Uncommon Sense

June 11, 2014

Teacher Tenure Rules Have a Negative Effect on Public Education?

A Los Angeles County judge struck down California rules on tenure for teachers in the Vergara v. California case. The plaintiffs argued that the rules made it too hard to fire ineffective public school teachers. Judge Rolf Treu concluded that tenure did have a negative effect on the education of children, especially black and Latino students, saying it violated those “students’ fundamental right to equality of education” under the state’s constitution.

Okay, let me see if I get this right. Teacher tenure rules are simply that there must be a process by which a teacher can be demoted or fired and that process must include a fair hearing. The public understanding of tenure being a “job for life” is mistaken.

To put this in perspective, the vast majority of public school teachers are competent and not a problem. The question is what to do about those who are incompetent. Every school district I have been a part of had such a procedure (as it was required by law). And, in almost every case of an attempted dismissal based upon competence, a court (or NLRB hearing) threw out the district’s case for the same reason: the districts violated the rules of their own procedures. So, apparently this judge threw out California’s tenure laws because of administrative incompetence. Adding to this the greatest number of teacher “dismissals”  resulted in the teacher in question “retiring” or leaving “voluntarily” and so did not appear to anyone as a “dismissal,” but were the equivalent.

And, do not get me wrong, the general population of teachers are frustrated that people they consider incompetent stay on due to administrative incompetence but at the same time support tenure laws to protect themselves from that same administrative incompetence (or perfidy).

Also, to focus on black and Latino students and the role of tenure is appalling. Did they consider that teachers are often assigned to “poor” districts as punishment or to encourage them to resign. Did they consider that administrators “reward” teachers by giving them the cushiest assignments in the schools with the best infrastructure and the best performing students instead of challenging them with the schools that really need the good teachers? Is tenure really an issue at all in struggling schools?

It should not be, but a conservative challenge (funded by the usual billionaire suspects) put in front of a conservative judge who found it to be so.

We will see as this legal charade continues.

June 7, 2014

What Ever Happened to Progress?

According to David Cay Johnson in Aljazeera America, the “recovery” from the Great recession isn’t so great, for example:

What about the average hourly wage for private sector workers? The 2014 Economic Report of the President shows that it rose in 2013. But the increase, after inflation, was just 12 cents an hour—a blip of about six-tenths of 1 percent.

More revealing, the average hourly pay of $20.13 last year was smaller than in 1972 and 1973. Back then, the inflation-adjusted hourly average was about 6 percent higher. In other words, people in 2013 worked 52 weeks to make what they would have made in 49 weeks back in 1972 and 1973.

Wait, it gets worse.

The presidential report shows that in 1972 and 1973 the average private sector worker was paid for 36.9 hours of work per week, but in 2013 this was down to 33.7 hours because a growing share of people can find only part-time jobs.

Combine lower pay with fewer hours, and the average weekly gross pay in the private sector dropped by 14 percent in four decades. That’s the equivalent of working 52 weeks in 2013 to earn 45 weeks’ worth of wages in 1972 and 1973.

What ever happened to “progress?” When I was a schoolboy (in the 1950’s) there was an intense focus on progress. General Electric’s slogan was “Progress is Our Most Important Product,” for example.

For working people, there has been not only no progress but just the opposite—regress—for the last 40 years.

When will working people stop voting against their own economic interests and insist that they share in the increase in wealth in this country? It is our huge productivity gains over that 40 years that created that wealth. Waiting for the fat cats to “share” doesn’t seem to be working. The “trickle” in “trickle down economics” is flowing the wrong way. Politicians are working for the rich, not the poor and the middle class any more.

Wake up people, you are being robbed and you are approving of it!

June 6, 2014

Oh, Yeah, Take This …

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:22 pm
Tags: , ,

Sam Harris’s blog is one of my favorites. On it he recently issued a challenge in the form of a contest (with a substantial cash prize, mind you, no cheapskate Dr. Harris) with the topic being to refute his thesis in his book “The Moral Landscape” that a scientific basis for morality could be found. Here is the prize winning essay (www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-moral-landscape-challenge).

The good doctor doesn’t allow comments on his website as he has neither the time to read them nor the staff to monitor them (plus he is a target, literally, because of his critiques of the Muslim religion, amongst other things). Consequently I am writing my comment about the refutation here. I state this up front so you can go elsewhere if this bores you.

The basis of the refutation is that there is no scientific definition of what “is good” means. And as Sam Harris used as an analogy the health business (doctors, nurses, etc.) the refutation basically says that since “good health” cannot be defined scientifically that medicine is in the same position as is a scientific morality, having to start with axioms of what “is true” to have any purchase whatsoever.

This is where I wish to start setting my hair on fire. I feel someone capable of evaluating such arguments as I majored in chemistry in college and minored in philosophy, also having read a great deal of philosophy. I remember my ethics professor pointing out that in 4000 years of recorded philosophy that philosophers had yet to answer a single question. His comment came in a very long discussion (taking up weeks) of what the phrase “is good” meant. This is in contrast to churchmen who have answered virtually every question, but incorrectly, e.g. Question: How old is the Earth? Answer: 6018 years. Wrong.

Since I am an academic I am used to this approach of taking somebody by the scruff of the neck and shoving their face into the bark of a tree and then screaming in their ear “Can you see the forest? Can you?” So, let us take a step back, shan’t we? The purpose of any system of morality is to guide people in making decisions that affect other human beings. Were you alone on the planet, I doubt the subject of ethics or morality would come up (although some now are trying to extend human ethics to include other conscious animals, let’s not go there for now as this is complicated enough as it is).

So, let me address the issue of health scientifically. Here is a scientific poll:
Q1 Would you rather be sick or well?
a. sick
b. well
c. don’t really care
What do you think the results would be if several thousand people were to seriously answer this question? Is there any doubt that 95+% of ordinary people would answer “b”? Would you not be suspicious of anybody answering a or c? Do you think the results would depend upon culture or ethnicity or age or . . . ? No, I don’t either.

So, we have scientific poll results saying that the hugely vast majority of human beings would rather be well than sick (or we would if we were to do this poll). So, does an academic concern over being able to scientifically and accurately define “sick” and “well” affect the interactions you might have with other people that involve the morality of these situations? I don’t think so.

This is by no means cut and dried. Let’s go back to the early days of the United States—the Revolutionary War period. Smallpox was a constant threat to our armed forces. (The British soldiers had either already had it and survived or been exposed to it enough to not get a bad case (they were somewhat immunized).) The radical idea cropped up that one could avoid the fatal aspects of smallpox by giving oneself a mild case of the disease (thus creating an immunity) and some douty Americans voluntarily did this, that is they chose being sick over being well. Of course, this is not a general condition we are addressing here, we are addressing a trade-off of choosing a mild short-term illness versus the possibility of a disfiguring and possibly fatal illness later. So, probabilities come into play. If you had to make this choice, would you prefer scientifically determined probabilities of death/disfigurement from a full-fledged case of smallpox versus the possibility of the mild case getting out of hand or would you prefer an “educated guess” by your health professional, the guy over there with the leeches?

If we step back farther, we see that scientific methods applied to medicine have resulted in better health outcomes for most of us and longer lifespans, too. So, wouldn’t it follow that having scientific information available any time a decision of questionable morality needs be made be a naturally good thing?

A system of morality should provide guidance when you have to make decisions that affect other people. (I think you should have autonomy over yourself up to an including suicide, but this is debatable.) Part of the problem is that some of us believe in absolute rules of morality and some of us do not. If you are a believer in moral absolutes, you will have a hard time accepting any scientific moral system as it will involve probabilities and not absolutes. I tend to think that people who believe in god-given absolute morals are deluding themselves. (They have to be god-given to have the authority behind them to make them absolute.) Such morals are wishful thinking on a grand scale. I say this because if the moral codes of say, Christians, were absolutes, a Christian would never murder anyone (Thou shall not commit murder.) because even if they avoided punishment in this life, punishment in the hereafter would be so extreme as to make such an act insane. And, of course, Christians, do murder people from time to time. So, whether you think such cases are clear evidence of insanity, at least you have to admit those rules do not work . . . especially the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife! The wishful thinking is that any god-given morality has to be more effective than any socially devised moral code we could come up with. Or possibly people like the fact that if someone does get away with it now, they won’t later; it is hard to tell.

The even sillier thing is if we do create a scientifically based moral code, how different could it be from the ones we have now? Are we going to come up with something that says it is okay to steal small things from rich people because they will hardly miss them but not okay to steal from poor people who need everything they have and more? I don’t think so.

It is clear to me that people have created the gods and therefore they created all of the “god-given” moral codes, along with the others (not god-given) and by and large these are pragmatic, “can’t we all get along” kinds of rules. We are not talking about the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, we are talking about general guidelines to help people who write such laws/regulations prevent fraud and abuse of others.

Need we worry about academic/scientific definitions of what it means “to steal” or should we take a step back and ask people, in a scientific poll, whether they want their goods stolen or not? Can we not accept the feelings of others as a basis to establish a scientific moral code? Are we not just trying to get along with one another, doing the most good and the least harm? Why is this so hard?

June 4, 2014

Selling Influence to Be Able to . . .

Legislators in North Carolina apparently just sunseted the bulk of that state’s environmental laws. If those laws cannot be re-passed in a very short time, they will disappear from the law books. This environmental extinction law was seemingly designed for such an outcome—the gutting of all state environmental regulations.

What I want to know is how the NC legislators felt when they went home that night to tell their sons and daughters about their day. “Daddy had a good day, we wiped out all of the environment protections passed by previous legislatures, honey.” How do you think 11-year old daughters would receive that? wives? sons in college?

Apparently those legislators were willing to sell their influence/votes to Duke Energy and the other big polluters in the state for campaign contributions. They were willing to sell their influence over the future health of their friends, neighbors, children, etc. to be able to . . . continue in office as someone who can sell their influence to be able to . . . continue in office. . . .

One suggests that those people rethink why they are in office. Apparently they think they are in office to raise funds to continue to hold office. If they do well at the state level, they might get to the federal level where as many as 10% of the population will approve of their performance, but only so long as they keep their jobs. It must be for the prestige.

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