Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Wheel Turns

This wishy-washy editorial in the Times about public-sector unions may seem dreadfully vague. In fact, what isn't said is the clearest message of all. The problem is a serious one: collective bargaining over public pensions and benefits has quite literally bankrupted the state, with the smiling assistance of the governor himself. Now the towns are being stuck with the bill, and they aren't happy.

After several paragraphs setting up the problem, the writers finish off with this dreadfully jejune scoop of vanilla:
While mayors say they’re willing to pay more for pensions, many want the ability to shift their employees to defined-contribution plans that give them control over the costs. But will Democrats in Hartford defy their labor friends and rescue Connecticut’s underwater cities? Connecticut voters are only beginning to understand the damage from two terms of Mr. Malloy.
That kind of "we'll see!" conclusion is the crux of this biscuit. The Times, like all Democrat organs, is between the devil and the deep blue state policy. After generations of giving away the store on lavish salaries and benefits, nearly unbreakable job security, featherbedding, and underfunding state pension accounts, states like Connecticut (and New Jersey and Illinois and California -- seeing a pattern?) have an unfunded liability that is going to break the back of the budget in painful slow motion.

For years, governors of these blue states have borrowed against the future to win union donations and votes with little regard for the IOU coming due. These states are in major fiscal trouble, especially after the recession and no-growth recovery accelerated the problem.

Now to what the article says so clearly under its breath: Democrat governors, who have to balance their budgets, are on the other side of this issue from the national party. Party leaders like Nancy Pelosi are still preaching the model of happy unions, big spending, and welfare statism, while state Democrats like Andrew Cuomo have been getting awful nervous over the past 5 years or so looking at their bottom line. Others, like Connecticut's Dannell Malloy, just whistle past the graveyard.

The time will come soon, however, when the party will meet an impasse. The national Democrats will want to continue winning elections with union backing, while governors desperately try to dial it back to save their states from a Puerto Rico-style implosion. Some states are worse off than others. But all are under water -- except one: Wisconsin, where a Republican governor, Scott Walker, earned the undying hatred of the unions for exposing the fiscal shell game and putting the system on solid ground.

But not every state can count on a Republican to ride in and rescue it. Democrats will have to choose as well. Do they continue the spending spree, or do they too make the tough decisions? We'll see, indeed.

Saturday, January 27, 2018


I'm an educator. I didn't set out to be one. I wanted to be, at various ages, a musician, a researcher, a spy, an actor, a writer -- pretty much anything but an educator. I hated school, I hated teachers, and I despised the one-way thinking of American establishment education.

Somehow I ended up as an educator, partly out of economic necessity (what else does someone with two degrees in the liberal arts become?) and partly because I naively thought I could make things better. For the past 20+ years, I have written curriculum, tutored immigrants, taught Shakespeare to inner city kids, directed literacy programs from K-12, and coached college students who want to teach.

I've seen education from a lot of angles, and I've come to a one-sentence conclusion about it all: American education has confused formative assessment and summative assessment.

Formative assessment is what you look at along the journey to a learning goal. We're talking about getting a quick snapshot, a quantum of interim data that helps you adjust your curriculum or pedagogy on the fly. As a rule, it should be data-driven and specific. It should be binary; it should ask, are students getting it? Can my civics students name the three branches of government, yes or no? If not, I'd better reteach it -- probably in a different way, since formative data is most useful and accurate in reflecting the effectiveness of my teaching.

Summative assessment is, for lack of a better term, the final exam. We're now at the point of not being able to reteach. The course/semester/year is over. How did I do in getting my students from point a to point b? It seems to me that this data necessarily needs to be more flexible, more nuanced, more qualitative.

Again, I might want to know if my students can name the three branches of government -- but while I might ask them to take a quiz for formative assessment (i.e., name them), for the summative assessment I might ask them to write a song about them, make a poster about them, or stage a quick scene showing how they interact. Whether my students can name the three branches doesn't reflect my actual goal -- which might be to have students be able to work with that knowledge. (Getting them to name the branches is simply a heuristic to use along the way.)

Naturally, we tend to use the most inflexible method -- high-stakes multiple choice testing -- for summative assessment. And we use the more flexible and qualitative methods -- such as multi-intelligence portfolios and even intuiting from conversation -- for formative assessment.

This is backward and bizarre. What's more, you can take almost any contemporary problem in education -- teaching to the test, drugging "attention deficit" kids, excessive use of removal or suspension as a disciplinary tool, dismissing the arts almost entirely from the school day -- and trace it directly back to this single source.

And as far as tracing things back to a single source, the trend itself can be traced to the creation of the U.S. Department of Education. Once the federal government got involved, standardization was inevitable. Don't get me wrong. Standards are one thing. We should have some high expectations for educational outcomes. Standardization is another thing entirely. Standardization tends to happen at the lowest common denominator.

McDonalds meals are standardized, for example -- and there's very little love and pride that goes into the day-to-day creation of Big Macs in franchises across the country. That doesn't mean that the original idea of the Big Mac wasn't inspired. Think of it in conceptual form: a double burger with melted cheese, crisp lettuce, some pickles and onions for zip, and a tangy sauce to seal the deal. Sounds great! Put it on the menu of any bistro in the country. But in execution, it falls a little short of the concept, yes? By standardizing education, we made the same trade off.

The difference is that making a Big Mac without love or pride doesn't damage its self-esteem, blunt its creativity, or drive it to a state of grinding ennui. It's just a sandwich. But students, it's been said often before, are not widgets -- or mass-produced burgers. We can't stamp them out in a factory-style school, pour the right knowledge in their heads, and send the regional manager around twice a year to count the educational equivalent of the average number of sesame seeds on the buns.

The even more extraordinary element of the problem is that every superintendent in the nation would react with horror at the suggestion that we ought to McDonalds-ize the education of our children. I suspect that everyone at the Department of Education would nod at what I've written here. Every educator in the country would agree with that paragraph directly above.

The dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

As Long as We Are Wallowing in Guilt...

I've been listening to some lectures by Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has made waves of late. He has some interesting things to say about the psychology of the citizens of tyranny. Some of this we know already from Hoffer's True Believer -- the psychological gymnastics needed to justify simply trying to muddle through as a person living under a regime like Stalin's or Hitler's. The Solzhenitsyns are few and far between.

We all believe (but especially lefties!) that, living under such a regime, we'd be proud and brave dissidents. After all, they are resisting Trump -- what could be more courageous?  But Peterson's statement is stark: Bullshit, he says, 99% of us would be exactly the go-along-to-get-along schmucks that did not stand up to Hitler. Germans are not more evil than Americans in general (they just seem that way); in a similar predicament, Americans would behave the same way.

By a kind of tortuous process, this led me to thinking about moral struggles and how we are so often blind to the actual issues that matter. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, eugenics, Japanese internment -- all these travesties had tacit approval from majorities in America.

So what are the issues today? What are we blind to that future generations will condemn us for tolerating? A glance at the news on any given day would lead one to believe that "institutional racism" and "rape culture" are the two glaring failings of America today, the things history will chide us on.

I disagree. I think 50 years from now, those issues will be seen as overblown. We know with some certainty that the scare stats on rape culture are horrifically exaggerated -- a quarter of college women are not sexually assaulted except under a meaningless definition of the term. And as cooler heads have examined the race issue, it seems that black suspects are not more likely to face police violence. That doesn't mean that we have reached perfection. These issues deserve plenty of attention. (What history will remember, I think, is that we gave these issues too much of the wrong kind of attention.)

No, the two issues on which our great-grandchildren will judge us harshly are 1) abortion and 2) the mistreatment of animals.

Look, before we go further, let's get this clear. What has two thumbs and is a pro-choice carnivore? That's right. No fair calling me a tool of the religious right on this one. (If you have a beef, so to speak, you'll have to debate me on the merits.) Moreover, I don't think I'll change my opinion on either issue real soon. I may change my own behavior, but the incursion on freedom needed to change these practices, except by slow social change, would be unacceptable.

First, let's take on abortion -- you know, because it's such a clear-cut issue. I think that the right of a woman to her bodily integrity and self-ownership takes precedence in the situation. But that view that obtains right now, among abortion rights activists, is that abortion is a morally neutral act. I think this is blind and foolish. Now I don't intend to start a guilt campaign against women who choose abortion, but anyone who does choose such shouldn't do so with her head in the sand. I think that time and science will only bear out the idea that the fetus is human, capable of pain, and in a sense conscious. It may not be enough to change the calculus on legality -- at least in my mind. But the "clump of cells" rhetoric will come to seem monstrous in a few generations.

Second, the way we treat animals is clearly callous and in many cases shocking. I think factory farming gets the most attention, but that's just the tip of it. From animal testing to pet ownership to even the humane and Whole Foods-approved ranching practices that simply paper over the barbarity of animal ownership, the root here is the right to determine whether an animal lives or dies. I'll be blunt: if you see a moral difference between shooting your own dog because he soiled the rug and butchering your own cow for steaks, you are lying to yourself. In either case, a human makes a decision to end the animal's life at his own convenience.

Should we criminalize burgers? Should we lay a guilt trip on carnivores who own cute dogs? No. But we should recognize that taking an animal's life is not -- again -- morally neutral. Will I stop eating bacon? Probably not. But if I'm a 90-year-old getting shit from the 2060 answer to millennials, I'd like to think I'll say, "Fair cop, kid."

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Folgers is the new PBR?

Imagine my surprise. Listen, my family is foodie to the core. My family was foodie when hipster-foodie wasn't even a bulge in the trousers of the father of a future Brooklyn artisan pickle maker. I was raised on it, my adolescence magically matching up with America's sudden and widespread discovery of flavor, giving Betty Crocker the heave-ho. (Sidebar: Remember when Chinese food was exotic? Watch movies and tv shows from the 60s and 70s. Chinese food was damn exotic.)

My parents drink Folgers (note, no apostrophe), my brother's family does, and my sister's family too -- a family of winemakers, for god's sake. If anybody in my family had an excuse to talk through their nose about the aroma and body of their favorite brew, they certainly would. And my ex (that's the former Mrs. Enobarbus) used to be a die-hard fair-trade pour-over Sumatra sniffer. Buys the house brand at Target now.

Hence, my question. Has the coffee wave broken, leaving little tidal pools of cappuccino foam on the shore of American culture? Will the gourmet coffee business go the way of the cupcake shop?

I suppose it is a truism that when the hip becomes mainstream, it is no longer hip. (The aforementioned former Mrs. Enobarbus herself, in fact, had a rule that stated, roughly: if Mr. Eno has even heard of something, it cannot possibly be the dernier cri.) And a corollary (Razor, you can't tell, but I'm pronouncing that with accent on the second syllable) might be that, once the cultural vogue goes mainstream, the trendy rats not only leave the ship, they denounce it on the way out.

The PBR comparison is apt. As craft beer became mainstream, Pabst became a way of showing that you had a certain disdain for the hoi polloi joining in the fun. (No, that's too cynical. Perhaps, rather, it's a denunciation of what happens to the quality of the product thanks to mainstreaming.) Whatever else it was, it was a clear signifier -- drinking Natural Light would not send the same message, after all. If Joe Sixpack is drinking IPA now, I'm going to go pinch his six pack of Pabst. A bit childish, perhaps, but understandable.

So, now, whither coffee? Starbucks has not crumbled. In fact, I'm guessing they are quite secure. The new Dunkin' Donuts, if you will. But they no longer serve coffee, really. They specialize in coffee-flavored milkshakes and the paraphernalia to go with them. It's been building for a while, but it seems like the perfect moment for a serious coffee drinker to go fully retro. In fact, maybe Folgers isn't going far enough -- opt instead for a cup of mud, a splash of java, a big mug of ink. Hell, the hippest will have ditched their pour-overs and vacuum pots for an old school percolating urn, dribbling out a tarry hours-old sludge that burns the throat and melts the GI tract. (The kind of stuff we drank at my first office job. The boss would throw back a cup at 7:30 sharp, grab the paper, and head to the bathroom for the next 40 minutes.)

As always, I feel bemused, at best. Starbucks, to me, meant nothing other than standing in line behind someone whose order took longer to say than to make. If I get coffee out, it's from the gas station. And for brewing at home? I mean, I saw the brands proliferate in the grocery aisle, but The Ever Cheap and Reliable Eight O'Clock Bean stands out in its saucy red bag, so I never really had occasion to look around.

What, am I above it all? No, I'm just cheap.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Phantom Trilogy

Minor spoiler alert.  I just saw The Last Jedi today, and I'm gonna tell you, it's all splash and no heart.  Never a big J.J. Abrams fan, I was excited to see Rian Johnson take a turn at the helm.  I enjoyed his twisty sci-fi Looper a few years back, and his quirky little indie film Brick is one of my favorite hat-tips to noir style and dialog.

Sadly, eight movies in and we're still slavishly following these same characters around -- Leia and Luke, Chewbacca, even Yoda shows up.  But it's Luke in particular that drags the pic down.  He's always such a buzzkill with his brooding self-seriousness, and without a cynical rogue like Han Solo around to balance the force, as it were, you're left with a big lemon-suck.

All the new characters we met in The Force Awakens are back, but they are cardboard cutouts, moving the plot along but providing no depth, no emotion.  Even Kylo Ren's brooding (and, oh, does he brood) over a supposed betrayal by his onetime Jedi master feels perfunctory.  What could have been a great conflict is handled with trickery and shortcuts that steal the power of the relationship.  Rey is much blander than last time, and Finn and Poe seem to be there only to complicate the plot.

Interestingly, on their sideplot to nowhere, Finn's sidekick Rose steals the goddamn movie.  A new character, she is genuine in a way that we haven't seen in this franchise since the early days, even if her love for the resistance is a little meta.  (She's like a rebel alliance fangirl.  You almost expect her to bust out original trilogy action figures.)  But she's cool and gets one of the better scenes of herism.

Speaking of what was genuine in the early pics, why all the fawning over the raggedy old humans but no love for our favorite droids?  I've always believed that the original arc of the Star Wars universe necessitated a series in which R2D2 and C3PO were the through line, the real main characters.  The rebellion revolves around them almost as if they were narrators.  They speak the first lines in the films.  And they can continue on as the other characters lived and died, just as it is implied that they have a history with the rebellion before they ever meet up with Luke.  (I think this was addressed in the second trilogy.  Frankly, who cared.)  And they are perfectly picaresque characters, uncannily showing up in the middle of every major moment in the rebellion like little Forrest Gumps.

Until now, that is.  Sadly, they are no more than window dressing here -- appearing for a momentary cliche, and then being brusquely shunted aside like last year's iPhone for the bouncy and bubbly antics of BB-8, who is nowhere near having a personality.  C3PO gets one chance to be an officious protocol droid and R2D2 gets a quick reunion with Luke.  Done, and done.  (Anthony Daniels's lines sound like they were literally phoned in -- on a flip phone, from his sofa, perhaps, on some or other Monday afternoon.)

Look, Star Wars was a big enough moment in my life that I had to see this one -- just as I will see the next.  But it's all getting a little threadbare.  My favorite thing about Rogue One was that they broke so fully away from the canonical characters into a self-contained story.  More of that, please.  Perhaps the ninth movie will be the charm.  After all, everyone we knew from the earlier trilogies is now dead.

Maybe now we can move on, for god's sake.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Expert, Schmexpert

Why does the American faith in education experts persist?

If you went looking for the foundations of the electromagnetic field concept, who would you expect to find there – a famous scientist and Royal Society member, or his self-taught valet and sometime lab assistant?

If you were searching for the person who kicked off the public health revolution in mid-1800s England, you might look for a forward-thinking doctor. But you’d be wrong. Instead, look for a philosopher and his assistant, both trained in the law. And the mental health revolution, half a century later, was launched not by a physician, but by a former inmate of a mental hospital.

In the late 19th century, if you wanted to perfect an efficient incandescent light bulb, you might have gone to the best educated scientists for help, but probably not to a semi-educated tinkerer in New Jersey. Why?

Someone interested in an economical operating system for the emerging personal computer market might also have asked the experts, perhaps at IBM. But IBM themselves got theirs from a college dropout whose software business was barely out of his garage.

When nobody bought the electric cars coming from the teams of experts at GM and Nissan, Elon Musk, a software businessman and PayPal investor, pushed them aside with the Tesla.

What about something big, like the moon shot? Didn’t it take experts to do that? Well, it certainly took a pile of money that only a government (big fan of experts) could provide. But once the technology was democratized and the costs came down, true innovation in space travel came not from NASA, but from a guy with an online bookstore.

And yet we still believe that the experts will give us the education (or health care!) system that we want.

The fact is, there’s a tried and true paradigm for getting what we want for our money: A few years ago, Apple put out their latest iPhone, but everyone bought the Samsung instead because of the big screen and a great camera. Can you guess what features Apple put on its next phone?  If you said a bigger screen and better camera…

Imagine if this was how schools worked. They offer possibilities, and we respond by buying what we want. Foreign language immersion? Project-based learning? STEM-focused curriculum? If you want it, schools will provide it (and more schools will provide it if they see consumers rushing to schools that already do) – but only if the experts stop dictating what schools can do and where all the education money goes.

The common refrain is that education is too important to leave “to the market.” That case can be made for nutrition, too. But still we let corporations provide our food. Hell, we let parents decide what their kids eat. Where are the cries for a government-provided, thrice-daily gruel – exactly how many calories you need to clear the bar and no more? After all, in educational terms, that’s what our government schools serve up, day after day.

“Expert advice is indispensable to the democratic process,” wrote Harry Rosenfield in the Spring 1949 Antioch Review. “But it is not a substitute for that process.” The best illustration of that process would be millions of Americans voting … with their pocketbooks.

More: To paraphrase Michael Strong, imagine if the education system we had now was something we had paid an education company to build for us – think of an education Halliburton.  Be honest: wouldn't we look at that system ... and call for that company to be fired?