Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I've Got An Idea!

So, I'm on the treadmill, cooling down after a run, thinking random thoughts, when it hits me. Let's fix education in America!! Everyone agrees that our educational system is failing a high percentage of students, right? I read a statistic recently (if I remember correctly, it's from the mayor of Portland, Sam Adams', office) that about 40% of the kids in Portland Public Schools will not graduate high school. I've also read that the rate is even higher in other large cities. Seriously, is that even possible? That is just plain scary. This hits home pretty hard with me. I have two nephews who fell through the cracks and dropped out at the end of their sophomore years, and they are both suffering the consequences of the extremely limited options this lack of education leaves them.

I know a lot of factors influence the effectiveness of a child's education, from home life to culture, to teachers and unions, and many of these factors are not things that government can control. However, some of them are things over which government could have more effective influence than it does. Take teachers, for example. (No, I am not saying that government can control teachers.) There are good ones and there are bad ones. Some are engaged, talented and energetic, and some are putting in their time, tired, and counting the days until retirement. (By the way, I don't think that has anything to do with age. I've had great older teachers and lousy young ones. Some teachers are just better than others.) Is it possible for these gifted teachers to be encouraged to stay, while the less effective are encouraged to find employment that is better suited to their abilities? What, if anything, can or should the federal government do to foster that end? Would the teachers union even brook the slightest interference to their hold on power and seniority? No chance, you say? What if internal pressure gave them no choice?

Here's my proposal: Congress passes a law that says that the households of teachers and teaching assistants will pay no income taxes. None--not even at the state level. I'm not talking just the teachers themselves, but anyone who brings home a paycheck in that household (dependants up to a certain age, say 21). Many teachers salaries are low enough that they probably don't pay federal income tax anyway, but you throw in the income from hubby or wife, and you are talking some significant tax savings. Add on the kids' summer job and they've got a tax free college savings plan!! How's that for incentive for the best and brightest to go into education, and their spouses to be supportive of the endeavor?

Here's the condition: Retention of position is completely dependant upon classroom outcomes. If the kids learn to read, write, do math, etc., then that teacher is kept on the payroll, and off the tax rolls. If they do not, then some of the eager talents waiting in the wings get their shot at improving the situation. How many of the teachers currently in the union would not clamber to have this law enacted? Probably just the bad ones who are currently only protected by seniority from getting the boot. The rest of them would find the reward to be high. This isn't a way to break the union (if the union works for the benefit of its members), but a way to benefit both teachers and students so that everyone comes out ahead. Win, win. The union stays intact, but with purer motives, and the future of American education is dramatically improved.

The cost to the federal coffers would be minimal, but the gain to society could be enormous. We'd have a better educated populace, a well-rewarded class of teachers, and future income for the government based on the fact that an educated country is a productive, creative and revenue-generating country. Imagine the day when teaching would become a coveted position in society, only the gifted could get into teaching programs, and only the best teachers fill our public schools. Imagine.

So what do you think? Pipe dream? Too full of impracticalities? Too naive? (Already been thought and tried? It's new to me, but that doesn't mean much.) I like it, but then I was pretty tired when I thought it up. Maybe it was the endorphins talking... Hey, if this works we could do it with police and firefighters, doctors, nurses; the list goes on. Who would be left to pay taxes you ask? How about all the rest of that well-educated populace that chooses not to go into service sector employment? Better yet, how about only the politicians pay taxes? That would ensure that people had a disincentive to commit politics and we might end up with some purer motives there, as well.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

You'd Think We'd Have Had Enough Snow By Now...

...but you'd be wrong!! Yes, we strapped on the snow shoes and tramped about town during the Big Snow Event of 2008. Yes, we sat in the window and watched a gazillion flakes fall. Yes, we had all of our holiday events and deliveries cancelled and juggled and otherwise messed with by the first real winter we've had in years, but we never got to go sledding!! Ked and I needed to go sledding! The town snow only whetted our appetite, making us long for the mountain. So, driven by primal urges to ascend to the heights of Mount Hood and hurl ourselves head first down the slopes, we cancelled what little remained of our holiday schedule and made it happen!! Okay, in all honesty, we had the sledding trip scheduled with friends for weeks before the valley snow flew, but we weren't dissuaded from the trip by the fact we'd been rolling in the white stuff for two weeks. Snow is still fun!! (We are so going skiing soon.)

Before I get to the pictures, let me wish you a very Happy New Year and tell you just a bit about our Christmas. Christmas was, in keeping with the spirit of the winter of 2008, postponed due to weather and family health issues. However, being the flexible group that we are, we simply decided that Christmas would be on December 27th this year, kept the prime rib in the fridge for a couple of extra days and stocked up on a little extra eggnog to get us through 'til the feast could begin. This Christmas was the first time since I was a toddler that all of my sisters and I had been together with my mom for Christmas, so we wanted to go all out to make it special. Along with the absolutely divine prime rib, I made Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach, sweet potato casserole (a Tasina and Sioux Lady recipe-to-die-for), and as a special treat, Ked whipped up some mocha pots de creme--a coffee and chocolate custard, which was impossibly good. It all turned out wonderfully, in fact. I was quite relieved. I had never made prime rib and Yorkshire pudding before, but had a couple of splendid recipes, and it all came off without a hitch. The family was also extremely well-behaved for the occasion--another blessing for which to be thankful! We had a wonderful family celebration, well worth the delay and fuss, and digging out of cars which the snow engendered. I hope yours was equally lovely. On to the pics... (As usual, click on the pictures to make 'em bigger.)

We were feeling a trifle unsure when we arrived at the trail-head to find a foot of unpacked snow in the parking lot, and not another car in sight!! It was snowing hard, in a pretty stiff wind, and we weren't entirely certain that everyone else who stayed away didn't have the right idea. Mind you, we weren't averse to having the mountain to ourselves, just not particularly interested in getting stranded or frozen. Our Expedition handled the Great Portland Snow-In Of '08 like a champ, though, so we hooked on the ever-useful snowshoes and tramped on up the hill, leaving the suv all on its lonesome.

We trudged down the trail and crested the sledding hill just about the time the weather decided to completely change her tune. By the time we had gotten settled in for a slide or two, it turned into a rather pleasant day. The sky even flashed a bit of blue every now and then, just to keep us cheerful! Our friend (I'll call her M until she tells me she can have at least a first name here on the blog) provided the blue, in her cap, the rest of the time.

Girlie here found going down the hill a breeze. Coming up was something more of a challenge! The man in the background was a stranger we met when some other people finally decided that the weather had turned about for keeps. He and his pregnant wife, and another couple, came wading through the snow--midway up their thighs at points--only to arrive at this very tempting hill with no way to slide down it. Ked and I were back at the car getting the camera at the time, so our friends loaned the unprepared ones our sleds for a few rides. Mom-to-be called it baby's first sled ride! It was funny; in chatting with her a bit, we discovered she's a nurse in the cancer ward where my mom has been getting treatments for the last several weeks. I'm heading there tomorrow with Mom for her next round of platelets. I wonder if we'll see her again... Wouldn't that be an odd turn of events?

The boy had a blast from the get-go. Last year when we did this he wasn't as brave as this time around, or as sensible. He kept taking off his gloves and felt the cold something fierce. This year's outing saw him a little wiser, and a little warmer, too. The gloves stayed on. The hat found itself straying from its moorings now and then, but this didn't seem to dampen his spirits, even if it did dampen his hair a bit.

Ked was in fine humor, too, and even a tumble or two didn't wipe the smile from his twice-bespectacled face.

...and there was, indeed, a tumble or two. Even the snowshoes couldn't keep us upright part of the time. The snow was so deep and unevenly packed that what seemed like solid ground occasionally and unpredictably wasn't. I fell at one point, put my hands out to steady myself, and ended up with my arms buried up to my armpits! Made for a tricky landing. My face came an inch or so from intimate acquaintance with the powder, and getting out of the situation took some careful maneuvering. I couldn't help but think what it would be like to be buried, even temporarily, in the snow. It was actually a little scary--just a very little.

Girlie isn't scared here, just cold and tired of being so. If only we could have convinced her to stop sitting in the snow and chomping it down like a snow cone in August...

This one didn't even bother reaching down to scoop his snow cone up off the ground. He just waited until enough ice had gathered near his chin and started licking.

How's this for bringing color to a stark white world? All the primaries, and even a few secondary shades made it onto a few square yards of mountain. Those bright, rosy little faces are the nicest part of the picture, though, wouldn't you say?

Speaking of bright, rosy little faces, here's our friend "S" hiding his as usual. S and I have an ongoing ritual, which involves me wielding my ubiquitous camera, and him ducking behind whatever is convenient to avoid it. It's a fun little game we play. At least I caught his eyes this time. Usually it's not much more than an ear or a chin.

Ked's not nearly so camera shy as S is, as long as he can be a goofball! His neck was hurting from a hard smack on the ground by this point, but you'd never know it from pictorial evidence!

Can't get much cuter than this! A little hot cocoa was all it took to melt all that snow that Girlie had consumed, and warm her up from the inside. See the glow?

Once we made it down off the mountain we spent some time in the evening playing with M&S's family Christmas present. We had a great time golfing and boxing and playing tennis with their new Wii. I'll tell you, though, that boxing'll wear you out! I couldn't wait for round three to be over!! Isn't M looking strong and stylish, though? I can't decide whether she looks more like a boxer, or a contestant on American Idol.

The competition got pretty heated. When M started directing her controller toward S, instead of the TV sensor, we could tell things were getting serious!

Can you guess who won?

Eventually the kids took over and we finished off the evening, all of us worn out and ready for a rest from all our trudging in the snow and punching each other's lights out. A couple days later we tried Wii bowling. Now that was right up my alley!! Much less of a fatigue factor with bowling, and the beauty of doing it with Wii is that you don't have to rent the shoes. Heck, next time I think I'll try it without shoes!!

So there you have the story of our quest for snow, after the snow. It was very satisfying. The weather reports are saying we may be getting a little more snowfall here in town in the coming few days. Apparently this oddly winterish winter continues. I'll spare you the photos if it comes. You've got to be tired of the snow by now, even if I'm not. They're also talking flooding, though. Can't promise that I won't show you pictures of that...

Happy New Year to you, wherever you may be.