Monday, October 31, 2011

It's Halloween and the political parties are exchanging costumes.

I have a big file of "stuff I'd like to eventually get around to using" in these blog posts. I was looking through it this morning, and came across a special report done by the Washington Post earlier this year titled "Running in the Red: How the U.S., on the Road to Surplus, Detoured to Massive Debt."

The opening paragraphs caught my attention: "The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis."

"In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed."

"Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes...."

Out of curiosity, I clicked on the "voices of caution" link and found myself reading a January 20, 1999 article covering Bill Clinton's next-to-last State of the Union address. I had long ago forgotten what he said. Here is some of the article:

"President Clinton appeared before a joint session of Congress last night to present an ebullient vision of a nation enjoying vast prosperity after six years under his leadership, a newfound abundance that he said should be used to prepare for the burden of a rapidly aging population in the next century."

"....announcing a policy barrage that includes one of the more ambitious initiatives of his presidency: a plan to devote some $2.7 trillion in projected budget surpluses over the next 15 years to Social Security"

"Clinton also proposed directing billions of the surplus to the Medicare health insurance program for seniors. Cumulatively, the president anticipates spending nearly 90 percent of the surplus on programs for the aged."

Clinton's ideas struck me as "prudent." a term which used to be closely associated with the Republicans. Many of you will remember Dana Carvey's imitation of George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live. "Wouldn't be prudent" was the big laugh-getter.

Thomas Friedman's new book "That used to be us: How America Fell behind in the world it invented and how we can come back" contains a wonderful description of how our parties have traded costumes:

"Neither of America's two major parties seems to be able to address in serious fashion the challenges the country confronts. Their political philosophies are worlds apart, and neither outlook is suitable for the present moment. The Democrats act as if government is the solution to all of America's difficulties; the Republicans act as if government is the cause of all of them. The Democrats behave as if virtually every program the government created in the twentieth century is perfect and cannot be changed in any way; the Republicans seek to send the country back to the nineteenth century, before any of those programs existed. Neither approach will give the country the policies it needs to succeed in the decades to come."

"In fact, the parties have reversed their historical positions. A generation ago Democrats stood for progressive change. Now they defend every federal program as if each were sacred. They have become the most conservative force in American politics. The term "reactionary liberalism" is not a contradiction in terms; it is an accurate description of the Democrats' approach to governance."

"The Republicans used to be the conservatives in the original, genuine, European sense, opposed to sudden, rapid shifts in public policy and prudent [NOTE: there's that word!] when it came to public finances. Now they are the party of fiscal radicalism and recklessness, cutting taxes without reducing spending and thereby pushing the United States ever deeper into debt."

"The two parties are, however, united on two things--unfortunately. Neither has the courage to take the necessary steps to address the dangerously high budget deficits: reduce spending on the main entitlement programs (Social Security and Medicare), raise taxes, and invest in the programs on which economic success depends. And neither has the courage to reduce America's, and therefore the world's, ruinous dependence on oil by raising the  price of gasoline."

Trick or treat!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I saved $700 in 45 minutes last Sunday.

Last month I did a blog post about the new "open enrollment" dates for Medicare, which run from October 15 through Dec. 7 of this year. If you missed it, click here to go to that post.

Practicing what I preach, I went to last Sunday morning, and looked at part D drug plans. In 45 minutes I had discovered a drug plan that would save me $700 in out-of-pocket costs next year compared with my current plan.

I used the "personalized search" option, which required that I know my medicare number and some other information which you can find on the front of your medicare card. Using the personalized--rather than general search--I was able to handle the whole enrollment process at the Medicare site, and Medicare will take care of canceling my current drug plan at the end of this year.

You will also need to know the names of the medications you take, as well as their dosages, so collect your prescription bottles and have them handy when you go searching for a new part D drug plan.

At $700 for 45 minutes of work, that's $933/hour. It's tough to find a job that pays that well, and you can do it from home in your bathrobe!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I'll bet you didn't know this about nursing home care.

I was thumbing through the latest AARP magazine this afternoon, and ran across something both fascinating and frightening. It's on page 93. Here's the question that was asked:

"A nursing home recently sued my friend for $10,000 to pay for her father's end-of-life care. She had signed no papers and had no say in his choices or expenditures--is she responsible?" Here's the answer:

"In 30 states "filial responsibility" laws, while seldom enforced, say that adult children must care for parents who can't aford care for themselves....Some long-term care facilities that can't get payment for services--through the resident's funds of through Medicaid--are turning to the resident's children for restitution. Everyone with a parent in assisted living or a nursing home should understand the laws in the state their parent lives in. Check out the info at"

Here are the states WITHOUT filial responsibility laws:ME, NY, SC, FL, AL, MI, WI, MN, IL, MO, NE, KS, OK, TX, WY, CO, NM, WA, AZ, ID, HI.

Any state not listed above DOES have a filial responsibility law.

Friday, October 21, 2011

American Teacher: A movie you should know about.

Remember how angry you got when the film Waiting for Superman told the world that the problem with our educational system is greedy, lazy, unionized teachers? Well, it's time for the other side of the story!

The new film, American Teacher, is directed by Academy Award winner Vanessa Roth and narrated by Matt Damon. It's produced by the Teacher Salary Project. Here's their description:

"THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT encompasses a feature-length documentary film, an interactive online resource, and a national outreach campaign that delves into the core of our educational crisis as seen through the eyes and experiences of our nation's teachers. This project is based on the New York Times bestselling book Teachers Have It Easy by journalist and teacher Daniel Moulthrop, co-founder of the 826 National writing programs Nínive Calegari, and writer Dave Eggers. American Teacher is produced by Eggers and Calegari, produced and directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth, and narrated by Matt Damon."

"Weaving interviews of policy experts and startling facts with the lives and careers of four teachers, our film, American Teacher, tells the collective story by and about those closest to the issues in our educational system—the 3.2 million teachers who spend every day in classrooms across the country. Through an interactive and evolving website and a feature-length documentary that brings together educational experts, student interviews, and a year of documenting the day-to-day lives and sacrifices of public school teachers, THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT will bring an awareness to the real and imminent crisis in our educational system—how little we value our strongest, most committed, and most effective teachers, and the ripple effect this has on how our children learn and their potential for future success."

"In keeping with the storytelling styles of both Dave Eggers (writer) and Vanessa Roth (director), American Teacher is a character-driven film that explores this urgent issue through humor, irony, and the energy of the teachers who fill the screen. Since 2008, our team has closely followed the stories of four teachers living and working in disparate urban and rural areas across the country. The film's narrative balances the personal stories of each character with a mixture of interviews and animated facts and statistics by Stefan Nadelman, each highlighting the big sacrifices made by our nation’s teachers, and how these demanding costs force many of our greatest teachers out of the profession. The film is narrated by Matt Damon, who is passionate about education, and includes an original musical score by Thao Nguyen. American Teacher won the silver award in the documentary category of the 34th Annual Philadelphia International Film Festival."

"Research has shown that the top-performing school systems in the world all share one consistent feature: top-performing teachers. In the next five years, over one million teachers will retire. By following four feature teachers as they reach different milestones in their careers, our film tells the deeper story of the teaching profession in America today, and what we can do to invest in it for tomorrow."

Here is the trailer for American Teacher:

Just in case you have a continuing battle with a relative or neighbor who agrees with the Waiting for Superman model, the American Teacher website provides some interesting information, all nicely sourced as you would expect from teachers. [NOTE: If you click on any of the "source" links below, you will go to the same list on the American Teacher website. Mouseover the source link on that site to get the source citation.]

  • Studies prove that a great teacher can impart a year and a half's worth of learning to a student in one year. source

  • 46 percent of teachers in public schools leave the profession within five years. source

  • Teachers make 14 percent less than people in other professions that require similar levels of education. source

  • In the next 10 years, more than 1.8 million of the 3.2 million teachers will become eligible for retirement. source

  • 14 percent of teachers leave the profession each year; in urban districts, the turnover is higher: 20 percent.source

  • High turnover of American teachers costs our country over $7 billion every year. source

  • Teachers are priced out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas. source

  • Only 4.7 percent of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. 68 percent of college students said they would consider the teaching profession if it paid 50 percent more than the current occupations they were considering. source

  • The average starting salary for teachers in our country is $39,000; the average ending salary—after 25 years in the profession—is $67,000. source

  • In 1970 in New York City, a starting lawyer going into a prestigious firm and a starting teacher going into public education had a differential in their entry salary of about $2,000. Today, including salary and bonus, that starting lawyer makes $160,000, while starting teachers in New York make roughly $45,000. source

  • Teachers work an average of ten hours per day. source

  • 92.4 percent of teachers spent their own money on their students or classrooms during the 2007-2008 school year. source

  • 62 percent of teachers have second jobs outside of the classroom. source

  • 61 percent of adults think teachers are underpaid given their level of training and importance to society. source

  • 77 percent of U.S. adults feel teaching is among the most under-appreciated professions in the U.S. source

  • 76 percent agree that many of the smartest people in society don't go into teaching because being a teacher doesn't pay enough. source

  • Good teaching over a sustained period can [help students] overcome the disadvantages of poverty. source

  • There are currently no screenings listed in the Buffalo area, but I'm on their newsletter list and will let you know when one is scheduled. You can click here for a current list of screenings.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Are colleges letting us down?

    I remember the first piece of advice I received when I started college in the fall of 1961. "Don't learn to play bridge, "said the dorm RA, "it's the surest way to flunk out."

    The members of my fraternity were dead set against having a TV in the house. They saw it as a time-waster and a start along the road to flunking out. When Kennedy was assassinated, we had to trudge to the student union to find one of the few TV's on campus.

    How things have changed! Kathleen Parker addresses the college problem in her September 30 Washington Post column, Our Unprepared Graduates.

    "We often hear lamentations about declining educational quality, but the focus is usually misplaced on SAT scores and graduation rates. Missing from the conversation is the quality of what’s being taught. Meanwhile, we are mistakenly wed to the notion that more people going to college means more people will find jobs....Fundamentally, students aren’t learning what they need to compete for the jobs that do exist."

    "The failure of colleges and universities to teach basic skills, while coddling [students] with plush dorms and self-directed “study,” is a dot-connecting exercise for Uncle Shoulda, who someday will say — in Chinese — “How could we have let this happen?”

    "A 2010 study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 87 percent of employers believe that higher-education institutions have to raise student achievement if the United States is to be competitive in the global market. Sixty-three percent say that recent college grads don’t have the skills they need to succeed. And, according to a separate survey, more than a quarter of employers say entry-level writing skills are deficient."

    Parker refers to a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, based on a study by  Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. Among the conclusions of their study:

    "Our findings confirm earlier warning signs that college students on average are learning less, even as tuition costs in many institutions have risen sharply and competition for jobs has increased. With a large and diverse sample of over 3,000 students drawn from 29 four-year accredited colleges and universities, our study has broad implications." 

    "45% of our sample showed little or no evidence of improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing after two years. After four years at college, 36% showed no significant growth."

    "If your association is with a highly selective institution, you may be thinking that these findings only apply to other colleges and universities. That is not so. There is more variation within institutions than across institutions: in other words, even students at the “best” schools have too often been provided with ways to navigate through four years of college with little academically asked of them. If students are not exposed to rigorous academic courses, they are likely to leave college with limited growth in the core collegiate skills that we measured. We found that certain programs and majors were consistently less successful in building reasoning and writing skills. Students in education, communications, and business had the lowest measurable gains." [Emphasis mine.]

    According to Parker: "College students may be undereducated, but they’re not dumb and many feel short-changed. A recent Roper Organization study found that nearly half of recent graduates don’t think they got their money’s worth. The problem with education isn’t money — we spend plenty — but quality. Yet, instead of figuring out how to make education pay future dividends, higher-educational institutions are building better dorms with flat-screen TVs, movie theaters and tanning salons, according to a recent CNN report. If parents aren’t furious, they’re not paying attention."

    Colleges have changed. They now view their students as "customers" and try their best to give the customer what he/she wants. 

    Note to college folks: What your customer "wants" is a degree from your institution involving as little work as possible, leaving as much time as possible for fine dining experiences and the social arts. What your customer "needs" is something else entirely. 

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Imagine it's December 8, 1941...

    Imagine it's December 8, 1941. Yesterday, the United States suffered a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. We need to do something, and do it damn fast!

    Now imagine that the defense powers of the country do not rest with a central, federal body but, instead, rest in the hands of 15,000 local "defense districts." This might have been done because we wanted "local control" of guns and the military. We didn't want any central authority in Washington controlling our local military hardware or personnel.

    Oh, by the way, there is no central authority which can make the local defense districts work together in time of emergency. To ensure local control, the Dept. of Defense--along with the position of Sec. of Defense--was eliminated. There is some organization within each state, but that's still 50 organizations with which to work.

    With a setup like this, just how do you imagine WWII would have gone?

    Welcome to education in the United States of America!

    We're getting out-educated by most of the world. Almost all of these nations have strong national control over their educational systems. They made out-educating the USA a matter of national security, and jumped in with both feet, with the aid of national standards and a national curriculum.

    Us? Well, for a start, one of our two great political parties holds debates at which the candidates for national office try to top each other with how quickly they will eliminate the Dept. of Education if they are elected. No national organization needed here. It's clear that the good folks on the local school board in South Bubba Creek are perfectly capable of deciding how much algebra or physics their students need to succeed in today's world, and how it should be taught.

    In reality, most Americans--including those good folks on the school board--have no idea how much the world has changed in the last 15 years. They think that the schools that were good enough in the 60's and 70's are good enough to protect our standard of living.

    As Bill Gates told Thomas Friedman (also the author of The World is Flat) in his new book, That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back: "You always have to renew your lead. But we have to ask: Where did this lead come from in the first place? It was that we educated more people than the other guys, and we attracted more talent, and we built better infrastructure. We need to get back to work in renewing the sources of our advantage." [Emphasis mine.]

    There is general agreement that we need to vastly improve our schools, and we'd better get to it quickly if we want to maintain our standard of living in America. Science, technology, engineering and math will be the key to our efforts.

    So what are we doing? Our schools are losing teachers at an alarming rate. We're told that we can't afford teachers. That's like saying that we couldn't afford to build bombers during WWII. You don't cut back on the thing you need to win!

    The math and science stuff? Well, we have one of our great political parties being actively antagonistic to science. That can't help.

    Friedman's book has some great stuff about how the world has changed, and about the educational system we need to respond to these changes. I'll be sharing some of it with you. If you're a reader, it's well worth the money and the time.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2011

    Fact checking last night's debate.

    Draw whatever conclusions you wish from last night's Republican debate, but please begin the argument from actual facts. As with any political event, the candidates made some correct statements, but managed to slip in lots of half-truths, opinions masquerading as facts, and outright falsehoods.

    Here are a couple of fact checks:

    From the Washington Post:


    Friday, October 7, 2011

    I couldn't afford to buy a politician, so I made this sign.

    The title of this post is but one of the many signs carried in New York by the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters. Both Paul Krugman of the NY Times and Donn Esmonde of the Buffalo News made Occupy Wall St. the subject of their columns this morning.

    Krugman began his column by saying, "...we may, at long last, be seeing the rise of a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people."

    Krugman continues: "A weary cynicism, a belief that justice will never get served, has taken over much of our political debate — and, yes, I myself have sometimes succumbed. In the process, it has been easy to forget just how outrageous the story of our economic woes really is. So, in case you’ve forgotten, it was a play in three acts."

    "In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis."

    The protest has sparked similar gatherings all over the country, including Buffalo. In today's column, Donn Esmonde links the Buffalo protest to the one in NYC. "The bankers and brokers got theirs. Meanwhile, in the real world, unemployment pushes 10 percent. Countless homeowners owe more on their house than it’s worth. Twentysomethings exit college with massive debt and minuscule job prospects. People work more for less. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans have a collective net worth greater than the lowest 90 percent. Republicans moan about Democrats fueling class warfare, but that battle started a long time ago — and most of us are losing."

    Esmonde is quick to point out that the protesters are just as angry at the Democrats: "For years, well-paying American manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas. The switch from a manufacturing- to a service-based economy has brought many people more pain than gain. The chickens are coming home to roost. Even die-hard Obama-ites are weary of waiting for change they can believe in from the president.

    “Obama promised change, and then filled his Cabinet with Wall Street types”..... “How is that change?”
    One of the Buffalo protesters sums it up this way:  “I can’t afford to pay a lobbyist to get my voice heard,” she said. “We are out here to change things, because we know it won’t get done for us.”

    So why should retired teachers care? This is really an extension of the fight that began in Wisconsin. Corporations and Wall St. would like nothing better than to see a world without any way for workers to have their voices heard especially through a union.

    Politicians don't really lead. They look around for a parade and, if it seems big enough, they try to jump out in front of the marchers. That's what happened with the Tea Party. Maybe this parade will attract some "leaders" as well.

    One last thing. On his Wednesday night show, Jon Stewart devoted the first nine minutes to Occupy Wall St. As only he can do, he highlighted the stunning hypocrisy of the media. Won't these people ever learn about an invention called videotape?
    This clip is great! Do not miss it! There's a 30-second commercial, but the clip is well worth the wait!

    Tuesday, October 4, 2011

    Let's stop blaming the teachers!

    From the 2008 report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce: "The problem is not with our educators. It is with the system in which they work." [Emphasis mine.]

    The meaning of those two sentences is beautifully described in a September 16 article in the LA Times. The authors, Saul Rubinstein and Charles Heckscher are professors at Rutgers University and co-directors of the Center for Organizational Learning and Transformation; Paul Adler is a professor at the Marshall School of Business at USC. Their piece is titled "Moving Beyond 'Blame the Teacher.'" Here is the opening of their article. I'm quoting more than usual because almost every sentence is important to the argument they're making.

    "Most of the current efforts to improve public education begin with the flawed assumption that the basic problem is teacher performance. This "blame the teacher" attitude has led to an emphasis on standardized tests, narrow teacher evaluation criteria, merit pay, erosion of tenure, privatization, vouchers and charter schools. The primary goal of these measures has been greater teacher accountability — as if the weaknesses of public education were due to an invasion of our classrooms by uncaring and incompetent teachers. That is the premise of the documentary, "Waiting for Superman," and of the attacks on teachers and their unions by politicians across the country."  [Emphasis mine.]

    They continue: "We see distressing parallels between this approach to quality in education and the approaches that failed so badly in U.S. manufacturing. Recall the reaction of domestic manufacturers in the 1970s as Japanese competitors began to take market share: Many managers and an army of experts blamed American workers. They denounced workers' "blue-collar blues," lackadaisical attitudes and union job protections as the chief impediments to higher quality, productivity and competitiveness." [Emphasis mine.]

    "It took nearly two decades for manufacturers to realize that this diagnosis was deeply flawed and that the recommendations that flowed from it were leading U.S. industry further into decline. Recall the success of Japanese-run auto transplants operating in this country during the 1980s: They reached world-class quality levels with a U.S. workforce, in some cases a unionized workforce, while domestic auto companies continued to blame American workers and saw their quality levels stagnate."

    "Noticing the discrepancy, a growing number of manufacturers turned to the teachings of the quality guru W. Edwards Deming. Deming argued that U.S. industry's failure was not in its workers but in the system they labored under. He taught that pushing workers to work harder in a poorly designed system cannot improve outcomes. U.S. firms were being outcompeted because they relied on an outdated management system in which decisions were all top-down, tasks were narrowly specialized and workers were told to leave their brains at the factory door. To fix quality, manufacturers needed to fix these systems, and to do that, they needed to involve workers in that effort. Do those two things, and American workers were willing and able to achieve world-class levels of performance." [Emphasis mine.]

    " Much of the current wave of school reform is informed by the same management myths that almost destroyed U.S. manufacturing. Instead of seeing teachers as key contributors to system improvement efforts, reformers are focused on making teachers more replaceable. Instead of involving teachers and their unions in collaborative reform, they are being pushed aside as impediments to top-down decision-making. Instead of bringing teachers together to help each other become more effective professionals, district administrators are resorting to simplistic quantified individual performance measures. In reality, schools are collaborative, not individual, enterprises, so teaching quality and school performance depend above all on whether the institutional systems support teachers' efforts." [Emphasis mine.]

    The authors go on to discuss a Rutgers study that showcases six examples of teachers, unions and administrators working together to produce outstanding educational results. One of the examples is Plattsburgh, NY. 

    Their conclusion: "As school begins, we would do well to remember Deming's lesson: In education as in industry, progress toward quality will require collaboration among administrators, teachers and their unions."

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    It's the engineers, stupid!

    The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce doesn't mince words. They hit the reader right between the eyes with this statement: ...the United States will have to be number one or two in technology leadership in every industry in which it expects to be a major competitor if we expect to maintain our current wage levels and grow our economy enough to maintain the standard of living of the society as a whole."

    The commission continues: "This is not an argument about engineers. Engineers in this context are just a stand-in for the large body of people we will need with very high skills in mathematics, science, and technology, of whom our engineers are only a small part....if we want to continue to maintain our current standard of living, we simply must have a large and growing supply of world-class scientists, mathematicians, and engineers." [Emphasis mine.]

    Then comes the most important sentence in their entire report: "...the point here is that while people who specialize in these disciplines alone are hardly sufficient, without them, nothing else will matter." [Emphasis mine.]

    The Business Roundtable reported in  2005 that "The number of engineering degrees awarded in the United States is down 20% from the peak year of 1985. More than 50% of all engineering doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. engineering colleges are to foreign nationals."

    Most of these foreign nationals used to stay in the USA, putting their degrees to work for our economy. Now, many return to their home nations. This has led Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman to remark that the smartest thing our nation could do is to staple a green card to every advanced degree awarded to a foreigner in technical fields by a U.S. college.

    Even as we produce a shrinking pool of technical talent, some of this talent is lost to other fields. 25% of MIT's graduates take jobs in the financial industry where they put their skills to work creating mathematical models for the esoteric financial products sold by the Wall Street casinos.

    China? 33% of undergraduates in China are studying engineering.

    Feel like doing something patriotic? Don't waste your time decorating your car with flags or magnetic ribbons, or looking for a flag pin to wear in your lapel.

    If you really want to be patriotic, get a kid interested in math, or science, or engineering. The standard of living of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.