Sliding Scores

I don’t think standardized tests should be the be-all and end-all in terms of measuring an individual student’s knowledge or preparedness, but when the overall average scores on standardized tests start to reveal long-term trends, we might want to start paying attention.

boy-in-classroom-articleThat’s why the ACT’s announcement earlier this week about a significant slide in college readiness — based on testing of more than 1.9 million high school graduates, which amounts to more than half of the 2018 American high school graduates — should be a cause for concern.  According to the ACT, the “percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004” and “students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year.”  Readiness in English, reading ability, and science also declined.

Even worse, the ACT announced that “[a] growing percentage of students are falling at the bottom of the preparedness scale,” with 35 percent of 2018 graduates met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks — which means they are likely to struggle in math, reading, English, and science as they move on to college.

It’s hard to tell how well our public schools are doing at preparing kids for college, but falling average test scores are a pretty compelling indication that things aren’t moving in the right direction.  We should once again be taking a careful look at what our public schools are teaching, and how.  If we aren’t teaching our kids what they need to know to live productive lives, we’re failing them — and failing the country.  For years now, people have been talking about how the jobs of the future are going to exist in technology-related fields.  Who is going to fill those jobs and allow America to compete globally if our kids can’t read or do math and science?

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Empty Malls

Sears announced this week that it is going into bankruptcy.  Once the largest retailer in the United States, Sears disclosed in August that it was closing 46 stores, and with its bankruptcy filing this week Sears identified another 142 stores that will be shuttered.

IMG_6692If you’ve been to one of the ubiquitous indoor malls in America recently, you didn’t need the bankruptcy filing to tell you that Sears has been having serious problems.  For years, Sears was one of the mainstay, “anchor” tenants in countless malls, usually located at the end of one of the concourses.  Sears and other department store tenants were key parts of the mall structure, giving shoppers a chance to check out their varied offerings, from women’s clothing to home furnishings to makeup and perfume, before the shoppers wandered out to hit The Gap or Foot Locker while sipping a drink they got from Orange Julius.  For generations of kids, the “mallrat” experience with their friends on a weekend day was a big part of growing up.

But if you’ve been to one of those malls recently, you’ve seen that some of those big storefronts for the anchor tenants at the end of the concourses are vacant.  Kish and I went to a mall in Bangor, Maine this summer, and it had the big void where one of the department stores used to be.  Many of the slots adjacent to the anchor location also were empty and closed up, leaving the whole section of the mall, where I took the picture for this post, feeling shuttered and empty.  And there’s nothing quite so desolate and deserted as a cavernous mall that is totally devoid of shoppers.

I’m old enough to have seen the whole arc of the American mall story.  I remember when the Summit Mall in Akron, Ohio opened to great fanfare, drawing throngs of shoppers away from the downtown stores to one convenient location.  In Columbus, the City Center mall in downtown Columbus opened in the ’80s as a key part of the downtown Columbus redevelopment plan — but then it failed within only a few years, to be torn down and replaced by a park.  The new approach to retail eschews the closed mall design in favor of open air developments like Easton in Columbus — which feels a lot like the downtown shopping areas that got elbowed to the curb by the malls.  Now we’re seeing many malls struggle, and in some extreme cases, city planners are left wondering what the heck to do with the huge, empty edifice that used to be a roaring hub of commercial activity and tax revenue.

And now Sears is going into bankruptcy.  The story linked above reports that liquidation sales at the 142 stores that are closing will begin in the next few weeks.

Our Ever-Ignored Deficit

The Trump Administration has announced that, in fiscal year 2018, the federal budget deficit was a staggering $779 billion.  That’s a 17 percent increase over fiscal year 2017, and the largest budget deficit in six years.

In short, we’re running enormous, historically disproportionate budget deficits — even though the economy is humming, jobs are being created, unemployment has reached the lowest levels in years, and the federal government is collecting record amounts of income tax revenue.  At a time when we should be balancing our budget, or even running a surplus, we’re farther underwater than ever.

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Nobody seems to really care about this — except a handful of old deficit hawks like me.  The Republicans who used to claim to be the party of fiscal discipline cut tax rates, but they just haven’t gotten around to making the necessary cuts to federal spending that are needed to bring the budget into balance.  No surprise there — cutting taxes and raising defense spending is the easy, champagne-cork-popping part of their agenda; actually digging into the details and deciding which federal programs to cut, and by how much, is the harder, painful part that every Republican running for reelection will happily defer.  And the Democrats, who have never cared too much about balanced budgets anyway, are too busy reacting with outrage to everything President Trump does or says to focus on the deficit.

Some people argue that times are good right now, so what’s the big deal?  Maybe the deficit really doesn’t make that much of a difference, they suggest.  But if the U.S. government can’t live within its means when the economy is strong and record tax revenues are rolling in to the federal treasury, what is the deficit going to look like when the economy turns sour, payrolls get cut, and tax revenues fall?  Just how big is this deficit going to get, anyway?

It all seems pretty ironic to me.  President Trump boasts of being tough with foreign governments on trade and international relations, and putting America’s interests first in all things — but the need to sell bonds to finance the growing deficit does exactly the opposite.  The Chinese, the Saudis, and everybody else who is buying the U.S. bonds we are selling are thereby acquiring enormous leverage, and if they start demanding higher interest payments before they make their purchases we’re in a world of hurt.

So pay no attention, folks!  It’s all boring numbers, anyway!  Let’s forget about the serious, long-term aspects of running a government, and go back to talking about the latest outrages that will dominate the news cycle for a day or two until some new and exciting outrage comes along.

Presidential Debates, Just Around The Corner

In case you haven’t had your fill of politics already, with an important election only a few weeks away and political stories of one kind or another dominating every newscast, here’s some encouraging news — the first Democratic presidential candidate debates for the 2020 election are just around the corner.

t1larg-debate-stage-empty-t1largPolitico is reporting that the first debates will probably occur in the spring of 2019, months before the first primaries and caucuses, and a full year and a half before the 2020 election.  And even though that seems ridiculously early to non-political types like me, it’s apparently causing all of the would-be candidates to ramp up their activities now.  It’s expected that there will be a lot of people who will be vying for the chance to square off against President Trump in 2020 — more people, in fact, that can reasonably fit on one debate stage.  And if sheet numbers mean there will be two debate stages and two sets of debaters, all of the candidates want to be sure that they appear on the stage that includes all of the perceived “real contenders,” and are not relegated to the “everybody else” stage.  So everybody who is contemplating throwing their hat in the ring is out there raising money, hiring staff, visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, and trying to make news and start showing up in the polls.

Who are the “real contenders” for the Democrats?  According to the Politico article, only one person — a Congressman named John Delaney, who I’ve never even heard of — has formally declared his candidacy at this point.  Among the people who reportedly are considering a bid are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.  Some people think Hillary Clinton might run, or Michael Bloomberg, and no doubt there are mayors, governors, other senators and representatives, and corporate figures who may launch campaigns.  If only a few of these folks actually run, you’ve already got a pretty crowded stage.

It’s hard to believe that we’re at the point of gearing up for another presidential election already, but politics being what it is, I am sure that there are a lot of Democrats out there thinking very seriously about running for President.  Why not?  After all, if Donald Trump can win the Republican nomination and actually get elected, just about anything is possible.  So why not take a shot — and do whatever you can to make sure that you get onto the coveted “contenders” stage?

Condemned To Repetition

George Santayana famously observed:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I thought of old George when I read this article reporting that some banks, amazingly, have decided to once again offer zero down payment subprime mortgages.  Apparently it’s only taken ten years for banks to forget the lessons they purportedly learned during the last subprime mortgage lending bubble, when the collapse of countless numbers of bad loans brought the economy to the brink of total disaster.

tips-for-buying-foreclosed-homes-mstAccording to the article quoted above; “Borrowers can have low credit scores, but have to go through an education session about the program and submit all necessary documents, from income statements to phone bills. Then they go through counseling to understand their monthly budget and ensure they can afford the mortgage payment. The loans are 15- or 30-year fixed with interest rates below market, about 4.5 percent.”  In addition to the “education session” and documentation and counseling requirements, recipients of the loans have to live in the houses with the mortgages.

The lending agencies think that residency requirement will keep out the investors looking to flip houses, which is one of the conditions that contributed to the prior housing bubble and subprime mortgage debacle.  Another purported protection against disaster is that the housing market is strong, there’s a shortage of homes for sale at entry-level prices, and therefore homeowners who can’t make their payments supposedly will be able to sell their houses and repay their mortgage loans.  And proponents of the lending program say it helps poor people and working families to buy houses and build personal wealth.

I’m all for people becoming homeowners if that’s their dream, but if banks think that things like education sessions and counseling are going to allow them to avoid problems when the economy turns — as it inevitably will — they are dreaming.  It’s not hard to forecast that some aggressive loan officers will push the rules, some house-flippers will figure out a way to take advantage of the programs, some bad apples will take out the mortgages and then abandon the houses when times get tough, and then we may well be back in the same perilous situation that existed in 2007 and 2008.

I hope not everyone has forgotten what happened to bring on the Great Recession.  And I hope some political leader makes it clear that banks are welcome to follow whatever practices they think are appropriate for their businesses, but this time, if it all goes to hell, taxpayers won’t be bailing them out — again.

Trusting In The Power Of Prayer

St. Mary, our neighborhood Catholic Church, is concerned about the direction of the country. It has set up a tent on a brisk autumn day and is asking people to pray for America. When I walked by this afternoon, about two dozen people had answered the call.

I’m not a religious person, but I applaud efforts by those of faith to help the country in their own way. I don’t know if prayer will help, but it sure can’t hurt. And as we try to deal with the hurt and rage many people are feeling right now, we can use all of the help we can get.

First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.