Some Weeks Take it Out of Ya…

Amidst Monday chaos (read that extensive checking, responding to and following up on a slew of emails; interviewing my next victim for AnimationCareerReview, identifying a new article idea (stay tuned for more on that if you’re into startups, bootstrappers, Latvia- you do know where Latvia is, right?) and getting myriad of other loose ends tied up during the sale of our house, I did the damnedest thing…

I checked Pinterest. Granted, it was only for a split second to get a new recipe I’m trying out tonight. But that’s all it took. That irreverent bastion of I-didn’t-know-I-had-so-much-time-to-kill (I don’t) website smacked me with this photo front and center. Idle time never looked so good, hovering over the tranquil, warm water- every care in the world gently gliding off the shoulders, pulled farther out to sea.

Lost at sea, miles from care (courtesy of http://www.pinterest.com/pin/68117013088529037/ )

Lost at sea, miles from care (courtesy of http://www.pinterest.com/pin/68117013088529037/ )

The New Holy See, as Seen in the UK

In perhaps another sign of the swiftly changing face of the Catholic Church, the UK’s most senior Catholic and newly appointed Cardinal, Vincent Nichols, recently criticized the Conservative Party for its reforms to his nation’s welfare system.

Cardinal Nichols wasted no time in calling the recent changes championed by Prime Minister Cameron and the Tories a “disgrace”.

“The basic safety that there was to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

Similar backlashes against the welfare reforms were uttered by Anglican leaders who, like Cardinal Nichols, claim will disproportionately hurt the nation’s children. Those reforms include a cap on lifetime benefits and additional qualification responsibilities.

Cardinal Nichols is one of 19 new members appointed by Pope Francis to the College of Cardinals last month. The new Pontiff has been making quite a stir in his first year, ushering in what many observers deem a new chapter from the Vatican with his own push for reforms. A decidedly populist and humanist pope (he has publicly reprimanded so-called careerists within the Church and profligacy), Francis’ diverse choice of cardinals is indicative of his new approach.

As advisors to the Pontiff and electors of papal successors, cardinals play a crucial role within the Vatican. Historically dominated by Italians, recent decades have seen changes in the make-up of bishops appointed to the role and now include a majority from outside Italy. This year, many of the new cardinals are from war-torn and poverty-stricken nations including Haiti, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Conspicuously, no new members of the college came from the United States. As the American Catholic Church is still simmering from scandals that have rocked it for years, many of its members have turned towards so-called ‘political Catholicism’ to shape domestic discourse and challenge what they perceive as social ills (in the form of abortion, same-sex marriage and the like). Conversely, the new pope has taken a sharp turn away from dogmatic and political rhetoric in favor of a more humanist embrace of Church doctrine.

High Stakes Test Prep for All: SAT & Khan Academy Team Up

Sipping wine and swapping stories the other night, my friend confided in me that her daughter- a junior in an elite private school- is relieved to be wrapping up a 2-month long, 5-day per week SAT test prep course. “For $700, this course better be worth it,” shrugged my friend, who has diligently taken her child to and from the course each weeknight for 8 weeks.

Such prep courses for the high-stakes, 4-hour collegiate aptitude extravaganzas known as the SAT and ACT are increasingly the norm. Parents shell out serious money for their kids to have an advantage on a test that a mere 20% of teachers believe is indicative of their college readiness.

Sound crazy? That’s because it is. Even college admission officers understand the influence that wealth has on students’ ability to score highly on such standardized tests that in large part serve as a key component of their ability to gain admission. That’s why so many of them have come out in favor of the SAT’s significant changes that were announced yesterday.

Effectively an overhaul of its former self, the new SAT will feature redesigned test questions that re-align with what students actually learn in high school. Bright idea! The vocabulary section will now include more words students are likely to encounter in a college classroom rather than an arbitrary page out of Oxford’s. No longer will test takers be marked down for incorrect answers (a bonus for students who don’t have the advantage of costly test prep where gaming the system is often a key feature of coursework); and the essay (added in 2005) will be optional. Additionally, total scoring will be reduced to the 1600 points that most of us remember. You can read all of the new elements over SAT’s site.

But among the most theoretically exciting changes is the SAT’s new collaboration with Khan Academy- a non-profit online learning platform- that will enable all students to take free test prep.

Given the significance that the SAT score has on a student’s post-secondary future, the exam ought to be about merit rather than birth lottery. Yet the exploding test prep industry has effectively spread the socio-economic divide wider, allowing kids like my own to have access to prep courses that often correlate to better test scores while those without the means are left in the dark.

Free SAT test prep from Khan Academy in conjunction with SAT allows any child to have access to the best practice materials that will prepare them for the SAT. Further, both groups vehemently state that not only will this online prep course be of use for lower income kids but importantly they designed it to go mano-a-mano with the expensive tutoring companies’ courses.

“We worked together to make something truly world-class that’s as good or better than any of the high cost courses or materials, but (it’s) for free,” said Khan Academy founder and entrepreneur Sal Khan during the webcast announcement of the partnership between his academy and SAT.

“It’s no longer about tricks, guessing, and mysterious things than it is about an open exam that celebrates good work,” added David Coleman of SAT.

Admissions directors around the nation have been applauding the changes. Philip Ballinger, Director of Admissions at my own alma mater, the University of Washington, told the New York Times, “It’s absurd… how much test prep has grown and how guilt-ridden parents have become about trying to prepare their kids for the test. If this helps test prep become learning, not gaming, well, shoot, that’s great.”

The ultimate question remains: will parents like my friend suddenly stop paying pricey tutoring agencies to prep their kids for the SATs? This is doubtful, at least in the immediate future, but I’m inclined to believe that slowly more parents (myself included) will begin to critically assess the actual significance of for-profit high stakes test prep (and for that matter a slew of other high-price, high-stakes activities targeting middle and upper class American families with kids that promise the moon). And that’s a good thing.

As always, my blog expresses my own personal views of daily events and is in no way, shape or form related to my contractual writing pursuits as a freelancer. Want to join me in the conversation? Leave a comment here or find me tweeting @BonnieBRandall and on Google+ Bonnie Boglioli Randall . Cheers!

Looming Retirement Crises Spurs Action Across the Atlantic

In his State of the Union address, President Obama took note of America’s impending retirement woes with a new plan. But he isn’t the only one worried, nor is he the only one with bold ideas.

After the ‘Great Recession’, many retiring Baby Boomers on both sides of the Atlantic are left with inadequate retirement savings to live their final decades on. That’s worrisome for a myriad of economic reasons that pose serious risk to the future of our nations.

Meanwhile, traditional employer-based pensions have all but suffered defeat as one by one, private and public institutions have fallen peril to their unrestrained benefits and payouts that are no longer viable given widespread changes in the workforce and industry.

It’s become apparent to the best and brightest minds on the subject that we have something of a retirement epidemic on our hands in need of desperate reform. Among the most obvious ways to mitigate this crisis is to encourage younger citizens to contribute to their own future retirement funds.

That’s easier said than done, particularly when not every worker has access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. In the U.S., roughly half of full-time American workers and a 75 percent of part-timers do not have access to such plans. What’s more, many of these works- particularly those on the younger end of the spectrum- fail to invest in long term, tax incentivized plans such as IRAS. That leaves us- as a nation- vulnerable to their future needs. With an aging Boomer population, we’re finally beginning to understand just how exposed we really are.

President Obama stepped in to offer his vision, myRA, during the SOTU. A fee-free retirement plan that would invest solely in low-risk, government-backed bonds is his solution. It would work much like a traditional IRA with after-tax investments and early withdrawals fees, but it would target working class Americans who are currently not served or under-served by employer retirement plans.

Meanwhile, our British cohorts across ‘the Pond’ have unfurled their own retirement initiative much broader and more ambitious than ours. Unlike President Obama’s myRA proposal, the U.K.’s National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) mandates that all employers auto-enroll employees in high-quality, low-cost retirement plans if they aren’t already enrolled in an employer-sponsored plan.

This isn’t the first time the U.K. has attempted to mandate employer-sponsored retirement plans. Over a decade ago, a similar initiative failed as the financial service sector failed to see an upside to get on board (after all, plan administration is costly and the customers being served, largely low-wage employees, weren’t exactly alluring). But after a revision which included upping the retirement age along with an increase in government pensions at the new age, Parliament enacted the mandate in 2008. It wasn’t until 2012 that the first phase of the mandate was rolled in, and it will not be until 2018 that it is thoroughly phased in.

The difficulty, as the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College points out here, is that it will require very low fees for it to really work. And such low fees are typically only found in large plans with high-wage employees. There are other kinks to work out as well which the CRR speculates may prove disadvantageous to its future (for one, the plan puts younger workers in relatively low-risk asset allocations based on feedback that they would be more likely to stop saving should they suffer early losses).

The closing thought, then, is two-fold: will the UK’s NEST work according to plan, allowing more Brits to reap the rewards of a lifetime of savings for retirement; and will President Obama’s myRA lure enough low and middle-wage workers to save without a mandate for them to do so? Whatever the outcome, it’s refreshing to see two governments on both sides of the Atlantic take very real steps towards tackling this dilemma.

As always, these ramblings are my own and do not represent my freelance work for any of my clients or contracted publications. What do you think on this topic? Let me know @BonnieBRandall or +Bonnie Boglioli Randall

Russian Billionaires, EU Hypocrisy & American Impotence

A few years ago, my husband and I traveled to Rome. Between visiting the obligatory sights of the city and eating tauntingly delicious gelatto’s, we wandered down Via Condotti- the city’s famous mile-long stretch peppered with the biggest names in Italian fashion.

And something struck me. Amidst Prada, Armani and Ferragamo boutiques, I heard more Russian being spoken than I had heard since departing the Russian Department at my alma mater. More Russians, it seemed, were shopping Italy’s famed design houses than were Italians, Brits and certainly Americans.

And that brings me to my post today. The current crisis in Ukraine may not be easily understood. It’s a difficult conundrum to wrap up in a five minute convo, let alone a single blog post.

Ben Judah’s latest piece for Politico, “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West“, does a good job summing it up. And it’s not really about Ukraine. In fact, it’s not even about Crimea.

Instead, it’s about Putin’s end game with his own people (many of whom were, are or would-be political detractors of the horse-mounting, sword-wielding, tiger-loving Russian president) and the underlying reasons for Russia’s bold assertion of itself in Crimea (and indeed beyond).

Despite diplomatic cautions from EU corners, Russia has effectively marched into Europe over the past 2 decades by funneling billions of dirty rubles into its growth. In so doing, EU diplomats’ power have been compromised; their bark is bigger than their bite.

Bolstered by the billions of money streaming from Russia into EU banks, luxury goods, chateaux and the like, EU policymakers happily look the other way at Russia’s ‘wrong doings’. Judah’s article rightly points out that European statesmen, bankers and attorneys repeatedly come to the aid of the Russian oligarchs by helping them shelter money in off-shore havens or re-route it to other investments.

Low and behold, there’s news today from The Guardian proving this very state of affairs. While the world- EU and US- rebuke Russia for its latest advancements into Crimea, David Cameron is busy responding to the needs of his largest donors and constituents. The headline reads “UK Seeking to Ensure Russia Sanctions do not Harm City of London”. Ouch. I imagine Italy and France and Spain and Greece won’t be very far behind in issuing such rapid responses.

Of course, the US is no stranger to this dance, either. Playing the part of an impotent bystander- unable to respond to Russia’s threats and escalations while its closest allies in Europe continue to pardon Putin’s billionaires- America is stuck. Though pundits and politicians can seek to ramp up rhetoric on this side of the Atlantic and beef up sanctions of their own, diplomats know that such a stance would backfire. That’s because we, too, have as many individuals represented at Davos as does Russia and the EU.

And so, as my Russian friends have been saying for centuries, a что делать? … “what is to be done?” Our world isn’t based on politics; and it’s far less centered on ideology (if at all). Money is the game that Putin is playing. Ukraine is the unfortunate recipient of this most brutal lesson.

An Open Letter to San Jose Mayoral Candidate Sam Liccardo

Last edited: 22/02/14 at 10:05 am (addition of ‘Help Close the Parent Gap’ for further consideration)

I like Sam Liccardo. Really, I do. The San Jose City Councilman from the downtown District 3 has his eyes set on the Office of the Mayor and his mayoral campaign has been in full swing for months. Liccardo, a San Jose native and Harvard Law School graduate, is a new breed of politician- one who’s not afraid to stand up to the old guard, extend a helping hand to local businesses of all stripes and sizes, and implement innovative measures to tackle issues that drain our city’s tax dollars.

As much as I like what Mr. Liccardo does for my district in San Jose, I’ve got one beef with his campaign- an item that surely does not hold up to scrutiny of research, let alone what’s best for moving the city forward. Liccardo proposes an extended school day for all students, K-12, so that kids can reap the rewards of additional learning time while presumably staying off the streets in the afternoon. As of yet, no mention has been made about whether or not some schools- or parents- can opt out of the extended day; likewise, Liccardo has made no statement regarding which school districts in San Jose his proposal would apply to (there are numerous).

Mr. Liccardo seems to be missing something from his estimation of how to fix our educational woes, however. While an extended day may help some of San Jose’s struggling schools and youth, it will overburden others and result in the unfair allocation of additional funding (I can suspect that this would call for additional funding) to schools who don’t, in fact, need it.

That’s because many schools within San Jose’s borders do just fine graduating enterprising young individuals who can be found at the nation’s top universities and institutes. In fact, of 52 elementary, middle and high schools just within San Jose Unified School District alone, a full quarter of the schools are rated at 8 or above on a 10-point scale.

Yet we can’t overlook the increasing disparity of our students’ educational experience within San Jose and to that, I do applaud Mr. Liccardo. Without intellectually curious and educationally engaged kids, we neglect our own future. In Silicon Valley, there could be no bigger death knell than a population who, rather than serve the needs of the community, find themselves unskilled for the jobs of the region. In turn, we can kiss goodbye our area’s thriving economy and everything that goes along with it.

In short, Sam Liccardo, I see your concerns… and I raise the stakes on you to consider better approaches. If you will, here is my short-list:

TARGETED PRE-K: While you focus your efforts on extended days for children already in school, the most well-documented route to educational success actually applies before they enter school. Universal pre-k has been rolling full steam ahead with great success in states as diverse as Oklahoma and New Jersey. Why? Because overwhelming evidence shows us that a child’s education begins well in advance of their first day at kindergarten; those lacking a nurturing environment in the first years of life begin elementary school far behind their peers in terms of cognitive development and preparedness.

In a city where a quarter of our students are English-language learners and nearly half qualify for free or reduced lunches, targeting these children with pre-k would be a huge boost to struggling families who lack the financial ability to provide pre-k let alone the understanding of just how important these early years are on their children. Though there will be hurdles to cross in terms of financing such a plan, make it clear to voters that the well known returns on investment of pre-k in terms of capacity to succeed in the workforce, health, crime reduction and more) will pay off, and then some.

INEQUITY & STUDENT FUNDING FORMULAS: If you become our next mayor, Mr. Liccardo, you’ll have a helping hand over in Sacramento. Among the issues high on Governor Brown’s agenda has been his student funding formula- an algorithm that distributes state educational dollars to schools that need it most based on things like English-language learners, income levels, past school performance and more. School districts lacking large numbers of the aforementioned demographics would receive less money than those with them (here’s the district breakdown). Working with our state legislators and local school board, assess the very real impact these extra dollars will have on San Jose’s neediest children and put these dollars to use accordingly.

BEWARE OF AN EXODUS: I would caution a diplomatic approach to our city’s educational issues that recognizes the needs of all families- not just those that fall under a particular socio-economic threshold. Without the parents who volunteer in a number of our schools at incredibly high rates or who are able to give additional funding so that their children can benefit from supplements that the district axed years ago, San Jose’s chances for success will be precarious at best.

Some of our schools are ranked among the top schools nationally thanks in large part to the dedication of their active parent base, fundraising and supplemental education. At a time when the media pits the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ against one another, we need to find a way to bring both groups together so that they can all succeed together because the future of all of our kids is on the line. Some nearby districts (notably, Albany Unified) redistribute fundraising dollars among their schools. I’m not sold on this idea, though it is one additional perspective that you ought to consider before assuming that all families will appreciate your extended day proposal.

HELP CLOSE THE PARENT GAP: The positive impacts of parent volunteers in our schools and the many advantages it poses to our kids cannot be overstated. Research shows us that parent involvement in their children’s education is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success. All of San Jose’s finest schools also boast active parent-led volunteer organizations (PTAs, booster clubs, classroom volunteers and more). Unfortunately, our failing schools suffer from a lack of parent involvement.

Here’s an innovative idea… one that I’d like to think you, Mr. Liccardo, can get behind: start making parental involvement a requirement for all San Jose families with school children. Requirements can be as minimal as a single hour per month dedicated to in-class or out-of-class teacher assistance, attending parenting or academic workshops, reading with small children, sending school or class communications to families via email or flyers, etc.

Since his kindergarten year, I’ve been offering 1 hour each week to my son’s school… he is now in 8th grade. What began as a way to see firsthand what my son was learning in elementary and assist his teachers with reading and arts projects has morphed into taking inventory of his middle school’s library and making photo copies. I wouldn’t trade this time for the world, but I also recognize that not all families can participate in the classroom. That’s OK- there are so many areas where families can help their schools and, most importantly, their children succeed. Start small. Leverage the plethora of research that shows the strong correlation between student success and parental involvement. And offer parents options to get involve that work for them.

LESS IS ACTUALLY MORE: What’s the problem with extended school days, you ask? For one, many of our city’s children do not suffer from a lack of after-school activities, so why on earth would it be fair for taxpayers to bear a burden many of us parents happily bear already? For what it’s worth, I’m one of those parents who carefully puts aside money each month to fund my child’s sporting activities; many others ensure their children have access to musical instruction, robotics clubs, theater groups and more… all at their own expense. Leverage this to the advantage of the entire San Jose community!

Targeting parents who cannot afford such luxuries will help to alleviate their family’s financial burdens while ensuring that families who can offer these supplements to their children can continue to do so based solely on the number of hours in a day. Take away the hours of 3-5 pm, and you take away parents’ and childrens’ ability to choose their own endeavors. I should note here that by high school, kids have a host of after-school activities largely paid for by their schools and run by teachers and parents gracious with their time. They already exist: target kids who are at peril of delinquency by getting them into these programs without affecting the choice of others.

THE FINNISH KICKER: I would be remiss to not mention here that both anecdotal and clinical research is casting more light on how time spent working on schoolwork and in high-stakes activities is abused to the detriment of our children. I realize you aren’t a father, Mr. Liccardo, but if you ever become one you’ll no doubt notice the double-edged sword that said activities can fast become. Too little of them and your child is at risk for a slew of problems that will haunt him for the rest of his life; too much and… your child is at risk for a slew of problems that will haunt him for the rest of his life. There is a happy medium, and most families have to strike that chord on their own rather than be told by the district that their child will stay at school until dinnertime.

Take Finland- a most beautiful country of which I’m delighted to have visited. While the sparsely populated Nordic country boasts a number of wonderful attributes, few come close to the international acclaim its public educational system has rightly achieved. Dubbed the ‘Finnish Miracle’, their schools churn out top-performs who have eagerly catapulted this relatively small nation into global fame. If numbers are your thing, their kids blow most other kids out of the water on a variety of tests and measurements. Their parents? Educated, with access to pre-k and the freedom to make choices that would have a positive impact on their own families in the way they see fit. Their teachers? Top notch- only the best make it into the teaching programs, and fewer still graduate… notably, like the parents, they too are able to alter curriculums to suit the needs of their students.

Perhaps it’s little surprise that Finland leads the PISA charts on a number of measures, but the real kicker is in how they got there. Turns out, schools in Finland are pretty relaxed. As in,  students attend school a whopping 85% fewer days than the rest of the world. On average, they have just 30 minutes of homework per night (tell this to my son’s San Jose middle school, which typically gives between 2-4 hours nightly). And the country spend $1,200 USDs less per pupil than we do in the U.S. We need to step back from our tired way of looking at education- sometimes, less really is more.

BOTTOM LINE: Forcing an extended school day takes away San Jose parents’ right to allow their child to shine in their own light. Many of our kids would not be enjoying the fruitful activities that they do after school -whether that’s practicing their fast pitch, acting in a local playhouse, that first job bagging groceries, or simply relaxing while listening to their music and letting the world go away.

Mr. Liccardo, I really like what you stand for. Really, I do. So much so that I wrote you this open letter. As a San Jose citizen, mother and voter, I urge you to reconsider the extended school day for all San Jose students, and to find better ways to work with all of the city’s parents for the good of all of our kids.

Sincerely,

Bonnie Boglioli-Randall

The ACA’s real value is in transparency: let’s open our eyes

For years I’ve been privy to the wide disparity of healthcare service pricing thanks to a husband who has long worked in the health and benefits fields. As the payer of employee benefits, employers, their consultants and insurers have long grappled with a healthcare system that allow for the irrational pricing of services often not attributed to data but rather to the skyrocketing administrative costs of providers.

What we have in this country has been called an opportunistic pricing system in which providers set their prices- generally without any clinical judgment or data offered-and consumers pay it. There presently exists little incentive for people to shop around for the best value of healthcare as their employers and insurers foot most of the bill. Things are changing with the advent of the Affordable Care Act and the work of some really smart and fed up people who aren’t going to pay more than is appropriate for the services rendered.

Unfortunately, few people understand that the important implications of the ACA are more far reaching than simply mandating that every American purchase health insurance. That’s the easy, obvious, and necessary part; a more nuanced look at the ACA provides us with a better understanding of how it may fundamentally alter how healthcare is priced. While starting at the national and state levels, we’re already beginning to see this trickle down into private and employer exchanges as well as individual ones.

This is clearly disrupting the status quo and our often naive view of what care ought to cost and who ought to pay for it. Unfortunately, we’ve succumbed to marketing ploys where some- not all- well known hospital networks employ extensive advertising campaigns and fancy facades. Many are in fact quite good at administering certain types of care, but their ‘brand recognition’ seems to suggest that they’re good across the boards of procedures and value, and the data does not support that whatsoever.

So what fees are appropriate? High priced services may be fitting if clinical advantages exist. Certain providers may offer promising and unique new treatments, cutting edge technologies, or greatly improved net results that equate to higher pricetags. Not everyone will be able to afford this care and not everyone will be geographically located to take advantage of it. But no complaints here, as that is the very workings of a free market economy. It should be said that many insurers and benefits plans do pay for these treatments when available.

Yet how many Americans know that routine procedures (including appendectomies, laceration care, and colonoscopies) which have very similar rates of success from hospital to hospital are, in fact, among the most diverse in terms of pricetags even after accounting for localized cost differences? Here’s a great read, and another one, and yet another still. Higher price and brand recognition doesn’t always equate to better care.

Affordable healthcare has remained a bit like the city on the hill, nearly unattainable in our hodge podge system of healthcare which we all pay for directly and indirectly (via insurance premiums, our employers, taxes and Medicare subsidies, and of course ourselves). Yet with the ACA now in effect, more states, organizations and individuals are taking note of how to get the best care at the most reasonable pricetag. That may eventually equate to cost of care data leveraged in the individual and small group market exchanges which are on the rise. Massachusetts is a great example, having nearly all of its citizens signed on to universal healthcare and now looking at cost reduction for procedures that do not have added value or improved results.

Bottom line? Healthcare is complicated. The pricing of it should not be. The ACA is just the first step towards gaining more transparency into an often irrational system. If your provider is no longer covered by your employer, your state or your exchange, you ought to ask why; if there is no data to support higher costs, no one but yourself should be paying for it.