Sunday, January 26, 2014

Scheduling What Matters

It's January 26 and snow storms have already interrupted five days of school in the district where my son goes to school (three days off, one late start, one early dismissal). In response to those interruptions, my son's district sent a series of changes to the schedule for the remainder of the school year, justifying those changes by saying . . .

Making changes like they are doing is disruptive to family's schedules. Families often make plans for the days off and early dismissals planned for later in the year. . . .

(Here it comes)


The snow storms that have so far characterized the winter of 2013-14 have been disruptive too.

More importantly, I'm glad to see a district say to its parents (and taxpayers) that what the district does with children during the school days matters and that it matters enough to modify the remaining schedule to maximize instructional time with the students. They are trying to avoid tacking on days to the end of the year, which strikes me as wise given how very little meaningful learning happens after Memorial Day.

I could comment on how a neighboring, large suburban school district refuses to make changes to its schedule in light of the weather interruptions, how it was so wedded to a staff development day tomorrow that it refused to let it be used as a make-up instructional day (as it was designated on the calendar), but I'll pass up feeding on that low-hanging fruit.

No, I can't pass it up.

School districts are led by superintendents who serve at the pleasure of an elected board. Because of this structure, districts reflect the values and priorities of the communities they serve. A message like that from my son's district demonstrates a community that values students' time with teachers. Districts that are too afraid to modify schedules due to a fear they'll disrupt three-day weekends and orthodontist appointments reflect a mindset oriented around education as an entitlement, as something that fits in around other things in life.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Some pragmatism for a Saturday morning

George Will wrote a week ago on this issue. He's written on it a few times. It's an issue with which I struggle. Here's the column. I understand his perspective, and he articulates his ideas well, but I can't agree with him (though a few years ago I would have).

It's a bit hard to reconcile my membership in a labor union with my conservative leanings, even though those leanings aren't as conservative as they were a few years ago. I do see the principled argument one could have against employees whose pay comes from public funds agitating for political candidates who will be more likely to strike deals that, well, increase pay.

My last decade in public education has taught me a lot about the value in advocating for myself. For a decade, the resources we have had to do our job have been whittled. This hasn't all taken place because of the current political powers in Pennsylvania, nor has it all taken place because of the recession and its aftermath (a recession that technically ended in June 2009). The trends that have been diminishing the resources with which we teach began during the administration of an "education governor."

I've come to accept the necessity of advocating for my own job and way of life, and in part I do that through membership in a labor union. It's naive for me to think others will fight for me, or at least a sufficient numbers of others will fight for me for me to sit on the sidelines. If workers cannot organize, how will they be able to leverage enough power to fight that their point of view be heard. My union essentially fights for me when I don't have the time to know the issues and politicians enough to effectively fight for myself.

In the past five years, I've seen a half dozen very promising teachers leave my district. Two have left for districts that will pay them better. Three have left for higher-paying career fields. (One left for a very promising graduate school opportunity.) I know of one other who is actively looking for something that will pay her better for the hard work and long hours she has to commit to do her job well. These teachers are leaving a district that serves an affluent area and that consistently earns good scores on all the metrics that seem to matter these days. But it's also a district that has too shrewdly figured out how to trim labor costs, so shrewdly that other districts can poach it for its best and brightest, and that other job fields can offer an other side of the street with much greener grass.

So I've come to see the value in voting for one's job. It's not principled, but the last decade has left me less principled. I have a family to support and I have students to teach. And I'm becoming less bashful about fighting for the things that help me do those things.

Monday, January 20, 2014

He's got a really good point . . .

. . . and a really good case study in cost-benefit analysis I should use early next semester.

Charles Lane uses his column in the Washington Post to question why the Olympics should still even be taking place.

I would tone it down. Instead of abolishing the event, I would stop the farcical exercise in having countries bid for games they break their backs to afford putting on (Lane refers to how Montreal took 30 years to finally pay off the games it hosted: Olympic Stadium is derided as the Big Owe in that city). The IOC should settle on two sites, one for winter and one for summer, as permanent host venues for the games. Greece would have my vote for summer. Winter . . . something Scandinavian associated with the Olympic ideals would suit me fine. If we could take the host-city-bidding out of the mix, I think we would minimize many of the problems Lane raises.

Do the children in ______ deserve a better education than your children?

A good friend of mine called my attention to yesterday's column by Thomas Friedman. It, and the letter from a resigned Frederick teacher to which he refers, are worthwhile reads.

Obviously, there's a lot in here that invites my comment, but I want to focus on two elements of what Friedman wrote.

First, I would be impressed at a president who dedicated his whole State of the Union, and therefore his whole agenda for the better part of a year, on one urgent matter. We're stopping to debate the legacy of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty this year, and there is considerable debate (good example, Robert Samuelson's recent column) as to whether or not it was a success. Certainly the War on Poverty wasn't the only item on Johnson's agenda in 1964. Getting elected and civil rights come to mind. Yet there was a focus to his administration, a focus profound enough to get Americans talking about the merits of the legacy half a century later. Our current president is in danger of having no one debate the merits of his legacy in a half century, and for that reason it would be neat to see him focus (at least in appearance) like a laser on one issue. And education may as well be it.

Second, I cannot help but think about the sense of entitlement we have in the U.S. regarding education. Secretary Duncan's words, quoted near the end of Friedman's column, make me think on that. We take for granted good education, which parents of South Korean kids do not. They cannot. Their way of life is pretty young. Parents have memory of a time when life was much, much harder than it is now. Public schooling in America is older than the U.S. itself. For decades we've become accustomed to schools that are always there, and always providing services that go beyond the core educational mission. Schools are institutionalized and bureaucratized (and in some ways calcified). Consequently, we no longer revere what schools can do but instead fret about what schools aren't doing and why they cost so much to do what they're not doing. We've come to think graduation is an entitlement. That 100% have to get through to the next level, whether that next level is a next grade, next building, or a degree. Our entitlement perspective on schools leads us to mistake seat time for learning and consistency of quality for excellence.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


My sister-in-law was telling me of her first experience doing online grocery shopping. She did it through Peapod, which is Giant's way of doing this service. I notice our supermarket is also getting into this game.

I had been under the assumption, naively perhaps, that when one placed an order some employee from the store went through the aisles and selected what you ordered. Turns out that's not how Peapod does it. Instead, most (if not all) of your order is assembled at a warehouse or distribution center. If the warehouse is out of milk, it's on you to go into the store and purchase it if you wish.

I guess this makes some sense. The labor cost of clerks going up and down aisles of a conventional store would be expensive relative to the cost of having workers go back and forth through aisles at a distribution center. The layout of that distribution center, and the economies of completing dozens or hundreds of orders at once, would promote a lot more efficiency.

Sometime ago my eyes caught a new story about Amazon distribution center jobs as the new low-wage job in America. It has essentially replaced the entry-level industrial job of yore. I wish I had saved or linked that article, though I found this story from a labor advocacy website. There is a lot of interesting stuff to mull over as e-commerce of the mundane (heck, I get cat litter delivered from Amazon) becomes normal. I think of how Amazon is patenting predictive shipping, which seems a little creepy to me (but is it any more creepy than walking into a familiar diner and the server getting "your usual" for you?). I think of how valuable time is, and how it makes sense to have the selection of items done for me at a grocery warehouse rather than me wander up and down aisles. I think of how we have a somewhat interesting debate occurring in the nation regarding the minimum wage. Again, there's a lot to mull over.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The New Year's Resolutions for 2014

I chuckle a little bit when I think about how I'm trying to approach 2014 differently from how I approached 2013. My chief goal in 2013 was to lose weight, and that project when remarkably well. I now live in fear of putting it back on, though, and I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll likely spend the rest of my life fighting that fight. My goals in 2014 seem a little bit less noble. They're also more focused. Here's what I'm up to. 

I'm done with debit cards. Done. Finished. The Target calamity with debit cards scared me straight. I'm no longer interested in putting out there the risk that someone will directly get to my money. I'm conscious of how my shift to using credit rather than debit will force the businesses with which I deal to bear a greater transaction cost with me, but we're still living in something of a Wild West when it comes to credit practices in this nation (Clark Howard had an interesting comment on U.S. standards vs. European . . . it's a little stunning how loose we are). Now the game for me is to find the credit card that offers the most logical rewards. 

I'm also done fretting small purchases. I listened to a Freakonomics podcast early in the fall that was a bit revolutionary for me. So revolutionary, I actually tripped when I heard it (this was the last time I listened to a podcast rather than music while running). Steven Levitt shared his practice of simply not worrying about items below a certain price point. If something will make life better at that moment, and the cost is less than x amount of money, just buy it. I'm thinking that my price point is $30. There are some nights where the hectic pace of life makes it tough to get dinner around. Despite how all four of us prefer to eat what we cook, and despite the savings of cooking at home, sometimes we're better off just buying from Boston Market than stoically eating a dinner at 7:05 that we insisted had to be prepared at home. I guess I'm tyring to say that in 2014 I resolve to avoid moments where I'm being penny wise and pound foolish. 

Meanwhile, I'm resolving to be less selfish at my church. For some reason, church (which I love) brings out a crankopottamus nature in me. I start to criticize the music selections. I find an excuse to not attend choir rehearsals. I fret too much at the time I'm losing. But my wife, who has the patience to hear me out on these moments of smallness, pointed out something worthwhile to me, that my son is now old enough to take cues from me about that peripheral stuff in church life. It woke me up. I need to suppress my crankopottamus urgings on Sundays, and get out the door a few minutes earlier too. 

These goals of mine for 2014 aren't earth-shattering, and when stacked next to losing 50 pounds last year probably won't do as much to enhance my long-run prospects of a healthy, happy life. But it would be nice if I did a better job managing the small stuff so it stays small in 2014. 

It's been more than three weeks

I regret that I haven't posted anything in the last month.

It's not because I have nothing to say. It's because I've allowed myself to get caught up in the flurry of events that is January.

I'm trying to avoid using that b word, busy. It's easy to complain of business. Busy-ness is a norm in my work and in my household. It seems as if one is either busy or bored; there is an equilibrium to the pace of life but it's not an ideal one where one has exactly 24 hours of stuff to do in exactly 24 hours of day. And, if I had my choice, I'd rather be too busy (too engaged) than too bored.

A year ago, I allowed January to be too busy. I'm so far proud of what I've done differently this January: I'm more dedicated to events at my church than I was last year, I'm trying to have more fun with my kids, I'm trying to laugh more with my wife. I'm really focusing on how to laugh about the silliest and craziest moments of busy-ness at work, and January has represented a remarkable time of stress and confusion at my workplace for the past several years.

But I haven't been successful carving out time to talk here, which I need to chance.

I find that when I speak out here and give voice to my frustrations here, I simply give voice to them somewhere else, where I don't have the chance to delete what I just said before it goes live.

I'll be back.