Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A word about the locked-out NFL officials.

It turns out that workers have something in common with the locked-out NFL officials. All across America, corporations are seeing record profits yet asking their workers to take cuts in pay and benefits. Usually, this includes substituting a defined-contribution (401k) retirement plan for the defined-benefit traditional pension.

The NFL is no exception. According to Timothy Egan's column, Zebra-nomics,  in today's NY Times: "... an incredibly prosperous cartel wants its longtime workers to take a cut in pension benefits — this at a time when the cartel is earning more money than at any time in its history, and has the greatest audience in American television."

Let's put the dispute into dollar terms. "The National Football League, which took in more than $9 billion in revenue last year and owned 23 of the 25 most watched telecasts last year, wants to cut the pension contribution by about 60 percent, moving the refs from a defined benefit into something closer to a 401(k)."

"What’s $3 million to the N.F.L.? It’s the price of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl. So, to be clear, the most popular entertainment commodity in the land is willing to seriously tarnish its name, its reputation and the validity of its games for the price of a single half-minute ad."

But hey, why not? Every business seems to be doing it. They're feeling the power of the tide of the national mood. There's almost nobody left to stand up for labor. Any mention of unions in a newspaper will result in dozens of comments claiming that unions are the cause of the decline of western civilization.

The depressing thing about those comments is that they very often come from middle class workers whose 8-hour days and weekends off are the result of unions. Think about what it will be like if unions are eliminated. Or, read a history book about the rise of organized labor in America and the conditions that brought it on.

Maybe employers--released from the bonds of dealing with their organized workers--will be reasonable and ethical. And maybe pigs will fly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Teachers: Do not travel in herds!

That's according to the Washington Post's Harold Meyerson. The first paragraph of Lessons from the teachers' strike reads as follows:

"Here’s a bit of advice to America’s teachers: If you want the nation’s opinion leaders and CEOs to like you, don’t congregate in groups. Everyone, it seems, loves teachers individually. But when they get together, they become a menace to civilization."

Chicago teachers were pilloried in editorials across the nation for "... refusing to bow down to standardized tests. In the eyes of our elites, such tests have emerged as the linchpin of pedagogy and the best way to measure teacher, not just student, performance."

Meyerson points out that "The presumably numbers-driven educational reformers are highly selective when it comes to which numbers they take seriously. For years, many have touted charter schools (which usually are not unionized) as the preferred alternative to (unionized) public schools. But the most extensive survey of student performance at charter schools, from Stanford University’sCenter for Research on Education Outcomes, found that, of the 2,403 charter schools tracked from 2006 to 2008, only 17 percent had better math test results than the public schools in their area, while 37 percent had results that were “significantly below” those of the public schools and 46 percent had results that were “statistically indistinguishable” from their public-school counterparts."

"There’s also a good amount of data — including a study of high-performing public schools from the National Center for Educational Achievement — showing that ongoing teacher collaboration and mentoring and using tests for diagnostic, rather than evaluative, purposes produce better outcomes than the reformers’ brand of measuring teacher and student performance. The Cincinnati school district, which measures teacher performance chiefly through repeated peer evaluation, has the best student performance of any big Ohio city."

"There are other data that “educational reformers” would do well to study. Last week, the Illinois political newsletter Capitol Fax commissioned a poll of Chicago voters that showed that fully 66 percent of parents with children in the city’s public schools supported the strike, as did 56 percent of voters citywide. The only groups that disapproved of the strike (narrowly) were parents of children in private schools and whites. (Blacks and Latinos supported it.)....I suspect that a number of parents with kids in the city schools may have a more direct understanding of the challenges, both in school and out, that their children confront, as well as a clearer perception of the lack of resources that bedevil the schools."

Meyerson concludes: "As both policy and politics, the demonization of teachers unions is a dead end for improving American education. Working with, not against, teachers is the more sensible way to better our schools."

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

It's time to stop demonizing teachers.

Some people, finally, are beginning to get it. Within the last 48 hours, two nationally-recognized columnists at two of the nation's largest papers have come to the defense of teachers.

Pulitzer-prize winner Eugene Robinson begins his column, Standing up for teachers, in the Washington Post this way: "It has become fashionable to blame all of society’s manifold sins and wickedness on “teachers unions,” as if it were possible to separate these supposedly evil organizations from the dedicated public servants who belong to them. News flash: Collective bargaining is not the problem, and taking that right away from teachers will not fix the schools."

Robinson says that the Chicago teachers have dug in their heels, but "I’d dig in, too, if I were constantly being lectured by self-righteous crusaders whose knowledge of the inner-city schools crisis comes from a Hollywood movie."

"The fact is that teachers are being saddled with absurdly high expectations. Some studies have shown a correlation between student performance and teacher “effectiveness,” depending how this elusive quality is measured. But there is a whole body of academic literature proving the stronger correlation between student performance and a much more important variable: family income."

"Yes, I’m talking about poverty. Sorry to be so gauche, but when teachers point out the relationship between income and achievement, they’re not shirking responsibility. They’re just stating an inconvenient truth."

Robinson continues: "The brie-and-chablis “reform” movement would have us believe that most of the teachers in low-income, low-performing schools are incompetent — and, by extension, that most of the teachers in upper-crust schools, where students perform well, are paragons of pedagogical virtue."

"It is reasonable to hold teachers accountable for their performance. But it is not reasonable — or, in the end, productive — to hold them accountable for factors that lie far beyond their control....portraying teachers as villains doesn’t help a single child. Ignoring the reasons for the education gap in this country is no way to close it. And there’s a better way to learn about the crisis than going to the movies. Visit a school instead."

Joe Nocera used to cover the financial beat for the NY Times and is the author of a book about the recent financial crisis. He is now a regular columnist for the NYT, whose column yesterday was titled How to fix the schools. Nocera quotes Marc Tucker: "It is not possible to make progress with your students if you are at war with your teachers."

"Tucker, 72, a former senior education official in Washington, is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which he founded in 1988. Since then he has focused much of his research on comparing public education in the United States with that of places that have far better results than we do — places like Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada. His essential conclusion is that the best education systems share common traits — almost none of which are embodied in either the current American system or in the reform ideas that have gained sway over the last decade or so."

" [Tucker's] starting point is not the public schools themselves but the universities that educate teachers. Teacher education in America is vastly inferior to many other countries; we neither emphasize pedagogy — i.e., how to teach — nor demand mastery of the subject matter. Both are a given in the top-performing countries. (Indeed, it is striking how many nonprofit education programs in the U.S. are aimed at helping working teachers do a better job — because they’ve never learned the right techniques.)"

"What is also a given in other countries is that teaching has a status equal to other white-collar professionals. That was once true in America, but Tucker believes that a quarter-century of income inequality saw teachers lose out at the expense of lawyers and other well-paid professionals. That is a large part of the reason that teachers’ unions have become so obstreperous: It is not just that they feel underpaid, but they feel undervalued. "

"Second, he believes that it makes no sense to demonize unions. “If you look at the countries with the highest performance, many of them have very strong unions. There is no correlation between the strength of the unions and student achievement,” he says."

"High-performing countries don’t abandon teacher standards. On the contrary. Teachers who feel part of a collaborative effort are far more willing to be evaluated for their job performance — just like any other professional. It should also be noted that none of the best-performing countries rely as heavily as the U.S. does on the blunt instrument of standardized tests. That is yet another lesson we have failed to learn."

That word "collaborative" is part of the key. In the 70's and 80's the Japanese were producing manufactured goods (cars in particular) which were much higher in quality than anything produced in America. Eventually, American manufacturers caught on to what made Japanese manufacturing superior: When problems developed, the Japanese knew that the people closest to the problem almost always knew more about how to solve it than the bosses and engineers in their offices.

Between Sept. 21 and 28, NBC is holding its yearly "Education Nation" conference. There will be reports each evening on the NBC Nightly News. If you see reports about assembling a collection of America's best teachers to work on a solution to our education problems you will know that we are on our way. If it's a collection of billionaires and business leaders leading the discussion, we'll still have a long way to go to solve our problems.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Does the USA have a learning disability?

When I heard that the teachers in Chicago were going on strike, I was worried. "They damn well better have the moral high ground." I said. The mood abroad in the country is growing more anti-teacher and anti-union. "If they're striking for better pay, " I said, "they're idiots!"

So I watched the NBC Evening News that night and discovered only two facts: Teachers in Chicago average about $76,000/year and parents are upset that their kids have no place to go during the day while the parents are working. Not much detail about the causes of the strike were given.

Now, to someone who lives in Chautauqua County, $76,000 sounds like real fine pay. Certainly nothing to strike about. But, Chicago is probably a lot like New York City. Rents in NYC average north of $3,000/month. At that rate, $76,000 (before taxes) doesn't seem so magnificent.

Still, I figured, there must be more to it than money. So I started digging. Here's what I have found:

1) When Rahm Emanuel became Chicago's mayor, he hired Jean-Claude Brizard to run the Chicago schools. Brizard came from the superintendent's job in Rochester, NY where his teaching staff gave him an overwhelming (95%) vote of "no confidence."

2) Upon taking office, Emanuel unilaterally cancelled the 4% pay raise scheduled for teachers and, again with no consultation with teachers or their union, increased the length of the school day by 20% with no additional compensation for teachers.

3) Not wanting to be left out of the "stick it to teachers" derby, the Illinois state legislature passed a law requiring that a teacher strike must be approved by 75% of the union membership. Note that this law applies ONLY to teachers. Strike authorization for any other group still requires a simple majority. (The Taylor law is a NY law. While teacher strikes are illegal in NY, they are not in Illinois.)

As Harold Meyerson points out in the Washington Post: "Disrespect and derision generally engender a backlash, and Chicago was no exception to that rule: The local elected more militant leadership, and when it came time for a strike vote, more than 90 percent of the city’s teachers voted to walk."

Now Emanuel is a strong advocate for the current "school reform" movement, as is Education Secretary Arne Duncan who used to run the Chicago school system. You may recall this is the movement--created by the great minds of the business world--which would like to weed out the lousy teachers via standardized tests for students and eventually privatize the whole system through charter and online schools, making a nice profit along the way.

Matt Farmer, at the Huffington Post, gives an example of the kind of thing happening in Chicago:

"February was an interesting month for sixth-grade math teacher Octavia Sansing-Rhodes. On February 28, WGN-TV and St. Xavier University named Sansing-Rhodes their "Teacher of the Month" and awarded her a $1000 check for her fine work at Chicago's Herzl Elementary School."

"That honor, however, was bittersweet because it came just six days after Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard effectively fired Sansing-Rhodes, along with everybody else who works at Herzl.The purge was announced at the February 22 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Late that afternoon, the mayor's hand-picked board voted (unanimously, of course) to "turnaround" Herzl in 2012-13 by handing the school over to the mayor's friends at the Academy for Urban School Leadership."

"Bottom line -- everyone in the building gets fired, and AUSL gets to hire its own teachers, principals, custodians and cafeteria workers.Oh, yeah -- and as an added bonus, the Board of Ed (headed by former AUSL chairman David Vitale) will provide the new AUSL management with roughly $9 million for upgrades to the building."

"After all, what would have been the point in wasting a fresh coat of paint, a new elevator, or a roof that didn't leak on Sansing-Rhodes and her colleagues?"

"Funny how those dollars always seem to follow the connected folks at AUSL."

Meyerson points out the fallacy in the reformers' reasoning: "If there were a strong case for the kind of school reforms that Emanuel and his many allies are promoting, then this move to roll over the teacher unions might have some heft to it. To be sure, there are some unimprovably crummy teachers who shouldn’t be kept in their jobs by virtue of a contract. But there is no evidence that teaching and educational outcomes in nonunion charter schools or in states where teachers can’t bargain collectively are any better than they are in bastions of union strength. In California, charter middle and high schools have a mind-boggling 50 percent teacher turnover rate — a crude indicator, admittedly, but one that suggests all is not well in the very schools that so many educational reformers insist are the solutions to our problems."

If you are a maker of widgets and your competitors are making widgets of higher quality at lower cost, you'd be well advised to take a good hard look at just how those competitors are doing it.

The widget analogy fits the USA in both health care and education. Yet we refuse to look around the world to see just what are the characteristics of our successful competitors. Teachers and their unions are not the problem. All the nations with high-performing educational systems have unionized teachers.

Maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with the basic cog in our educational system (teachers). Could it be that denigrating, humiliating and evaluating them is much easier than taking a long hard look at the entire educational system?

Oh, and if we ever do get around to that long hard look, let's start by bringing together the best teachers from across the country to rework the system, not business people who have never spent a day in front of a classroom.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Listen now, this is important!

Hey there retiree, are you feeling safe because even if Romney wins they're promising no changes to Medicare for those currently over 55? As Bill Clinton said often in his speech to the Democratic National Convention "Listen now, this is important!"

Clinton opined that the Republican candidates were decent men who intended to keep their commitments. It was important, he said, to know the specifics of those commitments. Let's spend a moment talking about one of those commitments: turning Medicaid into a block grant program and shrinking it by 1/3 over the next 10 years.

Many Americans think of Medicaid as free health care for the poor. We see stories on the local TV news about someone who calls for an ambulance for a ride to the hospital whenever he needs to fill a prescription and our minds fill with stereotypes of the undeserving/ungrateful/too lazy to work welfare queens portrayed by Ronald Reagan.

"Too bad for them," we think. They should be grateful for anything they get. In reality, medical care for the poor amounts to about less than half of Medicaid spending. The majority pays for nursing home care for the elderly and help for individuals and families with disabilities, Many of the elderly and disabled are solidly middle class, but the cost of nursing home care or needed services for children with problems such as Down's syndrome or autism are beyond the means of most middle class families.

Today's NY Times carries an article titled With Medicaid, long-term care of elderly looms as a rising cost. It begins: "Medicaid has long conjured up images of inner-city clinics jammed with poor families. Its far less-visible role is as the only safety net for millions of middle-class people whose needs for long-term care, at home or in a nursing home, outlast their resources."

"With baby boomers and their parents living longer than ever, few families can count on their own money to go the distance. So while Medicare has drawn more attention in the election campaign, seniors and their families may have even more at stake in the future of Medicaid changes — those proposed, and others already under way."

"Seniors...will face uncharted territory if Republicans carry out their plan to replace Medicaid with block grants that cut spending by a third over a decade."

"The move would let states change minimum eligibility, standards of care, and federal rules that now protect adult children from being billed for their parents’ Medicaid care." [The blog post that has received the most views is the one titled I'll bet you didn't know this about nursing home care. It details how, in some states, adult children can be billed for nursing home care of their parents, even if they had no say in choosing that care.]

The article points out that a vast majority of the nation's 1.8 million nursing home residents rely on Medicaid to pay for their care.

"Many people assume that Medicare will cover long-term care, but at most it covers 100 days of rehabilitation, not so-called custodial care — the help with activities of daily life, like eating and bathing, that the aged can need for years." Nursing home care can easily cost $70,000 to $80,000 per year.

"To be eligible for Medicaid, however, a person typically can have no more than $14,800 in assets, and though some lawyers specialize in setting up trusts that shelter certain assets, the federal government has periodically closed loopholes that allowed it." 

Medicaid planning is always the most popular workshop topic at our annual retired teachers' conference. People are desperate to find out how they can avoid the tragedy of needing to "spend down" to the poverty level if one spouse needs nursing home care provided by Medicaid.

"No state has a more ambitious plan to overhaul Medicaid than New York, which has the biggest Medicaid budget in the country — $54 billion — and spends about 41 percent of it for long-term care, almost half on nursing homes."

"Under the block grant vision of Medicaid, that federal role in oversight would end. Richard J. Herrick, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association, a trade group, says that since Medicaid rates have been cut well below cost, he would welcome a change in rules that would let nursing homes bill families for their elders’ care, in addition to what Medicaid pays."

Listen now, this is important! It's hard to imagine that any of us who are over 55--or our families-- will be better off in a situation such as this.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

When did experience become a bad thing?

Back when I was teaching--before the turn of the century--I used to fly quite a bit to make presentations about computers and technologies in the classroom. My level of angst was inversely proportional to the age of the pilot.

When I boarded the 16-seater flying from Buffalo to Plattsburg, both pilots looked like seniors from my high school physics class who were working at their weekend job. And the plane didn't even have armrests that I could dig my fingernails into!

I felt much better when I boarded a "grown up" jet and was greeted by a pilot whose grey hair was neatly trimmed. I figured this guy probably flew military jets before beginning to work his way up with a major airline.

Sure, the younger pilot may have had a couple of hundred hours in a simulator, but simulators don't have an essential bit of training: the knowledge that you may well die if you don't make the right decision. No pilot has ever had a fatal simulator crash. I figured my grey-haired guy may just have had to handle a few non-simulator dicey situations. When I fly, the level of experience in the cockpit matters!

Same with medicine. When being wheeled in surgery, it's much better to have the surgeon say "Don't worry, I've done this surgery 500 times."

Look at the ads in newspapers. Everyone touts their years of experience. Then we come to teaching.

Experienced teachers, we are told, are the deadwood. They're just "mailing it in" until they reach retirement age. Golly gee willikers, it would be so neat to have enthusiastic fresh faces at the front of our classrooms! What's that you say? They cost less? Balderdash! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! That never entered my mind!

Well, the folks who voted for inexperience are getting their wish. Today's USA Today carries an article titled More teachers green in the classroom. Here are some interesting tidbits from the article:

  • "With three years of teaching under her belt, Allison Frieze nearly qualifies as a grizzled veteran. The 28-year-old special education teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School here already has more experience than the typical U.S.teacher."
  • "Between 40% to 50% of those entering the profession now leave within five years."
  • "In the 1987-88 school year...there were about 65,000 first-year teachers; by 2007-08, the number had grown to more than 200,000. In the 1987-88 school year, he found, the biggest group of teachers had 15 years of experience. By the 2007-08 school year, the most recent data available, the biggest group of teachers had one year experience."
  • "...many new teachers are career-changers who have experienced functional workplaces. These teachers will expect adequate materials, for one thing, and the chance to collaborate with co-workers." [Well, won't they be surprised!]
  • "...parents shouldn't be surprised if young teachers soon leave the classroom for better paying jobs."
Well, we certainly are enroute to making the USA #1 in education again.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Where's Henry Ford when you need him?

"...we have forgotten the wisdom of Henry Ford. In 1914, not long after the Ford Motor Company came out with the Model T, Ford made the startling announcement that he would pay his workers the unheard-of wage of $5 a day."

"Not only was it a matter of social justice, Ford wrote, but paying high wages was also smart business. When wages are low, uncertainty dogs the marketplace and growth is weak. But when pay is high and steady, Ford asserted, business is more secure because workers earn enough to become good customers. They can afford to buy Model Ts."

That's how Hedrick Smith, former Washington bureau chief of the NY Times, began his op-ed column, When capitalists cared, in today's NYT.

Hedrick explains that Ford was " of the first business leaders to articulate what economists call “the virtuous circle of growth”: well-paid workers generating consumer demand that in turn promotes business expansion and hiring. Other executives bought his logic, and just as important, strong unions fought for rising pay and good benefits..."

"Riding the dynamics of the virtuous circle, America enjoyed its best period of sustained growth in the decades after World War II, from 1945 to 1973, even though income tax rates were far higher than today. It created not only unprecedented middle-class prosperity but also far greater economic equality than today. The chief executives of the long postwar boom believed that business success and workers’ well-being ran in tandem."

"From 1948 to 1973, the productivity of all nonfarm workers nearly doubled, as did average hourly compensation. But things changed dramatically starting in the late 1970s. Although productivity increased by 80.1 percent from 1973 to 2011, average wages rose only 4.2 percent and hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) rose only 10 percent over that time..."

"At the same time, corporate profits were booming. In 2006, the year before the Great Recession began, corporate profits garnered the largest share of national income since 1942, while the share going to wages and salaries sank to the lowest level since 1929. In the recession’s aftermath, corporate profits have bounced back while middle-class incomes have stagnated."

"Today the prevailing cut-to-the-bone business ethos means that a company like Caterpillar demands a wage freeze and lower health benefits from its workers, while posting record profits."

"Globalization, including the rise of Asia, and technological innovation can’t explain all or even most of today’s gaping inequality; if they did, we would see in other advanced economies the same hyperconcentration of wealth and the same stagnation of middle-class wages as in the United States. But we don’t."

"In Germany, still a manufacturing and export powerhouse, average hourly pay has risen five times faster since 1985 than in the United States. The secret of Germany’s success, says Klaus Kleinfeld, who ran the German electrical giant Siemens before taking over the American aluminum company Alcoa in 2008, is 'the social contract: the willingness of business, labor and political leaders to put aside some of their differences and make agreements in the national interests.'"

What a novel idea! Where's Henry Ford when you need him?