Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A 2013 Public School Odyssey

Yesterday I went against the grain by trying to do something simple: visit my son at his school during a holiday function. I did so between teaching classes in the morning and attending a meeting in the afternoon. Here's what it looked like: 

10:40 am: finish teaching

11:00 am: finally exit parking lot after waiting for second wave of buses to clear 

11:45 am: arrive at my son's school after being delayed for 15 minutes in traffic 

11:55 am: finally reach my son's classroom after going through security

12:40 pm: depart my son's classroom 

1:10 pm: arrive at my afternoon meeting location - another school in my district

1:22 pm: actually arrive in my work location after walking around a large suburban high school looking for an open door 

The security procedures for entering a public school during the day when one doesn't work or learn there are numbing. You must be buzzed in through a locked door, submit photo ID, sign in, apply a badge with a photograph of you, return the badge . . . it's a lot. 

Our procedures for securing schools have intensified in the wake of a decade and a half of chilling tragedies in school houses. These procedures also represent a response to the danger that someone who has no right to be with a particular child might try to take that child during a school day. Prudent concerns. Are our measures to prevent them excessive? Do these measures reveal an arrogance in our ability to control against every conceivable tragic circumstance? Can we prevent every tragedy. 

I am saddened at the end of the day in which we could more easily allow the community and schools, parents and teachers, to interact. I guess it is necessary. And I understand the mentality behind these measures. One expert I heard from recently pointed out that there has been not a single fatality as the result of fire in a school since 1949, as a result of instituting regular drills for fires. Wouldn't it be good for us to someday say we haven't lost a student since 2012 (or a teacher since 2013) due to violence in the schools? Still, I remained saddened at the tradeoff: safer schools for greater rigidity. Sadness comes, also, from knowing that I can't say safest schools for this tradeoff of rigidity. 

58, or 60, not that I am counting

Today marks the first weekday where school was closed since we were closed for Rosh Hashanah in early December. That means 58 consecutive days (excluding weekends) that we have had school. We are now 60 days into a 184-day school year. Toward the end of this grueling run I could sense how I was running out of steam, how it was becoming hard for me to spool up the creativity to put together compelling lessons. The students, too, I could tell were worn out. 

I work with good students. They're adolescents, though, and as such they exhibit behaviors that frustrate. And toward the end of a 58-day slog they have less ability to suppress those frustrating behaviors. If a student were writing this blog, they would probably be noting how teachers were having a harder time suppressing their grumpy behaviors. 

Teaching is an intense job when it's done well. The teacher is consistently on the spot, with somewhere between 20 and 30 eyes on them at all times, with the pressure of making every minute of a 90-minute block count, acting with the knowledge that you must measure the words you use with the children of other parents. Compound this with the mounting list of proscribed strategies and mandates our higher-ups (in building and in Harrisburg) mount onto our task lists, and it creates a pressure cooker. 

There's a little bit of a woe-is-me tone to this post. Let me step back. One can infer from my words that I'm trying to vindicate the great aspect of my job that is summer vacation, and those eight, nine, or ten weeks in the summer serve a therapeutic purpose in the educational orbit. I think it's more important for me to consider the way in which the pressures I see in my field exist elsewhere, too. Working too long, too hard, too intensely without a break has a tolls. It wears down the deliverers and the receivers. It takes a toll on judgment. Those of us fortunate to have jobs are working harder and with fewer colleagues than before the Great Recession. What kind of quality does society get from us when we don't have the time to think and take a breath? 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Could selfishness be a good thing?

About a month ago, a small article caught my eye, the results of a survey about Libertarian political identity. Here is the Reuters report. I remember some sort of op-ed riffing off of these findings, but I can't locate it now, or at least I can't pull one up from the wells of political opinion to which I normally refer. The basic upshot of the report is that libertarians tend to be well-off, non-Hispanic white males. If I remember it correctly, there was some current of journalistic opinion using this trend as a means of criticizing the libertarians (but perhaps I'm exaggerating).

Though I'm not a libertarian, I'm intrigued.

One libertarian I listen to often is Clark Howard. Far and away, he is my favorite financial literacy guru to listen to. He usually doesn't stray into politics, and when he does he strives to do so objectively. His approach to the Affordable Care Act (which one might think to be anathema to libertarians) is a good example of his approach. I do appreciate the humility and compassion by which Howard approaches his craft, an approach that defies a too-simple portrayal of what libertarians believe.

Is it possible that libertarians share a view on politics with one another because they come from a common position of privilege and wealth? Probably. I wonder, however, if this is necessarily a bad thing.

I also wonder if Libertarians have a goal of becoming a rival to the two major political parties. Perhaps they represent a group that looks to be wooed election-by-election by candidates who may wear the R or D label, the L label, or no label at all. And as such, they can exercise influence more like smaller parties do in multi-party political systems, where coalition governments are the norm.

Selfish political advocacy, tempered by humility and objectivity, might be an antidote to our stalemated political times. Have the past few years been colored by politicians who think their point of view, if it prevailed, would be best for everybody. Is that what has led to the political brinksmanship of the past year or so? Would the shut down have occurred if politicians would have looked for common interests shared across party lines rather than slippery slopes that spelled the end of capitalism or democracy.

If I were to sit down in a room with 37-year-old married dads, I think we would have a lot in common with one another on political matters. Our political views is shaped by what's most important to us relative to where and how we live. I think Lincoln once said that "where you stand depends on where you sit" (though it seems the world wide web attributes that to Nelson Mandela, and most websites debunk the notion Lincoln said it himself). A coalition of 37-year-old dads would probably want good schools, a tolerant society, a fair chance for my kids to get ahead, and less expensive college tuition. Are any of those things bad on their face? No, but getting those things does involve some cost to someone somewhere.

I can do this with other cohorts in which I see myself: Lutherans, teachers, history nuts, economics thinkers, and so on and so on.

Is it a problem if my views change over the next decade? Does that make me hypocritical. I don't think so.

Would politics be bettered by individuals coming to think of themselves as parts of small cohorts, exchanging ideas and engaging in compromise-driven trade-offs to solve political dilemmas? Perhaps. I'm sure it would be better off if individuals stopped thinking that what's good for them is good for everyone, and instead accepted the fact that 27-year-olds might look at a situation differently than a 47-year-old, but that on some issues there is a middle ground.

I guess I'm calling for pragmatism, which is in short supply in Washington. Selfishness blended with humility and compassion might seem paradoxical, but I think it could work when looking at political issues.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Ken Burns' tribute to it is at, a site worth checking out. 

I miss teaching a history class where I could've dwelled on the speech today. However, this particular speech was a hard one to teach in a history class. It's more an exercise in the beauty of language than anything else. A speech from this leader I preferred working with my students in interpretation was the 2nd inaugural address of 1865. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Sunday News

Over the weekend, a few pieces caught my eye.

Politico ran this complimentary essay on Charles Krauthammer. He's one of my favorite columnists to read, though I don't always agree with him and though I sometimes find his tone a bit too bitter. The essay mentions David Brooks, who I enjoy reading a bit more. It fails to mention Krauthammer's colleague at The Post, Michael Gerson, or Brooks' at The Times, Ross Douthat, whom I both prefer. Politico's essay features a contemptuously condescending (how's that for redundancy?) quote from Paul Krugman. I'm amused at how my money goes to support both Krauthammer and Krugman via my subscriptions. I'm also amused at how often those two columnists' opinions appear in my economics classroom.

Is it time I started italicizing Politico? It's becoming quite an impressive news source. It was the big deal in 2008 and it seems to have not lost too much momentum.

An analysis piece on the Affordable Care Act talks of the value in under-promising and over-delivering in politics. Funny, but I thought that was an idea conceived by Scotty from Star Trek. I appreciate the balance of the writing in this one. There are some interesting allusions to infamous moments from our recent presidents: Is this a "Read my lips" moment for the president? Or is this more like Katrina? What about "I did not have . . . relations with that woman?" The comparison that I found the most meaningful was the one between the president's mangled apology and one that was just as mangled by "The Great Communicator" (Ronald Reagan's tortured "my heart and intentions" apology on Iran-Contra). It makes me wonder if Obama will end up getting a pass on this one the way Reagan did on his. I guess it's an exaggeration to say Reagan got a pass on Iran-Contra. That scandal is an uncomfortable footnote on his presidency. But it's not a ruiner of his legacy, nor is Bill Clinton's impeachment a ruiner of his. After all, his comments this week on the "If you like it" pledge echoed very powerfully and forced the president's hand. The broken promise that most powerfully defined a presidency was George Bush's "Read my lips."

Isn't that funny. We are more apt to forgive Reagan's and Clinton's indiscretions than Bush's course correction on taxes?

Another interesting feature from Politico, this one about diversity in America. It speaks to a fascinating revolution in American demography. Reading this reminded me of an astute observation from The Economist in an article about the changing nature of colonial museums (surely, I can't be the only person interested in such trends): that the residents of Northern Virginia can claim descendants who were living on four different continents on the eve of Jamestown's founding in 1607.  

Holy cow! I just came across this essay by Drew Gilpin Faust and it's time to get ready for church! I hope to finish this later. The 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is Tuesday. If you get a chance, check out the readings by famous Americans at the site Ken Burns established for honoring that great speech. Stephen Colbert's is worth watching.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saturday News

I'm forcing myself to stay away from news on the implosion of Obamacare. It's encouraging feelings of schadenfreude that I'm best to avoid. Further, I think I need to just tune out Washington. After all, reports regarding the reaction of markets to the shutdown as reflected in the most recent jobs report, I think many of us are ignoring the juveniles in D.C.

So, when I challenged myself to find more intriguing news, what did I find?

Wow, here's a fun piece about a man who has prided himself on collecting a 1981 Chevy Citation X-11. I fondly remember some of these relics from my youth. My first generation of friends included a father who owned a Cadillac Cimarron, And though it sported the four-speed described in the article, Aunt Mim (who watched me after Kindergarten classes, would often pick me up in a more pedestrian four-door version of the Citation. Hers was white.

Political geography, how fun! I like the author's description of my home nation, The Midlands.

Please keep in mind that today is the 24th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment I remember that still gives me chills. Certainly today is the anniversary of a far grimmer event in that nation (Kristallnacht occurred 75 years ago today). It's fitting that BBC and Der Spiegel news websites are highlighting the latter, more tragic event rather than the one many of us can still remember.

Disruption in Higher Education

The New York Times recently had a neat feature about disruptive forces in higher education. It should be here. The essays there hit me on two different levels.

First, as a teacher, am I doing what I should be doing to get kids ready for that world? I think I am. In fact, I'm grateful that I made the jump over to teaching Macroeconomics as well as civics and economics, not because I think that will be my permanent teaching assignment, but because I'm learning how to reach kids better. There are so many times in Macro where I know I can't move on to the next thing because some or most of my kids don't get it yet. Ironically, a course like history allows a teacher to move on to the next thing if the kids don't get the current thing yet. You can, for instance, master World War I if you're clueless on the Civil War. But one can't move on to Fiscal Policy without understanding competing theories on macroequilibrium. My experience with non-AP juniors has been eye-opening, as I've had many instances in which I've noticed students learning something within a class period or week but not internalize it for the long haul. When I return to teaching my specialty, history, I'll be better attuned to listening for the signs that tell me my students truly get it.

Second, as a father concerned about my own kids' future in college, I'm heartened to see some trends that might take down the price of a college tuition. The model by which the four-year experience has operated is under attack, in part because it's apparent the customer base is losing the means to pay for the experience. Cost (money and time) weighs larger than suitability of the college degree. Perhaps the way people my age will be able to afford their kids' college experience is to embrace a reality in which the four-year away-from-home experience is replaced by a model that has less frills, education paced at the rate by which one masters material, and opportunities that mix campus and online experiences.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Well, now, that goes against the grain . . .

A stay-at-home dad in the Philly area writes on the folly of saving for college.

I'm not ready to embrace his advice in its entirety. There seems something irresponsible about not saving anything for the kids' college education. Further, there are others in my kids' lives who wish to contribute to their education down the road. Yet his advice is a good reminder that time with the kids as they grow is invaluable, and that often that time requires money to do meaningful things with them.

I could put this advice with an interesting feature from Freakonomics recently, one that preaches on the folly of saving when we're young, which in my mid-30s I still am.

It is possible to be so pre-occupied with the future that one can short-change the now, and in short-changing the now, one can be guilty of short-changing the future.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tuesday: Polls are Open All Day

Tuesday will feature the stunning theater that is municipal general elections in Pennsylvania. Turnout figures for such day bring to mind the philosophical musing about trees falling in forests. In some states there are bigger decisions at play. Gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia come to mind.

Still, municipal elections are important. More important than we generally consider. Local elections give us great chances to see the consequences of our choices up close. If one is a tax-and-spend liberal, vote that way and see if the results, which will be felt with seeing those extra police cars on the street or extra funds in the schools seem worth it in light of the higher property tax bills. If one is austerity-minded, vote that way and see if you really miss that extra police car or if your local school can do without those resources that seem superfluous.

I'm trying to be apolitical as I try to make a point: When we participate in elections where participation and margins of victory are measured in the thousands and hundreds of votes and when we see up close the benefits and costs of our decisions we can better understand where we feel on bigger political issues. There is some danger, or perhaps sloppiness is a better word, in being only a once-every-four-year participant in elections in that we can start to disconnect cause and effect.

One other nice thing about voting in local and state elections is that those we elect are usually more conscious of the preferences of their constituents than are holders of national office. Labels matter less at the local level. When we don't vote in our municipal races we forfeit the chance to have input in a part of the process that welcomes our input more than any other.

5 am on a Saturday

I don't know why I felt compelled to wake at 5 am today. No clue. Just did. Okay, now I remember: it came to my mind that I forgot something minor at work this week . . . really minor. But once it's there, it's there, and I'm up.

Not too long ago I would've trolled the TV listings for something worth my time. But instead, today, I caught up with the parts of Shrek my kids watched after I dozed off on the couch, watched two TED Talks on Education, and watched two videos featuring Chris Cizilla from the Washington Post's Post TV.

How is broadcast and cable television going to survive if a 37-year-old who grew up on TV gets his satisfaction from cobbling together free on-demand video like I did today? Okay, Shrek wasn't free: I rented it for 48 hours from Amazon so the kids could watch it last night. But otherwise, all free via the wonder of Roku and my laptop.