Finding America

We are in hard times. Our economy is stagnant and beholden to offshore producers. Our money is in the hands of thugs in starched white shirts. Our Constitution is in the hands of angry men and corrupt judges. Our children are not being served with equity, and we can only promise them less than we inherited on this earth. Now we have to face injustice that does not value the lives of children of color. How can we de-escalate our struggles and find ourselves as Americans again, perhaps for the first time?

We have returned to the land of the zero-sum society. Everything I get must be taken from someone else, and everything you get has been taken from me or mine. The only business at hand is sorting “We The People” into the “Us” or “Them” columns. Then, armed to the teeth with weapons of war and misinformation, we protect ourselves and undermine them with impunity. This is NOT America.

We do not need anyone trying to take back America. It does not belong to just some of us. We need to find America in hard times and make it work for all of us. We have a constitution – giving life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to all of our people. It is not a weapon, it is a covenant.

The flashpoint has been struck with the death of a third person of color at the hands of a white man who got away with it. We have exposed the dark underbelly of racism at the heart of our justice system. And we cannot turn away from it. Apparently we have not fully eradicated the most crucial flaw of our founding fathers…the valuing of a human being at some percentage less than 100 based on the color of his skin.

We are not at rest, and we cannot be at rest until this issue is resolved. However, we can use our humanity to set things right by coming together as people who believe in our common rights of man, or we can allow a conflict to escalate and be decided in a battle of Americans against one another.

The road to finding America lies ahead of us, and we can only come together by setting all else aside for a moment. Turn off Fox News, and that iPhone. Stop worrying about that pension fund. Put down that gun, and tell your lawyer he or she is off duty…because each of us must be stripped bare of who and what we think we are. Only then can we find our places in a fair and just society that is inclusive of all of mankind.

We can take a trip up Maslow’s hierarchy. Are we all warm, and safe, and dry? Have we all been fed? Do we have access to good work, good health, and safe travels? Can we exercise our minds, develop our talents, and take leisure with gusto? And, then, can we achieve the vision to save our world and create the constructs to realize the dreams of others as with our own.

December 4, 2014 at 8:45 AM Leave a comment

For Mothers and Sons…Justice and Peace

#Ferguson: Mother and child view of love, bedtime, helicopters, peace, and justice..thank you, Erica.

Borrowed from a Mom in Brooklyn…

“So tonight the child would NOT sleep. He wanted his toy train. He wanted water. He wanted to flip and flop, flop and flip. When I lay down with him to cuddle he would settle for about a minute, and commence to flop/flip all over again and recount the events of the day in a string of delirious free associations: “zipper! . . . applesauce! . . . bye-bye, bus!” He bashed his toy Poorcee into my nose. Then he leaned in to kiss the boo-boo and gave my nose a huge lick instead, grinning. I started laughing, so he licked more.

“As this was happening we heard chanting outside. The protestors were getting louder and louder coming down our street. Suddenly, all the windows in the apartment were flooded with light from a helicopter.

“In the movies, when a helicopter shines a light into your home, it’s never good. either you are a high-rolling drug dealer about to be captured, or the Mothership is coming to whisk you away.

“But I can barely watch movies anymore. Having the kid has eradicated my final, frayed strains of tolerance for any cinematic themes involving violence and separation. Recently I re-watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and during the scene when the little boy gets taken, I had to look away and fast-forward. Fast.

“The reality of why people are marching outside our window is so painful it is starkly unfathomable to me.

“Wishing justice where justice is needed, and peace and comfort to all who crave it.

November 26, 2014 at 9:59 AM Leave a comment

The Pension Debacle Demands Resolution

Don’t blame public employees…when their government employers fail to deliver on matching funds for pensions. But do worry about funding for education and every other government service that will be crowded out by these overdue pension contributions when the piper is finally paid. Modern day Robin Hoods would continue to steal from the middle class and give to the ultra-rich…let’s find a better solution.

Forbes has published an article with devastating news about underfunding of state public pension benefits…a whopping $4.7 trillion shortfall in funding as of 2014. And the number has grown from $4.1 trillion in 2013. The only mystery in the growth in unfunded pension benefits is why anyone is surprised. There is no growth in the value of $0 in funding regardless of how many decades have passed since the government gave itself each pension holiday…only the obligations linked to the increasingly shaky promises.

Let’s cut to the chase…

  1. Government entities must stop balancing their budgets by pilfering from employee pension plans, i.e., they must make their contributions to pension funds in the same period in which pension obligations are incurred.
  2. Government pensions must be made portable – #2 in 7 Keys to Education Reform since 2011 – that is, convert from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans for at least new employees, and enroll employees in the Social Security safety net.
  3. Pension managers must reassess predicted returns on invested pension funds and create realistic schedules of future payouts under existing defined-benefit plans. These schedules must reflect real dollars contributed by employees and both real and imagined dollars (with interest) promised by governments.
  4. Wall Street must re-engage in capitalism and invest in stocks with long-term shareholder value propositions…no more unproductive financial instruments or built-to-flip bubble machines.

Deficit funding of pensions by government entities

Government pension systems are allowed to have deficit funding. This means that states can incur pension obligations that they do not match with actual funding. And that underfunding grows over time because the assumed return on investment for the promised funds grows over time. This should be a no-brainer. However, as government budgets become politicized and public officials try to dodge the issue, the images of alleged fat-cat union pensioners have become the face of the problem. They are the last people who would deserve blame.

Public employees who belong to pension plans typically make mandatory contributions beginning with their first paychecks even as very young adults. And they continue to pay their share into the pension plans throughout their careers. In fact, such pension plans, often taking 10% or more in payroll deductions from every check over a lifetime, are likely to eat a larger chunk of personal income than private sector retirement plans because employees start earlier at a higher rate and are less likely to be able to alter or tap into these funds. The promise of a good pension is an important part of continuing employment in government services and a secure middle class existence.

Unfortunately, government pension plans have been managed with kick-the-can financing to the point of questionable solvency unless pensions are reduced or other government services are cut. Again, politically, conservative solutions are about choosing how to hold the victims accountable. And to complicate matters, deficit funding is only part of the problem.

Complications with invested funds

Defined-benefit pensions schedule payments to retirees according to a combination of years of service and age at retirement. Implicit in these schedules are considerations for funds contributed and the performance of investments made by fund managers. The collapse of world financial markets in 2008, slowing of the economy, and volatility in technology and other stocks created a shock wave of uncertainty with pension funds. It also cast a light on some risky investment activity on the part of funds managers.

In denial, pension managers were slow to adjust expected payments to retirees in response to new market behavior. They continued or even intensified unwise gambling on high risk/high return investments, losing more money even as outdated pension benefits further depleted available funds.

Defined-benefits v. defined-contribution pension plans

Defined-benefit plans, which promise payouts to retirees, cannot expect to make their payments in the long run without a major change is policy. On the employer side, failure to make promised contributions means that states have balanced their budgets by pilfering from their employees’ pensions. Essentially, government entities just have to stop doing that. And they must take steps to bring promised funds up to date.

On the employee side, immediate solutions to the new market conditions are likely to mean higher contributions from workers and/or lower payout rates as well as raising the age of eligibility for retirement benefits. However, this is a good time to reconsider closed, defined-benefit retirement plans, and to limit the size of the tail on unfunded benefits.

Closed government pension plans presume lifelong government service and limited geographic mobility within a given pension plan. This is not relevant to a mobile society, and there is no equity for workers who fail to become vested in a plan. Going forward, an open, defined-contribution plans would better serve employees overall. In addition, they would transfer more control over the amount and the risk/return profile of invested retirement funds to the workers themselves. A sunset clause on defined benefits would create a finite limit for the long-term pension liabilities.

Finally, employees bearing the risk for their retirement plans must be enrolled in the Social Security safety net. No new employee should be allowed to join the 6 million Americans grandfathered into plans with Social Security opt-out clauses.

US economy at a cross-roads

At the heart of the problem, the US economy continues to lack vitality. Attention to Gross Domestic Product and a clear vision for market dynamism are essential for all of us to thrive. The promise of supply-side economics was made hollow by offshore investments, and cash in reserves continue to languish on corporate balance sheets because no one seems to know where to put their money.

We have wasted the savings of a generation on market bubbles and unproductive assets. And a derisive attitude toward domestic workers has undercut consumer markets – an underemployed sector that cannot buy. One side of the economy cannot be optimized with a nostalgic vision of cheap production at the worker’s expense. Demand-side economics must receive its due to balance the equation. And this does not mean better social networks and subversive advertising. Rather, it means real people with real lives and futures working in an economy that serves them, too.

November 22, 2014 at 11:47 AM Leave a comment

Duncan Dilutes Obama Legacy with Words that Trump Actions in Education

Arne Duncan is willing to betray a generation of children to save the Common Core. He has charted the path for states that were unable to meet their own goals after getting waivers that forgave their failure to meet NCLB goals…as long as they have goals…that show they will really mean it this time. Promises made to Mr. Duncan do not supersede the promise made to our nation’s children that they will not be left behind educationally. Playing Kick the Can from 2008 through 2019 cannot be Obama’s intent.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation is the law of the land. It must be enforced by the Executive Branch of the US Government. The Obama Administration has addressed two important issues in its treatment of NCLB, partially excusing the waivers, but there is no constitutional mandate to allow continuation of the waiver program for states that are out of compliance for both their waiver agreements and NCLB.

The two most valid education issues have been…

  • Interstate Portability: The absence of consistency and rigorousness of standards for education across the country has left some children more equal than others. That is to say, children in states without high standards for K-12 education render their young constituents disadvantaged Vis a Vis their peers in other states when they reach adulthood. In addition, these same children are unable to carry their education property across state lines without unnecessary knowledge gaps. Children who enter these states will likely see the value of their education property diminish through unnecessary redundancies and their becoming underserved educationally.
  • Absence of Due Process: NCLB created a “presumption of guilt” clause that removed due process from job loss actions against educators in schools that were declared to be failing. The absence of objective educator effectiveness standards, combined with mandates to dismiss some or all educators in these schools, has created the opportunity for unconstitutional capriciousness in the firing process.

The Obama Administration has explicitly mandated the development of educator effectiveness processes as part of the waiver process to address the latter issue. The only questions remaining are, “Did you do it? Yes or No?” followed by, “Have you met your self-imposed standards for progress toward conformity with NCLB?”

The Interstate Portability issue was partially addressed by a collection of states in adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and reinforced by their inclusion in the NCLB waiver terms. However, the whole issue has become muddied in CCSS implementation. At the highest level, CCSS could have been reasonably imposed by the Executive Branch as part of NCLB from the start to insure Interstate Portability…End of story, with the interpretation of the standards and subsequent curriculum development and compliance measurement being matters for state and local education authorities.

Instead, the US Department of Education has taken a passive-aggressive approach by offering CCSS as an optional way to score a waiver from NCLB and has offered curricular-like guidelines for their implementation that the Federal Government has no business doing. Educators across the nation have been doing their part to complicate things by misinterpreting the CCSS as a curricular mandate and playing pedagogical ping pong with the Common Core for at least a couple of reasons.

Educators often take binary approaches to pedagogy and choose sides. The Common Core standards were written in language that seems to have bolstered some academics to think, “Aha! They are going to have to do it MY way now.” This position has a couple of flaws…first, CCSS is not a curriculum, and, second, jumping from standards to directions for instruction omits the concept of scaffolding. Educators have to teach the children, not just reinvent the world to be more consistent with a one-sided vision of pedagogy.

The other, quite valid, cause for debate is that the Common Core represents a very good first attempt at a set of education standards for the US. Like any other first draft, the CCSS will need to evolve to maintain their validity against the test of time. Unfortunately, today’s political game seems to be one of smoke and mirrors on the Common Core that is obscuring the fact that educators can escape accountability for the rest of the decade. At this rate, the reach of the NCLB waivers will undermine the educations of children as yet unborn. This is wrong.

November 15, 2014 at 11:44 AM Leave a comment

The Cart before the Horse… or How Not to Develop a Mission-Driven Education Service Delivery System

Education leaders and policy-makers are presuming knowledge they do not have yet when they address issues of weighted student funding, teacher effectiveness, and pedagogical best practices. Blunt instruments that capture the proverbial lightning rods on the education landscape have driven decision-making for so long that too many simply accept the truisms that “everybody knows…” Nowhere is there any evidence of information to build and fine-tune a mission-driven service delivery.

Education policy has followed a mythology around the uniqueness of the industry, its usual suspects, the established budget-busters, and good and bad pedagogical practices. Regulatory accounting and data reports do not yield the kind of information that is instructive or truly actionable. Rather, overworking of aggregate data implies precision in cost analyses and funding; test scores, attendance, and graduation rates become proxies for effectiveness in student outcomes. Absent standard data gathering on instruction, actual classroom practices defy validation.

Education is a service-delivery system that would benefit from the insight allowed in the case management model for information management. Taking a lesson from the healthcare delivery system, education should convert from a cost-plus system to student-centered accounting and data, which matches funding with expenses and narrative information about resource allocation as well as student outcomes. This approach would allow for a better understanding of relevant student cohorts, actual services delivered, appropriateness of resource allocation, and quality review of educational effectiveness. It could also be directly linked to educator practice analysis and effectiveness reports.

Student-linked data on instruction would allow for real research on pedagogy, which currently falls prey to whimsy despite the best of intentions. Pedagogical best practices tend to begin with reasonable ideas, often from scholarly hypotheses, and rapidly become diffused throughout the more progressive schools, begging the question of their authenticity. Professional development follows to ensure that everyone adopts these practices, and dissenters are cautioned to acquiesce or risk demerits on their evaluations. Collaboration turns into a verbal agreement that goes something like, “If we all do the same thing…the students will have to get the message.” Ironically, the latest best practice fad always seems to carry the claim that it is student-centric and personalizes instruction. In reality, it only guarantees that there will be no competing practices to dispute its superlative label when the data is collected on its effectiveness.

Student-centered pedagogy cannot be driven by educator beliefs or biases. Rather, a robust model calls for offering the full array of possible learning activities, at least within the limits of available human capacity and technology. Lessons that are not working for a student should be set aside while he or she pursues a variety of alternatives, such as different approaches to the current concept, outside explorations, searching for missing information to fill knowledge gaps, or getting the perspective of a peer tutor. Data should be collected throughout the process to support professional practice analysis. Ultimately, every student must have good educational outcomes for the system to declare victory.

The development of a student-centered database will not be easy. But the first step might be to acknowledge the degree to which educators are hamstrung by the current system. Every state has begun with Federal data requirements for the last 10% of education funding, and then cobbled a system for the other 90% around it. So, while state and local education authorities are autonomous in most of their decisions about their education delivery systems, the federal standards make data-driven decisions more difficult.

What is likely to remain true is that data standards should be driven by federal policy for consistency across all states. However, these standards should be developed to serve the needs of educators at the service delivery level, not just addressing the federal exigencies. This would suggest that the Department of Education collaborate with some number of states to build possible models for student-centered databases and fund demonstration projects in local school districts.

And, of course, the demonstration models must be persuasive of filling a need. This cannot be just another alleged best practice among administrators that is more trouble than it is worth.

November 10, 2014 at 1:17 PM Leave a comment

There is No Shareholder Value in a Built-to-Flip World

Paradigm shift is just another name for structural change in the marketplace. In the case of the Internet revolution, there have been seismic shifts in two out of four parts of the market at once…promotion and channels of distribution. The product and the price seem not to have been affected as much. Still, the technology upheavals have blown such a smoke-and-mirror show in the faces of the Wall Street pack that they have lost their vision for the future. A renewed interest in shareholder value is our only hope.

Flipping something in the market is fool’s gold. It is not even a zero-sum game, because as long as nothing remains in the long run except the fees paid to the brokers we will all be worse off. It triggers a slow downward spiral that cannot ever pay off in net, and, by the time anyone seems to notice it, the damages have already hit a dangerous level of acceleration.

So go the bubbles on Wall Street. Yet the world markets have been satisfied to ride the wave of a series of rising and falling tech stocks based on fads that hold the attention of the masses at any given time. “Getting” the new paradigm seems to presume that fundamentals no longer matter. Besides, no one under 30 has a prayer of a chance of connecting the words shareholder and value to anything meaningful.

The ugly secret to this game, besides its inherent uselessness, is that the only winners are insiders…not just fee-collectors, but the fund managers who have the clout to cheat and the arrogance not to care. Ironically, they are the keepers of capitalism, an economic game at which they totally suck!

Capitalism may have greed as its motivation, but it is not its own end game. And true capitalists wish to sustain themselves. Captains of industry build businesses that are meant to offer lasting shareholder value. They make real products, have a genuine competitive advantage, and reinvest profits in a research-based pipeline of next generation products to stay viable. They do not invest in 19th century work conditions in third-world countries and sit on their offshore profits while lobbying for yet another round of tax relief.

Yeah…this falls under the heading of Special Rants. I went to business school and worked in finance once upon a time. I got interested in education as a problem-solver. Yet one of the most frustrating aspects of education reform is the ability of tech toolies to continue to manipulate educators like kittens stalking a laser beam with newer and better apps while we continue to ignore our own fundamentals. Flipping through fly-by-night pedagogical tools is not reform.

Systemic change in education is not just possible, it is essential. We have the ability to use technology to eliminate obstacles to broad-based pedagogy and to inform ourselves with real data about finance, student outcomes, and educator effectiveness. Reinventing the business systems behind education can free us from the mythology that keeps educators trapped in myopic visions of success, dysfunctional management, and service to the bureaucracy instead of the mission of educational excellence.

October 25, 2014 at 10:58 AM Leave a comment

What’s Up in Holyoke? Privacy, Freedom of Speech, and Due Process under Fire

A teacher has been fired for speaking out against district administrators in Holyoke. Or at least the Commonwealth of Massachusetts thinks there is probable cause to investigate. His offense? Revealing that students’ names and test scores were being exposed on a data wall…then releasing the PowerPoint presentation in which teachers were directly instructed to include the students’ names. Opportunity, action, and intent on the part of the school district to violate the privacy of the children are in evidence.

Our children are our future. And our schools are on the front lines teaching those children about democracy, civil liberties, and citizenship. Unfortunately, in the Holyoke case, the teacher’s rights to freedom of speech and due process appear to have been flagrantly violated. In addition, the children’s rights to privacy have been encroached upon. Most details of their growth and development are protected from scrutiny in matters ranging from intellect to discipline until they reach legal adulthood at age 18.

Let’s start with the schools and their possession-with-intent-to-distribute of very personal data on children. In the era of Big Data, interpretation of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) already has left parents, guardians, and children vulnerable to a couple of gaps in privacy guarantees. The first is the definition of directory information, which can be distributed without permission; the second is the waiver of prior consent for “…a contractor, consultant, volunteer or other party to whom the school has outsourced institutional services or functions.” In either event, FERPA has a bad nudge.

Parents get disclosure of policies or contractual arrangements with a brief window for them to prohibit access to their children’s data. It would be far better to offer parents a one-click opt IN if they wanted their children’s privacy rights to be violated, not requirement of an opt OUT action to keep data secure. Passive responses should protect the kids but, in reality, FERPA errs on the side of protecting access to the kids’ privileged information on behalf of public information requests or private consultants who mine data.

Holyoke school officials went the next step to provide the kids’ names and test scores expressly to subject them to intrusive offers of motivation and intervention in public and did so without prior notice. This action also left the students vulnerable to embarrassment or mockery regarding their achievement or lack thereof. When first exposed, the District issued a denial. When cornered, they retaliated against the whistle blower.

The Holyoke school teacher in good standing who led the protest against the inappropriate disclosure of students’ identities and test scores lost his job. Due process for teacher termination had been defined for tenured teachers; however, the teacher in question had not earned his access to those internal protections yet. He needed the Department of Labor Relations to intervene, which they have now done.

As for Freedom of Speech, that may remain in question within the Holyoke Public Schools for some time to come.

September 12, 2014 at 10:30 AM Leave a comment

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