Sep 282010
National Day of Action in Defense of Public Ed...
Image by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

Education Nation, NBC’s weeklong look at education in America, kicked off Sunday with a Teachers Town Hall. Involving a live audience of a few hundred and another 6,000 logged in online, the meeting provided a forum for teachers and others to voice their opinions on the issues affecting education. Many shared their private experiences and perspectives in an open dialog looking at everything from teacher recruitment and retention to tenure, charter schools, global competition and parental involvement.

The Town Hall event comes on the heels of the release of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” which many argued places teachers in an undeserved bad light. Several people voiced the opinion that teachers are being unfairly attacked, that they were being made the scapegoats for the growing shortcomings of our education system. Most topics enjoyed shared support from the crowd and guests on stage, but tenure stood out as a single point of contention. Even amongst teachers, the debate over tenure revealed some who argued that it protected “bad” teachers and others who strongly disagreed.

If the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is any indication, most Americans seem to agree that, regardless of tenure, teachers aren’t the major problem with education. While 58% of those polled believe that education needs either a “major change” or “complete overhaul,” only 30% cited teachers as part of the problem. And the only group that a majority of people, 53%, identified as part of the problem was elected officials, with parents next highest on the list at 50%.

Regardless of who’s to blame, there are few who believe that the system doesn’t need reform. Asked to assign letter grades to the system, only 19% of those surveyed would give either an A or B. This is good news in that the American public seems to have a fairly good handle on the topic. Of course, it’s also bad news, since they’re correct. The U.S. now ranks 24th amongst the 37 Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) nations in mathematics, 21st in science and 15th in literacy. As many in the education community are inclined to state, “the system is failing our children.”

But is it accurate to label a system that only graduates 68.8% of its students as merely “failing our children?” Not to downplay the significance of such a statement, but holding the problem in such a perspective is more than a little limiting, and may actually provide a window into certain important aspects of the problem. To suggest that the impact of the failure is isolated to students is to misrepresent the true customer of education and to minimize its destructive effects upon the nation.

In the United States, between the federal, state and local governments, over $1 trillion will be spent on education this year. That’s around 7% of our GDP, which is enough to rank #2 amongst the OECD nations, second only to Iceland.  For a moment, forget the question of whether or not Americans are getting their money’s worth, the point is that education accounts for more public spending than any other category, except healthcare — even more than defense. The customer of the American education system is not the students; it’s the American taxpayers.

The attitude that public education is intended to serve the students fails to recognize the importance of an educated populace. Countries don’t invest in education because of some moral imperative directed toward student wellbeing; they do so because it’s an absolutely essential part of building and maintaining a strong and prosperous nation. To the extent that an education system is effective at producing capable and knowledgeable graduates, it’s also effective at providing the labor resource for a high-performing economy and the intellectual engine for technological progress, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of social programs, law enforcement and corrections.

The American education system has failed the children, but more importantly, it has failed America. Never mind our international rankings. They provide a decent relative measure, but the impact is felt right here at home. The impact is fewer graduates capable of designing tomorrow’s technology; it means fewer science papers and patents originating in the U.S.; the result is a labor force increasingly incapable of competing on a global basis, and the tragic side effects are more unproductive Americans, higher crime rates, more drag on available social programs and an increased sense of futility.

Explanations for the failures of the system are many and varied, and the suggestions for remedy are limited only by the number of experts chiming in. But the core issue is that the system is in need of structural change, and as is the case with our nation’s energy infrastructure, the vested interests will fight against any reform that may dilute their voice or adversely impact their pocketbooks.

The truth of the matter is that the American education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution with the specific goal of producing factory workers. The primary objective of the system was not to promote the creativity necessary in the 21st Century, but to produce a crop of docile workers who would accept the dominance of the factory system. The schools were designed like factories, the students treated like raw materials, and the finished product was a labor force where few graduates went on to college.

Our system is providing exactly what it was designed to produce. In order to effect real change, the entire system must be rethought, and learning must be the central focus. Alternative forms of education need to be evaluated and systems implemented where the incremental costs of additional students are minimized. Teaching resources need to be expanded to include peers and professionals. Systems that effectively deal with teacher evaluation and development, disadvantaged students, operating efficiencies, measuring student performance, and fully leveraging technology must all be established.

In short, the American education system needs to be redesigned from the ground up with the needs of the nation in the new millennium driving the process. The power of any nation is derived from its people, and the power of the people is derived from their education. There is no more important endeavor for the future of our nation than to optimize our educational system and invest in the citizens of tomorrow.

Next: American Education — the Path Forward.

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Sep 252010
Seal of the United States Senate.
Image via Wikipedia

Article first published as The Republicans Rail and The Democrats Tuck Tail on Technorati.

The Republicans are winning again. Motivated by hate, fear and ignorance, Americans are flocking to bring back into power the party of plight for all but the wealthy.

Yesterday, the Republicans revealed their new “Pledge,” with John Boehner stating that “We’re not going to be any different than we’ve been.” They’re actually promising a return to the policies that created the Great Recession and people are still applauding instead of throwing rotten fruit at them.

Thinking people need to be concerned. The political landscape in America is no longer about principles and policies; it’s about the creation and recycling of talking points that trigger emotional responses. The Republicans have truly mastered the “art” of political theatre. Their satirical mockery of democratic government would be funny if it weren’t such a tragedy, if it didn’t hurt so many for the benefit of so few.

Americans should be mad as hell about our broken government. But getting mad at Republicans for distortion, hyperbole and lies is like getting mad at a bird for crapping on your windshield; it’s just what they do. You might as well shake your fist at the wind.

But the Democrats are another story. While the Republicans were sharing their “Pledge to [Rape] America,” yesterday, Senate Majority Leader, Harry, the Cowering Wimp, Reid was announcing that there would be no vote on extending the Bush tax cuts to the middle class until after the election. Yep, the Democrats are once again rallying behind their track-proven strategy of tuck-and-cover. Once again, they’re rolling up in the fetal position and hoping for the best.


For those Democrats who believe President Obama hasn’t gone far enough, a brief pause to consider the team he’s had in the Senate might be in order. If Michael Jordan were to take the court with four high-schoolers, they’re not going to threaten even the worst NBA five. The fact that Obama was able to get anything through a Senate that was effectively controlled by the minority is actually quite remarkable.

Like the old adage says, “you can lead a horse to water . . .” The President came out swinging in Cleveland. He gave the Democrats the line in the sand they needed to define themselves. He took on the Republicans for their continual pretence of support for small business, their feigned concern about jobs, and their hypocrisy regarding the deficit. But while the Republicans were out power posturing yesterday, the Democrats were showing what cowards they truly are; they decided to turn and hide.

Democratic voters should be incensed, and their rage should be squarely directed at all the gutless Democrats who continue to allow the Republican bullies to rule the congressional schoolyard. In statements yesterday, they voiced their concerns that the Republicans would spin Democratic support of tax cuts for the middle class in a negative light — as if not voting on them will prevent the attacks.

The conclusion is inescapable: the Democrats never learned that the way you beat bullies is to stand up to them. Republicans aren’t going to win the election in November because they had the better policies — because they have none. They’re not even going to win because they have the better talking points. They’re going to win because no matter how egregious their distortions of the truth, no matter how hate-filled their rant, no matter how fictional their arguments — they’re the only ones talking.

Democratic policies support 98% of the population. They uphold the right ideals and have all of the facts, both theoretic and historical on their side, yet they’re losing. Perhaps someday they’ll come to understand that when people are fed a daily diet of fact-free propaganda, unless the opposition is refuting the claims with the same strength of conviction, the people are going to swallow.

Until that day, the Republicans will continue to keep their followers seeing red, and Democratic voters will be left feeling blue.

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Sep 242010
Harry Reid Bubble Boy
Image by absentee_redstate via Flickr

To argue that the dysfunction of the federal government is purely a Republican issue would be naïve. Long unable to move forward on Democratic legislation, the new Congressional majority of 2009 was quick to let loose and take advantage of a Democratic executive branch.

The ARRA was the first significant legislation to wear the stamp of a Congress controlled by Democrats. Although it has been successful, in spite of Republican spin, one has to wonder how effective it might have been if more keenly honed to address directly the specific issue of job creation. It’s true that it included $288 billion in tax relief that cut the tax bills of 95% of Americans, and that it also sent $224 billion to aid the states and pin up Medicaid and unemployment insurance. But the $275 billion that went to direct investment was not, like the other portions, intended to sustain current spending and break the fall. It was allocated for the express purpose of creating jobs.

It is within this direct investment component of the stimulus that the Democrats established their most resounding successes, but unfortunately it also exhibits their most disappointing failures. There’s little room for legitimate complaint about the $90 billion allocated for clean energy or the $20 billion that will fund the digitizing of medical records. Both of these programs will pay dividends to American taxpayers far into the future. But the vast sum of grant money distributed into the black hole of government gives cause for concern and lends substance to the Republican argument that Democrats are all about bigger government.

Though the data is not coded to ease such extraction, a brief analysis of the information provided for download at reveals some interesting facts. The data representing all allocations through the end of June includes 347,915 awards of contracts, grants and loans, totaling $237 billion. Interestingly, a query of the data looking for “recipients” with a name that includes “school” or “education” finds 59,916 awards totaling $47 billion. Similarly, a search of “college” or “university” nets 26,047 awards for nearly $17 billion. Looking for funding that went to cities, a query of “city of” returns 16,364 award and another $17 billion; counties apparently received on the order of $12 billion, state departments of transportation around $19 billion, and other state departments and housing authorities close to $20 billion more.

All told, on the order of $131 billion appears to have gone to government organizations. This is not to say that none of this funding found its way into the private sector, or that thousands of private sector jobs were not created. Many of these government agencies, from school districts to transportation departments, maintain a practice of subcontracting to industry vendors. But once the money is fed into the bureaucratic machine, suspicion arises, and rightfully so. Such practice is viewed as more SNAFU (Situation Normal All Fouled Up) because accountability and transparency are severely obscured. The result is that both the motivation and effectiveness of the investments is appropriately called into question.

Fortunately for Republicans, not long after the Stimulus, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. From that point on, steadfast Republican obstruction has reigned supreme over timid Democratic initiative. As stated above, the Republicans, without doubt, deserve their share of the blame in this, but if not for the Democrat’s extreme lack of intestinal fortitude, much more meaningful legislation could have been passed. From healthcare to finance reform, the Democrats have allowed themselves to be bullied, never once requiring the filibustering Republicans to actually stand up and control the floor of the Senate. Instead, each time they compromised and produced diluted legislation of questionable worth.

In the end, the most well defined accomplishment of our near completely dysfunctional Congress is a starkly polarized populace. Americans on both sides of the debate blame the other. The Tea Party blindly carries the banner of smaller government and continues to grow in its numbers, railing against an ineffective government but upholding positions that only promise to make it more so. When will we learn?

Government is not the enemy, but the sorry excuse in Washington sure is. The solutions are before us, but the path we’ve chosen, through two political parties that fight harder for control than for the wellbeing of the nation is leading us to destruction. The American people need to wake up, to refuse to listen to anymore political rhetoric and to start asking more intelligent questions. America doesn’t need smaller government, nor does it need larger — it needs effective government, and it needs it now.

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