Welfare

September 25, 2012

I suppose because it’s election season right now, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how everyone taking anything from the government is lazy. I’ve heard this even from supposedly liberal friends. I thought, given that, it might be a good time to share some personal stories…

First Story

My dad was poor. Dirt poor. His father served in the Navy in WWII and Korea. When he came back, he worked hard. Still, there wasn’t always food on the table. The kids went hungry a lot. The parents went hungry even more.

Second Story

When I was little we were poor. Both my parents worked, but sometimes my dad was laid off. They both had a hard time finding work. We always had food, but sometimes we could only heat one or two rooms of the house. My parents both worked very hard and yet, sometimes they missed payments on the mortgage. Times were hard.

Third Story

I went to a good college. A really good college. The year before I graduated, practically everyone who came out either had a good job lined up or they were going to graduate school.

Then September 11th happened. When I graduated, the economy was in the toilet. I knew one person with a job. He had been hired by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. If you don’t remember what happened to them, just Google “Enron.”

I took the first job I could get. Door to door canvassing. I worked strictly on commission. During an especially slow period, I worked two 40 hour weeks and got paid $140. It sucked, but no one else would hire me. Either I was over-qualified and they were sure I’d leave or I was qualified, but hey, here’s this other person who has four years experience and just lost another job.

Eventually, I quit the canvassing job to try and make ends meet as a substitute teacher. That didn’t go very well, either. I did find a job, eventually. It took me six months, but I got a job doing editing work. It’s the kind of job I would have been qualified for when I graduated from high school, but it was a job. It paid the bills. I was, at this point, what would probably be called under-employed. I never stopped looking for another job, but I never found one.

Eventually, I went back to school (and took on a bunch of debt I didn’t need) so I could be a teacher. This represented a substantial raise over what I had been making and it was work that didn’t make me miserable.

This entire process took six years. Times have only gotten harder.

During the first year after college, I had a lot of help from my family. My parents supported me. They paid my rent. They bought my food. I lived with them for ten months.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had them.

Because I needed some kind of help. I was doing everything you’re supposed to do. Everything even Mitt Romney says I’m supposed to do, but if it hadn’t been for my family, I would have had nowhere to stay. It is entirely possible I could have ended up homeless. With a college degree. From a good school. And a willingness to do just about anything to pay the bills.

Fourth Story

If you’ve read this blog for long, you know I had surgery to remove a tumor when I was 18. My parents carried me on their insurance as long as they could and then they bought private insurance for me because they didn’t want me to have a “preexisting condition” dogging me for the rest of my life.

And then the insurance company dropped me.

Fortunately, I’d gotten a job with benefits and switched things over (though the coverage was pretty miserable). Otherwise, I would have been screwed.

What It Means

Look, I get that there are people who find a way to take advantage of the system. I get it and I don’t care. I think people who think of welfare recipients as getting an awesome free ride should look into it and see what they really think. I don’t know anyone who even has a concept of what middle class is who would rather depend on the government. I want those same people who don’t think healthcare should be a right to tell me why I deserved to very nearly have my life ruined by something totally out of my control.

There’s all this talk about how people should pick themselves up because we aren’t socialists and why are those other people so lazy?

My parents weren’t lazy. May grandparents weren’t lazy. Why did they have to go without heat or food?

I wasn’t lazy, but if I hadn’t had a family to help, there’s a chance I would have ended up homeless.

I had a conversation with a friend once and the very American notion that anyone can rise to the top came up. And, in one of my better moments, I said, “Anyone can, but everyone can’t.”

If everyone works as hard as they can, someone will still be at the bottom. In good times, that means working at McDonald’s. In bad times, it means losing everything. These are bad times.

I know that not everyone works as hard as they can. Few do, perhaps. But I also know there are many people at the top who did not work for what they have. I need look no further than the people who ran the company where I had my first real post-college job. They were incompetent. All of them. They were also the sons of the owners. That company went out of business not long ago. How do you think the incompetents at the top are doing now and how do you think the hardworking people at the bottom (and I know they were hardworking. I worked with them) are doing now? Who is better off? Who should be better off?

I look overseas, and every nation I can find doing better than us provides healthcare for its citizens. It often provides food and shelter for those who have nothing or some equivalent material benefit. It doesn’t ask for anything. It simply says, “you are cold and hungry. Eat this food. Sleep here.” I see that they have higher standards of living, longer lifespans, better education, and lower poverty rates and I think maybe there is something important about valuing every person, no matter how little they do. I think that maybe says something about your society and I think it maybe encourages your citizens in a way our “tough-luck” philosophy does not.

If you think that’s wrong, we disagree. I don’t want to live in a society where, “not my problem” is the response to other people’s struggles (go read A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer).

If you think you couldn’t easily be one of these people, you suffer from a lack of imagination.

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently about the evils of homeschooling. My hackles were especially gotten up by one saying liberals shouldn’t home school because home schooling runs counter to liberal values. At the moment, Cate and I intend to home school both our children, so I thought I’d take a moment to dispense with all the major arguments against homeschooling while providing an educator’s viewpoint on why it can sometimes be a necessity.

Argument 1: Your kid will be poorly socialized/School socializes your kids

Certainly, this is true of some kids, but that has more to do with the parents than anything else. If you want to cloister your kids, you certainly can, but you don’t have to. This is not the goal Cate and I have. We fully intend to have our kids involved in a number of activities. They’ll get plenty of socialization that way. And frankly, school often only teaches kids what it’s like to be constantly picked on by assholes. I can do without my kids encountering that and the negative consequences that can come with it.

Argument 2: You’re afraid of exposing your children to outside views and unfairly indoctrinating them

This is certainly the case for some, especially religiously motivated home schoolers. That doesn’t mean everyone approaches it that way. I find it absurd, however, that people believe public schools aren’t involved in indoctrination. Public schools tend to push a particularly simplistic and devotional version of patriotism that, while consistent with the goals of a government organization, isn’t good for critical thinking and an honest assessment of the society in which we live. Correspondingly, many students come out of school with ridiculous views about the benefits of capitalism and the risks of socialism. The current Obama as socialist panic is a good example of this kind of nonsense.

Argument 3: You aren’t qualified to teach your child

You might not be, but I am and so is Cate. We’re educated and fairly intelligent people. To an extent that’s our luck/privilege, but it’s also reflective of our values. If you don’t value education and don’t make an effort to constantly educate yourself, then no, you should probably not home school your children. In our household, it’s just about impossible to imagine our children surpassing Cate and me in the humanities, especially English and history, before they turn 18. It’s more imaginable that they’ll best us in science and math, but if that happens, there are other routes we can take to get them the education they need. We’re not afraid to outsource. And we won’t be unschooling. We’ll allow our children more room and time to explore those things that interest them most, but they will cover all of the basic subjects and there will be dedicated school time on a daily basis.

The other implication with this argument is that a high school education is highly advanced. In many, many schools and for many, many students, it isn’t. In fact, recent education reforms have mostly had the effect of forcing focus onto the lowest performing students (who are typically low performing for reasons that have nothing to do with teachers and schools and curriculum) and diverting it away from the highest performing students who could really excel in an area or two before reaching college. (aside: I’m not saying we shouldn’t divert extra resources to kids who need them, I’m saying we shouldn’t do it at the expense of other kids and in the useless way testing currently forces upon us.)

Argument 4: When parents home school, it lowers the quality of public schools

This is completely true. In an ideal world, school populations are ethnically, socially, and economically diverse. They are not testing focused. All children go to public schools. This isn’t an ideal world. A much bigger issue is the percentage of children in private schools and the way affluent Americans are able to congregate around the best public schools thus condemning many schools to high percentages of at-risks students and all the educational difficulties that come with that. As soon as there is genuine effort at educational reform that addresses the inequality inherently built into the educational system, I will totally get on board and send my children to a public school. However, as long as educational policy makers continue to live with their heads in the sand, I will be keeping my children out of the system.

Conclusion

Most teachers and administrators struggle daily to educate students under duress from higher authorities. I can tell you from experience, it sucks. A lot of teachers also utilize homeschooling and private schooling because we fully understand the problems inherent in the system and realize that sacrificing our children to such a system accomplishes little to nothing. I am a teacher because I believe that education is important and that I am reasonably good at educating kids even in our flawed system (though I would be better if we could get rid of pretty much all current policy). I understand that many people can’t home school and that their children still deserve a good education. By teaching, I am trying to do right by those children. I am, however, also a parent and I’m going to do what’s best for my children until the rest of the world gets on the same page and starts doing right by the public education system.

As the Father of a Daughter

December 8, 2011

As you have probably heard, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently decided for the entire country that young women under the age of 17 shouldn’t be able to buy Plan B. President Obama agreed with her, saying something about being “the father of two daughters” and “common sense.”

I have a daughter and I have heard of common sense, so let me take a crack at this…

Common sense tells me that if your issue is with 10 or 11-year-olds buying something, then maybe you should restrict them instead of restricting everyone under 17 and then only talking about 10 and 11-year-olds.

Common sense tells me that we should realize that some girls, sadly, are raped by people they know – maybe even their fathers – and that just maybe making them reliant on their parents to get a prescription is not the best course to take.

Common sense tells me it’s ridiculous that young women who are – in most states – considered legally old enough to have sex don’t also have full access to birth control.

Common sense tells me that pretty much no one wants to come up to their parents and say “So, um, a condom broke.” And maybe, just maybe, this reluctance is going to hold kids off long enough that suddenly there is a much bigger problem.

Common sense tells me that you can buy a lot of dangerous crap over the counter and that this is only different because the pander-machine that is the Obama administration thinks liberals won’t punish them for it.

I really, really hope Simone would feel comfortable coming to Cate or I if she needed Plan B. I also realize that she might not. And you know what? That’s her right because, if  you ask me, I don’t own her. I am not entitled to control her body until she turns 18. In fact, I don’t control her body now. Simone is a person and she always has a right to autonomy (within reason, it’s not like I let my two-year-old play with knives). This assumption that our daughters need us to control them is misogynist and morally repugnant.

And here’s the thing: This was the last straw for me. I won’t be voting Obama in 2012. Maybe I’ll vote 3rd party and maybe I’ll write in Hillary Clinton or someone else. It won’t be Obama, though. Why? I have a few friends who insist that you should always vote Democrat and try to shove them to the left. But I think there has to be a limit. The Obama administration has always operated as though they had liberals in the bank. Nothing they could do will send us away. If that’s really the case, they don’t have to pay attention to liberal values. And they haven’t. So I’m gone. If they want me back, they’ll have to earn it.

Living in a Plutocracy

November 16, 2011

As is probably obvious to people who know me and regular readers, I have been thinking a lot about the OWS movement, where it comes from, and what it says about America. I haven’t said anything because I didn’t feel like I had a lot to add. Then Zuccotti Park was cleared out, and I feel like I have to comment, even if I have nothing new to say.

I could go with lots of charts. I like charts, but I’m not going to do that. If you want charts, go here. They will tell you plenty.

Instead, I’m going to go for context in words. Let’s see how it works.

Right now, the distribution of wealth in America is more skewed than it was during the Gilded Age or the Great Depression. Think about that because those are not shining chapters in America’s history. I recently read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. It’s set in the Gilded Age, and has an interesting perspective. The characters in it, generally speaking, take their wealth so for granted that it’s almost impossible for the reader not to be offended. It’s a society that concerns itself almost entirely with wealth.

It feels a lot like right now.

Right now. 1% of Americans control 35% of the country’s wealth. 10% control 72% of the wealth. These are the people who control virtually everything in America. They are captains of industry. They are elected officials.

Tell me again about how the tax system is unfair.

I am a teacher. A teacher. Cate does not have a paying job. Yet, somehow, our household income places us in the 56th percentile in America right now. We are something approximating upper-middle-class. I always thought that if I eventually made it to upper middle class I’d be able to buy a book or go out to eat without worrying about how much those things cost. Of course, in those fanciful musings, health insurance didn’t take up 20% of my take-home pay while still leaving my family with significant medical bills.

Tell me again how socialized medicine is a bad thing.

Plutocracy is rule by a wealthy class. The goal of the wealthy class is to maintain their power.

Even adjusting for inflation, the cost of attending college has gone up 300% in the last 30 years. College is supposed to be the great equalizer. Everyone my age was indoctrinated to believe that if you Worked Hard and Went to College. You would Be Successful and Wealthy.

Of course everyone can’t be wealthy. And now, everyone can’t go to college. This is where all the complaints about student loan debt come from. College has become so expensive that a great many people can’t do it. Of course, they’ve all been told that college is the only way.

America is supposed to try to at least approximate equality of opportunity. Rich kids are already going to have a lot of breaks. Their parents have connections and can open doors for them, after all. But we have also become a nation that saddles its bright, but disadvantaged youth with tens of thousands of dollars of debt that wealthy youth do not have to face simply to keep up. It’s a sad thing. If we really cared about equality of opportunity, it would be hard, but not this hard.

I know what I have written here is fractured. I know it doesn’t describe all the problems with money in this country right now, but I hope it makes clear that there are problems. I know a lot of people are upset by the OWS movement, but its purpose is a good one. These people are trying to create a more equal country. One where who parents are doesn’t play as much of a role in your success as your talents and your willingness to work. There have been times when America got close to these ideals. Sadly, we are not living in one of those times.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

The Midwest is rife with labor protests right now as various Republican-dominated state legislatures try to take power away from unions. They are doing this, they say, for the Good of the People. Taking power from unions will balance budgets. Attract industry. We will live in a better place if we can just get rid of those awful unions.

Horseshit.

I am a proud union member, and I don’t understand why so many people have come to view unions with such disdain. That isn’t to say I don’t understand what Republican politicians have against them (we’ll get to that), but I don’t understand why the average working person has a problem with them.

If you are reading this, you probably know that before unions, work was dismal for the average American. Your employer, in general, did not care about you. You were paid as little as they could pay you and still have enough people to do the work. Safety was a non-concern. You were a cog. You were meat. You were disposable.

“So what?” you say (at least, if your are a Republican, this is probably what you say). This is America. Anyone can rise to the top. You just have to be willing to work for it.

I say again: Horseshit.

Certainly, it is conceivable that anyone can rise to a place of power with enough effort and enough luck (let us not forget luck, too many people fall into the trap of believing they deserve their luck). But everyone can’t. You can’t have a nation of CEOs and professional athletes. The world doesn’t work that way. Someone has to sell shoes and build roads and teach children. Someone has to do the things that actually allow us to exist as a society. This is why unions are good for the country.

Unions acknowledge that we are not all wealthy and powerful. That no matter what we do, we will never all be powerful and wealthy. But we are still human. We still have needs and dignity. If we band together we become powerful. We gain agency over our lives. Unions allow us to do this.

I don’t know if you are part of a union or not, but if you’re not, think about it for a minute.

Right now, your boss can fire you because he or she doesn’t like your shoes or your politics or because you drink Pepsi instead of Coke or for no reason at all. You could be the best worker at your job, but if the boss decides to fire you, there’s nothing you can do. Does this seem fair?

Right now, your company can tell you in the same presentation that the company had record profits this year, but that there is no money for raises or bonuses (I lived that one once upon a time). Does this seem fair?

You are still meat.

If you have any doubt about how much top level executives value you, go look at the labor they use overseas. Go look at how children are enslaved so products can be a few cents cheaper in America. The only difference between you and those children is luck. You were born in a country where, thanks largely to unions, there are laws that prevent companies from abusing there employees in quite such an egregious way.

Something you’ll notice if you look around the world is that countries where the workers receive the best treatment are the countries where the workers have the most power. Call me a socialist, but it’s true. You will also notice, if you look closely, that where labor is legitimately powerful, the standard of living tends to be very high (go take a look at co-determination and where it’s practiced).

What I am saying, in so many words is this: Unions are not the problem. Labor is not the problem. Greed is the problem. Corporate and political corruption are the problem. No one can work hard enough to “deserve” the kind of wealth the people in charge accumulate. You want to talk about hard work? Fine. Let’s talk about my father.

My father was dirt poor when he was growing up. For a long time, they did not have plumbing. At dinner, sometimes, they started with the youngest (he was the fourth child of nine) and if there was food left when the pot got you, you got to eat. My dad has dyslexia, but it wasn’t diagnosed until it was too late to do much good. But he worked hard. He worked in a factory (with a union). The company made forgings. It was hot, dirty, awful work. There were times when he worked 12 hour days six or seven days a week for months. He worked first shift. He worked second shift. He worked third shift. He did whatever was asked of him. Eventually, he did get a promotion. He left the union and became part of management. He retired after 30+ years working for the same company. The point of this story is not whether or not the union did my dad any good (though, undoubtedly it did). The point is that my dad is not a millionaire. He and my mom are very comfortable. They don’t want for anything, but they are not obscenely wealthy. However, if it is really true that all it takes is hard work, as so many Republicans want to claim, they should own a tropical island. So where is it?

The way unions and labor are being portrayed by conservatives is simply wrong. I’m not saying unions are perfect. Corruption happens everywhere, but the solution is not to take power from the workers and give it to the often extremely corrupt and greedy CEOs and politicians. Labor needs more power than it has. If employees were given more say in how a company is run and how workers are treated, then we would be a better nation. A stronger nation.

If the current trend continues and workers continue to lose power and wealth continues to concentrate at the top, it will become harder and harder to get anywhere, no matter how hard you work. Stories like that of my parents will become a thing of the past (without a union, it’s doubtful my dad could have afforded to stay at what would have been a painfully low paying job long enough to get a promotion). People will work until they drop dead – never having had the chance to save a dime – while a select few who were lucky enough to be born into the right circumstances live absurd and opulent lifestyles. This is not the America I grew up in, and it’s not an America I want to live in.

Part 3

Solutions and False Comparison

I’ve spent about 2500 words now telling you why government attempts at education reform are doomed to failure, and you are probably asking yourself, “Okay, Mr. Smartypants, what should we do about it?” This is where I need to talk about false comparisons.

You will hear the following numbers a lot: The US ranks 15th in reading, 24th in math, and 21st in science among the 30 “industrialized” countries. That tells you something, but not what you think it does. Go look at the charts and follow the links to individual countries, what you will find is this: Every single country ahead of the United States has done one of two things, and usually both: 1. It has plowed a lot of money into the educational system.* 2. It takes care of its people. Most of the countries ahead of us are the same ones you can hear certain members of the government decrying as “European-style Socialism.” These are countries that pay attention to their poor and don’t have the majority of their wealth concentrated in a handful of citizens. Amazingly, when they don’t have to worry about eating or working two jobs, students and their parents seem to do better. Crazy how that works.

*A commonly held misconception is that the US spends more per student than any other country. This is true only in a raw sense. In addition to the discrepancies caused by the inequitable funding system we have in the US, things tend to cost more here, so the US is the leader in educational spending only if you don’t adjust for how much things cost in a given country and ignore the under-funding that occurs in poor communities.

So here are your solutions: The bulk of the problem takes place outside the educational system. To fix it, you need to implement wide spread social reform that shows that the country is dedicated to taking care of all of its citizens. In schools, where the rest of the problem lies, it’s time to actually put the money there. No more dilapidated school buildings. No more desks that are older than me. If a teacher asks for books, the money should be there. Wait, I take that back, a teacher should NEVER have to ask for books. Oh, and if you want to start drawing more people to the profession, especially the struggling schools, you’re going to need to start paying better. A lot better. My first year of teaching, I was stuck in one of the very worst high schools in the state. If I’m being honest, I would require a raise of more than $10,000* to be tempted to move back there. Otherwise, the increased workload and frustration that comes with that job just aren’t worth it. Others might not come as cheaply. This is why inexperienced and bad teachers end up in the worst schools. If your company needs someone to take on a hard, shitty project, and they want someone competent to do the job, they are probably going to have to kick in some extra money. Harder jobs within companies tend to pay more. There is a reason for this.

*I don’t want to hear about how I only care about money. If that were true, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I just don’t want to be miserable everyday, and if I’m going to be, I want to be compensated for it.

If the President and others in the government really want to fix education, there are things that can be done, but I have yet to see any of them discussed. Our elected officials need to wake up and pay attention to how the world really works. Until they are willing to do that and drop the posturing, I’m unwilling to listen.

Part 2

Student Population

This is the big one and it’s going to take a while for me to get through all the ins and outs, but, at the heart of the matter this is nothing more than a socio-economic issue.

As noted, reforms tend to focus almost solely on the population of teachers. This fails because, as you might guess and as study, after study, after study shows, the dominant factor in student performance is socio-economic standing. In fact, this is such a dominant factor that it accounts for at least 70% of the problem. Let’s think about that for a minute and do some fun math.

Earlier, I mentioned a school in Rhode Island that fired all of its teachers. That school had a 50% dropout rate and 7% of its students tested as proficient in math and science. It was, of course, in a highly depressed area. Now, let’s do the math… 70% of 50% is 35%. That means that, if we took these same students and changed nothing about them but where and who they come from but left them in the same school with the same teachers, we could expect the dropout rate to sink to 15%. Additionally, 70% of 93% (the percentage of students failing at math and science) is 65%. Which means, that if you give these students different backgrounds, but leave everything else (again, including teachers) the same you have a school with a 15% dropout rate and 72% of the population testing as proficient in math and science. Incidentally, the average dropout rate in the US is 16%. Crazy, huh?

For reasons I will discuss later, I am willing to concede that this school probably had a teacher population that was below average overall. So let’s be cruel. Let’s assume that these teachers are so bad that they account for the entire rest of the problem. That’s 30% that assumes that facilities, administration, anything else you can think of have absolutely no effect on this student population. Even if that is the case – even if we replace this population of super-awful teachers with a group of educating superhumans then, at best, you can expect a school with a 35% dropout rate and 35% of students testing as proficient in math and science. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I give you socio-economic status: The 400 ton elephant in the room of education reform.

But there’s more…

People like to talk about vouchers. President Obama and lots of other government-kiddos think they are totally the greatest. If private schools can do the job better, then let private schools do it, they say. Private schools are the bee’s knees. They are the cat’s pajamas. Our officials send them handmade Valentines every day of the year. This is stupid, and here’s why:

The assumption behind vouchers, which we have already proven to be faulty, is that schools are the primary problem and that parents with children in failing schools will take advantage of this program to get their kids into better (private) schools. The problem with this is that a lot, maybe even most, of the kids who would benefit from something like this don’t have parents advocating for them. This is the only part of this series where I am just going to ask you to take my word for it, but I’ve been in the trenches and I can tell you that, almost without exception, the parents of your most difficult students are the dregs of society. They will swear at you. They will say things like, “I can’t do anything with him either.” They have been to jail, often more than once. They may be engaged in criminal activity right now. Or they may just think education is worthless (“I dropped out and I’m doing fine.”) Many of these people should not be parents, but they are. Their children need help more than anyone else, but a voucher system does absolutely nothing for them.

But it gets deeper still…

The magic number for an at-risk student population is generally accepted to be between 30% and 40%. Any more than that and the school can be expected to experience sever difficulties in educating its general population. Basically, the way it is supposed to work is that kids who come from difficult backgrounds are supposed to be exposed to kids whose parents have taught them the value of education and, in general, how to act. Because of the magic of peer pressure, the majority tends to rule here, which is why the percentages are so important. The vouchers system throws this all out of wack.

What happens is this: Good parents who are unfortunate enough to live in a place where the public school population is pretty rough (and thus the schools look bad) take advantage of vouchers and move their kids to the private school population where they join the children of more affluent parents who would never let their children sniff the public system. What does all this mean? Let me spell it out.

Public schools are largely underfunded and have large populations of students who are unprepared to learn because certain basic needs have not been met. Parents who are paying attention and have the opportunity take their kids to private schools (this is a rational action, by the way. I don’t blame these parents at all. My children will not be going to school in the district where I currently teach).

Private schools are well funded and, this is the big one, DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE EVERYONE. If they see a kid is causing trouble, they can boot that kid out. No questions asked. Where does that kid end up? If you guessed, “public schools,” congratulations, you can read.

In taking students exclusively from the low-risk population, private schools effectively drive up the ratio of high-risk to low-risk students in the public schools. Remember, the higher this ratio is, the harder it is for public schools to succeed because high-risk kids take a lot of extra effort from teachers, which means your low-risk student gets less attention.

So, what you end up with is a school filled with high risk students and teachers that are ready to leave the profession* because dealing with high risk students all day is one of the most stressful jobs in the public sector and it’s hard to do your job when it makes you miserable and you’re not exactly raking it in. Additionally, the drain of talented, low-risk students to private schools creates a drag on test scores which, as we all know, are the only way to assess anything in education and should always go up, no matter what happens. Also, test scores should be the same everywhere because all people are exactly the same and exist in exactly the same circumstances.

*A momentary tangent: I often hear it claimed the private schools have better teachers. There is no data to support this. In fact, go ask a private school teacher why they aren’t in public schools and they will tell you it’s all about the population. Believe it or not, public schools typically pay more, and often a lot more, than private schools. They have to or no one would work from them (a quick example: private schools where I live typically pay about $10,000 a year less than public schools. That is not pocket-change. Yet, they are not hurting for teachers. This should tell you something about the difference in working conditions).

I don’t know exactly why this is, but education reform seems to be a hot topic in the news again (this happens about once every six months). Most recently, I saw that a Rhode Island school fired all of its teachers because the students were performing so badly. President Obama called this accountability. I have been stewing on this whole topic for a while, and I think it’s time I offer some in-depth analysis of everything that gets thrown around. This is lengthy and so, I’m going to offer it in three parts. Today, I’ll give a general introduction and talk about teachers and funding inequities. Tomorrow, I’ll address socio-economic issues, and Wednesday, I’ll have a post about possible solutions and the problems in how we measure the US educational system.

Part 1

All education happens in schools. This is the sentiment. Of course, if you ask anyone from President Obama to your local school board member, you will be told that, of course, there are other factors that are just as important. But, when it comes to policy, the sentiment is always the same: Blame the schools. Or, more specifically: Blame the teachers. This is the easy answer, but it is also horribly misguided. I will attempt to show, in several blog posts, that as long as attempts to reform the US education system insist on focusing solely on what goes on in schools, they are doomed to failure. Let’s take the issues one at a time…

Teachers

Teachers are the big scapegoats. To hear virtually any policy-maker tell it, all of our educational problems would be solved if only we could get rid of those bad teachers. It is a shame that I have to write about how absurd that is. Where do you work? Can you think of someone who doesn’t really do anything and is a drag on the company, but somehow, continues to be employed? I bet you can. Chances are more than one person leaps to mind. Yet miraculously, the company you work for continues to exist. You continue to have a job. The world does not come crashing down. Yes, there are bad teachers. I work with some of them, but most teachers are actually pretty decent at their jobs. Education is exactly like any other industry. There are inefficient employees, but they do not destroy the system.

There is a perception out there that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed. This is untrue. What is more accurate is that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed in an unreliable way. Let’s say you are a brand new lawyer. Just hired. Let’s also say that small firm you work for has hired nine other new associates. So there are ten of you chomping at the bit. Now, let’s say that your boss is masochistic and tells you that she is going to assign each of you a different case. The two of you who perform best will be given large bonuses. The two that perform the worst will be fired. You will be measured by the size of the settlement you win for your client. On the surface, this might sound fair, but then you are assigned your case and you look at the evidence and see that it is overwhelmingly bad news for your client. It would take a miracle to get any money in a settlement. However, you overhear the guy next to you talking about the tape recording he has of his client being sexually harassed. Starting to seem less equitable, isn’t it?

This is the problem with assessing teachers based on standardized tests. Some of us teach AP classes. Some of us teach kids who are barely literate. Some of us teach kids with two supportive parents at home and some of us kids who watched their brothers get shot in a gang fight and whose single “present” parent is actively involved in the drug trade. Now, let me ask you a question, how is it a reasonable to assess teachers based on how the students they see maybe five hours a week score on a standardized test? I’m not saying a decent assessment using standardized testing isn’t possible. I’m saying that every single policy proposal I have ever seen comes nowhere near grasping the inherent difficulties and inconsistencies in trying to shape such a teacher-based assessment. That’s why the whole assessment thing is kind of a sticking point for us.

There is more, of course. Have you heard the rhetoric that comes from legislators? How would you feel if everyday, your boss came in and said to everyone, “Basically, I think you all stink at your jobs. I’m going to ask the board of directors to implement an inequitable evaluation procedure that will tell me who stinks the most. And then I’m going to fire those people.” Doesn’t set your world on fire, does it? So, yeah, you can assess us. I don’t mind that at all, but how about you work with us. Listen to our concerns and we’ll listen to yours and then we can come up with something equitable and we won’t have to go on strike or anything crazy like that. But don’t come in telling us how it’s going to be when you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and expect us to jump on board. We aren’t crazy. If you want reform to succeed, you have to work with the people who will be affected by it, not bully them.

Teachers are, for the most part, altruistic people. We get expensive, advanced degrees so we can go do work that pays only okay, but makes the world better. Don’t talk down to us and don’t try to claim we only care about our own interests. If that were true, we wouldn’t be teachers.

The Real Problems

But, as I pointed out very early on. Teachers aren’t really the problem here. Certainly, not the main problem. Really, there are two major problems. Funding and Student Population. I’ll look at the first one today and have a long post on the second tomorrow.

Funding

The most obviously inequitable aspect of the American education system is the way it is funded. The vast majority of public schools are funded almost exclusively by local property taxes. What does this mean? It’s not hard to figure out. If you live in a wealthy area, property taxes will draw in more money. This will result in schools that can pay for nicer facilities and better teachers. If you live in a depressed area, your schools will constantly lack funds. Your children will not have books. Your teachers will be those who can’t get a job elsewhere.

One very, very easy step in fixing the American education system would be to implement a funding system that at least approaches rationality. Think about this. The poorest schools are in the districts with the most difficult populations. No-freaking-wonder a bunch of schools are failing. It’s like being asked to walk a St. Bernard with a piece of dental floss while the person next you walks their toy poodle with towing chain. Current federal programs are no help as they end up disproportionately awarding funds to schools that don’t need help.

I will tell you right now, this is not going to be a very focused blog post, but I wanted to get it out before the issue got stale, I guess.

I am bothered as hell by the Stupak Amendment. That this thing even made it onto a piece of legislation with a real chance at becoming law is appalling. I tend to vote more or less straight-ticket Democrat, but I am not a registered Democrat. Why? Because of bullshit like this.

First of all, can we please just cut the crap and admit that this is about religion? Because it is. I will have a great big post about religion in public schools soon, but in the mean time I would just like everyone to acknowledge that something like 99.999999999999999% of people who think abortion should be illegal/unfunded believe this for religious reasons. Thus, if you make it illegal, you are imposing your religious beliefs on me. I do not like that and couching it in language that skirts religion does not make it any better.

Related: This makes me angry. Really, really? Does Saletan even realize that more than 60% of people think Roe v. Wade is a good thing? How is this “throw[ing] in your lot with the people”? How utterly, fucking ridiculous.

Initially, I had a hard time understanding how the “liberal” half of the US legislature could be this stupid. Then I saw this article on fivethirtyeight.com and it made sense. The United States ranks 70th in the world in percentage of female legislators at 17.5%. Even if you take just the Democratic Caucuses, then you end up more or less tied with Pakistan for 46th. Pakistan!?!? Are you freaking kidding me? No wonder we suck at women’s rights. Can you imagine a 21st century legislative body with any kind of reasonable female component voting to amend a bill in this way? I sure as hell can’t.