Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sore Losers and Violent Threats

Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed a final version of a major reform of health care delivery in this country. It culminated a contentious 13 month ugly legislative process that in many ways unfortunately showed America at its demagogic worst – for the world to see and for us to see in each other. Yet the process realized a goal of near-universal health care proposed by presidents (Republicans) Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and (Democrats) Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. Whatever its details may or may not be, it is the most significant change in health care delivery nationally since Johnson got Medicare instituted in the mid-1960s.

Is it a perfect bill or an ideal solution to keeping America healthy? No. I do not think anyone at any point in the political spectrum is entirely satisfied with the outcome. That is probably one measure of a pretty good outcome: no one entirely won or lost, but all got something beneficial (even if some feel they cannot say so!).

For me, the downside is that the bill perpetuates two fundamental flaws in our health care delivery that I have discussed in previous blogs (see 9/8/2009 and 8/19/2009):

1. It leaves decisions about what health care one will receive in the hands of private insurance companies, whose primary and understandable obligation is to maximize shareholder profits and employee pay by either raising premiums or reducing payouts – a profit obligation diametrically opposed to my critical care needs;

2. It leaves intact the current system whereby the majority of access to that insurance is through employer benefit plans, benefits given significantly unevenly to the population at large and which are naturally a secondary focus of employers, and burdens those companies with a major pricing disadvantage in competition with the rest of the world – none of whom burden their companies with adsorbing the cost of employee health care.

But these flaws proved politically unapproachable at this stage of our social evolution, and must wait for another day.

What is sad to see is that the lies, misinformation, grandstanding, and denial of past speeches and records on this topic are continuing, all done simply for political gain. What has passed for informative debate would make a high school speech teacher flunk the whole class, and the civics teacher shake her head in embarrassment at current practitioners. From Sarah Palin’s notorious outright lies about “death panels” to the scare tactics of the “lost of personal doctor or one’s current insurance” and “employer bankruptcies,” the unanimous NO votes of all Republican representatives and senators confirmed that this was never a process or debate about how to improve people’s lives through better health care. It was only about defeating a popular president and avenging a brutal 2008 election loss. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) famously predicted that “health care would be Obama’s Waterloo defeat,” and all Republicans rallied confidently around that primary political goal. But by trapping themselves into that all-or-nothing strategy they would up the big losers yet again, unable to deliverable to their shrinking base despite the bravado talk. DeMint et al as the defeated Frenchman Bonaparte, Obama et al as the winning Englishman Nelson.

Yet for those of either political extremes who seek to make all attempts at legislation and governance a blood sport of winners and losers, the expectation of good sportsmanship seems not to be a part of this winner/loser game. Truth is, there are some battles in life we win, and some we lose. Then we pick up and go on to the next confrontation of life. Two football coaches meet at midfield at the end of the Super Bowl and compliment each other for a great season and effort, win or lose. Silver and bronze Olympic medalists stand at the side and applaud the gold medalist standing on the center higher stage. Because it is the right thing to do.

Instead, the supporters of the “you lie” and “baby killer” screamers, and the followers of the “party of no” vow to fight a continuing rear-guard action to repeal or void what has just passed. Attempting to void the decision on the field by Monday-morning quarterbacking appeals to the off-court judges. Changing the accepted rules in place after-the-fact. Overturning “majority rules” (a concept that the U.S. Senate seems to have long forgotten) by minority subversion. Isn’t this kind of political terrorism exactly what the now-defeated brethren would have screamed about when they were in power?

More frightening still is the continued call for revolt that is being spoken in greater and greater violent terms. The previous pictures of Obama as Hitler are being replaced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in front of a wall of flames, calling for her “to be removed.” Calls for bricks to be thrown, office glass to be broken. Exhortations of “you should be angry” urged upon a near-mob already more than angry enough. Threats and epithets (racial, homophobic, and political) shouted to elected Congresspersons on their way to vote. Future election outcomes and TV ratings still trump Truth. Pelosi correctly said recently, “Words matter. I believe that words carry great weight.” And so they do, as most every great spiritual teacher has reminded us.

It is time for everyone to now quiet down. The dozen Attorneys General threatening to sue the bill on unconstitutionality grounds need to get back to get back to the more pressing fight against white collar financial crime. Congresspersons need to move on to other great issues the people need addressed – financial/banking reform, energy needs, and most importantly, our jobs and economic health. To paraphrase the Kenny Rogers song, “You [no longer] hold ‘em, [so you gotta] know when to fold ‘em.”

For people like me who lived through the late 60s/early 70s, the threat of violence on our American institutions is all too real. We have seen what violence our citizens are capable of doing to each other by murder, lynching, assassinations, and mental and physical cruelty. Back then it was civil rights and Viet Nam that were creating hyper-emotionalism, and we watched our TVs in dread of the next outbreak of news stories. Today it is high anger over two questionable wars, a threat against our way of life by foreign faceless terrorists, and the near collapse of our economy with incredibly unequal and immoral consequences that are not being addressed. In both decades, it is the collapse of institutional trust and confidence that incites our emotion. I have genuine fears that the violent outcomes we saw 40 years ago are dangerously close to being repeated again in 2010.

Our leaders owe us more than petty foot-stomping like kindergarten kids. There are very positive lessons we need to be showing out kids, lessons taught by example, not words. We had our debate, it came to conclusion by the same rules used in the past by all political parties. Let us now move on, stop the finger-pointing, and play nice before something very serious happens. There are more than enough nut cases out there who cannot separate reality from rhetoric, sports metaphors from battlefield tactics. Will someone now have to die to show us anew how to speak and act responsibly, and that “words indeed do have power”?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Education Accountability

I have written before about the state of K-12 education in this country (see blogs of 9/11 and 9/21, 2007). My complaints have centered not just on student outcomes and “return on investment” of the significant dollars we invest in public education. Rather, my objections have centered on the basic services and teaching model itself upon which our educational programming is built. Namely, our expectation that all kids, regardless of family environment, family history, economic circumstances, intellect, interests, talents and god-given gifts, should all be expected to learn, understand and perform well the same material taught in the same manner at the same chronological age. But that is the underlying ridiculous assumption of the American educational system. It is a factory assembly-line approach to mass production – and in this case the “product” is supposed to be an educated young person.

Clearly this system is not creating a quality product consistently from all of the educational factories. We have some spectacular outcomes, average products, and some horrific environments that are barely better than low-quality baby-sitting. We have talked about these problems for years, yet bright spots of creative and fresh innovation have barely made a dent in the overall paralysis of our educational structure. Magnet schools; charter schools; teacher innovation and quality awards; centers for learning; state takeovers of bad districts; over 1,000,000 children now being home schooled; these are all reflective of our various frustrations. But these efforts are not enough.

George W. Bush put his education effort into the No Child Left behind (NCLB) bill, passed with by-partisan congressional support in 2001. While promising tough standards, instituting performance measurement tools, and punitive steps for under-performing schools, years later not much new has been accomplished except illusionary change. States and schools have simply downgraded their standards or testing criteria in order to look better than they really are; many teaching innovation attempts have been stymied; and converting educational goals to testing skills goals have been the predominant outcomes of NCLB.

At the centerpiece of this “expectations versus outcomes” tussle are the critical players – the school administrators and teachers who ultimately create the classroom experience. I have memories of some wonderful teachers who helped and guided me in my early life. People who taught me not just facts to memorize, but stories and ideas. Teachers who encouraged imagination and curiosity, and who made continual life-long learning a consistent part of my character. I remain indebted to those great people. But their very quality also helped me to recognize those teachers who had long passed their prime, were no longer learning their subject matter or investing in their teaching, or perhaps never had much ability in the first place. Today we still have those same energetic and creative teachers, the average middlin’ teachers, and way too many burned out and/or untalented teachers who should have left the profession years ago.

Unfortunately, for those of us looking from the outside in, it is this bottom-end group that is dictating the educational future. Stuck in old methodologies; protected by union regulation, tenure or employment traditions; as bored with teaching as their students are of listening to them drone from their yellowed lesson plans; too many teaching colleges still thinking it is the 1950s classroom; this “cadre of the protected” stands firm in resisting virtually any changes in the status quo. So the skilled, good teachers or the energetic new teachers (1/3rd of whom leave within their first three years) either bail out of the profession or hunker down and do the best they can to work around the system they are stuck within. God love their perseverance.

After many years of talking about change, the call for accountability, change and new results is growing. An entire school faculty and administration was recently fired en masse in Rhode Island following years of bad results. Detroit has lost 1/4th of their school population, yet teachers are fighting the responsible closing of numerous schools to reflect this new reality. Similar stories everywhere. So semi-autonomous charter schools are growing, as is the home school population for people who have given up entirely. Yet in center stage officials from teacher unions cry, “No,” or “just give us more money” as the solution. But more of us are now saying NO back – show us a new plan first instead of just holding our kids hostage. If we (correctly) fault congressional Republicans as simply being the Party of No that offers only the same old disproven ideas, then we must now fault teacher unions and a large preponderance of their membership as also just being no-sayers. This chorus of no, and what can’t be done, the lack of truly new ideas, has to stop. The very talented teachers whose jobs are legitimately protected by their skills have to reclaim their union and turn it into the change agent it could and should be. Start offering real and flexible solutions instead of continual resistance. Else they will also go down in this expanding sinking ship.

I have no doubt there were some quality, dedicated teachers that were fired in Rhode Island. But as long as they leave their future, and our children’s/grandchildren’s future, in the hands of these defenders of the last century, they will lose also. The current system does not work for too many; the creative mind of the individual student is being lost in the assembly line of standardization. Memorizing facts is neither an education nor reform. Reform is urgently needed, and will ultimately happen as pressures mount. Who will lead this reform – the teachers who should, or the outsiders who are forced to do so?