Posts Tagged 'Government'

The Racket of Education


The government doesn’t do a great job of educating our children, mostly because there is inherently some level of corruption, and people and organizations think they need (more) money to do the great work. So it all ends up gamed, and the blame diffused. There’s a lot of good, mind you. I’m not advocating tearing it all down. But we do need to learn to see through the B.S. and maintain accountability.

The Show versus Reality: For the most part teachers are evaluated primarily on observation and test scores. For the first few years performance is evaluated by an administrator who comes into into classroom to watch. It happens about two or three times a year, and they generally know when it’s going to happen because either the admin team wants to be sure the administrator is there on a day and time that makes sense for getting the evaluation done (not wasting his or her time) or simply to give the teacher a chance to shave up the dogs and ponies as a favor. I don’t mean to imply that all teachers get a pass all the time. The principle usually figures out who the good and bad ones are, but this process, which could be instrumental, is only incidental toward that end. It lets them put the right things on a checklist, and takes the pressure off of them to take significant action that would otherwise be warranted.

Standardized testing is a measure that’s semi-objective, at least on the surface, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the big ones is that many teachers will teach to what they believe the test is, rather than to the overall betterment of the student. It makes the teacher look better, and again removes the burden for anyone to take more difficult action.

The other concern is establishing what the standards should be that are tested. This process is inherently filled with bias, whether cultural, demographic, religious or otherwise. “Standard” by definition ignores the individual. How much of this makes sense is debated. One problem I see everywhere that I’ve spent years talking about in this blog is how programmed we all have become. We’re made to think and act in certain ways so as to more easily fit or conform to society and be good workers. Of course, this mindset comes from a time when we needed people to show up for work every day and be good, consistent, quiet workers who don’t upset the way things are done or challenge anyone or anything. To conform. These days we struggle because the world has moved on, and this deeply ingrained training no longer serves us. We can’t figure out what to do. Schools have been very slow to respond to these changes.

Principals and superintendents shave the dogs and ponies for their shows as well. Schools and districts are compelled by honors and accolades from various sources. From Lighthouse Schools to National Board Certification for teachers to publisher rankings to accrediting agencies, school leaders are compelled to score high. Competition is good and it makes us better, but the problem here is that schools are going through the motions. While accolades from publishers or high scores from accrediting agencies seem great, they’re merely snapshots. If you look good that day or that week, by teaching something that will impress them (in spite of what lesson really should be taught in the context of the course material), it creates a perception that’s not reality.

You may have heard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in many ways is an organization that tries to help. Teachers who receive NBPTS accreditation have done good work and have done a LOT of work. I’m sure many people have been through the process and found it to be incredibly effective and rewarding. However, some get the certification and the promised increase in pay only until the next time the state decides budgets need to be cut. The state got the appearance they were looking for and moved on.

It’s not just firms like NBPTS that cash in on education. Publishing companies write textbooks specifically for large districts or large states. We’re talking big money here. Once books are adopted, many firms have a leg up on their competition. Textbook adoption is usually a district level decision. I’m not going all the way down this rabbit hole here because this one topic is covered quite a bit elsewhere, and one would truly have to have her head in the sand to not have an inkling of how gamed it all is, but suffice to say that the values of a few in power impact the many in unusually profound ways given how few controls there are in place to manage the merits of texts. It reminds me of the phrase, “History is written by the conquerers.”

Software developers also benefit from this situation. Schools are eager to adopt a new program or system to manage grades or attendance or all sorts of student data with only a cursory review. Sure, they talk a good game: peer review, teacher and parent consultation, blah, blah, blah. What it often amounts to is a five or six person panel calling the shot for the whole district.

None of this compares to the accrediting boondoggle. These are for profit companies hired to manage…accreditations. Their agenda is to produce sales. Each time the accrediting agencies show up, the school puts on a nice show and blows a nice chunk of change on wooing them. They usually don’t even eat or spend time with students. Teachers, have you ever seen anyone from an accrediting agency so much as eating in the same cafeteria with the students?

Then there is the Cool Stuff Arms Race. Interactive white boards that barely can be kept working, or are so difficult to use they end up wasting more time than they are worth. Never mind that the school asks teachers to be careful about using it because the bulbs are expensive!  iPods (not pads, “pods,” the music players) were rolled out at many schools a number of years ago. Hardly used. Eventually dropped. Districts don’t seem to understand what it takes to feed and clothe these technological wonders they bring home. Each school seems to have its own handful of things, but the teachers are rarely consulted about what they need, and once they have (what they don’t need) they struggle with a less than fully trained IT staff to keep it running. It ends up being not worth the effort, and traditional means are often used, which in most cases work just fine anyway. It’s all up to whether the teacher is committed and good at it, not so much the technological pyrotechnics involved. Cool new stuff keeps getting added to look good to parents, the media, and accrediting agencies.

This is not to say it is all bad. Good schools do well overall. It’s just frustrating to watch the massive amounts of waste in the process. Waste that results in no money for things that matter. Like the teachers. They are treated like the same commodity pens and paper are in a lot of ways. We try to build a structure that forces them into a paradigm that some idealistic administrator visioned without really understanding that it’s nearly impossible to manage that type of human interaction so systemically. (The medical profession, by the way, suffers from the same thing.) Instead, we should be taking every possible step to build the competency of the teachers, and then paying them accordingly so that once they become brilliant and skilled, they will actually want to remain in the profession, rather than going out to get a real job where they can earn a professional living.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and it really shouldn’t take more, but the reality is it probably will. Government is horribly inefficient, but it’s the best thing we have. Until people get serious about (first) understanding what education is needed for kids and then (second) demanding it, I doubt things will change significantly anytime soon.

Meanwhile, how do you know if your kids’ teachers are doing a good job and the district is a good one? You can start by asking your kids and watching what’s going on with their scores on standardized tests. Look deeper. Ask your kids’ teachers what the kids are supposed to learn and ask the kids about those topics. Talk to your kids about the content of their courses. If you’re kids’ teachers are worth their pay, they’ll be glad you did. There’s no substitute for being an involved parent. Not an overbearing, annoying one. But one whose head is in the game paying attention, and talking with the teachers.

Some take this to the extreme of homeschooling. In some situations this may be a viable alternative, and I absolutely applaud folks who can do it, but I expect there are precious few qualified to teach their kids AP subjects in multiple disciplines. Private schooling can be a good answer answer. Certainly many of the inefficiencies and half-baked decisions are minimized, not to mention the elimination of the grindingly slow pace of any kind of change in any governmental body such as eduction. The good private schools can’t game their reputations as easily because they are accountable for what happens to the kids once they leave because they are populated by kids whose parents have resources and talk to each other in the community, not to mention many of them knowing themselves from experience what a good education looks like. But that’s the elite. Below that, it’s still going to require diligent parenting to ensure success.

Hands on. No escaping that. Look past the BS for reality.




Power to the People?

34 years ago today the chartkillspeopleworld changed in a way that isn’t as spectacular or as talked about as some of the major tragedies or accomplishments as they are often portrayed in the drama hungry media.

On August 5th, 1981 Ronald Reagan ushered in a mindset that mass layoffs were acceptable with the firing of over 10,000 employees during the air traffic controllers strike. He also banned the workers from returning to the profession for the rest of their lives!

The merits of their arguments and the various points of view have been debated. It should not be forgotten that the strike itself was illegal, as mandated by the sometimes controversial Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which prohibits any labor strike that can cause unfair harm to those not involved or negatively affect general welfare and commerce. The union leader at the time has gone on record since, acknowledging that they botched it, were too arrogant, and didn’t understand a lot of the underlying politics, not to mention the power of spinning public opinion in one’s favor (or not).

Up to this time it was not common to use mass layoffs to handle strikes. This incident eased those inhibitions significantly. Reagan broke the union (it should be noted that the union that eventually replaced it got most of the demands the fired employees were asking for), and in a way galvanized a growing mindset that unions were too powerful and not in the best interests of the economy overall. While Reagan may have been ‘right’ in some ways, and was viewed as effective in quickly restoring order to a situation that was getting out of control, the message that was taken has had some dire long term consequences.

We often don’t/can’t know the consequences of perturbing a system, especially one as complex as the economy with the various complications of the corporations and the workforce driving it. Reagan’s actions communicated from on high that it was acceptable to use swift and massive layoffs to help guard against a short-term economic disruption. Though he never intended it as such, there was now a precedence for protecting commerce before protecting people. Social conventions that had restrained CEO’s from doing something many would have liked to do were disrupted. Not surprisingly some began to take advantage of this tacit permission to take such dramatic action affecting the lives of so many. It became gradually more and more common for workers to be viewed simply as assets and liabilities on a spread sheet, with the math at the bottom supporting their actions to make the numbers for a quarter in efforts to appease stockholders and justify, if only in the short term, the CEO’s position to the board.

Protecting the money eventually became a clear imperative over protecting the people. The very concept of putting a number or resource before a person flies in the face of the protection our anthropology says leaders (alphas) are supposed to offer. It’s kind of like a parent putting the care of the car a child rides in before the actual care of the child. On the surface it may appear to make sense sometimes, but our biology knows better.

Now we much more commonly see leaders, whether CEO’s, politicians, record labels, news organizations, or bankers betray the trust of the very people they are supposed to be serving, often by allowing outside, unengaged constituents to have too much influence over decisions and actions, all in the interest of short term gains and the almighty dollar. When people are lower down the priority list they are less able to operate from a secure position and do the really great work. They are more prone to operate from a position of fear and insecurity, which leads to more focus on the short term protection derived from looking good than the profound work that will make the big difference. Differentiation and innovation give way to commoditization, which ironically spells trouble in the long run.

Contrary to what many would say these days, or at least contrary to where their actions take us, the power, or at least the care, needs to be in the hands of the people, and they need to be provided with an environment where humanity and social relations and the accompanying support they provide can prevail. If we listen to our biology, which at this point in time is what it is, we can cultivate environments that take advantage of our core strengths as social animals. At the most practical level, companies who bring a better value to the table will do better in the long run, and studies have shown that companies with more rigorous financial scrutiny tend to have fewer patents, and the ones they have are generally less profound. Give the people the leadership and security to do their best work and the results will come in time.

Or the few who forge their way to power can try to protect it and hang on at all costs, with all of the stresses and difficulties running rampant in our culture today.

There is a better way.

No Win Scenario

Politics in Indiana have had a spotlight shone on them recently.

As polarizing issues arise, most businesses appear to be quiet, hoping they will go away. There is no upside or way to win from a purely business perspective. Someone on one side or the other will not be satisfied, and if no side is taken, then the people closer to the fringes of either side will be unhappy. So it doesn’t usually matter what you believe, or what you do, you’re going to lose some revenue. If revenue is a major concern the best action is to do and say as little as possible. It seems cowardly on the surface, especially to those who are passionate.

Some people feel compelled to use whatever small amount of power they may have to influence things. It’s accepted that customers may take their business away from an organization if they don’t feel the organization is acting correctly, and an organization that happens to reside in an affected area may be deemed to be guilty by association. What I have observed recently is a sort of misguided bullying. While it may sometimes be true that laying low is taking an easier way out, it is also true that expecting a company to take a unified stand one way or the other isn’t logical if they have dozens or hundreds of employees. Those individuals invariably will have a rainbow of differing perspectives on and understandings of controversial issues. How is a company really supposed to speak for all of its employees accurately when it comes to personal choices? A CEO or company owner may speak about his/her personal stance, but it’s difficult to do that without forcing everyone in the company to become associated with that opinion. It could be considered more considerate to stay quiet on the matter.

As individuals demand that a stand be taken, the individual employees of a company can begin to feel victimized. It’s almost like a mild form of terrorism, especially if the threats are taken to extremes. I totally get that people with strongly held opinions, and little actual power, feel they must vote with their wallets, and obviously it doesn’t do a lot of good unless you let an organization know about it, but once you’ve made your move based on your principles then you can stop and let them stand. To continue to outrage against an organization that has nothing to do with what you’re mad about betrays you as someone who isn’t rational and cares about all people (regardless of whether that’s your claim). At the point where it becomes spiteful and mean, you have gone too far.



What actually is it?

I have often defined it in the context of its distinction from ethics. Morality is characterized by the beliefs one holds that are no longer (or may never have been) open to interpretation or discussion. Absolute rights and wrongs.

This definition doesn’t function all that well in practice because there are numerous moral beliefs we betray on a regular, conditional basis. We would think it immoral to lie – it is wrong – but can easily devise a circumstance in which most would say it is okay to do so.

Is morality determined by majority?

In a way, yes, especially for society. But here is our first rub. Society is cultural. Subjective. It evolves throughout our lives. Not absolute, which seems to fly in the face of how we believe in morality (that it’s a fixed thing people (should) have). In both individuals and polity experience (the accumulation of information and wisdom) informs our ideas about morality.

The impetus for morality is a universal truth. But what truth? How’s this?

That which increases human dignity is good.  That which depresses it is bad.

Sounds nice. Still subjective. Just can’t run from the fact that we define it through our experiences and perceptions. We perceive humanity through our interpretation of “our kind.” Complications enter the equation when we tighten our circle of “our kind” and cease listening to our empathy due to what we falsely (and sometimes rightly) perceive as threats to “our kind”.  But on the whole, we as a civilization have expanded the ring of morality to include more and more protections for people, rather than reduce it (with notable exceptions).


Our perceptions of what is and isn’t moral have changed on things like gender equality, religious rights, racial equality, human sexuality, child rights, environmental protection, animal rights, etc.  250 years ago, it wasn’t ‘unethical’ for a husband to bend his wife over his knee and spank her. We might — from an absolutist perspective — like to look back and say, “No. That was always wrong.” But you’d have an argument on your hand from many men in the U.S. back then on why God put the man at the head of the household and that disciplining his wife was not just his right, but his obligation. (You may find this hard to believe, but if you research it thoroughly you will find that it was normal. The exception would have been not doing it.)

We’re a mess, but we have evolved in this experiment known as humanity. Like individuals, every time we fall down and get back up, we tuck a new piece of information into our collective ken and move forward in the hopes of not doing that again.  For the most part we do an okay job of that. As Americans, we haven’t engaged in a systematic destruction of native civilizations, again. We have accepted that females are “endowed” with the same natural rights as males.  We understand now that protecting the environment carries value. We (almost everybody) believes that children do have rights that trump parental rights.

Those morals were non-existent 250, 500, 1,000 years ago. Are we saying that we’re just better than those people? Are we going to argue that it was “immoral” to not allow females to vote in elections back 200+ years ago?  It’s not so easy to apply these positions retroactively because our contemporary ideals aren’t just informed by what we feel, but by the very information we have access to (scientific, medical, experiential, etc.), and how that information has replaced other information (superstitions, religions, etc.), thus completely altering how we think about everything.  We have a completely different paradigm than those people did back then.

This has happened collectively, democratically. Some of it has been conscious (we vote: the government enforces an ethical ideal from the top down, those ideals trickle into the main population). Some of that has been unconscious, trickling upward from the population into our institutions. Either way, there’s a collective nature to how we debate, discuss and create morality in society.

It does change, but it’s not flexible, because usually once a “bell is rung” on an ethical issue, we now see (looking back) that it’s incredibly hard to “un-ring”.  So, in the case of female suffrage or even gay marriage, it’s patently obvious that these things — while seeing minor setbacks at times — aren’t being reversed.  So, it’s not so much about “well, whatever people decide is moral” and more about, “whatever polity exists, as it gains information on an issue and expands its moral perspective collectively, so too does it increase its moral code to include that thing.

This does highlight, however, that we (big WE) made it up. Or at least our interpretation of ‘truths’ and writings from the past change. Maybe there is some hope for us after all.

Two Kinds of People

ManGirlThere are two kinds of people – those in the group who are like me – or who I choose to be like – in some way, and all the rest, otherwise known as…”them.” The people who are like me depends on what characteristics are being measured.

An advertisement that appeals signifies that one identifies with a particular group of like-minded people. We often choose a product based on our sense of feeling like we are similar to other buyers of that item/brand, or because we want to feel more like our perception of the buyers of that brand.

A news story appeals because the message resonates among people who want to feel a part of the group who would like such a story. Maybe at face value: who doesn’t like a nice ‘feel-good’ story? Or maybe on a more conceptual level, such as a story that paints a particular politician in a light that’s congruous with an already held view.

Maybe a particular political agenda is initially favored, not because it’s beneficial (quite the contrary can be true), but because it is promoted by a party or individual one already supports for other reasons. Sides are chosen. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ And almost no matter what ‘we’ do, one chooses to support and believe in the action of his/her chosen team. We will learn the rhetoric and reasoning why our position makes sense and own that explanation, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are multiple facets to it. One may like a certain type of music and therefore begin to associate with others who are of like minds in that respect, but very different (on the ‘them’ team) in other respects. Someone could like the skill/sport of shooting a gun, but vehemently disagree with the political sensibilities of most others who do. An automobile enthusiast may become a fan of open wheel racing as opposed to stock car racing due to the perceived stereotypes of other members of that ‘tribe,’ not to mention the history/narrative of the endeavor itself.

The matrices can be quite complex, however, they usually start to erode. The gun shooter may become uncomfortable being associated with others of that kind and decide the crossbow is more sporting. Or, after hearing more of ‘their’ thinking behind their political views, may warm up to some of the ideas. (We will really listen and try to understand the perspective of a friend we disagree with, but generally will not turn on a news station whose views we believe are contrary to ours.)

We’re smart enough to see and understand that people are multi-faceted, but we still instinctively break them down into various ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories, and we still find that the more someone looks, feels, sounds, like ‘us’ the easier it is to like and respect them. We make more of an effort to try to understand them. Offer more help to them. And we subconsciously make lots of small choices to be perceived as a member of that tribe.

We ARE prejudiced. Not all the time. Not in every way. And often not when we’re thinking about it. But it’s wired pretty deeply. Recognizing this is the start to trying to find ways to rise above it. To reach across the perceived divide, even when it’s uncomfortable, recognizing and celebrating similarities that can connect us further in a spirit of true understanding. Watch that ‘other’ news channel for a while. When you begin to get over feelings of anger and frustration at the content you will find that there is something deeper to get. Listen – really listen – to a style of music you don’t respect. Try to understand why people like it. Try to get the joy or identity they seek in it. When you reach half way you will find some others will do their part to reach back. The world just got a little better.



• The bureaucracy of Government Health Care

• Standardized Testing in Schools

• Regulatory Commissions that stifle commerce

• Micro Managing

All are symptoms of a failure. Things weren’t turning out well so someone had to step in to look after it. And not surprisingly, in many cases the ones who step in not only don’t understand some of the challenges, but also have a different background set of concerns driving their agenda — what they pay attention to.

And so it is very annoying, and in the end improvements, if any, are usually modest and often offset by new problems that manifest.

If someone hires you to run a lemonade stand and you don’t make money you can basically expect one of four results.

  1. Be fired
  2. Be left alone to continue to fail
  3. Be micro managed
  4. Be more effectively managed

The probability of the best outcome is not great. If you know best, and if you want to keep your boss or government out of your business then you best be producing the desired outcomes. This means you first need to know what are considered the best outcomes.

Teachers, for instance, may be in a no win situation because our definition of what it means to “educate” a child has changed. They failed. And now we have standardized testing and no child left behind (among others). It may look a little better on the surface, but the underlying problems are worse than ever.

There have been ample opportunities for insurance reform in the past few decades. Apparently enough people in power thought it was working well enough. You could argue they got what was coming to them.

It’s all bad management. Again, if you want to keep bad management away then you need to produce results. It’s really hard (not impossible). But those are the rules.



What a corporation needs:

  • Fertile ground in which to conduct business. This includes…
  • A population who has enough belief that they have a say in things to carry on.
  • A population who believes (enough) that consumption, in whatever form(s) it may take, yields enough satisfaction in life to remain content.
  • A population predictable enough to manipulate somewhat easily.

Democracy — we appear to have a say. Sort of like the child who is allowed to decide between milk or water.

Military — the capacity to fight wars to make the world secure for business (corporations). Our personal security, to whatever extent it really exists, is also a useful byproduct.

Religion — keeps us relatively happy and docile. When things seem exceptionally shitty we can find solace there. Our sensibilities are more predictable. Manipulatable.

Quality of life — is often rated according to a simple triangulation on a few parameters: perceived security and autonomy, belonging, and belongings.

It can be easily argued that the world contains a corporate totalitarian core thriving inside a fictitious democratic shell. Few recognize this ‘inverted’ totalitarian state because it looks nothing like the Orwellian images we’ve been given of such a condition. The world is being militarized by the significant states and their ‘police forces.’ State surveillance is becoming universal and torture is outsourced to gulags.

In past times simple folk usually couldn’t work out how they were being manipulated by royal monarchies, and the papal monarchy, who claimed a ‘divine right to rule.’ Ordinary people from those times couldn’t see how the rivalrous network of elites were actually linked through similar goals and ideals, not least because the illiterate masses were indoctrinated to believe in their humble lot, to obey divinely-endorsed authority and to live in fear of damnation. And pay taxes.

We see more compelling arguments that the planet is more than ever ruled by super-wealthy people who use their outrageous fortunes to steer the trajectories of whole societies for their material and political gain. Armies of professional, political, religious and even military elites serve them. Together they comprise a highly-networked ‘capitalist’ class. ‘Free markets’ are spread with the idea that they deliver the individual freedom and prosperity for all.

This may be a conspiracy theory or it may be true, though there is no doubt some truth in it. Either way we go along because it’s all we know, and because we’re focused on our own individual relatively incremental improvements in life we can see and feel first hand. It’s not a terrible life. It’s all we know how to do. We are given schools and religion, that also train us to be compliant and content. We’re reasonably comfortable most of the time, and we are shown examples of some who appear to rise to the status of ‘rich,’ or some other highly regarded status that looks fulfilling. They aren’t fundamentally different from us.

Our society basically works for most people. And that really is the best disguise.

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