Friday, April 27, 2012

Student loans

Comment to online T&G, 4/27/12. Millions of students are borrowing ever more to stay in school, and millions of unemployed workers are borrowing money to go back to school for retraining. But in this job market, many will not find the job they trained for when they finish. They're told they are investing in themselves, in their future career. But when you invest in a business, if in the end it fails you can declare bankruptcy and get a fresh start, try something else. hat's what bankruptcy laws are for. With student loans there's no way out. Congress in its wisdom made them the one kind of loan that can never be erased. dworcester1, Kat23, gk and others are right: it's a racket, and the colleges and professional schools, guidance counsellors and bankers are all in on it. The message everywhere is education is the path and loans are the way. Some are saying students should work their way through school. That was a better way, but at today's tuitions, rents and wages it doesn't work. Sometimes students make bad choices, but often enough it is because they believed what the "experts" were saying. And then, the careers they shoot for are moving targets. Industry may be crying for skilled trained widgetogists, so you borrow $20k, go back to school for a certificate or BA or MS in widgetology, and by the time you get there the market is glutted and the jobs all require a year's experience. So you borrow some more and take a year's unpaid internship, but often the job's still not there. More than half never finish college or their program or degree. Often students lack the skill in math, reading, research to actually do the work, and can't get the help they need to get past that. But their student debt's still there, unerasable! Lower interest rates will help, but this is a much bigger problem. Student debt is driving a whole generation into debt bondage and choking our economy. It is one of the many paths converging on national bankruptcy. Time to break out of our mental box.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Physics Teaching, High Stakes Testing

Comment in T&G on Clive's column criticizing high stakes testing for its effects on the quality of education:

I agree with Maclear and Fitzgm that MCAS is a big problem. It distorts the curriculum by robbing it of many of the untested subjects, the ones that can give a high school education depth and beauty for the student. But more, it distorts the subjects it tests, freezing them in place like a finished product - or commodity.

Case in point, physics teaching. Because physics has been an untested subject, physics teachers have been free to innovate and explore new ways of teaching it, and even new ways of thinking about it. Working with university teachers, they've made huge breakthroughs in understanding how students learn and understand - and in measuring their results.

Out of this have come "research based" teaching approaches, like the Modeling Method out of Arizona State, which have enabled high school students to learn things that previously required spending several years as a physics major. These approaches have spread across the country, mainly from teacher to teacher. The Modeling Method alone is being used in 10% of America's physics classrooms. Teachers and students love it, and many achieve breakthroughs in math.

It also yields no revenue stream for the publishers.

Now around the country physics is becoming a "tested subject". The tests are coming out of the old physics and physics teaching, as reflected in the textbooks. They impose a pace and sequence of topics that is inconsistent with what we've learned. And from all over the country physics teachers are writing in distress about being forced to give up research-based instruction.

Knowledge is a living growing thing, the finest creation of our species, and acquiring it should be exciting. But these high stakes tests require defining the boundaries of subjects and transforming them into commodities that can be measured, sold, even speculated on. In the process they squeeze the life out of these subjects and make them unloveable.

As we love our children, we need to come together and say no to this commerce-driven assault on our children and the people who have dedicated their lives to teaching them.

Comment on Unemployment Insurance

While the official "unemployment rate" has been falling for the past three years, since the "Great Recession" officially ended, the "Participation Rate" has actually *fallen* from about 65.7% to about 64%! If the official "unemployment rate" really measured what was going on, it should be going *up*!

Meanwhile, because of the deal Congress struck in January - and because the official "unemployment rate" is going down - Massachusetts lost one of its "tiers" of benefit extensions, and 10,000 folk are having their benefits cut off this month. Homes will be lost. Families will break up. People will get sick and die because of this heartless math game.

Another 13 weeks will probably be cut in June. In December, unless Congress passes a new law, all the Federal Extensions will end.

At the beginning of the Great Depression (the last one that is, in the 1930's) there was no welfare, no unemployment insurance, no food stamps or food pantries. Millions took to the streets and demonstrated demanding jobs or income. The rich and powerful were terrified, and time after time police attacked peaceful demonstrations. But they helped win the New Deal jobs programs, Unemployment Insurance, Social Security and welfare. No one "gave" those to us!

The next generation won Medicaid, Medicare and Food Stamps.

Now these things that our grandparents and great grandparents won in struggle are being taken away, and we are being driven back to the "good old days" when you worked for what you could get or starved. It's a pit, with no bottom in sight until we learn how to organize and push back.

That's why some of us are organizing the Worcester Unemployment Action Group. We will have weekly legal clinics for the unemployed. We're going to Framingham on Friday to testify at the Job Creation hearings. By December we need to be a voice that can't be ignored, demanding that Congress keep the Unemployment Extensions and get serious about job creation!

Venezuela, democracy and free elections.

"Jose de Cordoba’s February 14 Wall Street Journal article on Venezuela’s general election ... presents a class conscious analysis to declare that the upcoming election will be free but unfair, unfair because the electoral advantages normally enjoyed by the top one percent are, this time, all on the side of the bottom 99 percent. ...


"... Cordoba, as far as I know, has never complained about the owners of capital enjoying parallel advantages in other elections, so why complain about the other side enjoying the same advantages now?"

Beautifully put.

The pivotal event in Venezuela was arguably the failure of the coup following the 2002 election and the ruling class' loss of control of the armed forces. This fundamental rupture of their system of control is something the imperialists will never forgive or forget. And like it or not it is the foundation of Venezuela's popular democracy, the protective screen behind which it has been able to grow and flourish.

Similarly, while the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774 was an utterly non-violent event, resembling nothing so much as the Occupy movement, support for it by the armed forces in the countryside, the militias, made the success of that non-violent revolution possible, protecting it from being snuffed out in its cradle by the local gentry and the military governor General Gage and guaranteeing that the British attempt to retake their lost colony by force the following year would be met with an effective and organized defense. It was the crucial screen behind which democratic institutions could advance from opposition to organizing and exercising state power. [See The First American Revolution, before Lexington and Concord, by Ray Raphael.]

Some of the forces around the Oathkeepers movement are scary, and I can smell the taint of the plans for a right-wing putsch against our constitutional government. Yet it also channels a vitally important impulse, a challenge from within the ranks of the uniformed and arms-bearing services to the right of their commanders to act against the people. That impulse is a two-edged sword, and no one can confidently predict which way it will cut in a crisis. If it cuts one way, we may well face a long dark night of fascism possibly ending in extinction; the other way, and democratic impulses like Occupy could find the space to blossom into a revolutionary transformation that will redeem our country and perhaps our species.

Is there a dedicated Oathkeepers watcher in the house?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Worcester must think bigger

The airport is a gem, and could help revive Worcester as a city with a viable economic life of its own. The airport would make Worcester a prime location from which companies with national or international markets, connections or branches could do business. Plus a lot of Worcester travel dollars that end up in Rhode Island or New Hampshire could be kept here.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that what is stopping the Airport is lack of a good road. Yes, folks from Worcester will find their way to it, but most folks from the larger market, Worcester County, have no interest in driving Worcester's streets if they can help it. Moreover building the road could generate a lot of jobs.

Worcester failed to agree on an airport highway, and that was a political failure. The top-down model that worked so well in the 50's and 60's when we built the Interstate Highway system doesn't work anymore. What would be needed is a genuinely open and participatory model where the interests of the entire City and the interests of the folks whose homes or neighborhoods might be displaced by the highway can be worked out.

If we are willing to think big - and given this economy, with its high unemployment rates and ridiculously low interest rates, willing to think big about big projects that could put a lot of people to work is a good idea - what Worcester really needs to become a modern city is a belt highway. Looping around the city, connecting with the Pike in Shrewsbury and Grafton, passing near the Airport. People from downtown Worcester would still use Chandler St. or Main St. but the belt highway would open it to the rest of the County, and open up development opportunities for modern industrial, information tech and other companies the way Route 128 and I495 did.

Then if we still couldn't get a commercial carrier, we should start a municipal air line with no-frills service to major Eastern cities to jump-start it.

Worcester needs to think bigger!