Friday, August 31, 2012

Jim's Mom

I rode my bike to Jim’s house
to play AllStar Baseball
on hot summer mornings,
rang his doorbell twice
and waited for him to answer.

But this time,
the window sheers parted slightly
and Jim’s mom opened the door
wearing only a silken half-slip
and brassiere.

The shell of the wall phone
pressed against her ear
and long blond hair,
wet from bathing.
She said Jim wasn’t home,

and I was embarrassed
by her large
green eyes
that flashed no hint
of awkwardness,

by her body,
like one of those models
in the lady’s lingerie section
of a Spiegel catalogue,
that stirred untimely yearnings.

Perhaps it was my stuttering
or her understanding
of a young boy’s gawking
that made her smile sweetly
then laugh.

Even so, my body flushed
down to my toes.
And I ran home,
by the moment.

“Jim's Mom” was originally published in Ariel, 1994.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

“Cost‐of‐Living Adjustments” (COLA) from the National Association of State Retirement Administrators

“The purpose of a COLA is to offset, or reduce, the effects of inflation on retirement income… Most state and local governments provide a COLA for the purpose of offsetting or reducing the effects of inflation, which erodes the value of retirement income... This depreciation can affect the sufficiency of retirement benefits, particularly for those who have no means to supplement their income due to disability or advanced age.
“Social Security beneficiaries are provided an annual COLA to maintain recipients’ purchasing power. Similarly, most state and local governments provide an inflation adjustment to their retiree pension benefits. This is particularly important for those public employees – including nearly half of public school teachers and most public safety workers – who do not participate in Social Security.

“Unlike Social Security, however, state and local retirement systems typically pre‐fund the cost of a COLA over the working life of an employee to be distributed annually over the course of [a retiree’s] lifetime…

 “[The] distinction between [compound and simple] COLA types is whether the increase is applied in a simple or compound manner. Under a simple COLA arrangement, each year’s benefit increase is calculated based upon the employee’s original benefit at the time of his or her retirement. Under a compound COLA arrangement the annual benefit increase is calculated based upon the original benefit as well as any prior benefit increases. Some COLAs are both, in that they may be 'simple' until the retiree reaches a certain age or year retired, at which point COLA benefits are calculated using a compound method…

“As part of efforts to contain costs and to ensure the sustainability of public pension plans, and in response to the current period of historically low inflation, many states recently have made changes to COLA provisions by adjusting one or more of the elements mentioned above…

“Since 2009, eleven states have changed COLAs affecting current retirees, five states have addressed current employees’ benefits, and six states have changed the COLA structure only for future employees. The legality of these modifications in several states has been, or is, being challenged in court...”

As stated by John Stevens, Legal Consultant for the “We Are One” Labor Coalition, “to take away the Cost-of-Living Adjustment for retirees is not a free and fair choice. It is a coercive choice under duress.” In other words, duress (or coercion) is a vitiating factor. Legislators of the State of Illinois are breaching a contract by forcing public employees to make a choice to diminish their originally-vested guarantee. They are breaking an enforceable promise, one that is bilateral and emphasizes an agreement between the State of Illinois and its public employees as to their future rights and benefits.
Regarding the diminishment of the COLA, pension reform offers public employees no ethical and lawful alternatives except to consent to the General Assembly’s demands by choosing between two illicit choices; second, this is unlawful because of the illegitimacy of the General Assembly’s advantageous attempt to renegotiate a constitutionally-guaranteed contract; third, it is unlawful to induce undue pressure upon public employees to make an unfair choice; fourth, this is an unjust financial enhancement for the General Assembly because it is a breach of contract for public employees to receive less than what the original vested right and benefit  guaranteed, and it is also a blatant exploitation of influence to obtain an unwarranted advantage (Illinois Pension Reform… Is Without Legal and Moral Justification).

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why I Left Teaching by Jordan Kohanim

In June, I decided to quit teaching. Maybe not forever, but definitely for right now. This was not a decision I came to lightly, and I did not feel triumphant making it. To be frank, I never felt more defeated in my life.
It's true that I am a statistic. Over 50 percent of teachers leave teaching in the first seven years. Most of those are in the first five years. It was year seven for me.
I told a colleague that I planned on leaving the profession, and he said something that hurt: "Your leaving won't change anything." With an emphasis on the anything. It felt like an arrow went through my heart.
In the long run, he's right, though. That is part of the reason I quit. I know ego drives us all, but I really believed I would make a difference. And I did—for about a dozen or so kids. But there is no way I could have made enough of a difference for enough time and kept my sanity.
It started in June of 2011, when I was chair of the student-support team, which provided extra help for our struggling students. Every day before and after school, I met with administrators, counselors, and teachers. I watched as we denied support services to the neediest students. 
I saw parents who were well positioned financially use their lawyers to manipulate the system into giving their children unfair advantages: extra time that they hadn't needed in the classroom on state exams, extended deadlines for homework, and forgiveness from some assignments. I saw too many students and teachers hurt in this process. There were students who could not receive the support they needed because the implementation of response to intervention, or RTI, was too complicated at the high school level.
There were teachers frustrated because they were not allowed to require deadlines for homework or essays even when their students had proved they were capable of meeting such standards. I saw lawyers and parents fighting for accommodations because they wanted to prove a point—not because the children involved needed or even used them. I saw so many adults whose primary concern was other than the education or the well-being of children, and so many lawyers and politicians who cared nothing about learning that I broke. I was disgusted. I gave up the extra responsibility of the student-support team in hopes that I would regain my love for teaching.

My classes were big. If I worked six-hour days with no breaks, it would take 28 days to grade my students' 159 essays. I was an English teacher. My kids had to write. I had to grade. And I actually enjoyed grading, but 159 students? That was too much. Twenty-eight days to grade those essays was too much.
There is a difference between learning and education. Learning is a slow, disciplined process, while education is about producing results. I didn't realize it before I stepped into the classroom. I guess that makes me naive.
When I coached the debate team, my kids were learning. They learned about rhetoric, philosophy, policy, government, language, and rigor. I spent many hours making sure they truly understood just how powerful those concepts are. Even that, though, took so much time on weekends, after school, late into the night. And I did it alone. I neglected my family and myself. I gained weight from too much fast food on the way home from school. My responsibility as the sibling of a child with autism was growing. 
It was time to transition my brother out of my parents' house, and because teaching took precedence over everything else in life, I felt torn between my responsibility as a teacher and as a sister. I rarely saw my husband and, when I did, I was so exhausted that talk of family was put on hold. Besides, how could I possibly manage to give a child the love she or he needed if I couldn't even take care of myself? I felt selfish for wanting to have more for myself and my family, when there seemed to be so much need in our schools.
That's what this boils down to: The needs of my family come first. I have given so much to other people's families. I have fought hard to always do the right thing. To be honest, after seven years, I'm tired. I can't do this job half-way. I just can't. It's too important. It means too much.
Recently, my husband stood up to his boss and moved to a better company. I guess I did the same thing. Funny, I don't feel as victorious. I just feel sad and a little angry—not satisfied. This isn't a decision I am proud of. Some days I question leaving. Maybe I could have found a different school. Maybe I should have moved to a private school.
On the bright side, I have a new job, and it's actually a lot like teaching. I educate my clients on their Medicare-supplement and health-insurance options. I still get to serve a group of people, but they are a different group of people.
I believe I will be happier for having quit teaching. I will make more money. I will have more time. I will no longer sacrifice myself for the sake of others' children. I would like to go back someday when the system finally figures out how lucky it is that people are so dedicated to teaching.
I come from a family of public school educators. I walked away from a profession that I loved dearly. I viewed teaching as a calling. But I lost my faith along the way, and that meant it was time for me to leave.

Jordan Kohanim taught high school English in Georgia and received the NCTE/SLATE Affiliate Intellectual Freedom Award, from the Georgia Council of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English, in 2011. She is now an education specialist with Consumer Direct Insurance Services of Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois. She posts frequently on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Get Schooled with Maureen Downey blog.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Get Schooled blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 22, 2012. Vol. 32, Issue 01, Page 31. This essay appeared in Education Week, August 22, 2012. Reprinted with permission from the author.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lawmakers’ state pension debate misleading (by Bill Knight)

Most Illinoisans seem torn between anger about state pensioners supposedly getting rich off taxpayers, and concern about state-worker neighbors caught between incompetent lawmakers and greedy credit agencies in cahoots with big banks. The real debate should be one timid type in Springfield (or Washington) to avoid: What do citizens want government to do and how will it be funded?

Gov. Quinn called a one-day legislative session [last] Friday, [August 17]. House Speaker Mike Madigan [did not] call House Bill 1447 for a vote… (Full disclosure: I earned a modest pension for 22 years of service as a state university teacher, so I’m affected; that’s why I’ve been reluctant to comment. But I’ve recognized private-sector workers screwed out of pensions by companies exploiting bankruptcy laws or busting unions, and most Illinoisans are affected in some way, so I’m weighing in.)

Legislators failed to come up with a way to “reform” state pensions this spring. Top lawmakers this summer met to discuss a compromise but failed...

The systems are about 40 percent funded, but that’s misleading. Actually, Illinois wouldn’t have enough to pay its pensions ONLY if every state employee retired NOW — if every state cop, clerk, transportation worker, university professor, prison guard, judge, etc. retired TODAY. But pension benefits are distributed over decades. The money is not due all at once any more than a mortgage must be paid the day a new buyer moves in.

Other overlooked points:

• It’s the responsibility of the legislature and governor to fulfill promises the state’s made, whether paying bills, funding schools, building roads or protecting communities. If that requires changes — decreases to discretionary spending or increases in taxes — do so.

• The situation was created by lawmakers and administrations for years. Since 1994, the state contributed its required pension share just once (in 2004). Four times (1994, ’95, ’96 and 2006), it paid less than one-third of the necessary amount.

“Governors and legislators of both parties have been skipping or shorting the state’s share of pension payments for decades,” agreed Koehler, a Peoria Democrat. “The [Republican Gov. Jim] Edgar administration kicked the can down the road during the boom years of the 1990s to avoid making tough decisions and spending cuts at a time when the state could have better afforded it.”

Pension funds aren’t just missing state contributions; they’re missing the investment returns and interest that money would have earned.

State pension recipients — whose median benefits are less than $24,000/year — cannot collect Social Security for years employed by government — also saving government (and taxpayers) money since those employers don’t have to pay FICA.

• Whether state pensions, guaranteed by Illinois’ constitution, or private pensions, they’re part of a pay package pledged in exchange for services performed, only deferred compensation paid later. It’s an asset, sort of a promissory note. Compare your finances. If your lender on its own hiked your monthly house payment, your company unilaterally cut your pay, or your bank on its own decided your savings account was worth two-thirds of what your passbook says, would that be “reform”? Technically, yes; it’d be wrong, too.

• Plus, it’d be bad for the economy, particularly in rural areas.

“Pension expenditures may be especially vital to small or rural communities, where other steady sources of income may not be readily found if the local economy lacks diversity,” says the National Institute for Retirement Security’s recent report. “Additionally, reliable pension income can be especially important in stabilizing local economies during economic downturns, because retirees know they are receiving a steady check despite economic conditions.”

• Balancing budgets on the backs of workers (who pay taxes too) reduces consumers’ spending and hurts morale since it pits workers against the public they’re serving.

As far as public opinion: Most robbery victims would sympathize with other people about to be held up, but right-wing media and wrong-headed legislators have created scapegoats to cover their own failures. Bill Fletcher, Jr., author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” and 20 Other Myths about Unions, explained the disconnect: “What the right wing has managed to do is get workers who have been crushed angry at somebody else. It is easier for regular working people to start blaming someone that they can physically identify — someone that cannot penalize them — rather than actually taking on the real powers, the people in Wall Street who have walked away with billions.”

This article was originally posted on It is posted here with Bill Knight's permission. Contact Bill Knight at

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Regarding a lower, assumed annual rate of return for the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System

According to the, Governmental Accounting Standards Board, “The discount rate used to discount projected benefit payments to their present value will be based on a single rate that reflects (a) the long-term expected rate of return on plan investments, as long as the plan net position is projected under specific conditions to be sufficient to pay pensions of current employees and retirees and the pension plan assets are expected to be invested using a strategy to achieve that return; and (b) a yield or index rate on tax-exempt 20-year, AA-or-higher rated municipal bonds to the extent that the conditions for use of the long-term expected rate of return are not met.” Thus, the Illinois Teachers Retirement System is contemplating the reduction of its expected investment rate of return on August 23rd.

I am asking these questions with limited knowledge about market valuations, long-term growth and returns on capital:

·         Isn’t the GASB expected investment method (risk-free all-bond investments) rather than the proven diversified investments strategy actually used by TRS to value future liabilities inconsistent with the overall 30-year average (of nine percent despite losses during the Great Recession)? Of course, it would also be unrealistic to believe that any entire investment portfolio would consist of municipal bonds. TRS has exceeded its assumed rate-of-return (more often than not) by using a diversified portfolio.

·         Does the lowering of the TRS investment rate-of-return have anything to do with the risks posed by the unfunded liabilities that were caused by past Illinois General Assemblies? 

·         Are we now considering the flawed analysis of Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh as an accurate prediction (low investment returns), despite reputable, substantiated rebuttals from Keith Brainard of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators (Faulty Analysis is Unhelpful to State and Local Pension Sustainability Efforts, October 2010), Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute (Discounting Public Pensions, April 2011), Diane Oakley of the National Institute on Retirement (Public Pension Asset Exhaustion – Only a remote Possibility, May 2011), and Dave Urbanek of TRS (Voice of the People, Chicago Tribune October 25, 2010 & November 30, 2010)?

To paraphrase Bob Lyons, TRS trustee, an expected lower investment rate-of-return will require larger contributions from the state and increase the state’s unfunded liability. Senator Christine Radogno recently talked about a “$130 [billion]” public pension unfunded liability in an interview. I assume the $130 billion she refers to will be the new unfunded liability as a result of a lower risk-free rate.

“Conservative critics… have gotten considerable political mileage from claims that public pensions’ unfunded liabilities are… two to six times larger than the conventional measures based on pension reporting… Their arguments hinge on assumptions that current and future pension fund investments will earn historically low rates-of-return going forward…

“Most economists believe that the expected return on stocks is significantly higher than the risk-free rate… Critics never address the practical implications of using a ‘discount rate’ … below the expected return on pension fund assets. Furthermore, simply discounting with a risk-free rate does not actually safeguard returns or encourage prudent investment practices, it just makes all pension funds appear underfunded.

“It also allows critics to argue that public-sector workers are paid more than they appear to be paid since the cost of their pension benefits (i.e., what must theoretically be socked away) is supposedly greater than the contributions made to the funds… [Moreover, regarding a 90 percent funding target by 2045 based on the flawed “Pension Ramp-Up,”] there is no need for pension funds to closely match assets and liabilities, though some boutique investment firms earn high fees advocating this approach” (Morrissey).

Since TRS’ recent projections are based upon “smoothing,” or the averaging procedure that includes both gains and losses over a five-year period to determine funding data, the return rate has been, indeed, low. According to Lyons, the current rate-of-return for the last five years is 2.5 percent. Of course, we all know the last five years include The Great Recession. TRS investments lost a combined 27.7 percent of its income in 2008-09.   

Consider the following excerpts from Pension Liabilities: Fear Tactics and Serious Policy by David Rosnick and Dean Baker (January 2012) of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

·         Participants in the debate over pension accounting have a variety of agendas. If the purpose is to make the situation of these pension funds appear as dire as possible, then using a risk-free rate-of-return to assess their liabilities can be useful…

·         If the goal is to actually manage a pension fund holding equities in a way that minimizes the need to increase contributions above the normal level, and therefore implicitly raise taxes, then it is desirable to use a funding rule that is based on an economically-conditional rate of return of the assets held by the fund…

·         A pension fund that adjusted its expected return assumptions based on the ratio of stock prices to trend earnings would have a much smoother contribution path than a fund that always maintained full funding using the risk-free rate-of-return as the discount rate…

·         If the goal of pension fund managers is to maintain a smooth flow of funding and avoid temporary tax increases needed to meet funding targets, then the conditional-funding rule… is unambiguously superior to a funding scheme that maintains full funding using the risk-free rate-of-return as the discount rate.

·         Pension funds should adopt a funding principle that is consistent with a return on holdings, conditional on the state of the market…

·         The expected ‘conditional rate-of-return’ used in making this assessment will vary depending on the current ratio of stock prices to trend corporate earnings…

·         An optimal funding rule would maintain a roughly constant ratio of contributions to payouts…

·         A pension fully funded under the choice of a risk-free rate would… require contributions even larger than those under the conditional rate. Of course, [public] pensions are rarely fully funded [and don’t have to be]…

·         A proposed switch in the discount rate affects the current funding status of the pension…

·         A decrease in the chosen discount rate pushes a pension father below funding…

·         Under the economically-conditional discount rate, pensions rarely must make contributions in excess of payouts…

·         It is far more common for a pension funded under a risk-free discount rate to pay current benefits exclusively out of contributions…

I wrote in a previous post: before changing the expected rate of investment return, why not wait until FY2014 to obtain a more realistic assessment of the TRS’ investment returns that are not based on asset values that include the exceptional market lows of the Great Recession? Since actuaries use “smoothing,” why not wait a few more years before drawing further conclusions about expected returns? After all, the State of Illinois does not face an urgent liquidity crisis (pension fund liabilities are long-term). Why not re-evaluate two or three years from now to see whether the economy and Market have fully recovered? Focus instead on the more honest and critical issue of revenue restructuring to pay the state’s debt problem that legislators have incurred.   

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Report from Bob Lyons, a Trustee of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System

August 2012

Every five years the Teachers’ Retirement System Board reconsiders its assumed annual rate of return, and we will do that again this Thursday, August 23. As you may know, our annual target for many years has been 8.5%. How have we done? Our thirty-year annual rate of return has been over 9%, twenty-five years just over 8.5%, twenty year just under 8%, ten year about 6.5%, and five years at 2.5%. Last year’s 23+% gain was not repeated, and I expect when we get the numbers for this last fiscal year on Wednesday, it will show a growth of just a couple of percentage points.

Our 8.5% assumption has become an outlier. IMRF uses 7.5%; SURS and SERS dropped their target last year from 8.5% to 7.5% and CalSTRS, the largest teachers’ pension fund in the nation, went from 7.75% to 7.5% at the start of 2012. What this all adds up to is there is an expectation that we will lower our assumed rate of return on our investments and, when we do, there will be headlines. This is a fiduciary decision, one that is made by the pension board with the advice of staff and consultants. We need to make a realistic and sound decision in arriving at a number. It cannot be a political decision, but it is going to have a huge political impact.

Since by law the goal of the State of Illinois and the State’s five pension funds is to be 90% funded by 2045, how much we think the fund will grow year over year through investing has a significant and direct effect on how much money the State will be required to contribute to our fund to achieve that distant goal. Lowering the assumed rate of return would correspondingly increase the amount that the State would have to contribute to make up for less money coming in from investments. For every quarter of a percent we lower our expected investment returns, we increase the pension benefit obligation of the State of Illinois by several billion dollars, and those dollars show up on the unfunded side of the equation. This will allow those who have been arguing that the Illinois pension problem is worse than we have been told, and they will scream: “We told you so!” It will certainly increase the pressure on legislators “to do something.”

Since the results of this decision are potentially dire, wouldn’t it be better to leave the number where it is? The answer is "No." If we consistently fail to achieve an overly-optimistic target, and no additional funds are coming in from the State, our unfunded obligation not only grows, but so does the demand to do something even if it is not constitutional. TRS has to accept that the long-held expected rates of return for equities, bonds, real estate, and every other kind of assets are being seriously questioned. A number of those who predict what will happen next in investing are talking about the “new normal”: an economic future of slower growth, greater market swings, and overall lowered expectations on returns. There are those that are saying TRS needs to pick a realistic number like 7% or something even lower. I do not agree because I do not believe that is a realistic number. It is too low. On Thursday, we will pick a number that we rationally believe we can achieve going forward.

As Yogi Berra put it, “Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.” The past thirty years saw the invention of the personal computer and the Internet. Could the next thirty years see that same kind of technological revolution repeated? Will the growth of a new middle class in China, India and Brazil spur economic growth for the world? We hope so. We cannot invest our way out of our funding problem, but we count on our investments to move us in the right direction.

--Bob Lyons, TRS Trustee

Monday, August 20, 2012

There are also numerous “Emerald Ash Borers” among the Illinois General Assembly

I have three ash trees on my property. According to an arborist, two of the trees are approximately 60 to 75 years old. “The emerald ash borer is a beetle…  The grub-like larva is the stage that causes the damage… The emerald ash borer spends the winter as a mature larva in a small chamber in the outer sapwood of an ash tree. The larvae transform into pupae, still within the chamber, in early spring. In late May or June, the adult beetle will emerge from the pupa and chew its way to the surface…” (The Care of Trees).  

There are no natural enemies for the emerald ash borer in Illinois (or in this country); therefore, I have hired tree professionals to attempt to solve this problem by applying direct pressure injections of Emamectin Benzoate into the tree bark and xylem. This is my pre-emptive attack to stave off these parasites. I was told that insecticide treatments must be started before the trees show evidence of “canopy thinning and branch dieback.” I was also told there is no (contractual) guarantee that a treated tree will survive as well. 

The first Illinois State Teachers’ Pension and Retirement fund was created 97 years ago in 1915. The current Teachers’ Retirement System of the State of Illinois was created in 73 years ago in 1939 (TRS). Since 1953, the Illinois General Assemblies have spent years in their chambers parasitically destroying the public pension systems of the State of Illinois by not funding them. Nothing has changed today. New and old politicians alike have recently emerged again with voracious appetites for breaking a "constitutional contract" with the state's public employees.

Our best defense against their attacks is a strong offensive. Our legislators' conversations have been intentionally wrong and supported by corporate media and the Civic Committee; their misinformation has been intentionally fallacious and promulgated. We must change their erroneous focus on “pension reform” to honest and legal solutions:

·         The Illinois General Assembly must address the state’s flawed tax policy which is also a cause of the state’s financial deficits;
·         The Illinois General Assembly must revamp the heavily back-loaded “Pension Ramp”;
·         The Illinois General Assembly must cease their attacks on servants of the State of Illinois.

We must unify and fight against any legislator who is unwilling to uphold the Illinois and the United States Constitutions. Public employees did not create financial problems in Illinois. We must address the unprecedented attacks on us. They are onslaughts on the entire middle class. Our unions must not bargain away our contractual rights and benefits.

Indifference is not an option. “Indifference is not a response… Indifference is always the friend of the enemy” (Elie Wiesel).  

-Glen Brown

Sunday, August 19, 2012


New York – “A naked man, carrying red carnations,
ran into St. Patrick’s Cathedral…
He killed one man and injured a police officer
before being shot to death…”
                                    —from a news story
We might imagine him
Straight edging his wrists
or plunging from bridge to water,
a .22 ricocheting off the back of his skull
or his feet dangling above the oak wood floor.
Instead, he chose absolution
by way of another form of suicide.

He took off his clothes
at 51st Street and 5th Avenue
and entered the Manhattan shrine
where the air was charged with incense,
the votive candles flickered yellowish orange,
and the inscrutable, soft murmurings
of prayer rose above the front pews.
The parishioners gasped
when the iron-prayer bookstand
crushed down upon the usher’s back,
as he believed he was Christ
purging his temple from sinners
while chanting dark monologues
to exorcise demons and delusions.
He discarded his life on the streets
because he wanted to find something
more impossible: testimony, refuge, God.
He was gunned down in the middle aisle
of St. Patrick’s Cathedral among the flowers
and the faithful, his sepulcher
spilling blood at the foot of the altar.

“Sanctuary” was originally published in Ariel, 1992.

Keeping Teachers in the Box (or “love you just the way you are”) by John Dillon

“I came to the conclusion that NCLB has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education. I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools – or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not – because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today” - Diane Ravitch

In Pulitzer Prize winning author Tony Morrison’s The Big Box, several “unruly” children from various backgrounds find themselves placed (incarcerated) into a Big Box complete with toys, articles of clothing, food, furniture – all of it to remind them what would be best for them if they were to conform to what society expects of them. In fact, although not directly stated, they have been placed in the box for behaving/thinking outside of the societal norms by which they should be constrained. If you’re a teacher or nurse or public servant, it’s worth a read. Pull up a chair at your local Barnes and Noble’s and give it a good look. You’ll find it in the children’s section.

Rules of Conduct for Teachers – 1915
· You will not marry during the term of your contract.
· You are not to keep company with men.
· You must be home between the hours of 8 PM and 6 AM unless at a school function.
· You may not loiter downtown in any of the ice cream stores.
· You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairman of the school board.
· You may not ride in carriages or automobiles with any man except your father or brother.
· You may not smoke cigarettes.
· You may not dress in bright colors.
· You may under no circumstances dye your hair.
· You must wear at least two petticoats.
· Your dresses may not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.
· To keep the classroom neat and clean you must sweep the floor once a day, scrub the floor with hot soapy water once a week, clean the blackboards once a day and start the fire at 7 AM to have the school warm by 8 AM when the scholars arrive (New Hampshire Historical Society).

Given these historical circumstances, we’d hardly expect a governess/educator to demand anything - much less a living wage. Pity the Ichabod Crane, Mary Poppins, Miss Crabtree, Anna (The King and I) – were they to shed their timidity for a sudden temerity and request deserved respect and compensation. That would be out of character and totally unacceptable. They might even lose their heads?

Teachers, nurses, police, firefighters, and public servants are taught through hammering stereotypes and reiterated imagery that their professions’ nobility is derived from the following: practiced compassion over personal reward, good works over self-interest, and graciously granted respect for the sacrifices each profession makes. We illuminate our minds with these strobe images of the dignity of penury through self-sacrifice.

But those once admirable stereotypes have changed recently, haven’t they, my educator friend?
Anyone familiar with the print media (in Chicago especially) is aware of the persistent vilification of the teaching profession, the new emphasis on privatization of the schools, the demand for testing as a measurement of teachers, not students. And with those angry new caricatures we have at times come to doubt ourselves and our work – and I might emphasize – our value.

For decades, any real threats by public servants demanding respect, seeking appropriate compensation, or calling for a voice in their respective professions have been countered with the media’s cynical rejoinder that they are coldly willing to hurt kids, or patients, or crime victims, or the populace. The economy, destroyed by speculators; retirement savings, drained to less than half their value; foreclosures, still rising unabated – we look at our pension and feel – of all things – guilty.
“Honestly,” one teacher whispered to me at a recent gathering, “I feel scared when people ask what I do for a living. They’ll either hate me or feel envy. So I make up things.It won’t get better.
In the new world or the “new reality,” our discomfort will be enhanced with the media’s consistent call to simplify the process – teach measureable skills only, reduce the scope of class choices, or just add more time. And be paid less accordingly.
In academics, they (public servants) are often reminded to remain in their domesticated positions as governess, tutor, nanny, baby-sitter, or hired help “in a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs” (Chris Hedges). Our job is simple: teach to the test. Replacing real teachers – the ones who educate children to think critically or inspire them to reach for their potential – the privateers now seek those who design curriculum that can objectify and assess basic skills at the expense of insights, gifts, or desire.
“Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system…They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts – those who march to the beat of their own drum – are weeded out” (Why the United States is destroying Its education system).
Here’s a peek into the corporatist’s future educational model. And No – this is NOT from The Onion.
Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation has been throwing more than $1.4 million into a scientific plan to create a biometric wrist band (called a pedometer) that will measure the emotional engagement of students in a classroom. In other words, the student’s response –excitement or ennui – could be demonstrably identified and graphed for a class period and thereby allows a charting of student-to-teacher response. Voila, we have a way to measure a student’s interest/learning – or – do we have a measure of how a teacher is doing in exciting a student or all the students for that matter? It doesn’t take much to realize the ridiculousness of this attempt to reduce and codify instruction like we would review an electro-cardiogram. But the Gates Foundation is serious enough to drop a ton of money on this project. In fact, additional money will be spent this year to begin testing the device in middle schools this fall (Biosensors to monitor students' attentiveness, Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2012).
The company spearheading this project, Affectiva Inc., states in all seriousness that such data could be used, for example, after watching a film in order to ask students questions about scenes in the film that aroused them. That’s just one example. Forget theme, symbol, holistic response, and personal response – just what aroused you. I personally spent most of 8thgrade sitting next to the Susie Wettergren and would have been in a constant state of excitement, so I guess I would have been identified a great student –or my teacher would have been considered exceptional.
One persistent problem with asking the educated to educate is that those who deliver the academic experience are not mindlessly obedient like the drones that function at basic levels of existence in third world labor shops. And in fact, their greatest danger is in educating those in their charge to think independently, or outside of the box, if you will. Despite the historical costume of subservience, real teachers provide or nurture a student’s further passion for learning, most especially in the intangible areas of art, music, dance, acting, etc. Like real teaching, these qualities are not measureable test outcomes. They are not subject to a single curve of improvement of failure; they grow in spurts of discovery and momentary drops of frustration, failure or confusion.
On the other hand, corporate entrepreneurs and business-model-minded people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Arnie Duncan, Michael Noble, Rahm Emanuel, Penny Pritzker, etc. are trying to shift that timeless paradigm of education to a measureable, data-driven curriculum concept, one that tabulates basic improvement in a student’s achievement as easily as a good or bad business quarter, an electrocardiogram, a simple test score. That’s placing both students and teachers in the box. That’s wrong-headed.
Chicago Teachers: Respect yourself. Respect your good work. Fight back!
--John Dillon

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beware When the Illinois General Assembly Stalls

There is nothing to celebrate but much to defend for the middle class. It wasn’t teachers or their unions that stopped the Illinois General Assembly from attempting to break a constitutional contract with public employees, for there were only a handful of them in Springfield on Friday, August 17th; it wasn’t other state employees or their unions that stopped the General Assembly either, for there were only a few hundred of them protesting in the rotunda.

It was the legislators’ apprehension about their upcoming election and their incompetent, reckless power politics that prevented their unethical and illegal bills (HB 1447 & SB 3168) from being passed once again.

I assume there were no discussions in the reserved legislative chambers about how the rich and poor are taxed at the same flat rate in Illinois, about how tax breaks for the state’s corporations are at the expense of middle-class public employees and other citizens. I expect there were no discussions about how legislators should address a “flawed tax policy which is the primary cause of the fiscal problems in Illinois” and about the flawed “Pension Ramp” that was mandated to repay “the debt [they caused and] owed to the pension systems” (Center for Tax and Budget Accountability). I suppose there were no discussions about how to replace the flawed “Pension Ramp” with a “rational, attainable payment schedule” instead of placing the burden of debt on the state’s public employees.

I bet there were no discussions in the private legislative chambers about how past legislators had caused the state’s financial problems and for decades chose to use billions of dollars of public pension money for services and other budget responsibilities, so they could avoid raising taxes and guarantee their reelection. I presume there were no discussions about the ramifications of making public employees bear the burden of the state’s budget deficits they did not cause. I surmise there were no discussions about unethical and illegal proposals that would challenge the Constitution of Illinois, or about the extensive and devastating economic, political and moral consequences for the entire State of Illinois if its public employees were robbed of their earned and constitutionally-guaranteed benefits.

I believe, however, there were many discussions about continuing their heedless, unethical and illegal efforts to destroy the pensions of middle class public employees and retirees after they are reelected in November. 

-Glen Brown