Monday, February 14, 2011

A Visit from Senator Grassley

More often than not, when a politician comes to your school, there is usually very short notice, giving us little time to make plans. Such was the case when aides of Senator Chuck Grassley asking if he could meet with our seniors contacted Jim Hanson, one of our social studies teachers. Once we received the request, Mr. Hanson alerted the media as best he could. With a weekly newspaper and without a radio station in the district, it is a bit difficult to notify everyone in the area that a visitor of such status will join us. However, the request was to speak with our seniors as part of the Senator’s educational tour to provide information about the workings of the federal government and provide insight into current issues.

I have had opportunity to meet with Senator Grassley three times in the past four years as part of a four to six person group of Iowa educators that go to Washington, DC each summer to lobby on behalf public education. All three times that I have participated, the Senator has met personally with our delegation. Without being too political, we have also scheduled meetings with Senator Harkin’s office at the same time and not one time have we been able to talk personally with him, rather we get to speak with his aides. In elections I have supported both senators, obviously crossing over party lines to vote for one of them. But it says a lot to me that while both of these men are very busy, one of them has taken the time to meet with public educators from his home state. Kind of interesting when you think about the current political climate and the different perspectives on public education taken by Republicans and Democrats! Those that educators most often view as “friendly toward education” are not the ones represented by Senator Grassley’s party.

The Senator impressed me as to how well he answered the student’s questions. And, I was very impressed by our students and the questions they asked. This gentleman is 77-years old and he is still very sharp on issues and was able to provide solid information in his responses. I do remember a trip to Washington a couple of years ago when it seemed to me that he was “slipping” a little bit, but all of us can chalk up a bad day or two. Were some of his responses political? Yes, they were. He let the students know what he thought. Was he trying to influence them? I don’t believe so. And when I think about it, that is what I respect about Senator Grassley. For years he has reminded me of my grandfather in a number of ways, and while he has been gone for close to ten years, my grandfather was a very strong Grassley supported. While he was alive, we had some really intense political arguments, many of which had Grassley at the center. On Friday listening to the Senator talk, my mind wandered to my grandfather and it became clear why I respected him, and Grassley so much. You do not have to agree with them, but you must respect them for their convictions and their honesty. There is nothing phony about Chuck Grassley. What you see is what you get. In today’s world, maybe we can all take a lesson from that.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The 99ers

A while back, I caught an episode of 60 Minutes, and Scott Pelley began the segment with, “The economic jam we’re in has topped even the Great Depression in one respect: Never have we had a recession this deep with a recovery this flat. Unemployment has been at 9.5% or above for fourteen months. Congress did something it has never done before. It extended unemployment benefits to 99 weeks. That cost more than $100 billion. A huge expense for a government in debt.” During the episode they interviewed unemployed individuals from Silicon Valley in California, center of the high-tech universe in the United States. What struck me was that hundreds of highly educated, bright, driven individuals were unemployed for over two years. Financial analysts and fiber optic engineers living in trucks and with friends, unable to find work, were willing to do nearly anything to earn a paycheck. The competition is stiff – over a thousand applicants for four clerk positions in a county office – and people are still finding it tough going after nearly two years of looking for a job. People with doctorates and master degrees feeling desperate wonder what is next. Too young to retire and many have cashed out their 401K’s. Small family businesses were going broke because people don’t have enough money to buy their goods.

At that time the national unemployment rate was over 9%, but that did not take into account the under-employed and part-time workers. In reality it was about 17%. One-third of the unemployed were out of work for over a year, which hadn’t been seen since the great depression. 1.5 million Americans had exhausted their unemployment checks and have been trying to figure out what to do, some taking matters into their own hands, selling their homes, digging through garbage to collect recyclable items, and making other life altering decisions.

So how does this fit into an education blog? The vast majority of the individuals featured in the program were highly educated. In a room full of unemployed individuals, not one had less than a four-year degree, and as mentioned earlier, many with master degrees and a few PhD’s. This recession that still lingers – though some economic indicators do look promising – has spared few. Those out of work have not just been unskilled laborers. What it says to me is that this is the first warning shot across the bow about the changing world economy and America’s role. As individuals like Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink have warned, our nation must shift our focus and thus our educational system to account for the fact that cheaper labor in other parts of the world coupled with faster communication and tied together with more aggressive countries in the world economy, we will experience more setbacks like this one. Computers can replicate what humans once did. The Chinese can produce goods cheaper than we can. Brazil is now the fourth most powerful economy in the world in an area rich with natural resources. We must understand that just as the 20th century factory system is a things of the past, so must be the educational system that was designed in the same template. We cannot educate our young people the same way we were educated. It is my opinion that the toughest people to convince are the general public. So, here is my request: you must let us change and understand that there will be growing pains. You must trust that we have the best interest of your children at heart. You need to let go of some of the things that really are not that important in the big picture. Help us with these changes and challenge us to do better.