Monday, September 13, 2010

A Little Candle In The Darkness

This Thomas Friedman editorial quotes this Robert Samuelson editorial about the failures of school reform.  Samuelson and by extension Friedman's get to the crux of one of education's main problems.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.
Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
 Samuelson's conclusion is spot on.
Against these realities, school "reform" rhetoric is blissfully evasive. It is often an exercise in extravagant expectations. Even if George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program had been phenomenally successful (it wasn't), many thousands of children would have been left behind. Now Duncan routinely urges "a great teacher" in every classroom. That would be about 3.7 million "great" teachers -- a feat akin to having every college football team composed of all-Americans. With this sort of intellectual rigor, what school "reform" promises is more disillusion.
The problems facing education are structural.  All parties share blame; it's good to see someone finally including students in the equation.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Mother And The Economy

This Bloomberg article can hardly be accused of burying the lede.

            The U.S. economy is so bad that the chance of avoiding a double dip back into recession may actually be pretty good.

The sectors of the economy that traditionally drive it into recession are already so depressed it’s difficult to see them getting a lot worse, said Ethan Harris, head of developed markets economics research at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research in New York. Inventories are near record lows in proportion to sales, residential construction is less than half the level of the housing boom and vehicle sales are more than 40 percent below five years ago.

I suppose I should find this reassuring.  My wife and I have jobs; we’re not out on the streets, and the kids are in college.  We’re getting by, and if things don’t get worse, we should continue to get by. 

On the other hand, Ethan Harris has never met my mother.  When, as a young plainsman, I would complain about a person or situation, Momma Plainsperson would tell me “there’s nothing so bad that there can’t be something worse.”  I complained about school lunch; my mother told me “there’s nothing so bad that there can’t be something worse.”  She was right.  The head cook who replaced the one I complained about produced thinner gruel and drier bread crusts than her predecessor.  When I complained about my first boss, my mother told me “there’s no one so bad that there can’t be someone worse.”  She was right.  I’ve had several who were far worse including one who said “ideals” when he meant “ideas.”  I believe he made this mistake because he had very few of either. 

I really can’t think of a time when my mother’s injunction has been wrong.  Bad situations have invariably gotten worse  Mom may not have economic charts and graphs on her side, but her track record has me convinced that I should worry a little more than Ethan Harris suggests.