Sunday, December 30, 2007

8 Years of Grade School? No one room school house, hopefully

Across the country, school districts are considering returning to the older concept of school promotion: a K-8 school based around the one teacher model followed by 9-12 high school, instead of using middle schools for grades 6-8 where kids get used to going to separate classes with different teachers by subject matter.

Until the 1980s, many school systems had junior high schools, which covered grades 7-9. (I remember a sixth grade teacher telling the class that she had to “recommend you to junior high school”.) In the 1980s, the concept of “middle school” developed and was supposed to ease the transition by keeping students together with more or less the same teachers. In practice, many schools started with “sixth grade halls” but by seventh grade expected students to become much more independent in going between classes.

The Washington Post story today (Dec. 30) in the Metro Section, p C1, by V. Dion Haynes, is “D.C. Mulls A Return to Pre-K8 Schools: Proposal Worries Parents, Teachers,” here The story indicates that sometimes switching back to K8 (often favored by Catholic schools) has raised test scores, but in some cases (in poorer neighborhoods) the presence of older kids in elementary schools proves disruptive.

When I went to “junior high school” the institution of homeroom helped. Middle schools have kept that (they call it the TA in Arlington). That continued in high school in my day, and homeroom met on almost half the days. We had the same homeroom teacher and section number for three years. That seems to have been dropped. Final exams started in high school – tenth grade in my day, and lasted for three hours, and counted 20% of the final grade. Physical education was mandatory except for twelfth grade. Swimming was not included then, but today it is often mandatory, as it was in college.

One practice at Swanson Junior High (and today, in my experience as a sub, I can say that Swanson is the best middle school in Arlington) in the 50s was grouping English and social studies together as "general education" (that is, "humanities") for two consecutive periods with one teacher (and one letter grade).

The Washington Times today has an op-ed by Betsy Hart, “Driving Anxieties,” that quotes Allstate studies that claim that driver ed courses are often ineffective in younger students because, no matter how good they are, their brains are wired to take risks and not calculate consequences. Yet, in my life, I’ve known of teens who never took unwarranted chances when driving. Some people (within either gender) are naturally much more aggressive than others.

For teachers, the extreme range of student maturity at any age is bewildering. It is complicated by the fact that girls mature sooner than boys, who start catching up in early teen (or “tween”) years. The brain is not fully grown (or “pruned” – the pruning process is particularly important to nurture athletic, musical or artistic gifts) to age 25, they say, and some boys don’t even reach their adult heights until age 19 or even 20. Another controversy is gender-separated education, which hardly seems to prepare people for a global, competitive, and mostly gender neutral workplace, but which does facilitate concentration.

All of this weighs on the minds of people who decide to become educators. I talked in detail about this in July, particularly, here, especially with they July 25 issue (on discipline problems with “middle school kids”). It’s hard to be a master of the content and an involved role model, involved in para-parenting the next generation, at the same time.

Picture: University of the District of Columbia. The National Bureau of Standards, where I had my first job in 1963, used to be on this property at Conn. Ave and Van Ness St, in NW Washington. It was known as Federal City College for a while after NBS moved to Gaithersburg, MD.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Huckabee double talks on The Fair Tax (a national sales tax proposal)

Apparently Mike Huckabee pulled a toggle-switch with his use of the “Fair Tax” idea in campaigning. The Fair Tax would eliminate the income tax, but it would not replace it with nothing. Instead it would add a huge VAT (value added tax) to all goods and services. Jonthan Weisman has a Washington Post story about this on p A04 Dec. 28, “Criticism Aside, “’Fair Tax’” Boosts Huckabee Campaign,” here.

The political Left has long criticized sales taxes (or consumption taxes) as regressive, although many jurisdictions try to eliminate necessities from them, making them even more politicized. The Fair Tax would distribute revenues from it to people with incomes below a certain level, again a wealth redistribution that would be highly politicized. It’s unclear how this would work with retirees (where with “social security” we already have a big controversy with wage earnings limits for early retirement – and then deciding what’s wages).

Another big problem is that the Fair Tax would encourage a black market. This problem has already been evident with the controversy over sales taxes for goods sold on the Internet, with the result that probably most of them are not taxed (despite state laws to the contrary). Credit card transactions would obviously be taxed, but cash transactions in many cases might not be, so the Tax could seriously damage online retailing, although many bricks and mortar stores would like that.

In the 1990s, libertarian-leaning Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes had proposed a Flat Tax. However, Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party had always said, "end the income tax and replace it with nothing." Such was the spirit of Irwin Schoff's book "The Federal Mafia."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

School districts use varying grading scales and systems, confounding parents

The Washington Post, on p A01 today, front page, carried a story about a pendantic subject: high school grades. By Jay Matthews, it is “Grading Disparities Peeve Parents: With No Baseline Among Districts, Some Say Students Suffer,” link here.

It seems that a B+ in Fairfax County would be an A in Arlington now, or in Montgomery County (MD) or the District. Fairfax makes 94-100 an A, 90-93 a B+, with the successive grades dropping in increments of 10 (less than 64 is an F). Other jurisdictions replace F with the more sequential E, but many of them make failure as below 60.

When I went to high school at Washington-Lee (Arlington), graduating in 1961, the breaks were 95, 89, 81, and 75. (Failure was “E”). I recall our 11th grade history teacher warning us that he grades on the school scale, and I got a 79 on the first test. That’s a D. But I got a B the first quarter anyway. In college, we quickly got used to 90-80-70-60. You would walk out of an exam and wonder how many points you had dropped. In graduate school, where a B is the minimum acceptable, the whole philosophy of giving tests was different. On hour exams, in mathematics, you might have five problems, but if you could “get” three of them, that was good enough for a B, probably.

The article indicates that teachers have enormous discretion in grading students. That was true when I went to high school, but I noticed, as a sub, that this belief seems less true today. Many tests (even in algebra) are multiple choice and tend to be standardized among departments. Until calculus and pre-calculus they tend to be pretty straightforward. In social studies, there really is a lot of multiple choice. In English, there is a lot of matching on vocabulary quizzes, but the interesting animal is the “reading quiz” on the current literature being studied. (A similar idea is the video worksheet on a film shown in class – you should see the one on “Hotel Rwanda.” (remember what the “tall trees” signify?)_ I can imagine a quiz on my books.) These quizzes tend to be pretty detailed. Yes, I do know what the last sentence of chapter 3 of “The Great Gatsby” says (all kids do, because it really means something – they pointed it out to me as a class on it began one time). Where teachers have a lot more discretion is grading themes and term papers. I once saw a young man, already familiar from the Club scene, dribbling red ink across page after page of typed themes on the Metro.

In honors and AP classes, teachers probably do have more discretion. In math and physics, or calculus, there is a tendency to make tests more college-like: free response, and that usually means that a test question is some sort of scenario with a problem which, to be solved, requires application of some theorems or formulas (in geometry it is a formal argument – a “proof” – with statements and reasons that are definitions and theorems already studied – and in graduate school math, all problems are like that, although then the proofs are usually written free form, essay style). (Sometimes physics or math tests are divided into sections: without and with graphing calculators.) Many test problems have multiple “parts.” Biology and chemistry lend themselves to multiple choice, but with the proviso that the student must explain the answer to get full credit. Some teachers require a student to pass each concept to pass the test, and will require retest on any grade below 74 (or 70, depending on the school district). AP social studies usually will have a lot of essay questions, and that leads to the whole controversy about “knowledge management” that I’ve talked about in these blogs (particularly this. Teachers, of course, must gear their courses and exams toward passing SOL’s (or whatever a state calls them, related to NCLB) and that mandates some uniformity; in AP, teachers like to think they are helping students prepare for SAT’s and particularly AP credit.

As an aside, I’d mention that in math, particularly in beginning algebra and geometry, a lot of quizzes and homeworks, with relatively simple problems, may help reluctant students build up confidence. (At least one quiz a week.) I recall a solid geometry and trigonometry teacher in high school who announced “I grade your homework” and counted it as ¾ of the grade. That was good when a trig test might comprise three triangles to solve (until we got to the notorious identities) and missing one was a 67 – an E. Classes with special education students who are being mainstreamed are often team taught, and usually two teachers have input in the content of the tests and in the grading for each student.

Teachers are supposed to stick to the school scales, but they can wiggle around a bit by counting projects and homework more, offering extra credit questions, or a choice of questions.

Colleges are in a catch-22 in evaluating applicants fairly. If they count SAT’s more, that weighs against disadvantaged students. On the other hand, teacher in some parts of the country supposedly grade harder than in others, and grading scales differ within a region. However, the tendency for standardization around the country will inevitably pressure school districts and teachers toward more uniformity.

So, during Christmas break, two days in a row the Post has major articles on public schools. While the kids (and teachers and administrators) are away, the journalists and bloggers play.

Picture: strip mine near Mt. Storm, W Va. A students learning about oil tipping points and global warming?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Elementary school teachers may feel challenged in teaching mathematics, preparing students for algebra and geometry earlier

Today (Dec 26, 2007) The Washington Post carried an intriguing story about teaching math in elementary and middle schools. The article by Maria Glod “Elementary Math Grows Exponentially Tougher: Students, Teachers Tackle Algebra,” on p A1, link here
suggests that grade school teachers often don’t have the skills to teach math to the level needed to prepare kids to start algebra in sixth or seventh grade. Now some grade school lessons are introducing algebraic concepts (like simple equations with symbols), and kids can learn mathematical concepts by considering how to solve problems in sports (how far a batted baseball has to travel to be a home run, how high pass has to be thrown, etc). Everyday situations in the physical world (a runner’s or a car’s speed) also invoke mathematical concepts (through simple physics).

The article suggests that the kind of teachers who like working with young children are not always the same teachers who would be academically strong in mathematics. The issue is complicated. Praxis tests both mathematics content knowledge (and grade school teachers generally need only pass the simple Praxis I on math, not the specific content tests) and pedagogy in mathematics (how to convey it to students). And teaching grade school mathematics must involve a lot of patience and drill. Nevertheless, the SOL standards (in Virginia) at each grade level identify a lot of specific mathematics skills to be achieved.

The story would be significant in the broader issue, already considered in this blog, of teacher staffing and shortages (see Dec. 6). In the high school levels, it was my experience as a sub that calculus and pre-calculus was taught by both men and women about equally, and this may be true of physics and chemistry. In grade school levels, many authorities write about the small percentage of male teachers who would serve as role models, and cite sociological and psychological factors as explanations. One can be very strong academically but introverted enough not to want to have to function as a role model (along the lines of Rafe Esquith’s book -- review here) ) out of one’s own element. I know that from personal experience.

Picture: "New" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA, opens January 2008. I graduate from there in Sputnik-obsessed 1961 when it was one of the top public high schools in the nation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Even wind energy generates a controversy, in Texas

NBC Nightly News tonight (Christmas Day, Dec 25) reported on a legal battle between two large ranches on the Texas Gulf Coast. The Kennedy Ranch wants to build a large number of wind turbines (windmills) to generate clean electricity to sell, as some of it resides on the windiest part of the Gulf Coast. The nearby King Ranch (mentioned even in the 1950 World Book Encyclopedia) resists, claiming that the turbines will destroy bird and other wildlife habitat, which provides it hunting income. The King Ranch has filed legal action to stop the operation of the turbines, which continue to be constructed. The turbines are manufactured by General Electric, which owns NBC. GE says that the patterns of migratory birds can be closely monitored and that individual turbines can be shut down when necessary.

From a public policy point of view the dispute is important, because wind energy could become very important in reducing dependence on fossil fuels and foreign oil, and reducing carbon emissions. Even in urban areas, it would seem that wind turbines could generate electricity whenever a major cold front or low pressure area pulls away, resulting in the gusty winds that otherwise bring down trees on power lines. In California, wind turbines in some areas take advantage of Santa Ana winds, which also start all the brush fires.

Picture: Mars, as close as possible to Earth, near a full moon (click on picture to see it; it looked a bit orange to the naked eye Christmas eve.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Some soul searching on the falling dollar

The falling dollar is all the rage in economic discussions these days, just as some years ago the strong dollar was. We’ve fallen 40% again the Euro (something I noticed since I retired from a European-owned company, ING) in seven years (I last traveled in Europe in 2001, just before it was adopted -- when I found Spain and Portugal much cheaper than France and the UK; I don’t know how it is now).

One concern that I would wonder is how it would affect the prices of computers and electronics, as I expect to have to replace or upgrade some of mine in 2008. I’ve watched the Dell site, and haven’t really noticed problems. One obvious remedy is to relocate some component manufacturing back into the States. That would be better for jobs.

We hear the discussions all the time that a weak dollar is good for exports. It might be good for American movie making if the WGA strike can end. No longer is it necessary to go to Vancouver or Toronto to make the pilot for the next hit sci-fi series. The good old Directors Guild of Canada seal on so many B movies might become less common.

Of course, foreigners invest in American properties, but if the dollar gets too low they can effectively call in margins and create financial chaos.

The Washington Post has a front page story today (Dec. 24, 2007, p A01) by Anthony Faiola, “Dollar’s Fall Is Felt Around the Globe: Weakening US Currency Harms Overseas Markets,” here.

What is the cause of the fall? The obvious no-brainer answer is the expenses for the Iraq (and Afghanistan) wars without raising taxes. Another is a tendency for Americans to live beyond their means, and want something for nothing, an outgrowth of extreme capitalism. The subprime foreclosure crisis today is the latest symptom, and this follows only a few years after the Enron and WorldComm messes, and these indeed follow only a decade or so after the Texas Savings and Loan meltdown of the late 80s. Do today’s generations understand how the Great Depression came about?

Adding to this is the issue that other parts of the world are competing with American consumers, needing quickly to develop new technologies to deal with apparently approaching (or already breached) tipping points in oil production and global warming.

The February 2008 issue of Mother Jones has a long article by Jacques Leslie, “The Last Empire: Can the world survive China’s headlong rush to emulate the American way of life?” There are subchapters called “China eats the world” and “Pulp nonfiction.” Nevertheless, the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao did plenty of abuse to the environment back in the 60s, and the primitive farming methods (in combination with rural residence habits) tends to incubate new infections zoonosis diseases. This particular article doesn't appear online yet, but there are many related links, such as this, "The Last Empire: China's Pollution Problem Goes Global," by Leslie on Dec. 10, 2007, here. Anderson Cooper had dealt with China's pollution in ins 2007 four hour CNN documentary "Planet in Peril". Consumers, of course, have become concerned about the safety of some products made in China (especially children's toys) when manufactured for almost no wages and with unconvincing supervision from American retailers.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Health care premiums: at least level the playing field

California certainly has upped the ante in the health care debate this week (California ups the stakes on everything) with a bill, even larger than a comparable one in Massachusetts, to require mandatory health insurance, provide assistance to individuals who cannot afford it, and mandate employer coverage. This expands upon the general concepts articulated by Hillary Clinton (who generally is not quite ready to make coverage mandatory but wants to pressure employers and insurance companies), and Republican (or republicrat) governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is not exactly staying out of tinseltown) is selling it. The Economist article from Dec. 19, 2007 is “Scalpel, please: California enters the fight for universal health care,” here.

The Washington Post this morning (Dec. 22) had moderato kind words for a plan by Republican John McCain, in an editorial titled “The McCain Prescription: The GOP candidate has some good ideas on health care, but not the whole answer,” here.

McCain proposes a refundable tax credit of $2500 per individual and $5000 per family to purchase health insurance. This levels the playing field in two rational ways: first, individuals get the to use the same pre-tax dollars that employers do, and tax credits help those who otherwise have no income taxes or who do not itemize deductions (as when they don’t own homes). It makes sense, as does a policy that encourages younger workers to set aside pre-tax dollars in health spending accounts.

As the Post points out, there are still serious questions about controlling costs, and protecting those who experience catastrophic illness. One measure will be to prevent insurance companies from penalizing pre-existing conditions, even if there needs to be government-backed reinsurance to cover this problem. (Imagine, though, the rating companies getting involved.) Another is to control the “fee for service” way of billing Medicare, and bundle the way care is paid for (a concept that is tricky to program in IT systems; I once saw this done with the SAS language). Still another problem haunts preventive care, and especially dental care: economic pressures to sell as many services to patients to stay in business, as professor David Callahan wrote in his 2004 book “The Cheating Culture.”

CNN has a harrowing story about the insurance companies (in this case, Cigna in California) with "experimental" procedures that are likely to work in particular cases, " Teen dies hours after liver transplant approved," here. The Democrats maintain that insurance companies have too much control over life and death, violating our tradition of respect for life.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

US Birthrate reaches 2.1 children per woman, answering conservative concerns about demographics

Both ABC news and NBC news tonight reported that fertility in the United States is now the highest among major western countries, reaching 2.1 children per woman, just about right for replacement. The birth rate is reportedly higher than any time since 1961, the end of the Baby Boom. Economically, this is important in helping reverse a demographic trend: as people live longer, if they have fewer children (as is the case in many European countries and particularly Russia, and also Japan) then there are fewer workers to support the retired (straining Social Security and Medicare); it also raises political pressures to enforce filial responsibility laws in more socially conservative countries or states. Philip Longman had written about this problem in his 2004 book "The Empty Cradle."

The ABC News story by David Wright is "Babies Are Booming in the U.S.; Americans Are Having the Most Babies in Decades," and the link is this.

I could not find the MSNBC story there yet from tonight's broadcast (keep checking), but there is a related story "Baby boomers seek help for elder care: Geography, active lives spawn cottage caregiving industry", by Dawn Fratangelo, here.

I have written extensively about this issue on these blogs, particularly the "Bill Retires" blog (check my Blogger profile for the link) back in July, when I surveyed filial responsibility laws for a number of states. The increasing birthrate in America, which some attribute to somewhat more family-friendly workplaces (again, problematic for singles or the childless), does seem to soften the concern about this trend, maybe. Let the social conservatives weigh in again.

Update: Dec. 21

The Today show this morning psychologist Joshua Coleman discussed strained relationships between parents and adult children, with one of the most hurtful episodes finding out that one has grandchildren in the newspapers or on the web. The story is "How to nurse an injured parent-child relationship", link here. Rejection of former GLBT children was not specifically mentioned.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

S&P downgrades major bond insurer, warns four others

In a move somewhat feared in recent financial "trash talk" websites, Standard & Poor's today downgraded the rating of ACA Financial Guaranty Corporation from A to CCC, junk status. I had discussed this problem with respect to three other insurers and Fitch on Nov. 26 on this blog.

S&P also placed warnings on four other bond insurers: FGIC, MBIA Insurance, Ambac, and XL Capital. (Some of these were discussed Nov 26.) The warnings relate to a probability that their ratings could be downgraded during the next several months.

The AP story by Stephen Bernard is titled "S&P Downgrades ACA to Junk Status" and has this link on Yahoo! The story appeared on Yahoo! at 5:39 PM ET and it is not clear whether this affected any municipal bond funds today. In my own portfolio, there was little change. The AP link is here and has the same time stamp. ACA Capital Holdings actually went up today. CNBC's story seems to suggest that this was known to traders during the day.

The New York Times
story is by Vikas Bajaj, is "Bond Insurer Cut to Junk; Negative Outlook for 4 More", link here. On Dec. 19, Bajaj had written an earlier story, "Banks Study Bailing Out Bond Insurer" about ACA Capital Holdings, suggesting that this problem was well known. Bajaj's stories suggest that actual losses and defaults would be avoided if ACA raises capital in the next month or so. However, the WSJ (below) reports that these talks will be called off because of the Dec. 19 downgrade.

Municipal bonds insured by ACA would effectively be uninsured, and some older bonds could be called in, according to many reports.

The Examiner (which runs a group of "free" daily newspapers in many areas) is reporting that S&P cut ratings on many individual municipal bonds, also. This can make it harder for cities to finance public works and schools without directly raising taxes (especially as property value assessments go down). On P 21 of the DC Examiner a report from Stephen Bernard in New York reads "Downgrading of ACA Financial to 'junk' could cost banks, local governments billion. David Royse of the AP has a report in the Examiner "Florida bonds affected by S&P downgrade of bond insurer ACAFlorida bonds affected by S&P downgrade of bond insurer ACA", here.

The Wall Street Journal story is on p C1 Dec. 20. by Serena Ng, "Key Downgrade Adds New Layer To The Crunch: A Bond Insurer Is Cut To Junk, and the Street May Get Pinched, Too, link here (may require subscription to see all content). The tone of the article is quite negative.

CNBC, early on Dec. 20, was reporting sharply lower bids for MBIA and Ambac, and expressed concerns about their holdings and exposure. CNBC provided verbal discussion of CDO 's, with the impression that the illusion of safety for muni's can have catastrophic repercussions when there is a downgrade. Even so, the mainstream media has not paid much attention to this whole matter.

The website for ACA seems to be this, and does not appear to have any info on today's announcement yet. You can watch their ratings page here (not updated as of early 12/20) and the latest press release was 12/13, a non-compliance notice from the NYSE.

Standard & Poor's web listing of bond insurers is here.
ACA is marked "CCC/Watch Dev/" and some other bond insurers are marked "AAA/Negative/". S&P discusses bond insurance ratings at this link.

This is all important to me personally because of the stability of my portfolio, but I can't see specifically what is really happening yet, as there is still a lot of speculation. The mortgage defaults are likely to continue (despite Bush's earlier action) because so many borrowers had tried to "get something for nothing," always a sign of trouble.

A good blog for some technical discussion is Sirtuininvestor, here.

Update: Dec. 29, 2007

Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway are apparently going to try to help bail out the bond insurers (at least for the municipal market). The Washington Post story in the Business Section p D01 Dec. 29, 2007 is "Struggling Bond Insurers Get New Rival: Warren Buffett" by Tomoeh Murakami Tse, link here. How helpful this will be remains to be seen and will be taken up later.

Update: 12/31/2007

Floyd Norris has a complicated discussion of whether this could spread to corporate bonds in the Business Day New York Times, Friday Dec. 28, 2007, p C1, "High & Low Finance: Credit Crisis? Just Wait for a Replay" here. This gets more into MBA territory.

When Does Government Go Too Far? Often.

There were a couple of stories on ABC News today that illustrate the increasingly paternalistic role of government during the Bushie neocon years, although a lot of the paternalism comes from the Democrats.

Liberal San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome wants to tax retail stores that sell sugar-sweetened (non diet) soft drinks. The ABC story by Miguel Marquez is "Want to Slim Down? Tax Soda. San Francisco's Mayor Proposes a Tax on Soft Drinks," here. One regular soft drink a day can add fifteen pounds in a year. (It never did to me.) Of course, what next? Why not computer and video games because they reduce activity. We've seen trans fats banned in many cities. Many cities have total smoking bans in all bars and restaurants (including Washington DC as of January 2 this year).

The other big fibbie story today has to do with the government's fining large companies for selling ads for online gambling, which is now largely illegal when bets are placed from within the U.S. (The Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006). The AP story by Jim Salter, appearing on ABC tonight on its Technology & Science page, is "$31.5 Million Gambling Settlement: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo to Pay $31.5 Million Over Gambling Ads," story here. The government is definitely playing "I am my brother's keeper" here.

Picture: (Unrelated): The DC-city-owned Lincoln Theater in Washington DC, site of many stage shows and of the Reel Affirmations Film Festivals.

Friday, December 14, 2007

So, Hillary and Billy would soak the rich

Maybe there was nothing new in the Dems' debate in Iowa yesterday. Not that much. But conservatives are picking up on Hillary's desire to roll back Bush tax cuts for the rich, and try to give the middle class a tax break. The Washington Times story today by Christina Bellantoni is "Hillary would raise taxes on rich," here. Husband Bill, after all, was able to run federal budget surpluses, however pre 9/11 (and missing the boat on all the Al Qaeda warnings in the 90s).

Ah, here we are again, with that basic ideological debate. Back in the early 1970s, I sat in a drafty Newark NJ rowhouse listening to "Peoples Party of New Jersey" (Dr. Spock) tirades about limiting incomes to $50000 a year (that's poverty now, almost), and eliminating the greatest moral evil of all, unearned inherited wealth. Pit that the roll back of death taxes (itself a complicated topic). Even now, I hear people rant about "rich people" as the source of basic evil. The conservatives come back and say that family values and abstinence outside of marriage, etc., somehow justifies some people have more than others, as long as you owe your soul your blood family. But it's not too far from that to outright tribalism.

Steve Forbes used to talk sense with the flat tax, and Harry Browne used to say around 1996, repeal the income tax and replace it with nothing. The Left wing has always pointed out that sales or "consumption" taxes are inherently regressive. Back in the early 1950s, the tax rate on the highest income bracket was a whopping 92%.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Companies offer paid paternal leave but experience tensions

I recall that on my first job with RCA (the Operations Research Training Program at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, NJ) in 1970, the company paid more per diem to married employees when sending them away on assignments than to single employees. At the time, that triggered some resentment from me that would eventually contribute to my departure a year later. That was a long time ago, and companies tended to drop such practices throughout the 1970s with the cultural changes.

USA Today, on Dec. 11, had an important front page story by David Armour, "Workplace tensions rise as dads seek family time: Demands for leave, flexible hours reshape careers and fuel conflicts," link here. The story relates that some large employers do offer paid paternity leave to some longer standing employees, and these companies include Texas Instruments and Enrst & Young, and probably many others (AT&T has been mentioned in other articles).

Of course, some companies voluntarily offer women paid maternity leave, but the United States, as often pointed out, is one of the few advanced countries with no mandated paid parental leave for the workplace. (Look at Europe, most of all, Sweden; how do they make it work?) Women returning from maternity leave or time off for motherhood claim that they are discriminated against in advancement. Paternity leaves are likely, in practice, to be much shorter.

Of course, one source of tension over this issue is obvious: the employees who do not get such benefits (non-parents, in the context of this article) do more work for the same pay, They may, in some cases, get more of the bad hours or even be expected to do more on-call work without pay (with salaried people). This has sometimes been a bane to the gay community (LLDEF -- "equal work for equal pay" vs. getting single people at a "discount") and was discussed in a 2000 (Free Press) book by Elinor Burkett "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless". Even Burkett gives quotes from people who think that childless people "cheat the system" and the issue has become more testy as some conservative writers have been writing a lot about the demographics of falling birthrates in more affluent societies (Philip Longman's "The Empty Cradle" (2004).

Larger employers usually have employee assistance programs (EAP) and say they accommodate family responsibility needs -- now often including eldercare -- as much as possible. That just sounds like good business. In practice, a childless adult with eldercare issues will find it much harder to ask for "assistance" than someone who has raised his or her own family.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

GWU provides valuable information on demand for teachers

Yesterday evening (Wed. Dec. 5), I braved the back end of an Alberta Clipper and went to another information system on teacher licensure in Arlington held by George Washington University. My main interest was to judge the teacher shortage.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve even heard negative comments to the effect that the subprime mortgage crisis and falling home values could cause school districts to lose revenue and reduce the number of teacher jobs. Conceivably, in school districts that hire unlicensed short-term subs, there could be fewer such short-term jobs as regular teachers fill them. However, no one mentioned the subprime issue last night and the general feeling is probably that is a bump on the road; in general the trend is for high demand for teachers and political pressures to pay them more. A M. Ed. degree (offered by GWU in addition to licensure) will increase a new teacher’s starting salary.

The session presented some statistics on teacher shortages (and surpluses) in the mid-Atlantic region. The greatest demand is in physics, information technology, chemistry, and, slight less so, mathematics. Bi-lingual (usually English and Spanish) teachers are in great demand and verbal fluency in Spanish (or perhaps a mid-Eastern or oriental language) is highly desired. (I add that being able to follow “correct” European French or Spanish in a movie is a far cry from being able to follow and speak it an idiomatic matter as kids speak it). Teachers certified in special education with any content area experience a demand level comparable to physics and bilingual. Surprisingly, however, there is some surplus of elementary school teachers, as there is for English and Social Studies. There is no question that returning or retired military is viewed as a particularly desirable background.

Teaching involves merging three skill sets, in varying degrees. These are (1) content expertise (2) ability to communicate from a position of authority or role model with less intact minors and (3) a general level of interpersonal communication or “people skills” and an interest in these, which bilingual fluency supports. These skill sets are needed in proportions that vary a lot from one job to the next. The media and politicians make much of the need for teachers in inner city or poverty area schools. That part is true. But outside of the poverty and special education issues, in general the demand seems to be higher in high school than in lower grades, and is higher with the more difficult-to-master content areas (like the major sciences). Generally, there is a sufficient supply of people wanting to teach grade school, but these are mostly women, and the lack of male teachers in this area has been controversial (because of negative social stereotypes). The desire of many school districts (and parents) to expand pre-school (the subject of a Leap Frog TV ad, but possibly on hold with the property values issue) could increase the demand for teachers ready to work with very young children or toddlers.

Attracting people from other fields (such as those caught in corporate downsizing, or especially people who have taken “early retirement”) depends on school districts offering enough financial incentives, as many retirees or persons in “outplacement” have circumscribed personal financial resources to pay tuition, which is considerable. School districts in the Washington DC area offer a variety of programs. These include placement in off-campus courses (which have much lower tuition and are available for most courses except what GWU calls “methods”), and (from Fairfax County and Montgomery County, at least), tuition grants or assistance, especially in math and science areas, and stipends for up to a year of student teaching (and sometimes a period as a “long term sub” which pays a somewhat decent hourly wage). Usually, student teaching involves required periods in both middle and high schools (or elementary school as a separate program). GWU and the federal government do offer a variety of loans, and some of these loans are forgiven in some programs that involve teachers committing themselves to teaching in poverty areas. The District of Columbia has a Literacy Collaborative that stresses middle and elementary schools and has a “residency” program.

A mentioned a couple of issues to the staff there at the end of the session. One is that retirees who worked in the “real world” of adult business and personal values often are not prepared for the communication and even emotional demands that somewhat disadvantaged or less mature children make (this can even be true of people who did raise their own families). At the same time, some more advanced classes have adult-like students who actually work well with teachers who act more as facilitators and leave them alone to work. All of this was particularly true with subs, who may have trouble establishing credibility if they don’t gear their communication to the actual needs of the class (and they may not know how to do this if just coming from business).

I also noted that the school systems are pretty much hoodwinked by all of the free speech v. harm issues that come up with the Internet. Teachers of information technology may well find kids who know more than they do (in a world where middle school kids have made and edited commercially viable short films about disabled military veterans and global warming, and where other kids have figured out on their own how to reverse engineer the iPod). The range of issues – social networking, implicit content, search engine presence, reputation defense, copyright, anonymity, broadband neutrality – generally presented separately by NGO organizations and think tanks create an intellectual web that school systems need to organize and present to students now, and no one seems to have figured out how to do this.

GWU’s basic web link for this is here.

I had discussed the substitute teacher issue in December 2006 on this blog here.

Another earlier discussion from my main blog Dec 2006 is here (with other links).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Industrial hemp controversy; are singles bad for environment?

On Dec. 4, NBC4 in Washington provided a report of the growing pressure to make the agricultural production of industrial hemp legal in the United States.

The main reason for banning the growing of hemp has been that it can conceal marijuana, supposedly. Hemp itself has a chemical that is an ineffective relative of THC (but, then again, so do some over the counter decongestants). It can be used in cereal and cosmetics. It can be imported legally but cannot be produced here legally. No other substance is like this in the eyes of the law.

The NBC4 story is "Movement Under Way To Make Hemp Hip Again
Widely Used Crop Can Be Imported But Not Grown In The U.S.", here:

Some farmers in North Dakota (“God’s country” according to one of my co-workers when I was in Minnesota; I visited his home near Bismarck once, in the spring of 1998; I also visited the site of the Grand Forks floods in 1997) have sued the federal government over this issue. The website that covers this is Votehemp.

Numerous times I heard Harry Browne, former candidate from the Libertarian Party, say, "and we must end this War on Drugs."

In practice, marijuana is often hidden by "King Corn" anyway. I wonder what will happen once technology makes the growing of switchgrass desirable for fuel. Can switchgrass hide marijuana, too?

Three other major sites:

Note: Are single adults bad for the environment?

Couples, singles and the environment:

Also, in its “Going Green” link, NBC4 provides a provocative story "The Planet Feels the Pain of Divorce," to the effect that divorce is bad for the environment, because it creates numerically more households. It that’s the case, adult singles (and usually gays) are bad for the environment. However, singles often live in smaller apartments or condos in high density areas (cities) and do not drive long distances to work or need to own large vehicles. This claim can be disputed.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bush administration jawbones to stop foreclosures, subprime rate hikes, balloons

The Bush administration, with all its neo-conservatism (with a curious spin on individualism) is moving to regulate or at least jawbone the mortgage industry into stopping a tsunami of defaults and foreclosures as the low rate term periods of more homeowners come to an end. A typical story ("U.S. moves to stem foreclosures") is by Patrice Hill on p A1 of the Dec. 4 Washington Times, here.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. is getting lenders to postpone rate increases on subprime homeowners who are current on mortgage payments for three to seven years. Senator Hillary Clinton has called for a five year freeze on introductory subprime rates, and a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures. John Edwards wants to prohibit loans with balloon payments, which buyers have expected to get out of by refinancing. The balloon problem would appear to the novice to be the worst problem. In comparison to individual homes and condos, church construction loans typically have balloon payments, as I have heard many times in my years of association with MCC churches.

Ideologically, this would seem to be a case of “I am my brother’s keeper.” One could say, doesn’t this reward buyers and builders who (in the spirit of Coen Brothers movies) wanted something for nothing? Maybe. But foreclosures affect entire neighborhoods, not just the individual homeowners, and undermine the stability even of investor tax-free bond markets since so many localities invest in mortgages.

Remember, 40th birthdays are usually marked by black balloons, especially in the workplace.

Update: Dec. 6

The DC Examiner has a story syndicated from New York by J. W. Elphinstone, "Bill Coming Due on Sinking Home Equity" which the DC paper re-titled (p 22, Thursday Dec 6) as "Homeownership a misnomer as equity fell to all-time lows during housing boom,: link here.

Much is made of the lack of down payment. Remember thirty years ago when couples struggled to meet a 20% down payment for a conventional loan (which eliminated most of the PMI insurance)? Of course, making a down payment reduces or eliminates most of one's cash emergency fund, a factor that one must weigh against one's job skills or income-generating ability in a job market that itself seems so volatile. Skills go fallow (like mainframe programming). Home equity loans and "reverse mortgages" have also reduced remaining equity.

On Dec. 6 The Washington Post carried an AP story by David Cho and Neil Irwin on p A1, "Bush Wins Agreement To Freeze Mortgages: Hard-Up Owners Won't See Adjustable Rates Soar" which will protect (for five years) only those non-delinquent primary-residence homeowners who cannot afford the rate increases by some mathematical formula and who purchased their homes since 2005, story here. Later in the day the Post website carried an AP story "Mortgage Rate Freeze Reached" By Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer, here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Freddie Mac hosts adoption expo in Washington DC

Today, Dec 1, 2007 (also World AIDS day), Freddie Mac sponsored a brief (4 hour) Adoption Expo at the Grand Hyatt Hotel at 11th and H Sts. NW in downtown Washington DC. The link is this.

Many organizations were present. These included Lutheran Social Services, the Dave Thomas Foundation, ThinkingofAdopting, Adoptions Together, the Barker Foundation. The free event seemed to be heavily attended.

Most materials were free, including copies of “The Pumpkin Patch: A Single Woman’s International Adoption Journey” by Margaret L. Schwartz. (One illustrated booklet, however, was $14.95 when it looked free at first glance.) Most of the handouts presented basic information about social services agencies and the “Homestudy,” which is a self-description followed by a thorough background investigation of the applicant and his or her (and the family’s) home environment. Most of them discussed the “family” as if were assumed and understood. Few of them discussed single applicants.

However, Lutheran Social Services indicated that it welcomes qualified single applicants, and the article in the 2007-2008 magazine “Adoption Guide” (free at the expo, but normally $14.95) “What’s new in adoption?” by Susan Freivalds indicates that 60% of agencies accept applications from GLBT applicants and 40% (in a 2004 survey) indicated that they had placed children in GLBT households. Most states allow adoption by single gay parents, and only a few will give both partners full parental rights. Florida still prohibits gay adoptions, a policy that the Supreme Court upheld in 2005. In some cities, like Minneapolis, social service agencies have advertised aggressively for single applicants.

The media constantly reports on the need for foster and adoptive parents. A good example is the NBC4 series “Wednesday’s Child.” Usually the topic is presented with an appeal to emotion, and assumes that most adults really want to become parents, and not everyone is able to. Sometimes the issue takes on such earnestness that there is a suggestion that parenthood is a moral obligation of adulthood and of equal citizenship. Until a few decades ago, most people did not question that. The capability to adopt has come to be perceived as part of the fight for gay equality in some quarters: equal rights == equal responsibilities.

Update: On Dec 5, the NBC Today show had a segment on older people adopting. It presented a career woman in her forties (there was no mention of a husband). It discussed international and domestic adoption, and mentioned a program for "hosting" overseas children, possibly leading to adoption. It mentioned the need for older foster children and teens to be adopted. It said "the child adopts the parent."

The Washington Post, on Nov. 28, 2007, had a second paid insert from Russia with a big story about adoption in Russia.

Picture below: Bus stop seat ad in Minneapolis (2003) in the Uptown area. Note that single parents are OK in Minnesota.