Monthly Archives: October 2010

Wishing and Hoping: There Ain’t No Superman

I actually ventured out of the house Saturday night to see the flick “Waiting for Superman.” That’s the movie that supposedly is going to do for education in this country what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for the environment. Well, that’s setting the bar about as low as you can. But it is a compelling and informative movie nonetheless.

And here’s the inconvenient truth. Our failure to provide the majority of our young people with an excellent education — one that allows them to prepare and compete for jobs in the U.S. and in the global economy and to function as consumers and citizens — is THE most serious issue facing our nation.

We’ve been wishing and hoping for a solution to the education mess now for decades — and there ain’t no Superman. But perhaps the movie “Waiting for Superman” will get people talking about the issue and working together on solutions.

There has been plenty written about the film, including this NYT op-ed by Gail Collins, “Waiting for Someone.” Here’s an excerpt:

Let’s talk for a minute about education.

Already, I can see readers racing for the doors. This is one of the hardest subjects in the world to write about. Many, many people would rather discuss … anything else. Sports. Crazy Tea Party candidates. Crop reports.

So kudos to the new documentary “Waiting for Superman” for ratcheting up the interest level. It follows the fortunes of five achingly adorable children and their hopeful, dedicated, worried parents in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., as they try to gain entrance to high-performing charter schools. Not everybody gets in, and by the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.

Here’s my take on some of the points raised in the film by Davis Guggenheim.

  • When we are talking about the crisis involving education — and we’re really talking about the future of our young people and our nation’s economic prosperity — there are no easy or quick fixes. Clearly. We’ve spent decades following one reform after another and spending billions of dollars.  No matter how you look at it — dropout rates, test scores, math and science abilities compared to students in other countries — the results have been abysmal.
  • Great teachers make all the difference. Clearly. The question is how do you train, hire, retain and compensate great teachers?
  • And not everyone is a great teacher. There are bad teachers — just like there are bad doctors, lawyers and pro football quarterbacks. The question shouldn’t be how do you get rid of bad teachers. Rather it should be how to you help classroom teachers succeed. Teaching is difficult — and in many schools there is no support, training and mentoring available.
  • Saying that, not everybody is going to succeed as a classroom teacher, no matter how much support and training. That’s true in business, government, you name it. The problem with ineffective teachers though is that they do real damage to young people who are depending on them. You can be a douche bag for years in business and government jobs and, well, it may not really matter? Woot.
  • Guggenheim doesn’t appear to me to have a political or social axe to grind. Still, he points the finger of blame for this mess squarely at the powerful teachers’ unions.
  • Yep. Unions work hard to maintain the status quo. That’s true in education. It’s true in other industries as well. And the teachers’ unions protect bad teachers. No question. But I have a hard time swallowing the notion that if teachers’ unions went away this crisis would go away as well. Full disclosure: I was (maybe still am) a member of the American Association of University Professors during my faculty days at Kent State.
  • And I remember attending a meeting of Leadership Akron 15 or so years ago to learn more about charter schools, then just getting started in the area and elsewhere. The head of the charter school — a businessman — made a number of points, but one stood out for me. He said there was no point paying one teacher $40,000 a year when you could hire two teachers for $20,000 each. Ah, union cards anyone?
  • Here’s from the Collins op-ed:

Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions. The movie’s heroes are people like the union-fighting District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, the chief of the much-praised, union-free Harlem Children’s Zone.

“I want to be able to get rid of teachers that we know aren’t able to teach kids,” says Canada.

That’s unarguable, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers. But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back. Finland, which is currently cleaning our clock in education scores, has teachers who are almost totally unionized. The states with the best student performance on standardized tests tend to be the ones with the strongest teachers’ unions.

  • Michelle Rhee, late of the DC public schools, is featured in the film for her attempts to reform what appears to be one of the worse school systems in the nation. One of her proposals was to have teachers voluntarily give up tenure for the opportunity to be judged on performance and paid as much as $120,000 a year. Most people in business like the idea of merit pay. And maybe it will work in education as well — although I believe the standards for measuring success and performance are dicey at best. But here’s the rub. Outside of DC — which must get money from foundations and the federal government — how many voters are going to pass school levies that would pay K-12 teachers as much as $120,000 a year — great teacher or not? Not many. In fact, the school system where my children went and graduated — one of the best in Ohio — is facing stiff and well-funded opposition to a tax levy on Tuesday. Why? Opponents believe that the teachers are over-paid. They average about $60,000 a year. Merit pay anyone?
  • The young children profiled in the movie — those trying to get into better schools via a lottery — all had one thing in common: supportive and involved parents or grandparents. That ain’t always the case. And many of the students in our public schools are disruptive, violent and not all that thrilled or committed to being there in the first place. Sorry. Another inconvenient truth.
  • And there are great success stories out there involving education reformers and/or charter or private schools. The movie highlights several of them and they appear to be models worth replicating and bringing to scale if possible.  But even that is no guarantee. Here’s from the Collins op-ed:

But plot-wise, the movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.”

In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” I’m still haunted by a debate I stumbled across in the Texas Legislature a decade ago in which conservatives repelled any attempt to impose accountability standards on the state’s charter schools, even after only 37 percent of the charter students passed state academic achievement tests, compared with 80 percent of the public schoolchildren. There’s something about an unfettered school that lifts the hearts of the Born Free crowd.

Ideally,  “Waiting for Superman” can get us as a nation to recognize we really are facing a crisis and that we must do something to solve it and fast.

We can’t afford another couple decades of waiting and hoping.

But there ain’t no Superman.


Marathons: Inspiring Stories and Congratulations

As we head into the weekend, there is an event taking place in DC Sunday that brings out the best in people. No. It’s not the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It’s the Marine Corps Marathon.

My friend Tiffany Westover-Kernan is running in the marathon. Good luck and best wishes to her and the thousands of others who will take the 26.2 mile self-directed tour of the nation’s capital.

Most importantly, I hope they have fun and enjoy the experience.

I know I did when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in the mid-1980s. By that time I was no longer running against the clock. I was running to achieve something that was important to me for a variety of reasons. I expect that is true for most who will be at the starting line on Sunday.

But for me that wasn’t always the case. I ran my first marathon a few years earlier in Columbus and was intent on finishing under four hours. And I was on pace to do that until about mile 20 when things pretty much fell apart on what was an extremely hot and humid day. I finished in 4:20.

And I was deflated. I had just finished a marathon but I didn’t feel good about it. And when people asked me about how I did, I mumbled, okay.

So I read with interest a blog post in the NYT, “On Post-Marathon Monday, Please, Just Say Congratulations,” by Jim Axelrod, a national correspondent for CBS News who completed his first marathon in New York last year.

His time: 4 hours and 30 minutes. He was pleased, considered it a personal accomplishment and the achievement of something, well, inspirational. Then came the questions from friends a co-workers. Here’s from the post:

Aside from my wedding day, and the days my three kids were born, Marathon Sunday was the most important day of my life. Along with dispelling the discontent and burning off the malaise, I obliterated my limits and redefined my capacity. Not bad for four and a half hours of work.

The next morning, endorphins still pumping, gingerly making my way down West 57th Street to CBS News headquarters, I had the oddest encounter with a colleague.

“Hey, Jim, I heard you ran the marathon. Congratulations.” I smiled proudly. But he wasn’t finished. “So … what was your time?”

There was no way this fine fellow, whom I would charitably describe as no stranger to the buffet table, could have had the faintest understanding of what a good time for a 46-year-old first time marathoner might be. Or a bad time, for that matter.

And the point:

So do me a favor. On the Monday after Marathon Sunday, when you see the co-worker who completed the 26.2 miles — running, walking, or crawling — taking their victory lap around the office, how about we leave it at “congratulations, that’s some kind of achievement.” If you must add something, how about — “have fun?”

When I was on my extended vacation in Europe this summer, there was a triathlon in Budapest that attracted world-class athletes from around the world. The day after the triathlon, on a plane heading to Rome, I ended up sitting next to one of the competitors, a young woman from Canada. We were chatting about the event and I asked: “How did you do?”

Well, clearly that question was as popular as a fart in church. Her reply: “Okay, for me.”


I should have just said congratulations.

And hope you had fun.

Inside the Beltway: Sweet

Well, this time yesterday morning I was at a hotel Inside the Beltway munching on a breakfast of granola, fruit and toast and quaffing as much coffee as possible. Sweet.

Until the bill arrived: $17.90 — and a gratuity would be greatly appreciated. Sweet Maria. OK. I guess that isn’t that outrageous for cities where people visit, conduct business and where people can get jobs paying above minimum wage: Washington, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland and so on.

I’ve been heading Inside the Beltway on business now for decades. And it strikes me that this is the one place in the country that is never touched by the realities that face the rest of the country: unemployment, downturns in housing and so on. Sweet.

OK. OK. I know. That applies mostly to the Intelligentsia — those who prosper from their relationships with government, the military, corporations, nonprofits and service industries, including public relations.

It doesn’t apply to everyone. Here’s an example.

I’m taking a taxi from the airport to a meeting just outside the power corridor of K Street. And I can see that the driver is making notes while stuck in traffic on a yellow legal pad. He opines that he is preparing his brief for a legal case that he is pursuing against the federal government and the Obama administration.

Here’s the backstory. He says he makes $12,000 a year — but two credit card companies allowed him to charge $60,000 to fix up a house he owns. The idea was to make repairs and flip the house during the housing boom. Well, the rest is history. Note to self: How can you lose money on any house in DC? I digress.

His grievance. He argues that he should receive the same bailout considerations as Wall Street, the banks and Government Motors. Sweet.

And hard to disagree with him. Just sayin’.

So that was my trip Inside the Beltway — and I made my way back to Cleveland despite the hurricane-force winds that greeted the airplane about 50 miles from the airport.

And given the delays, I didn’t get to see the season debut of Team LeBozo.

But I understand that didn’t go very well.


Christine O’Donnell and Inside the Beltway

Well, I’m off to DC this morning for a few days of meetings Inside the Beltway. And I actually enjoy going to DC immediately before the elections. Politics is a blood sport there — with a lot of jobs, money and egos on the line. And something tells me that the hitting and political bashing will be aggressive and severe — just like in the days before the NFL became a flag football league. Oops. I digress.

And I’m going to noodle over this for a while. “Why is there much ado about Christine O’Donnell?” That’s the title of an interesting article in USA Today by David Paul Kuhn. Here’s an excerpt:

Christine O’Donnell will lose big. She’s down about 18 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average. Her state has less than a million residents. Nothing about O’Donnell should be national news.

But O’Donnell is headline news. She’s everywhere. Mocked on Saturday Night Live. Analyzed by premiere columnists. Anderson Cooper is fact-checking her. Her name was mentioned roughly 900 times in the past week’s news, based on a Nexis search. That’s more than twice the mentions of Marco Rubio.

Think about that. Rubio is ahead by double digits in a three-man race. Like O’Donnell, he’s running for the Senate. Florida’s population is 18 times Delaware’s. Florida is a key swing state. And Rubio is future presidential material. But O’Donnell is far bigger news today.

Politics is becoming reality television. And O’Donnell is the star of the 2010 season. She’s the freakshow’s freak. Her celebrity is indicative of our time. She’s famous not because she’s relevant. She’s relevant because she’s famous. This is why her fame survives her long odds. She’s like a character on MTV’s Real World. Good drama. The media elevates her because she’s outlandish, silly and cute, as these things go in politics. Never mind her chances. She’s good television.

O’Donnell wins even if she loses. She’s been flirting with the spotlight since the 1990s. The social conservative starlet, as featured on MTV and HBO. She will leave this race more famous. And notorious. They’re synonymous today. Maybe, like Sarah Palin, she too will earn a reality television show.

Gee. Politics as reality TV. Hard to argue with that.

But here’s another reality — which may explain the attraction of O’Donnell and others. People in many parts of the country believe that the career politicians who head to DC — and then never leave even when they get bounced from office — are out of touch with reality.  And that the politicians and policy wonks are part of a new elite — not really touched by unemployment, housing debacles, bad schools and so on.

Charles Murray writes in The Washington Post, “The tea party warns of a New Elite. They’re right.” From the article:

The tea party appears to be of one mind on at least one thing: America has been taken over by a New Elite.

“On one side, we have the elites,” Fox News host Glenn Beck explained last month, “and the other side, we have the regular people.” The elites are “no longer in touch with what the country is really thinking,” Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle complained this summer. And when Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell recently began a campaign ad by saying, “I didn’t go to Yale,” she could be confident that her supporters would approve.

And more:

The bubble that encases the New Elite crosses ideological lines and includes far too many of the people who have influence, great or small, on the course of the nation. They are not defective in their patriotism or lacking a generous spirit toward their fellow citizens. They are merely isolated and ignorant. The members of the New Elite may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it.


I’ll do my best not to burst any bubbles.

Just sayin.’

Elections, Candidates and Wusses

I’ll admit that I’m not paying all that much attention to the upcoming elections. I mailed in my absentee ballot yesterday. And it was pretty much of a yawner. I figure that no matter who you vote for nothing really changes all that much. Sorry Barack.

And I voted for Barack and the Dems two years ago. Not this time around. Why? Because as a group they are wusses. They are as bad as the John McCain Republicans. As best I can tell the Dems essentially have no message during this campaign. They aren’t necessary in favor of the economic stimulus package. But they ain’t against it either. Health care reform may be good. Maybe not. I hate to think what would happen if they had to take a stand on baseball’s designated hitter rule. I digress.

Anyway, the Dems have become like Republicans: wusses.

And this isn’t just the rant of a pajama-clad citizen journalist. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendall — a Democrat — said the same thing last night on one of the TV talking head show. Here’s from a Washington Post blog:

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) called members of his party “a bunch of wusses” during an appearance Wednesday on CNN’s “Parker Spitzer.”

“We’re running from the things that we’ve done, running from the things we believe instead of saying, ‘Here’s what we stand for,’ ” Rendell said in discussing the midterm elections.

In large part that to me explains the attraction of Tea Party candidates. They say what they stand for — and they don’t appear to be clogging the center like the majority of other candidates.

And it appears to me that a lot of people are now willing to lose an election — based on what they stand for and believe in — than just turn the seat over to one of the wusses, Democrat or Republican.

We’ll see.

E-mail, Social Networks and Extended Vacations

When I was in Europe for five weeks, I didn’t spend any time fretting over Twitter or Facebook. I deleted most of my e-mails with great enthusiasm. And amazingly enough, doesn’t appear that I missed much. In fact, life was pretty good off the grid. Pretty good indeed.

And something tells me that I am not alone in thinking about this. Monica Hesse has an interesting article in The Washington Post, “Keeping up with social networking sites: How much is enough?”  Here’s from the article:

“The basic notion that people reach a technological saturation point applies to a lot of people,” says Lee Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, which studies the Web’s impact on society. “They literally say, enough is enough . . . and my mind is going to blow up and I can’t take it anymore.”

Wow. Enough is enough. Sweet.

I’ve always considered Twitter to be an incredible time suck. So I’ve taken TweetDeck off the computer screen and freed the Tweets. Life is good. I’ll still check in occasionally, but not much.

And when I was in Europe I learned how swamped I was becoming with e-mails — some important and work-related, most the equivalent of junk snail mail. I was getting around 100 e-mails a day. But get this. Not one phone call in five weeks. Woot.

So I came back determined to eliminate all the unnecessary e-mails. Hitting that button that allows you to get off an e-mail list provides an exhilarating experience, much like the endorphin rush I used to get while running. Try it. You’ll like it. And you’ll be amazed at how it cuts down on your junk e-mails. I haven’t flown on Delta in years but was getting regular account updates and promotional offers. Enough is enough.

And then I noticed that the worst offenders were the political e-mails. I contributed a very modest amount in 2008 to the Obama campaign and ever since I’ve been deluged with e-mails encouraging me to attend rallies, go door-to-door to support health care reform (nah, too tired), vote for various candidates, and of course give more money.

I’ve had nice notes from Barack and Michelle, from the Ohio secretary of state, from campaign directors and various candidates.

Here’s from Michelle:

Rob —

None of us can sit this election out.

Not when we’re just beginning to see the results of the change we’ve all been working for, and when there’s still so much left to do.

That’s why this election is so important, and that’s why we can’t let complacency overtake us in these last few weeks.

I have two things to ask of you.

First, Barack and I need you to commit to vote this fall.

Uh, let’s see. Yeah there it is: unsubscribe.

OK. Enough is enough. I’m deleting those e-mails and getting off the lists as quickly as I can.  And in fairness, at least Barack and Michelle know my first name is Rob. The Ohio Republican Party believes it is Jewell. Go figure.

But even eliminating these e-mails may not provide an escape. Last night during Happy Hour, in the midst of my second double Jameson, I received a call from the Ohio Democratic Party. Whoever invented Caller ID deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor. IMO

And with still two weeks go to before the election, if that happens again, I’m contributing to the campaign of Christine O’Donnell with the stipulaton that she puts a curse on the lot of them.

Just sayin’.

How I Spent My Summer/Fall Vacation

For the thousands one or two of you who followed my five-week vacation in Europe this summer and fall, here are some modest updates.

When we were in Salzburg we toured one of the salt mines. To get from one level of the mine to another, you had to go via a slide. Think of it as riding on a wooden banister at breakneck speed with no brakes directly into Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Woot. My blood pressure is slowly returning to normal.

And on our trips from Budapest we visited Italy and Slovenia. I could write some commentary and post photos, but fortunately no need. My daughter, Jessica, has already done the heavy lifting on her blog, Budajest.

So I think I’ll just sit back and relax, take a quick nap and try to rally for the Yankees/Rangers game.

Gee. Maybe I need another vacation.