Monday, August 12, 2013

Serving Up Failure

As kids begin returning to schools around the country, inevitably, the battles over testing and curriculum are beginning to float to the surface like so much grease floating to the top of a poorly cooked school lunch.

Indeed, in the DC area, the big news lately has been record high test scores, the best in six years for DC public schools. The problem, of course, is the perpetual difficulty regarding tests and numbers: Those who agree with the positive numbers trumpet them as proof of their success. Those who disagree with the numbers simply cite other numbers and studies and claim that the "winners" are really losers according to some other form of measurement.

In Nebraska, the fight over testing of schools has been going on all year, since Nebraska turned down the Common Core Standards passed by 45 other states in January. The Cornhusker State even went to the trouble of funding its own study comparing Nebraska's standards against the national Common Core standards, which recently came out. Not surprisingly, Nebraska's language standards stack up well against those of Common Core.

The problem is rarely in the numbers, or even in the different ways of measuring. Indeed, if you count how many times we've already mentioned "standards," "numbers," and "test" or "testing" we've referenced all of those words more than a dozen times just in our first three graphs today.

If you count how many times we've mentioned "kids" though, you'll notice the same problem that educators, parents, and politicians are having: That testing and test prep are completely hogging the discussion, and leaving the kids with no real substance or serious attention.

You can blame the issue on President Obama or President Bush, on 'Common Core Standards' or 'No Child Left Behind.' This issue isn't even one that divides the electorate along strict strict partisan lines.

The fact is, the altruistic ideas that drove 'No Child Left Behind' under President Bush and are currently driving the idea of 'Common Core' standards under President Obama are similar. Those basic ideas are attractive and even laudable. Kids at the same grade level should have a similar basis of knowledge, if for no other reason than if their parents drag the family to a new city, the child won't be completely lost in his or her new school. Similarly, the ideas of testing teachers is, on the surface, a good idea. Teachers who can't communicate and can't do the job should be let go, so those who are great at teaching can have those job positions. No one can argue with either of those ideas.

What spoiled both programs though, is also the same thing - billion dollar for-profit testing companies, who also spend lots of money on lobbying to push politicians and educators to spend more education dollars with their companies.

Even if you ignore the billions of dollars in testing today, the biggest problem with all of these tests is that too many parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians are all looking for shortcuts on how to judge the performance of teachers and the success of their kids. Too often they all seem to forget the most basic goal of our education system isn't some pile of statistics on a plate.

It's feeding the minds of children so they learn the basics, while also teaching those kids how to learn, so they can keep learning throughout their whole lives.

If we forget that most basic goal of education for any American child, the only things we'll be serving up to the future are empty promises and piles of problems.

Returning Themes

Even as the long hot dog days of summer drone on, and town halls continue to be filled with angry voters - some already yelling that Republicans in Congress keep trying to take away their Obamacare - the fact is, August is already further along than you might think.

Many schools around the nation are set to open this week, including those in our hometown, with both teachers and students either grumbling about being back or ready for excitement. Our Cartoonist and Editor In Chief also happily reminded us that football season has already returned, if you enjoy pre-season NFL action. College football will also be back soon, something we know Huskernutz are very much looking forward to.

The truth is, "returning" seems to be a theme today, throughout many sections of the news, even if most members of Congress won't be returning to DC for another four weeks.

President Obama began the theme of returning last Friday in his press conference, when he revisited the issue of how the NSA handles data. As Greg Sargent noted, the President embraced NSA surveillance reform, outlining four specific changes which will add more transparency and more checks and balances. Unfortunately the President also had to return to the idea that Congress would have to do their part if some of those reforms were to take effect - and we all know that won't happen anytime soon.

Along with his press conference, the President acted on the issue of student loan rates on Friday, signing into law a fix that returned rates to less than four percent, at least for the near-future.

Last week also saw the return of the Obama Administration's focus on Wall Street, though not in the way the white collar gamblers of the stock market would like. JP Morgan, run by President Obama's now-former friend Jamie Dimon, looks to be finally getting the kind of scrutiny they've so richly deserved. If past is prologue, JP Morgan will only be the first of the Wall Street monsters to get at least some of regulatory comeuppance they've avoided since the Wall Street banksters caused the crash in 2008.

Returning to our initial focus on members of Congress, some sanity appears to be returning to Republicans as they face their constituents back home, many of whom seem seriously afraid of a GOP-caused government shutdown this fall. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor admitted in an interview Friday that he's telling his extremist Conservatives that they will not be allowed to shut down the government. Some House Republicans also now appear to have backed down from their tea party positions on immigration.

Meanwhile, the corruption allowed by the Supreme Court's ill-advised Citizens United decision has also returned to bite another legislator in the behind, this time Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The contest in Kentucky may give America its first $100 million race for U.S. Senate in 2014. What's worse for McConnell is that his campaign manager, Jesse Benton, is also wrapped up in another political money scandal dating back to the 2012 Iowa GOP Presidential primary.

The theme of returning was also in full swing overseas, as factional violence continued in Iraq, even as the move towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ramps up again. And yes - Fukashima, Japan is back in the news too.

Maybe it's just the heat of summer getting to us, but many of today's headlines seem like a fever dream, a return to previous news from months and years past that we'd hoped to forget. We'll just have to sooth ourselves by grabbing a nice cold drink this evening while watching highlights of Husker football from last season - as research for the regular season, of course.

Not everything that returns is bad, after all.