Friday, November 07, 2008

Presidential Election 2008

I would like to first offer my congratulations to the winners in what was the longest political campaign in recent American history---20 months. It was also the most expensive, and I dare say, one the most divisive campaigns I can recall in my 30plus years in politics. But, with that being said, we can also say we witnessed and participated in perhaps the most historical election in our nation’s history. On the Republican side, we saw their first ever woman candidate for Vice President, and what a firebrand she turned out to be! On the Democrat side, we witnessed America’s first bi-racial candidate, Barack Obama, beat Hillary Clinton, and go on to win the Presidency of the United States. Regardless of whose side you were, it has to do an American proud to the record number of voters (especially new voters) comes out in droves.

Since I know some of the “movers and shakers” in both parties are regular readers of AO, I have a few words I’d like to say to them about the election. First, to the Democrats, I’d like to say great job folks. A few years ago, you were on the ropes. There was even talk as to whether the Democrats would survive as a political party, but you buried your differences and came together. You should be especially proud of yourselves by being the party to nominate and then elect our first bi-racial candidate to the Presidency. Forty years ago (and I remember this well), we witnessed the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. We saw live on TV the police riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Now you have a majority in the House and Senate; you control 29 of the governorships; you’ve regained a solid voter majority; and you have the big prize of all, the White House. Who would have thought we’d come so far in a single generation?

Now, you need to put past squabbles behind you. This nation needs a united front dedicated to solving some huge problems. We need to get Americans back to work fast, and that means fixing the economy without bailing out those who caused the problems. We need bring about world stability without being the world’s policeman. We need to protect our individual rights without putting Americans at risk. We need to find a balance between protecting the environment and development. We need a committed and serious effort to become both energy independent without harming natural habitats. We still need to secure our borders, remove illegal aliens, and make sure those who come to this great country legally speak English. We have a healthcare system close to being on lifesupport and Social Security is going belly up. Lastly, remember that the American People put you in power and we can remove just as quickly with or without your special interest buddies. So, are you up to the task?

Now a few comments to my Republicans friends. Frankly, you all blew it, so stop blaming Sarah Palin. If it wasn’t for her, you would have probably gotten your butts kicked even worse. You did one of the worse things a person in office could ever do in my book---you failed to question. You became arrogant. You stopped thinking about the American People and supported those who were most least represential of traditional American values. You supported a war that wasn’t necessary. You backed a bail out of the very crooks that, because of their greed, caused the economic meltdown in the first place. You failed to secure our borders. You failed to take aggressive action about illegal immigration. You failed to enact programs to improve our schools. You failed to deal with gas and oil gouging of the public by your oil lobbyist buddies (guess it just didn’t affect you that much huh?). You presided over the largest increase in government size since the New Deal. We saw more business failure during your tenure than since the Great Depression. Need I go on? In short, you failed because you forgot what it meant to be Republicans.

On the up side, you have four years to get your act together, and that is going to mean a lot of soul searching, housecleaning, and serious kissing up with the American Public. It’s also going to mean updating your message to issues that actually matter to voters across party lines (see my comments to the Democrats). It may mean saying goodbye to some old comrades like those on the extreme far Social Right. Americans just aren’t there anymore folks. Buy a clue, you've got the money. You need to expand your base. Look at the Democratic message; they talked about the future while you talked about the past. Get over it. Reagan is gone. It’s time to move on. If you don’t, you’ll stop making history and become history.

Election Predictions

I’ve never thought I was particularly good at predictions, but with an election like this, who could resist? So, how did I do? Well, let’s take a look at my predictions from the October 5th edition and the actual results.

I predicted Barack Obama would win with 55% of the vote. Obama actually received 51% of the vote. I said Senator Mitch McConnell would beat Bruce Lunsford with 51% of the vote. The Republican senator got 53% of the vote (there’s just something about Lunsford that voters don’t like). I simply couldn’t see where former Republican Congresswomen would beat John Yarmuth. I predicted John would win with at least 60% of vote. Well, he got 59%. Anne’s days in Kentucky politics looks to be over.

In local Kentucky races, I leaned toward Shaughnessy over Helerigner in the 19th State Senate, and Shaughnessy won. In the 35th State Senate, I predicted Denise Angel would beat John Albers. Denny easily won that one. Here’s where I blew it. In the 37th State Senate, I predicted a close race between incumbent Democrat Perry Clark and Republican Doug Hawkins. Perry won with a convincing 57%. In the State House races, I had Bob DeWeese, Kevin Bratcher, Ron Crimm, and Mary Lou Marzian winning. Well, I’m four for four with each easily winning.

In the Judicial races, which turned out to be unusually nasty, I predicted Kemper over Cunningham for the 30th Circuit Court, 4th Division. Here, Cunningham got the nod. I had Smith over Vandertoll in the 39th Circuit Court, 2nd Division, and I was right. In the 30th Circuit Court, 8th Division, I said Bowles would win over his three opponents, and indeed he did. Lastly, I predicted Holton over newbie King in the 30th Circuit Court, 16th Division. This should have been a “no brainer”, and it turned out to be just that. In what has to be a boneheaded move, voters elected the novice King over super lawyer Holton. I don’t think we’ve heard the last about the results of this race. Lastly, we come to the Louisville Metro Council races. Tandy, King, Blackwell, Downard, Blackwell won as predicted. However, I missed on two others. Democrat Brent Ackerson beat out Honaker, and what has to be the upset of the evening, Democrat Bob Henderson won with 36% over Bob Heuglin with 34%. Two independent candidates made up the difference. I guess Henderson owes those two a serious favor!

So, all in all, looks like I might have a knack for this prediction stuff after all!

As a part time college professor, I’ve been a big proponent of quality education for decades. Quality education leads to quality employees and that attracts well paying jobs. That, in turn, increases the local tax base which funds better roads, sewers, parks, along with more police officers, firefighters, EMS, and improves the overall quality of life in the community. Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap, is a tour de force for anyone interested in America’s school system. We are fast becoming a nation of underachievers in a society which rewards mediocrity. We are graduating students without a basic understanding math, English, science, or history. We’ve all but cut out art and music from their curriculum. But whatever you do, don’t interfere with their sports programs! Mr. Wagner delves into why our children are failing behind the rest of the world and what we can do about it before it’s too late. The dumbing down of our children has to stop now. I urge everyone interested in our school system to read Mr. Wagner’s book now!

Education Accountability Version 2.0: A Letter to the Next President
By Tony Wagner,
Author of The Global Achievement Gap

Dear Mr. President:

Your education platform was filled with noble generalities. I suppose you thought you couldn't get more specific because the No Child Left Behind Law is increasingly unpopular and unworkable, and there is no agreement about how to fix it. It is an issue that doesn't lend itself to sound bites. To fix NCLB, you must first understand the skills that matter most in the 21st century and the ways in which the NCLB law is actually getting in the way of more meaningful accountability. And then you must invest in accountability "version 2.0."

Problem: Too few students are graduating from high school. The ones who do lack the essential skills they need for college, careers, and citizenship.

Nearly one third of our students do not graduate from high school. This problem is not more widely known because states are not held accountable for improving their graduation rates. Additionally, states use different formulas for calculating their districts' high school graduation rates, and almost all of them significantly overstate the numbers of students who graduate. Florida, for example, claims a seventy percent graduation rate, but the reality is closer to fifty-five percent.

The majority of the students who do graduate from our nation's public high schools are unprepared for college and the workplace. In the 21st century, the skills needed for careers, college, and citizenship have converged: Critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, and effective communication have become far more important than mere memorization and factual recall. However, at the high school level, states continue to test low level content knowledge and factual recall through multiple choice tests, and a passing score in even the most "rigorous" of these tests, such as the Massachusetts MCAS test, does not mean students are career and college-ready. Forty percent of the students who pass MCAS need remediation in college. Nationally, one out of every two students who starts college never completes a degree, and the main reason for this poor completion rate is students' lack of college-level skills, not lack of subject content knowledge. Similarity, employers complain that most new employees lack proficiency in the "new basic" skills outlined above.

Solution: The Department of Education should hold schools and districts accountable for their graduation rates and assess the skills that matter most.

The Department of Education should require all school districts and states in the U.S. to report their high school graduation rates according to a common formula. To ensure that schools teach the skills that matter most, the Department of Education should "audit" school districts' performance by testing representative sample populations of students with assessments that measure the most important skills. For example, the College and Work Readiness Assessment measures high school students' analytic reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing skills and compares them to the scores of freshmen in 250 colleges. ( Scores from tests like these will tell us whether our country is making progress in increasing the percentages of students who leave high school "college and work ready." Scores of subgroups of students would be reported, as they are under the current law, to ensure that districts teach all students new skills.

To create greater accountability, the Department of Education should issue and widely publicize an annual "report card" for every school district in the country. This short document would simply report the percent of students who graduate and the percent who graduate college-ready by subgroup. Transparency is a far more powerful way to create greater accountability than are the largely meaningless threats in the current law. States would then have the responsibility to develop strategies for helping their under-performing districts to improve.

Problem: The accountability measurements for Adequate Yearly Progress incents states and districts to create a boring, dumbed-down, test prep curriculum, and there is no common standard for "proficient."

One major problem with the NCLB law is the unrealistic expectation that every school will improve the number of students who score "proficient" by a certain percent every year until 100 percent of the students in the nation are proficient by 2014. This expectation leads to two widespread practices: 1) Many states, like Mississippi and Wisconsin, create easy tests where the standard of "proficiency" is such a low bar that most students can pass; 2) To ensure that more students pass state tests, districts require teachers to teach the test content and give frequent practice tests, leaving no time for more interesting or enriching learning opportunities. Increasingly in this country, what gets tested is all that gets taught.

The second major problem with the law is that it allows the standard of "proficiency" to be set by each state. So there are, in fact, fifty different standards of proficiency in this country. For example, students in Mississippi, who have traditionally been among the least literate in this country, are more "proficient" in reading than students in Minnesota, according to the two states' test scores. Because the states' standards vary so widely, their test scores tell us absolutely nothing about what students really know and can do.

Solution: Create a national high school writing test, benchmark districts' and states' yearly progress to a common international standard, and make the unit of accountability the district, rather than individual students.

Lack of writing skills is the number one complaint of both employers and college teachers. However, many states are no longer testing writing because they are not required to, and writing tests are expensive and time-consuming to score. To the extent that some states, like Massachusetts, test students' writing, it is by requiring high school students merely to write a five paragraph essay. The solution is for the federal government to administer a two hour writing exam to demographic sample populations of eleventh graders in all states, as is done in many European countries. The essay question for the writing exam would be based on a major event or document in American History. For example: "Discuss the causes of the civil war and the ways in which these causes continue to influence current events in this country;" Or, "Which of the first ten amendments (which would be reproduced on the test) do you think is most important for a strong democracy and why."

The second solution to the lack of common standards is to use the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results as the benchmark for progress in states' education improvement efforts. American students are significantly outperformed by students in most other industrial nations, in part because the PISA tests require very little recall of information and much more application of knowledge to new problems. These are the skills that matter most in the real world, but they are not ones our students learn in their multiple choice world. The incentive for states to improve their education outcomes is economic. States and school communities that have very low PISA scores, which would be widely publicized by the Department of Education, will not attract or keep businesses that demand all employees have 21st century skills.

Finally, in order for states to be able to afford much higher quality tests, like the CWRA and PISA, they should no longer be required to test every student every year. State and district accountability can achieved by testing sample populations of students every year -- a kind of educational audit. To do well on such tests, districts and schools would need to create local assessments for every student that were aligned with the new state and national tests. Each teacher would be regularly assessing all of his or her students to ensure that students who might be among those randomly chosen for the state and national tests would be well-prepared.

Accountability 2.0 would focus schools and districts on preparing students for meaningful assessments which measure the skills that matter most in the 21st century. To prepare for these new tests, all students would be taught how to write, reason, analyze, pose thoughtful questions and solve problems. In short, they would learn the skills they need for college, careers, and citizenship, and they would be engaged in challenging and interesting work in their classes. Doing anything less that a version 2.0 of our accountability system puts our students' and our country's future at stake.

©2008 Tony Wagner

Author Bio
Tony Wagner is the co director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach The New Survival Skills Our Kids Need -- And What We Can Do About It, has just been published by Basic Books. Tony can be reached through his website:

Poll Results

Wow! We had an astonishing number of votes on our poll asking if you were going to vote. Thanks to each one of you for taking time to vote! The results were 48% saying they were voting Democrat, with 47% going Republican. The rest were either no voting or voting third party.

Our next poll is about you, the reader. In order to keep up with your interests, we here at AO would like to know how you lean politically and socially. Are you conservative? Perhaps you lean to the Right? Liberal or leaning to Left? Maybe you’re a moderate or centrist. We’d like to know so we can add article which would interest you, our most valuable asset. Thanks again everyone for reading Another Opinion!

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