About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Of Budget Cuts and School Reform

Published in San Diego's North County Times.

About 11,000 students are expected to head back to Carlsbad schools Wednesday, the same number as two years ago. But this year they'll be greeted by nearly 60 fewer teachers and a school year shortened by three days. High schoolers will find their classrooms bulging with an average of 39 classmates ("School Trustees adopt $77M budget" NCT, June 28).

The school district was forced to cut spending by $7 million over the past two years. It will only get worse if Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative fails to pass. If that happens, school officials say, the school year may shrink by as much as three weeks.

It's a lose-lose proposition for students: larger classes and less learning time. The ones hurt most will be those who need more individual attention. The test score achievement gap shows they'll be from low-income families, the ones already being left behind.

While schools struggle to make ends meet, the demand for reform remains. The Department of Education's Race to the Top program, like No Child Left Behind, relies on high-stakes tests as the measure of success.

But Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, believes elevating the teaching profession, rather than standardized testing, is the essential ingredient for better schools ("How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools," New York Review of Books, March 22).

Ravitch points to Finland, which has no standardized tests, but whose 15-year-olds lead the world in international surveys of knowledge and skills. Teachers are no more highly paid than in the U.S., but they command much higher esteem as professionals. Only top university students are permitted to enter teacher training, and they must earn master's degrees before they begin teaching.

Teachers are given learning goals and held accountable for results. As professionals, they design and develop their own materials, teaching methods, and tests. Classes are limited to 20 students. In-service training and collaboration, as in other professions, assure quality control.

Ravitch criticizes school reform in the U.S. for using a "model that seeks to emulate the free market, by treating parents as consumers and students as products, with teachers as compliant workers." "Children need better schools," she concludes, but "they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education ... and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement."

Finland has the second-lowest child poverty rate of the world's wealthiest nations, according to the 2012 UNICEF annual report. Just 5 percent of its children live in poverty. It's 23 percent in the U.S., ranking 34th, just above Romania.

That's what's so sad about Carlsbad's school budget cuts. Low-income families will be the biggest losers.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Done Right, College Athletics Worth It


What can Cal State San Marcos learn from Penn State and the London Olympics as it pursues membership in the NCAA? The Olympics exemplifies the highest values of competitive sports.The Penn State scandal reveals college athletics at its worst.

This newspaper's editorial board claims college athletics has "strayed from the original purpose of ensuring that young people immersed in academic pursuits also kept up with their physical fitness," suggesting intramural sports could replace intercollegiate competition at little cost and no loss of benefits to a university.

Christine Scolamieri, chairwoman of CSUSM's Athletic Director's Council and a volunteer from the local business community, disagrees. "Athletics is a gateway to showcasing CSUSM's educational mission and programs," she wrote in a Community Forum piece, "providing a rallying point of pride for North County."

I've seen college sports programs up close, first as a student on an athletic scholarship that paid for my education, and later as an administrator at three state universities with varying levels of competition.

At Western Washington University, an NAIA school that offered no athletic scholarships at the time, my job was to oversee moderately selective admission requirements. Athletic recruits got no special deals.

The basketball coach once promised to paint my front porch if I admitted a seven-footer with low grades. When I interviewed the blue-chip recruit I asked him which subjects were hardest for him in high school. He replied, "mostly readin' and writin'." After explaining there'd be a lot of that at Western, I suggested he go to a community college to practice up on them. The porch got painted, but not by the coach.

Western later joined the NCAA Division II, winning the national championship this year. It made me wonder if admission exceptions were any easier to come by these days.

When I went to work at Indiana State, a Division I school and alma mater of NBA great Larry Bird, I was told athletes were admitted routinely if they met NCAA eligibility standards.

Cal State San Marcos had no intercollegiate sports when I arrived there in 1997. By the time I retired in 2003 the university had gained a golf team and membership in the NAIA. Statewide CSU admission standards continued to be enforced. A limited number of exceptions were allowed, but not based on athletic ability alone.

If done right, intercollegiate athletics can bring a wealth of benefits to a school and community, well beyond physical fitness and the inflated egos of administrators and alumni.

Cal State San Marcos should look to UCSD, an NCAA Division II school, to see how it's done. High profile Division I schools, like Penn State, often lose their way.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

City's War on Workers

Mark Twain once said of life’s injustices, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That came to mind when I learned of Carlsbad’s plan to outsource jobs of city workers who sacrificed pay and benefits over the last several years to help the city survive the Great Recession. Carlsbad not only survived, it prospered on the backs of those worker bees.

The city council voted Tuesday night to seek bids from contractors to outsource all parks maintenance services. A consulting firm was paid $102,000 for a report claiming contractors could save the city $1.7 to $3.68 million each year.

What’s wrong with this picture? Ninety-six percent of city residents rate parks maintenance “good” or “excellent.” But city officials are now ready to risk that level of citizen satisfaction by replacing those responsible for it with lower-paid workers hired to enhance the profitability of a private contractor.

The consultants compared Carlsbad’s yearly parks maintenance cost per-acre, half of which is currently contracted out, with that of three regional cities that outsource all landscaping services. Only one, at $5,464 per acre, was lower than Carlsbad’s $6,572. The other two spent $10,353 and $10,104.Unable to justify privatizing on a cost per-acre basis, the consultants turned to the average salary of a current city worker compared to that of a private sector worker doing similar work.

The average salary of Carlsbad’s thirty-four full-time Maintenance II workers is listed at $45,243, amounting to $22 an hour. But averages of small numbers can be misleading. The salary of the 26-year Carlsbad city employee pictured mowing the grass in a July 17 NCT article, together with others of similar experience, could drive up the group average substantially. Entry level pay is $39,193, or $19 an hour.

The average pay of a private sector employee with ten years experience is listed at $32,567, or $16 an hour. That’s based on surveys of regional salaries by national organizations. The consultants combined average salaries of workers with the job titles “gardener” and “groundskeeper.”

Averages of small group numbers with large variances is fuzzy math. But combining averages of averages to compare to another average amounts to math malpractice.

Although a private contractor can no doubt hire cheaper labor, the consultants don’t explain how Carlsbad’s “overpaid” city workers are able to deliver the same service at about half the price of contractors in two out of three cities in its regional peer group.

The larger question is why is it urgent to cut costs now, with the city sitting on a $53 million and growing budget surplus? Considering the devastating impact on the lives of the four dozen loyal workers who have provided remarkably good service, why risk the city’s natural beauty by entrusting its care to a private contractor chasing a buck?

As one city worker told me, “Comparisons between our employees and outside contractors never, ever have taken into consideration the importance of the small things we experience every day, seeing the same faces, the “good mornings,” listening to their concerns, etc. We’re there every day to make Carlsbad as fine a place as you’d want. You would never get that from a contractor who, if you’re lucky, comes once a week.”

The council vote to seek bids from contractors was unanimous, but Councilman Keith Blackburn’s vote was the most reluctant. After describing the value of city workers in words like those above, Blackburn agreed to call for bids but declared the cost savings would have to be “huge” to get his vote to approve an outsourcing contract.

What it comes down to is that city officials need to include opportunity costs in their analysis of outsourcing. Do potential benefits outweigh the risks of less attractive parks, downtown and beaches and the morale of city workers who’ve earned high praise from those they serve but are told by their bosses their jobs are expendable?