Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bring Out The Best

It has become fashionable to blame lazy, incompetent teachers, and the unions that protect them, for all the ills of public education.

As a lazy, incompetent teacher, I’m offended. Here’s why.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you have a job in the food service industry. It doesn’t pay that well, but it’s steady work, you like the schedule, and it sure beats your last gig as Libby Mitchell’s campaign manager.

Your employer offers you a $15,000 bonus if you increase your productivity this year. You’d be willing to work a little harder for that, right? And maybe try some new ideas that might make you more efficient? Of course!

But how is your “productivity” going to be measured? Suppose your employer decides to base this awesome bonus on how well you can keep five tons of mayonnaise from going bad over the next 12 months.

As pallets full of economy-size jars of Miracle Whip begin to appear on the loading dock, you know there are obviously things you can do to keep the gooey white stuff as fresh as possible. Some fit nice and snug in your freezer. A few are loaded with special NASA chemical preservatives, and therefore would not go bad if you neglected them completely for ten years.

But plenty of others appear to have already been left out in the sun for a few days, and there are hundreds more whose history is unknown. You struggle all year, trying new ideas and doing the best you can, but at some point, no matter what, your workplace is going to smell worse than a dead skunk in a landfill.

(Feel free to stop here and go make yourself a tuna sandwich if you want. I’ll wait.)

Malaise sets in as you realize that keeping mayonnaise fresh has very little to do with your actual job, which is to keep customers happy. Condiment freshness is part of that, but there’s a lot more that goes into it, such as having a good memory, working quickly, and resisting the temptation to bring a sidearm to work.

And then you find out that Miracle Whip isn’t even mayonnaise. It’s “salad dressing.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all this, you’re not alone. Please bear with me.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University just released a study that shows offering teachers extra pay if their students’ test scores improve has absolutely no impact.

For three years, half the teachers in the study were given $5000 to $15,000 per year in bonuses if their students’ scores improved. The other half continued to work under the normal pay scale, without any opportunity for bonuses.

In the end, there was no difference between the two groups’ test scores.

This tells us one of two things: A) That teachers are already so loaded with cash that it will take a lot more dough than that to motivate them; or B) They’re all using the same mayonnaise.

Does this mean merit pay is a dumb idea? Maybe. But the study mostly illustrates a different problem: standardized tests do not give a complete measure of teaching and learning. They’re just one small part of the system of figuring out how well a teacher teaches and a student learns. If you’re going to track down “lazy” and “incompetent” teachers, do it with a system that actually works, and accounts for all the nuances and complexities of the job.

In other words, by all means, “Bring out the Hellman’s.” But if that’s all you feed people, you won’t be in business for very long.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How to Make Recycling More Festive

Do you ever wonder what happens to all your garbage once you’ve watched the nice humanoids on the truck remove it from the curb?

Me, neither. I’ve got better things to think about than the fate of my used sandwich baggies and blood-stained towels.

But then I went to the American Folk Festival. Sure, the singing and dancing were soul-stretching, the food was fabulous, and the children’s area occupied my five-year-old for a whopping ten minutes, but easily the greatest attraction of the whole weekend was the Zero-Sort Recycling Bag of Fail.

You remember the one I’m talking about, if you went to the festival. It was right at the end of the food court. Some engineering genius figured out that you don’t need an entire bin to throw recyclables into; you just need a flimsy aluminum frame from which you can hang a clear plastic bag.

Well, no one told the wind about this wonderful plan, so this contraption spent most of the weekend collapsing like a central African government, only to be hoisted up time after time by a good-hearted volunteer.

I watched for hours. I really wanted to see this sad sack conquer the elements, so as not to give Zero-Sort (also called, “Single Stream,” which connotes either urine or the movie “Ghostbusters,” so I’ll stick with “Zero-Sort”) a bad name.

I’d love to not have to sort my recyclables anymore. For one thing, it would save time and space. For another thing, I would not have to deal with the Recycling Police at my local transfer station.

You see, curbside pickup in my town ends about 30 yards from my house. So every weekend, I dutifully load up my vehicle with refuse and haul it to the transfer station (formerly known as “the dump”), where a fellow in coveralls greets me as though I’m bringing him a radioactive chihuahua with poor bladder control.

I don’t know what it’s like to work at a transfer station, but this dude is way too stressed out.

He scurries over to make sure I’m not throwing any used condoms in with the tin cans, or whatever other shenanigans he thinks I might try and pull.

“What have you got?” he asks.

“Mixed paper,” I answer.

He says “Jesus” in a tone of voice that means he really regrets coming to work on a day when some idiot would try to recycle a bunch of paper.

I stand there for a minute, wondering if he’s going to break down and cry or tell me it’s okay to do what I came to do. Eventually I get permission to proceed, and invariably he spots Something That Should Not Be In There.

“That’s garbage,” he says, pointing to a plastic yogurt container I attempted to add to the “colored plastic containers” bin.

Great. Now he’s caught me trying to make more work for him, and I feel like a complete jerk.

It turns out that only plastics labeled with a number 2 are accepted at this particular Recycling Center of Needless Anxiety. I’ll never be able to show my face there again.

All of this could be avoided if Zero-Sort recycling was the norm. It’s already gaining traction in Bangor and Brewer; the rest of us should jump on board right away.

Because, as it stands now, I have to wait until next year’s Folk Festival to get rid of all my recyclables.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lifestyles of the Sick and Pudgy

The United States is no longer the most totally awesome nation in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s new Global Competitiveness index.

In fact, we’ve fallen to 4th on the list, which is designed to quantify long-term economic viability, fiscal health, and overall coolness.

It tends to reflect each country’s overall quality of life by measuring strength of infrastructure (our pristine roadways), commitment to innovation (new iPhone apps that mimic lava lamps), and public confidence in government institutions (let’s not go there).

Just two years ago, we were sitting pretty at Number One. Everyone wanted to be us.

What the hell happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. They stacked this whole ranking system against us.

According to WEF analysts, we declined because of increased debt. In case you weren’t paying attention, our government just went and borrowed an asinine amount of money to sidestep a “depression” in favor of an “economic downturn” (a less alarming euphemism for “recession that should end any year now”).

This was on top of the previously asinine amount of money borrowed to fund a pair of wars, along with untold billions of debt accrued to pay for rebuilding doorways for our giant fat arses to fit through.

According to Forbes Magazine
, the U.S.A. is the 9th most overweight nation on Earth, with about 74% of us sporting a Body Mass Index more than 25. A BMI of 30 qualifies as “obese.”

The eight nations heavier than us on the fat scale are all tiny Pacific Islands you’ve never heard of, where people survive on leftover SPAM shipped from Australia, and they can’t go jogging because it only takes 45 steps to cross the entire country.

As the fluffiest industrialized nation in the world, we find ourselves at a severe handicap when it comes to competitiveness. Switzerland, which claimed the Number One ranking in global competitiveness, checks in at a svelte 50% of its population overweight, good for 63rd fattest in the world.

In Singapore (3rd most competitive), anyone using a public restroom has their excess body fat trimmed off with invisible lasers.

Aside from discriminating against fatsos, the competitiveness index also favors smaller countries. Most in the top ten have around 5 million people or less; at 310 million, we are easily the biggest country in that range, with more than twice as many people as Japan (8th).

No other large countries even come close. China and its 1.3 billion people ranked 27th, not too far from Iceland, which just saw its entire banking system collapse like a poodle carrying a lawnmower, only faster.

But what is the most glaring flaw in the WEF measurements? They completely ignore the fact that all these other so-called “prosperous” countries are on the way to bankrupting themselves by offering universal healthcare.

The United States is the only nation in the top 30 on this index that does not offer government-paid medical services for all citizens.

Come on. Did these “world-renowned economists” get their diplomas out of a Happy Meal or something? Don’t they see how the U.S.A. is positioning itself for continued world domination by basing a massive chunk of its economy (17.5%) on exploiting the sick and pudgy?

I say we ignore the World Economic Forum and its twisted anti-American agenda. Carry on as normal. If things get really bad, we can always invade Switzerland.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Life’s a Breach... of Communication

I didn’t feel like going to the beach. My wife didn’t feel like going to the beach. Our five-year-old wasn’t in the mood for it, either.

So how did we all end up speeding down the highway against our will for an afternoon in the sun, sand, and waves?

The idea first came up well after noon. “It’ll be 2:00 by the time we get in the car,” I said. “It’s not worth three hours of driving for so little time to spend there.”

My wife’s response to this highly logical and irrefutable point -- this is the critical part -- was to argue against it.

She started talking abouProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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low tide and finding starfish and this possibly being our last chance to enjoy a sunny day at the beach before fall.

Listening to all that, I stupidly concluded that my wife wanted to go to the beach.

What was actually going on, I found out later, was that she felt ambivalent, and adopted the position opposite mine as a way of trying to figure out what she wanted.

In other words, she was not saying what she felt, just trying stuff out. How bass-ackwards is that?

Anyway, we went back and forth for a while, and eventually I decided that I didn’t care that much, so if she wanted to go to the beach that badly, we might as well go.

So I said, “Alright, let’s go.” She interpreted this to mean that I wanted to go, and decided she might as well go along with what I wanted, since she couldn’t make up her mind.

To be fair, the words “I want to go to the beach” never left her mouth, and I never asked, “Do you really want to go to the beach?” Still, that was small consolation once we were being serenaded with “are we there yet” and “I’m bored” over and over and over.

By now I’ve been married long enough to have more or less forgotten what it was like to be with other women.

So it’s hard for me to know if most women view communication as a tool for experimenting with ideas and torturing their husbands, or it’s just this one woman who agreed to marry me, presumably as an expression of her actual intent. (If you have any insight on this question, please pass it along.)

At any rate, we ended up spending a fabulous couple of hours at Popham Beach, where the image of my daughter delightfully dancing and cartwheeling along in the shallow waves became my most vivid summer memory.

So I can’t really complain.

Especially since the love of my life would be quick to point out some of my own communication flaws. For example, she often complains that I don’t seem to be listening or paying attention to what she’s saying.

I have a simple explanation for this: my genitals.

In the book “A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication,” Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker explain how how men and women are trained to use conversation cues differently.

For example, when a woman says “yes,” or “um-hmm,” to someone to whom she’s listening, she is likely to mean, “Okay, I’m listening. Please continue.” When a man uses them, he probably means, “Please take off your clothes.”

Ha! Just kidding. They mean “I agree with you.”

The authors say this type of misunderstanding explains why men can never figure out what women are really thinking, and women feel like we’re never listening.

Of course, it could have something to do with a little trip to the beach...