Saturday, June 26, 2010

Crisis equals opportunity: raise the standards for high school graduation.

Hi everyone,

Given the crisis in educational funding, and a funding formula in Wisconsin that is crushing the state's smaller and poorer districts underfoot (like flowers crushed beneath the wheel of history, to paraphrase Hegel), it'd be easy to chicken out on our responsibility to today's high school kids and fix the budget by cutting curriculum.

That is an intolerably irresponsible idea. In fact, we need to stiffen our resolve and strengthen the mandatory curriculum even in the face of budgetary crisis.

Here's the original version of Saturday's column, a facsimile of which appeared in Saturday's Daily News.

It’s time to excel in education
Treading water won’t move us forward in competitive climate

Crisis equals opportunity: like schools everywhere, the West Bend school district is facing a catastrophic funding crisis. There is nothing the district board can do about the state funding formula and, even though West Bend East and West received national attention last week [in Newsweek's 2010 High School ranking], this is no time to rest on laurels. Even now, in the midst of fiscal difficulty, we need to press forward and take this opportunity to raise the educational bar even higher.

Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, In my very first column for this paper I encouraged the school district to raise the bar: specifically, to produce lots of students who can do calculus and speak a foreign language -- I suggested Chinese, but Spanish or Arabic might be good options nowadays. Our own Senator Grothman promptly responded with a letter to the editor in which he claimed my suggestions made me an amoral materialist bent on implementing China's one child policy (which was lawyer speak for "atheistic baby killer"). It was an odd over reaction to a call for raised educational standards. More commonly, and less caustically, we're hearing the snake oil of "cuts cure everything" in education along with the marketing pitch that we need to adopt more of a 'business model' for educating the next generation.

This strikes me as disingenuous. The business model consistently cuts educational opportunities instead of expanding them. Business model proponents typically begin by cutting "waste." Good idea, but you have to tread lightly: in education, cutting programs to balance budgets attempts to "fix" schools by making the students dumber.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, our high school graduates will find themselves neck deep in brutal, international, economic competition. Manufacturing jobs have been exported and outsourced overseas, a lot of them forever. That means this generation of young Americans will have to compete in a knowledge based economy. Tougher still, our high school grads are no longer in competition with people from Illinois or California -- they have to compete against the world. Worst of all, America as a whole is falling behind the rest of the planet in education. It isn't pretty.

The OECD's most recent Program for International Student Assessment found that within the OECD, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico have lower high school completion rates than we do. Finland is kicking our butt in math and Korea, in the space of a single generation, went from Third World backwater, to number three in college educated adults. China and India are coming for us.

So how can we adjust our education system to meet these challenges?

We work harder, and we can start here at home.

West Bend students are required to take only 22 credits worth of classes to get a diploma; the state of Wisconsin requires only 12. What this means, essentially, is that if you squeeze out the electives, the discretionary courses, from the curriculum -- a step the district may soon have to take -- a student could graduate from high school at the end of sophomore year. Wanna take bets on how well that 16 year old will do compared to his or her counterparts in Bangalore and Shanghai?

Right now students are required to take 4 years of English, but only 3 years of social studies, and 2 years each of math and science. This is nuts. Even more scandalous, students need only half a credit -- a single one semester course -- in Applied/Fine Arts, which includes: Business and Marketing Education, Family and Consumer Science, Technology and Engineering Education, or Music or Art. There are endless studies indicating that music and art contribute to the development of cognition, to both creative and critical thinking skills. And if students had been taking enough Consumer Science over the past 20 years, would Americans have spent themselves into the bottomless pit of debt?

I'm Old School pedagogically, so I hope my friends in K-12 education will forgive me -- I've always been a fan of Mortimer Adler's Paideia Proposal to create a well educated citizen. He advocates a set of broad and deep standards based in the classic tradition of a liberal arts education. Here's what West Bend could do: for starters, the district could require high school students to take 4 years of English, 4 years of mathematics, 4 years of science, and 4 years of social science including at least a couple of years of a foreign language -- enough so they can order off a menu in someplace that isn't the US. In short, require 4 full years instead of only 2. Toss in art history, music, and manual competence in carpentry, cooking, or car repair and you'd produce students able to keep ahead of their counterparts around the world and nimble enough to adapt themselves to jobs that haven't even been created yet.

We want a generation of students who will be smarter than we are, both book smart and street smart. None of this is rocket science, but real rocket science depends on it -- as does our future.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

I can afford college, but not the books.

Hi everyone,

And now for some hard hitting political commentary on the... on the price of text books. I tried to figure out how to include kittens and puppies in this piece, but there wasn't room for them.

Bitter irony returns next week. In the meantime, Saturday's column:

The price of textbooks these days

This week the University of Wisconsin Regents considered a new policy to make textbooks more affordable for students. Textbooks. Not very sexy. In fact, they’re considering how to proceed with a 3-year-old review on managing cost increases for Wisconsin’s university students. One factor identified as increasing the price of college was the price of books. Still awake? A bill on the topic was actually introduced into the Assembly in 2007-2008 (AB 883). It died in committee.

College textbooks are, however, only boring if you haven’t had to buy any in the past 10 years. If you have, the sticker shock alone is enough to guarantee your children will be born with whiplash.

Sitting down? Students at Madison nowadays can spend nearly $1,000 a year on textbooks and a lot of those books will be in courses they have to take for breadth requirements but which they may not need again as part of their employment. While the university’s task is to produce educated citizens for the Republic – and that means everyone who votes needs to know enough to operate the machinery of self-governance – it is possible you’ll have to take courses that are not directly related to your source of income. So, whether you’re sweating out geology or art history, you’ll still need to buy the textbook and that costs money: sometimes enough to put you on mac and cheese for a month.

The price of textbooks was not always an issue. I still have my first copy of Plato’s Republic. The faded price remains visible inside the front cover. In 1975 I paid the bookstore at the University of South Alabama $2.50 (which the consumer price index calculator translates into $10.13 in 2010 dollars). Not bad. Today the same text lists for $24.95, more than double the price over 35 years even after you adjust for inflation.

The single smartest, and most obvious, recommendation in this report is now required under the recent federal College Opportunity and Affordability Act. Starting in July, colleges will have to identify which textbooks will be required in what courses for the coming semester. It’s called “early adoption” which simply means letting the students know, ahead of time, what books they’ll need. With enough lead time, students will be able to go online or to their secondhand bookstores and find used or less expensive copies. It’s a kind of appeal to transparency in pricing.

Typically, you’d simply wander over to the bookstore the first week of class and pick up the books your professors require. You’re a captive market for a monopolistic bookstore and you pay what they ask -- but, no more. I checked our own Web site and found the book titles have already been posted for fall semester.

One reason textbooks cost as much as they do is that publishers constantly put out “new and improved” editions. They do this because in many disciplines the knowledge base changes and books have to keep up, but they also make modest adjustments to the text, re-issue it, and raise the price in order to keep ahead of the secondary market in used books. Publishers can only charge you the first time a text is sold. Re-selling costs them money, so they add a new section of exercises and release a new edition.

But if the changes to the new edition aren’t that important, why don’t professors and instructors simply use old editions and save the students money?

Great question. It’s because publishers are very careful not to let faculty know what the prices actually are. You receive friendly and professional e-mails with an offer for a free copy of the text and nowhere — nowhere – does the publisher mention the cost to the student.

Remember Assembly Bill 883, the one that died in committee? It was going to require that publishers provide price and revision history to the faculty who assign the book. I don’t know whether the committee simply didn’t think it was important enough to consider or whether someone sat on the bill intentionally.

A few years ago I ordered up a logic textbook for the coming semester. I’d used the text a dozen times before. It was, in fact, the same text I had used as an undergraduate, but now in something like its 15th edition. A new version had just been released, so the publisher sent me a review copy. It looked great and I sent in my order. For no reason whatsoever, I checked the sticker price online and discovered that it would cost the student over $100 ... and yet it was essentially the same text I’d used before with a few new exercises added. I cancelled the order and found a supply of earlier editions online for about $15 a copy.

With this new information and a little competitive shopping, you can concentrate on studying rather than worrying about whether you’ll be able to eat and go to college at the same time.

Shocking, I know. But there it is.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Very Angry Tea Party Nihilism.

A nice bit of analysis from Professor Bernstein at the New School.

The Very Angry Tea Party - Opinionator Blog -

Bernstein's basic view is that the anger flows from discovering that the radical individualism grounding American self-consciousness isn't entirely true.

Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state. Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

The state educational funding fun house.

Hi everyone,

I had a hard time getting this past my editor last week because he didn't want a series of columns on the state funding formula (snore....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz) because it is stupifyingly complex. This little column was going to be an introduction to a series of columns explaining the convolutions and, more importantly, how these funding structures have put my local school district in the crapper.

Anyway, Saturday's column.

Explaining the State Funding Formula

Imagine you're lost inside a Fun-House Maze of Mirrors. Suddenly, someone turns off all the lights. Got the feeling? Here's the thing: when you're lost in the dark, in a house of mirrors, turning on the lights doesn't help.

And now you know how state budgets work.

I’m dizzy from finally digging into the nuts and bolts of the formula the state uses to fund K-12 education. The formula is a House of Mirrors crossed with a bulldozer and it's pushing West Bend’s school district over a cliff. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that tragedy "resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." The state funding process is a tragedy, inexorable and remorseless, and neither the district superintendent's office nor our school board, nor the Citizens Financial Advisory Committee, can do anything to stop this from happening. If the district were a car driving over a cliff, the most they’d be able to do is change the channel on the radio.

Why is it like this? Great question. I thought at first it might be intentional. I suspected a group of ultra-conservative, super-genius Wile E Coyote’s had planted a diabolically clever ACME Destructo Accounting Virus in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau computers, probably while wearing rocket propelled roller skates, driven to destroy public education by an ideological faith in xenophobic Christianity or xenophobic free-market libertarianism.

The truth is both more frightening and more mundane. The funding process was pieced together for utterly commonplace and politically myopic reasons: setting revenue caps, limiting spending increases, returning tax dollars directly to the tax payer, attempting to catch whichever political Roadrunner was in season. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau knew from the beginning that the formula wouldn’t work, but the LFB does not get to decide what does and doesn’t become state law. Only the legislature and governor get to decide.

You’ve heard the gist of it: revenue caps set in 1993 limited the amount of money a district could raise. Frugal districts, like West Bend, were capped among the lowest, which is why we’re going over the cliff ahead of places like Waukesha. At the same time, mandatory spending increases were built in to the budget and in such a way that, eventually, expenses would squeeze out any adequate increase in future revenue (that is, the meat) and then big chunks of curricular programming (that is, the bone). We’ve started sawing through bone.

Despite the dire nature of the situation most people, it seems to me, still don’t understand the rules of this Mad Hatter's Tea Party. When I started digging into it, with help from the district and a few of the state legislators who take this issue seriously, I was barely able to understand any of it myself -- but I have an advantage. I work for UW System. You think budgeting in the business world is unpredictable? Imagine you're an accountant and the state legislature is your boss. You get to hear things like this: "For the current biennium, the real money you've been allocated comes to x-amount of dollars but, as usual, not all of the real money is real." Most sensible people scrunch up their faces and manage to spit out a "say WHAT??" But people who've worked in state funded education hear that sort of thing and say, "Of course. Now, can you tell us how much of the real money is real and, of this really real money, how much can we expect to receive for our budgets for this year?" To which the legislative reply always seems to be "you'll find out after the next budget passes."

I was being serious just then, although it was probably difficult to tell.

The superintendent's office and school board have tried, courageously, to explain why all of this is happening, but the funding process is easily the most barely comprehensible legislative brain eating zombie I’ve ever seen.

They need even more help explaining this zombie to the public and I know where they can get it.

This past week the Citizen Financial Advisory Committee decided the scope of their mission extended to the timing of specific capital projects, on the purchase of property, and setting budgeting priorities for maintenance, among other things. I suggest they go further. CFAC, as representatives of our brightest and best business people, and as stakeholders in the future of West Bend, should also advise the district on how best to explain the complexities of our current state-sponsored brain-eating fiscal-freefall to the public and, best of all, they won’t even need rocket-propelled roller skates to do so -- only a dedication to the truth and a commitment to the kids.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Like Glenn Beck, Ayn Rand Peddled Garbage As Truth -- Why Did America Buy It? |

Ah, *the* question is always the same question.

Like Glenn Beck, Ayn Rand Peddled Garbage As Truth -- Why Did America Buy It? | | AlterNet

The real reason is simpler and embodied in the fundamental principle of American capitalism, uttered by the greatest American philosopher of capitalism, P.T. Barnum:

"There's a sucker born every minute."

I confess I'm surprised, the Tea party is over?

As with most populist movements, there was a lot of hash in this one -- and unfortunately, their talking points were being written by the very people they were hoping to fight against, the corporatist plutocrats who spent the past 30 years pillaging the US economy. And so on. ;^) Maybe once they figure out that they can control the government, but not the board rooms -- and that Fox News doesn't want them to do either -- things'll change.

Americans Have Worse Opinion of Tea Parties Than Ever Before « SpeakEasy

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll suggests that whatever populist hypnosis many Americans were under when the Tea Party folks first came onto the scene may now finally be wearing off. The poll says that now the percentage of Americans who hold an unfavorable view of the movement has jumped from 39 percent to 50 percent. The group that has led the drop has been a collapse in support from 18 to 29-year-olds. In March, they had a positive, 43-38 view of the Tea Party. But now they’ve shifted in the other way, to a negative view, 27-60.

Science 1, Monkeys 0.

Two of my colleagues respond to Mary Weigand's letter to the editor about science over looking catastrophes. Now, of course, these guys are merely well established PhD's vetted by major graduate universities and put through the evaluative wringer on their way to tenure in the UW System and, so, there's no reason to expect Ms. Weigand will believe them.

Still, we can hope.


The science behind canyon erosion


This is submitted in response to a recent letter in this newspaper that contends that science ignores catastrophes when explaining the geological record. Actually, geologists frequently use catastrophic explanations to explain both large- and small-scale phenomena.
For example, a majority of geologists accept the evidence that an asteroid collision explains the extinction of the majority of dinosaurs 65 million years ago and that multiple glacial outburst floods explain the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. In fact, accelerated erosion like that caused by floods is a necessary part of geologic explanation that ranges from the slow, incremental deposition that dominates deep ocean environments to the more rapid, more changeable environments that occur on and near dry land.
The two catastrophic events that the author describes, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington and the 2002 Canyon Lake flood near San Antonio, Texas, were indeed associated with rapid canyon formation. But to say they were catastrophic does not mean that they were surprising or unprecedented.
Loose, unconsolidated volcanic ash deposits like those created by Mount St. Helens are prone to rapid erosion. And though the rapid erosion of the Canyon Lake Gorge came as a shock to the local landowners, this area is known for flash floods. And, once again, the ability for high stream flows to cut through, a faulted limestone with numerous bedding planes and preexisting solution channels is not unusual.
Equating the rapid erosion of these small canyons to a canyon the size and complexity of the Grand Canyon, however, is a scientific mistake. The physical evidence does not support such a conclusion. Any flood or floods capable of cutting the Colorado in a few short years would have scoured on the Colorado plateau, left thousands of feet of recent sediments near the mouth of the canyon, and cut a gorge with vertical walls.
Moreover, geologists further substantiate the age of the canyon with each new study. As recently as March 7, 2008, a study in Science magazine used uranium-lead dating to determine that the western edge of the canyon formed around 17 million years ago. This technique and, in fact, all dating techniques used to estimate the age of geological formations, depend on fundamental principles of physics and chemistry.
This information is what can safely be said. Teachers and textbooks sometimes present this information without explaining all the research work that led to this point. Please understand, however, that these conclusions are based on the careful analysis of data using solid scientific principles and examined and re-examined by thousands of researchers over many years of work.
(Chris Hays is an associate professor of Anthropology/Sociology and Alan Paul Price is an associate professor of Geography/Geology, University of Wisconsin-Washington County.)