Monthly Archives: February 2013

POWER TO THE PARENTS

Many of you are aware of the current battle for the future of education, the argument for school choice.  There are two sides poised to wage an epic media war for the hearts and minds of the voters.  On one side, you have unions, union interests, and quite frankly, union money outfitting the cannons of fear and marching with the cavalry of institution.  On the other side you have concerned parents and the taxpayers smart enough to care.  These citizens, wholly unfunded, and largely unorganized, are preparing to wade into the fray against seasoned veterans of successful past campaigns of misinformation, intimidation and outright deceit.

The battle lines are drawn, the standards raised, and the first volley has been loosed.  On the radio, you will hear the union fear-mongering echoing through the theater of your mind.

“A voucher system threatens public education, and limits options.  This will hurt teachers and hurt families and hurt our kids, and we’re proud to tell you.”

The analytical mind can’t help but scrutinize how exactly, in education and no other industry, competition reduces options, but there are many parents standing on the battlefield who have neither the time nor the interest to don the armor of skepticism and the shield of statistical fact.  They buy the lie.

Our education system was once the envy of the world.  We stood tall atop the mountain of greatness, but over thirty years ago, a chill wind from the mouth and mind of one James Carter sent us looking for shelter further down the mountainside.  For over thirty years now, this top down management of education, this stifling bureaucracy, has pressed us further and further down the slopes of success and into the dreary plains of mediocrity where the US trails most developed nations in literacy, math and science.  It is this system that prevents rapid adjustment to student needs, stifles the flexible development of curriculums, and prevents our great teachers from being justly rewarded.

So here we stand, parents and taxpayers alike.  The time for watered-down, apologist commentary that says all teachers are great and all our teachers are doing their best with what they are given, must end.  I don’t blame the teachers directly for Alaska’s abysmal education numbers, but the numbers are the numbers, and our system doesn’t need modest reform.  Our education system needs radical improvement.  At the recent AEDC forecast luncheon, the state of Alaska’s education system was recapped in a short video available here. The results speak for themselves.

I teach a two-day program sponsored by a local rotary club called Choices.  In it, I speak to 7th grade classes about how their grade is really the turning point in their lives where actions and performance directly determine the number of doors that are open to them in life, both in college or in a non-academic vocation.  I encourage them to take an hour or two per week to learn about the industry that supports their personal interest.  Video gamers would be served to learn programming.  Artists would be served to learn Photoshop.  In one class several years ago at Colony Middle School, I spent half of the final day arguing with the union-protected, tenured teacher who kept vocally insisting most students would be best served to drop out at 16, get their G.E.D. and enter the workforce.  After trying to respectfully disagree, I eventually disagreed in a substantially less respectful way, after which the class erupted in laughter and I was branded a hero.  Later, when I was leaving the administration offices, I mentioned his attempted torpedo of the program to the staff and was amazed by the response; “we’re just kind of waiting for him to retire.”

A system this dysfunctional does not need some little reform, it needs to be overhauled.

When the power of the purse is placed with the parents, the education system will radically improve.  It must, because now parents must make a choice, and choices must be weighed.  I submit, when given a choice, even uninvolved parents who are the bane of most talented teachers, will try to make a good choice for their kids.  Power to the parents means schools must appeal to them, must vie for their child’s interest, must demonstrate the ability to succeed, and most importantly, must listen to the feedback of their customers parents.  Monopolies are outlawed for good reason, and we’ve suffered the pains of poor options long enough.

The unions loathe the notion of accountability and mediocre and uninspiring teachers fear it but for very different reasons.  Great teachers however, embrace it.  Great teachers know not everyone is cut out to educate and inspire, and they’re correct.  Great teachers know the material is largely irrelevant.  It is their interaction and presentation of the material that engages students, as each of us with fond memories of an amazing teacher can attest.  I believe teachers deserve to be paid well when they educate well, and a good teacher understands power to the parents is a pay-raise in the works.

We must change our language to win.  Choices don’t inspire people, dreams inspire people.  I dream of an education system as varied and diverse as my options for footwear, where two computer-game-loving parents with a son who wants to spend his whole day playing Halo can enroll that boy in a school that is staffed with people who get excited about software and want to train the next generation of the world’s best coders.  A school where two hippie soul-mates can enroll their animal-loving daughter into a school designed around a fully functional ecosystem where the latest in forestry, farming, and agriculture technology are innovated at the same time they are educated.  Where two thespians who met in acting class can send their precocious kids to master the disciplines of poise, articulation, delivery and timing that will prepare them for a career on the stage.  Imagine a system where Christian parents, or Muslim parents, or Hindu parents can send their children to a school that wraps a classical education into and around the foundations of their faith.

I dream of a teaching environment that aligns teachers with the subject they are qualified and excited to teach. I believe in a system that rewards teachers a cash-bonus for each student who performs above grade level, cumulative bonuses per category.  With power to the parents, the negative consequences take care of themselves through natural market forces.  We need only concern ourselves with the duty to reward excellence, handsomely.

All this is possible in time if we are victorious, but victory lies in the language.

This must not be a war between choice and public education, that language is pure foolishness.  The public will continue to be educated, only at the behest of parents, and not political purchase. Educational unions and top-down bureaucracy are effectively dream thieves.  Through their systems go the bulk of our youth, and the results are pitiful, measured not only by the poor literacy rates and abysmal math scores we witness today, but by the loss of each affected child’s American dream.  That average student who straddled the line between his smarter peers and his lesser, whose chance to believe in himself and have the spark of imagination fanned into the flames of a bright future was instead, snuffed through the pure avarice of the NEA and the apathy of tenured teachers.

We can no longer allow the status quo to steal the futures of our middle-class children.  Do not be seduced into framing the argument between choice and public education.  Do not apologize, and stop worrying about people’s feelings.  After all, these are our kids were talking about here.

Opponents of school choice are the dream thieves, we are the parents.

Power to the parents.

 

FUN IN THE MEXICAN SUN

When traveling around the world, I find half of the experience can be found in the local cuisine, the other half in the culture. There’s nothing more ridiculous than going halfway around the world only to dine at Subway or McDonald’s or some other recognizable chain. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to limit yourself, be my guest… I just think it’s ridiculous.

Never was it more true than with the ceviche de pescado in Barra de Navidad, Mexico.

This little fishing village is quaint, quiet, polite and boasts mind-blowingly good food.

If you’ve never had ceviche (se-VEE-chay) you’re in for a treat. I was watching the man who caught my lunch as I ate my lunch while he caught someone else’s dinner. The kind of fish they use here in Barra (for ceviche) is called Sierra and they grind up the meat and let it sit in fresh lime juice until the acidity in the lime literally cooks the meat – as well as imparts a rather glorious flavor. No fishy smell, no fishy aftertaste, just fresh tomatoes, diced like pico de gallo with onions and fresh jalapenos. That’s it, a little of mamasita’s secret spices and buckle up for one tasty meal. I’ve had ceviche made from halibut in Alaska, salmon in Washington, limpia in Thailand, wahu in Guam, and tuna in Japan, but this meal sets the global bar in my opinion, and sets it rather high.

One disclaimer for a few readers who I know will be thinking ‘if you don’t like a fishy taste, then you don’t like fish’: a ‘fishy taste’ is not simply the taste of fish, it is the taste of the smell of rotten fish, when I use the word fishy. Salmon ‘should’ taste like salmon, and cod ‘should’ taste like cod, and so on… but good fish doesn’t need to smell like hockey socks in order to be good authentic fish… moving on.

The other thing that is key to a fine meal abroad is to engage the locals the way YOU would want to be engaged back home where you live. Guys, this blog is about you: American notions of feminism aren’t nearly as widespread as your resident feminist friend would have you believe. The waiter will almost always look to you to order, so try and make a great first impression. Learn a little of their language, and speak what little you know the way ‘they’ speak it, not in your American accent. If you can hear your American accent in your Spanish, try harder. The worst thing you can do is expect them to speak English and understand exactly what you want.

Picture it, you’re a waiter at the Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage, Alaska… a Japanese couple walks in and starts speaking Japanese to you. You don’t understand Japanese, so you try and tell them so, and instead of being understanding or patient, they get irritated and loud until the one person on your restaurant staff who speaks a little Japanese rushes over to help out. What a couple of assholes… right?

It astonishes me how many Americans (and Canadians) do this exact thing in Mexico, or Thailand, or Japan, or Bahrain, or wherever. Now I do speak a little Spanish, enough to crack jokes with the locals and chat it up, and I tip well, and because of it my wife and I are remembered by name, we are hugged when we return literally two years later, our favorite meal AND drinks are remembered and ordered without asking, and we get invited to parties with the locals – which is the OTHER best way to experience culture abroad: befriend your waiters, waitresses, and restauranteurs because they know where the real culture happens, and if you’re cool… they’ll invite you along.

So the next time you are in the neighborhood, learn a little Spanish, try to sound Spanish when you speak it, and if you are in Barra, order the ceviche… it’ll blow your mind.

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THE SILVERBACK SYNDROME

So often as a married man, I am exposed to the emotions of my darling wife. Women either know and disregard, or have no idea just how impactful their ups and downs can be. On one such instance, my wife called me at the office and proceeded to tell me how one of our dearest friends had decided to end their friendship over a religious disagreement. Now I recently heard on the radio, and laughed at the absurd notion that scientists needed a study to confirm this, that when women cry, there is a measurable, repeatable, and verifiable negative reaction in men. A man’s mood is depressed, his happy hormones (dopamine) have decreased production – basically everything in your life sucks whenever your wife is crying.

[hear the men of the world uttering a collective “duuuh”]

So when my wife called me with the astonishing news that one of our dearest friends no longer wanted to be our friend because she had a truly minor umbrage with my wife’s religious views, I was angry and defensive on her behalf. I’m calling this the Silverback Syndrome. You know how it feels, your wife is driving and someone rudely cuts you off… or your waiter talks down to her… (always something fairly trivial in my experience) and your hackles go up in a massively disproportionate way. You fantastize about running the guy off the road and then going back to make sure he was hurt so you could laugh and drive away – that kind of thing. Usually these angry notions never make it past the notion stage. You have them, dismiss them as crazy talk, and then move on with your day.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to police yourself when crazy talk moves on to stage two.

Back to the story… after being regaled between sobs how terrible a thing had been done by our very close friend, I was angry that my wife had to have her heart broken over something utterly trivial (or at all) and since it appeared that the bridge of our friendship had been burned, I decided to write a letter that was for all intents and purposes a giant sign reading “kiss my ass” which I then e-mailed thereby waving from our side of the canyon that now separated us as couples. Or so I understood at the time.

My reasoning: wife was devastated… friendship was over… I was offended as well because I very much liked these friends… therefore notions of defending wife’s honor made it past the crazy talk stage.

It all happens very fast… this kind of thing.

With the hopes that our newly ex-friend would realize how horrible it was to have done such a thing, I composed an e-mail designed to utterly crush any shred of self-worth in said ex-friend and sent it. This was where I passed an opportunity, the importance of which I can’t impress enough when writing angry e-mails, to click ‘discard.’ Rationally, we all know the catharsis comes from actually writing out what we want to say, but rarely do these kinds of decisions end well. As you might expect, this was no exception. You see, the ex-friend responded that they were devastated I would say such things, and that my wife had misunderstood the e-mail… and as it turns out, indeed she had. In one of those incredibly rare instances where the meaning of a paragraph can be transformed by the omission of a single word, my wife’s eyes had repeatedly missed the imperative and operative transforming word and thus began the domino effect of the Silverback Syndrome.

So here it is men: unless your wife is physically threatened, in that case I recommend guns, knives, bats or anything else you can find, beware the Silverback within you. While quite strong, and capable of much destruction, the Silverback Gorilla is not known for its particularly large brain.

Beware the Silverback. I don’t know of a single person who ever made a decision having exercised intelligence, patience, and restraint, who later regretted their decision.