Friday
May232014

Driving Nails With Scissors 

There was a bill that that was going through the Vermont legislature this last session, H.883, which proposed to consolidate Vermont school districts. It would have eventually reduced Vermont’s 270 districts down to 50. Advocates pointed to long term cost savings, better ability to serve students, and equality of funding. Opponents cast doubt on these points and mourned the loss of local control. H.883 went back and forth, got diluted, and eventually died in the House at the eleventh hour. And there was much rejoicing.

My take is that we are trying to solve the wrong problems. I see this debate as people trying to drive nails with a pair of scissors and arguing about how to sharpen the scissors.

First, everyone is missing the point on funding, both in terms of amount and equality. Taxation ought to be based a person’s ability to pay. We tax people for school funding according to the value of their real estate holdings. Sure, through Act 60 we have shared money across towns and income adjusted to some extent, but the system is a kludge. The saying is that it took the tax burden off of poor people in poor towns and put it on poor people in rich towns.

Taxing people according to real estate value worked a century or more in the past, when income was hard to track and most people farmed. Real estate value was a decent bellwether for income; more acres equaled more crops. Now the situation is inverted. Few people farm, income is easy to track, and there is no strong connection between real estate value and ability to pay. With your average dairy farmer it is inverse. Current use taxation helps, but let’s just admit it: the most income sensitive tax is an income tax.

We should be collecting all education tax as an add-on to the income tax at the state level. It would be collected by the state but it would belong to the schools. It should be distributed to schools on a per pupil basis, with a multi-year rolling average to prevent funding shocks. We could put aside a percentage as a dedicated education rainy day fund to even out economic dips.

From H.883:

“At the same time, technology and globalization and other societal demands are changing what our students need to know and be able to do in order to contribute to building a strong economic and civic future for the State. Notably, our students need to acquire what are generally called “21st century skills,” which include the ability to innovate, adapt, handle nonroutine problems, reason from evidence, synthesize and analyze complex data, work confidently with technology, collaborate in teams, and communicate effectively through a variety of media.”

Our schools aren’t designed to do this. The fundamental structure of the K-12 school hasn’t changed in a hundred years or more. I once heard it said that our schools are doing a wonderful job – of training the farm kids of the 1890s to do the factory jobs of 1910. The present structure is focused on obedience, repetition, tolerance of boredom, alienation from nature and community, fear of failure, obsession with time limits, and the categorization of students according to the needs of moribund heavy industry. Most schools resemble medium security prisons and operate much the same, despite the best intentions of educators. The structure, both physical and rule-based, overwhelms the occupants.

And what about those time limits?

Here are a couple of statements I think everybody can agree on: Each student learns a subject at a different rate of speed. That rate will vary according to the sub-section of the subject being studied and the physical and mental state of the student at the time. A student will not learn all subjects at the same rate of speed. One student might have an easier time with math and a harder time with reading and another student just the opposite.

Obvious to the point of utter banality, you might say. I agree.

So why do we force all students to learn all subjects at the same rate of speed? Most states define a school year at 180 days. We can observe that some students master a subject in far less than 180 days. They get bored and waste time. Others might need 200 or 250 or 300 days to master the same subject. They are rushed through the subject matter, tested, branded as failures (or partial failures), and spit out the other end of their grade level to endure the frustration and humiliation again the next year.

I read a parable somewhere about an infant learning to walk. The kid grabs onto a table leg and pulls herself upright. She lets go, takes a few wobbly steps, and falls down. At this point she realizes that she is a failure at walking and crawls on all fours for the rest of her life, as we all do. Of course not. She grabs onto the table leg again and repeats the process until she can walk. Short of an actual physical disability, she will eventually walk, run, jump, and scare the crap out of her parents by climbing things. This is because small children don’t have a concept of failure. We have to teach them that. And we do.

One of the ways we do this is by imposing arbitrary time limits on learning. It’s useful for beating down children into a state of docile self-doubt and filtering for industrial productivity. It’s also convenient for administrators, but last time I checked we didn’t create and maintain schools for the convenience of administrators. Except that we do.

Another way we teach failure is through standardized testing. Standardized testing will not work until someone invents the standardized child. Until that mythical time we are merely distracting students and teachers from real learning. What we get are snapshots of a teacher’s ability to jam a student into an artificial framework under time pressure, and the student’s willingness and ability to be so jammed, combined with the student’s physical and mental state at the time of the test. It is like one of those snapshots that catches you with one eye closed and your mouth twisted into a palsied rictus.

We should get rid of grades and grading. Segregating students by age and ramrodding them all through academic material at the same speed is patently idiotic. We all know this is unrealistic, and yet we accept it. Testing them all on a particular day at a particular hour and considering this an accurate indicator of their mastery of a subject is just as idiotic. A student should be able to study a subject until he or she achieves mastery of it and then move on. Perhaps a particular student might take four years to learn what we now call 9th grade reading. At least the student ends up being able to read.

To consolidate, or not to consolidate, that is the irrelevant question. Fifty school districts based on the present educational foundation would be just as abusive and pointless as 270 districts. It’s an administrative question, not an educational one. Those fifty putative districts would be just as poorly funded.

We need to look past the wreckage of our present system, think about what outcomes we want for the children of Vermont and build schools based on how children actually learn.

Saturday
Mar292014

Rumble Strip Vermont 

I’d like to bring your attention to a remarkable website. True, it was created by a friend of mine, but I have always had the option of ignoring it. I visited it just recently and it was so much fun I thought I’d share it with you.

The site is Rumble Strip Vermont and it is run by Erica Heilman. Erica records conversations with people, edits them, and puts them online. Professionally she is a private investigator, although you’d never guess it when you meet her. This is probably one reason why she is a good investigator. She’s a great conversationalist, which is what her kind of investigation is all about.

The result is a lot of seemingly ordinary people talking about their lives; hobbies, professions, tragedies, thrills. It is the amazing contained in the quotidian.

The latest installment is some pieces about a local institution, Thunder Road. Thunder Road is a quarter-mile oval track next to a steep hill with concrete bleachers and a beer-drinking and picnicking area above. All our local heroes come out on Thursday nights to drive dangerously and bask in the best glory – fame among friends. Erica gets the story and gets the story right.

Stop in at Rumble Strip Vermont and enjoy. Keep stopping in – I’ve never been disappointed.

Wednesday
Mar052014

Intervention 

So, a nation that was once a semi-autonomous region of a declining empire has something in between a popular uprising and a coup, bringing in a new government hostile to the nearby large nation with a serious military. Said superpower sends in troops on the pretext of protecting members of its society living in that turbulent nation. World leaders in general react negatively, but there’s not much they can do, as the invading nation has a large military and nuclear weapons, as well as a certain amount of economic leverage.

Of course, by now you have now guessed that I am writing about Grenada.

Grenada? You know, the island nation in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela where they grow lots of nutmeg. The one we invaded.

I’ll refresh your memory. Grenada spent a couple of centuries as a British colony before inching its way to independent Commonwealth Nation status in 1974. In 1979 the New Jewel Movement, a Marxist political party, overthrew the elected government and took power. In 1983, a faction of the NJM that thought that the governing group wasn’t Marxist enough had another coup.

At this point the bone of contention with the U.S. was a long runway being built by American, European, and (gasp) Cuban contractors. The Grenadians and Europeans (along with a U.S. congressional investigation) said it was for commercial jets full of tourists. The Reagan administration said it was for military cargo jets full of arms for leftist Central American revolutionaries.

Then there were the medical students. There were a number of U.S. citizens studying at a medical school on the island. When interviewed just before our invasion they said that all was calm and that they were studying for midterms. Reagan decided that they needed rescuing. More accurately, that rescuing them was an excuse that would play well with the slack jawed masses at home.

On October 25th, 1983 we sent in a military force that also included some troops from nearby island nations. It was pretty much a rollover.

Sidebar: As the invasion commenced, Reagan got a call from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, telling him that an invasion would be a violation of international law and an unforgivable attack on the sovereignty of a Commonwealth nation. Consider: When the woman who sent her military to the Falklands, the woman who works in a government that includes Her Majesty the Queen, tells you that you are being too imperialist, listen. Reagan lied to her, as was his habit. Maggie found out about the invasion from other sources. So much for the special relationship.

The United Nations denounced the invasion as "a flagrant violation of international law" in a lopsided vote, with some U.S. aid dependent nations abstaining. Reagan made an offhand comment about the vote not upsetting his breakfast.

We installed a friendly government, which prosecuted the former government and handed out 14 death sentences, and all has been quiet since then. Oddly enough, the Grenadians named their new airport after the Marxist leader who had been killed in the coup of the more Marxist Marxists.

Which, of course, brings me to the Ukraine, Russia, and all that. Putin is a few hairs shy of a dictator, but a popular elected one in a country with a long history of one man rule and a combination of paranoia and resentment towards the west. Ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich was no gift to clean politics either. The opposition that ousted him was violent and is still riddled with fascist elements. There are indications that the U.S. was and is backing the opposition movement. And so on. The situation is short on black and white.

Putin has scored big points at home and has both Europe and Ukraine by the (short hairs) natural gas pipeline, so he’s feeling good about life. He will learn what all invaders learn; the lesson of the dog that actually catches up with the garbage truck he’s been chasing. Once he has the bumper of a huge truckload of stinking political garbage in his jaws, what does he do with it? The markets have spoken, with a drop in the Russian stock market obliterating something like 10% of its value. (Also a rise in interest rates.) The madness of dealing with a factionalized and passionate group of citizens will become apparent soon enough.

For sure, invading other countries is a bad thing. However, John Kerry and others can SMETFO (spare me the false outrage). Kerry’s statement that Russia shouldn’t just invade another country on trumped up pretenses made him the ultimate straight man waiting for the punchline. I’m not just talking about Iraq, or even Iraq and Grenada. The U.S. and Russia/USSR, along with all of the other great powers in their times of power, have spent their time destabilizing smaller countries, fomenting coups, and outright invading. It’s not right, but let’s not look at the Russian invasion of the Ukraine as some kind of sui generis event. And again, with emphasis, spare me the false outrage.

Sunday
Feb162014

A Case of Mistaken Identity 

I drove a friend of mine to the dental surgeon last week. He had to undergo one of those episodes of high-tech carnage that rebuild the jaw. It involved bone paste – I’ll leave it at that, and you’ll thank me. It required heavy sedation, of course, so I was to pour him back into the car and get him home afterwards.

I left him with a 20-something female nurse, ran an errand, came back, waited an hour, and then the nurse brought me into the operating room. My friend was still in the chair, a touch of blood on his lips, utterly stoned out of his kug. Whatever they had given him had done the job. He was hobnobbing with the Mars Rover, or maybe Voyager 1, out in the heliosheath. But I digress.

The nurse started to explain to me the sequence of aftereffects of the surgery and asked me to wait for the surgeon. He came in, dressed in his scrubs. We introduced ourselves and he said, “Let me show you what I did.” He ignored my queasy protest that it wasn’t necessary and brought up an x-ray of my friend’s jaw on a huge screen. I learned some things about modern dental surgery, luckily without any detailed graphics, and then he launched into the necessary details of my friend’s care and feeding for the next week or so. Ice packs, Ibuprofen, swelling, Vicodin, lukewarm mush, the works. I nodded, wondering why I needed to know all this.

I filled my pockets with gauze and ice packs and the nurse and I raised my friend onto his wobbly legs and guided him through the hallways towards the front door. We stopped to let him use the rest room. The nurse and I waited. After a pause she said, “So, are you two…….related?” Two things occurred to me.

One was the realization that she and the doctor thought that we were a gay couple. Ok, a guy in his sixties with no wife or children on his “In case of emergency” form gets brought in by a guy in his fifties. A slightly younger man who was quite gentle and solicitous about helping his temporarily dizzied friend down the hall.

The second, more important thing was that they did not care. In the internet meme parlance, “And not a single shit was given that day.” All they cared about was that my friend used his ice packs and stayed away from crunchy foods. Our relationship, whatever they thought it to be, was irrelevant beyond irrelevant. The nurse was asking out of basic human curiosity, no more.

I explained that we were old friends, and that he lived down the road from me. Maybe I explained a little too much. Not that it mattered. I could have fabricated a story about getting married and she would have sincerely congratulated me.

Later, when my friend had returned from geosynchronous orbit, I told him about it and he laughed. “Yeah, I get that sometimes.”

It’s just a mildly amusing anecdote, but it is also a data point. Here in Vermont, at least in this professional office, we seem to have passed some threshold of acceptance. Beyond acceptance, indifference. I thought it was a big deal when the Vermont legislature passed the same-sex marriage bill and a friend of mine called another friend of mine (the woman she loved) from the House chamber and proposed. Well, it was.

However, in a way it seems as if this non-incident, this kind of unheralded non-event is even a bigger deal. We’re not at the gates of utopia yet, but I am sure that other non-events like this are happening all over the state, every day. Every such act of recognition and friendly indifference is the swing of a mallet, driving bigotry another sixteenth of an inch into the ground. Perhaps we are actually moving towards a time when gender orientation will become so much background noise.

Wednesday
Jan292014

SOTU 2014

Might as well join the herd and weigh in. I told myself that I wouldn’t watch the State of the Union Address, but with the same kind of twisted motivation that makes people poke at a sore spot, I did.

I only caught the last 20 minutes or so. I read the text and then watched it partly with the sound on and partly with the sound off.

With the sound off, it was interesting to watch President Obama in top form – smooth, with familiar conversational gestures and expressions. It was also interesting to see him framed between the faces of VP Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner. Biden was the faithful Ed McMahon to Obama’s Johnny Carson. He was attentive and both mirrored and reacted to his boss as reinforcement. Boehner sat there with a restrained look of disbelief, a sort of perpetual “Jesus H. Christ, what is this shit?” He was restrained, nevertheless, with no eye rolling and appropriate applause when Obama trotted out the usual patriotic references.

Easy to miss: At one point Biden palmed a mint or candy into his mouth with nearly the deftness of a sleight of hand artist. Nearly. Points for on-camera audacity.

Visual and political differences aside, always remember: The man on the left was selected by millionaires. The man in the middle was selected by millionaires. The man on the right was selected by millionaires.

The President tucked it to the Republicans a few times, which was amusing. He mentioned the 40 votes against the Affordable Care Act in the House. That was a three-fer, nailing the GOP for obstructionism, wasting time, and impotence. He also pegged them on the minimum wage with a classic “When did you stop beating your wife?” line.

“In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”

Oh, the troops, riiiight. Let’s face it, in our present climate of military-worship you could tag the word “troops” onto the concept of eating dogshit on toast and people would at least consider it. Attached to “Let’s give America a raise!” it’s a winner. POTUS wins a prize for irrefutable emotional rhetoric. And, surprisingly enough, a good idea.

He gave a special hoist-with-your-own-petard shout out to ultra-conservative Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL) on the Earned Income Tax Credit, agreeing with Rubio that it should be expanded to give more assistance to single workers with no children. The camera switched to Rubio, who maintained what must have been the most difficult poker face in recent political history. Getting caught by surprise bipartisanship will hurt him with the knee-jerk base.

Much of the rest of the speech struck me as the usual blah-blah. He promoted his policies with the standard assortment of inspiring individual stories.

My heart did go out to Sergeant Cory Remsburg, who was nearly killed by an IED in Afghanistan. He is undergoing the slow and painful process of rehabilitation. At the SOTU he was also undergoing use as a stage prop. There’s a fine line between being celebrated and being exploited, but yes, the White House went over it. Solid bipartisanship here, though. The Republicans have been shamelessly waving “the troops” in our faces since the dark ages. What truly frosts my heretical ass, though, is that Sgt. Remsburg could have stayed home.

My ultimate response to all the hoopla is this, and journalists take note: A press conference (or speech) means being lied to in public. “Access” means being lied to in private. At least with access you get to expense out a meal.