A Telling Comparison

local scenePeople in small towns, nearly everywhere in this country, have access to national programming & news on television and online. As easily as one could subscribe online to something like the Janesville Gazette, one could subscribe to the Chicago Tribune or Washington Post.

Imagine, then, a choice between editorials in the Gazette and the Post on the state of labor in America. Just a few days ago, both papers published on this national topic: the Gazette in a Sunday editorial, the Post in a guest article from Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury, and a longtime academic (for president, current professor, of Harvard).

The Gazette offers Economy, not unions, boosts labor, a 500-word editorial that contends that union membership has declined in the Janesville area, yet that the paper’s editorial board “cannot claim that the economy is worse off for membership declines. Indeed, poverty rates statewide have fallen to the lowest level in years, while unemployment rates are also near record lows. The labor market now favors skilled workers employers are competing for and struggling to find.”

I hold no brief for unions, although I think that they should be a robust choice available to workers, at any worksite, should they choose. The problems with the Gazette‘s use of these simple measures are obvious. Poverty is a measure of economic sickness, but its decline is no assurance of overall health. (Cancer rates might be low, for example, but a population still beset by anemia, high-blood pressure, alcoholism, for example.) The absence of the severe does not assure the presence of temperate. A low unemployment rate still begs the question of overall productivity and employee gains. Finally, a labor market that favors skilled workers (under the Gazette‘s implication that that’s Janesville) still doesn’t answer how many workers are skilled, how many are non-skilled, and how both groups are faring.

Look, instead, at the analysis that Summers offers in the Post. (Summers isn’t a libertarian, to be sure, but that’s not significant. What’s significant is how Summers presents a strong argument, even if one disagrees.) Here’s Summers on the state of labor, in It’s time to balance the power between workers and employers:

….Surely related to middle-class anxiety is the slow growth of wages even in the ninth year of economic recovery. The Phillips curve — which postulates that tighter labor markets lead to an acceleration of wage growth — appears to have broken down. Unemployment is at historically low levels, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that average hourly earnings last month rose by all of 3 cents — little more than a 0.1 percent bump. For the past year, they rose by only 2.5 percent. In contrast, profits of the S&P 500 are rising at a 16 percent annual rate.

What is going on? Economists don’t have complete answers. In part, there are inevitable year-to-year fluctuations (profits have declined in several recent years). And in part, BLS data reflects wages earned in the United States, even though a bit less than half of profits are earned abroad and have become more valuable as the dollar has declined relative to other currencies. And finally, wages have not risen because a strengthening labor market has drawn more workers into the labor force.

But I suspect the most important factor is that employers have gained bargaining power over wages while workers have lost it. Technology has given some employers — depending on the type of work involved — more scope for replacing American workers with foreign workers (think outsourcing) or with automation (think boarding-pass kiosks at airports) or by drawing on the gig economy (think Uber drivers). So their leverage to hold down wages has increased.

On the other hand, other factors have decreased the leverage of workers. For a variety of reasons, including reduced availability of mortgage credit and the loss of equity in existing homes, it is harder than it used to be to move to opportunity. Diminished savings in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis means many families cannot afford even a brief interruption in work. Closely related is the observation that workers as consumers appear more likely than years ago to have to purchase from monopolies — such as a consolidated airline sector or local health-care providers — rather than from firms engaged in fierce price competition. That means their paychecks do not go as far….

These two analyses aren’t the same in depth: the local editorial misses key points, either through ignorance or sophistry, that Summers easily covers in his succinct, general-readership essay.

Those reading Summers – even if in disagreement, and perhaps especially if so – will gain something from his observations. Those reading the Gazette will find only shallow contentions.

In a small town, one could read either. In a school district, one could teach either. At university, one could research either.

Why settle for less, why teach a new generation to accept less, when one could engage and think at a competitive national level, just as easily as any other person in America? Summers and others are as accessible to us as the Gazette, and offer so much more.

Anything less is short-changing onself and one’s community.

Anti-Immigration Measures, Wrong Yet Again

Embed from Getty Images

An anti-immigration position is for economics something like a flat-earth position would be for natural science: one may hold it only through either ignorance or disorder. (The ignorance would have  to be profound, as even the weakest grasp of economics would incline a rational person to acknowledge the benefits of a free, transnational  labor market; the disorder would have to be grave, as only obstinacy or prejudice would long resist a reasoned explanation.)

In this free, commercial republic, there are still some who are merely ignorant on immigration, but one has reason to believe that Trump pushes his line to fill empty vessels not merely with weak economics but with strong prejudices.

There are officials both in and outside the city who would bring Arizona-style ‘show us your papers’ laws to Wisconsin. They are wrong on economics, wrong on liberty, but at least they have this going for them: each and every one of these politicians (or the out-of-area mouthpieces on whom they rely) is an easily-identifiable troll for either ignorance or lumpen prejudices.

A quick note to the local officials of the city, school district, and university who are in the habit of inviting these anti-immigration politicians to public events: you debase the American tradition, and turn away from sound reasoning and thorough study, when you bring these few to your events. No supposed political necessity will justify their presence. One cannot profess a worthy education proudly and honestly while simultaneously offering a platform to the ignorant or biased. 

Just a bit of light reading in this regard —

Heather Long, It’s a ‘grave mistake’ for Trump to cut legal immigration in half:

President Trump endorsed a steep cut in legal immigration on Wednesday. Economists say that’s a “grave mistake.”

A Washington Post survey of 18 economists in July found that 89 percent believe it’s a terrible idea for Trump to curb immigration to the United States. Experts overwhelmingly predict it would slow growth — the exact opposite of what Trump wants to do with “MAGAnomics.”

“Restricting immigration will only condemn us to chronically low rates of economic growth,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group. “It also increases the risk of a recession”….

Jeremy Robbins, Trump says the proposed immigration bill will raise wages for Americans. It won’t.:

But while moving to a merit-based immigration system, Cotton and Perdue also propose reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted into the United States every year by half — from about 1 million to about 500,000. They argue that having fewer immigrants will leave more jobs available for American workers.

But the economy simply doesn’t work that way.

Economists who study immigration overwhelmingly agree that immigration is an economic boon to our country. Indeed, nearly 1,500 Republican, Democratic and independent economists — including six Nobel laureates — recently released a letter stressing the “near universal agreement” among economists of all stripes on “the broad economic benefit that immigrants to this country bring.”

To that consensus, Cotton responds: “Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid.” He instead points to Canada and Australia as models for limited legal immigration. However, while it’s true that Canada and Australia admit far more high-skilled immigrants, they also admit more family-based immigrants. In fact, on a per capita basis, they admit 2.4?and 3.5 times as many immigrants, respectively, as the United States does….

Jennifer Rubin, A crass play to xenophobes will go nowhere:

Because the bill went nowhere in April and will not make it onto the Senate calendar for the rest of the year, it’s an obvious, typical play to Donald Trump’s base, once more using immigrants as scapegoats and distractions. (“Trump’s appearance with the senators came as the White House moved to elevate immigration back to the political forefront after the president suffered a major defeat when the Senate narrowly rejected his push to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” The Post reported. “The president made a speech last Friday on Long Island in which he pushed Congress to devote more resources to fighting illegal immigration, including transnational gangs.”)

When introduced in April the bill was roundly criticized by more than 1,000 economists. There is near-uniformity among respected economists that immigrants do not “steal” jobs from native-born Americans (in part because they have different skill sets and in part because they make the economy bigger), have almost no impact on domestic wages (except for non-high school graduates, where the impact is less than 2 percent) and are essential to keep the economy growing. By reducing the number of immigrants by a half a million, the bill would shrink the U.S. economy and exacerbate the problem of an aging workforce (immigrants statistically are younger than the native-born population).

Nevertheless, for anti-immigrant groups who often insist they oppose only illegal immigration, it’s a revealing moment. They cheer the idea that we should take fewer hard-working, pro-American immigrants through legal avenues. (Trump, by the way, continues to hire substantial numbers of foreign workers at his resort in Florida.) No, the anti-immigrant forces simply want to keep people unlike themselves out of the United States. Their economic arguments are tired, wrong and a pretext for xenophobia.

The notion that immigration restriction raises wages has been disproved by past experience. (Canceling the 1960s Bracero program, akin to the Cotton-Perdue plan for lowering immigrant numbers, had “little measurable effect on wages.”) A slew of conservative think tankers and former officials condemn immigration restrictionism as rotten for the U.S. economy. The plan was swiftly criticized by Democrats, pro-immigration activists and economically literate Republicans.  Trump’s promise of 3 percent annual growth was far-fetched; with a proposed reduction of 500,000 people, it becomes impossible.

This is a confidence game from Trump: the bill is for suckers who think Trump will actually get something passed, and it wouldn’t lift wages as promised even if it should pass.

Construction Updates

How much time should a school district spend describing the stages of an ongoing construction project?

My answer would be that very little time should be spent on the subject, with a summary of perhaps a minute or two, a more-detailed written description for reference and transparency, and brief time for pertinent questions.

That’s all.

This is not an argument against construction – it’s an argument against preoccupation with it. There are far more signficant educational topics than a discussion of who’s pouring the concrete, etc. Time spent on these updates distracts and diverts from more important subjects. There’s something risible, and so something unpersuasive, in the time that local publications spend on construction bulletins.

When the Daily Union devotes the majority of its coverage of a school board meeting to construction, it both insults serious readers and reveals how few serious readers it has. See, District building updates shared (http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_7983d1f2-7148-11e7-a005-0362127fd67d.html).

What’s being taught, how it is being taught, how the district treats all its students (in schooling and in discipline), what the faculty know about contemporary educational standards, whether the faculty and administration consistently and thoroughly apply those standards: these are far more important questions that should occupy the overwhelming majority of one’s time.

Construction updates are like fishing lures, drawing attention away from livelier and more complex matters, toward something lesser (and drawing one away from a sustaining focus to one that its debilitating by comparison).

It’s easier to talk about construction, of course, but this easier topic is a lesser one. In the same way, it’s easier to eat from a can of Spam than to cook a proper meal, but then it’s surely worse for one’s longterm health.

It’s a diversion from serious scholastic standards to spend more than a small amount of time on construction; to do so does not advance education, but rather distracts from the importance and complexity of meaningful, substantive learning.

It’s What’s Inside That Truly Matters


For years, Whitewater has seen construction project after construction project: a new high school, remodeled buildings, a Bridge to Nowhere, a roundabout, an Innovation Center, a Starin Road extension, an East Gate project, etc.


And yet, and yet…it’s what’s inside that truly matters.

While many a formerly-fine church has come to ruin for its neglected teachings, still house churches of true devotion emerge across the planet.

Old Whitewater – a state of mind, not a person or chronological age – loves nothing so much as a big project & a big show.

For it all, shovels, construction helmets, ceremonies, contractors, architects, politicians, and photo opportunities will instruct not one student for even one day.

Update 2: See in the comments section below insightful comments from George Bailey and J, and my reply.

Wisconsin’s Best & Brightest Vie for Office

Molly Beck reports that two of the three candidates for state superintendent discussed an arrangement – not illegal yet astonishingly cynical –  about one of them dropping out in exchange for a state job:

A candidate for state superintendent offered an opponent a taxpayer-funded $150,000 job if he dropped out of the race and sought the same for himself if he were the one to drop out, his challenger alleged Wednesday.

Candidate John Humphries said in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal that during discussions between him and opponent Lowell Holtz, Holtz proposed in writing that either he or Humphries should drop out in exchange for the guaranteed three-year job with the Department of Public Instruction should one of them defeat incumbent Tony Evers in the general election.

But Holtz said in an interview with the State Journal that the proposal — including a driver, benefits and sweeping control over several urban school districts, including Madison — was a “rough draft” of ideas assembled at the request of business leaders he declined to name of how the two conservative candidates could work together instead of running against each other. Both candidates said the proposal went nowhere.

Holtz said the proposal was intended for consideration after the primary, but Humphries said Holtz meant for it to be weighed before the race even began and contemplated scenarios under which one or the other candidate would drop out.

Each sought to make his case with dueling documents released Wednesday, although it was impossible to ascertain whether either had been altered.

Via State superintendent candidate: Challenger offered 6-figure job to drop out of race @ Wisconsin State Journal.

Credit where credit is due: this is industrial-grade jackassery.

Download (PDF, 443KB)

Download (PDF, 74KB)

Betsy DeVos: What a Weak Nominee Looks Like

In a confirmation hearing, one might face tough questioning, and those tough questions might – understandably – trip up a nominee. What shouldn’t happen, to someone of normal ability and proper preparation, is to stumble over simple, straightforward questions.

That’s what happened to Trump nominee for secretary of education Betsy DeVos: she stumbled (indeed, almost threw herself to the ground) over direct questions that a capable nominee could have answered: (1) about her wealth, (2) about the difference between growth and proficiency, and (3) about guns in schools. A more capable nominee could have managed these questions easily; she’s not that nominee.

Sen. Sanders asks about DeVos how she became Trump’s nominee:

Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”

DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”

How she should have answered: Avoid answering with ‘would be that possibility’; begin with a detailed list of accomplishments in the very first words of her reply, e.g., “There are x contributions that I’ve made to education in this country, and I can list and describe them all, in order, to you now…”

Sen. Franken asks DeVos about the difference between growth and proficiency (where proficiency is hitting a benchmark and growth is about progress from one level of ability to another):

DeVos: “I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.”

Franken: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.  I’m talking about the debate between proficiency and growth and what your thoughts are on that.”

How she should have answered: DeVos should have known – and made clear she knew – the difference between the two ways to measure progress; contending that she was just clarifying Franken’s question doesn’t mitigate the obvious truth that she didn’t see the distinction between the two. (Franken clearly does understand the difference, so she’s not clarifying his words, she’s making her own error). She either truly doesn’t know the difference, or lacks the intellectual ability or composure to comprehend a question in a formal setting.

Sen. Murphy asks about guns in schools:

Murphy: Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?

DeVos: That is best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is—

Murphy: You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?

DeVos: I will refer back to [Wyoming] Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.

How she should have answered: Anything but this. Referring to a senator’s remark about wildlife doesn’t help here. Candidly, she would have been better off contending that guns were useful to defend against Martians: at least she might have been able to later say that she was joking.

Contending that guns in schools are needed to defend against wildlife is world-class buffoonery. A defense, if any, would have to talk about human threats and emphasize limitations to assure those possessing guns were well-trained. The problem here is that there are very few parents who will accept that well-trained means someone other than a police officer. She would have been better off to advocate for more police; even then, there are legitimate concerns about the quality of police training in communities that hire poorly and skimp on training costs.)

Her position is a hard political one to hold in any event, but talking about grizzlies is simply embarrassing.

Trump promised America that he would hire the “best people“; in DeVos he’s picked someone either too dim or too lazy to represent herself adequately, to a level that the vast majority of her fellow citizens easily meet each day.

Borsuk’s Annual Education Awards

Alan Borsuk, Senior Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette Law School, recently published The year’s education winners and losers (12.31.16) and More winners and losers in education awards (1.1.17). He expresses his gratitude: “Thank you to all the people (especially politicians) who give me so much material. This is not necessarily a compliment, but you keep me well-supplied. I am in your debt.”

Of his winners and losers (combining both lists), these recipients seem especially noteworthy:

Schools of the Year: Milwaukee College Prep. Five schools in Milwaukee earned the top rating when the state’s new school report cards were unveiled recently.  Four of them were the four Milwaukee College Prep charter schools on the north side. They earned the ratings by doing a thousand things that make schools outstanding, starting with a strong commitment to excellent leaders and teachers….

Book of the Year: “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond. The book has made several national lists of best books of the year, including the one in the New York Times. The book is not directly about schools. But it is all about Milwaukee and you can’t read it without seeing how much the unstable lives of children here affect their education. Desmond says that if you lose stable housing, everything else falls apart. This is a major truth that needs to be kept in mind….

The Stuck Needle Award: The state’s new accountability systems. The first results of the Forward test were released in 2016, along with the first round of revised school report cards. The results were not much different from those using the old tests and report cards. Overall, fewer than half of the state’s third- through eighth-graders were rated proficient in reading and language arts. Is this satisfactory? Tell me again, how are we going to move forward in 2017 and beyond?….

The Quiet Giant Award: Is it just me or did the Common Core learning standards controversy sort of fall off everyone’s radar in 2016, even as the implementation of the standards generally proceeds? Maybe they were actually not such a big and terrible thing.

It’s worth noting that no one who committed to a marketing-first approach won from Borsuk even a single laudatory mention. There are two reasons for this: (1) no one who commits to a marketing-first approach deserves to win praise for his or her work, and (2) Borsuk has the good sense to see as much.

For Mr. Trump, It’s STEM, Schwem, Whatever…

In response to a question about whether state-sponsored hacking against an American political party should go unpunished, Donald Trump grew expansive, giving his typically thoughtful perspective on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and (even) epistemology:

“I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer [sic] has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

So much for contemporary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – why bother with STEM when ‘nobody knows exactly what’s going on’ anyway? Perhaps one thought that science and technology made America the most advanced country in all the world, indeed, made her a world-historical place committed to study and exploration.

But then, Trump knows because he knows that no one knows – under his view, our problems aren’t just educational; honest to goodness, a theory of knowledge, itself, is pointless.  It’s one big muddled scene.

Casting this last point as Trump’s attack on epistemology gives him too much credit, of course.  Saying nobody knows what’s going on has a more practical value for Trump, and is merely a pose: he insists that the truth is indeterminable whenever he wishes to evade responsibility for his own lies.

We’d best hold to our educational pursuits in spite of Trump’s suggestion, and hold as tightly to the conviction that in so many matters, truths – and the lies contrary to them – are determinable.

Design, Late 2016

Whitewater’s local public school district held a board meeting last night, and one of the topics was physical change to the schools following a successful construction referendum in November.

The district administrator gave an overview of some design possibilities, that one could characterize into two broad categories: design changes for students’ safety (e.g., more secure entrances) and everything else. Of the changes for security, there’s not much to suggest, as one supposes that those prudent alternations have been well-reviewed.

For the other changes, there’s far more play between form and function, so to speak. One has more room to choose between one style or another, and this seems especially true as one departs from elementary school choices. Watching the presentation (with illustrations showing what other schools have or will soon do), I thought that I might comment on the aesthetic of the possibilities.

Thought, but only for a moment: does one aesthetic or another make that much difference now, to America, in late 2016? Will light or dark, or eastward or westward facing objects matter now?

Perhaps so, but not so much as many other choices: a day learning principles of liberty in a shack is preferable to a year ignoring them while in a palace. I see, of course, that one can have both, but we have over-emphasized the material over the ideal (security being the prudent exception).

I’m reminded of a scene from one of Orwell’s essays, where a man facing tragedy still takes a moment to step aside from a puddle. In this, Orwell saw a common humanity between himself and the man, and I’ll surely not disagree.

Yet where Orwell’s account led to only one outcome, we have even now – as a society – more than one possible future, some being destinies, and others mere fates.

The place or size of the puddles before us surely isn’t our principal concern, however much we might wish it to be otherwise.

That From Which Dreams Are Made

local Wisconsin, like most states, publishes sets of scorecards measuring students’ progress. (The overwhelming majority of school districts – 91% – at least meet expectations. Our local district falls within this common group; a few particular schools are admirably above it.)

Yesterday, the district announced the latest results, after the state’s Department of Public Instruction made them public twelve days earlier. The district announcement brings two points to mind, one small and one large.

First the small: an obvious coordination in the announcement on the same day (district news release, district automated calls announcing the release, and school board member’s use of his ersatz news site to promote uncritically that same release) offers yet another example supporting my view from yesterday on conflicts of interest (seeConflicts of Interest Don’t Explode, They Corrode).  I almost feel as though I should offer my thanks to all concerned.

And yet, and yet, there’s a second, larger point: these state scores are not the substantive learning – often immeasurable – on which hopeful adventure and exploration depend.  Last month, I wrote about James Fallows’ Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed, and his eighth sign seems especially relevant:

8. They have unusual schools. Early in our stay, we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K–12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign.

The examples people suggested ranged widely. Some were “normal” public schools. Some were charters. Some emphasized career and technical training, like Camden County High School, in Georgia. Some were statewide public boarding schools, like the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Sciences. Some were religious or private schools. The common theme was intensity of experimentation.

(See, from this website, James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 1) and (Part 2).)

There it is, honest to goodness: success for students – and so for a community – comes from distinctive programs and distinctive study, from which particular scores are merely imperfect (sometimes misleading) measurements.

This community – like countless misguided communities – mistakes the map for the terrain. People don’t walk through a map, of course: they walk, variously, through woods, fields, mountains, or beaches.

Scholastic scores like these are touted in communities either through ignorance, a pandering to the ignorance of others, or for futile competitive advantage (which often combines the first two reasons).   Whitewater’s been using this public-relations approach for years, to no clear advantage for students or the community.

There are so many subjects, considered so many times, that are more important than a few charts from a state agency.

The academic exploration that underlies a mere chart is that from which dreams are, truly, made.

One Degree of Separation

This post’s title is a play on the idea of six degrees, or connections, being a sufficient number to link two people, even those unknown to each other.

For today, I’m thinking about an academic degree, rather than a degree that describes a connection between people, and how that academic degree divides rather expresses a connection.

Old Whitewater has the lazy, entitled, lower-middle class habit of thinking that a university degree – in and of itself – is a worthy measure of a person’s learning or understanding.  It’s a status-based culture, in which a few are sure that a formal education necessarily proves intellectual and informational superiority.

I’m from a paternal family that very much values formal education, and has for a very long time, but fortunately without the conceit that formal schooling necessarily implies some sort of superiority.

On the contrary, we would say that formal schooling is a human good, but one that establishes (if one is discerning) a burden, and a social obligation, but not an entitlement.  

Part of that burden is continuing reading, study, and commitment to a cause, long after one has left school.

Use of a formal education as status distinction, the way an Englishman would use an aristocratic title, is beneath a discerning American.  Education is a pursuit that should continue long after formal schooling ends. One should read literature in one’s field throughout one’s life, and learn things in new fields along one’s way.

(Occasionally, I have remarked on someone’s formal education, but only to make the point – however imperfectly – that much should be expected of someone who’s been formally schooled.  It does not matter to me if others don’t think they’ve such an obligation, or underestimate the depth of that obligation; it’s a old  truth apart from what they or I might think.)

It’s coldly disappointing how many times I’ve listened to some of Whitewater’s officials speak to others as though those speaking alone understood concepts that are, in fact, well known to most people.  It’s a conceit, and a laughable one, to presume that there are only a few sharp people in a community.  On the contrary, most people in most communities are very clever, and function well each day at complicated tasks.

Civilization would not – could not – have come so far if the overwhelming majority of people were not capable and clever.  

If that stings someone’s sense of formal, educational entitlement, so be it.  If one reads well, reasons well, and writes well, one may easily distinguish oneself.  If one reads poorly, reasons poorly, and writes poorly, then one is a poor reflection on one’s school.

It does no good for someone to say he went there, or he did this and that, if years later no one can discern that he went anywhere or did anything much at all.

A formal education has so much to offer (far beyond money, by the way), but it should inspire one to offer much, rather than slothfully rest on a decades-old, formal experience.

The learning that leads to a degree should be only a beginning.


At Whitewater’s Common Council Meeting, 10.4.16

There are a few moments from last night’s Common Council meeting that I’ll consider briefly today.

Budget.  It’s fall, and so for Whitewater’s local government that means a proposed budget rollout, and  Council sessions principally occupied with that subject through November.

On efficiency of government services, City Manager Clapper remarked that one can expect municipal services to cost more each year, in the way that Christmas presents for his children seem to cost more each year.  The two are not analogous, of course: city work is a day-in, day-out provision of services, unlike holiday-season demand for retail toys.  It’s an inapt comparison.

In any event, a successful, functioning market produces lower-cost, higher-quality goods and services year over year.  America’s most competitive industries function this way, in goods or services (cheaper data storage, increased computing power, improved call quality, more advanced automobiles, etc.).

What City Manager Clapper is contending is that Whitewater’s local government will not, or cannot, meet the standards of the most productive private enterprises, but will look more like toymakers who rely on higher prices through seasonal demand.

It is, if nothing else, an honest admission.

There’s also something odd about reliance on efficiency comparisons to cities of similar size when some – but not all – of those cities receive vast sums of public money for infrastructure, operations, etc.  It’s easy to claim local government functions at relatively lower cost when one’s city is awash in public money, to subsidize city government or to support a public university.

Our full-time staff might reply that they need some measure of state subsidy to function in a city that has a university that places infrastructure demands on local government.

Fair enough.

Would municipal officials live with the need for a subsidy while there is a university in town, or forgo the subsidy and ask UW-Whitewater to leave?

It’s a rhetorical question:  if UW-Whitewater became UW-Palmyra, so to speak, this city’s economy would collapse.  Crying about the need to maintain a university amounts to crocodile tears; the university gives more than she takes from Whitewater.

There’s also the question of Mr. Clapper’s search for revenue (fees, charges, surcharges, tipping fees for imported filth) to keep city government functioning at the ever-larger level he’d like (money for chosen businesses, running an aquatic center, spending big – millions – on infrastructure).

Over two million for the East Gateway project – do you feel two million better off?   (Funny, then-councilmember Kidd wanted hundreds of thousands more for buried wires along the project site.)

If Mr. Clapper didn’t spend so much, and didn’t seek to acquire so much under city control, he wouldn’t need so much.

As for supposed revenue streams, there’s still a lingering, eighteen-month window to find a partner to deliver waste into Whitewater, in the absurd theory that the tipping fees would make Whitewater better off.  Lynn Binnie helpfully turned out a majority for Clapper to continue along this path (Binnie, Kidd, Wellnitz, Grady).

There was no duress in any of this, of course – politicians choose freely, sometimes well, sometimes poorly.  There are those who, no doubt, experience duress in life, but that unfortunate pressure doesn’t weigh on middle-aged men while sitting on Whitewater’s Common Council.

The Schools Presentation.   The session last night began with a presentation from the Whitewater Schools’ new district administrator, Dr. Mark Elworthy, and Director of Business Services Nathan Jaeger.

It can’t be an easy time to arrive – Dr. Elworthy started this summer, with a construction referendum in the works, and a Board that went out of its way to mention at Dr. Elworthy’s introduction that he had been successful with prior referenda at other districts.  One day, this district and her leaders (and other districts) will be able to lead with something other than the budget.

Honestly, I wish that had happened last night.  There’s value in a PowerPoint for Council, but I think it would have been even more effective to listen to Dr. Elworthy alone, without a presentation, simply talking about what he wanted to accomplish (operational, capital, curricular, all of it).

Finally, there’s Business Director Jaeger’s reliance on a school construction survey from the spring to consider.

I’ll take two days next week first to discuss the survey and then to show, apart from the survey but relying on better information, that the referendum is likely to pass.

Lock Box.  Better to place the matter – new ordinance, repeal of old, etc. – on an upcoming agenda.  The friction over this issue shows that full-time municipal staff have a problem listening to merchants and appreciating their concerns.  It also shows that full-time municipal staff think that it’s legitimate to circumvent those concerns through an ad hoc committee composed of obliging insiders.

All in all, we’re a small town, but never a dull one.

The Masking Effect of Act 10 

We’ve had Act 10 for several years now, and during that time in no sector has that law been more discussed or felt than in K12 public education. Whitewater has avoided some of the Act 10 strife that has gripped other parts of the state, and that’s been to our advantage, whatever one thinks of the provision. 

(I am opposed to Act 10 on traditional libertarian grounds: any person in any occupation should be free to associate with others and bargain against, and in opposition to, the government. Those who hold office locally or statewide have too much authority as it is; they don’t need more tools, but rather deserve fewer.)

Yet whatever one thinks of the direct consequences of Act 10, it’s had a second, masking effect: all the attention to decisions involving resources has almost certainly obscured the sound of other decisions unrelated to fiscal policy.

(I’m not describing choices not made for lack of money, but choices made yet not heard for all the attention Act 10 has received.)

As we drift farther from Act 10’s beginning, and that law is either attenuated or people become inured to discussion of it, attention is likely to shift to policies over these last several years of which we’ve heard less. Act 10 has masked the sound of these other policies, but it’s a masking effect that will not endure: other subjects will come to residents’ hearing, no matter how loud Act 10 has been.

The Other Hiring Decisions

The Whitewater Schools will soon select a new district administrator.  It’s an important decision, but one that’s made easier by its consequent infrequency: there are few positions available at that level, and always a few candidates for each available position.

Across our state, however, hiring teachers in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality is a more difficult matter:

According to the most recent figures available, there were 8,867 people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in Wisconsin in the 2013-’14 school year. In itself, that would be enough to fill all the expected teacher openings in coming years.

But things aren’t so simple. As Riggle [professor at St. Norbert College in DePere and president of theWisconsin Association of Colleges of Teacher Education] said, the interests students have don’t fully match what’s needed out there.

There is also the delicate but important matter of who is going into teaching. In many cases, the upcoming teachers are hardworking, capable, talented and idealistic. And in some cases, they aren’t so strong in at least a couple of those areas.

And then there is the matter of how to do better in preparing people to become teachers.

SeeMath problem facing schools: How to get enough teachers? @ JSOnline.

These challenges are more than cyclical, as the article’s author, Alan Borsuk of Marquette Law, notes.

After we’ve hired a new administrator, we will yet face the persistent – but now aggravated – Wisconsin problem of finding sufficient numbers of teachers.  It’s neither an accident nor an insoluble mystery why faculty hiring is more difficult in some states than others.   That’s a long subject for another day, but a subject and a day that cannot seriously be treated as a surprise, nor postponed indefinitely.

Our next administrator’s hiring will leave before us other hiring challenges, of many more people over many more years, yet to be resolved.

Hiring a District Administrator

Over the next few days, Whitewater’s school board will interview candidates for district administrator.  For the district, these last several years have been relatively tranquil if fiscally difficult. I’ve observed that, as against other districts, we have been fortunate to avoid the labor-management tension that has plagued too many districts. (‘One or more’ would be the correct definition of too many.)

And yet, and yet, this question presents itself: Is recent administrative practice a suitable model for future administrative policy?  Should we keep doing merely what we have been doing?

Old Whitewater – a state of mind rather than a person or age bracket – loves nothing so much as stability, even if it should be the stability of mediocrity.  (That Leslie Steinhaus received two contractual terms as administrator confirms my contention.) 

In the coverage of this hiring decision, we are sure to hear all one could want, and more, concerning who, yet the most  pressing concerns will always be what and how.

The Whitewater Schools’ Motto

The Whitewater Unified School District has a motto, a very good one:

Every graduate an engaged lifelong learner.

If our schools achieve this result – graduates who are engaged, lifelong learners – that engagement and that learning will take different forms for different people. People are and should be, to borrow a title from a fine book, free to choose.

For those with political or administrative roles, however, whether graduates themselves or shepherding students to graduate, engaged, lifelong learning must have a set of core expectations: basic principles of reasoning, a desire to measure accurately, and an ability to assess the quality & significance of measurements taken.

It’s not asking too much of properly schooled leaders to meet these core expectations. Whitewater’s leaders want things – very often good things – but wanting something isn’t enough. In any endeavor, but especially in endeavors of learning, there should be presentations based on sound data, on accurate and representative measurements, acquired through neutral, unbiased inquiries.

It’s a mistake to think that the principal divide is between those who are for or against education. Americans rightly esteem learning; we are an inquisitive people.

No, the principal divide is between those who think that support for education allows any possible claim, and those who believe that respect for education necessarily allows only some, sound claims, discarding other possibilities as unfounded or inaccurate.

There shouldn’t be much of a divide like this, here or elsewhere, but there is. We’ll not be truly competitive and attractive until this divide disappears, and a more discerning perspective takes hold.

Minecraft, Education Edition

33cscreenshotPost 16 in a series.

We often say, and mostly rightly, that work should come before play.  That’s true for school, too: study and homework typically comes before play.  Sometimes, however, play is a kind of study, and has educational value.

Microsoft’s Minecraft (Education Edition) is a video game that’s more than a game:

A hundred schools will start testing Minecraft Education Edition in May, but more can get it in June when a free early-access program begins, Microsoft and its Mojang game studio said Thursday….

“During the summer months, we are also going to be focused on working with educators on building out lesson plans, sharing learning activity ideas and creating reusable projects,” Microsoft said.

Minecraft players turn trees, animals and minerals resources into tools, weapons and shelter to survive nightly monster onslaughts. It’s a major hit, with more than 70 million copies sold. It’s not just about survival, though. A creative mode lets players build fanciful structures, automate pig farming and even reproduce the complicated internal workings of computer logic circuitry.

This open-endedness has made Minecraft adaptable to everything from computer programming to art history. Especially because kids take the initiative to learn with Minecraft on their own, it’s no wonder schools like it and parents don’t freak out so much when kids get obsessed….

SeeSchool’s out for summer? Not for Minecraft Education Edition @ CNET and Minecraft: Education Edition.

Electronic doesn’t always mean better, but rather sometimes it is advantageous.  Most people see this, but not everyone.  I am often surprised to meet well-schooled people who are sure that there is one way to approach something, a small number of ways to categorize something, and that approaches and  categories are so fixed that they might as well be immutable natural laws.

There is no field of advanced study in America (or elsewhere) that does not have within it competing schools of thought, each advanced by equally talented academics.  In fact, we would be surprised to find otherwise: one graduate department might align one way or another, but we’d expect that there would be an acknowledgement and engagement with competing theories elsewhere.

And yet, and yet, regarding teaching young children, one sometimes encounters those who see only one view, one method, one possibility.  (I’m speaking generally, not of one person or place.)  I’d say, in my experience, most teachers are open to creative options, but when one encounters someone who’s not, it’s quickly apparent, and always disappointing.

Minecraft, other games, electronic presentations, etc. are not the solution to all our educational challenges.  They’re not even close.  They are, however, partial solutions, and worthy reminders that what we once did isn’t an unalterable impediment against what we may yet do.

Asking About a Student’s Day

33cscreenshotPost 15 in a series.

Every parent wants to know how a child’s day went at school – what he or she learned, experienced, and thought about the day.  Sometimes, however, the obvious question (“how was school today?”) doesn’t elicit more than a brief, unspecific answer.

An NBC news story online, offers suggestions from a parent on how to ask children about their school days in a way to get a more informative answer. The questions – and variations one can easily craft – are from Liz Evans, a parent of three and blogger.

Evans suggests questions that should help parents learn more from their children about school experiences.

See, Not Having Luck Asking the Kids ‘So How Was School Today? @ NBC News.

Variations in Spending

33cscreenshotPost 14 in a series.

National Public Radio, and twenty of its radio stations, have completed a project to see how much each public school district in America spends, per pupil on education. See, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem @ NPR.

The study focused on spending per pupil, and found wide disparities, even when adjusted for regional cost differences. Two school districts in Illinois are an example:

…$9,794 is how much money the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois spent per child in 2013 (the number has been adjusted by Education Week to account for regional cost differences). It’s well below that year’s national average of $11,841.

Ridge’s two elementary campuses and one middle school sit along Chicago’s southern edge. Roughly two-thirds of its students come from low-income families, and a third are learning English as a second language….

“We don’t have a lot of the extra things that other districts may have, simply because we can’t afford them,” says Ridge Superintendent Kevin Russell.

One of those other districts sits less than an hour north, in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, nestled into a warren of corporate offices: Rondout School, the only campus in Rondout District 72.

It has 22 teachers and 145 students, and spent $28,639 on each one of them.

But there’s another variation that the study does not consider: among districts with roughly the same level of spending, how much variation is there in curriculum and programming?  Admittedly, a study like that would be far larger even than a study of variations in per pupil spending.

Still, I wonder: do districts with the similar spending levels look the same substantively, and if not, how many variations of programming and method are possible within a given range of spending. Understandably, richer districts will look different from poorer ones.

Within the same spending range, however, how much variation exists within districts?  This presents a follow-up question: if there are variations (including significant ones), are some more effective than others?

I don’t know of a study that possibly captures so much detail about so many places, but the question still lingers: how different are some districts in curriculum, programming, and method from others of similar resources?

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

Avoiding Others’ Missteps

33cscreenshotPost 12 in a series.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that I would say a bit more about how not to go about a school budget referendum. The post had Milton, Wisconsin’s many mistakes in mind, but I held off posting on the subject because it seemed that the situation there would get worse, offering even more missteps for Whitewater to avoid. As it turns out, the situation in Milton has gone south over the last week. There’s no reason to take pleasure in that community’s mistakes, but they are instructive to others, Whitewater included.

We have had the benefit, for the most part, of placid times in the Whitewater Unified School District, with fewer controversies than many communities across Wisconsin, these last several years. Many communities have faced – to their detriment – more rancor than we have. That’s not merely to the benefit of our school district, but to the economy of the immediate area: harmony within the boundaries of the school district helps Whitewater’s economy by making the city more desirable to those in nearby towns, and of interest to those farther away.

I think this relative calm can and will continue. If we avoid a few obvious errors, we can manage well.

Looking at Milton, as that district’s referendum effort has progressed, one sees mistake after mistake, all avoidable, all self-inflicted. It’s quite a list: misdirected community surveys, confusion over basic goals, uncertainty over how to ask for community comments, conflicts between school board members (one has now resigned), ambiguous or disputed board resolutions (which might have been prevented by better draftsmanship), and critical press coverage of it all.

See, from the Gazette, Our Views: Just the FACTs: Milton School District’s missteps erode trust (subscription req’d), and Milton School Board member Janet Green resigns.

Whitewater was free from these problems during her last referendum, and likely will be again if there is a fall referendum. There are two reasons for this. First, we have had a generally cooperative board and administration, without rancor or (thankfully) conflict-inspired resignations. Second, in general, this has been a less antagonistic environment than many other districts have seen. It’s my guess – and it’s simply my guess, not a survey – that there’s less willingness to clash over education in this area than in others. Perhaps several factors are at play, but it’s been a relatively quiet time.

We can easily avoid winding up where Milton is.

There’s an obvious educational benefit to doing well and considering calmly, but there’s an economic benefit, too: one gains a comparative advantage as a community by avoiding obvious missteps that now trouble another, nearby city.

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)