29 September 2009

Another Push for More School Time

Originally posted at American Thinker.

In an article published on multiple website (Fox News link here), it appears that President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan are renewing the push for schools to be in session for more hours and perhaps more days. The overarching goal would supposedly be better educated high school graduates. But the list of reasons used to justify a longer school day, week, and/or year reads more like a brainstorming list -- hammered down and unrefined.

The first reason listed in the article, attributed to Mr. Duncan, is that the "school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy" and that simply does not fit with the modern world. Kids don't work in fields, so the idea of a summer vacation is antiquated.

Next up is that school children in other countries spend more time or more days in class. Here, Mr. Duncan would "level the playing field" by increasing the time American kids spend in school. Note the intimation of equality of outcome here. But as the article clearly illustrates, several countries in Asia -- those who might easily be cited as beating the pants off of the US in test scores -- actually have far less instructional time during a school year even though their students have more school days.

This point is key because it implies that students are expected to learn outside of school. It supposes that students are expected to do homework; they are expected to expend the blood, sweat, and tears on their own. The increased number of days, then, allows for more overall time for instruction -- both inside the classroom with a teacher and, as Dr. Seuss famously said, outside the classroom "sitting alone in a room". This is a hint of what would be a more proper understanding of education. Teachers are there to teach, students are to learn. Teaching takes less time than learning, and no teacher can "learn" his student. The student has to do the learning on his own. The model of more, yet shorter, school days appears to put the onus of learning where it ought to be - on the student.

However, that would be antithetical to the equality of outcome model sought after and legislated for in this country. Other reasons for more school time must be advanced in order to keep the equality of outcome ideal in focus.

The administration argument puts forward the idea that summer vacation is a time when kids' education stagnates, and postulates that poor kids may well regress due to lack of opportunity. Clearly these things are probably true in some cases, but this is just a stepping stone for Mr. Duncan's final point of the article: "Those hours from 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock are times of high anxiety for [low income, inner city] parents," Duncan said. "They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table." And there's the rub. Longer school days, weeks, and years are being advocated with keeping kids safe as, I believe, the primary goal. Schools substitute for homes, teachers for parents. And so as not to single out inner city, poor kids -- that would be discriminatory! -- reforms will be called "universal". One size fits all education.

I ask the reader to imagine the 17-year old freshman in high school who is forced to stay in a school building for an extra three or four hours a day -- no choice. How well might that work out? Would this create a safe environment for other students? How would this child's learning be advanced in the longer school day model?

As I've written before, the matter isn't so much about the amount of time spent in school but rather how that time is used. Simply adding time, or forcing districts to add time, will not necessarily result in better educated students. Students must have valuable activities, like simply practicing what they have learned over the course of an academic day, in which to participate. And that creates another rub: academic education, for all its merits, is a volunteer activity. Students who choose to not participate and who have parents who are either too busy or too selfish to care will tend to not opt in. Those students may be in attendance physically, but they will have mentally checked out. Some things, it seems, simply can't be legislated. Individual student achievement is one of them.

28 September 2009

The Bright Shiny Thing

Not content with attempting to deal with the evolving situation with Iran or figuring out how to attempt to solve the problem of Afghanistan, not even satisfied to stay in the wholly domestic push for government run and/or further regulated health insurance, President Obama seems to have been caught by his personal siren song to campaign. It seems he simply is not remotely content to be the chief executive. He must be in sales mode.

So the president is traveling to Copenhagen to plug Chicago for the 2016 summer games. He’s taking local politics global. He’s chasing the bright, shiny thing. And it’s a sign that perhaps he’s simply bored and/or frustrated by his job. If that is somewhat true, then the country is in for a long, long three years and four months.

27 September 2009

Obama Pushes Domestic Agenda, Drops the Wartime Ball

Today on Fox News Sunday, Senator Feinstein made an interesting assertion regarding President Obama’s desire to take weeks to consider how best to handle the war in Afghanistan. This careful consideration comes six months after announcing a change in tactics. But that was March, this is September. Mr. Obama seems to have taken his eyes off of Afghanistan – the “good war” we are told – to push his statist domestic policy. Consideration of Mr. Obama’s focus brings out an interesting observation.

Some things, some issues are truly urgent. Having the right strategy at the right time is crucial to winning a war. Regardless of political stripes, everyone should have gained that insight from the Iraq War. When the upper reaches of the chain of command outline a strategy for the Commander in Chief, he really ought to take it to heart. Instead, Mr. Obama seems to be content to bicker around a conference table. On some issues then, the debate is not over; the time to bicker has not ended. The time to act is not now. I wonder if the generals will have a seat at the beer conference when the new, new strategy is settled.

But for folks like Mr. Obama and Senator Feinstein, taking a number of weeks to stew over strategy – even though the generals have a plan they would like to implement – is the responsible, level-headed thing to do. The fight in theater goes on, though. And while it might be tempting to call Mr. Obama’s feet dragging a “rope-a-dope,” that would indicate that he plans on punching back at some point in order to win. But very little seems to be urgent to Mr. Obama when it comes to foreign policy.

Not so when it comes to domestic policy. The public is told over and over (and over) that economic stimulus, health care reform, and going “green” are all of such urgent import that no further debate is needed, no time for consideration can be taken, indeed no time to read legislation can be spared. The time to act, we are told with feverishly increasing urgency, is always now. The government, we are told, must act, must save us from – well, better just save us. It appears that is the goal of Mr. Obama’s administration: to save the American electorate via government intervention.

It would be prudent if folks who have a voice in the political realm would ask and answer what the proper role of the federal government is. Is it the government’s role to push domestic spending and balloon bureaucracy so as to “save” the electorate? Or is it the government’s role to train, equip, and field the military so as to meet national defense objectives? Where should the federal government focus its attention?

I don’t suspect that these questions will be asked or answered any time before the 2010 elections, at least not in the wider media – the supposed “mainstream” media. But for the individual, here is something to ponder now: How much government intervention are you willing to have in your life? It seems to me that the less the federal government focuses on “fixing” what it feels is wrong with my little world, the more it can focus on defending America from those who would do it irreparable harm – and that would be more its right and proper role.

21 September 2009

Blind Squirrel Finds a Nut: Friedman

In an op-ed piece Sunday, Thomas Friedman makes a great point regarding nuclear power. He points out that France gets “nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power” and that the US is too chicken of nuclear waste and the ghost of Three-Mile Island to build new nuclear plants. He also points out that Yucca Mountain would be a “totally safe” place for nuclear waste storage. While Mr. Friedman misses the point of reprocessing waste into usable fuel – something the French do but is shunned in the US – his overall point about nuclear power is well made. The US ought to begin to allow private companies to build nuclear power plants without endless “environmental” roadblocks.

What Mr. Friedman doesn’t seem to recognize is that environmentalists are by in large responsible for killing nuclear power in the US. And they are powerful. While I’m no expert – far from it – but I’m guessing that by just challenging environmental impact studies, those who claim to care for the environment make the process of approval for a new nuclear plant so expensive and time consuming as to price it out of the market. But that, perhaps, is a matter for another time.

Mr. Friedman misses when he gets to the main point of his article – raising the federal gas tax by $1 a gallon. Mr. Friedman would allow 45% of revenue gained to pay down the deficit and another 45% to pay for – get this – health care. How a gas tax is linked to health care is beyond me, but the more egregious point would be allowing the federal government to take and spend more money on big programs which aren’t proven. So I offer an alternative to Mr. Friedman: take that second 45% and let the individual states keep it for the sole purpose of paying for unfunded federal mandates shoved down their collective throats.

If you noticed 10% missing from the above equation, Mr. Friedman has a plan for that as well. Can’t forget the proletariat. Mr. Friedman would give “10 cents to cushion the burden of such a tax on the poor and on those who need to drive long distances.” Stand by for the bureau of poor and long distance drivers (PLDD) to administer this 10% as a service to the great people of the United States of America. You can bet that the definitions of “poor” and “long distance” will be quite malleable and porous. Then again, perhaps 10% is a standard fee for federal imposition and bureaucracy creation (FBIC).

20 September 2009

Taking Liberties with Words

While I had hoped to write about something a little more cerebral today regarding liberty, I have to note that simple, small words are being demolished. Taking liberties with what simple words mean is a way to blur our world. Example: President Obama ignores the denotative – dictionary – meaning of the word tax. When George Stephanopoulos refers to the denotative meaning of the word tax (video) in one of the five Obama spots this morning, things got a little interesting.

For the record, the definition reported to Mr. Obama was, “a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.” Seems pretty straight forward to me.

But Mr. Obama rolled his head to the side and laughed, as if to imply that this was all one silly mistake, a charade, a distraction. He even accused Stephanopoulos of “stretching” by resorting to the dictionary to find the definition of a word. He then deftly denied that taking money to fund health care insurance reform (or some other euphemistic label) would be, in fact, a tax. This word needs to mean exactly what he needed it to for the moment in which he needed it. At that moment, tax could not mean what Webster says it means, so it did not. A long time ago, Mr. Obama could have revised what the meaning of “is” was at a given point in time.

But this simple act of morphing the meanings of words is a dangerous thing. If tax does not mean tax, then it can mean anything at any time. Perhaps today it’s a fee, tomorrow, a penalty. Later, a re-acquisition of government property. I realize that’s going a bit far, but when a word means whatever it needs to mean in the moment, one can go just as far as his power, audacity, and creativity will allow him.

19 September 2009

On Liberty

Much has been said recently about the erosion of the Constitution, growing big government, spending by that big government, bailouts, socialism, and public capitulation regarding these matters. The debate, those on the left would say, is over. It has been over as far as they are concerned for a long time – it’s just that no one else knew it. The various tea parties and “conservative” protests are a peculiarity, an eccentricity. The remedy for such things is to simply turn off Fox News.

What is really going on in what strangely is called our national conversation is the re-emergence of liberty – individual, personal liberty – as a point of discussion. To paraphrase Dennis Prager, bigger government makes smaller citizens. And citizens have been shrinking at an alarming rate. When the bill comes due for all of this compassionate, bail-out, too-big-to-fail spending by Democrats and Republicans alike, the citizenry is likely to go from small to downright miniscule.

But where did the shrinking stature of citizenry come from in the first place? One might say that it came, in part, from shirking individual responsibility. From easy credit (which, incidentally, is still pretty easy if one has a good credit rating) to “universal” government plans to “universally” tackle any perceived problem, it has been all too easy to slough off personal responsibility onto something else, be that thing minimum payments at 15% APR or another lump of mounting, money-hungry bureaucracy. Either way, any perceived issue can be deflected elsewhere. At least for a time.

At some point, though, all bills come due – even the bills for the bills that pass through Congress which we are told will expand our “freedom” and our “rights”. What I believe they expand is the envelope of risk-free living. These “guarantees” – from free health care to job security to investment certitude – are supposed to make living more antiseptic. No risk, no worry, all happiness. That’s the message of the authors of the savior plans.

What these savior plans really do is limit personal liberty. Choice and risk are required for liberty. They also require the ability to fail; they allow the potentiality of bad things happening. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes. Risk is around us daily; pretending that we can somehow be shielded from it is an illusion. What I plan to write about in the next few weeks is the joy of liberty, the joy of being able to take responsibility for one’s own life and one’s own choices. Cheers.