Do We Actually Hate The Poor?

I’m confused.

Those seeking to balance budgets seem to believe that cutting home heating assistance to needy families and denying organ donations to those who don’t have the cash to afford them can solve all of our nation’s problems.  The wealthiest amongst us (and this includes more than a few of our Presidential candidates), seem to believe that poverty is simply the result of a lack of resolve—everyone in America, after all, can be a millionaire (or Presidential candidate) if they work hard enough.  Those venting their rage at the Occupy Wall Street protestors are showering those camped out in tents across the nation with invective and—no kidding—job applications for McDonald’s.

Judging from the coverage doled out by so many of our national media outlets, the soul of our nation is in play.  It’s Us against Them.  The battle of The Winners versus the Losers is on.  Free-spending liberals are fighting to the death with fiscal conservatives.


The harsh fact of the matter is that 1 out of 6 Americans now live below the official poverty line, and even those with jobs are experiencing levels of basic economic insecurity not seen since the Great Depression.  As a result, the innate human desire to believe we live in a fair world with reasonable rules is crashing headlong into the fear that the world is actually a cruel charade of justice that is systemically stripping us of all we hold dear.  This results in a lot of denial, unfocused anger, and head-spinning confusion that drives a lot of basically good people hunt for both someone to blame and someone to provide them with salvation.

Which leads to yet more baloney.

Making it more difficult for 1/6 of Americans to eat isn’t going to put us on the path to economic strength.  The futures of Greece, Italy, and Spain are likely going to have a lot more influence on our futures than whether it’s toaster waffles or Cheesy Mac on the dinner tables of America’s neediest.  By the same token, those friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens who need our help aren’t going to become any more hardworking if our leaders strip them of their remaining dignity in order to “teach them a lesson”.  The ability to differentiate between the victims and the perpetrators should be a prerequisite for elective office in America, but it is clearly not the case at the present time, so we go on blaming those who are suffering the most for causing the problems—which doesn’t help to solve anything.

We don’t need scapegoats; we need solutions.

However, actual solutions would require us to admit that we are short on both domestic villains and shovel-ready salvation.  And that would, as the classic expression goes, be a real bummer.  Any American leader who has the gall to point out that our economy is today not a lone behemoth—and instead is a terrifically large cork bobbing in an even larger sea of desperately interconnected corks—will likely to be hooted off the national stage by posturing politicos and pundits who insist we can simply look past the rules of economic reality.

Although promising to punish our “enemies” is a sure way to win votes, it fails to recognize that we live in a world drastically different from our favored rhetoric.  Pumping our fists and waving a six-shooter is not likely to produce thoughtful inquiry into how to negotiate the rough road ahead.  Allowing ourselves to be tugged from one disastrously incomplete explanation to another by so many of our political leaders ignores the simple fact we no longer sit atop a ruined world of post-war economies that we can rule.

Europe has not been a smoking pile of rubble for a very long time and, the recent problems of the Euro not withstanding, it will continue to be both our most important trading partner and a keen competitor for world markets.  In addition, Asia, by focusing on education and high valued-added industries for the past half century, is well on its way to becoming a major counterweight to our European partners and ourselves.  Could we ever have imagined just a few years ago that Europe’s leaders would be reaching out to China to help fund the bailout for Greece?  Our national wealth bought untold influence for many decades after the end of World War Two; the booming Asian economies now will be jostling for a seat at the table of the world’s political leadership commensurate with their prosperity.

Ours is an increasingly complex world that demands an ever more agile response to challenges that cannot be solved without a commitment to compromise and negotiation.  Many of our leading companies are well positioned to succeed because they have responded to new challenges by shedding the habits of brain-dead bureaucracies; our national political dialogue, by comparison, seems stuck in some distant time when dinosaurs with dog-eared rulebooks ruled the earth.

Is this the fault of poor people who just want their basic needs met, some hope for a better future, and the least bit of respect?

We are, as a nation, clearly broke and in need of fiscal discipline.  Do we need, however, to break our citizens in the process of balancing the ledger?  We can either recognize that we are all in the same boat or continue the process of pushing those we deem unworthy overboard in a 21st century version of human sacrifice meant to appease the fiscal gods.

I, for one, do not believe we will go this route.  Although some of our political leaders will continue to try to win votes by pointing fingers and dividing us for the purpose of creating blocs of voters who are both angry and pliant, I do not believe they will succeed in the long run.  We are bigger than the smallest among us—and I firmly believe we will remember that the dollars we spend to nurture our citizens through rough times are both investments in our nation’s future and, in the final analysis, simply the right thing to do.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( November 27, 2011


New Classroom Technology Is A Tool—Not A Cure

It seems like a no-brainer.  Invest in laptops, iPads, and other “smart” classroom technologies, sit back, and watch the learning take off.  Districts around the nation are ramping up their investments in classroom technology, and even seeking grants and property tax increases to fund the goal of “one student-one computer” in their schools, and this is presumed to be the magic beans that will make our primary and secondary school students excel in comparison to their higher-achieving peers worldwide.

There is, however, one problem that no one is quite sure how to address: There is, to date, virtually no empirical evidence that demonstrates computers in the classroom will, in and of themselves, improve learning.

Nonetheless, I am not arguing against an national investment in continuing to integrate computers into the fabric of daily instruction in our primary and secondary schools; I am instead suggesting that we remember computers are simply very powerful tools.  They are, unless combined with classroom and school policies that recognize the need for high learning standards, not the cure to all that ails our public schools, particularly in regard to preparing high school graduates for the increasingly competitive worlds of work and higher education.

As it stands now, according to a recent ACT study, only 1 of 4 students graduates from high school ready for higher education and, consequently, will likely struggle to master the higher order skills that many well-paid 21st century jobs will require.  This is, if you stop for even an instant to consider its impact on the future of our nation, a truly disturbing statistic.

Given that our world is daily becoming both more interdependent and more competitive, it is frightening that we are spending so much of our nation’s treasure on primary and secondary education to generate so little in the way of real results.  As much as we should applaud the accomplishments of the successful 25 percent, we need to focus on the at-risk majority who are, in fact, going to determine the actual future of our nation as both an economic power and a democratic society.

Why is it that classroom technology is not yet producing learning?  I believe the problem is similar to one experienced by untold numbers of desperately hopeful parents who cannot understand why their child keeps striking out with the new baseball bat they purchased—the harsh reality is that new equipment does not an All-Star make.  By the same token, the coolest new computer can make learning possible only if effective instruction is taking place.

A struggling student writer will produce a mix of fused sentences, comma splices, and sentence fragments clumped into one large incoherent paragraph—with or without a computer.  Although the word processing program can, like the umpire at that child’s Little League game calling a third strike, point out problems with a student’s writing, it is likely that little sustained improvement will take place unless proper technique is taught.

Unfortunately, it is still all too common that instruction in proper technique, at least when it comes to writing, will be only intermittently provided.  I once made the mistake of asking a middle school teacher in a district where I taught what punctuation and grammar topics were covered in their English classes, my intention being to avoid boring my high school students by re-teaching material they had already covered.

The answer stunned me: none.  Apparently, this teacher firmly believed that pointing out errors would teach children to “hate” writing; I suppose that the underlying notion was that her students would “enjoy” flunking out of Freshman Composition in college five years later.  If we expect our investments in classroom technology to improve student learning in our primary and secondary schools, we need to change our mindset about instruction.  Doing something correctly, whether it is writing an essay or solving an equation, is important.  To insist otherwise is to harm our young adults by tossing them, unprepared and unaware, into a world that is infrequently going to pass out rewards for “a good try”.

We can reap the full benefit of using computers in the classroom only if we remember that the fanciest machine is only as good as the mind using it.  Computers can build bridges to an infinite number of learning experiences that were impossible to imagine only a few years ago.  Thanks to classroom computing technology, the world is literally right at the fingertips of every student.

However, just as my iPad did not write this commentary for me, we need to keep in mind that the best technology is nothing but an especially bright mirror that can only reflect the learning that has taken place.  Regardless of the classroom tools our schoolchildren use today and tomorrow, our best hope for improving our high school outcomes will still be an insistence on rigorous academic standards.  If we fail to understand the benefits—and clear limitations of classroom technology—it may be “strike three” for yet another generation of American students.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( October 30, 2011

Why Not Hire Writers To Teach Writing In Our Schools?

I was recently asked an intriguing question: How do you improve the writing of high school students who are lagging far, far behind?  I know exactly what the questioner was hoping for, that I would trot out some lovely little system (preferably with a pack of worksheets) that could be used to magically transform students who cannot write a coherent paragraph into the highly literate young adults they desperately need to become in order to enter worlds of work and higher education that will readily discard those who do not measure up.

Unfortunately, the answer to improving inadequate student writing skills is a bit more complicated than that.

Obviously, there are mechanical aspects to good writing that must be mastered.  One cannot write well using commas (if any) as mere decorative elements stringing together a disjointed clump of sentence fragments.  Likewise, a failure to develop a higher order vocabulary makes it difficult to express concepts precisely, and many of the jobs that are being created today require an ability to clearly express oneself that exceeds what was sufficient even a generation or so ago.  The mechanical aspects of good writing can, with sufficient time and rigor, be fairly easily taught, which makes it even more inexplicable that so many students are failing to meet even this modest mark

However, there is an aspect to good writing that goes beyond the mechanical: the ability to think in a linear and logical manner under the pressure of the need to be nothing less than perfect.  This is where worksheets and gimmicky little writing systems fall flat and, although they seem great when the textbook company sings their praises, often turn out to be just time-wasting exercises in busywork.  As much as we might hope a teacher’s innocent exuberance about the wonders of the written word will somehow suffice to fill the gap, I believe there is a bit more needed.

Good writing is, as much as some may wish it to be otherwise, most definitely not a product of some intrinsic ability that educators need only to nurture with kind-hearted encouragement.  Good writing, like the ability to solve a theorem, is an exercise in logical thinking and rigorous skills application, and learning it requires practical and thoughtful direction from an experienced writer, which so many who spend decades teaching writing in our schools are not.

Think about it.  Although no school would ever think of hiring a football coach who had never played the game, it is incredible how many schools will hire someone to teach writing, often to our most underachieving students, who has never written at a level beyond mere class work or, just maybe, a handful of conference papers for the pre-converted, and those doing the hiring rarely give much consideration to a body of published work when looking for a writing teacher.

Why is this a problem?  Plainly put, writers know more about writing than non-writers, just as football players know a lot more about football than I do.

Submitting a piece for print, working as a business professional, or putting oneself out on the public plaza of the Web is the English teacher equivalent of strapping on a helmet and pads and learning on the field of play.  I love football, and I believe I know a lot about football from many weekends glued to the TV or sitting in the stands, but I would never presume to coach football because I have not played in college or, even better, the NFL.  I know a lot less than I would if I actually had played the game, and I am wise enough to know that a book or a workshop will never teach me what I need to know to teach young players who are in desperate need of expert guidance.

It is the same with writing.  Reading a book about business writing is vastly different than actually writing for business; attending a creative writing workshop is a world away from publishing a novel or collection of short stories; classroom expository writing exercises are quite different from having to create a PowerPoint deck to explain something to a roomful of time-pressured managers who are going to fire you if you fail.  If all you’ve ever done is taught writing, the chances are that you are simply not qualified to do so, no matter how many academic credentials you pile onto your résumé, although I am certain there are some exceptions to the rule.

If we are serious about improving student writing, we are going to have to stop insisting that a teaching credential is the only qualification one needs to teach writing.  It is time we started to reach outside the pool of those who have only an education degree and start to actively recruit those with broader professional experience as writers into our classrooms.  In the best of all possible worlds, we will find teachers who have both the necessary state license and significant writing experience; failing this, perhaps we need to find a way to bring published writers into our classrooms to be the expert resources that our struggling students need to sharpen their skills.

However, if you disagree, feel free to visit a doctor who has never actually treated a patient, use an accountant who has never audited a set of books, or trust your car to a mechanic who has yet to perform an oil change.

Also, I’ll be glad use my knowledge of football to guide your school’s team, but don’t blame me if the results are less than stellar.  After all, I’ve watched a whole lot of ESPN in my day.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( August 21, 2011

Rigid Ideology Is Impeding Our Search For Solutions

Left.  Right.  Liberal.  Conservative.  Big Government.  Small Government.

I never have been certain these labels are all that useful or informative, and it sometimes seems like the labeling itself leads to more confusion and controversy than clarity.  I believe a more useful and instructive way to examine the issues that face our nation and world today is to consider the balance between “rights” and “responsibilities”.  If we do so, I think that we may be able to better examine some of the apparently intractable public policy debates of today.

First, some definitions, obviously simplified for the sake of space.

Rights: that which is due to us as citizens (although some might argue whether actual citizenship is necessary for some rights).

Responsibilities: that which we must do in exchange for those rights (although some might argue that certain rights are free of any responsibility at all).

Now think of the two as ends of the same continuum.  In a world where we have all rights and no responsibilities, we could pretty much do what we like, when we like, with no regard for the needs of anyone other than ourselves.  On the other far end, in a world where we have all responsibilities and no rights, every aspect of our personal life would be secondary to the collective needs of others, and we will be entirely defined by our group identity.

Given that I’m an English teacher, it is easiest for me to define each world in terms of novels I cherish.  If I think all rights and no responsibilities, it conjures up The Lord of the Flies, a descent into individual depravity of the first order.  On the other hand, a world where the individual lacks even the basics of individuality and is captive to the power of an all-knowing, all-powerful central authority conjures up Orwell’s nightmarish, 1984 and all the horrors inherent in totalitarianism.

Clearly, neither extreme is acceptable, and the vast majority of us prefer to live in the broad middle, somewhere between the two ends of the continuum.  Perhaps if we apply this method of inquiry to one of today’s pressing problems, we can see how it might work out.

Consider, as an example, the hot button issue of the recently enacted national healthcare plan, or Obamacare as it has come to be known.

It would, it seems to me, be difficult to argue that citizens of the United States should not have the right to a basic level of healthcare, and we have a certain collective responsibility to relieve needless suffering, particularly when small amount of medical treatment could do so much.

Of course, this leads quite naturally to the question of just how much medical care we are entitled to receive as a right of citizenship.  Minor surgeries?  Major surgeries?  Plastic surgeries?  Modern medicine can lead to unimaginable complexity and equally unimaginable costs.  An open-ended right to healthcare could easily be a slippery slope to financial ruin, and our nation, not surprisingly, is currently struggling with our own budget-busting cost spiral.

It seems, therefore, there must be some functional limit to the right to medical care because we have an individual and collective responsibility to maintain the financial health of our country.  In addition, we must consider how we should manage our individual responsibilities for the costs of our care as part of our broader responsibility to maintain our nation’s economic stability.

Moreover, as part of the responsibility that comes with the right to healthcare, there are other pressing questions that arise as to whether we should encourage, or perhaps compel, citizens to adopt lifestyle choices that are congruent with better health outcomes or pay a penalty for behaviors that are known to lead to disease and illness.

Should we, for example, insist on higher payments, or perhaps restrict care, for smokers?  Should users of illegal drugs or alcoholics have the same right to the level of care we would give to someone who spent their lives abstaining from drugs and tobacco while exercising regularly?  Do we even want to give bureaucrats the power to limit our right to medical treatment, or do we feel that the right to care is independent of individual choices and circumstances?

How then, do we balance the right to health care with the fiduciary responsibilities that come with citizenship, and does it advance the debate by discussing rights and responsibilities instead of turning this issue into yet another endless and divisive ideological battle?

The question of providing healthcare to our citizens shouldn’t be a question of liberal or conservative.  Nor should it be a debate about big government or small.  Insisting on one-size-fits-all solutions to every problem leads to nothing but stalemate, and we need to start being a lot more practical about balancing our rights and our responsibilities if we are to avoid the catastrophic problems popping up in nation’s all around the world.

More government is clearly not the answer to every question; however, private sector solutions are not suited to every need.  Rather than turn every discussion into a philosophical fistfight, we need to stop being so dogmatic and start being more results-oriented.  By continuing to insist that candidates for public office pass some arbitrary “litmus test” to prove they are ideologically pure to their respective voter blocs, we going to accomplish nothing but continue to put people into positions of power who enter their offices wearing blinders that restrict their understanding of the range of available options.

Should we be struck with a natural disaster, I don’t want a limited government ideologue to insist I find a private contractor to dig my relatives out of the rubble.  Likewise, I don’t want to a Big Government type to hand me a pile of forms requesting a rescue.  I just want somebody with a shovel.

Whether we are talking about healthcare, education, foreign policy, urban planning, national defense, or any other area of human need and endeavor, we need to find that solutions that provide the shovels we need to dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in as a nation.  I don’t want to spend another decade listening to tired right/left/liberal/conservative blather.  If we can start thinking about issues in terms of rights and responsibilities and leave the reflexive ideology on the curbside, I think we can start to creep forward; more of the same old nonsense will, however, doom us to arguing our way into national oblivion.

We have the right to expect that our leaders will be responsible, and we are responsible for making sure they do what is right.  And we need to do this now.  Jobs are disappearing at a frightening rate, and our nation’s bank account is way overdrawn.  Our national psyche is battered, and we’re too often left wondering whether our best days are well behind us.  If we insist that results, rather than brain-dead dogma, guide our public and private lives, we can get back to the “can do” attitude that once made America the envy of the world.  It’s time we got started on creating a tomorrow that weds common sense to the big dreams that made our country great.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( July 24, 2011

Why Are Policy Changes So Difficult Today?

Although it has become fashionable in some quarters to say so, I don’t think today’s Americans are any more selfish or shortsighted than we were in the past.  As far back as the earliest recorded bit of history, two things were true: Everyone watched out for themselves and their loved ones, and everyone expected their government—or king, or chief, or whatever—to engage in priorities that reflected their own values.  Whether our goal is to avoid insulting the gods or the bond market, we all want blessings to flow down upon us from the decisions of our leaders.

It does, however, seem a great deal more difficult than it once was for our leaders to make wise and just decisions that avoid arousing our collective wrath.  Perhaps, as some now say, it is because our leaders are more stupid and venal that in the past, but we can cast our view backwards across the broad vista of American history to find our fair share of fools and crooks in high places.  Perhaps it is because our problems are larger than ever before, but we’ve managed to muddle through some pretty miserable times in the past with both our nationhood and honor intact.  Perhaps it is because we have less of sense of community than we once did, but there seem to be plentiful examples of citizens working selflessly to improve the lives of their neighbors.

So why is it that we can’t seem to come to any resolution to our staggering national debt—the size of which recently resulted in an unprecedented downgrade of the U.S. financial outlook by Standard & Poor’s—or make seemingly common sense moves to simplify our Byzantine government regulations or tax code?  If we could once whip the Nazis and survive intact during the Great Depression, today why can’t we stop burying ourselves under mountains of bureaucratic pettifoggery and using our national credit card to splurge beyond our collective means?

I suspect there are two reasons why we seem like such a pitiful, helpless giant: our nation’s political atomization into myriad, and very well-organized, single issue interest groups and the high octane rhetoric of our mass media culture.  Unfortunately, each feeds off the other and adds to our sense of hopeless terminal gridlock.  Whenever a change—whether large or exceedingly small—is proposed, an army of experts and a blizzard of press releases demonstrating the utter stupidity of the change is sure to follow.  If the proposed change does not succumb to a high volume howl of dismay, the next step is invariably to start flinging invective at those who disagree—a behavioral problem that affects the Right and Left alike.

Consider any suggestion to change a government policy.  Now follow the inevitable timeline of results:

First, whatever the reason for the proposed change, it is sure to find a cold reception somewhere from someone whose livelihood depends on fiercely protecting the status quo.  It might be a non-profit group, it might be an industry lobbyist, it might be an academic think tank, it might be a group of students or parents—it could even be an organization that promotes wooden fences over chain link ones.  Whether it is a registered political organization or an ad hoc group of citizens, for any suggestion that we add or change a regulation, cut or increase a benefit, or add or subtract from a particular line of a government budget, one can count on the fact that somebody’s ox is being gored.

Second, take a swing onto the media circus to predict doom.  Given that controversy translates into TV and radio ratings, most producers and hosts know it is imperative to pump up the volume by putting those who vociferously disagree in close proximity with little time to actually discuss the details of the idea, thereby promoting debate by one-liner.  Given the pressing need on both sides to “win” the encounter during the limited time they are on the air, the level of debate descends to diatribe almost instantaneously.  If you have to restrict your responses to only 10 seconds, a well-considered analysis that examines all the advantages and disadvantages in the context of our national interests is a sure loser.  Better to reference a story about a struggling family, spry senior, or photogenic child whose lives will be devastated by your idea.  That is how you demonstrate firm leadership in America when a camera or microphone is at hand.

Never mind the inconvenient fact that there is no idea in all of human history that has offered that perfect mythical mix of all advantages and absolutely no disadvantages.  Context and reasoned conversation are for saps.

In closing, as the final nail in the coffin of informed and courteous conversation, attack the motives and character of the person or group who disagrees with your idea.  If you’re attacking from the Right, phrases like socialist agenda, Big Brother, irresponsible spending, or naïve beliefs are handy conversational tics.  If you’re attacking from the Left, heartless indifference, sacrificing our children, callous statement, or balancing the budget on the backs of the poor/seniors/government workers /our ecosystems can be inserted into almost any conversation to impugn anyone with an idea different from your own.

If you are unlucky enough to occupy the middle ground, you can enjoy the cozy sensation of being walloped from both sides while trying to play the peacemaker—which is one of the reasons why the broad middle of the spectrum of ideas is so underrepresented in our national political debate.  Why would we possibly be interested in anyone trying to build a workable coalition that transcends ideology?  They are wimps who aren’t demonstrating 21st century-style leadership.

We’ve got some big problems hurtling our way, not the least of which is that we are, as a nation, flat broke and staring at a future markedly grimmer than we could have imagined only a few years ago.  The only way we are going to be able to get through the years ahead with some semblance of our political culture intact is to stop shouting—and start speaking.  As naïve, socialist, callous, or irresponsible as some might surely say it is, we need to start listening, stop calling each other names, and begin a renewal of our society that respects differences of opinion and recognizes that many changes, while inevitably painful to some, will have to be made if we are to keep the great experiment of American democracy rolling forward.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( June 26, 2011