Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Going to court can be fun !

For most of us, gong to court usually is not a pleasant experience. The last time that Sharon and I went to court (to unsuccessfully fight a bogus credit card debt) we got rear-ended on the way to the DuPage Government Center, and had to reschedule our meeting. Sharon wound up going to a local hospital to have her back pains taken care of, and the guy that hit us totaled his car.

However, not all the trips to the court house are unpleasant, and we just experienced one of those happy trips on Friday, December 16, at the government center in downtown Tucson.

Kelly and her long time friend Chris met on a website called “plenty of fish” almost exactly 5 years ago. Our initial opinion of Chris was the same one you would get when your 15 year old daughter comes home with her biker friend. He had long, kinky hair, his body was covered with tattoos, and he hasn’t worked for years. Like all relationships, they have had a few rocky moments over the last 5 years, but discovered that they had a lot of common interests, and gradually experienced a deepening of feelings towards each other.

Now, for a little background …

There are numerous organizations that will accept hair from people so that bald cancer patients will have wigs to wear, and that is why Chris had been growing his hair for 2 years by the time that we met him.

I’m not a fan of tattoos personally, but I am reminded of a quote that I saw recently, where an individual discovered that an acquaintance who was covered with tattoos was one of the nicest people in the world, but another acquaintance who attended church every single week was a despicable hypocrite.

The reason that Chris has not worked for years was that he was injured when he was serving his country (in the Navy), and he has been a "regular customer" of the VA ever since.

In many relationships, the female half is more eager to tie the knot, but our non-traditional daughter was actually the one who dragged her feet. As they approached the 5 year mark, they mutually agreed it was finally time to get hitched – so they did.

Kim Kardashion’s mega-million dollar wedding to Chris Humphries resulted in a divorce 40 days later, so Kelly and Chris had long ago decided that a big church wedding was simply not in the cards.

The other option to getting married was to go to a Justice of the Peace, which is an option that my sister Mary chose more than 40 years ago. It’s also a very popular option in Tucson , where weddings are performed on Tuesday and Friday. On the night that we went to the courthouse, there were roughly 40 other couples, some of whom were visibly pregnant, and some of whom already had children.

When it came time to witness the uniting of Chris and Kelly, our Justice of the Peace was a man named Paul Simon, who was actually a great guy. Due to the fact that we all wore Star Wars t-shirts, he decided that we were the most fun group of the evening.

When my sister Mary’s daughter got married 5 years ago, she and her hubby Thom got married outdoors deep in the woods of the San Bernadino mountains. All of the food was vegetarian, and all of the deserts were homemade pies, and it was a MARVELOUS experience.

The after-wedding dinner for Kelly and Chris was at a local vegetarian restaurant in Tucson called Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which happens to be one of the restaurants that Brian’s company delivers food for. Believe it or not, the food was FANTASTIC, and the wine was also very good. I have a feeling that Kelly and Chris are going to be a married couple for a very long time. To borrow a quote from the Star Wars series, “may the force be with you”.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Are the Finns REALLY smarter than us?

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a couple of article about why the Finns are smarter than us (one article was written in English, and the other was written in Finnish).

The topic of the quality of our K-12 school system came up in a discussion at one of the local high schools the other day, and the person who I was talking with blamed the slip in our status to the Department of Education.

Although our universities are still among the best in the world, our K-12 schools are ranked 18th in the world, and the Finns are #1, which begs the question. Are we really that bad, or have the Finns improved that much?

America has long had a history of excellent education systems. A large part of the reason that our economy is the largest in the world is that the G.I. bill allowed returning WWII vets to pursue higher education, which led to more and competitive institutions of higher learning. As recently as 1996, our K-12 system was ranked the best in the world, but by 2009, we had slipped to #18. The decline came about due to complacency and inefficiency, as well as inconsistencies among the various school systems.

The Department of Education actually didn’t exist until October 17, 1979. Prior to that time, its duties were performed by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The Department of Education is by far the smallest cabinet-level department, with about 5000 employees, and an annual budget of around $73 billion. The Department of Health and Human Services has the largest budget, at ($869 billion in 2010), but defense is close behind, with a budget of $692 billion. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 also allowed the Department of Education to obtain some additional funds. In 2009, this act channeled an additional $102 billion to the Department of Education, but funding ceased after 2012.

After our K-12 system had slipped in ranking compared to other countries, education leaders throughout the country realized that some changes needed to be made. In 2009, the National Governors Association started to work on new standards for education, The final solution that the Governors Association developed became known as Common Core, and the standards have been adopted by 42 of the 50 states. Three states (Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina) initially adopted Common Core, but have since repealed it. Significantly, Texas (which has an outsized influence on the textbooks that are used nationwide) never adopted the standards. Texas also leads the nation in the number of students are home schooled, with roughly 300,000 children in 120,000 families. Some of those children are not being educated at all, since their families believe that the will all be called up in “the rapture”.

It’s safe to say that the Common Core standards are not understood by large members of the public, some of whom feel that it is a Federally-mandated program that is being forced on them.

It’s not, and the Federal government has no control over that program, but DID provide incentives for adopting the program.

The largest group of private schools in the country is the Catholic school system, and there is also a lot of disagreement in the leaders of this group about the value of Common Core. The National Catholic Educational Association takes the position that that is nothing incompatible in the Core with Catholic education, but the U.S Council Bishops (who advised NOT voting for Donald Trump) has urged Catholic schools to be cautious about using the Common Core.

The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization is anti-Core, and is writing its own standards. To further confuse matters, an organization called the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools has urged its members not to use Common Core, and to use the standards that IT is developing.

Since Finland’s student population is more homogenous than ours, it was easier for them to improve their standards. In contrast, America has long been the melting pot of the world, which makes it more difficult to make sweeping changes in our educational system.

One of the main reasons for the decline in our ranking is the lack of consistency between school districts, and Common Core was created specifically to address that issue. However, since Common Core is neither universally understood, nor embraced, we will likely continue to be ranked a long ways from the best in the world for the foreseeable future.