Thursday, April 14, 2005

Column 28: A Column about the Column

Over the nine months I’ve been writing this column, a common response I’ve gotten and continue to get is that some people feel that this column speaks for them – not every column for every person but most of the time for most of the people. That was my intent in starting this column, and I’m glad I can do that.
A second group who have responded are people who tell me that they enjoy reading the column even though they mostly don’t agree with me. If what I’m writing and how I’m writing it is readable and/or enjoyable enough that people who disagree with me still like reading it, I like that a lot.
And, of course, there are those who disagree with me who have written letters and even an occasional column, and are thoughtful and express a point of view that I can respect, – the physician who took both Jim and me to task for our health care columns is a great example – his letter was thoughtful and respectful while clearly letting us know his views.. To them I say “thanks.” I did not set out to write a column that had no viewpoint and appealed to all. I am attempting to represent a point of view that is more or less shared by about half the people in the United States and a substantial number of people here in Incline. If there were no disagreement, I would be failing in my task.
Another group, however, are those who cannot seem to disagree without being disagreeable. They name-call and vilifiy, as if the mere fact that they disagree and can think of insults that seem clever to them is proof enough that I’m wrong, if not evil. This is a nasty form of political debate from either side of the aisle, and one I don’t have any respect for. In my opinion the ad hominem attack is the last refuge of the bigoted and ignorant.
A political/social columnist cannot be an expert on everything. Not long ago, when I was testifying as an expert witness in an intellectual property case, I was asked to list the areas where I felt I could be called and “expert.” On the one hand the list surprised me – in a lifetime of study and careers in several fields, I have actually learned something about a number of fields. On the other hand, the list was pretty short. So when I come to write a column I do research and try to get my facts as straight and accurate as I can and to clearly differentiate my opinions from the facts. Bernard Baruch said “Every man has a right to his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” When I’ve had my facts wrong, I have corrected the error and will continue to do that so that people aren’t left with inaccurate information. As to my opinions, they are my own.
A danger for a columnist is that one can forget that free access to a public medium carries accountability with it. The cynical say (usually of a columnist or commentator they don’t agree with) that the media are just running off at the mouth, unchecked. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Journalism has a long-established code of ethics in the public trust, and recent events involving Dan Rather, the New York Times, and others have made it clear that the public will hold those who abuse this trust to account. One of the reasons I started this column is that my work and travel schedule will not support my serving in a public office – this is my way of serving, and I try to do it honestly and valuably. I’m not trying to please all of the people or even some of the people all of the time, and I will continue to write as long as some people let me know that I speak for them, at least some of the time.

Column 27: Education - Part 2

Throughout the history of the United States there has been a significant strain of distrust and low regard for education. The “self-made man,” who overcame a lack of education to become successful has been held as more worthy of respect than the person with an education, particularly a classical education, and all the more so if the educated person came from an upper- or upper-middle class background. Abraham Lincoln, studying on a slate by firelight and barely finishing a secondary education is the paragon of the American dream, while university president Woodrow Wilson is seen as somewhat effete and having had his head in the clouds.
One result of this ambivalent attitude is that we salute the importance of education while refusing to pay teachers a decent wage, cutting school programs to the bone, eliminating those aspects of education that go to the whole person (music, art, physical education) and demanding of our educators that they do much more with much less.
Governments at the national, state, and local level have passed high-sounding legislation and then failed to fund its implementation, and band-aid solutions are used where surgery is needed. Nowhere is this clearer than in the argument over class size, where low student-to-teacher ratios are mandated by the Federal Government as well as by at least 24 states that have established mandates, grant programs or other financial incentives to lower class size. In 1999 the Clinton Administration allocated funds with a goal of helping districts hire 100,000 new teachers. The Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind Act has incorporated the federal class-size-reduction program into a block grant program to improve teacher quality, but this act is notoriously under funded.
Now, as the economy has receded from 1999 levels, critics of education spending have demanded proof that class size reductions have worked. While data in this area are hard to come by, a couple of things are clear. First, there is strong evidence, particularly from the Student Teacher Achievement Ratio project in Tennessee and the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program in Wisconsin that students in the K-3 years whose classes are smaller do better throughout their education, even after going into larger classes from 4th grade on. Data on the effectiveness of smaller classes in upper grades is inconclusive, and conservative critics have seized on this as proof that class-size reductions do not make any difference.
What is ignored in the conservatives’ argument is the way the reductions were done. When the economy was booming in the latter half of the nineties, states such as California had lots of money to hire teachers and reduced class size on a wholesale basis, to the point where there were not enough teachers to fill the slots and uncertified, and sometimes unqualified teachers were hired. Small wonder that improvement was not seen when the overall quality of instruction went down as class size was reduced. As the economy receded there were fewer funds available, and qualified teachers who left were replaced by more unqualified or less-qualified staff.
What is missing here is some intelligent appreciation that education is a system. When you intervene in a system, what you do has not only local but also global impact. If you reduce class size without making sure there are enough qualified teachers to fill the need you have created, it should come as no surprise that you don’t get the results you wanted. If you mandate smaller classes and don’t fund those mandates, it should be no surprise that, when the mandates are implemented on a shoestring, they do not produce results. This reflects a predilection on conservatives’ part toward establishing high-sounding programs, under funding them, and then pointing to the failure as proof that “liberal” solutions don’t work.
It is time we learned that “the future depends on education” is not merely a truism or a slogan. It is a harsh truth – the future of the United States will depend on the luck of finding more Lincolns or the commitment to educate more Wilsons, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, and yes, even Bushes.

Column 26: The Golf Course

Recently there has been controversy centering around the golf course – some people seem to think it is unreasonable that they are not allowed to cross-country ski or sled on the course, which was renovated last year. Others seem to think that the process of upgrading the quality of the professional golf staff and some members of that staff leaving are the result of some kind of dirty deeds on the part of IVGID in general and General Manager Bill Horn in particular.
Let’s start with some facts. IVGID, i.e. you and me, has invested nearly $14 million in the new Chateau and rebuilding the Championship Golf Course. Both these facilities belong to all the residents of the village, golfers and non-golfers alike, but both are dedicated facilities. That is, they are designed to be used in specific ways for specific purposes. I think it’s stretching logic to say that owning a property in common with 9,000 other people gives you the right to abuse that property, and anyone who knows anything about golf course maintenance knows that wintertime activities are harmful to the course.
Secondly, it has been the policy at the Incline courses for at least ten years that golf staff either have the “Class A” PGA certification or be actively engaged in getting it. Brian Eilders, Dave LaFata, and Randy Cooper all have Class A status. Last year, all of the junior staff were notified that the policy would be enforced and they would have to show reasonable efforts and progress toward attaining Class A. No one was fired, and nothing new or unreasonable was required – they were simply given the choice of doing what they should have been doing all along or not being rehired for the 05 season.
Head Pro Eilders resigned in February, of his own volition. He was invited to apply for the new Director of Golf position, and he chose not to apply. This new position, by the way was instituted as a result of a recommendation to the IVGID Board by the golf committee as a means of upgrading the golf program. John Nosek, formerly the Golf Manager, was also given the opportunity to interview for the DoG position, and was not hired – he is now the Merchandise Manager, and by all reports is fine with that.
This brings us to Bill Horn. I have made no secret of my regard for Mr. Horn. From conversations I have had with current and former Trustees and from my extensive interactions with him, I consider Bill Horn a gift to this village. No one, in my view, has more dedication to this Village or has greater passion for its success than Bill does. Notwithstanding gossip spread by those who wish him ill, Bill’s behavior is above reproach, and his work is outstanding, as his performance reviews have indicated. The Board knew when they hired him that he did not live in the Village, and did not consider this an issue – he offered to move and the Board quickly declined that offer.
It has been said that there is an endemic condition in Incline Village of unearned and unwarranted, but assumed expertise. Something in the air seems to make many of us who live here think theys are experts on everything including how to run a village and how to run a golf course. My suggestion to these critics and self-appointed experts is that before trying to run anything from a position of no authority and no accountability, they run for the Board and see if anyone agrees that they are experts. Otherwise, try letting those who are charged with the job do the job.