March 31, 2006

Time to Talk about Teachers

According to the No Child Left Behind act, every classroom in America is to have a "highly qualified" teacher by the end of the 2005-06 school year. While reasonable minds may (and do) disagree on how to define "highly qualified" and how best to recruit and retain such teachers, the underlying message of this goal is undoubtedly true: Teachers matter.

America's teachers are responsible for instructing and training the next generation of this country in the skills they will need to excel in the ever-globalizing world. If the next generation is not prepared for the challenges of the future, we will all suffer as the United States slowly falls behind. The numbers at the outset of the 21st century are not particularly encouraging -- American students are losing ground to international students in both levels of basic literacy and high-level proficiency, particularly in science and engineering.

Yet, despite the high stakes and the gathering crisis, efforts at education reform in general, and in the area of teacher quality in particular, have been repeatedly stalled, watered down, or underfunded. Hoping to create momentum for a new era in the teaching profession, a group of political, academic, and business leaders founded The Teaching Commission, an organization whose modest goal was to change the way public school teachers are prepared, recruited, retained, and rewarded. Last week, the Commission issued its final report, a stinging indictment of the way this country treats its teachers. "If teaching remains a second-rate profession, America's economy will be driven by second-rate skills," warned Louis Gerstner, Jr., the Commission's founder and the former chairman/CEO of IBM. "We can wake up today or we can have a rude awakening sooner than we think."

How did the teaching profession reach this point? A generation ago, teaching enjoyed a captive pool of well-qualified individuals --American women. Today, the teaching profession must compete with law, medicine, business, and every other field for the services of these women. This is a good thing. However, teaching almost always loses. This is not a good thing. Teaching loses especially dramatically when it comes to the most highly-qualified individuals -- in 1974, 24% of teachers came from the top 10% of high school students. By 2000, that number had dropped to only 11%. Part of the reason teaching is not the career of choice for many talented individuals is that despite the fact that it is the profession that makes all others possible, teachers are not compensated according to the value they add to our country. Average teacher salaries have not risen as quickly even as inflation, much less as quickly as salaries in law, medicine, and business.

The problem is not limited to the difficulty of attracting top flight individuals to the teaching field. Many who do choose teaching as a career don't stay. Nearly 50% of teachers do not stay more than five years -- one in four has moved on after only two years. Attrition rates are highest in low-income schools leading to the perverse situation where the students who need qualified teachers the most are the least likely to get them. Reasons for departure include the lack of a supportive community of peer-teachers, the inability for career advancement within the rigid bureaucratic confines governed by teachers' unions and local school boards, and the fact that the best and worst teachers are typically paid not according to ability or results, but seniority. The system is set up to reward longevity rather than achievement, so it should not be surprising that many would-be spectacular teachers do not stay -- or never teach at all.

To confront these problems, the Teaching Commission identified four areas for reform: (1) transforming teacher compensation; (2) reinventing teacher preparation; (3) overhauling licensing and certification procedures; and (4) strengthening counseling and support. After three years, only in the area of compensation did the Commission report even mildly encouraging results. The other, less tangible areas garnered very little support, a reflection of the fact that despite the professed goal of putting highly qualified teachers in every classroom, the difficult task of effective reform is not receiving the attention required.

Reform within the teaching profession is just one part of the broader effort to improve American education. Having a highly-qualified teacher in every classroom will not solve all education problems in this country, but it is a start and it is a goal worth embracing. To get there we must reward and respect America's teachers at a level that matches their pivotal place in our country. Our future is only as good as our schools and our schools are only as good as the teachers in them. The time to confront this crisis is now.

March 24, 2006

Original Sin in Iraq

Three years ago, President Bush could have had me. I could have been convinced that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. I could have been told that Saddam Hussein, a genocidal menace, must be removed immediately before he could inflict any more harm on the Iraqi people or anyone else. I could have been told that human rights are human rights and they belong not only to Americans, but to Iraqis. I could have been told that as the world's superpower, the United States had the singular ability to protect human rights and had the responsibility to do so. Had I been told these things three years ago, I would have stood up and said, "Let's go protect those human rights in Iraq! And let's go to Sudan and protect those human rights, too!"

But, of course, I was told none of those things. Instead, I was fed an unending diet of overhyped intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. I was misled by constant intimations by the Vice-President that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots. I was told that invading Iraq was necessary to protect national security and I was told that winning in Iraq would be a breeze. I was given a menu of reasons to support the decision to go to war, but nothing on that menu was ever argued consistently or convincingly. Instead of a coherent "reality-based" argument, I was given a charade of decision-making about a decision made long before.

I didn't believe the things I was told three years ago and so I did not support the President's decision to invade Iraq. I did not think invading Iraq was automatically a bad idea. I thought invading Iraq as we did was a bad idea. I felt that the administration abused the vulnerable national mood that followed September 11, deliberately misled the nation about a national security threat in Iraq that did not exist, and squandered an opportunity to build an international coalition for an intervention based on the humanitarian threat that did exist. To me, this was the original sin of the Iraq war and we continue paying the price for it (literally and figuratively)

Because I hold the President responsible for the original sin in Iraq, I find it difficult to trust him on anything else related to Iraq. The fact that almost every aspect of the Iraq endeavor has been bungled -- troop levels at the outset, predictions of rosy greetings, prison abuse, an insurgency most certainly not in its "last throes" -- only reinforces my anger about that original sin. Three years ago, President Bush could have had me, but today, he most certainly cannot.

But all of this ought to be irrelevant. The reality is that we are in Iraq today whether I like how we got there or not. The reality is that it would not be in our best interest to disappear from Iraq immediately even though doing so would save American lives that I think should not have been put in harms way in the first place. The opportunity to hold the administration accountable for the decision to go to war came in November 2004, but the President survived. The "I told you so" argument does not help solve the problems we face today.

Yet it is impossible to separate the original sin from the current state of Iraq. It is impossible to discuss the current situation without tossing in a line about the tainted origins of the war. It is impossible because, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the administration continues to act as though the decision was well-informed, well-thought out, well-executed, and well-received. The President's recent flurry of Iraq speeches is not about humbly admitting a transgression and reaching out for help in finding solutions, but about re-criticizing all doubters and re-asserting that his judgment on Iraq should be trusted. Despite thousands of lives lost, billions (maybe trillions) of dollars spent, and a continuing sense of uncertainty about the future stability of Iraq, President Bush continues to act as he did in hyping the war -- blindly confident, dismissive of opposing viewpoints, and oblivious to realities on the ground . His critics, myself included, thus remain stuck on the President's original Iraq sins. These positions strangle useful debate and have prevented the reasoned and nuanced solutions required in Iraq to gain any momentum.

This is an international tragedy because we had an opportunity after September 11 to reshape the world for the better. That could have started in Iraq had the endeavor been undertaken with honesty or proper planning or preferably both. We could have demonstrated the power of American ideals and our willingness to protect human rights globally. We could have established a model in the Middle East without alienating much of the world. Three years ago, we could

March 21, 2006

USA Today: Cinderella Nation

This column was published in USA Today on March 21, 2006.

In this country, our sports reveal a lot about our national DNA. The Super Bowl celebrates our excesses in both advertising spending and chip-and-dip eating. Baseball reminds us of our history, basketball of our ability to create. NASCAR, the latest darling of sport, illustrates our obsession with speed and plays to our affinity for individualism. Even the sport we famously do not care for – soccer – reveals our character. What full-blooded American would voluntarily pursue a goal for an hour and a half with the possibility that either nothing happens or it all ends in a tie? We much prefer the measurable yard-by-yard progress of the gridiron.

All other sports have their allure, but it is the NCAA tournament – three weeks of college basketball madness – that goes to the very heart of what it means to be Americans. The rules are simple – win and move on, lose and go home. There are no home-court advantages. There are no byes. All teams are equal, and on this level playing field, each team controls its own destiny.

In this way, the tournament mimics the American dream of upward social mobility. The quintessential American tale is one of the underdog overcoming obstacles to capture glory – the immigrant striking it rich in the big city, the unknown boxer defeating the unbeatable champion, the maidservant ending up with the prince. And this is the very story the NCAA tournament gives us year after year. We are a Cinderella Nation.

The teams making it to the next round of games are representative of the American dream: that hard work and a little luck can lift anyone to success. Just ask long shot Northwestern State, which broke the heart of highly rated Iowa with a three-pointer at the buzzer, only to have its own dream dashed in the next game by West Virginia. Or George Mason, which toppled the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels, winner of last year’s tournament, to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Of course, the tournament, like the dream, is not as fair as it at first seems. While there are no actual home-court advantages, it would be naïve to think that having the University of Texas play its first two games in Dallas was not an advantage. And while every team, regardless of seed, can theoretically win the whole tournament, history has shown that it is the top seeds that usually do. Still, some of the most memorable tournaments were those won by huge underdogs, such as NC State in 1983 or Villanova in 1985, but the norm is for a top-seed such as Duke to cut down the nets. No 16-seed has ever won a game, but be assured that when it happens, it will be the greatest Cinderella tale of all.
The chances of a low-seeded team winning the championship are miniscule – in fact, one odds-maker set Oral Roberts’ odds at 5-sextillion-to-1 before their first round defeat by top-seed Memphis. The chances of such teams even surviving the first weekend are slim. In fact, of the 16 teams remaining, only four are seeded worse than 6th.

So it is with American life. Cinderella is the exception rather than the rule. Even so, overcoming odds and refusing to allow history to dictate destiny is what dreams are all about. For whatever the likely outcome, the truth is that as of this moment, 13th-seed Bradley must win as many games as top-seed Connecticut to lift the trophy as champion on April 3.

It is this dream that makes the tournament what it is. It is this dream that makes us who we are.

March 10, 2006


When I saw Crash last spring, I wrote a review of what I thought was one of the more interesting movies I'd seen in a while. When Crash won Best Picture on Sunday, I thought that review would be a good column this week. So, here it is:

On a drizzly Sunday afternoon, Meggan and I hiked across the Boston Common to catch a matinee showing of Paul Haggis’s (“Million-Dollar Baby”) latest film, “Crash.” The cinema was our preferred antidote to stressful weeks at work (hers, not mine) and uncooperative weekend weather (30 degrees in May?!). If what we sought was a pleasant escape, however, our choice of “Crash” was disastrous. Of all the things that this movie is - and there is much good about it - pleasant is not one of them.

After the film, Meggan turned to me. “I didn’t think I could have been any more depressed. But,” she sighed, “I was wrong.”

Having enjoyed the movie, I felt the need to defend it, but the more I thought about the movie, the less certain I became that I liked it. And maybe that was the point.

Without spoiling anything, “Crash” depicts a 36-hour period when the lives of a dozen Angelinos of varying race and ethnicity crash into one another. There is not one single crash, but the many little crashes of daily life. However, underlying each crash is a single theme - stereotypes, bigotry, and cultural misunderstanding. Some crashes end tragically, while others offer hope, but each provides a scathing critique of racism in Los Angeles. Watching racism play itself out should not be pleasant. And it wasn’t.

As a film, it was uneven. Haggis was very effective depicting how quickly events can escalate based on misconceptions fueled by cultural differences, and there were several incredibly dramatic, well-crafted, and anxious scenes where Haggis was at his best in this, his directorial debut. But there were many moments when characters speechified. Barely five minutes passed between diatribes on race or ethnicity and such speeches came out of characters mouths seemingly out of nowhere. On their own, the speeches were interesting, but they were not believable dialogue.

To me, the film was Haggis’s attempt at showing the ramifications of prejudices. “Look what happens when we make decisions based on stereotypes,” the movie says. “It sucks, doesn’t it?” But Meggan took an entirely different message, and some end-of-weekend blues, with her: “We all hate each other and that’s that.”

Perhaps Haggis was too convincing, providing a glimpse of this problem without even the suggestion of a solution. This, however, seems to be the necessary first step that Haggis is urging us to take: until a problem is glimpsed and acknowledged, there will certainly be no solution. This is where the film succeeds - it forces viewers to acknowledge the problem, thus sparking discussion (hopefully) that could lead to a solution. That we remain stalled at this first step of recovery - acknowledgment - is more a failure of ourselves than a problem with the movie.

The problem with “Crash,” though, is that it reeks of the very problem - stereotyping - that is seeks to confront. We meet a stereotypical image-conscious, opportunistic district attorney and his angry, bigoted wife. We see a race-obsessed young black male with corn rows who is a carjacker, a racist LA cop, and a loud, overweight black woman. Although there are attempts to humanize all the characters, the reliance on stereotyped characters combined with their inability to talk about anything but racism, affirmative action, or discrimination undermines the film and reinforces the very stereotypes it critiques.

That being said, there is plenty to chew on after “Crash,” an accomplishment in itself and perhaps Haggis’s single goal. The dialogue the movie seeks to create, perhaps, is the solution Haggis is offering. There are no good characters or bad characters, but just characters attempting to exist in a city filled with many types of people who often misunderstand and even hate each other. We see how good intentions mean little. Simply doing the right thing does not make one immune from succumbing to despicable acts in a racist society. Likewise, being racist does not prevent one from being a good son or a hero. By unfolding these scenarios in such detail, Haggis forces us to evaluate the character based not only upon their unreasonable biases, but also on their reasonable fears and the very real pressures of their families or careers. Offering these glimpses of life in another’s shoes, the movie begins a conversation that it cannot, and does not attempt to, complete. Does that make it a bad movie? Not at all. Just unpleasant and not the right pick on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

March 03, 2006

Newborn Perspective

Since I wrote my last column, much has happened in the world. Judge Alito was confirmed as Justice Alito. Global rioting resulted from the publication of controversial cartoons depicting Muhammad. Most recently, there is uproar over control of American ports potentially being run by a company based in the United Arab Emirates.

Even on issues I’ve written about most often, there were developments. The genocidal crisis in Darfur has spilled across the border into Chad and the Bush Administration’s attempts to increase the involvement of both NATO and the UN have fallen largely on deaf international ears. (Click here if you’d like to sign a postcard to the Bush Administration urging action in Darfur as part of an effort to send a million postcards by the end of April – On torture, two low-level dog handlers within the army are to be sentenced for their actions while those who allowed – even encouraged – torture are not held accountable. Representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco were brought before Congress to testify as to their activities in China. And on tort reform, our Vice-President infamously fired the first shot in a quest to reform the system by eliminating the lawyers.

In short, the past month has not been short of interesting social and political activity.

Yet, I have paid little attention to the world. Instead, I am concerned with issues like wet burps, clogged tear ducts, and dirty diapers. Lots of dirty diapers. My wife and I are meticulously tracking eating and sleeping patterns. We have spent far more time listening to Twinkle, Twinkle than to NPR. It is a major cause for excitement when our daughter is able to do something as simple as bringing her hand directly to her mouth. Watching her grow and develop and experience something new every day is incredible, and it is a reminder of what we all truly care about.

This past month has driven home the point that thinking, talking, or writing about political and social issues is truly a luxury. Instead, it is the day-to-day challenge of raising a family, a task that requires unwavering commitment and attention, that rightfully gets top priority.

I would argue that this is the way most Americans confront politics – they may be important, but they are secondary to the challenges of everyday life. We don’t have the time, or frankly, the attention span, required to be fully engaged and informed citizens. Instead, we focus our limited energies on our core concerns – is my family healthy? Is my family safe? Any free time we have is spent doing something far more interesting than reviewing public policies.

And while the proper perspective is essential when discussing politics, I firmly believe that these discussions are important. It does matter who our leaders are. It does matter who sets the local or national agenda. It does make a difference which way an issue turns. In fact, these outcomes often affect the way we live our day-to-day lives as part of a larger community.

So when I watch Sadie striving to do something new, I see not only an adorable distraction from the world we live in (check out the picture – she really is adorable), but the very reason to be engaged with that world. It is precisely because these small things are my top priority that I must also care about the larger issues we face together. And while it may be difficult to focus on anything beyond the sound of a baby’s cry – and it grows more and more difficult every day, I’m learning – we owe it to our families to do so. After all, it is their world as much as our’s that we are shaping.