Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?

colllegeNote to readers:  What can I say?  A lot, apparently.  This started off as a simple post back in January, but it was a slow day on the work front and it was too damned cold to go outside if I could help it.  As a result, I found several hours later that I had run on for better than 3,600 words about how I was a lousy student in college and lived to tell the tale…and I hadn’t even gotten around to getting kicked out the second time or how it came to pass that I did get a college degree.  The first draft was such a hot mess that I let it sit for nearly a month before mustering the courage to come back to it. After looking at it again, I decided that the first part – 2,900 words – was not so much about how I screwed off in college (though there’s plenty of that) as they were a general recounting of how I’ve been “different” from way back. I could – probably should – have simply pitched the whole thing over the side, but since I’d wasted so long writing so much I decided to at least post the somewhat intelligible part as Chapter I of what may – or may not – be a series of posts about my youthful indiscretions (the ones I can cop to anyway).

Readers of a certain age may enjoy the result as a trip back to the 1970s and any parent of any child can now console him or herself with the words, “At least I’m not Austin’s parent.”  No matter what, that’s true.

I mostly look for ways to differentiate myself from David Brauer (and, I suspect, he from me), but I found a kindred spirit in his confessional about his failure to graduate college on schedule back in the 1970s.  In my case, it took 7 years, three institutions and the assistance of an entire village of friends, mentors and family to get one under-achieving slacker his undergraduate degree.  But for that assistance I suspect that I, too, would have been a long time going back to finish.  I’ve bored my family and friends many times by recounting my college career so why not you too.

Continue reading “Chapter I: How Did I Get Here?”

The False God of Business

Rick Scott, our corporate-criminal governor here in sunny Florida, has said he wants the state’s colleges and universities to run more like businesses. This is a disease that is spreading to public education around the country.

I think this view would make Thomas Jefferson retch. So would being in the same room with Rick Scott.

Scott wants to charge less tuition for majors that prepare kids for jobs the economy needs now — engineering, technology, health care. On the surface it’s an intriguing idea. But it reduces education to job training, to providing work-units for business moguls.
Rick-Scott fraud

If students have to pay more for a history degree than a biology degree, fewer will study history. Or English. Or philosophy. Or government. “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe,” Jefferson said. He believed that, as political storms blew the country from right to left and back again, an informed electorate would be the safeguard against extremism and tyranny. He believed American democracy would only work if citizens were educated and aware.

If we treat higher education as just job training, how will we develop an informed citizenry? How will people learn how to think critically, to separate political lies from the record of facts, to understand how our government and our world work?

There may not be a capital market for citizenship, but without citizenship this country will become just market segments for ad buyers.

Scott, as CEO of healthcare giant Columbia HCA, ran a company that defrauded the federal government (which means all of us, the taxpayers) by swindling Medicare, resulting in a $1.7 billion fine. Scott made out just fine though — when the HCA board dumped him because of the fraud, they gave him a $10 million severance package and $300 million in stock. No wonder he wants to run state government like he ran a business. And no wonder Mitt Romney, who made millions by, in many cases, leveraging companies into bankruptcy and stripping and shipping out jobs, thought business was a great model for government. Business is a fine game for the winners.

Didn’t a majority of American voters just spurn a businessman’s pitch to treat this country like a business? A majority of voters decided that business’s main goal of funneling profits to the tiny group of Romneyfolk who already have most of the wealth isn’t a good governing principle for the majority of us.

President Obama pointed out that, running a government, he has to think of all the people; those running a business have to think only of some.

Should the Grand Canyon or the Everglades be run more like a business? Should a sunset? The human body? A marriage? Diplomatic relations with another country? Poetry? Absolutely; poetry should be run more like business. And so should the wonder of a playful kitten. And one’s youth — that should surely be run more like a business.

Cretin. Philistine.

— Bruce Benidt

What Abstract Tax Policy Means At Street Level

I wrote this piece for the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report, and Dane Smith ran it in the Growth & Justice website as well. It talks about issues at stake in this election — although not much has really been said by either Romney or Obama about what tax policy will mean at street level.

A few weeks ago I stood before the New Port Richey (Florida) City Council and asked the members not to further cut a library budget that had already been eviscerated.

I held up an ancient book — “The Library Book” — which I wrote in 1984 to mark the centennial of the Minneapolis Public Library. In my research, I told the council members, I’d learned that a library is an economic engine for the community. That’s why wealthy people like T.B. Walker and James J. Hill, in the Twin Cities, and Andrew Carnegie, nationally, funded libraries. It’s enlightened self-interest: Libraries and public education help individuals grow and develop knowledge and skills, which in turn helps a community and its businesses grow.

We’ve lived two years now in Florida, a state with a historic aversion to taxes, and one of the few states without any income tax. In the time we’ve been here we’ve seen education cut, local bus service cut, libraries cut, almost all government services cut. All severely.

A state that has always been run by the rich and powerful for the rich and powerful is, every day, even more so. The Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s advanced further here than most places. Federal taxes have been cut, lowering federal funding to states. State taxes have been cut, lowering state funding to local governments. And local governments with shrinking budgets have to cut services or raise property taxes.

When we left Minnesota, friends asked how we could go to a regressive, low-tax, low-service state. I said that weather was a huge factor for us, but also, sadly, that Minnesota was fast becoming a regressive anti-tax state like Florida anyway. But it is even worse here, and getting still worse.

My wife, Lisa, volunteers at the New Port Richey library. We live in Port Richey, just across the Pithlachascotee River, and New Port Richey’s library is the closest to us. With budget cuts all across Pasco County, the New Port Richey library is now the only one in the county open on Mondays. It’s packed. With all government services and staffing having been cut, many employees at city and county offices who can no longer serve their constituents tell them to go to the library for help. A library where the staff and hours have already been cut. Catch-22.

I told the council members that my wife sees, every day, people in the library going online to search for jobs. She sees, every day, people using the library to get access to better education. She sees, every day, people using library resources for essentials like filing insurance claims to repair houses damaged by recent floods. If you don’t know where you can turn when your home is damaged, you can’t keep your house up, which erodes the tax base. Maybe you lose your home, which erodes your ability to hold a job and raise your kids, which makes you less able to pay taxes and more likely to need services. It’s in the community’s interest, of course, that people have access to the information and services that can better their lives.

You think everyone has a computer and internet access these days? Come to Pasco County, where unemployment is above 12 percent and 15 percent of the people live in poverty. The library’s computers are precious to people trying to hold on and to people reaching for something better.

Libraries have always been portals to citizenship and participation in the economy. Businesses and careers are started in libraries. Responsible public servants and informed voters get their starts in libraries. As journalist Harrison Salisbury said of the Sumner branch of the Minneapolis Public Library in the neighborhood where he grew up among new immigrants in the early 20th century, “It was their university.”

That university is shrinking, closed on Mondays now, sorry. Shorter hours, less staff, sorry. A portal that’s closing. So sorry.

When the flagging Confederacy lowered its draft age to sweep teenagers into its shrinking armies, Robert E. Lee said, “We are eating the seed corn of our nation.” We’re eating that now. We’re wounding our present and killing our future. Libraries, schools, transportation, public safety, all are endangered by lack of funding. And we’re not even talking about things like ensuring the safety of food or workers or protecting the environment or stopping rapacious speculators from ruining the economy again. The Reagan revolutionaries think that stuff should be left up to local decisions too. Imagine the New Port Richey City Council taking on water and air quality protection or trying to keep mortgage lenders from bilking their citizens when council members can’t even patch the city’s roads or pay the cops.

My plea not to cut the library further was listened to politely by the council. But they face Sophie’s choice. The housing bubble crashed as hard here as anywhere in the country — one out of five houses in New Port Richey is vacant. The tax base is shattered, and middle- and low-income folks can’t afford an increase in the regressive property tax. And so there’s nowhere else to turn.

One brave resident stood up in the council chamber and said he’d be happy to pay higher taxes to keep his community healthy. That was one voice, here at the ragged edge of the Reagan Revolution, speaking truth to sagging power. But the majority, whipped up by short-sighted, self-serving politicians, apparently believes you can get something for nothing. That’s the scam in Florida, that’s the scam increasingly in Minnesota, that’s the scam in November’s election.

And if you still believe that scam — as we’ve said in Florida for a hundred years — I’ve got some swampland to sell you.

— Bruce Benidt

Politics and Substance Both Call For Dayton to Sign Teacher Seniority Reform Bill

I support teacher’s unions, but they are wrong to oppose reforming “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher termination practices. Even great organizations sometimes are off-base, and Education Minnesota is wrong on this issue. The logic for changing this system is overwhelming, presented nicely here by an education reform organization called Students First.

The politics of the issue are as compelling as the logic. A statewide poll commissioned by Students First found that almost two-thirds (64%) of Minnesotants believe a measure of teacher performance should be the most important factor in deciding who to keep, while only 15% of voters say seniority should be the most important factor, as it currently is.

Looking at those numbers, it is clear that Education Minnesota is compelling DFL legislators to jump off a political cliff. Governor Dayton should save DFL legislators from themselves, and sign this bill. It’s the right thing to do, both substantively and politically.

As with most issues, I know that the devil is in the detail. I know that you have to do all you can to build a solid performance evaluation system to make the new system fair to teachers. I know that evaluating teachers is particularly tricky. But no performance evaluation system will ever be flawless, so waiting for a flawless system to be developed makes perfect the enemy of the good. Almost all large employers have performance evaluation systems in place, and there is no reason why school administrators can’t do the same, and continue to refine the system over time.

I’m glad Governor Dayton isn’t caving to Republicans on corporate property tax cuts, paid for by short-term accounting gimmicks. I’m glad Dayton is fighting Republicans to get a better bonding bill to repair the infrastructure, and put unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans to work. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Republicans are right on this issue.

– Loveland

Anoka Anti-Bullying Effort is Economic Development?

The War on Differentness
Today’s news reminds us that many parents, kids, and teachers in the Anoka County schools continue to oppose policies designed to prevent bullying of LGBT kids, and others. To them, such policies represent “politically correct (PC)” frivolity, or “promoting the gay agenda.”

But this isn’t just about politics or PC gotchas. There are a lot of other pretty solid reasons for supporting such initiatives. Common decency. Constitutional equality. The Golden Rule.

But since those arguments haven’t swayed opponents of anti-gay bullying initiatives yet, here’s another reason that might resonate on the right.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” author Alexandra Robbins makes the case for Quirk Theory.

Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren’t really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To support her theory, Robbins cites many examples of people who were “cafeteria fringe” in high school – “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities” — but later were a resounding success in the adult world. J.K. Rowling. Bruce Springsteen. Steve Jobs. Tim Gunn. Bill Gates.

How many jobs and exports do you suppose those marginalized cafeteria fringers have created for the cafeteria core dwellers?

As for LGBT students, George Mason University Professor George Florida employs a “Bohemian-Gay Index” to find that the more “gay friendly” a city is, the more economically successful it tends to be.

So, maybe this anti-bullying business is about more than just fluffy PC-ness?

Schools can’t eliminate bullying, but they can do more. Robbins finds that teachers and administratrators aren’t nearly as neutral as they claim to be in the War on Differentness. They enforce social hierarchies by creating institutional mechanisms for celebrating athletics, cheerleading and a few select activities over all others. Teachers and administrators set the social cues by who they choose to befriend, praise or spend time with. And they too often turn blind eyes toward subtle and not-so-subtle cruelty.

So, Anoka anti-bullying champions, keep fighting the good fight. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, the jocks could use some more jobs right now.

– Loveland

Washington IS The Problem — But Not As Perry/Bachmann Claim

A week ago I was riding in a cab down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., with massive federal building after cliff-face edifice hulking on my right. Department of Transportation. Department of Agriculture. Federal Aviation Administration. Then my destination – Department of Health and Human Services, Hubert H. Humphrey building, where I had a communications client.

I could understand why people respond to the Bachmann/Perry complaint that
government is a bloated behemoth that feeds off the taxes grudgingly given up by good honest people making ten bucks an hour. Makes sense, superficially. You can see the size and feel the weight of government right before your eyes. From the air Washington is a little green space in the shape of a cross with beauty points of the Capitol, Mr. Lincoln, Citizen Jefferson, the White House and the founding General’s priapic monument all crowded in by thick hungry buildings full of bureaucrats.

But the real business of Washington is harder to see. Wealth and influence buying power. Lobbyists building bulwarks around the status quo. Money serving money. Influence preserving influence. And nowhere in this town, except in the labor union buildings, is the influence of good honest people making ten bucks an hour represented.

In the 1860s in this town you could easily see the troops and wagon tracks and wounded of sectional warfare. The tracks of class warfare are harder to see. They are indoors. In the charming boutique hotels and the sleek restaurants where a room and a meal cost an honest earner’s full week’s wages. They are tucked away in the manicured suburbs where people whose suits cost more than a soldier’s month’s pay lie in wait for any piece of legislation or regulation that might stop the siphoning of money from the middle class to the already rich. The class warfare Republicans warn about has, of course, been waged and won in this city by the rich and powerful since Ronald Reagan’s days. And except for a couple of Roosevelts, almost non-stop since the city’s founding.

The sin of this town is not bureaucracy that sucks the life out of average
citizens and striving business. The sin of this town is the perpetual
fortification of those who already have so much. The shock of it all is how
those with so much have motivated those with so little to build and maintain the earthworks that protect these best off. The shame is how the very rich and powerful are taking average taxpayers’ labor at an increasing discount and shrinking their share of the American dream.

In this teeming city Fagin is the powerful wealthy criminal picking the pockets of the workers while distracting them with passionate demonstrations crying out against gaysabortionsimmigrantssocialists. “Look, a family-freedom-hating Democrat,” the robber baron calls out at the Tea Party rally, his long claw fingers slipping the mark’s wallet out of his pocket.

I love this city. I was born here. Every time I’m here I am inspired by its
monuments to flawed humankind’s best yearnings.

What’s amazing is that somehow the framing vision of the intellectual artists
who started all this 230 years ago survives our superficial whims and passions, survives our irresponsible lazy lack of critical thinking and learning. This place has endured W’s ignorance and LBJ’s ego and Nixon’s paranoia and TR’s sense of empire and the smallness of Newt and the ineffectualness of everyone from Buchanan to Coolidge to Taft. We survive because occasionally we surprise the universe by sending here a tall thin man from Illinois, a rumpled mayor from Minneapolis. Occasionally we listen to the better angels of a patrician from Virginia, a class traitor from New York, a lieutenant from Hyannis, a preacher from Atlanta.

Washington is a monument to the people of this country, at our best, at our
worst. It is us. Fitting that the monument to Washington, the stubborn general who refused to let a fading dream die, has recently been shaken to its roots by an improbable earthquake. But it stands, still. O’er the land of the free, and the home of the too-easily gulled.

— Bruce Benidt
(Photo from Dan DC)

Grading Standardized Tests

Tests effective?
The news last week about Minnesota’s standardized reading scores reminded me how much I hate standardized tests. In my considered opinion, one-size-fits all standardized tests are the absolute worst tools I have seen for improving education.

Except for all the other options available to us.

Before explaining my Churchillian verdict on standardized tests, I should mention that I was a very poor standardized test taker back in the day. When I should have been answering questions, I tended to be thinking about why they asked the question…or why they used that particular wording…or what kind of deductive mind games they were trying to play…or what kind of test scores Charlie on Charlie’s Angels got in order to land that awesome job…or what is so special about #2 pencils for chrissake…or why the cute girl three rows over would never be interested in a guy like me, or why… And then when they announced there was one minute left before our life’s course would be charted by optical mark recognition equipment, I would guess “C” on the large portion of the test that I had not yet read.

Maybe that shows that I had an attention deficit disorder. Maybe it means I was analytical, creative, intellectually curious, hormonal, or moronic.

Psychoanalysis aside, this was not a winning strategy for me. It also wasn’t a winning strategy for the institutions who wanted an honest assessment of my likelihood of success. Because I turned out to be a “late bloomer,” someone who wasn’t predicted by the optical recognition scanner to succeed in academics or a white collar career, but did.

Given my personal experience, you would think that I’d want to ban standardized tests. I’m sorely tempted. But at the same time, I do think that K-12 schools need to be intentional and disciplined about teaching the foundational skills most of us need to succeed. I do want to keep kids away from teachers and schools who can’t or won’t teach those things. I do want to measure student performance in order to incent individual and institutional improvement, empower parents to vote with their feet, and target early help to kids who are falling behind.

And I can’t figure out how to achieve those things without standardized tests. Maybe those of you who got kickass standardized test scores can figure that out, but I can’t.
Continue reading “Grading Standardized Tests”