Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Which We Waste a Crisis
I don't think that teachers' unions are ruining America. But when you read stories like this, it's hard to summon up much enthusiasm for their value:

Peter Borock, 23, is in his second year teaching history at Health Opportunities High School in the South Bronx. It could be his last.

With New York City schools planning for up to 8,500 layoffs, new teachers like Mr. Borock, and half a dozen others at his school, could be some of the ones most likely to be let go. That has led the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, into a high-stakes battle with the teachers’ union to overturn seniority rules that have been in place for decades.

Facing the likelihood of the largest number of layoffs in more than a generation, Mr. Klein and his counterparts around the country say that the rules, which require that the most recently hired teachers be the first to lose their jobs, are an anachronism in the era of accountability that will upend their efforts of the last few years to recruit new teachers, improve teacher performance and reward those who do best.
Unions argue that administrators want to do away with seniority protections so they can get rid of older teachers, who are more expensive.

They say that without seniority safeguards, principals could act on personal grudges, and that while keeping the best teachers is a laudable goal, no one has figured out an accurate way to determine who those teachers are.

“There is no good way to lay people off,” said Randi Weingarten, the former leader of the city’s teachers’ union, who is now the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “But to be opportunistic and try to rush something through without knowing if there’s some degree of objectivity and a comprehensive and valid evaluation system is appalling.”

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I've never found Randi Weingarten to be much more than an apologist for mediocrity in education and an impediment to most of the more interesting and aggressive education reform efforts in NYC or anywhere else. But what she's saying here is especially repulsive, because it elides her years of staunch resistance to any evaluative steps that might rise to the level of "objective, comprehensive and valid." You can't use test scores; you can't use student or peer or parent evaluations; heaven forbid you use administrator assessments. Somehow, a malicious actor will always be able to use the standard to carry out a grudge against a poor defenseless teacher whose classroom outcomes just happen to stink.

The last-in, first-out policy is especially infuriating given the high rates of attrition among new teachers in the city anyway--based on a study done by the New York City Council a few years back, a quarter of them leave within two years, and half within five, both rates far in excess of national averages. It's probably not too much to say that it's more demanding and difficult to be an inexperienced educator in New York City than anywhere else in the U.S. It doesn't help that another advantage of seniority is much more freedom in choosing where to teach--meaning that the newbies routinely get the toughest assignments in the system, a great way to drive out all but the most dedicated.

Adding to the irrationality is the fact that, unless things have changed in the last few years since I looked closely at the demographics of the New York City teaching workforce (and given the attrition trends and seniority rules, I'm not sure how they could have), the bulk of our educators are within a relatively few years of retirement. Meaning that as cohorts leave the workforce, the city will have to scramble to replace them. I don't know if contractual or budgetary considerations render this impossible, but early buyouts of some of the older teachers seems to be a smarter way to absorb the cuts than indiscriminately cutting loose young teachers great and lousy.

The real point is that we need to find better ways of determining teacher quality--because the one thing we know in the befogged world of education reform is that high-quality teachers make an enormous, lasting difference. There's a lot of work going on right now to do just this--but it doesn't sound like clear answers will emerge soon enough to inform the city's teacher workforce reductions, even if the United Federation of Teachers accepted that the conclusions were valid and not the nefarious product of some teacher-hating education bureaucrat.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Strange Death (?) of the American Graduation Initiative
A few days ago, The New Republic performed an unpleasant but important bit of public service, telling the story of how President Obama's proposed American Graduation Initiative, a plan to assist five million more individuals toward a community college degree by 2020, was a collateral casualty of last month's successful fight for health care reform. As the consequence of some fairly involved budget calculations that resulted from the reconciliation of the health care bill with (very positive) higher education lending reforms, the $12 billion proposed for AGI was cut to $2 billion in U.S. Department of Labor funding for community colleges.

The whole piece is worthwhile reading just as a reminder of how ugly and illogical the sausage-making of public policy can get, but its real value lies in the message that we court no greater risk to shared long-term prosperity than neglecting our stock of human capital. The stunningly divergent outcomes of more and less educated Americans in the now-concluding Great Recession illustrates the individual economic consequences for educational attainment; in the longer term, the question is how we can stay at the forefront of economic innovation with a national workforce comparatively less well educated than that of competitors.

There's also a great deal of time and money wasted in post-secondary educational endeavor. As the TNR article notes, upwards of 30 million adult Americans report educational attainment of "some college, no degree"--meaning that they started, but didn't finish. Leaving college without a credential but with a shitload of debt is a singularly lousy way to start adult life, but far too many Americans find themselves on that hard road.

I would guess that the administration finds its way back to this issue, perhaps in the context of Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. But with stronger Republican caucuses in Congress, perhaps an outright majority in the House, it won't be easy. Crucial as it was for the president and the Democrats to win the health care fight, it came a price both very high and not much appreciated, even among those who should know.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Love Small Government? You'll Miss Stevens
Whoever President Obama nominates to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, you can predict what issues will dominate the debate: abortion, gay rights, racial/gender preferences, probably the constitutionality of health care, maybe a bit on the role of money in politics. Past rulings and paper trails will be scoured, and there will be no shortage of hyperbole. Weepy, malicious idiots will beat their chests for imperiled liberties; belabored analyses of election year judicial politics will abound.

An issue I doubt will get the attention it deserves is the proper extent of executive power, where Stevens did his greatest work in defense of American rights over the last, fraught decade. As the Times recounted in an appreciative editorial today, the 89 year-old Illinois native was our strongest judicial defender against the repeated power grabs of the Bush years:

He may be best remembered for his firm resistance to the post-Sept. 11, 2001, drive to roll back civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. He wrote the majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush in 2004, rejecting the Bush administration’s assertions of executive authority and made clear that federal courts had the authority to determine whether detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were properly held. In 2006, he wrote for the majority in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which held that the military commissions established to try detainees held in Guantánamo violated the Geneva Conventions.

Yet Stevens' central role in recent American jurisprudence seems oddly underappreciated. He's been recognized more for his searing dissents in cases like Bush v. Gore in 2000, the 2007 school desegregation case, and the campaign finance ruling handed down this past January, than for leading the often successful resistance to executive overreach. (He also doesn't seem to be quite as reviled on the right as was David Souter, another appointee of a Republican president who retired last year--maybe because so few on the right today remember when Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford, himself a not especially partisan president, in 1975.)

Sadly, it seems unlikely that Obama will appoint anyone with remotely the same fidelity to restraints on executive power. The reasons for this are twofold: one, the only rumored possibilities who hold such views are those who, because of their more leftward positions on hot-button social and economic issues, would spark the toughest political battles in an election year when Democrats are already anticipating heavy losses, and two, the administration itself, starting with the president, seems increasingly inclined toward a distinctly Bush-like view on executive power. The result is that a post-Stevens Supreme Court likely will rule in ways much more sympathetic to the expansive view. As Glenn Greenwald, writing about current Solicitor General and rumored front-runner Elena Kagan, puts it:

Over the past decade, the Court has issued numerous 5-4 decisions which placed at least some minimal constraints on executive power. Stevens was not merely in the majority in those cases, but was the intellectual leader justifying those limits. And he often went further in demanding due process and accountability for the Executive than even the "liberal" wing in general was willing to go -- as exemplified by his joining Justice Scalia's dissent in Hamdi, where the two unlikely allies both argued that the President could never detain U.S. citizens as "enemy combatants," but instead must charge them with a crime (e.g., treason) and obtain a conviction in order to imprison them.
Given Stevens' status as the leader of the Liberal wing, The Nation's Ari Melber said today: "With Justice Stevens retiring, it will take a nominee like Harold Koh just to maintain the Court's status quo."

The danger that we won't have such a status-quo-maintaining selection is [that]... for both political and substantive reasons, the Obama White House tends to avoid (with a few exceptions) any appointees to vital posts who are viewed as "liberal" or friendly to the Left; the temptation to avoid that kind of nominee heading into the 2010 midterm elections will be substantial ... [and] Kagan has already proven herself to be a steadfast Obama loyalist with her work as his Solicitor General, and the desire to have on the Court someone who has demonstrated fealty to Obama's broad claims of executive authority is likely to be great.

A number of retrospective pieces about Stevens published in recent months that anticipated his announcement Friday featured an elegiac, almost wistful tone owing to his status as the last World War II veteran on the high bench and the now-unimaginable unanimity (98-0) with which he was confirmed to the High Court by the Senate in 1975. While these are understandable and appropriate sentiments, what I worry about is that Stevens' departure from the Court removes the last strong voice in favoring of limiting government power on perhaps the most important questions of all, concerning how broadly the state can use force to pursue strategic goals. Admittedly, he wasn't the only vote in favor of restraint--but he was the instigator, the thinker, the persuader of his colleagues toward that view. It is very much in doubt that this president, or indeed anyone on the national stage these days, appreciates how much might be lost if he is not suitably replaced.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Bye Five
They finally did it. In the division, to a bitter rival, for not even a first-round pick. A fairly ignominious ending to Donovan McNabb's superb Eagles career, one that spanned eleven seasons and saw the team reach five conference title games and a Super Bowl.

A few hours after the announcement, the shock is still pretty strong, but a few quick thoughts:
  • The deal kills whatever slim hopes the Eagles had for 2010. They're probably the worst team in the very tough NFC East now--remember, the Redskins had as bad or worse injury problems as the Eagles last year, and the Giants had an idiot coaching their defense--and newly installed QB Kevin Kolb will take his lumps as a starter. I'd put the over/under at 6 wins, and if I had to bet either way, I think I'd take the under.

  • But maybe low expectations are partly the point, at least as far as Kolb is concerned. He can learn in a low-pressure environment, and the coaches can leave young players out there on defense to suffer and learn as well--no more in-season patch jobs with veterans who might have heart and desire but no tread left on the tires. So long as the offensive line is good enough to keep Kolb in one piece, this really isn't the worst thing. Kolb gets to grow with DJax, Maclin, Shady and Celek, the group of early to mid-20s skill players that gave McNabb his best set of weapons as a Bird last year; if Kolb is even decent, they'll make him look pretty good. Now they just have to build as good a young core on defense, which is where the draft picks come in.

  • I'll be rooting for Donovan McNabb wherever he plays, as long as he plays. Still.... I wish it wasn't the Redskins. Between the racist name, the unbearable owner and super-arrogant coach, and especially the obnoxious non-city in which they don't even really play, they might be my second most hated NFL team.

I hope McNabb gets his due from the Philly public, if not from the media imbeciles. I hope he's one day called to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and that he graces it in Eagle green.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Imaginary Radicals, Then and Now
Doing some reading at the gym last night, I came across these two articles in succession: an American Prospect piece on the right's continuing obsession with the (now semi-defunct) antipoverty organization ACORN and the welfare rights champion Francis Fox Piven whose research more than forty years ago helped bring it into being, and this lengthy assessment of financial reform by the always excellent David Leonhardt in last Sunday's Times magazine.

Reading them in order told a story of assertion and repudiation--the utter certainty of the modern Right that the Obama administration and "liberals" are out to wreck the country, and the pretty much definitive proof that what they're actually up to is an all-out effort to save American capitalism and perpetuate the economic order of the late 20th century.

The assertion, which is pretty much a perfect example of the Paranoid Style, goes something like this: in 1966, Piven and her co-author Richard Cloward wrote a piece in The Nation titled "A Strategy to End Poverty," which proposed activism on behalf of poor Americans to stretch the welfare system beyond its capacity, with the goal of getting the federal government to establish a guaranteed minimal income. In the telling of Glenn Beck and other professional paranoids, this is the ur-strategy for every left-of-center politician and non-elected public figure: "create a crisis" to set the stage for profound, radical change. Obama, as a former community activist with all the unsavory leftist associations thus implied, is purportedly doing this with health care and of course the economy as the cover for creating a new socialist order. That this health care plan is far less "liberal" than anything previously proposed by Democrats in more than a half-century of debate is entirely irrelevant; remember, this is faith-based paranoia.

(I should note here that I read about this Piven/Cloward strategy many years ago, either as an undergrad or graduate student, and I always thought it wasn't just stupid but at least a little immoral. Rather than guaranteeing a handout--essentially, expanding the conditional entitlement that was Aid to Families With Dependent Children--our purpose always should have been expanding opportunity. This is why I wasn't as upset about welfare reform as just about any other liberal I knew, and why I support the anti-poverty approaches of the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, pretty much all of which are focused on human capital development and asset-building rather than handouts. At any rate, while the "welfare rights movement" did lead to a much bigger AFDC and it briefly looked like Nixon might accept an income floor in the early '70s, the Piven/Cloward plan ultimately didn't lead to much and certainly is a dead letter for the modern center-left.)

The charge is invalidated, at least to anyone willing to look at reality, on the grounds of financial reform. If ever there was opportunity to "create a crisis," it was in late 2008 and early 2009, when the world's capital markets were on the brink of meltdown and we seemed at the precipice of a second Great Depression. Here's how Leonhardt sets the stage in his piece:

A weak system of regulation allowed Wall Street firms to take on enormous debt. Those debts let the firms make more and riskier investments than they otherwise could have, lifting their profits. But when the value of the investments began falling, the firms had little margin for error. They were like home buyers who made a tiny down payment and soon found themselves underwater.

It was tempting to let the banks fail. They certainly deserved it. But big bank failures often cause terrible damage. Credit dries up, and the economy can enter a vicious cycle of falling asset prices and job losses. That is what began to happen in 2008. To get credit flowing again, the federal government came to the rescue with billions of taxpayer dollars. It was a maddening story line: the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.

While the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) was passed during the Bush Administration, it's likely that then-Senator Obama could have killed it in late 2008 by signaling his opposition, which would have carried weight with Democrats in Congress--and, given how unpopular the bailout was with the public, might have yielded him an even bigger win in the November election. Instead, he and John McCain (as well as VP candidate Joe Biden) voted in support of the measure.

Without the bailout, a number of major banks would have collapsed (don't take my word for it; even liberal economist Dean Baker said as much in testimony last year), and in all probability the economy would have cratered. Imagine if Obama had come into office on January 20, 2009, with an even bigger political wind at his back and a much deeper crisis facing the public. What powers could he not have asked for and received? What transformational changes would have been beyond his grasp? Nationalization of banks, single-payer health care, public job creation on a scale beyond the New Deal era programs, vast new regulatory regimes... all the fever dreams of the most committed lefties could have been his. Whether it ended in disaster or glory, his would have been the most transformational presidency since Lincoln's.

Obama just isn't that guy--and thank goodness. What I try to impart to those to my left who call for some or all of these things is that transformational change isn't ever frictionless. Individuals, families, communities are mangled when the wheels of history turn too fast. I don't deny that there would have been satisfaction in letting the banks suffer their full comeuppance--but we all would have suffered with them, and probably worse than they.

After reading the Leonhardt piece as well as other recent writing on the substance and prospects of financial reform, I feel better about the proposal--but the point is that even leaders who, like Obama, have an affirmative believe in the power of government to intervene for the public good, are most effective and successful when they look to intervene in as limited a manner as possible. That this doesn't align with the disaster-porn fantasies of the fringe thinkers on the right is primarily their problem. Hopefully it'll stay that way.
Dragged Forward
We don't go to the movies very often, but we've seen two in the last week: "Hot Tub Time Machine" last Saturday night, and "Greenberg" last evening. From the marketing campaigns, you wouldn't think these are very similar films: "HTTM" is going for a two-toned audience of folks who appreciate gross-out teen sex comedies on their own merits, and those who liked such entertainments a couple decades ago and now appreciate them ironically, while "Greenberg" is aiming for the sort of chin-scratching indie crowd that likes more pathos and thought in their comedy.

But when the credits were rolling at the end of "Greenberg," I turned to Annie and said that it was the same movie as "Hot Tub Time Machine," and she agreed. Both revolve around men in early middle age who ponder the second half of life with deep ambivalence, considerable regret and not a little self-loathing. Maybe that resonates with us as soon to be 37 and 45 year-olds respectively. But I suspect it applies much more broadly, and I think I understand why: this notion all of us born after 1950 or so grew up with, that we're somehow entitled to perfect happiness in every sphere of our lives. Every relationship can offer perfect emotional and sexual gratification; every job should be remunerative and stimulating and satisfying; every home should be safe and functional and forever appreciating in value. When problems do arise, they're never so complicated or intractable that they can't be solved in 22 or 48 minutes.

This is, of course, total crap. Perfection isn't just impossible, but harmful as an ideal to strive for in any but the most abstract sense. Every aspect of life will bring aggravation, disappointment and pain at some point or another. "Pretty good" is as good as it gets.

In addition to the movies, I'm thinking about this in the context of my grandfather, who passed away last weekend two months short of his 94th birthday. I think he would have agreed that his life was a pretty good one: married for almost sixty years (until my Nan passed in 2003), two kids, four grandkids, lived in the same place for the last sixty years or so, comfortable enough that he retired at 62, spending the last third of his life in relative ease reading books by the gross, swimming just about every day and shooting the bull at the Abington Club a few blocks from his house. He served his country with distinction for two and a half years during WWII. He spent decades helping to promote and support Scouting. He and Nan took great vacations to the Caribbean.

But there was disappointment and unpleasantness in the story as well. Pop was accepted to Antioch College after high school, and planned to go there to write. His ambition was to go into journalism and ultimately be a newspaper publisher in a small town somewhere. But his father got sick, he had to stay close to home and work, and he went to Temple. Then he joined the Army a few months before the war broke out, met my grandmother while training, married her when he came home in '44, and reluctantly entered a textile sales career that he didn't enjoy for a company he didn't respect. He told me years later that he'd made extensive notes for a book about that experience, titled something like "Don't Let the Door Hit Your Ass on the Way Out." He never wrote it.

Nor would I say that he handled this disappointment perfectly. Even in his relatively mellow retirement, he flashed temper, and I understand it was much worse when my mom and uncle were young. And I remember him and my Nan, probably the single best person I've ever met, bickering a lot when I was a kid. On balance, though, he dealt with it. He was absolutely dependable and virtuous; his integrity and honesty were beyond anyone else I've known. He wasn't emotive or expressive, but you never doubted his heart. And he never, ever, lost his sense of humor--probably the defining trait of the man to those who didn't know him closely enough to see the deeper virtues.

As I mourn and celebrate my grandfather and move ever deeper into my 30s, I'm trying to keep this in mind--that while disappointment is inevitable (and some reflection upon the past is appropriate and human), it should never define you or obscure the good which I feel I have in abundance.

Oh, and I'd mildly recommend both movies.