Everything Looks Worse In Black And White

Most pop music is pleasant enough mindless crap – endless love or love lost, or both, and the usual teenage angst, with the expected and quite conventional rebellion mixed in here and there. Back in the day it used to be that Stairway to Heaven, with Peggy Sue perhaps, and all in all, you’re just Another Brick in the Wall – and there were always those California Girls. It never changes – out here the Beach Boys, now old farts, sang the national anthem on opening day at Dodger Stadium, and this weekend they play the Hollywood Bowl on the other side of the hill out back. And down the block, on the Sunset Strip, the marquees at the Viper Room and the Whisky and the Roxy keep changing, displaying the cleverly calculated odd names of all the new hot groups that come and go – all pumping out the same sort of thing. (By the way, do try the automatic rock-band name-generator – just keep clicking Create Band Names and giggle – as the guys really may use this.)

So pop music isn’t something one should take very seriously – those who read Rolling Stone should get a life. But then there’s Paul Simon, who was never really that popular, save in fits and starts, probably because he always had trouble keeping his songs entirely mindless. There was his evocative American Tune that really does capture America in decline:

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong…

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest…

That was 1974 but it makes even more sense now, even if it’s not what you expect from pop music. It didn’t make the Top Forty. A friend who was a producer at CNN wanted to use it in a montage sequence for a 9/11 anniversary show – or maybe it was something else – hard to remember now – but that was about it. And Paul Simon did have much more success with his lively and infectious Kodachrome – that song that opens with “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

Who hasn’t felt that way? But the narrator realizes he’s pretty much a dope and kind of a loser now, and wishes the world were all just pretty pictures, not words and ideas and all that – just a world of all those supersaturated deep Kodachrome colors that never fade. That would be nice. He could deal with that. Life would be simpler.

Well, Kodak is bankrupt now, limping along and selling off the last of its assets, and they stopped making Kodachrome film years ago. Everything went digital and they didn’t. But the song makes even more sense now:

Cisco’s report finds that by 2016, video will make up the majority of Web traffic as well, with 54 percent of all data coming from video streams and downloads, and that’s not including peer-to-peer file sharing networks. “It would take over 6 million years to watch the amount of video,” Cisco states. Today, 51 percent of web traffic is devoted to video, according to Cisco.

People just don’t want to deal with words and ideas and all that. They’d rather watch people speaking words, or just pretty pictures. It’s easier. They can deal with that. So Kodachrome is long gone, but Paul Simon was onto something with his sly song about the guy who just couldn’t deal with words and ideas, or even high school. After all these years the world is coming around to him. Pop music isn’t usually that prescient.

But that’s the world we live in. Are you still reading this after these first seven hundred words? That makes you exceptional, or maybe just unusual – a throwback. This is a world, now, in which everyone looks back on all the crap they learned in high school and does find it a wonder they can think at all. And yes, we’re still trying to figure out what to do about our education system. Out of thirty-four countries, we’re ranked fourteenth in reading and seventeenth in science and twenty-fifth in math – and that’s not good. And with our infrastructure crumbling – there are some bridges over troubled waters you just don’t want to cross – now we are told that of thirty-five wealthy countries studied by UNICEF, only Romania has a child poverty rate higher than our twenty-three percent rate. It is getting a little third-world in America. But you can’t be forever blessed.

But there have been attempts to address the problems with our educational system. In the Bush administration it was No Child Left Behind, which those of us who were once teachers called No Child Left Alive – a system of very specific high standards, with a hell of a lot of standardized testing, week in and week out. Those schools with low test scores would lose all their funding and have to close. The idea was that would fix the problem – but teachers found themselves always teaching-to-the-test and nothing else, no matter who needed what, and in various cities school administrators, sometimes with the help of worried teachers, altered the test scores – cooking the books to save the school. But they got caught and the whole thing became kind of a farce. And then the Obama administration shifted to what they call Race to the Top – incentives for the schools, not close-the-doors punishment – but that was still tinkering with the same concept. We don’t want creative and engaged thoughtful kids – we want those high test scores. The kids can be creative and engaged and thoughtful on their own time.

And everyone knows we have a mess on our hands. But as it’s a mess in an election year, the man who wants to oust Obama and become president, and radically change things, Mitt Romney, has a ripe target here. And the American Tune he sings – America the Beautiful not that Paul Simon downer – is all about free-market capitalism and the wonders of the Invisible Hand of Competition – which always fixes everything. And Ben Adler reports on how Romney started out:

Mitt Romney kicked up some controversy when he visited a Philadelphia school last Thursday. Speaking to a roundtable of teachers and education professionals, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee asserted that class size doesn’t affect the quality of a student’s education. Citing a study of several countries by McKinsey & Co., Romney concluded “it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems.” He added that as Massachusetts governor, he found that the best schools in the state did not necessarily have the smallest class sizes.

Teachers at the event responded with shock and outrage, citing competing studies and their own personal experience to argue that smaller classes do indeed help students learn. The Obama campaign pounced on the political opportunity, charging that Romney’s claims went “against all evidence.”

And Adler then goes on to discuss all the evidence on this, one way or the other, and comes down here:

Studies of class size suggest the reality is complicated, but one crucial finding is that, while more privileged and better-performing students may not be helped much by smaller classes, kids from poor families, and those with disabilities – including learning disabilities – do appear to benefit.

In other words, the greater the needs of the student, the more class size matters. And that means that letting class sizes grow will likely hurt the most vulnerable kids.

So it comes down to this:

Class size may not matter in some cases, as long as policymakers take steps to ensure that there aren’t a significant number of struggling kids who really need that one-on-one attention. And that’s where Romney fails the test. That’s because he also supports the draconian Paul Ryan budget that would slash spending on Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing. Class size, the evidence suggests, only doesn’t matter for those kids who aren’t coming in to school hungry or sick. Romney, it seems, would let class sizes increase, while seeking to slash the very programs that allow kids to flourish in school regardless of class size.

If children show up to school exhausted from spending the previous night in a homeless shelter or on the street, sick from untreated illnesses, or malnourished, personal attention from teachers will be one of the only ways to give them any shot at getting an education. And Romney would take that away from them, too.

But Romney is adamant. You get what you pay for, and there’s no point in spending money for small class sizes. It’s a cold calculation. He’s a businessman. And the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss goes into the real meat of the formal Romney plan:

Romney is advancing a pro-choice, pro-voucher, pro-states-rights education program that seems certain to hasten the privatization of the public education system.

In a Romney-run education world, the parents of poor and special education students would choose a school – public or private, based on standardized test scores and other data – and then a specific amount of public money would follow the child to the school.

It’s a voucher system that would, among other things, require families of the neediest children to constantly shop around for schools in an unstable market and would likely exacerbate the very thing – a chronic achievement gap – all of this is supposedly intended to fix. Obama opposes vouchers.

But it is a free-market-capitalism plan, as you would expect:

Romney’s education vision is based on an ideology that demonizes unions and views the market as the driver of education reform. His program is not based on quality research or best practices; indeed, it doesn’t mention the one reform that has been shown over years to be effective, early childhood education.

But the real issue is the role of the federal government in education:

Obama’s Education Department has been powerful in shaping how states reform their schools by dangling billions of federal dollars – with major conditions attached. The problem has been those conditions, not the notion that the federal government has some role to play in public education.

Romney’s view is that the federal government should have pretty much no control over local education. He would eliminate the accountability system in the unpopular No Child Left Behind act, which would mean that states would no longer have to meet federal requirements for improving schools. States would again be left alone to run their own systems, a situation that led that famous liberal, George W. Bush, to insist on federal mandates in the first place a decade ago.

Under Romney’s plan, standardized tests would remain central to school and teacher “accountability” (even though these tests weren’t designed for high-stakes purposes).

And there’s more:

Romney opposes what he calls “unnecessary” teacher certification requirements, leaving the teaching door open to anybody who, for example, thinks they can teach math because they got good grades in the subject. He attacks the federal “highly qualified teacher” requirement as well-intentioned but says it serves only to “prevent talented individuals” from becoming teachers.

Ah, let the market decide everything – standards and skills were never all that related anyway. And Matthew Yglesias finds the real bomb hidden in the Romney white paper on education:

“Eligible students remaining in public schools will also have the option to use federal funds to purchase supplemental tutoring or digital courses from state-approved private providers rather than receiving Title I services from their district.”

I wasn’t sure what this meant since students don’t receive individualized “Title I services” from their school district. The Title I formula just basically hands money to school districts and helps finance the general operation of local public schools. When I inquired the Romney campaign confirmed to me that what this means is that families could get money from the federal government to purchase supplemental tutoring and as a consequence their public school’s overall budget would be reduced. Since the money comes to your family in one giant lump but the cuts are spread out across the entire school, there’s basically no reason not to put in for the cash-out.

But that leads to some dark places:

For on-the-ball parents, this should work out fine. Having each family shop separately for education services sounds pretty inefficient, but well-organized families will probably team up to buy some small group lessons or whatever. It’ll be an extra hassle to shoulder additional responsibilities in this regard, but some people will appreciate the extra flexibility and one way or another people will do what they have to do for their kids.

But the kind of kids who are worst-served by the existing school system – kids experiencing family disruption and who low-income and often poorly educated parents themselves – are going to be very poorly served by this idea. Neither a single mom who dropped out of high school and is trying to raise three kids on a minimum wage job, nor a pair of Mexican immigrants with no English literacy are going to do a great job of hiring an algebra tutor for their children. The overall Romney budget framework implies such a steep drop in per student Title I and IDEA money one way or another that the specific details of how he’d dole it out are less relevant than they might otherwise be, but the basic concept here seems almost willfully indifferent to the problems facing low-socioeconomic status families.

But they’re the losers in our free-market economy. They should have known better. They should have made something of themselves. Freedom works that way, and so on.

But Salon’s Joan Walsh points out this goes beyond all the crap you learned in high school:

You’ve got to hand it to Mitt Romney. For someone who’s usually as steadfast as a “perfectly lubricated weathervane,” in the words of former foe Jon Huntsman, sometimes he’s got a lot of brass. This week he released an ad blaming the student debt crisis on President Obama, when in fact out-of-control student loans were gobbling up graduates’ paychecks by the time Obama took office in 2009. In fact, Romney himself played a starring role in the crisis, cutting higher-education funding and hiking tuition back when he was Massachusetts governor (or, as he’d rather put it, during the lost years).

Broadcast in New Hampshire, the swing state that also leads the nation in per capita student debt, the ad highlighted “the fact that the president has not been able to help students deal with this crushing debt,” according to Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. Unfortunately, the ad used footage of New Hampshire students complaining about their loan burden without their permission, and one of them happens to plan to vote for Obama. “Considering I am not a supporter of Mitt Romney, this is not exactly sitting well with me,” said Southern New Hampshire University sophomore Matt Raso. The campaign pulled the footage when a local television station objected, but Ryan Williams told the Associated Press that the campaign plans to run ads blaming the student loan crisis on Obama in other swing states.

But Walsh finds this absurd:

In fact, American student debt is a scandal in which state and national lawmakers in both parties share some blame. But by far the lion’s share of responsibility for the debacle belongs to Republicans. The roots of the crisis go back to California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who imposed the first “fees” on the formerly free University of California system in 1968, declaring “the state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.”

Let that one sink in. For those of who have been teachers, and those who are now, subsidizing intellectual curiosity is the whole point of any public educational system. And if you want to be all practical and pragmatic about in, in a competitive high-tech global economy, intellectual curiosity isn’t useless hippie stuff. Intellectual curiosity creates whole new industries. It’s not an extra, and it’s what the state should be subsidizing.

But there is history here:

As president, Reagan helped nationalize that disdain for well-funded public higher education in the 1980s. But it took a long roster of Republican governors to turn the problem into a crisis, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the way a decade ago, dramatically slashing public higher-education funding and hiking fees during his one term.

According to the Boston Globe, from 2003 to 2007, fees and tuition jumped 63 percent at Massachusetts’s once-stellar system of public higher education as Romney slashed state funding year after year, for a total of $140 million, or 14 percent, in four years. Not surprisingly, average student debt in Massachusetts jumped 25 percent while Romney was governor. Between 2001 and 2011, tuition and fees have more than doubled at the state’s community college, state university and UMass campuses, but the bulk of the added burden piled up under Romney.

But Romney is a free-market guy, and Walsh sees what’s happening:

Romney also wanted to spin off the flagship UMass-Amherst and privatize three other colleges, including the medical school, a harbinger of what he says he’ll do as president. That agenda failed in Massachusetts, but it would be a shame to give him a second chance as president.

And then she adds some historical perspective:

It’s tragic that Republicans have become the dismantlers of public universities, since it was Abraham Lincoln who signed the Morrill Act in 1862, creating the system of land-grant colleges that made the U.S. a country of unusually broad opportunity. … “Abraham Lincoln is weeping today,” university president Graham Spanier told reporters when Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett slashed Penn State funding by $182 million last year. It was the aggressive expansion of college education access after World War II that helped create the vast American middle class. In 1946, only one in eight college-aged students got higher education; by 1970, one in three did. And the balance of enrollment shifted to public institutions: In the 1940s, most students attended private colleges; by 1970 three-quarters were enrolled in public ones.

Presidents from Truman through Eisenhower and Nixon to Carter continued to endorse and enable broad college access, but the tide began to turn in the 1960s as universities became hotbeds of political protest and the new educated generation began to use its college smarts to question society rather than become cogs in the corporate machine. But we can make too much of Reagan’s resentment of Berkeley radicals as a factor in his push to end free UC tuition. He and his backers were anxious to dismantle the public sector and the tax structure that made it possible as well as to privatize all sorts of formerly public institutions, creating lucrative new money-making opportunities for their wealthy friends.

And make money they did, with a captive market:

University tuition is up 128 percent nationwide since 1980, the year Reagan became president (and coincidentally, the year I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, when I paid less than $400 a semester). Public university tuition has tripled since then. In that same period, the middle class has shrunk, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich have gotten richer. Is it all connected to our breaking our promises to our kids about higher education? Not entirely, but it’s not a random coincidence, either.

But Walsh points out that this approach to higher education has a lot in common with an overall approach to the economy:

Let’s take jobs as an example. Under Reagan, median wages for the working and middle classes began to stagnate and fall – but household debt began to rise. It was as if the GOP-unleashed private sector figured out how to make money lending families the money that they were no longer making in income. Republicans have the same approach to higher education: They slashed public funding and then let their banker friends “help” students afford higher tuition by lending them the cash to pay for it. Now, of course, the nation’s student loan debt is larger than its credit card debt, and graduates leave college carrying about $25,000 in loans. It’s like a mortgage, but without the house.

And then there is Andrew Leonard on Romney’s ties to the for-profit education industry:

The biggest for-profit schools generate 80 to 90 percent of their revenue from federally guaranteed student loans. Only one out of every ten American college students attends a for-profit institution, but these students account for a quarter of all student debt and almost half of all student loan dollars in default. There’s no sugar-coating it: The booming for-profit industry is one of the worst possible examples of the “free market” in action that one can find in the entire U.S. educational sector. For-profits charge higher tuition rates than their public school competitors, graduation rates are lower, and the entire business would not exist without massive government subsidization in the form of cheap student loans.

And Walsh adds this:

Romney is also pledging to undo one of Obama’s most progressive reforms: his overhaul of the student loan system, taking banks (and their gouging) out of the middle of the government-guaranteed loan relationship.

And you don’t even want to go there. It’s just depressing.

But it doesn’t matter. Soon we’ll all be doing no more than watching videos on our wireless devices – they give us those nice bright colors – they give us the greens of summers – makes you think all the world’s a sunny day – just like in that old Paul Simon song. And you know the last line of that song. Everything looks worse in black and white.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Everything Looks Worse In Black And White

  1. Madman says:

    “If you wanna find the Truth in Life,
    Don’t pass music by”
    Lyric from “Monterrey Nights,” Eric Burdon & Animals, 1966

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