Lawmakers in Rhode Island have gone so far as to approve a bill to require institutions of higher education to create three-year bachelor’s programs to begin next fall.

iStock_000001894848XSmallStill, one would think that students would much prefer the Hartwick model that continues the basic two semester approach and the flat tuition. That allows students the chance to recharge their educational batteries and to either earn some cash during the summer break or travel abroad.

Better yet, instead of simply trying to find ways for students to finish in three years, it seems to be time to examine the longstanding 120-credit standard. Coming up with an agreed upon set of standards to govern program content would result in programs that are not about time but substance instead.

Undoubtedly, students would need to be more focused if the time horizon were shortened. Changing majors and drifting academically through a number of interests is not conducive to finishing in three year’s time. Shorter programs would also mean that students would have less time to grow up before entering the world of work.

But nothing in the three-year concept would prevent students from taking greater time should they desire to do so.

But for the three-year concept to truly earn its stripes with faculty, staff and students, a different approach is required. Creating a finite set of required standards and the programming that helps students meet those standards comes first.

Otherwise, three-year programs, while saving students thousands of dollars, could actually be just less time, and unfortunately, less substance.

November 11, 2009   1 Comment

Graduating from America’s Elite Colleges – The Path to High Earnings?

Sometimes you read a report and your response is “but of course!” However, before you read it, you actually may have thought differently.

iStock_000005330799XSmallSuch is the case with the study Estimating The Payoff Of Attending A More Selective College: An Application Of Selection On Observables And Unobservables. The focus of the study is “On the Payoff to Attending an Elite College” and the basic findings are straight out of the textbook:

“Students who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs or spending per student tend to earn higher incomes later on.”

Such findings often lead to yet another textbook response – if accepted at an elite school, you should attend. After all, the name recognition of the school and its overall prestige will more than compensate for the additional costs of attendance.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

The general consensus today is that it pays to get a college degree. In addition, the general consensus today is that the quality of education varies from one college to another.

Given the above data regarding career earnings, parents and students often take some liberty regarding basic cause and effect. Because elite colleges have a stronger reputation and graduates from these more expensive institutions tend to earn more money, the belief is that the college is somehow the critical factor in future success and earnings.

According to this study, the problem with this logic is that it is not one of cause and effect. Instead, the findings note that the students who attend selective schools are likely to have higher earnings potential for the very same reasons that they were admitted to the more selective schools in the first place.

So to get at the heart of the question, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger tried two novel approaches to answering the question, “Does the school make the student? Or does the student make the school?”

The researchers used data from the College and Beyond Survey to examine more than six thousand students who were accepted and rejected by a comparable set of colleges in 1976. They contrasted that information with the labor outcomes of those students in 1995. In this instance, they were looking at the students who had the same menu of school choices yet some chose to attend more or less selective schools.

In addition, the researchers compared this data to that of the National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972. In this instance, the researchers sought to estimate the impact on students’ earnings when compared to the average SAT scores of all the schools the students applied to and the average SAT score of the school they attended.

School Selectivity Immaterial

Learn & EarnThe results – school selectivity is enormously overrated and does not necessarily pay off in a higher income over time.

“Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges,” the researchers concluded.

In simplest terms, a student accepted say to Brown but rejected by Yale (perhaps their first choice) sometimes goes on to attend their own state university. In such instances, the student in question still might well achieve significant earning power.

In fact, when it comes to the best predictor, the researchers found the average SAT score of the schools students applied to but did not attend was a much stronger predictor of students’ subsequent income than the average SAT score of the school students actually attended. This big fish in a small pond view is often dubbed the Spielberg Effect (famed movie director Stephen Spielberg was rejected by two upper echelon film schools, USC and UCLA and ultimately attended Cal State Long Beach).

In a nutshell, the findings are most obvious. A student’s motivation and desire to succeed are far more important than the average academic ability of the other students around them.

However, we must recognize the authors do offer some speculation that tuition may indeed affect future earnings. The reason that this could well be part of the equation is that schools with higher tuitions can offer more resources and therefore, the potential of a higher quality product. But the researchers point not just to overall cost but to the resources schools devote to instruction.

iStock_000003177355XSmallAnd there is in fact one instance where the cost of an elite college does seem to matter. No matter what measurement of college quality is used, students from disadvantaged backgrounds record the greatest gains from attending an elite college.

The abstract is available online.

October 1, 2009   2 Comments

Genetically Predisposed to Alzheimer’s – Could You Handle the Truth?

It is one of the great moments in movie history, one of the many that involve Jack Nicholson. It is when Nicholson, playing Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, is on the witness stand and he is in the midst of a remarkable exchange with navy Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!

That scene immediately ran through my head when I read the recent news from Reuters regarding genetic testing for the gene associated with Alzheimer’s and other memory impairments. Ultimately, if I could be tested, would I want to be and emotionally, could I handle knowing the test results?

Could I handle the truth?

Most OK With the News

It seems that some in fact could handle the results.

In what was an enormous surprise to me, the findings from a group of American researchers indicates that the majority of those people informed that they carry a genetic risk of Alzheimer’s actually took the news well. Of course, that news also came as a shock to many professionals who have long thought that most people would not be able to psychologically handle such troubling news.

The gene in question, specifically the e4 version of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene, is known to be associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It is also associated with memory impairments in people without dementia.

In the study, people were randomly assigned to one of two groups. They either received the results of their APOE genetic test, carrier or non-carrier, or they were not provided their testing results.

Reuter’s reports:

People who were informed of their test results, the researchers found, did not have significantly more depression or anxiety than those who were not informed of their test results either immediately after receiving the test results or 1 year later. That was true regardless of whether they were in the subgroup of people found to carry the high-risk APOE e4 gene variant.

“Subjects were not immune to the negative implications of learning that they had an increased risk, but these feelings were not associated with clinically significant psychological distress,” Green and colleagues point out.

Conversely, in what would be a very intuitive result, being informed that one did not carry the Alzheimer’s-associated gene was in fact a great stress relief.

The Future

As science moves steadily forward, such testing options will soon become routine. We will undoubtedly have access to information our forefathers could never have imagined.

For those diseases where treatments are available, well, it seems like a no-brainer. Test me and when necessary, get me started on the path to wellness.

When it comes to the terrifying thought of a disease such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, one where there is currently no cure, only horrifying blackness, well I am not so sure where I stand.

I am simply not sure I could handle the truth.

July 15, 2009   1 Comment

Obama and Duncan – Time to Rethink Seniority, Tenure, and Merit Pay

The agenda of the Obama administration continues to cast a wide net. While much of the recent focus has been on the need for affordable healthcare, the president and his advisers are moving forward on a number of educational fronts.

A great deal of time is being spent on the notion of making higher education more accessible to Americans. That has led to new provisions regarding the repayment of federal loans (undertaken prior to Obama taking office) and to a proposed overhaul of the financial aid application form, the FAFSA.

Arne DuncanBut while those steps are significant, none are likely to be as critical for education as the administration’s recent push to overhaul how public school teachers are paid. In a major speech to the members of the National Education Association today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insisted it was time to not only rethink teacher seniority and tenure, it was time to tie those elements and pay to teacher performance.

Federal Funding Behind the Changes

While the emphasis on performance pay is not new, Duncan’s speech today provided clear indication that the U.S. Department of Education will likely continue to put federal money on the line as part of the process for fueling changes. In a move that is actually reminiscent of past Republican party planks on education, Duncan today indicated that it was time to use accountability measures such as student data as part of the teacher evaluation process.

Duncan spoke of the need to improve the quality of the teaching in America and insisted that it was time to eliminate the prior practices that treated teachers “like interchangeable widgets.” More importantly, Duncan alluded to the current seniority and tenure rules as a system design that puts adults ahead of children.

Arne DuncanSaid Duncan of the format: “We are not only putting kids at risk, we’re putting the entire education system at risk.”

Much as those in the healthcare profession are not enamored by the recent proposals to that industry, the calls for compensation and evaluation changes for teachers were not entirely welcomed by NEA members in attendance today. According to reports, those members booed and hissed when Duncan addressed those topics during his speech.

A Major Shift for Democratic Party

In an effort to appease those members, Duncan insisted that he would seek these reforms in a collaborative way, working with teachers to implement the structural changes. That stands in stark contrast to the Bush administration and Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s, my way or the highway approach, during the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Yet the uproar may be just as strong especially since the proposed changes represent a significant shift for the party that has traditionally been most in line with educators in the past. Current teacher payment and retention policies, all previously supported by Democratic leadership, focus strictly on years of service and degree status earned. The only bonuses currently going to teachers go to those who have earned National Board certification.

And in reality, over time, Obama and Duncan may soon find they have a bigger fight on their hands as Democrats in Congress begin pushing back, taking more traditional positions on the teacher pay issue as they hear from those outraged NEA members. However, there is no doubt where Duncan and Obama are drawing the line at this point.

Both insist it is time education found ways to reward teachers according to the quality of the instruction they deliver and not the credentials they have earned.

Flickr photos courtesy of House Committee on Education and Labor and House Committee on Education and Labor.

July 2, 2009   3 Comments