Confused by Oregon’s ballot initiatives? Here’s help.

Confused by Oregon’s ballot initiatives? Here’s help.

Are you confused by the Oregon ballot initiatives?  Watching the slanted TV ads on this year’s ballot measures, doesn’t really help one to understand the issues.  Last evening at a dinner party I was asked about these confusing Oregon ballot initiatives.  Having researched them, I was able to offer unbiased help in understanding what these ballot initiatives mean and what they’ll do.  People found that helpful, so I’m going to repeat the information here.  I’m not going to tell you how to vote necessarily, but you’ll know how to decide.

Measure No. 102

This measure allows local bonds for financing “affordable housing” with nongovernmental companies. This would allow governments to borrow money (issue bonds), that we taxpayers will have to pay back, to build “public housing projects” for poor people.  The government gets to decide what is “affordable housing” but it almost never costs less to build than privately built apartments.  Usually, the rents are subsidized in some way, like most “public housing projects.”  I think we’d still have to vote on the individual bond issues, but currently it’s not something local governments in Oregon are allowed to do at all.

Yes. If you like the idea of local governments being able to borrow money (though bond issues) to pay for developing and building “public housing” for qualified people then vote “yes” on this measure.

No.  If you think that the government ought NOT to be given taxpayer financed loans to subsidize the development of “public housing” that only certain people can qualify to live in, then vote “no” on this measure.

Measure No. 103

This measure amends the Oregon constitution to prohibit taxes or fees on transactions for “groceries.”  This is NOT just about us, as retail customers, not having to pay sales tax on groceries.  After all, Oregon doesn’t have any sales tax and we certainly are not going to get one on groceries any time soon, if our politicians want to get re-elected. 

Here’s the fine print.  It is talking about banning taxes “upon the sale or distribution of groceries or for the privilege of selling or distributing groceries.”  So that appears to exempt from any kind of taxes, every business involved in selling or distributing groceries.  That’s a lot of businesses and includes the income taxes that the rest of us have to pay!

Yes.  If you think every company in the business of selling or distributing groceries ought to be exempt from all Oregon taxes, then vote “yes” on this measure.

No.  If you think this exemption is a weird thing to put into our constitution, then vote “no” on this measure.

Measure No. 104

This measure expands the existing requirement that says the Oregon legislature can’t raise or create new taxes unless they have a 3/5 (60%) majority.  Currently a new tax or a tax increase requires this 60% majority.  But the legislature can get rid of credits, exemptions, or deductions (which has the effect of raising someone’s taxes) with a bare 50% majority.  The legislature can also add or increase fees of any kind with a bare majority.

Yes.  If you think collecting more money from Oregon taxpayers, in any form, should be hard and require 60% majority, then vote “yes” on this measure.

No.  If you want to allow a bare majority in the legislature to be able to impose new fees or take away credits, deductions and exemptions, then vote “no” on this measure.

Measure No. 105

This measure would repeal an existing law in Oregon.  That law currently prohibits local police and law enforcement from being asked to do the work of looking for and arresting people who are not legal immigrants.  That law was put in place so that people without proper documentation to be in the U.S. can interact with the police without fear of being deported.  With this law in place, illegal immigrants don’t have to be afraid to report a crime or be a witness about a crime–because the police aren’t required to turn them in to Immigration.

Yes.  If you think that getting local law enforcement’s help in finding and deporting illegal immigrants is more important than getting the cooperation of illegal immigrants to fight other kinds of crime, then vote “yes” on this measure.

No. If you think that everyone living in Oregon, legal or not, should unafraid of talking with the police to combat other kinds of crime, then vote “no” on this measure.

Measure No. 106

This measure would prohibit spending any money controlled by the government of Oregon from being spent on abortions, except when “medically necessary.”  Currently there are no restrictions on using public money to pay for abortions in Oregon.

Yes.  If you think that abortions are a terrible crime and you don’t want your taxpayer money to be paying for abortions, except when medically necessary, then vote “yes” on this measure.

No.  If you think that public funding of abortions, for women who can’t afford them, is not a bad idea, then vote “no” on this measure.

I tried hard to keep my opinions out of these explanations, but after re-reading them, I think they may have crept in anyway. (Ya think?)  Even if you disagree with my point of view, I think you still know which way to vote.



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Fixing the homeless crisis: principles to consider

Fixing the homeless crisis: principles to consider

Here in Portland, Oregon we have a lot of people living on the streets in tents and other forms of make-shift shelters.  We say we have a homeless crisis.  Between panhandlers and crazy-ranting people, downtown Portland can be pretty unpleasant and even scary to walk in around  these days.  The number people living on the streets in downtown Portland is beginning to hurt the businesses there.   Neighbors near the Springwater Corridor (a publicly owned biking/hiking that goes all over Portland) are overwhelmed by the numbers of homeless that set up camp along the corridor.  We are calling that a “homeless crisis” and everyone thinks we ought to do something.

We are doing “something” about the homeless crisis.

But in fact a lot is being done.  The city of Portland spent $26 million dollars on “homeless services” last year.  The mayor, Ted Wheeler questions whether the city can afford to keep up that level when there are other priorities.   Those of us who drive on the pot-holed Portland streets have an idea of what city priorities are being elbowed aside in the efforts to help the homeless.

But that isn’t the full extent of our local largesse.  The city moneys flow through the “Joint Office of Homeless Service” (city and county) that oversaw the spending of about $48 million dollars on helping the homeless last year.  Home Forward, one of the organizations involved in helping the homeless (formerly the Portland Housing Authority) in our community has a total annual budget of more than $144 million.  Here’s the issue.  The more services provided, the more homeless there seems to be.  Before the Joint Office was created in 2016, there were 11,000 homeless people receiving services.  In 2017 about 29,000 people were receiving help from these organizations. This info and the picture above were drawn from an article in the Portland Tribune:

If you are doing something to solve a problem and your remedy causes the problem to increase, it is time to rethink your strategy.  I am reminded of a middle school teacher who gave out detentions when students misbehaved in his class. Often as not, they would finish up the hour of detention by shooting hoops, as a way for him to develop a better relationship with those troublesome students.  However, he noticed that rather than decreasing problems in his classroom, they were increasing and he was getting more and more students in detention.  He wisely realized that the students were considering his “detention” a reward.  That’s why misbehavior was increasing.  So he turned it around.  He kept students after school with him when they behaved well, as a reward for their cooperative behavior.  That turned things around in a hurry.

So if we are spending so many millions of dollars on helping the homeless and the problem is increasing, perhaps we should reconsider our strategies.  I don’t know enough of the details to specify exactly what we should do, but I can specific some basic principles that should guide our efforts.

Step 1–Remove obstacles to cheap housing, that people can rent for themselves.

The first principle for government action should be to find ways to remove legal and regulatory obstacles to increasing the supply of available cheap, private rental housing in the city.  Not by subsidizing housing, but by searching out and eliminating any barriers to 1) building more housing and 2) renting out various forms of “substandard” housing in the city. Right now in Portland, the lowest rent available is over $700 a month. There should be housing options (including “shelter-like” accommodations) starting as low as $5 a day.  We must restore the lower rungs of the ladder for people with limited means. 

There are a lot of government rules and regulations about what is “acceptable” housing–more than I know about.  The government ought to eliminate, for example, whatever zoning or other regulations are in the way of using existing housing as “boarding houses.”  There are vacant buildings that are not allowed to be used as housing because they don’t meet certain standards.  If people want to live in them, then the owners should be allowed to rent them out–although the rent they can get would be low–it would provide more low cost options.  The government should eliminate rules that regulate how many people can live in an apartment.  The owner can have rules, but if a landlord of a not-very desirable building wants to allow ten people to live in each apartment (thereby bringing the rent down to affordable levels) they should be allowed to do that.

The government ought to eliminate any rules or regulations that prevent people from using privately owned bare land to host and charge rent for tiny houses and camping spaces on private land.  If the government announced that it wanted to remove all barriers to property owners offering creative and unusual housing options  an amazing variety of housing options would be developed.  Just like the free market provides us with almost too many kinds of potato chips, an unfettered free market in housing would provide us with almost too many housing choices. (It might help if the government auctioned off all properties that it owns so that people can build more housing on those properties, as well.)

Step 2–Use private charities to help people.

The second principle is that taxes should not fund giving money or services to the homeless, only private charities should do so.  Tax-funded charity creates entitlements and lacks flexibility to push its recipients towards self-sufficiency.  Elsewhere I have written about how private charities can help  those who are down and out when government cannot.

The goal of private charities would not be merely to “provide housing” but to help individuals get their lives together and to become independent.  Some people need help getting off drugs or need help with mental problems and those things must be dealt with immediately.  Having a variety of charities makes it possible to offer a variety of services to help people with whatever has priority in their lives.  Some people really do need a homeless shelter for a time and those should be run by private charities, so they have the flexibility they need to run them properly.  I am certain that charities that effectively helped the homeless improve their lives would be able to raise plenty of money (the millions of dollars) that could actually begin to help reduce the problem.  In order to attract donations, the charities would have to prove that they were helping reduce the problem.  In time only the most effective charities would remain in operation.  So the efforts of charities would necessarily evolve towards more effective remedies than are currently being done by governmental entities.

Step 3–Stop allowing people to sleep on the streets (or on public lands).

 The third principle is only really acceptable to most people, if the first two are in full-swing.  We need to know that there are rungs so low on the ladder that people who beg on the streets can afford shelter for the night.  The third principle is that sleeping on the streets or camping out on public land is no longer tolerated.  As long as there are other options, and there certainly can be, then the police should be given the ability to uproot any people camping in doorways or under bridges and take them to a shelter.  If they won’t go into a shelter or rent a cheap place for the night, they should go into jail.  That is not an attractive option to people who are using drugs.  Yes, of course the mentally ill need to be taken to locked mental facilities rather than jail. But everyone has to get off the streets.  In a place like Portland with mild weather, some people would prefer avoid having to abide by the rules of living in a place they rent, so living on the street cannot be allowed or they will do it.  It used to be called “vagrancy” and it’s probably still against the law.   If we again have  unlimited housing options we can insist that people provide themselves with shelter and get off the street.  That’s the ultimate goal.

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Charities can help where government assistance fails

Charities can help where government assistance fails

In another post I suggested that our goal should be to help people end dependence rather than ending poverty.  Government programs by their very nature foster dependence.  These programs are a trap from which it is difficult to escape as I outlined in a different blog.   You are eligible only because you are in poverty.  Accepting their help puts you in a situation where any efforts to earn money means you often lose more than you gain.  If you accept benefits while you’re starting to get on your feet, you eventually get caught and must pay them back when you can not really afford it.  Government programs can cut checks and they can make rules but they cannot provide the flexible kind of help that is needed to help someone get on their feet.  But charities can.

To solve homelessness for a night you need a shelter.  To solve it for good, you need a job.

The Doe Fund is an example of a charity whose main function is to help homeless people get back on their feet.  The Doe Fund website  is very clear about their goals: “Creating pathways to self-sufficiency and independence is at the heart of everything we do.”  The Doe Fund supports three programs. The first, “Ready, Willing and Able” begins with volunteer work to build self-esteem and get on their feet. The main picture for this blog is from their site. They say clearly, “To solve homelessness for a night you need a shelter.  To solve it for good, you need a job.”   The second, “Social Enterprise” runs businesses whose primary goal is providing job skills through on-the-job training.  The third provides affordable and supportive housing as a transition for their clients.  They take people from homelessness to self-sufficiency over a period of time with work, education, training, counseling, and various kinds of assistance.  All of it aimed to get people to become independent rather than dependents of a program.  As you peruse their website, you see joy, pride and a sense of reclaiming their lives.  This is an example of really helping people.  Government programs fail utterly at helping people do anything other than become dependent.

On the other side of the country is another program, the “Downtown Streets Team” in San Francisco.  They work with teams of street people who volunteer to work cleaning the streets of San Francisco, and now several other California cities.  They operate with a basic three step process, as illustrated below, from their “Impact Dashboard.”

As you read the stories on the Downtown Streets Team website (please do so)  you see the joy and pride that this charity engenders in the people it helps.  Their clients have “turned their lives around.”  Have you ever heard someone proud of themselves for getting on a government program?  This kind of work is what I want to support rather than programs that keep people poor and dependent.

We should have a 100% tax credit for money we give to such charities.

We know that there are charities out there that actually help people.  I would prefer to give money to charities that help people rather than to government programs that foster dependence and despair.  We should have a 100% tax credit for money we give to such charities. Not a write off, but a dollar-for-dollar tax credit.

If we did that, we could gradually transfer all of our help for the needy from dead-end government programs to charities that have the flexibility and the mission to help people get back on their feet.  If we can afford billions for the government programs that don’t help, imagine what would happen if those billions instead went to programs that do help.  I’m just sayin’


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Replacing Gerrymandering with something better

Replacing Gerrymandering with something better

I believe one of the biggest threats to our national politics today is gerrymandering.  But yesterday (this was written on January 20, 2018), the Supreme Court refused to require North Carolina to redistrict because of excessive gerrymandering.  I think there is a solution, a better way to achieve redistricting, which I’ll get to. In the meantime, let’s understand the issue and the reason it is so important.

Gerrymandering, the practice of dividing up districts to favor one party or another, is as old as the republic itself.  The entry in Wikipedia on Gerrymandering tells us the term was coined by the Boston Gazette in 1812 because one of the districts that Governor Gerry created in that redistricting resembled a salamander (see the cartoon above).   The Constitution requires that congressional districts be re-drawn every ten years to ensure that population is equal among districts in a state.  The problem is that the political party in power gets to decide where to draw the district lines.

Since the beginning of our country whichever party is in power in the state has re-drawn the districts in their state to ensure that they can get the most seats in Congress.  The same thing is done in state legislatures as well.  Right now, ever more sophisticated gerrymandering (oh, the wonders of computers and the internet) has allowed whoever is in power to ensure that their party wins a majority of seats in future elections.  Gerrymandering begins at the state level, which determines which party controls the state legislature, and that party then controls the redistricting for the congressional districts in that state.  The graphic entitled, “How to Steal (or, I say simply, WIN) an Election” shows how this works.  What the graphic shows is that regardless of the electorate, either party can ensure the outcome they want by careful redistricting.

If this problem is so old, why is it something to worry about now?  I believe that gerrymandering is now a grave threat to our country because the political parties have finally sorted themselves out so fully that there is almost no overlap.  Nearly every elected Republican disagrees fundamentally with nearly every elected Democrat on a host of issues and there are almost no elected representatives who can reach across the divide, who are independent of these two extremes.  While the two parties are pulling in opposite directions (see my blog on the fundamental disagreements: some middle way will need to be found for us to move ahead.

Compromise is possible between two diametrically opposed courses of action when someone honestly addresses the concerns of both sides and crafts a middle way. See my blog on that idea (  I can’t predict the details of the eventual solutions, but I know solutions won’t come about unless we elect representatives who are more than champions of one side or the other.  We need elected representatives who can both understand and speak to both sides on an issue.  In order to elect those kinds of representatives we need political districts that are not “safe” for either party.  We need elections in which victory is dependent upon the candidates ability to address the concerns of more than one side of the issues.  So we can no longer allow political parties to decide how to draw district boundary lines.

So what is the solution?  Districts have to be re-drawn every ten years, but how can we get districts that are fair and represent real people in them?  How do we get districts that require candidates to appeal to and listen to and care about more than just one side of our issues?  In 2004, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Supreme Court doesn’t have a “basis on which to define clear, manageable, and politically neutral standards” on when partisanship becomes unfair or unconstitutional.

But I believe that a computer program could be devised that operates on the basis of principles and data that make the districts sensible and do not put any political party’s “thumb on the scale.”  The code of the program would have to be public and both sides would have to agree to it–and I think judges should get the final say.  But once the program was put together it should be put into law as the only way that districts can be drawn.  The beauty of using computer code as “legal code” is that it can be made public, and if not changed will always return the same results.  What rules should be instituted in the code?

Of course, the first requirement would be that districts have to be equal (or close to equal) in population.  There cannot be a place in the code for data on party registration.   I would suggest that the second priority would be that districts have the lowest possible ratio between the area and the perimeter–so more like squares than long rectangles, or salamanders!  Maybe a third priority requirement would be to avoid, if possible, crossing county or city boundaries.  There may be other priorities to build into the program.  While this is complex, I’m sure it can be done.  Computer programs have the ability to balance complex, competing priorities far beyond anything people can manage.

The irony is that computer programs are now being used to do gerrymandering to favor whichever party wants to employ it. ( So it is possible for computer programs to deal with this complexity.  I think we could really change our political future if we could replace party-driven gerrymandering with politically neutral computer redistricting.  It’s certainly worth a try.



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Solutions aren’t found by tug-of-war

Solutions aren’t found by tug-of-war

One of the fundamental problems with politics is that almost everyone subscribes to the idea that we can make things better by pulling harder for our side.  Activists try to get people to pull harder for their side in order to win and wrest power away from the evil people on the other side.  Trying to amass enough power to force your will on the other side of an issue never solves it.  Using power to override the other side only increases controversy and strife.  Marriage counselors and people who do arbitration know that both sides have to meet their needs in order to solve a conflict.  Real solutions come from finding a way to meet the deepest underlying needs and concerns of both sides, not just trying to roll over one side in favor of the other.   I was astounded to learn the power of this fact by an experience I had many years ago.

Bear with a brief backstory.  I’ve lived in over a dozen communities in my life and belonged to A.A. in several of them.  A.A. is an unique organization because it is totally decentralized and has no dues or fees.  Generally a basket is passed at each meeting.  The social convention is to put in a dollar bill, or two if you’re feeling generous, as the basket is passed by you.  Quite commonly, as this is done, a statement is read to the effect that “We are self-supporting through our own contributions.  There are no dues or fees for membership, We collect money to pay for coffee and rent.”

A.A. has a national office in New York and regional offices in cities and counties (known as “central offices” in A.A. parlance) around the country.  The function of “central offices” is to publish the schedule of meetings in the local area, man the A.A hot-line, and keep a supply of literature and other A.A. supplies for the groups.  These offices are normally funded through the tradition that when a meeting collects more money than it needs for coffee and rent and literature, the excess beyond a “prudent reserve” ought to be contributed to the local “central office” and to the national offices of A.A.  You may not know it, but A.A. doesn’t accept donations from outside the membership.  The national office of A.A. regularly returns all outside donations.  (Try it and see!) Grants are not sought.  Bequests are not accepted, even from former members.  A.A. has no business enterprises or money-making activities . [1] The only source of income is what’s put in the basket by people in the meetings.  Period. End of story.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be.  The A.A. community in one town in which I lived had a long-standing controversy because they had been financing their “central office” by running a recovery-oriented bookstore which paid for the expenses.  The conservative side said this was against the official A.A. tradition (see the footnote below) and insisted the bookstore should go.  The liberal side, including me, saw no harm in a recovery-oriented bookstore and feared the central office would collapse without its income. At the monthly business meetings for the central office (individual groups each sent a representative) one side or the other would have a majority.

As each side gained a majority, it would begin trying to realize its vision, which would alarm the other side.   Then the other side would get more of its people to the next meeting, and beat the first group back. Horrendous angry confrontations would ensue with people saying awful things about each other.  (Sound familiar?)  After one of these power see-saws, I got roped by the liberal side into being chairman and was saddled with the problem.  I learned that the battle over the bookstore had been going on for well over a decade.  But one of the A.A. traditions was the idea that “all important decisions be reached by discussion, vote, and, whenever possible, by substantial unanimity.”  Well, that was a far cry from what had been happening.

Each side had been trying to rally its troops with dire predictions about the horrors of implementing the competing vision.  It seemed to me that we had to figure out what each side really wanted.  I started by talking with people on both sides.  I put together two honest proposals for the membership to consider–both of which were workable.  These proposals were embodied in a flyer and sent out with an invitation to a big meeting where the issue was supposed to be decided, hopefully once and for all.  At the meeting the two sides sat on opposite sides of the hall. I had determined that speakers would strictly alternate between sides of the issue and have as long a debate as needed.   These two groups had been angrily fighting each other for years. I brought coffee–it would be a long night.

The first to speak was a leader of the liberal, pro-bookstore side.  Instead of making a speech he turned to me and said, “Do you mean we could actually keep the central office open without the bookstore?”

“Well, it wouldn’t be easy,” I replied, “but yes, it looks like we could manage. We’ll need more volunteers. We’ll have to get a bit more money from the groups, but we know that many are withholding donations because the bookstore is paying the bills.”

“In that case,” he says, “I think we ought to get rid of the bookstore.  It’s been a source of trouble for years now.  That must be why the traditions say we should not own any businesses, you know, because of the problems they cause.”  Then he sat down.  No one else raised their hand to speak.  So we voted.  Selling off the bookstore passed with substantial unanimity.  A decades-long controversy was over in about ten minutes.

The entire A.A. community heaved a sigh of relief.  The meetings became tolerable.  Donations went up again.  The number of volunteers rose to meet the need.  The bookstore went on under private ownership.  Everyone was amazed at the outcome.

The thing that struck me most was the fact that the key to resolving the issue was having a goal of substantial unanimity rather than the political goal of cobbling together a voting majority.  The goal of consensus meant that we needed to listen to the concerns of both sides. We needed a solution that went beyond being good enough to win a majority of the votes for our side.  Instead we needed a solution that would meet the needs of the other side too.  One that would win their support as well.  Just because one side or the other temporarily gets the upper hand doesn’t make that side right. Just because one side or the other can’t win control of the political apparatus, doesn’t make that side wrong.  There can be no peace as long as each side tries to dominate the other politically in order to force its way.

This event proved to me that winning political battles can never be the key to winning the good life for me or my country.   What you win through force as a majority in the government, you can lose by the same route.  If we want solutions to the problems in our country we need to begin to listen to both sides, learn what is most important to them, and craft solutions with which both sides can be happy.


[1] A.A. Tradition 7: “The A.A. groups themselves ought to be fully supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members. We think that each group should soon achieve this ideal; that any public solicitation of funds using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous is highly dangerous, whether by groups, clubs, hospitals, or other outside agencies; that acceptance of large gifts from any source, or of contributions carrying any obligation whatever, is unwise. Then too, we view with much concern those A.A. treasuries which continue, beyond prudent reserves, to accumulate funds for no stated A.A. purpose. Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority.”

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Islamophobia or justified concern?

Islamophobia or justified concern?

Brigitte Gabriel of Act for America, and people like her, who speak out about the dangers of Muslim extremism are often branded as being Islamophobic.  Are they islamophobic or is it sensible and justified concern?  The Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkely defines Islamophobia as the “unfounded hostility towards Muslims, and therefore fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”  Mirriam Webster defines it as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam.”

Let’s think about another phobia, ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes.  I’m a teacher and have been to many presentations about reptiles to school children.  Invariably the presenter brings out a non-venomous snake, drapes it around their neck and encourages children to pet it.  One time the presenter draped the snake over my shoulders and asked me to demonstrate how harmless the snake was.  The children were taught about how this kind of snake is harmless and a few common shibboleths are dispensed with such as, “See it’s not slimy.”  Many children overcome their general fear of snakes enough to pet the snake.  I certainly had no qualms about holding the snake when assured by someone who knew more about snakes, that it was safe to do so.  The children and I  had learned that the specific snake we had just met was not dangerous and so we didn’t need to be afraid of it.   I was happy to hold the snake given to me by the presenter, but other teachers in my school were quite unwilling to even touch the snake.  They could not overcome their generalized fear of snakes, even when they knew the snake was actually harmless.  I think that’s irrational fear, because not all snakes are dangerous.  That is ohidiophobia.  On the other hand, when I’m on my own in the wild, I don’t pick up snakes that I don’t know.  Some poisonous snakes and non-poisonous snakes look similar.  If you don’t know which snakes are poisonous and which aren’t, it’s smarter to err on the side of caution.

So let’s talk about Islamophobia.  Just as it is not phobia to recognize that some snakes are poisonous, it is not phobia to point out that some Muslims wish to wage jihad against non-Muslims, to subjugate us under Islamic rule or kill us if we refuse to follow their rules.  This has happened many times in history and it is still happening today.  Brigitte Gabriel was a Christian in Lebanon when the Muslims overran her country.  She managed to escape with her life but many Christians in her community were killed by the invading Muslim soldiers.  Certainly not all Muslims are soldiers or even support what happened in Lebanon.  But it is not Islamophobia to say that some Muslims are dangerous.  Certainly the ones pictured here are.

It is also not irrational fear or prejudice to be afraid of Muslims you do not know, thinking they might be of the kind that wish to subjugate all non-Muslims.  How would you know?  I have a neighbor, who I am friends with, who is a Muslim and he is neither dangerous nor interested in subjugating us.  Him I know, and he’s great.  But some Muslims, who are dangerous supporters of jihad and the subjugation of non-Muslims, look and act like they are harmless.  And here is where the problem really lies.  Until Muslims find a way to help us non-Muslims know who is who, until the peaceful, harmless, law-abiding Muslims stand up and find a way to publicly reject the Muslims who are not, how are we to know?

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Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Are state tests, such as the Smarter Balance Assessment an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality?  Do these tests truly reveal the quality or effectiveness of a school?  I say, “No,” emphatically, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills, even though many in education disagree.  I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned.  I agree that more learning is better.  I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity.  I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed one-size-fits-all tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality.  It has taken me several years to come to this position.  I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Let me explain what that means. Imagine you want to buy a sports car.  You look up your favorite sports car to see its rating.  You are shocked find low scores and an “F” grade on the rating system compared to other cars.  Unbeknownst to you the ratings are based largely on the size of the payload the vehicle can carry and the number of passengers that can fit in it.  Your dream two-seater is rated low on that account and there is nothing in there about how fun the car is to drive.  That’s an example of misalignment.

Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is irrelevant or actually wrong.  The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.  For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum.  I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling.  State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

An example of schools that do well on these basic academic pillars are the Arthur Academy charter schools.  Due to the use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), they mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which they reside. More importantly, they prepare their students for later success in schooling.  DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching.  The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing.  All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills.  DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but these charters love it, and so do their students and parents.

Curricula, such as DI, that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test—while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material.  A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests.  While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum.  Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire.  These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum.  But if schools that use DI taught what is in their curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools.  Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do.  Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests.  One is that the results have no consequences for the children.  Another is that these are children taking these tests.  Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances.  Schools routinely find children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test.  Yet they can reach not only “proficient” but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired.  Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test.  This is not cheating.  These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”  And it is an appropriate accommodation.  It just shows the best that the student can do.  Guess what?  Children don’t always do their best.  Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with.  If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year. Does that mean the school is bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean the school is good if they carefully accommodate all the children so they get their best scores?  Not at all.

Third is the issue of students’ ability.   This may not be obvious to everyone, but the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn.  The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them.   Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach.  It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad.  That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ—which is never the case.  It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know which school is stronger or more effective.  If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers—just as it happens in every other service industry.  Arthur Academy could do it easily in their schools, without a state test. If they gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of their DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what the children have learned.   Few students outside of their schools could match that performance.  That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.


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Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

Raising the Bar: Why “Standards and Accountability” cannot improve Education

There is currently a movement underway to reverse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Those opposed to the Common Core have a wide variety of reasons, ranging from fear of federal control of curriculum, to privacy concerns about intrusive data collection planned, and controversy about whether the standards are more or less rigorous than the former state standards which are being replaced.  While these details can be debated, the more fundamental question is whether “standards and accountability” can reform or improve education. Can “raising the bar” actually improve educational outcomes?

The idea of “standards and accountability” begins by attempting to define rigorous standards of what K-12 students at each grade level ought to know and be able to do.  [Missing the important point that some students should be held to higher expectations, shouldn’t they?]  The idea goes that if these standards are good enough, then if students can meet them, we can be happy that our schools are doing a good job.  The accountability part of the equation is to give tests that measure whether or not students can meet the standard expectations.  Supposedly then schools that help nearly all students meet the standards are doing a good job.  Conversely schools in which many students don’t meet the standards must necessarily be doing a poor job.  If the standards are too easy, the schools are getting off with doing a poor job.  If the standards are rigorous enough we can force the schools to do a better job—the threats of accountability will cause the schools to self-reform and improve student scores on the tests and thereby achievement.  That’s the idea.  But, in real life it doesn’t work that way.  Why not?  There are several reasons.

First of all, the standards are too vague to be measured as met or not met in any objective sense.  For example, such standards as, “Understand addition and subtraction of fractions as joining and separating parts referring to the same whole.” is not measurable.  There are an infinite number of ways one could try to measure that and how well a student would have to do on such a test to show they “understood.” And on top of that, there are hundreds of these unmeasurable standards in the Common Core.

Secondly, because the standards themselves aren’t measurable, proficiency is not based on pre-established criteria, standard by standard. Students don’t have to pass all the different standards, or even pass a set number of them.  Instead proficiency is randomly defined by a cut-off score on the entire test.  Unfortunately, because the details of the test are secret, teachers don’t really know exactly which skills are tested, and what students must know or how well they should know them to be considered proficient.  They are trying to hit the target, but they aren’t actually allowed to see it.

Finally, everyone wants to raise the cut-off scores, to expect the lowest students to do more to be considered proficient.  If everyone can do it, then it must not be rigorous enough.

Raising the bar–doesn’t make you a better jumper.

Making the standards more rigorous (which many people want to do) is quite commonly referred to as “raising the bar.”  This metaphor compares academic standards to the bar over which high jumpers sail.  Raising the bar occurs each round in a track meet, as the bar is placed higher, and then the competitors must jump higher each round.  But what is the effect of raising the bar in a track meet?

The effect of raising the bar is to gradually eliminate the less able competitors each round, until only the best is left to win the meet.  Raising the bar does not make everyone equal.  Raising the bar does not make everyone better.  Raising the bar has the effect of sorting out the athletes on the basis of their skill.  No one dreams of using it to rank the coaches, because a large portion of a high jumper’s success has to do with innate ability, rather than just the quality of the coach.  Interestingly, before federal involvement in education and before standards and accountability, standardized academic tests were perceived in exactly the same way.  The results on an academic achievement test told you how accomplished the student was, and were never used to make judgments about the quality of the teacher or the school.

If raising the bar does not make everyone a better jumper, why is it even imagined as a method to reform schools?  Standards would operate, if they work at all, about as well as track meets work to make track coaches better.  In my experience most coaches hope to recruit athletes with more ability—so their performance makes the coach look good.

The same thing happens with schools.  Schools that enroll students with greater ability have high tests scores and are considered good.  Schools that enroll students with more learning challenges and less ability have lower test scores and are considered bad.  Nothing useful is accomplished by this exercise. Absolutely nothing.

I know from first-hand experience that parents can tell whether the school their child is attending is challenging, motivating and effectively teaching their child.  Not all schools are right for all children.  Often siblings need and thrive in very different kinds of schools. The average test scores in the whole school is irrelevant to whether the school is doing a good job for their child.  We don’t need this whole standards and accountability regimen, we need to give parents the freedom to choose schools and give educators a chance to create a variety of new, innovative schools that operate free of the bureaucratic restraints of our current one-size-fits-all system.

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The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

I fell in love with the left wing of the Democratic Party because they, alone, opposed the Vietnam War.  And of course, because they were the party of compassion for the poor.  Over the years, I fell out of love because they wanted credit for their good intentions rather than for what they actually accomplished.

Although the Democrats started the war in Vietnam and a Republican president ended it, I didn’t blame the Democrats or give credit to Nixon.  I didn’t begin to question my love for the left wing until someone I knew and cared for began to get the “help” and “compassion” that were a trademark of the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson began the “War on Poverty.”

What I discovered, to my shock, was that welfare assistance from the government was not a helping hand, or a hand up.  To the contrary, welfare assistance was a sentence to dependency and poverty without an exit.   The details of how the system ran meant that gradually working one’s way back to self-sufficiency was made harder, not easier, by the so-called “safety net.”  The first step out of dependence is part-time work and jobs that don’t last more than a couple of months.  But all the money you make in such jobs goes against your benefits.  Everything with the government is slow, and so the reckoning takes months.  This means that you have to pay back the benefits you received a couple of months ago, just about the time you’re out of work again. So when you need assistance desperately, you can’t get it, but only because you took a job and tried to better yourself.  If you hadn’t tried to take a job you would still be entitled.  So the lesson is—don’t take a job.

It turns out all of the forms of help and compassion run by government agencies have the same basic structure.  You “qualify” by virtue of having little or no income and you “lose” benefits as soon as you get some income or try to get some.  I have another friend who was unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits because he couldn’t find work in his profession in the local community.  When he went out of town to a trade conference (so he could network with people in his profession from all over the country and hopefully find work) his unemployment benefits were cut off.  He hadn’t stayed in the local community “available for work.” Go figure.

I had learned from personal experience that government assistance, as championed by the left, did not actually help to reduce poverty.  Governmental help does not have the right structure, knowledge, or flexibility needed to really help anyone. It is simply a trap. Not surprisingly, data now show (see the graph to the right) that the poverty rate has stopped falling since we began trapping more and more people in these dependency programs.  They have almost no way out.  That was one nail in the coffin of my love for the left-wing.

The next nail in the coffin came as a result of what I learned as a teacher.  At one point as a special education teacher I had a caseload of 28 third grade children with dyslexia—none of whom could read.  I found and used a curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI) that taught every one of them to read.  My school district was uninterested in my success.  DI used phonics and was labeled “harmful.”  DI was removed from the district, without regard to data.  When I realized that the public school system was unresponsive to important outcomes (like whether or not children learned to read!), I began to learn about school choice—in which parents, who do care about outcomes, get to choose a school.

Charter schools, which are public schools freed from the constraints of the administrative bureaucracy of districts and sometimes from the teacher’s union as well, have to attract all their clients.  I went to work for charter schools, and of course, the charter schools in which I was involved used DI. In our schools we taught every one of our students how to read, and we filled our schools, located in poor neighborhoods, with students.  Parents, especially poor parents, were finally able to choose a school that would teach their children to read.  But our schools were not allowed to grow because of deliberate political obstacles.

When I realized that left wing Democrats were the primary obstacle to increased school choice, I was done.  The left wing says it cares about children and the poor.  The left wants to be judged by its good intentions.  But the policies the left supports do not help, and actually hurt children and the poor.  I think results speak louder than words.  I do think the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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Differentiation and the problem of missing skills

Differentiation and the problem of missing skills

As people are being trained to be teachers in our schools of education they are taught that justice and fairness require that they teach all students together in a classroom with their peers.  Furthermore, they are taught that all the students should be taught the same material that is appropriate for their grade level.  When they go out into schools, the administration of most district schools promotes the same philosophy—that all students should be taught the “core curriculum” that is appropriate for their grade level.  The Common Core now specifies what should be taught at each level and school districts monitor closely to see that teachers are teaching exactly what is supposed to be taught at each grade level—without regard for the skill level of the students.

The student pictured is counting on her fingers to do math when she should be well beyond that problem.  So what about the problem of students who are lacking skills that were presumed to be taught in prior grades?  What are teachers supposed to do with students who have difficulty spelling, or decoding, or doing simple math?  How about students who can’t write with reasonable grammar and punctuation or who fail to add or multiply correctly when they try?  As anyone who has spent time in public school classrooms, this is a huge and glaring problem.  What is the expected solution?

The current buzz-word that is supposed to solve this problem is called differentiation.  Anyone who wants to sell materials to schools now includes information about how to “differentiate” lessons so as to accommodate the wide variety of skills levels in every classroom.  The theory is that lessons can be presented about a concept or idea and then students will be allowed to respond or complete assignments about the lesson at a variety of skill levels.  So some students who cannot write are allowed to draw pictures to express their answers, while others will write with invented spelling, and still others will complete essays with correct spelling and punctuation.  A differentiated assignment in math might include students who use calculators, others who do computation, and still others who write a long-hand explanation of how to find the answer—without having to do it.

Unfortunately, as in much of educational rhetoric these days, the emperor has no clothes.  Differentiation is a method of coping with the problem of missing skills.  Differentiation does not provide the instruction needed by students who are missing those skills.  When students don’t know basic skills, they failed to benefit from (or receive) instruction on those skills.  The fact that the student didn’t learn it the “first time” tells you something about how difficult it will be for this student to learn that skill.  Not learning it the “first time” means these students will need more intensive, focused and effective instruction than is typically provided at the grade level where that skill is normally taught.  The student will need more explanation, more examples, and more practice to master the skill than was even in the textbook the first time the skill was taught.  Because it didn’t take the first time, more is needed.

But here’s the rub.  Now that the student has moved past the grade level where this skill is supposed to be taught, there is no time allotted for instruction on this skill.  Don’t learn how to decode in first grade?  Well once you’re in second grade, good luck getting that really basic instruction you missed in first grade.  The teacher has to be teaching the skills of second grade and really has no time to teach those prior skills.  This is a problem in second grade.  Imagine how crazy it is in the typical sixth grade, where students are missing skills from the past six years!

A previous buzz-word was “mini-lessons.”  Teachers were supposed to teach missing skills on an ad-hoc basis, when they came up, in little mini-lessons that only took a couple of minutes.  Not surprisingly, mini-lessons don’t work, because students who hadn’t learned those skills in prior years needed longer, more carefully designed lessons, with more examples and more practice in order to learn the skills that have eluded them for years.

The only solution to the problem of missing skills is to explicitly address them.  Identify students who need to learn the skills regardless of grade level, get them together with a teacher, design strong lessons with clear rules, lots of examples, and plenty of practice.  It can be done.  It is the job of teachers and schools.  But in this era of Common Core dictated curriculum there’s no time and no freedom in the schools to do the job.  We need educators in the trenches to have both the freedom and the responsibility to devise solutions to this basic and fundamental problem.  Parents need the ability to hold schools accountable for solving this problem, by having the ability to move their child to a school that knows how to solve this problem.  (I know it is a soluble problem because I have worked in charter schools that have solved it.)  Right now parents have no choice.  They are forced to patronize schools that fail to education their children. Until we change this, all the hoopla in the world isn’t going to improve outcomes in our schools.

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