Monthly Archives: May 2011

Can We Create Enough Jobs?

I opined yesterday about the possibility that the USA will become a country of McWorkers. And even my gratuitous reference to Pippa didn’t create a firestorm among readers. Maybe we’ve given up on the notion of significantly reducing unemployment. And maybe we can’t create enough jobs — especially ones that provide some measure of security, benefits and adequate pay.

This just isn’t the early morning rant of a pajama-clad citizen journalist. Two writers with big megaphones — Arianna Huffington and Katrina Vanden Heuvel — shouted about the same issue in separate opinion pieces yesterday and this morning.

Here’s from Heuvel’s WaPo article, “Why aren’t the powers that be tackling the job crisis?“:

Washington is the only city in America where housing values are going up. That may help explain why the political class is so divorced from the nation’s agonies. Sure, the entire nation celebrated the dispatch of Osama bin Laden, but when it comes to the economy, the Beltway is a world unto itself.

Two years from the official beginning of the “recovery,” America continues to suffer a deep and punishing jobs crisis. One in six Americans of working age is unemployed or underemployed. College students, laden with record levels of debt, are graduating into the worst jobs market since the Great Depression. Long-term unemployment is at unprecedented levels. At current rates of job growth, we won’t return to pre-recession employment levels until 2016. And the jobs that are being created — largely in the service industry — tend to have lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost.

Then she criticizes leaders in both parties — Republicans first but with the Democrats taking a turn at bat as well — for doing just about everything but advancing realistic proposals to create jobs.

As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post noted, it is a measure of Washington’s remove from the country that the two plans were unveiled by the two bodies with the least power to make anything happen — the minority House Democrats and the minority Senate Republicans. Those who do have the power — the White House, the House Republican majority and the Senate Democratic majority — remain silent about jobs. Instead, they are locked in a macabre dance to the death on deficits — oblivious to the human casualties caused by mass unemployment.

This might be diversionary, at best, were America not in such dire straits. Home values are falling again. Wages aren’t keeping up with prices. States and cities are laying off more employees. The trade deficit is rising, despite the lower dollar. Masked by the statistic of 9 percent unemployment are 25 million people in need of full time work. Mass unemployment, particularly in a society like ours with such a limited safety net, is a tale of misery, one that resounds across the country and goes virtually unheard in our capital. Americans think Washington isn’t listening — and they are right.

Next up, Arianna Huffington, writing “If American Can Do Whatever We Set Our Mind To, How Come Our Leaders Won’t Set Their Minds On Jobs?

“We do big things,” President Obama said during his State of the Union speech in January. And, in fact, we do. Sometimes. Finding and dispatching Osama bin Laden certainly qualifies. “We are once again reminded,” the president said after announcing the terrorist’s death, “that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”

But if that’s true, why are our leaders so accepting of a stagnant economy? If they really focused on the havoc it is wreaking on the lives of tens of millions of Americans, they would, in the memorable words of Richard Clarke, be running around with their hair on fire.

But they’re not. Instead, they express concern but resign themselves to the fact that, as White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee put it in an interview with HuffPost, the economy has “a long way to go.” Meanwhile, we’re being asked to accept years of underemployment, low growth and draconian cuts to America’s social safety nets as the “new normal.” Or, as Bill Clinton put it in a different context, the “tyranny of low expectations.”

It’s a testament to these low expectations of our leaders that we’re supposed to take recent economic figures as some kind of good news. In March, the economy added 216,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell from 8.9 percent to 8.8 percent. Not bad. But not good, either. And if you take a closer look at the numbers, you’ll want to keep that celebratory champagne on ice. Because while adding jobs is obviously better than shedding them, even if we continue to add 200,000 jobs a month, it would take until 2019 to achieve the employment level we had when the recession started. “There are still five unemployed workers per job opening,” Heidi Shierholz, economist with the Economic Policy Institute, told HuffPost, “far worse than the worst month of the early-2000s recession.”

What’s more, much of the downturn in the unemployment rate was actually caused by people giving up and leaving the workforce. As the New York Times noted, participation in the workforce fell to 64.2 percent, the lowest mark in 25 years. If you were to factor those who have stopped looking for work into the official unemployment rate, it would be 9.8 percent. If you were to include those working part-time who would rather be working full-time, it would be 15.7 percent. “Being happy with the falling unemployment rate right now,” said Wells Fargo’s Jeremy Ryan, “would be like being happy that your team won because the other team’s bus broke down on the way to the field.”

And the point?

How are these not hair on fire numbers?

Yet our leaders, who are supposed to be doing big things, seem instead to have made their peace with “the new normal.” Take the Fed: it could be doing a lot more to create jobs, but instead it’s guarding against the phantom bogeyman of inflation. “Why has Mr. Bernanke decided to accept widespread unemployment for years on end, even though he believes he has the power to reduce it?” asked David Leonhardt. “After all, does the economy feel as if it’s on the verge of overheating?” Hardly.

At the New America Foundation’s conference about the Federal Reserve, the Peterson Institute’s Joe Gagnon said that the Fed’s timidity is responsible for the loss of 1 million jobs. “Apparently,” writes Mark Thoma, “the millions and millions of people who are unemployed, some of whom won’t be reemployed until years from now if we do nothing to help, are supposed to be patient because people with power over policy are worried about inflation and higher interest rates.”

Our elected leaders aren’t any better — less focused on the job crisis than on arguing about how to best divvy up harsh cuts to the social safety net and programs that benefit the middle class. Meanwhile, profits for the Fortune 500 jumped by 81 percent in 2010, to $318 billion. Clearly big things aren’t out of reach for everybody.

OK. I know that we have a number of important issues — none with easy answers — that we have to deal with: federal debt and spending, taxes, health care, education, immigration, and the threat to our nation’s security at home and abroad among them.

But I hope the elites Inside the Beltway and elsewhere haven’t given up on the need to create enough jobs to get our country back working again.

McJobs and the Fading Middle Class

I know it’s difficult — for a pajama-clad citizen journalist and others — to concentrate on more than one story or issue at a time. So for the past few weeks we’ve been fretting mostly about Osama bin Laden and Pippa. (Note: Mention of Pippa is a gratuitous reference to wake up the search engines in the early a.m.)

Anyway, back to jobs — and what’s happening to the middle class, or what’s left of it, in the USA.

First, I’m glad McDonald’s is hiring. And good for those — young, old and in between — who want or need to work there. But what’s this say about our economy? And about the disappearing middle class?

Here’s from an interesting article on The Huffington Post by Andy Kroll, a staff writer at Mother Jones, “How the McEconomy Bombed the American Worker: The Hollowing Out of the Middle Class“:

Think of it as a parable for these grim economic times. On April 19th, McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2% acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a million souls flocked to McDonald’s hoping for a steady paycheck, when nearly 14 million Americans are out of work and nearly a million more are too discouraged even to look for a job. At this point, it apparently made no difference to them that the fast-food industry pays some of the lowest wages around: on average, $8.89 an hour, or barely half the $15.95 hourly average across all American industries.

On an annual basis, the average fast-food worker takes home $20,800, less than half the national average of $43,400. McDonald’s appears to pay even worse, at least with its newest hires. In the press release for its national hiring day, the multibillion-dollar company said it would spend $518 million on the newest round of hires, or $8,354 a head. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “McJob” as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

Then Kroll opines about the “rise of the McWorker”:

The evidence points to the latter. According to a recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the biggest growth in private-sector job creation in the past year occurred in positions in the low-wage retail, administrative, and food service sectors of the economy. While 23% of the jobs lost in the Great Recession that followed the economic meltdown of 2008 were “low-wage” (those paying $9-$13 an hour), 49% of new jobs added in the sluggish “recovery” are in those same low-wage industries. On the other end of the spectrum, 40% of the jobs lost paid high wages ($19-$31 an hour), while a mere 14% of new jobs pay similarly high wages.

As a point of comparison, that’s much worse than in the recession of 2001 after the high-tech bubble burst.  Then, higher wage jobs made up almost a third of all new jobs in the first year after the crisis.

The hardest hit industries in terms of employment now are finance, manufacturing, and especially construction, which was decimated when the housing bubble burst in 2007 and has yet to recover. Meanwhile, NELP found that hiring for temporary administrative and waste-management jobs, health-care jobs, and of course those fast-food restaurants has surged.

Indeed in 2010, one in four jobs added by private employers was a temporary job, which usually provides workers with few benefits and even less job security. It’s not surprising that employers would first rely on temporary hires as they regained their footing after a colossal financial crisis. But this time around, companies have taken on temp workers in far greater numbers than after previous downturns.  Where 26% of hires in 2010 were temporary, the figure was 11% after the early-1990s recession and only 7% after the downturn of 2001.

As many labor economists have begun to point out, we’re witnessing an increasing polarization of the U.S. economy over the past three decades. More and more, we’re seeing labor growth largely at opposite ends of the skills-and-wages spectrum — among, that is, the best and the worst kinds of jobs.

At one end of job growth, you have increasing numbers of people flipping burgers, answering telephones, engaged in child care, mopping hallways, and in other low-wage lines of work. At the other end, you have increasing numbers of engineers, doctors, lawyers, and people in high-wage “creative” careers. What’s disappearing is the middle, the decent-paying jobs that helped expand the American middle class in the mid-twentieth century and that, if the present lopsided recovery is any indication, are now going the way of typewriters and landline telephones.

OK. McDonald’s is an easy target. And that’s unfair because that company didn’t cause the crisis we are now facing as a nation when it comes to generating and maintaining well-paying jobs that allow an individual or family to be secure in the middle class. We pissed many of those jobs away during the past two or three decades mostly through faulty trade policies and tax laws that have encouraged our multinational corporations to either outsource jobs to other countries or hire in those countries where wages are lower. So it goes. And I’m told that many who join McDonald’s in what I’ll call counter jobs go on to careers with the company in management after receiving excellent training and on-the-job experience.

Let’s see what David Brooks, writing in the NYT this morning, has to say about all this:

So Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious. One of those signs comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.

According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has a smaller share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household. Government actuaries predict that the trust fund that pays for these benefits will run out of money within seven years.

Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.

Part of the problem has to do with structural changes in the economy. Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

This is a big problem. It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.

A big problem — to say the least. But it’s not one that elected officials, policy makers and other miscreants appear to be spending much time concentrating on.

It’s the economy, stupid. And the country needs jobs — and plenty of them — that provide middle class paychecks and lifestyles.

Otherwise, we are going to be a nation of McWorkers.

Just sayin.’

And by the way, bin Laden might be a little chilly these days because Hell did freeze over this week. A national mainstream publication — The New York Times — wrote an article critical of Cisco Systems, and the Cisco Kid, CEO John Chambers.

For all of us long-suffering Cisco shareholders, enjoy.

Pippa, Lara Logan and Journalism

Well, I enjoyed the weekend. I managed to get in two long runs as I look ahead to running this Sunday the half marathon in Pittsburgh. And I’m convinced that spring will be here in Northeast Ohio in another month or so. Yesterday provided a preview. So what’s this have to do with Pippa, Lara Logan and journalism?

When I run I noodle about what I’m going to write. I’ve done that for decades. The time on the concrete — spent totally alone these days — allows me to concentrate and many times even outline on my mind’s computer a blog post, article and so on. And I chuckled yesterday about the weird nature of blogging, especially when you are doing it for no apparent career-enhancing, commercial, political or monetary reason. Note to self: Don’t tell my wife this. She’ll think I’m wasting my time.

Many days I’ll get up and either before or immediately after a run in the early a.m. try to write and post something with at least a modest amount of substance and insight on topics that I believe are important: education, jobs, the economy, civility and so on. Hey, isn’t that the role of a pajama-clad citizen journalist — and journalism in general?


What I do know is that when I opine about Pippa’s underwear — or lack thereof — the number of readers spike to the point that my fingers start to sweat. Gee. I might actually be attracting an audience. Then reality returns when I get back to education, jobs, the economy, civility an so on.

Anyway, if that in any way reflects the nature of journalism these days — and what readers and viewers expect of journalists — are journalism degrees useless?

Here’s Alex Alvarez in Mediate, commenting on a story in The Daily Beast that ranks the 20 most useless degrees. And the one that heads the list: journalism.

Getting into a good university, as anyone will tell you, is hard work. Harder still is mustering up the confidence that your (often all too pricey) education will be put to good use, so that one does not find oneself spending an entire semester reading The Canterbury Tales in its original middle English (True. Effing. Story.) for nothing. It’s good to know ahead of time, then, that your degree has some sort of worth, that it will eventually lead to a well-paying job rife with opportunities for advancement. Which is exactly why I will dissuade my hypothetical children from majoring in journalism, and will instead force themgently urge them to consider a more potentially lucrative career path, like as becoming a Kardashian.

Using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale (a salary comparison database of sorts), The Daily Beast ranked the 20 most useless degrees. Journalism comes in at number 1, just narrowly beating out “underwater basketweaving” and “fluffer.” The site paid special attention to factors such as start and mid-career salary levels for the profession most associated with said degree (“writing brochure copy for a travel agency in suburban New Jersey”), expected change in job opportunities within a decade, and the expected percentage change in available jobs within a decade.

Well, I have two degrees in journalism. And I always figured it to be a good way to get a liberal arts education — while still developing a skill that might allow you to ask questions other than: “Dude, you want fries with that?”

And maybe The Daily Beast does have it right. Journalism degrees in this age of Twitter, Facebook, smart phones and so on may be useless.

And maybe journalist is the wrong descriptor now for those people who aren’t just sitting around in their pajamas, but who are willing to put time and effort into gathering information, checking the facts and trying to get it correct, and then conveying the stories to readers and viewers in a variety of media.

Lara Logan talked recently with 60 minutes and other news outlets including the NYT about her being sexually assaulted by a mob in Egypt while reporting about the wave that swept Mubarak from office in the early days of the Arab Spring.

And Bill Keller had an interesting and informative article in the NYT mag yesterday about the dangers facing combat photographers.

I don’t know whether Lara Logan or the combat photographers mentioned in Keller’s article have journalism degrees.

But I do know that without them — and thousands of others like them — we sure wouldn’t have much of a clue as to what is going on in the USA, let along around the world.

OK. For me, it’s back to Pippa.

Alert the search engines.

Can Teachers Ever Receive A Passing Grade?

OK. I’m back to education. Hey, it’s Teacher Appreciation Week. And I haven’t been able to uncover anything new about Pippa. So let’s look at teachers and one of the big issues being kicked about these days by the education reformers and other miscreants: teacher performance and evaluation.

Can teachers ever receive a passing grade?

Not likely. At least not as long as the major component of evaluating a classroom teacher is how well students do on standardized tests. Not until we recognize and accept the fact that teachers in the classroom — even the excellent ones — can’t control everything that involves students and their families. And what happens outside the classroom influences what happens inside.

Let’s be candid about it. How many of you have ever given — or received — an honest and objective performance review on-the-job in business or elsewhere? My guess is not many. Very difficult to do for several reasons. First, nobody wants to give or receive what is considered to be bad news or a critique that in effect says, “dude, you suck.” And in business, if you spend enough time noodling over it, you can most likely come up with a few easily agreed upon yet general objectives on which to base the evaluation that causes no real damage to the company or the fragile collective egos involved.

Anyway, not as easy in education — but unlike in most businesses and in government these days — teachers are getting fired as a result of the evaluations. Go figure.

Here’s from Joe Nocera, opining in the NYT, “The Limits of School Reform“:

I find myself haunted by a 13-year-old boy named Saquan Townsend. It’s been more than two weeks since he was featured in The New York Times Magazine, yet I can’t get him out of my mind.

The article, by Jonathan Mahler, was about the heroic efforts of Ramón González, the principal of M.S. 223, a public middle school in the South Bronx, to make his school a place where his young charges can get a decent education and thus, perhaps, a better life. Surprisingly, though, González is not aligned with the public school reform movement, even though one of the movement’s leading lights, Joel Klein, was until fairly recently his boss as the head of the New York City school system.

Instead, González comes across as a skeptic, wary of the enthusiasm for, as the article puts it, “all of the educational experimentation” that took place on Klein’s watch. At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on. But it takes a lot more than that. Which is where Saquan comes in. His part of the story represents difficult truths that the reform movement has yet to face squarely — and needs to.

Saquan lands at M.S. 223 because his family has been placed in a nearby homeless shelter. (His mother fled Brooklyn out of fear that another son was in danger of being killed.) At first, he is so disruptive that a teacher, Emily Dodd, thinks he might have a mental disability. But working with him one on one, Dodd discovers that Saquan is, to the contrary, unusually intelligent — “brilliant” even.

From that point on, Dodd does everything a school reformer could hope for. She sends him text messages in the mornings, urging him to come to school. She gives him special help. She encourages him at every turn. For awhile, it seems to take.

Meanwhile, other forces are pushing him in another direction. His mother, who works nights and barely has time to see her son, comes across as indifferent to his schooling. Though she manages to move the family back to Brooklyn, the move means that Saquan has an hour-and-a-half commute to M.S. 223. As his grades and attendance slip, Dodd offers to tutor him. To no avail: He finally decides it isn’t worth the effort, and transfers to a school in Brooklyn.

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

And Michelle Rhee, until recently the chancellor of the D.C. public schools and one of the heroines of the flick Waiting for Superman because of her outspoken views about teachers unions and methods to improve public education, has an interesting take on all this in her post on The Huffington Post, “In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week: Let’s Show Our Thanks to Teachers by Elevating the Profession“:

Kids are great judges when it comes to weighing in on educators charged with teaching them. A study by Harvard University professor Thomas Kane found that student evaluations were good predictors of teacher success. As adults, however, we have to do better when it comes to fairly evaluating the nation’s teachers, and fairly compensating them.

Most teachers are evaluated inconsistently, going without the feedback and professional development that can help them excel. The need for change is basic and glaring, and that’s why StudentsFirst is urging states and districts to replace outdated, weak evaluation systems with rigorous ones that can strengthen the profession.

Good evaluations must be accompanied with good pay. The average teacher salary in the United States is estimated to be around $55,000. Surely your favorite teacher is worth more than that. What’s more, teachers tend to earn minimal increases in lockstep with each other and without regard to how well they are actually doing. Excellence goes unrewarded. We should instead value teachers by better compensating them for helping kids make gains and for teaching hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools.

OK. Teachers — like everyone else who collects a paycheck — should be responsible and held accountable for results.

But we are in an era now where evaluations and other measures can make a big difference — might, in fact, be the only difference — as to whether a teacher keeps his or her job or not. In those circumstances, we need some standards and common sense to apply that guarantees that teachers who deserve it can receive a passing grade.

Just sayin’.

Kent State and May 4

I wasn’t planning to write about this — and in case anyone cares, I kind of recycled a similar post with the same headline from three years ago. But I couldn’t get it out of my mind as I was running this morning. Kent State and May 4, 1970. That’s more than 40 years and a lifetime ago — but I still think about Allison Krause and the others who were killed and injured that day.

I didn’t know Allison — or Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. But I think about Allison because of the Pittsburgh connection, hers and mine. And I think what a shame. Allison and the others would have been — should have been — in their late 50s or early 60s now. Maybe they would be ending careers. Maybe they would be parents — possibly grandparents. I can’t shake those thoughts having been at Kent State myself in 1970, although graduating in March and back home in Pittsburgh in May.

I know there is no point in rehashing what happened on May 4, 1970, and the days immediately before it. If you have an opinion, like me, it has been anchored in concrete for years. For most others now — it’s history.

Yet it is a day in America’s history worth remembering.

Low Teacher Salaries: Does It Matter?

OK. Osama bin Laden still sleeps with the fishes — and the pundits are in full bloom over what this means (or not) for the 2012 elections. And Pippa is still the Princess of Perkiness. So with those stories either behind us or resting on the back burner, it’s time for this pajama-clad citizen journalist to return to a favorite subject: education.

I’ll admit the obvious. Education doesn’t have the sex appeal of Pippa, or even Lindsay Lohan, for that matter. But I’ll slog on in any event. I believe the quality of education (or not) is important to our children, our economy and our future as a democracy.

And we need excellent teachers in the classroom — at all grade levels and throughout the country in both rich and poor school districts — if we are really going to make a difference. An op-ed article in the NYT by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari — “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries” — adds considerable perspective:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

We have a rare chance now, with many teachers near retirement, to prove we’re serious about education. The first step is to make the teaching profession more attractive to college graduates. This will take some doing.

Why? You would think that making teaching more attractive to college graduates would be a logical first step — but we’ve done just about everything during the last decade to move in the opposite direction. Here again is from the op-ed:

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender. Teachers make 14 percent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, teachers’ salaries have declined for 30 years. The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas, and makes raising a family on one salary near impossible.

So how do teachers cope? Sixty-two percent work outside the classroom to make ends meet. For Erik Benner, an award-winning history teacher in Keller, Tex., money has been a constant struggle. He has two children, and for 15 years has been unable to support them on his salary. Every weekday, he goes directly from Trinity Springs Middle School to drive a forklift at Floor and Décor. He works until 11 every night, then gets up and starts all over again. Does this look like “A Plan,” either on the state or federal level?

We’ve been working with public school teachers for 10 years; every spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect.

Imagine a novice teacher, thrown into an urban school, told to teach five classes a day, with up to 40 students each. At the year’s end, if test scores haven’t risen enough, he or she is called a bad teacher. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. So every year 20 percent of teachers in urban districts quit. Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year. The turnover costs the United States $7.34 billion yearly. The effect within schools — especially those in urban communities where turnover is highest — is devastating.

But we can reverse course. In the next 10 years, over half of the nation’s nearly 3.2 million public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How do we attract and keep the best minds in the profession?

People talk about accountability, measurements, tenure, test scores and pay for performance. These questions are worthy of debate, but are secondary to recruiting and training teachers and treating them fairly. There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in America, but until we solve the problem of teacher turnover, we don’t have a chance.

Can we do better? Can we generate “A Plan”? Of course.

The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea.

Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do.

And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low: In South Korea, it’s 1 percent per year. In Finland, it’s 2 percent. In Singapore, 3 percent.

McKinsey polled 900 top-tier American college students and found that 68 percent would consider teaching if salaries started at $65,000 and rose to a maximum of $150,000. Could we do this? If we’re committed to “winning the future,” we should. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money.

For those who say, “How do we pay for this?” — well, how are we paying for three concurrent wars? How did we pay for the interstate highway system? Or the bailout of the savings and loans in 1989 and that of the investment banks in 2008? How did we pay for the equally ambitious project of sending Americans to the moon? We had the vision and we had the will and we found a way.

OK. I recognize that teachers are not unique. At a time when most jobs are being created in low-paying retail, service and health care industries, teachers are not unique when it comes to low salaries.

And the mood of many in the country now is to strip teachers of pensions, benefits and collective bargaining rights — as though that somehow levels the playing field with those who have watched their own middle class lifestyles go down the toilet during the Great Recession and as we have provided multinational corporations the incentives to outsource jobs to other countries.

So am I hopeful that we will do something to attract more excellent teachers to the classroom — with higher salaries being one part of the equation?

No. Not unless we regain the belief that excellent teachers are important. And not unless we change the way most states and communities finance education — with billions these days being funneled off to the Department of Education so the bureaucrats who are far removed from the classroom can continue to toss money at one failed school reform notion after another.

Low teacher salaries.

Yes. In the long run this does matter.

Osama bin Laden: Stand and Cheer

OK. I wasn’t going to opine today on the fact that Osama bin Laden is now sleeping with the fishes. I missed the announcement last night by the Prez, and the reports via by BlackBerry and websites pointed to a major story and certainly one that every other pundit would be warbling about in dead tree publications and online.

So as I took to the keyboard at around 4 a.m. I finished a really trivial post about Pippa — “Her Royal Hotness” — and made my way to the gym to chase the treadmill for an hour and watch TV.

And wow. On every screen — from every cable network — came pictures of celebrations in New York, Washington, Columbus at Ohio State and elsewhere. And mostly it was young people singing the national anthem, wrapping themselves in the American flag, shouting U.S.A., U.S.A.

I’m not sure killing bin Laden brings closure to 9/11. That strikes me as a personal decision on the part of the families who lost friends and loved ones on that day. And for the families — and members of the military — who have sacrificed so much during the past decade as we have slogged it out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I go to D.C. every few months on business. And on the return flight from Reagan National to Cleveland the gate attendant offers members of the military the option of boarding the flight first. And on several occasions, immediately following that announcement, the other passengers stood and cheered.

We’re cheering now not just for the death of the terrorist bin Laden. Although that is reason enough. But we’re cheering for the members of our military who take great risks to keep us safe and to make sure that the bad guys can run, but ultimately they can’t hide. And we’re cheering for a country that still believes in freedom — and isn’t afraid to make some tough calls to make sure that others don’t forget that fact.

And I know this country has big problems. But we still manage to get things right most of the time.

And when I see streets full of young people chanting U.S.A. and waving the American flag — and there is no football game involved — then all of us can rest easy. We’re going to be OK.

Just sayin’.

Her Royal Hotness: Pippa

Wow. I kind of got blown away by the media and public frenzy surrounding the royal nuptials. And yeah. Like any journalist, I consider it my professional responsibility to find out whether Pippa was wearing underwear during the ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

But alas. There are bigger fish to fry. So I’ll leave it to others to follow closely any breaking details about that cover-up — or not.

Here’s from Sabotage Times:

After the Royal Wedding everyone’s talking about one arse – and amazingly it’s not Prince Philip.

Well said.

OK. On to other matters.

The head sleds at NATO say they are not targeting individuals or civilians in their military missions. Yet bombs launched from planes at high altitudes somehow manage to fly down the chimney of whatever house Mad Dog Gadhafi and family are staying. Go figure. And it strikes me that the USA is about to sign a long-term lease on property in Tripoli — matching the timeshares we can’t unload in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And members of Congress return this week from an Easter recess to deal with the federal debt limit, the 2012 budget, taxes, entitlements and so on. I know. Alert the militia — and get the women and children off the streets. It’s gonna be nasty.

Oh well. At least we’ll have some other asses to concentrate on.

And there’s nothing that I can add about the death of Osama bin Laden. So I won’t even try. I missed the TV announcement by the Prez last night — long after I was sound asleep. And I first learned about the story early this a.m. when I checked my BlackBerry and several WSJ messages greeted me with the good news.

Still, of the many stories I’ve read and seen, this one may have captured the most memorable moment. It’s from Mediate, “White House Crowd Breaks Out In National Anthem To Celebrate Bin Laden Death.”

On the heels of the blockbuster revelation that Osama bin Laden is dead, CNN cameras at the White House captured a spontaneous celebration just outside the North fence of the White House. As anchor Wolf Blitzer tossed to a live shot of the gathering crowd, which Blitzer said had been chanting “USA! USA!”, the crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of The Star Spangled Banner that could become an iconic image in American history.

The contrived nature of much of modern TV news coverage makes this clip all the more remarkable. While bin Laden’s death doesn’t come close to restoring what was lost on September 11, 2001, it is obviously an important milestone in the national psyche, and a just, if too long delayed, result.