PracticalDad and School:  Austerity Comes Home, Part Two

Despite all of the talk of recovery and normalization, the new normal – austerity – ripples through the real economy.  As the public sector sheds jobs, this includes the educational system across the country.  While everybody can claim a share of the pie, the reality in Pennsylvania is particularly acute since state law requires that school districts fully fund their teacher pension plans and in the next several years, this contribution will rise from approximately 7% of school district budget to about 18% and if taxes aren’t going to rise proportionately, the money has to come from somewhere.  But where?  And just how good is the information that you’re hearing?

What I’ve concluded is that the kids are paying attention – at some level – but that information is either third hand or badly misconstrued.  Eldest came home several months ago with the observation that the district’s music program was on the chopping block as the school administrators were suddenly hanging around and talking to the kids and "asking questions."  She followed this up with the synopsis of another conversation that she had with a teacher, in which it was said that the wave of the future was to cross-teach so that music would be rolled into the physical education program.  I politely listened and then promptly filed it in my mental uh-huh drawer.  But the other day, I came across an article that discusses another school district discussing cuts in the music and arts in order to strengthen the core academic programs.

My home state, Pennsylvania, instituted the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment – PSSA – tests in response to Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation; the intent is to monitor how kids are performing and rating the schools accordingly.  Schools with poor performance are forced to institute remedial action plans and if they don’t work, I assume that they wind up in administrative detention.  The reality of the PSSA is that the schools have universally found themselves teaching to a test and it’s grating to a parent’s nerves to only hear from little Johnny that they spent half the day doing review work for topics that about two-thirds of the students already know and a small fraction will never know because they were whacked in the head with the stupid stick.  Like the comedian Ron White once said, you can’t fix stupid. 

The state however, is moving beyond the PSSA tests and is in the process of implementing the Keystone Tests, which commence for students in the class of 2015.  These exams will cover a variety of topic areas – Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Civics, Science, US and World History amongst others – and seniors will have to pass a certain number of them in order to graduate.  Those who don’t pass the requisite amounts will not graduate.  The difficulty for the districts however is that the state continues to alter the requirements and thus presents the local educators a moving target that must be hit starting in 2015; the districts are left trying to plan to meet a goal that might yet change again.  A local school district, considered to be one of the wealthier ones, is now actively considering how to cut the arts programs in order to put the money into the core academic courses mandated under the Keystone Test Program.

Our educational system’s priorities are reverting to a period predating America’s economic golden-age, which began after the end of the Second World War.  These priorities are assuring that the mass of youth are able to handle the most important aspects while leaving the non-essentials – and that’s what the coming debate is going to cover – to those who find them interesting.

What else are the local districts doing to handle the austerity crunch?

  • Three local districts, each with strong academic programs, are pooling resources to offer combined higher-level courses to their students.  The classes, such as Advanced Placement Physics, would be held at one central campus location and the students from the three districts would travel to that site for the course. 
  • One rural district is actively cutting back the athletic program and is shifting to a pay-to-play model, in which the students must pay a fee to play a particular sport.  The Athletic Director’s position has been eliminated and that work is now handled by a vice-principal and the district is trying to herd cats by getting the various sport booster clubs to merge into one sports booster club to fundraise for all sports.
  • Report cards are no longer mailed to the home, but are given to the students to give to the parents.  The reality however, is that any parent with a computer is now able to access their child’s grades via the school district website.




When to Start Mowing the Yard?

My wife and I were discussing the ongoing yardwork issue last week when the topic turned to whether Youngest is now old enough to pitch in on mowing the grass.  He’s huge for his age – he was born in the midst of a growth spurt that hasn’t quit – and he has uncommonly common sense for a kid of his age.  The problem however, is that he’s still in elementary school and there’s another two years before he’s into middle school, so the question was whether he was ready to handle a power mower.

No two kids are the same and while one might be ready for a certain responsibility, it’s not a given that the sibling will be ready at the same age.  It might be a function of physical capability but more often than not, it’s an issue of judgment and sense of responsibility.

When we talked about the matter, we had to think about when our older kids actually began to cut the grass.  What I’ve come to realize is that if you don’t keep explicit notes, kids are akin to old appliances in that you lose track of time.  Lessee here…we bought that refrigerator about five years ago, no?  Wait, we got it right after Grandma moved in with us and she actually died about 15 years ago.  Yep, it might be time to replace it instead of repairing it again.  Eldest actually was older when she began to mow the yard but that was a function of having a riding mower with a larger yard.  She began to use the riding mower the summer before Middle School and then, she only did the yard when I was actually doing other outside chores and able to keep an eye on her handling of the machine.  We subsequently moved to a house with a much smaller yard – but God, the landscaping makes this one far more difficult – and I replaced the riding mower with a simple self-propelled lawnmower.  Middle was by now in late elementary school when I broke him into the process and like with his older sister, I spent time outside watching until I was comfortable that he could handle the mower, especially on slopes. 

My own professional background is in claims adjusting and risk management and I thought that I’d seen enough to assess risk better than most.  But it was still Middle’s experience that taught me that there’s more than just a moving blade on a mower to injure someone.  We’d been through the discussions and oversight and Middle had learned about the dead man’s handle, removing the spark plug cap and how to mow on slopes; I’d cleared him and he was happily mowing the yard on his own recognizance.  By the way, happiness is a short-term phenomenon and wears off with repeated exposure.  While I was in the garage one afternoon, I heard a scream and seconds later, Middle ran into grasping his wrist; he’d turned off the mower and to check something, grabbed hold of the hot engine block.  There was a significant second degree burn on the palm and it reminded me of the Gestapo agent in Raiders of the Lost Ark because the grille of the engine block was imprinted on his skin like the hot amulet had been imprinted on the Gestapo agent’s hand.  The point is that even if you think that you’ve covered all of the bases, there’s probably something that’s going to bite because you simply assume that the kid knows what you know after years of experience, and they simply don’t. 

We’re still undecided on whether Youngest is ready and have agreed to disagree on the use of the power mower.  From a practical standpoint, this means that Youngest won’t be cutting the grass yet since the repercussions to our own relationship would be dire if I permitted it and he suffered a serious injury.  Parents can differ and one can acquiesce to another’s judgment on small things, but the prospect of losing a hand or foot moves the situation to a different level and it’s simply worth it to wait for the day that we both agree on the readiness.

Middle’s painful experience has managed to work out in a weird way for him.  The scar to the palm is minimal but a sufficient number of nerve endings were damaged that he’s turned it into a talking point amongst his buddies as he’ll occasionally put the hand over a lit candle or lighter to prove his toughness to the guys; and no, I don’t approve and have warned him against it repeatedly. 

Like I said, it’s not the physical capability but rather the judgment.  Teenagers, oy.



A Note on the Website

The common question is, do you write the site or does the site write you? 

In other words, how much pressure is there to constantly put out material?

My writing has slowed a bit in the past two months and this diminished output will continue for a short while longer as we grapple with the changes that come with multiple children and new phases of life.  Please bear with me for a bit longer and while the articles continue, the pace will pick up in a bit.

Thank you reading PracticalDad and putting me on your RSS feed… It’s greatly appreciated.

Kids and Public Controversy


There’s a story out of Colorado Springs regarding a white second grader who appeared at his school history day as Martin Luther King, Jr while wearing black face paint to appear as an African-American.  The child was participating in a history presentation in which students dressed up as various historical figures for a "wax museum" display and when he came to school, the teacher and administrator were surprised to discover that he was wearing black make-up to cover his face; they asked his parents to remove it and when they refused to do so, they took him home.  It is unclear who contacted the media and the slant of the story appears to be that this is once again political correctness run amok as a poor second grader is punished for attempting to do a realistic display on an individual.

Let’s start with the premise of the history project, since Youngest’s entire grade was involved in a similar extravaganza this past week.  The premise is that each student chooses an historic figure to study and in Youngest’s grade, make a short presentation about that individual in the first person.  Each student must research the life of that figure, write a three paragraph report in the first person – I was the indian maiden who led Lewis and Clark… – and then pull together a costume for the presentation.  Each student has two minutes to present themselves to the listener, and the wax museum approach means that the student adopts a frozen stance that’s meaningful to that personage.  Starting from the pose, the student then presents the report to the various listeners, who then move on to the next student at the end of the two minutes.  In Youngest’s history session, entitled Blast From the Past, each student is at a station in the school’s multipurpose room and at the end of the two minutes, a bell rings and the listener moves on to the next student; the idea is to mimic what you’d find in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. 

I can appreciate what the child was attempting to do since baseball-loving Youngest opted to report on Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break into the major league after the end of the Second World War.  His research was decent and he asked if we could somehow get a retro Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and we sprang for a jersey with Robinson’s number and name on the back.  About three weeks prior to the event, Youngest also asked if I would help him put black shoe polish on his face so that he could truly get into character.  I asked him if his teacher approved of this and he assured me that she would be and when I subsequently saw her, she agreed that the presentation would be better with just the uniform and report and the makeup plan was consigned to the trash.  We talked about the rationale for not using the makeup and it was here that he learned of stereotypes and old-time minstrel shows.  Curiously, the three African-American boys in his class all opted for non-black figures such as Davy Crockett, Abraham Lincoln and Wayne Gretzky.  For this presentation, Jackie Robinson was white and Wayne Gretzky was black.

What I find curious and irritating about the story is the question of who sent the story to the media.  According to another AP article, the school wasn’t aware before the child showed up that he’d be in the makeup and they asked the child and parents to remove the makeup before the event started.  When the family refused, they – the parents – subsequently removed their son from the event; this action was a parental action, not a school action.  Had I been the teacher or principal, I would have also asked the parents to remove the face paint.  The schools are public institutions charged with serving all members of an increasingly diverse society and there has to be some sensitivity to their heritage; permitting black face makeup would be akin to serving pork at a school function celebrating children with Muslim or Hebrew heritage.  While Political Correctness has been carried to unacceptable extremes, the school officials do have to exercise common sense and this situation is one of simple common sense and not political correctness. 

A reporter also contacted Steve Klein of the King Center in Atlanta for his comments and Mr. Klein was frankly correct in his assessment that there was no intent on the boy’s part.  The child was asked to portray a person of historic significance and Dr. King’s race was central to his significance, as was Jackie Robinson’s.  Frankly, the kid wanted to do the best job possible and if Dr. King was black, then he thought that he should be as well.

Ultimately, my criticism unfortunately lies with the parents here.  They probably didn’t consider the minstrel show stereotype given our sorry understanding of our own history and to bring the kid to school in that makeup can be chalked up as oops, I didn’t know that…  But with current controversies about the shooting of Trayvon Martin or whether some local police departments are understating the issue of black youth gangs, to allow your child to appear on television in black-face makeup is placing him in a charged and critical limelight.  Our job as parents is to raise the kids and if there’s going to be media coverage about them, it should be in a positive light; allowing them to become poster children in an ongoing controversy about political correctness – or any other divisive issue – is akin to putting a figurative target on their back.  Several years ago, the comic-actor John C. McGinley appeared on Glenn Beck’s radio program and politely called Beck on the carpet for using the term retard on his show.  McGinley apparently has a child with Down’s Syndrome and simply, and eloquently, stated that using the terminology was piling on, picking a fight with someone who was incapable of fighting back.  This boy’s parents have unfortunately allowed him to be placed in a situation in which he’s liable to be forced to contend with a situation for which he’s unprepared.  There are true believers with agendas for whom their agenda is all that matters and the person in the way of that agenda is simply fodder for the media cannon.



Dad, Why Are You So Cranky Tonight?


My better half is out of town for several days and I’m keeping things together as usual.  It’s infinitely easier now than when the kids were little, but the question from the two older kids tonight was the same:  why are you so cranky tonight?

A friend with older kids once commented that the pressure of raising kids is still there as they age, but it’s different and she was correct.  Young children will wear you out with the constant physical demands of feeding, changing, washing and everything else that goes with small ones; even when there might be no physical demands, they want something akin to the fictitious mouse of Laura Numeroff’s excellent children’s story, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.  I should be grateful now because we had an operative curse in the household for years as anytime that my wife departed on a business trip, one or more of the kids fell ill.  After it happened twice, I palpably dreaded these trips because they could be – and were – met by episodes of pneumonia, bilateral ear infections and intestinal viruses.  Some people have animals that can portend a departure by seeing an open suitcase on a bed, but we had latent viruses that perked up when the luggage came up from the basement.

I’m now past the point of changing blown out diapers and having to spoon-feed the kids but in a sense, they’re still intensely demanding with their short attention spans and raging egocentrism.  If they want something to drink, they can get it but there’s no guarantee that the glassware will make it back to the kitchen.  Towels will be used and dropped where they are and if a teen doesn’t like the answer to his question, the ensuing conversation can become rancorous and potentially end in a raging indictment of my personal sense of honor, fairness and a general condemnation of the useless values engendered by western civilization.  Where one indicts openly, another can respond with sullen silence and pointed use of the dreaded death glare, hoping, like Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, to telepathically instigate a minor stroke for nixing plans with the peers.  When there are children of different genders, school levels and personalities, the increased stress is more exponential than arithmetic as you bounce along from one pin to another.

Despite it all, I should be grateful because the Eldest leaves in the Fall for college and when she’s out, her presence – and death glare – will be sorely missed.  Perhaps it will be hardest on my wife however, as she’ll be left to swim in a pool of ‘tween-age and teen-age testosterone.  In the moment however, the gratitude will have to wait until each is abed and quiet, adult rationality returns to the household.

PracticalDad Price Index:  Food Prices Accelerating in May


One of the infuriating aspects of the US Government’s CPI is that they use it for the basis for determining other things, such as benefit levels, while maintaining that food really isn’t a core component.  While this price index began in November 2010, I began in March 2012 to also calculate the index to show the activity of food prices within the marketbasket exclusive of non-food items (aluminum foil and Dial soap, for instance).

The additional calculation revealed that when non-food items are stripped away, food prices are accelerating at a greater pace; their activity is masked by the generally flat price activity of the non-food components.  Consequently, the February 2012 results showed that the cost of the original marketbasket had increased 4.9% (from 11/10’s 100 to 2/12’s 104.90) but the pricing of the food items alone had actually increased by 7.67% (from a food-only basis of 100 in 11/10 to a like basis of 107.67 in 2/12). 

The results of the May 2012 pricing to three unrelated grocery stores shows that the overall index again increased to 106.49, which matches the previous high of 106.49 in December 2011; this indicates that the actual cost of the 47 item marketbasket rose 6.49% in that 18 month period.  When food items alone are considered and evaluated on that basis, the food-only index comes in at 109.65 so that the prices of the food items alone have risen by 9.65% in that 18 month period. 

Notable points:

  • Stealth inflation struck again with a grocery chain now selling sugar in 4 pound bags instead of 5 pound bags.  As per procedure, I am recalculating the product to the original size to maintain consistency.  At some point, expect one or more of the other chains to do the same and the price of sugar to rise accordingly.
  • Of the 47 items in the marketbasket, 13 had price increases while 7 declined in price.  The largest increase was the price of a pound of roaster chicken, which rose 13.4% from April.

Comparison of Regular and Food-only Indices at three month intervals

Month            Regular Index            Food-only Index

11/10              100                             100

2/11                100.63                        100.46

5/11                102.08                        103.76

8/11                104.85                        106.52

11/11              105.56                        106.38

2/12                104.90                        107.67

5/12                106.49                        109.65



In the past, the mother has historically been the parent who looks inward to the family while the father has looked outwards.  It’s been Mom who’s taken the lead in taking the household and turning it into what the family comes to call home, but that’s changing as more fathers return home.  I frankly thought that I’d taken on pretty much everything that mothers have until several weeks ago when a project that required a number of family photos through the years raised it’s head, and my only thought was oh crap

Multiple projects through the years – science fairs and scouts for example – have led me to craft stores and I’ve always walked past the scrapbooking section with a cursory glance.  Yeah, my thinking went, that’s just lovely but it’s something that mebbe I’ll worry about later.  Unfortunately, there was a parental project for graduating high school seniors and the need for the photos made me realize that later is now.  The result was a scramble through boxes of old photos and the wholesale reloading of camera cards onto my laptop in a search for meaningful and good photos of Eldest through the years.  As the project continued, it became apparent that we also had rolls of old 35 mm film in multiple drawers and while it was too late to use them – meaning that Eldest’s ‘tween years are missing from the project – the first of them were dispatched to a local camera store for developing.

My wife originally had a plan for all of these photos and started more than 15 years ago to try to create a photographic history of the kids’ lives with the intent of giving each a significant album when they reached adulthood.  It was a wonderful thought and she kept at it for the first three years of Eldest’s life but the arrival of Middle – let alone Youngest – to the family meant that the project was relegated to the various drawers throughout the basement.  To be honest, it was something that I found cute but not terribly important as the kids grew and activities took over but now I’ve come to realize that the albums truly do have significance for them.  Eldest knows about the project and was annoyed to find that I refused to show her; other parents have commented that the projects that are being done for their own kids are among the highlights of that particular evening for them. 

It’s now apparent that I badly underestimated the value of the albums and memorykeepers.  The kids want, especially as they move into the world, to have a sense of who they are and where they’re from and making the effort to provide something can only be of benefit to them.  While I believe that men can do most of what women can in the home, I doubt that most of us have the female sense of taste and that’s certainly true in my own situation.  However, I’ll make what was once referred to as a rum go of it in the attempt to provide a scrapbook that isn’t a (s)crapbook.


Rock, Paper, Scissors

It’s been joked about on Big Bang Theory and parodied with ESPN style “World Championships”, but there’s something still very cool about the classic kid’s game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.  In an often messy adult world where people can’t settle their differences, it’s a refreshing reminder that disputes can be resolved in a painless fashion.  Such was the lesson taught by Youngest’s recent Science Fair project.

Last week was Youngest’s elementary school Science Fair and he and one of his buddies opted to do a project together, with the initial concept involving “something about momentum”.  Knowing Youngest’s proclivities, I suspected that it didn’t involve toy cars or tennis balls and after the two of them spoke with my wife – the Science Fair Queen – it narrowed down to examining the effect of drag upon a moving object.  The final project entailed a comparison of the average running time of a Razor scooter compared with the same scooter bearing a 2′ x 4′ plywood board tied to the front run on the same downhill course.  Since the experiment required that the rider be the same for all of the trials – and it involved wearing a motorcycle helmet – the final question came down to who would ride the scooter down the course.  As I sat at my desk eavesdropping on the conversation, an acceptable and useful habit, the boys decided to resolve the dispute with Rock, Paper, Scissors and when I simultaneously heard Youngest call out Crap! while his buddy cheered, I knew the question had been decided.  The project came off well but what was refreshing was the willingness of the boys to abide by the game’s outcome; there was no rancor and no pissiness about unfairness and I can only wish that most of the adults in this world had the same attitude.

The game has a place in our relationship, a practice that occurs while waiting for shopping females, a bus or simply killing time.  I can still take the boy in most physical activities, but he’s been consistently able through the years to beat me in prolonged game sessions and it was only this weekend, after a sixty round session that he explained his strategy for beating me and most others that he plays.  The key is that he’s got a strategy while the rest of us – kids and adults alike – are simply throwing out hand gestures in the hope of winning a particular round.  His practice occurs when he loses a round and the opponent throws out the next gesture; he expects that the person will throw the same gesture with the thought that if a gesture won before, it should hopefully win again.  He responds with the gesture that can best it and more often than not, he wins that round.  Sometimes, the person even tries that gesture again and he’ll make a call on whether he thinks that his opponent would be the type to try that.  Over a game with multiple rounds, he’ll statistically take the majority from the opponent.  After he explained himself, I simply sat and stared at this ten year-old and wondered at how his mind works.

There’s another point to be made however, and it goes beyond a seemingly mindless, pointless game.  Take the time to engage the kids in these activities, while waiting at the mall or under a basketball hoop and you’ll be surprised at what you might learn.  It might simply pertain to a new favorite flavor of ice cream but again, it might offer a potent insight into the child’s life.  When I find that Youngest is starting to play the teen version – Rock, Paper, Scissors, Balls – then I’ll know that he’s arrived at the onset of male puberty.