Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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My letter to Patti Bellock, Illinois State Representative

July 30, 2014

My state representative for the 47th district is a lady named Patti Bellock. She seems to be a nice lady, and she’s been in the position for quite some time. She is at least nominally a Republican for certain values of Republican. However, she recently sent out an email to her constituents that included these two paragraphs:

Illinois Supreme Court Decision on Retiree Healthcare

In a 6-to-1 decision on July 3 in the case of Kanerva v. Weems, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that health care benefits for retired public employees are protected under the pension clause in the state constitution, which says public worker benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” The ruling came in response to a class-action legal challenge to a 2012 Illinois law that gave the state the right to require retired state employees to begin contributing to their own health care costs in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay. 

This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.  We will continue to keep you informed as developments occur.

I got a little steamed. She put this entire email out for two paragraphs of incomplete and slanted information. So here is what I sent to her:

Ms. Bellock – In your recent email newsletter you discussed the Illinois Supreme Court ruling on Kanerva v. Weems. I hope you did not mean what I think you meant when you stated, “This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.”

It seems to me that statement implies that “fiscal stability” is sufficient reason for violation of the Illinois State Constitution. My concerns about all of the ways the legislature has addressed the “crisis” have to do with the fact that the public employees retirement systems are set up in the Illinois Constitution. Making significant changes would require an amendment to the Constitution, not just legislation.

I am a retired public school teacher from Hinsdale District 86. I pay ALL of my own medical insurance, although I am nominally included in the group through the district. The implication in your email was that this affected all public employees, when it certainly did not. Putting out an email to let your constituents know about the ruling is one thing, but to then cover it in two short paragraphs seems a waste of time at best and an attempt to affect public opinion without telling the whole story at worst.

Unfortunately, using terms like “in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay” sounds like liberal-speak nowadays. It is not a direction I expected you to take.

I hope you and your colleagues will look at the “fiscal crisis” as something that needs to be corrected through more frugal spending practices, while keeping in mind that legislation in violation of the Constitution is no more legal in Springfield than it is in Washington, D.C. The public employees retirement systems have been systematically (and illegally) plundered by the state government on many occasions over the past four decades, and that created this “crisis” as much as the rampant overspending – it should not be corrected by even more attempts to circumvent the Constitution. Thank you for your attention.

Remember, the entire “fiscal crisis” in Illinois started after the economy took a dive in ’09. The state legislature had been “borrowing” from the retirement funds since at least the early 80s. The investments in the funds were well-managed and they were paying well enough to stay ahead of the theft and still make the retirement payouts. This time, the State went to the same cupboards and found that they were finally at a point where they couldn’t steal any more without breaking the bank. So it was now a fiscal crisis and the retirees were at fault because of their excessive retirement plans – which nobody complained about at the time.

Unlike most states, the setup of the public employees retirement systems were decreed in the 1970 Illinois State Constitution, not created by legislation. Therefore, the state can’t just screw with the systems without problems like Kanerva v. Weems. They are trying all kinds of sleight of hand, like telling the local school districts they have to pony up more money. That was met with a resounding “screw you guys and the horses you rode in on.” There is a new law in place, but it’s been challenged and will no doubt end up going to the Supreme Court for review as well.

If you are a union official and you steal from a pension fund, like the Teamsters, you go to prison. If you are a state senator and/or representative in Illinois, and you steal from the public employees’ retirement funds, it’s “sound fiscal management.” Bah. And while Governor Quinn is an incompetent boob, Bruce Rauner, who is running against him, seems the type to throw the Constitution out just because he’s going to “shake up Springfield.” Double bah.

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More prescient than even he would have expected

November 19, 2013

demonhauntedIt is well-known that Dr. Sagan was not religious – he described himself as agnostic, believing he had seen no proof of a supreme being. His 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, was about using the scientific method and critical thinking instead of superstition and pseudoscience.

Admirable goals, and Carl Sagan was very articulate. His Cosmos series and book (PBS, 1980) probably did more to to help laymen understand the universe than any previous media program. (He also wrote the novel upon which the Jodie Foster film Contact was based.)

But I doubt he would have expected that his description of America in the quote above would have happened so quickly, or that we got there in the way we did. He seemed to believe the “New Age” trends he saw in the 1980s and 90s might grow, and that the much-publicized decrease in our ability to educate our students would result in an overall dumbing down of America. He himself did what he could to keep that from happening. I doubt he thought, though, that only two decades after he wrote those words we would have fallen so far and so willingly.

Hat tip to Scott Lowther and his “Up-Ship” blog for tipping me off to this one.

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Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at www.jerrypournelle.com. I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.

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How to improve our standings in the world’s education rankings

December 7, 2012

I recently saw a reference to yet another article decrying the state of US public education. Here, in a nutshell, is what I think:

Like with the recent presidential election, be careful what you wish for.

Huh? I’ll explain.

See, we say we want one thing, but we reward another. I taught high school for 34 years, in rural, blue-collar and then in “high achieving” suburban environments. I saw a wide range of student achievement and parental and societal expectations. What bugged the living hell out of me wasn’t the belief that if the kid didn’t get into exactly the right college, he would be a failure at life, although that pissed me off a lot. It was that there was so much focus on the environment of the school and the social life offerings there.

It was as if the kids and parents were picking a place to go for their summer vacation, not to get an education. The appearance of the campus, the athletic teams, the other social programs for the students, all the stuff completely unrelated to the actual business of learning dominated their thinking.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We have been looking at education that way all the way through, K through 12 and beyond, for decades.

Schools can’t be demanding, unless it’s an Advanced Placement course. Then you can do darned near anything to a kid and the parents won’t complain, because it’s cool because it’s a college course. We had one at our school that was targeted at sophomores. Sophomores? Really? Since when are they able to handle college material? If they are, why stay in high school? Skip the crap and go get the degree.

But the degrees are watered down in a lot of fields, too, and grade inflation has made “academic rigor” practically meaningless. I laugh when I hear somebody from a regular college complain about the “for-profit colleges” that are out there. To me, they should all be for a profit and not receive any state tax money. You want a college education, you pay for it. You need loans, you get them yourself.

“But college is too expensive.” Sure it is…cut the nonsense out of it, just pare it down to the education, and you can probably reduce costs (and staff) by half. It’s completely gotten out of hand.

But that wasn’t the point of this piece. It’s why we can’t compete in the rankings with other countries.

Here’s how to fix it, if the rankings are the priority:

Shoot the horses that can’t jump. Start in, say, 6th grade, separating kids by examination into college bound and non-college bound programs. Non-college bound will prepare the “workers” our Socialist President thinks we need more of. (How Lenin of him to call us “workers.” Sheesh.) Another set of exams at 8th or 9th grade. Kids who test high in science and math don’t get to be dockworkers or taxi drivers, or investment bankers or hotel operators…they are funneled into engineering and pure sciences, or into medical profession preparation.

You see, in many countries those are the kids who are tested for the rankings – not the entire general population. Every time we include everyone in that kind of testing we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Make businesses run the colleges. For example, if you test well in 12th grade, you can go to the college run by GE, or by Apple, or by BP…their own R&D folks would teach, and you would learn what they want you to learn to actually be of use to them. Afterwards, you work for them for a number of years to pay back your education. No summer vacations starting in mid-May, no winter or spring break…you learn straight through, 8 hours a day. You could do the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in two years, tops, without “Gender studies” and garbage like that loaded in the curriculum. No football games, no fraternities.

This would also give those companies a stake in how the lower grades are handled…I can’t see how that could be worse than the way we in public education are led by the nose by the colleges today.

Sound silly? Japan has been doing this for more than 20 years, that I know of. I know because I was present for a panel discussion with Japanese educators where they laid the system out for us.

Trim the fun stuff out. No more athletic teams. No extracurricular activities. No fine arts. None of those are used in those rankings, so why bother? Do you think the Estonians who rank higher than our kids are all great violinists or soccer players? If they are, it is because their parents decided to have them do that after school on their own, not depend on the school to pay for it and teach it. There are some outstanding concert bands in Japan, for instance – but not school-sponsored, and they for sure don’t rehearse during the school day.

And yes, I know that since I am a former fine arts teacher I sound hypocritical. Remember, I am telling you how to raise our rankings, not to provide the proverbial “well-rounded education.” Obviously that has not been a priority or I would not have had a job for 34 years.

If you know of a country that matches the extent of arts and athletic and extracurricular activities we offer in most of our schools, let me know; I don’t know of one – including those who rank ahead of us.

While we’re at it, we can cut about half the social studies classes – have you looked at what kids are offered today? But American History and American Government, especially learning about that pesky Constitution, are not required. But we don’t cut the Home Ec and Industrial Tech – those are needed for the kids going into the service and technical industries. We need more auto shop, not less.

Full-time school. Sorry, fellow teachers, but the cushy part of the gig is the days off. We aren’t bankers and really it doesn’t make sense to barely see kids 180 days a year. Kids no longer work on the family farm, and that’s what determined the school schedule a hundred years ago that we still use today. Give ’em July off, even, but not Columbus Day, or Presidents’ Day, or whatever, and for God’s sake cut out all the shortened days for conferences and teacher work days and meetings. Just teach the kids. We have been reducing the actual number of hours kids learn for decades. It’s a crime, and I never saw that most of those days were worth the time spent. Most of us thought most of the stuff we did was a waste of time and effort. Often the activities were planned to make it look like the administration had us focused on something new and cutting-edge; then we went back into the classroom, closed the door, and taught like we always had because the old way still worked.

Make teachers accountable. Not in terms of social interaction, but in knowledge of subject matter. I don’t want my granddaughters to get an education from people who teach math but got no higher than a B in algebra – and that is far too possible today. One of the reasons for the turnover in education is because smart people get out to do something real with their lives instead of putting up with the administrative BS, the snotty kids and their arrogant parents. That leaves us with, sorry to say, not the top of the heap. I’m not saying we need PhDs in physics to teach our classes – often those folks have no clue how to teach. But we do need people who know how to teach and what they are teaching.

Look, to a great degree, the effectiveness of a school has to do largely with the raw material. I taught in a district that selected for intelligence just like a Catholic high school that required entrance testing, except ours was based on housing costs. You couldn’t live in the district if you couldn’t afford a house there, and really stupid people rarely could. Or really unmotivated people. Move kids from low-achieving areas to that school and sorry, you wouldn’t get the same results. We were good but not that good. We had smart kids to work with, motivated kids with motivated parents and a history of valuing a good education. So we got results and were ranked high in the state tests. But that’s a topic for another piece another day.

That should be enough to move us up, say, 10 places. But we won’t do it, because we can all complain about the rankings, but we still want our daughters to be cheerleaders, or in drama, or our sons to play football or (heaven forbid) join the Chess Club. And then, when they graduate, we want them to “enjoy their college experience.” When or if we ever get more serious about kids getting an education than about the football team’s record, we’ll see some changes.

Oh, and one more…

Make the schools ethnically and culturally homogenous. According to an article in the UK Guardian, the top 10 countries in reading are:

South Korea
Finland
Canada
New Zealand
Japan
Australia
The Netherlands
Belgium
Norway
Estonia

Math and Science rankings were similar. Show me how any of those countries are as ethnically and/or culturally diverse as the USA. The dirty little secret is that we are trying to be everything for everybody, and to do anything else is racist by the standards of the US. I’m not saying any ethnic or cultural group is less able than another, just that cultures dictate learning styles, as well as a host of other things that help or hinder receptivity to educational processes, and we can’t do everything at once for everybody. I think some of the inner-city charter schools are doing well because they understand this and focus on particular neighborhoods and populations. They have high standards but they don’t have to take their eyes off the educational ball. We are constantly being told we have to do this and that because of culture and diversity. Either we all learn the same way and buckle down or we don’t. If we can’t get to kids one way, we don’t have time to find six others. We really don’t. But other schools can.

When I retired, the smallest department by enrollment was “Educational Services,” or what used to be called “Special Education.” It also had the largest number of faculty. Huh? But that, too, is another piece for another day.

This little piece ought to piss some folks off. But I’m telling you, if the goal is to be better at math than the kids in Finland, we have to become them. We can’t do it the way we have our schools structured now.

Well, what do you think?

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Appropriate comment for many occasions

December 4, 2012

overabundance of schooling

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“Atlas Shrugs Part II” opens Friday!

October 10, 2012

With a new cast, the second installment of the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy, based on the Ayn Rand novel, opens in theaters this Friday. It will be interesting how the whole “Galt’s motor” thing will be handled in the near-future setting of the movie series. (The book gives no particular date, but there is a lot of speculation that was to be set in the – at the time of the book’s publication – near future of the mid-1970s.) It will probably not be in theaters for a long time, so check it out right away. It’s important to see before the election. And if you haven’t purchased the first installment, it is available here and is on the Amazon video-on-demand service as well as  on Netflix.

https://www.facebook.com/AtlasShruggedMovie

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Constitutionality

May 31, 2012

From the Illinois State Constitution, as ratified by the voters of Illinois in 1970:

SECTION 5. PENSION AND RETIREMENT RIGHTS
Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

Illinois legislators: Was that so hard to understand? Did you have to swear an oath when you were sworn in to your current positions?

Oh, I forgot – They’ve just learned from the President and the US Congress…