Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sanity : Hard Times, not End Times.

Every once in a while, when I get too caught up in the frenzy of the American political circus and the extreme rhetoric, I realize that I need someone like Steven Colbert or Jon Stewart to step in and introduce some perspective that will expose the ridicule and will help laugh it all off. They (and their great writers) are like anti-depressant medicine to me.

Unfortunately, I think that's what has been missing in France, especially given the recent insanity of both the Sarkozy government and the French left, and the Guignols des Infos - the satirical latex puppet show - does not even come close.

Strangely enough, from what I have seen, the best thing about their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was not the poking fun but rather Jon Stewart's more serious closing remarks. In any case, it'll be interesting to read and watch the comments in the blogosphere or in the media - can't wait to hear what Beck or O'Reilly will have to say. (Betcha they will attack the rally on the ground of its controversial guests like Yusuf Islam - i.e. Cat Stevens... )

Here are my favorite parts:

"We live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
If we amplify everything we hear nothing.
We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!
Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it--impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.
And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together."

See the video here followed by the full transcript:

Here's the full transcript :

“I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.

But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate--just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe not more. The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker--and perhaps eczema.

And yet, with that being said, I feel good—strangely, calmly good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin and one eyeball.

So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!

The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundations that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it--impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.

Look on the screen. This is where we are. This is who we are. (points to the Jumbotron screen which show traffic merging into a tunnel). These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by conscession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.

If you want to know why I’m here and want I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.

Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you."

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Special Interests are Killing American Democracy.

Populism may be a threat to democratic systems both in France and in the U.S. but I wonder if the United-States is not under the threat of an even bigger more insidious even greater problem to the American democratic system money spent in political campaign - a problem that has clearly worsened in this campaign for the midterms elections.
Not only is there more money than ever spent by special interest groups on the political campaign (see NBC News or Wash Post), but the identity of the donors can actually remains disclosed as 'nonprofit corporation' -501 (c)4- whose primary purpose is not political can remain anonymous. A first since Watergate!
(The DISCLOSE Act should have been passed by this Congress but of course, it was blocked by Republicans in the Senate, Huffington, The Hill)

Of course, special interests are nothing new in American politics, but these are the first elections since the Supreme Court decided (in Citizens United Vs. FEC) to remove most of the legal limits to special interest spending on political ads in the name of "free speech" in the 1st Amendment, supporting the (crooked) view that corporations are legal persons.
The result is that these is not only that this is the most expensive midterm election in history, but the Democrats are outspent by the Republicans by 3 to 1, according to FEC records (NYTimes) and possibly by 5 to 1, if we are to believe Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (CSMonitor).
In any case, the visible effect is more negative ads with misinformation, distortions and falsehoods. In the front-line is ads funded by the U.S. Chamber and Karl Rove's groups (Wash Post, The Hill).
(Even Forbes Magazine acknowledges that "The Billionaires are Bankrolling the Right".)

Of course, the Democrats may have lose the elections regardless of those ads, and maybe - just maybe - there will be a backlash and people will actually backlash and put public pressure but right now this is not only worrisome, it is also morally wrong and a real threat to democracy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

French Pension Strikes in U.S. Media.

It is always interesting to see how the media from other countries treat your domestic news.

The other night Brian Williams mentioned the strikes and protests in France and said "the issue here, a plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62".
Then the reporter in France showed youth setting up blockades, clashing with riot police and burning cars, and then strikers and protesters.

A note of clarity for our American readers: Whatever one might think of the reform, it is not as simple as Brian Williams might lead you to think.
Yes, retirement age will raise from 60 to 62, but so will the years of social security contributions (called "cotisations") from 40.5 years to 41.5 years (and eventually at 42), and the pension age at which you can have full benefit (which is 50% of your average wages in the private sector, and 75% in the public sector) will go from 65 to 67; otherwise, there will be deductions (called "décotes").

In other words, if you start working late (say at about 25), you won't be able to retire with your full pension before 67.This will also be the case in other countries such as Germany which has a similar system, but the change will be more gradual and it is only in 2029 that the Germans will have to be 67 for full benefit (70% of the average net income).

This may not seem like a big deal to Americans, (you can probably detect Brian William's smirk) but it is in France simply because it is a major change fairly quickly. It is true that the French have been pampered and maybe even spoiled, but it is always harder to go from good to worse, even if worse is better than in many other countries.

Now another quick note on the youth violence. Yes, there is some violence but it is limited to a few areas and has only happened in the last few days. It may look very impressive but it is also part of the French myth about the Revolution and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, the French have a very romantic view of anything resembling a revolution, and my theory is that actually love re-enacting it every so often. It gives them a sense of empowerment.

That being said, it shows a typically French confusion between la rue (the street) and le Peuple (the people), as

NOTE: Last night, the NBC Evening News chose once again to show only the violence of the youth. I suppose the pictures are impressive enough but it is unfortunate that they do not underline that this is only a partial (and somewhat biased) view of what is going.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Over-confidence Vs. Low Self Esteem.

Any French parent or educator will be struck by how Americans praise and encourage their kids, for even the smallest little thing they can do. In fact, it seems the education is all about building self-confidence and most Americans will probably agree that the more a kid will believe in himself or herself, the more he or she will achieve: "To succeed, you must believe in yourself," is a real credo in America.

As a result American pupils and students show very high self-confidence by the time the reach high school, but unfortunately, this does not necessarily translate into better achievements, if we look at international results at least. (see here for instance).
In fact, a 2006 study seems to indicate that "some of the highest-confidence eighth-graders were some of the worst performers":
the Brookings Institution is reporting today that countries such as the United States that embrace self-esteem, joy and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that don't promote all that self-regard. (WP)
And another report suggests a similar pattern in in reading and that's mostly because for some students self-confidence has become over-confidence.

If the French may be struck by how the Americans praise their kids, it is because it is literally a foreign concept to them. In fact, in many ways the French squelch their kids' self-worth.
In a recent book, called On achève bien les écoliers? (They Shoot Schoolchildren, Don't They?) a British teacher at one of the leading universities in Paris has an interesting perspective that all the French should reflect on:
"Why is France the only country in the world that discourages children because of what they cannot do, rather than encouraging them to do what they can?" he writes. "I believe France is missing a key element of what's wrong with the school system, an element that is immediately apparent to any foreigner who comes into contact with it: the harshness of the classroom culture.
"It's a culture you can sum up as T'es nul (You're worthless). You hear these words all the time in France." The Guardian.
This comes from the French view that childhood is "not an age of innocence but an age of ignorance, and so children must be set straight and corrected" (Nardau). As Raymonde Caroll put it in her great book on France and US cultural differences, Americans tend to "express their surprise at how French childern can remain quiet (sage) for hours. Even the expression être sage, or rester sage is litarally untranslatable into English - the expression well-behaved does not work. "For an American," she continues, "a child who remains quiet for a long period of times is either sick or, in a sense, oppressed by his parents who restrain his movements, his space his words and his freedom".

This view may now become a bit outdated and literally passé, and most teachers will tell you that the authority of the teacher has been largely undermined and that students today are anything but quiet, but the toughness of the French system has remained, and it is often the students themselves who claim "Je suis nul", ("I am worthless")
In fact, the French pupils are among the most anxious ones in the world, and France ranks 22nd (out of 25 countries) in quality of life in school by the OECD. (France Info and here too).

So have the French at least better results?
Well, yes, compared to the Americans but they are still below OECD average. And yes, France can boast the best mathematicians in the world - it is only 2nd in the world after the United-States in the number of Fields medal - the Noble Prize for Mathematics - rewarded since 1950 - a good result for a much smaller country, BUT that's mostly because maths is the king subject in French schools and because of its rather elitist system of education and also, as a result, its excellent Grandes Ecoles (i.e. French Ivy League schools).

Another outcome is that France has the 5th highest gap between low and high achievers, a cruel irony in the country whose motto is "liberté, égalité, fraternité".
According to the OECED,
This inequality may help explain the low rates of French children reporting liking school. Only around 1 in 5 French children report liking school, 6% below the OECD average.
Worse still, it is in the lowest social classes that the French are the most anxious about schools - about 1/3 of them are sick to their stomach. It seems a high price to pay for mediocre achievement that only benefit the elite.


How ironic that France and the U.S. should on two different ends of the spectrum but as always, extremes mean dysfunction and so in this very instances, as in many others, the Americans and the French should really start learning from each other.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Corporate America and Education.

Education is definitely a hot topic these days in the United-States as it is in France. Recently for instance, NBC devoted an entire week of programs to what it called "Education Nation", and there has been lots of talk about "Waiting for 'Superman' ", a documentary critical of the school system.

Yet I am dumbfounded by the shallowness of the talks and the lack of actual debate and how the so-called 'discussion' has become what seems to be an idealogical war waged by corporation America.

In fact, the 'debate' seems to be run by CEOs such as Bill Gates (here), Rupert Murdoch (in his own newspaper) or Mark Zuckerberg (on The Oprah Show) who are given tons of interviews and are treated by journalists and anchorpeople as if they were experts in education.
Why? Simply because they have succeeded in making their own business and subsequently in becoming super wealthy, as if that made you an expert in education. It makes you wonder....
And guess what, they all have in common one thing: they all push business-based school reforms, such as performance pay for teachers.

The Gates initiative for instance has a program called Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching means to evaluate teachers in all grades and subjects based on student test gains:
"Every profession has to have some form of measurement," Bill Gates said in a late June interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. "Tuning that, making sure it's fair, getting the teachers so they're enthused about it" are the keys. (MSNBC)
As for Rupert Murdoch the solution to fix the problem is very simple: give parents more choice, and for that you just need to make the labels clear as for products in the supermarket:
For choices to mean anything, however, parents also need transparency so they can make real comparisons.
The Los Angeles Times just gave us an excellent example of this kind of transparency when it published a database of about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers ranked by their effectiveness in raising student test scores. If you are a mom with a son or daughter in one of these classrooms, you know this information is vital. Unfortunately, it's the kind of information that seldom sees the light of day.
We all know that good schools begin with good teachers. We also know there are many heroic teachers. Unfortunately, our system is set up to protect bad teachers rather than reward good teachers.(WSJ)
Whenever you read "there are heroic teachers" you can be sure the next sentence will bash them.

And now, you have all the hype about "Waiting for Superman" (with a very dramatic trailer) which made the opening of NBC Education Week and has become one of the most successful documentaries:
"Can One Little Movie Save America's Schools?" asked the cover of New York magazine. On September 20 The Oprah Winfrey Show featured the film's director, Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth. Tom Friedman of the New York Times devoted a column to praising the film. Time published an education issue coinciding with the documentary's release and is planning a conference built in part around the school reform strategies the film endorses. NBC, too, will host an education reform conference in late September; Waiting for Superman will be screened and debated there, and many of the reformers involved in its production will be there. Katie Couric of CBS Evening News has promised a series of segments based on the movie.
(The Nation)
From what I have read, the movie is not only critical of the US school system, it also promotes charter schools (here and here) while blaming teachers unions and so it is no surprise that Bill Gates, who appears in it should promote the movie.

For our European readers who might not know charter schools are special schools which have been given a charter with increased autonomy as well as greater accountability in return. In principle, if they don't achieve educational outcomes within a certain period (usually three to five years) they may have their charters revoked by the local school board, the state education agency, or the university which sponsors them. One last important note, whenever there are too many students to enroll, admission is then usually allocated by a lottery system - a lottery that appears in "Waiting for Superman".

But the results of charter schools are mixed at best: nearly half of charter schools nationwide get no better results than local public schools, and 37 percent get worse results. (read 2009 report here). The problem with the movie - as in many others - is that it follows the fate of five kids and universalizes their experience.

Yes there are problems in the American school system
- for one, it is very costly: the United-states spends 7.% of its GDP (while the OECD countries as a whole spend 6.1% on average (France spends 5.9%) (OECD)
- and second, the results may be very disappointing, especially in maths and science: :
On the mathematics literacy scale, U.S. students scored lower than the OECD average. 31 countries (23 OECD and 8 non-OECD) scored higher on average than USA in mathematics literacy in 2006. Only 4 countries had average lower scores than USA.(source here)
But the question may not about how much is spent but rather how it is spent, and in this respect, the teachers are not what drive up spending:
According to the OECD:
In the United States, salary cost as a percentage of GDP per capita is well below the OECD average [the United States ranks 20th for primary, 24th for lower secondary, and 25th for upper secondary], despite the high overall spending.
The salary cost per student is 6.5% in the U.S., way below the OECD average of 11.4% (it is 11.8% in France).
While other factors can influence these differences (such as salary level, teaching time, and class size), in the United-States, this is mainly because the nation spends an above-average share of its educational spending in primary and secondary education on capital investments as well as compensation of non-teaching staff. (OECD)
Besides, the United-States has expectations of its schools that many countries do not, such as sports program or modern technology that drive up costs.

So as Mr Gates or Mr Murdoch claim, yes, teachers are what makes the difference, but maybe things would be different if teachers were better paid in the first place. The funny thing is that they all look up to Finland which has the best results but they never look at the system there, either because of ignorance or because it does not match their ideological/political agenda.

In Finland:
The system is built on a sense of trust and confidence in teachers. Essentially, Finnish children learn well because they’re taught well. All teachers are required to have a masters degree; most will spend a minimum of five-and-a-half years acquiring expert knowledge and learning how to teach it.
Securing a place in teacher training is much coveted even though salaries are at average levels across the OECD. Less than 10 per cent of those who apply will be successful. Finnish academics routinely refer to their teaching force as the crème de la crème (Irish Times).
It must be also noticed that Finland does not evaluate teachers at all even if Finland's students come out right at the top of international student assessments. (here)

One of the problems of the education in the United-States is a problem of American society at large - the lack of trust and respect for teachers and the academic world in general. This is a problem that is never addressed and that has gotten much worse in the last 10 years.
Unfortunately, the free-market anti-government view has made teachers the scapegoat for everything going wrong in American schools. The teaching profession is despised, and it makes it really hard to have the best and brightest to want to teach. Not only do teachers have to face the problems of unruly students, not only do they have to compete with video-games and the Internet, but they are also looked down upon by the rest of society, especially by the business world (This is no surprise since corporate America tends to value a profession by how much money is made in it).
And so now teachers have to suffer another ordeal and be shamed in public because their students don't pass a test, and soon enough their own living conditions may very well depend on the success of their students.

Not only has corporate America nothing to teach us about schools but it poisons the minds of millions of Americans by giving a false quick fix that is based on ignorance and ideology. It is one thing for philanthropists to help or found private schools, it is another for them to mingle with public schools and government decisions.

Learning is complex and so is teacher evaluation, and it is about time to have a real debate based on facts and experience, not on ideology.