Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Grading the Schools

Last night, while I was driving home, I heard the Hugh Hewitt show on the radio. I think HH has a morning slot in California, so that would mean the station, as it does at times, had tape-delayed the show. Anyway, after the expected run through the popular topics of the day, Hugh turned his attention to Education standards, just as I was turning into the daycare parking lot to pick up my daughter. I mention this detail, because I want to be fair to Hugh and may have misunderstood his opinion on a point, but it appeared the debate was about the value of High School GPAs for students taking accelerated classes, against basing instead a heavy trust on class rank within each school, as a reasonable value on the student’s actual academic accomplishment. It started me thinking again, on the matter of educational measures and goals.

Jay Mathews wrote against the practice of awarding bonus grade points to students who take advanced and challenging courses, instead of riding easy courses.

Hugh Hewitt was clear in his opinion, asking “why not reward students for taking hard courses? If you don't, they won't. They are rational beings. Elevate mediocrity to the same level of achievement as excellence and you get more mediocrity. Period.”

Betsy Newmark went further, linking to both Jay and Hugh, and explained the matter directly and succinctly: “Taking away the honors point seems like a solution attacking the wrong problem. If the poorer schools don't offer such courses - they should. If they are college preparatory schools, the best way to prepare kids for college is to give them AP classes and prepare them at the lower grades for taking the AP classes by getting them ready to read and understand difficult readings and to write analytical essays. Why punish the kids who are working hard in their classes by taking away the bonus?”

Well said as usual, Betsy. Betsy also recognizes the real-world implications or removing rewards from hard work: “Hugh worries about kids not taking the class if they don't get the bonus point. As well he should. Apparently, the California researchers don't understand basic economics. People respond to incentives. Take away the incentive and fewer kids will take the class. Is that the result they are aiming for?”

I will leave off this specific point, because Jay, Hugh, and Betsy have all addressed it better than I could (interesting, how the print media, radio, and a real-world teacher have all jumped onto this one), and my comments would simply echo their existing thoughts.

But I do wonder a bit about where we are going with education in this country. I think it comes down to the special interests, and the plain unhappy fact is, we aren’t going to abolish those interests, so we have to work with them, like sailing in a storm. Try to work with Mother Nature without getting smacked too hard. As I see it, the special interest groups (SIG’s) are:

Students as a whole,
Teachers as a whole,
Educator Unions and Associations (e,g, the NEA),
Liberals as a whole,
Conservatives as a whole,
Colleges and Universities in general, and
Businesses in general

The resulting melee is a real mess, and has been for most of the past century.

Americans take education for granted, in the main. Our nation includes the myth of the frontier towns always setting up a church and school before anything else was built. In point of fact, that just does not play out. As recently as World War 2, it was no sure thing for someone to graduate High School, and College was a true distinction. Ever since, all sorts of planners and idealists have tried to create the way by which every student would graduate, be successful and happy. Education, we seem to forget, serves specific needs. It may be enjoyable for those intellectually inclined, and it may be teach skills which people will find useful later in life, but in the main, education was simply a means to prepare for life. Thus, early schools taught fundamental skills, and most young men quickly found assignment into guilds and apprenticeships in Europe and Asia. Even in America, the notion of school was essentially for basic skills, reading/writing/simple math. As the 20th Century began, reforms were developed to develop a more-or-less standardized curriculum of academic virtues. History, Civics, Literature, and Sciences were added, along with the “electives” where possible. Public schools followed the lead of successful colleges, and introduced sports and arts to create interest, and the now-ubiquitous letter-grade system came into vogue. With the creation of the G.I. Bill after World War 2, colleges suddenly found themselves with more applications than they knew what to do with, and Admissions offices suddenly found it necessary to develop a screening method to sort out qualified students. And along the way, each of the groups I noted found themselves adjusting to the new realities, facing new challenges and opportunities as the nation grew and changed. It should not be surprising, therefore, to see that we have, once again, outgrown the old system.

So, what to do with all this? I think we should begin, by considering the short- and long-term priorities of each group, sinec we'll have to face them anyway. To start, Students as a whole are not likely to express a clear short-term goal, other than the desire to be acknowledged as the key players in this issue, but long-term, I suspect many students are worried about using their school skills in the real world. There is no purpose to putting in twelve years, just to find out most of it was a waste of time. Regarding Teachers as a whole, I would say that in their case the short- and long-term goals are simple but vital, to be able to do their jobs without bureacracy or censorship, and to be better rewarded for their devotion to our children. During the years kids are in school, the simple fact is that teachers will see more of the children than their own parents will, and that will have an indisputable effect, which we should all consider carefully. regarding Educator Unions and Associations, they are largely obsolete (grabbing advantages for themselves and far too seldom for the best teachers) and interfere for no purpose beyond political influence. However, some version of them will continue, so parents, teachers, and legislators need to consider the dialogue to accomplish common ground and positive effect. I will address Liberals as a whole & Conservatives as a whole in the next section, and will set aside Colleges and Universities in general, and Businesses in general for after that.

It seems to be that the tug-of-war between Liberals and Conservatives on Education comes from worthy differences of opinion. Liberals generally are concerned with Public Education overall, correctly understanding that not everyone can afford Private Schools (even though leading Liberals always seem to send their own children to Private Schools), and so they focus on the needs of the poorest and slowest children. Conservatives, for their part, are concerned with Academic standards and taking away false images of success from schools with serious issues. Conservatives demand accountability from those who teach our nation's children, and are not willing to sacrifice our brightest and most gifted students, simply because others cannot keep up. It would appear that Vouchers are a good option, but the matter has been so politicized, that it will be difficult to sort out substance from hyperbole in the results. I would call myself an essentialist on the matter of courses taught: Focus on basic skills early, and keep politics and religion out of it. It's fine to talk about the controversies of a political party or leader, but no teacher should be allowed to use the classroom to teach any opinion as truth. Facts should not be hidden or altered, nor should theories ever be presented as anything but heories. Personal faith should be allowed to be expressed, but no advocacy in the classroom for a personal belief, including atheism, should be advanced. The tripwires for students, teachers, and administrators, I would say, would be personal attacks and/or hostility. These must be prohibited. Make the schools a place to teach concepts and exchange ideas, not suppress free thought or create ideological factories. And above all, establish the use of Logic as a discipline, and separate fact-based courses from subjective discussions.

This brings me to the Colleges and the Business World . Colleges became a rather big business industry in the last couple generations, and they know it. With the baby boom over, however, colleges now have to compete not only with each other for a smaller consumer market, they also find themselves facing the new Remote Campus Universities, which are providing convenience and accredited education to thousands of adults who need their degree while working full-time. Slow to respond as first, a number of old-school Colleges are realizing they need this demographic. The economic force is working against many old mandarins and presumptions of privelege. But there are still many schools whose image and legacy have allowed them to remain aloof from this measure.

Universities rightly consider and revisit the sticky question of how to tell one student he is in, while another is out. Racial quotas may not be used, unless you are the University of Michigan and can hide your racism in the pretense of multiculturalism. But what about the SAT or ACT? How should grades or class rank be considered? What about additional qualities? A school enters a minefield by accepting or rejecting any of these elements, and the student left out can be certain to be unhappy. Where in the past, a rejected student would cry to his parents, a modern student may retain a lawyer. And after that, there remains the question about the quality of education one really gets at a school. If public schools are variable in their quality up through Grade 12, should it surprise us to find that there are colleges with incompetent and prejudiced faculties, or who go through the motions but do not insure that their students truly know their work?

And that brings me to Business. While I would be opposed to letting Corporations dictate the Humanities selections at a University, or have a compelling influence in the schools' ethical codes, there is a basic and undeniable need, for schools to do a much better job or preparing their charges for the world which comes next. Far too many students are left with the vague impression that their education has automatically prepared them for a position with a good company, which will promote them and dovetail perfectly with the academic halls they leave at graduation. This is one reason why so many 22- and 23-year-olds walk around in the fall with a vaguely stunned expression on their faces: No one prepares them for what's really out there. As a businessman, I have found myself mistrusting applicants with really high GPAs; thy never seem to accept that they still know next to nothing of the things they really need to pick up, they too often believe common sense is inferior to showing off what they heard in the lecture hall last year, and they simply have a hard time adjusting to the environment of the office. Sit 'em down with a pencil and a math test, and they're fine, but ask them to spend a couple hours doing account reconciliation and they freak.

A number of schools have started to address this, and none too soon. They have started asking the companies which recruit at their campuses, to also come ahead of that season to advise potential employees about what they are really looking for, while there is still time for students to work on those attributes. Also, companies are discovering the need to orient graduates for the transition between the theoretical world to the physical world, and to respect the employees they will encounter, whose degree may be missing but whose experience and ability are proven.

I'm not saying schools should be just about getting ready for work, but far too many schools forget that this is a necessity. Being able to create your own webpage is cool, but having a skill that will pay the rent is much cooler.

I'm still working through this issue, but those are my thoughts for now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Rather Blather


The "independent" report on Rathergate has been released after far too long, and with the removal of a few predictable (and expendable) employees, Les Moonves plans to pat himself on the back for saving CBS' reputation and sponsors. The Blogosphere is outraged, but really, did we expect anything to be different? Ironically, I expect this move by Moonves to prove disastrous for CBS, and here's why:

FIRST - the bloggers. Almost no one in the Old Media understands the phenomenon of the New Media, and especially the rise of citizen bloggers. I say 'citizen', because that's why Moonves was incredibly stupid in not directing his response to the real danger to his empire. Moonves was worried about Thornburgh, and he should have been, but he did not think things through. There were two worst-case scenarios to face; the first was allowing evidence to get out, which would prove the link between CBS and the Kerry campaign. The omission, hiding, and destruction of evidence by CBS was predictable, especially the e-mail trail. However, Moonves forgot to consider the other worst-case possibility. The report issued today was far too pat, and offered too little contrition. CBS tried to claim no political motivation at all, a claim patently false on its surface. This alone would prompt bloggers to dig deeper for the truth. Moonves somehow forgot exactly what happened when '60 Minutes' played that forged memo. Immediately the documents were challenged, and in a matter of days we learned details about typewriters, military document protocols, and the personnel opinions of a National Guard Colonel to a degree no one would have expected. And when pressed, the bloggers' experts trumped the network shills. It wasn't close, which is one reason why CBS finally gave in and promised an investigation. It has not occured to Mooves and his consultants, that there are literally thousands of bloggers waiting for the next big story to print, and they know from experience now that the lead story will get all the support it needs. Sooner or later, the break wil come, and when it does, the world will fall in on CBS. Rathergate came when CBS was thought to be pretty much untouchable; the next big scandal at the network will hit a target with known weak spots. Moonves should have thought about how to deal with the blogs. This whitewash will do nothing but make blogs angry and focused.

SECOND - CBS is nothing if it's not Old Media. Just as the Newspapers underestimated Radio, and in its turn Radio underestimated Television, so now the Old Media has missed a critical paradigm shift. TV news is not going away, anymore than radio news or print news did, but there is a true shift of attention and, more importantly, standards. There was a time when newsmen took their responsibility seriously, because there was always plenty of 'yellow' journalism to combat. There actually was a time, when the New York Times represented information which had been vetted for accuracy, and balanced by a sense of responsibility. Of course, it should also be remembered that the Times built that reputation for responsibility, after a prior history of bias and sensational journalism. History moves in circles sometimes. Now, people are able to verify claims and fact-check stories with more resources and ease than ever before. And the Rathergate story has inspired many people to double-check their facts, and in plain English, it means that not only is CBS losing viewers for its news, that slide shows no signs of slowing down, much less ending. I would not be surprised to see '60 Minutes' end in the next couple years, as well as CBS News as a major player in network news. Already, if you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that the news portion of the CBS budget is decreasing, relative to the Entertainment division. In real-world terms, that means no more franchise Anchormen like Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and much smaller budgets for sending news crews out on high-profile stories. CBS has simply refused to acknowledge the gaping hole in the side of their ship, and that is a fatal mistake.

THIRD - CBS fought the investigation and lost. The reason they lost, was because there were three critical values the network needed to retain, and they managed none of them. Those goals were Integrity, Market Share, and Relevance. CBS lost its Integrity early on, by its clear attack mentality against the Bush Administration; Dan Rather's hatred of anyone named Bush is well-known (remember his attempt to provoke George H.W. Bush back in the 1988 Election), and CBS took not action to redress this obvious bias. Moonves was running a network with a reputation for grudges and prejudice. After all, Bernard Goldberg wrote about the problem years ago.

As for Market Share, we're fast approaching autopsy conditions for CBS. In a recent Washington Times article, Dan Rather is accused of holding the network "hostage to his ego and political agenda as he slowly kills CBS News." Ouch. The Drudge Report observes that the CBS Evening News is losing market share to reruns of The Simpsons. For the period ending January 2, the CBS Evening News finished out of the rankings for the top 136 shows, behind such offerings as "Charmed" and "Blue Collar TV". This is not good for business.

But worst of all, is the quest for Relevance. CBS News made its name off Cronkite's Vietnam stories against Johnson and Nixon, off Rather's vendetta against Nixon, and on a continuing claim to holding weasels up for scrutiny. Now that CBS is revealed as a large, rather slimy weasel itself, Moonves claims notwithstanding. Les doesn't seem to realize that he has the credibility of Scott Peterson right about now, and his pretense that the public can "count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy", is not selling any better than Enron stock these days. After all, who but a CBS hack really believes that "Heyward is an executive of integrity and talent, and the right person to be leading CBS News during this challenging time", or that "Dan Rather has already apologized for the segment and taken personal responsibility for his part" ? Serious error, Mr. Moonves. That bang you just heard was another shot you put right into your foot. You could have taken the tough but healthy step of cleaning house and rebuilding the foundation, but instead you put lipstick on the pig, and haven't quite figured out yet that we're not fooled.

There is fear that CBS' latest whitewash of its conduct is selling with too many people. Actually, the lack of emotion to this latest turn of events, is nothing more than the realization that CBS News is no longer important, that whatever they do, they will no longer hold the influence and power they used to hold. We'll still chase them down on their lies and tricks, but just as no one worries about anyone believing too much they read in the Weekly World News, no one is taking CBS News that seriously, either.

Buh-bye, lying eye.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Thoughts About the Culture War

I need to begin with a caveat; I don't get cable or satellite, yet I require a certain amount of Television each day, so this means I am compelled to watch whatever is available on the broadcast networks. Sometimes that means I get to see something interesting, if beyond my normal range of chosen fare. At other times, it reminds me exactly why so many people are paying extra for satellite and cable channels. Sunday night, I saw two shows which provoked a train of thought which led to this article.

Sunday began well enough. My wife and I were a little under the weather, so we slept late, which meant I missed the usual Beltway spin on current events. This is rather like missing potholes on your way to work. I was able to catch most of the NFL Wild Card games, so that was good, God's gift to me for being good all week, although Sunday's games were not nearly as competitive as Saturday's offerings. There is just something right about watching football games in cold weather in January, although Indy's squeaky-clean dome and fake turf reminded me more of a Nintendo simulation than an actual gridiron matchup. Anyway, my daughter and I watched football while my wife watched a DVD, and after the first quarter of the Packers-Vikings game, I took my little girl to the park to play for a couple hours.

The evening offerings were much more sparse, and we ended up setting 2 sets to 2 different shows; '24' on Fox, and 'The 31st Annual People's Choice Awards' on CBS. And while both shows reminded us that they wore out whatever virtues they held as entertainment long ago, they also had little lessons in them.

I will start with the 'People's Choice' awards. This little Hollywood production began decades ago, when it was discovered that the average American no longer gave a rat's patootie who won Golden Globes or Oscars; the blatent political overtones and expectations had long cast those awards on a course far from Reality. The 'People's Choice' awards, or the PC Awards as I'll call them, were Hollywood's pathetic attempt to convince America that they are somehow relevant and hip. It's not working, although the show provided some lessons in Left-think.

There was the crass commercialization we've come to expect from Hollywood, tying some "Red Carpet" awards to things like hair (sponsored by an overpriced hair soap), smile (sponsored by one of the tooth-whitener companies), and best 'look' (sponsored by either a makeup company or a cosmetic surgery company, I really stopped paying attention by then). And the voting, while it's wide-open theoretically, all began with careful and restricted 'nominations' from Entertainment Weekly, so they really didn't care what America though - as usual, the "elite" chose the field, so that none but the socially acceptable would even be considered. Which brings us to 2 notable winners.

I have to say I am a bit disappointed in Mel Gibson. His film, "The Passion of the Christ", certainly did well critically and at the box office, and in any fair consideration would have received both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. But Hollywood is nothing if not hostile to mainstream value, and relentlessly opposed to letting producers and directors actually deviate from the formulae so long ago imposed from the stink-tanks in Deepest Liberalia. So the PC Award for Best Film Drama was a token acknowledgment by Hollywood, as if they believed this would convince America that values embraced by the nation in large measure would be respected, or at least granted some consideration in future expositions. And I found it interesting, that when he accepted the award, Gibson spoke out against "the System" which demanded a certain tone and flavor to films, and its unforgiving emnity to those who defied the existing order. But behind the curtains, Gibson frankly blew it, when he expressed a comraderie with propagandist and hate-monger Michael Moore, flatly asking "Why are we in Iraq?" While everyone has the right to their personal opinion, this was an unfortunate slap in the face of many of the people who supported Gibson; he somehow paid no attention to the values and opinion of the people he had praised on-stage, and in fact undercut them in a display of his own shallow ego and ignorance. It should be noted that Gibson is Australian, and while he has no public opinion on politics in his own country, feels quite free to pop off on issues he doesn't come close to understanding, in a manner insulting to the many millions of Americans who understand the issue, supported the War on Terror as it is being fought in Iraq, and who had been led to believe Gibson was an ally. And this, of course, brings us to the curious case of Michael Moore.

Michael Moore is a lying propagandist, but there is no question he is successful at his chosen profession. This year, his much-vaunted campaign against President Bush was far more successful than it ever deserved to be, in large part because the Old Media cast his film as a "documentary", by which standards Camelot and South Park should be designated "documentaries" as well. But there cannot really be any argument against the fact, that Moore's carefully crafted slander was effective, enough to bring the least-qualified candidate in the past century to serious contention for the White House. Were it not for bloggers and the Swift Boat Vets, this nation might be paying dearly for Moore's crude and false presentation.

This success was evident in the PC Award selection of "Pack-o-Lies 9/11" as the "Best" Overall Film for 2004. By Box Office numbers, fan popularity, merchandising, DVD sales and rentals, or any other sane standard, that honor was won by "Spiderman 2" or "Shrek 2". I have a strong suspicion the voting numbers were fudged, but no matter. It remains evident that Moore has his fans, and they are distinctly vocal and energized. During Moore's acceptance speech, he tried to portray himself as a patriot, unconcerned with political positions or the sharp disagreements between Conservatives and Liberals about the direction and mission of America. The resulting boo's and catcalls, mixed with cheers, showed that the decision to reward Moore was not universally accepted, even in Hollywood. Further, the fact that Moore has chosen to back off from his public statements supporting the terrorists (remember his 'Minuteman' speech?), and attacking the troops by contending that they were re-fighting Vietnam and being directed by incompetent or immoral leaders, is clear evidence that Moore is trying to cut his losses, rather in the fashion of leading Democrats. The lesson from Moore's award and speech last night is a 3-parter: Moore's hatred of Bush still has its buyers, Moore is retreating for a different approach later, and Hollywood still hasn't clued in to the difference between the elitist arrogance of Rodeo Drive, and the common sense of Mainland America.

Moving on, I now have a couple thoughts on the Soap Opera which is '24'. I call it a soap, because '24' has all the qualities required to be a Soap Opera:

1. Bad Acting
2. Bad Plot
3. Sex, often thrown in to mask poor plot transition
4. Violence, also often thrown in to mask poor writing
5. A large percentage of the dialogue is overly dramatic, especially involving yelling, apparently to imply sincerity and deep emotional commitment, those qualities being beyond the acting scope of the cast.

'24' is a peculiar show; it's not often a drama jumps the shark in its first season. From the beginning, the storyline lacks any connection to believability., We're supposed to accept the existence of a terrorist threat against the United States, but instead of all or any of the 30 agencies tasked to handle Intelligence, the discovery of the plot, its details, and coordination of the U.S. response is limited to one fictional agency, and in large part handled solely by a single field agent, whose role shifts according to his whim, in complete abrogation to all known policy and statute. Jack kills or tortures with impunity, he is injured (even killed in the second season), and yet returns with long-term effects, and he breaks whatever rules he find inconvenient without consequence. The President in the show, I decided long ago, must be a vampire - he never appears in daylight or in public, and he appears to be afraid of the White House - he is never seen there, as if the 'West Wing' people filed suit to prevent any other fake President from being seen in the Oval Office. And Jack's people at CTU come in 2 flavors - morons who oppose him, unable to understand his brilliance and courage or else jealous of him, and slightly smarter morons who understand that Jack Bauer is somehow America's only hope, but who are themselves unable to think through the analysis or develop a cogent plan of action.

This laughable design might actually work as a comedy. But it is presented with the same sober expectations one gets from Dan Rather or Peter Jennings, who also should not be taken seriously. And this suggests the reason why the Left fears the Right so much. It seems that the Left, who truly are unable to grasp the history and imperatives of the War On Terror, actually belueve that the neocons are intent upon setting loose an army of little Jack Bauers - violent attack thugs who would choose violence as their first option in every case, accomplishing short-term goals at the cost of long-term needs. It explains the dichotomy of people who will say they support the troops, but never their mission when it involves opposing tyranny and freeing millions of people. They fear that somehow, even complete success wil lead inevitably to disaster. America, they believe, cannot be trusted, and yet they never consider the possibility that their own arrogance needs to be considered in the light of history. It's how Leftists can oppose sending troops in to Iraq to free 25-30 million people, but demand we imemdiately rush into Liberia, the Sudan, or Bosnia, no matter the cost or lack of planning. They can demand that we commit to treaties which demand the United States pay billions to other countriesd for no purpose but extortion, but refuse to accept that any other nation has a responsibility to the United States.

Just as Mr. Moore's movie was a fiction taken by many as fact, it would seem that '24' is an illustrative example of another fiction taken far too seriously. And there is a lesson for future education and resolve.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Washington State Supreme Court Awards Win To Seahawks

Seattle - (RNI) Establishing a trend begun in the Gubernatorial Election, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed the apparent results of the on-field play, and awarded a playoff game victory to the Seattle Seahawks over the St. Louis Rams.

The play on the fielded ended with St. Louis ahead on the scoreboard, 27-20. But because the margin was only one score, King County filed suit to review the play results, and because (in the opinion of the WSSC) the Seahawks “clearly intended to score a tying touchdown“, the Seahawks were awarded that touchdown by the court. Then activists from SOS (Seattle-Only-Success) turned up an additional field goal left somehow in Alaska, and the courts agreed to apply that field goal to Seattle’s tally, and at that point disallowed further review, declaring Seattle to be the winner by a revised score of 30-27.

It’s a good thing” commented Steela Lection, “that we were competing against a team inclined to play only by the rules at the time of the contest. If we played a team from New York or California, they could easily have come up with new rules and friendly judges of their own.

“As it is, we can take this win for the greater good. Seattle’s good, anyway

The NFL admitted the after-game review was unusual, but noted that professional sports are about money and presentation, and the league spokesman, Ugota Bikidn, noted “liberal politicians are very good at raising unique arguments and funds from unusual places very quickly, and Seattle is as liberal and revisionist as any place in the country“.