2+2=5, Or the Federal Budget

The latest Pew Poll shows that, surprise, most Americans don’t have a clue how the federal budget works. That’s okay, though, because I’m also pretty sure our elected officials don’t understand the budget either.

In our defense, budgets are complex things once you turn 18 and get all grown up. For my kids, handling money is relatively easy. Money comes in and money goes out. In large part, these are fixed things. My son gets a budget allotment from us and he works at Outback a set number of hours each week. He can estimate his income within a few dollars. His expenses depend on his personal choices. There are no long term deficits (housing), mid-term deficits (cars), and short term contracts (phones) to worry about. Recurring costs are minimal, mostly because we don’t charge our kids rent or utility costs (although we did once start charging my older son a dollar every time his shower lasted longer than 12 minutes).

Our household budget gets a bit more complex. We have fixed costs (house, car, phone, insurance) and anticipated costs (utilities, food, gas, cable). These are usually about the same each month. Fortunately, we also have a fixed income. We know within a few pennies how much money we will make every month. Obviously, that means when we buy the house, car, etc, we know how much we have to spend. We also, though, have variable costs: medical, family emergency, total inability to cook night, increased alcohol consumption (based on too many inability to cook nights), and vacations (to try to stem the previous costs). Still, all in all, we know each month how much money will come through the door and about how much will go out. We also know, though, that the income can go up and down (based on taxes, job-related issues) and the costs can go up or down (pay off the car, insurance rates). The complexity is that we do, in some way, have to plan for those contingencies, knowing we have to make some purchases based on potential future expenses.

Naturally, that means I should understand the federal budget. Except that I don’t. A federal budget has variables that seem almost infinite: it is my budget on steroids. The amount of money coming in can depend on natural disaster, terrorist attacks, consumer confidences, unemployment rates, world markets. The cost has just as many variables. Economics, I tell my son, is like creative writing with numbers. The experts are all just guessing (educated guesses for sure) but they can only anticipate. And they study this everyday.

That leaves the rest of us guessing (often not educated). Let’s start with the obvious reasons we are so confused:

1. I can’t count to a trillion (or a billion, and I have my doubts about the number of zeros in a million). The number one reason most Americans are stupid about the budget is that the numbers we discuss are incomprehensibly large. The well meaning among us can talk all day long about decreasing spending and creating efficiencies,  arguing that cutting aid to Africa and reducing the federal work force will save millions of dollars. The problem, of courses, is that aid to Africa and the size of the federal work force isn’t driving the deficit. And, hard as it is to believe, saving a million dollars (or even 10 million) is a bit like arguing that saving $10 a month will let you buy that condo in Maui. Because we don’t quite get the numbers, we keep imagining we can reduce the deficit by cutting the low hanging fruit. We can’t. There isn’t enough fruit there and we consistently under appreciate the importance of that money. Cutting aid to Africa will save us money, until the disease and disharmony requires a larger response. Cutting federal workers will save the government money, but the service they provide doesn’t end. Outsourcing simply transfers the cost. (Think of it this way–if your city outsources garbage collection, that simply means you won’t pay your city to collect the garbage. You will still pay for garbage collection, but you will pay a for-profit company. They might be more efficient by paying workers less money with fewer benefits. That short term savings becomes a long term cost in medical care, retirement, etc.)

2. Americans aren’t really ready to make the difficult choices to cut programs that will reduce the deficit. We have the greatest military in the world and we damn well should based on the money we spend. The reality is that the military-industrial complex has done exactly what President Eisenhower warned–it grows and consumes. I love freedom, and I know that freedom isn’t free, but I also know that our military expenditures have taken on a life of their own. Simply put–we must reduce our military footprint, reduce our reliance on increasingly expensive technology, and stop being the world’s police. If we aren’t willing to do so, then we have to accept an increasingly expensive military. In other words, we need to decide that we can have a less expensive version of freedom. And by all means, let’s stop subsidizing wealth for Lockheed Martin’s executives.

3. Our social programs must change. Social security is important and vital to the well-being of an aging work force. We must continue to support the social safety net for those workers whose lifetime profession didn’t include 401(k) programs, pensions, and other job related retirement accounts. American cannot be a country that abandons laborers whose jobs depend on physical abilities that fade over time, pushing them to either lower paying jobs or retirement. Doing so requires that we stop trying to treat all retirements equally. The social security age should be raised for certain professions and certain income levels. They guy down the street who runs a backhoe and digs ditches probably has a more difficult time doing his job at 62 than the college professor living in my house. More importantly, he doesn’t have an employer matching his retirement fund dollar for dollar. Index for income. We all benefit from putting money into Social Security because no one really wants a bunch of old, poverty-stricken homeless people running around. Or moving in with us.

4. Medical costs are out of control. Read Steven Brill’s Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us. Let’s stop fighting about who pays and worry about why we are paying so much.

5. More revenue is not evil. Federal taxes are at their lowest levels in years but federal tax law is more confusing than a physics dissertation to an art major. We can increase revenue and stabilize revenue pretty easily if we could, and I know this is a radical concept, consider the greater good and not simply our own self-interest. Let’s start with two basic concepts: everyone pays something and we eliminate loopholes. We do this via either a national sales tax. Want to pay less in taxes, buy less stuff. The idea that the rich would reduce spending misunderstand the rich. Bill Gates doesn’t live in a mansion because he has to. He lives there because it speaks to his wealth. A consumption tax would, in fact, allow us to budget based on 10 year spending averages. If we don’t like the consumption tax, then create a progressive flat tax: 0-20,000 pays 10%; 20,000-30,000 pays 15%, 30,000-40,000 pays 16% . . . You get the idea with a top rate at 25% for those making over $5 million. No caps. No loopholes. And no whining. If you are making $10,000, put some skin in the game. If you are making $10 million, you will not stop producing or stop pushing yourself to make money to avoid taxes. You live in the greatest country on the planet and you make $10 million because you live here. If you don’t like it, leave. Go try to be rich in Venezuela.

It’s either that or let’s make that 1 trillion dollar coin. Heck, let’s make two.

The Buck Stops There

dollarSince the theme of This Week in America is the budget (or lack thereof), I’ve been thinking a good bit about how one teaches economic responsibility. The issue is particularly relevant to our family since my older son received his first credit card application the other day and he heads off to college next fall.

Understand, I’m not claiming Dave Ramsey or Scott Burns-type knowledge about money and investments. Lord knows we’ve wasted our fair share of dollar bills, but we’ve also managed to avoid sending money to any preachers when we are watching t.v. at 2:00 am.  And we’ve never bought anything that has “But wait, there’s more” as part of its advertising slogan.

Like most parents, my wife and I have often felt like a wallet on legs. We could tell how much money our kids wanted based on the intensity of the hug. When they complimented our hair, we knew to hide the credit cards.

When my older son was 12, we decided, after yet another weekend of “all my friends have one” and “I have to have these shoes,” that we weren’t doing our job as parents. We hugged, bandaged, kissed, fed, secured, taught, piano-lessoned, and little leagued, but we hadn’t embarked on any kind of conversation about economics beyond “That’s too damn expensive!” Clearly, we noted, if our son whose foot changes sizes every three weeks doesn’t understand why $150 shoes are a bad idea, perhaps we should do something. We figured if we start before the kids became teenagers we might reduce  the steep learning curve once they get older. And, yes, part of our motivation was self-serving–economically responsible kids are less likely to move back in the house after we’ve grown accustomed to the empty nest (and turned their rooms into man caves!).

It’s no easy task to explain money to a 12 year old. Like our politicians, pre-teens are pretty oblivious to income, expenditures, and the larger financial implications of spending money. Investments, deficits, and balanced budgets are complex things. When, for instance, is it smart to buy the most expensive product and when is such a purchase a waste of money? Are there legitimate times to run a short-term deficit? How do you anticipate future costs? When is it important to raise revenue and when do you focus on cutting costs? What are fixed costs and one-time costs? How do you plan for the future without sacrificing the present?

Unfortunately, there’s not an app for that. There was, though, google. We were lucky that people like Ramsey, Burns, and a variety of other folks out there had ideas about money and teens. Naturally, we stole a little bit from each one.

Added to the difficulty, though, is that we had to aim for responsibility without creating bitterness all the while remembering teenagers are missing that all important frontal lobe. We can’t just assume they will make smart choices. The hard part of parenting is teaching them how to make choices not just letting them make choices. We wanted our kids to learn about money without abdicating our responsibility as parents.

So we wrote a contract. In essence, we added up the amount of money we spent on clothes, school supplies, and entertainment for our son and that’s the amount he got every month for a year. The catch, though, was that we didn’t buy his clothes, school supplies, or pay for movies/food/video games. Our contract was very specific about who bought what stuff. We would buy deodorant (out of olfactory self-defense), but if he wants fancy anti-stinkum he pays the difference. We would pay for school related extra curricular activities (band and sports), but if I’m buying the baseball glove, he has the right to supplement the money for a different, “better” glove or play with the I get.

It’s amazing how quickly the $1.50 notebook works just as well as the $5.00 notebook when you have a little skin in the game.

More importantly, the “Agreement” we developed included other responsibilities. My son had to do well in school, budget at the beginning of the year (showing us he was prepared for school expenses), do his fair share around the house, track his expenses, donate either 10% (or volunteer for 5 hours a month), and save 5% of all his money. His savings account had to have a minimum amount of money each month. If he bought something big, he had to have a plan to restore his savings.

That was the easy part. We had responsibilities, as well. Most notably, we had to let him be stupid with his money. Obviously, we weren’t going to let him do anything illegal or unethical (no meth labs or rated M games), but if he wanted to spend his entire month’s paycheck going to the movies and at the snack bar, then we had to let him even if we knew he needed new shoes.

Amazingly enough, when he tracked his spending in the third month and realized he was spending 50% of his income on entertainment and food, he changed his habits. When he realized a $50 pair of shoes would last just as long at the $150 pair, he learned to make that choice. When summer hit that first year and he realized he might not have any new clothes for school the next year if he didn’t watch his money, he had to make a plan.

As the years passed, we’ve increased the amount of money and changed the contract here and there. We’ve added some items (texting, gas, car insurance) and deleted some others: each year we renew the contract for another year. One of the keys has always been to give enough money that he can buy his necessary items without giving him so much he didn’t feel compelled to budget carefully. In essence, if he didn’t want to get a job, he would have clothes and supplies for school, but that’s it.

It’s not a perfect system. We still endured our share of moping and the occasional begging for either a raise or a loan, but the beauty of the contract is that it offers yearly opportunities to negotiate and review. Our boys have learned to pay attention to increases in costs and inflationary costs. These are the skills, I hope, that will serve them well when they do finally get that first credit card. Of course, we do kind of miss the compliments about our hair but I guess that’s the necessary trade-off.

Sequester Me!

sequestrationAs our duly elected officials sprint toward sequestration, I am underwhelmed with worry. Don’t get me wrong–I recognize that cutting 42 billion dollars from defense, 600 million from border security, and various other dollar amounts that are so large they seem meaningless has the potential to be a big deal. I have a great deal of sympathy for federal workers, especially the congressional staff who will take a 20% cut while their bosses are held harmless.

I have even more sympathy for those on medicaid, medicare and other government programs who now live with even more uncertainty regarding vital services that might keep them solvent (or, even more importantly, alive). I have colleagues with NSF grants who are being told to stop spending money and prepare to fire their lab assistants. I’m in now way unaware of the negative impact this governmental pissing contest will have.

But I’m also growing so weary of the governmental disaster of the month that I want out of the club or off the mailing list or, perhaps, I just want sequestered from it all. I’m waiting for someone to start selling ribbons like they do for AIDS or Breast Cancer. We could do red ribbons for Debt Ceiling Month, Black Ribbons for Tax Cut Week, and Green Ribbons for April 15. Is it racist to propose Brown Ribbons for Border Security Month?

The problem, of course, isn’t that we don’t have fundamental issues at the federal level. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, when we elect leaders based on their willingness to own (or not own) a gun, their stance on gay marriage, and their beliefs on abortion, we get what we deserve on the economy. More to the point, when we elect the loudest person who gets the most press, we get bad government. I propose that anyone who references Hitler or Nazi Germany now be banned from American politics.

More to the point, I think we should have a hyperbole meter instead of truth or fact checkers. Such a tool would help me decide if, in fact, I really need to panic about sequestration. On the one hand, President Obama is parading police, veterans, old people, children, puppies, and anyone else who might tug on my heart strings so he can convince me “SEQUESTRATION IS BAD AND THE REPUBLICANS ARE WORSE!”

On the other hand, the Republicans are parading President Obama in front of me trying to convince me “HE IS THE DEVIL AND IT’S ALL HIS FAULT (and he doesn’t really shoot skeet)!”

Both sides are convinced our military will collapses, our old people will die, and our borders will be overrun. It is, they tell us, the collapse of America.

Again. Didn’t America collapse under George Bush? When we invaded Iraq? When we appointed Justice Roberts? When Obama was elected? When we passed Obamacare?

Feel free to add your own apocalyptic memory here.

Except we didn’t collapse and we haven’t. Beyond the fact that the current political mentality strikes me as pretty counter-productive (“just because I insult him on a daily basis and question his patriotism doesn’t mean we can’t work together” politicians might say), such attitudes also assume life works on a linear, chronological plain: A causes B and that causes C. Such a thought process assumes C will occur just because A occurs.

Except that it doesn’t. If the sequester causes massive turmoil and our military shuts down, causing China to design invasion plans, I have a feeling our government would find all that lost bi-partisanship we used to have. If hordes of criminals and drug dealers invade Laredo, TX, I’ll bet we find a solution to sequestration. If our schools collapse without federal dollars and elementary kids are forced to recycle cans, mow yards, and clean their school toilets, I’ll bet something changes.

The reality is, though, we don’t really know what will happen when sequestration starts because human beings (that includes most of Congress) will adjust. In essence, and I hate to wax philosophical, just because A happens doesn’t guarantee C.

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that I want sequestration to take place. The reality is, like most Americans, I want our politicians to put on their grown-up clothes and find a way to work together instead of spending time constantly running for re-election. If they can’t think of a solution, I know there are groups of old men sitting in Dairy Queens across America who have already solved this problem. Every morning for the last 10 years.

But what I really want is for my elected officials to dial it back a notch. Everything that happens in Washington isn’t the end of the world. Just because President Obama likes something doesn’t make it evil, and someone needs to tell Ted Cruz disagreeing with him doesn’t make someone a communist. And Vice President Biden should just have a 5 second delay every time he opens his mouth.

In the meantime, I think I’m going to volunteer for jury duty and hope we get sequestered. With my luck, though, they will cut the funding for that right before the trial.

Growing Up Is Over Rated

thinmintsDo you ever have one of those days where you just want to make a rum and coke (or two), open a sleeve of thin mints (or two), and stare out the window? If you’re like me, your boss frowns on such behavior so you feign productivity and hope the lottery ticket in your pocket has the magic numbers.

It’s been a week filled with such days for me and mine. Way back in December, I wrote an Obituary Before the Fact in honor of our dog Buffy. As is often the case, with the help of good drugs and a little luck, she rallied for a couple of months. My wife, to her credit, managed to mix and match pills but even that wasn’t enough. All good things, as they say, must come to an end. Over the weekend, we could see her failing. By Sunday, she couldn’t lie down without pain and you could see her heart beating through her chest. We knew there wasn’t any magic left in those pill bottles.

My wife and I, in so many ways, have lived a charmed life. Both our parents are alive and in relatively good health; our children are physically active, do well in school, and only hate us on occasion; and thankfully, we are (more or less) financially secure-ish (money is an object but we don’t skip meals). Despite creeping ever more into middle-age, we both still occasionally feel decidedly not-grownup. Some of that, I think, is the long stint in graduate school. We didn’t buy our first couch until about five years ago and cinder blocks are still our first thought when we need book shelves.

But there are moments in life that become important markers of adult-hood: buying furniture from an actual store and not off someone’s driveway; watching our kids start high school; paying attention to a retirement account and wondering which investments have the biggest yield. We’ve also reached that age where are parents really are getting old (sorry mom and dad) and we can see it. Those of you of a certain age know what I’m talking about. We are past that age where we look at someone 45 and think they are old. This is the time of life where we wake up one day and realize our parents are on the down hill side. They’ve had “treatments,” “surgeries,” and use Performance Enhancing Drugs just to get from morning to night. Conversations increasingly sound like an episode of ER (or Scrubs when everyone is in good humor). If you’re lucky like us, it’s a slow trip down that hill but you know that soon enough they will depend on you instead of the other way around.

We might add the death of a family pet to the list of grownup things.

Death is apropos of nothing and rarely schedules itself for our convenience. I think, in the back of our minds, we were hoping that once Buffy rallied she would simply die in her sleep. Such a peaceful death would end her pain, keep us from making a decision about putting her down, and help our family say goodbye.

Monday morning, though, my wife had to be at work at 10:00, I had meetings in the late morning, our kids were off to school, and the poor dog could barely stand up but she hurt too bad to lie down. Short of levitating, she had to choose one or the other and they both hurt.

And adulthood came pounding through the door.

The vet told us it would take about two weeks for us to stop listening to the silence in the house. The tinkle of the collar on the water bowl, the clickety-clack of nails on the tile, the flap of the doggie door–their absence is pronounced throughout the day.

I’ll admit that I don’t feel the loss to the degree that my wife and oldest son do. Buffy was really their dog. She slept in my son’s room and she was, in so many ways, my wife’s close companion. They took walks and before my wife worked outside the home, they had long conversations. Let’s face it: when you stay home with the dog, she hears all your dirty secrets. Pet’s are great listeners, they are always sympathetic, and there’ s no danger of loose lips sinking any ships. Woman’s best friend for sure.

In some ways, adulthood robs us of the simplicity of death. We not only mourn, but we recognize the responsibilities we had to the living and the dead.  The temptation is question and second-guess, wondering if we did all we could. Hindsight might be 20-20, but it also can be a well of despair that threatens to drown us when we look backwards for too long.

The great thing about youth is the ability to always look forward. (The price of youth, by the way, is also the ability to always look forward. So what if I broke my arm last time I did this! Let’s jump off the roof onto the trampoline again!) Growing up, I guess, is the art of looking forward while balancing memories of the past.

Something much more easily done, I think, with a full sleeve of girl scout cookies. (And a full bottle.)

Bored of the Board of Regents

Word out of Austin is the Senate will hold hearings on the University of Texas Board of Regents to determine “whether the regents are going beyond their policy-setting roles and are meddling in administrative and operations functions at the university, which should be Powers’ role.” Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo want to find out “if the regents are micromanaging the university to its detriment.”

This, quite possibly, is the most exciting news out of Austin this legislative session. Forget public school funding (mostly because they’ll never really solve that problem) or water issues (mostly because fracking will use up any water we have left).

For those who don’t know, the Board of Regents, called Board of Governors and various other things in other states, is a group of political appointees tapped by the governor of any given state, usually “in consultation with the elected legislative branches,” to provide public oversight to institutions receiving public funds.

In theory, these groups are there to ensure fairness, equity, and check that a university is, in fact, serving the larger good within any given state. A Board of Regents for a System (University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech) also helps ensure macro-level consistency with allocated funds, missions, and system-wide policies as they relate to serving particular student populations.

In practice lately, these groups have become increasingly intrusive into the daily lives of most university campuses. One need look no further than the University of Virginia a couple of years ago when the Board of Governors fired the university president in a closed door meeting under politically charged circumstances. In our own system, our Regents consistently participate in micro-level decisions that are not within their purview.

The irony, as you might imagine, with ever intrusive Boards is relatively easy to imagine:

1. Boards are political appointees with no higher education experience. Much like the current trend in Texas of appointing Chancellors who are politicians not educators (Kent Hance at Texas Tech, John Sharp at A&M), membership is largely determined by the amount of campaign contributions handed out. Universities are multi-million dollar (multi-billion for UT and A&M) units. In the “real world” (because universities are never the real world), no business would create a board of directors filled with members who didn’t have expertise with that company’s product. Simply put, the only expertise these folks usually have is that they went to college. That’s like arguing my love of hamburgers means I can run Wendys.

2. As public funding for higher educations shrinks, intrusive oversight increases. When I went to college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, the state funded around 65-70% of my education. The mid-80s weren’t necessarily a time of great prosperity in the state, but we had the last vestiges of a government that believed higher education served a greater good. In essence, everyone in the state benefits from an educated population; hence, everyone pays a small amount. Our philosophy has clearly shifted. Currently, the state provides around 30-35% of funding for higher education, clearly indicating that we prefer a kind of user-fee model. The irony, I think, is that I’ve never worked for a university in a state not controlled by “small government, anti-regulation” politicians. Logically, the state would reduce funding and reduce regulation. Instead, they reduce funding while increasing regulation.

3. The Board is, in theory, designed to hold universities accountable for their decisions, yet the Board is accountable to only the Governor, a friend and recipient of political contributions. In other words, a Board member has more freedom and less accountability than a tenured faculty member and they are evaluated less often. Importantly, there is also no hiring “process” for a Board member. There are no public hearings, no votes, and, seemingly, no input from those entities most impacted by the appointment.

What, you may ask, is wrong with intrusive, unqualified, over-regulation? (Actually, if you are asking that question, I’m not sure why you are reading the blog.)

In addition to the extra work required to handle increased requests for reports and justifications for what used to be routine decisions, intrusive, politically appointed boards change the dynamic on a university campus. Currently, our Board of Regents places a Board member on every administrative search committee. (Remember–this person serving on the search committee will later vote to approve the person recommended for the job.) Inevitably, a Board member’s behavior influences which job candidates move forward. Their approval or dissent of a candidate signals how the Board will vote on that candidate at the earliest stages of the process.

More importantly, perhaps, administrative candidates must now be people adept at handling the politically charged atmosphere of the Board, a group (in Texas) of conservative Republican friends of our Governor not necessarily those most qualified to run an educational institution. The net result, unfortunately, creates an increasingly large divide between the administrative unit and the faculty. A president (or provost) becomes increasingly beholden to a Board peopled by members with preconceived ideas regrading education. When the president rejects the Board in favor of faculty desires, we get the University of Virginia. Or, the University of Texas.

Richard Vedder, in his essay “The Damage That Accreditors Do” (posted to Minding the Campus) does an excellent job of showing us how accrediting bodies, groups external to the university, are adversely impacting universities. Vedder notes these groups are largely unaccountable and increasingly political, yet they create rules and regulations universities must follow in order to receive federal funds. (Interestingly enough, the accreditors desires often contradict the Board member’s desires.) We might say the same thing about Boards of Regents.

I certainly understand the need for external evaluation and oversight. Universities are large public entities whose primary missions should include serving the population within which the school resides. Establishing a body to ensure that we stay focused on such missions is important, but I think it’s also high-time we found a way to ensure those bodies are held accountable for their behavior also.

Addendum: After I posted this, the Texas Tribune reported: “Similar concerns also led Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to file a bill that would curb what he also referred to as “micromanagement” by regents. The bill would prevent regents who had not gone through the Senate confirmation process from being able to vote on budgetary and personnel matters, require more robust regent training and say that powers not designated to a university system or its board are under the purview of individual institutions.” Good for Mr. Seliger. Let’s look at all the Boards. 

Develop This

Rick Hess, author of the book Cage Busting Leadership, argues over at Education Week that “it’s no surprise that professional development (PD) is nearly everyone’s favorite go-to. After all, if one is disinclined to rethink staffing or spending, replace employees, reward excellence, or root out mediocrity, hoping you can train staff to be better at their jobs is really all you’ve got left. The problem: most PD doesn’t pay off.”

Research into the effectiveness of professional development finds almost  “no ‘valid’ or ‘scientifically defensible evidence’ of effectiveness.” One of the problems, Hess notes, is that too often “professional development is provided in sessions with names like, ‘Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0.’ She [Roxanna Elden] explains, ‘Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to [tell] teachers that rigor is important, suggest[ing] we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls.'”

Let me first say that anyone who attends a session that promises to “Unlock the Sunshine!” gets what they deserve.

Let me also add that, while Hess is speaking specifically about professional development in K-12 education, we might be able to extend his argument to the college campus, as well. Such a claim might seem surprising considering that I am the Director of our faculty development center, a purveyor of such professional development opportunities for college faculty.

But, as you might imagine, I’m not talking about the workshops we provide. In my area, I tell presenters that if the faculty don’t leave with at least one thing they can apply tomorrow in their class, we have wasted their time. We are not interested in theory, idealism, or stating the obvious. No one ever comes to a session believing we need more passive learners, less rigor in the classroom, or worse retention. Our attendees might be interested in what neuroscience has to say about learning, but that’s not why they showed up to learn how twitter can be used to engage students.

Yet, I still attend workshops and training sessions (at other schools, of course) where I am reminded that learning is difficult and interested students learn more. I sit in on glorified pep talks telling me how important a college education is, how unprepared our students are, and how difficult it is to work in our current educational environment. Speakers spend inordinate amounts of time telling me we need to teach critical thinking skills, communication skills, and, more and more, soft skills.

No shit, I want to say.

I have no doubt there is little hard evidence professional development results in tangible changes in the classroom, but the fault isn’t with professional development, at least theoretically. The problem is the kind of development we consider professional and, more importantly, our institutional ideology regarding development.

The development we offer is often so “disconnected from the realities of classrooms” that the best thing I can say about my last PD conference is that the food was good.

Too many PD sessions discuss the ideal classroom situation. I don’t blame the professional professional developers. They travel around the country delivering the same message to every group of teachers, regardless of the type of student or the classroom working conditions. When I sit in a session regarding engaging student writers, I have no doubt many of the ideas I hear would work–if my class had 10 students with an average ACT of 32. Unfortunately, my faculty have 1 kid with a 32, 4 with an 11, and 26 somewhere in between. All with varying degrees of desire and training.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop professional development, though. Instead, we need to wrest control of development from the administrative units who see it as an easy panacea to falling test scores, understaffed faculty, and tired teachers. Most importantly, though, faculty development has to move beyond an hour long session of idealism and platitudes.

Faculty development only works if faculty have time to develop. K-12 teachers and university faculty can attend all the sessions in the world, but when they return to the office or classroom with a 100 students, tests to grade, and return to their 10-12 hour days, they don’t have time to implement change. Instead, we need targeted development opportunities delivered in 30 minutes or less that focus on one simple thing a faculty member can change in the classroom in which she teaches.

But, probably, what we really need is less faculty development and more leadership development. I wonder if those sessions would be any more effective?


If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit, Stop Wearing It

ladygagashoesI don’t normally pay much attention to Lady Gaga. Early in my career as a teacher, I tried to keep up with popular culture, slipping in references to contemporary movies and songs whenever possible. I watched the Grammy’s, the Oscars, and occasionally listened to a top 40 radio station. I once made it through 5 whole songs before my stomach lurched, my knees weakened, and I collapsed under the weight of too much “Oh, Baby! Oh, Baby! Oh Baby! Uh!”

The goal, at the time, was simple. Like any good educator, I wanted to relate the material to things my students could understand. We could discuss ethics in relation to downloading music, gender as we see it in certain movies, Machiavelli and the East/West Coast rap schism, or poetry as a musical genre. Film angles helped explain narrative voice and if I could mention a film the students had seen, I reasoned, the material might seem more relevant. See, I could say, Milton’s struggling with evil just like Denzel Washington in Fallen. (I, actually, have never said those words, mostly because I can’t stand Milton and I don’t want to soil Denzel’s good name.)

I stopped keeping up with contemporary, popular music, though. One year I watched the Grammy’s and I realized two very specific things: 1) I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. It literally felt like I had traveled to another country where everyone’s songs had a bass pitch so low anyone over 30 couldn’t hear it or every singer was screaming at a decibel level I didn’t want to be able to hear, and 2) I actually found myself thinking, “why don’t those women put more clothes on? It can’t be comfortable dancing with that string right there.”

Continuing to use those popular culture references, I also thought, will turn me into the creepy middle-age guy who uses “party” as a verb around his kids’ friends.

I do still try to remain a little bit current. I check out the entertainment section of the Huffington Post, read some of the movie reviews at JoBlo.com, and read about the top 40 songs, but I’m comfortable growing old, grumpy, and out of touch. My students have Netflix, Pandora, and Google. I’ll leave it up to them to do some research. That’s real active learning anyway.

Either way, Lady Gaga is, evidently, the bomb (0r whatever goofy phrase exists out there to say she’s really popular), and evidently she just canceled her tour because she has a labral tear in her hip. Lady Gaga’s shows, as so many are these days, are less music and more aerobic workout. I was exhausted watching Beyonce’s Super Bowl Halftime show. I felt guilty, thinking I should get up, grab the leg warmers and headband, and start burning calories.

I don’t want to belittle Lady Gaga’s injury. I’m sure a labrum tear in her hip is painful and I have no doubt such an injury should keep her off the stage. Her shows are choreographed events of non-stop motion. It’s like world wide wresting set to music.  Gone are the days when singers canceled shows because they were too drunk to go on stage. More and more, we probably need to test for steroids, HGH, and PEDs as our musicians grow increasingly athletic. They’ve all become some weird amalgamation of Richard Simmons and Gene Simmons (no makeup but the short shorts survived). Thank goodness people like Snoop Dog and Willie Nelson are around to remind us some musicians still smoke dope and drink booze.

But I also don’t have much sympathy for Lada Gaga. Every time I see her in the news, she’s wearing shoes we could strap on a terrorist. I have no doubt they would beg for water-boarding after about 15 minutes of walking in those things. We might end terrorism with a pair of shoes and a cat walk.

Truth be told, I’m mostly surprised her hip is the only thing that’s pulled.

I know I’m sounding all old-farty here, and I’m not blind to the fashion foibles of the past. I’ve been to Graceland and seen Elvis’ jumpsuit. Kurt Cobain defined a generation of slackers and allowed Levis to charge us extra for torn jeans, Michael Jackson gave us one glove and red leather jackets, Olivia Newton John gave us headbands, and Madonna wanted us to act like a virgin but dress like god knows what.

But nothing they wore was a health hazard. I wish Lady Gaga a quick recovery, but I also recommend she start shopping for shoes at the Foot Locker. She’ll thank me later in life and she probably won’t have to cancel anymore concerts.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)