Friday, June 29, 2012


Lackadaisical students have always existed, but never in such volume since America became an industrialized nation and never with such vigor as we see today. For those my age and older, think back to the worst students in your class: Back then, even the biggest of slackers still made it a point to do work and strive for some achievement because they had a greater sense of pride and a greater fear of repercussions from their teachers and, more importantly, their parents. Today’s classrooms (and the homes that breed their occupants) are so different.

Talk to a teacher and you’ll hear horror stories of huge numbers of kids who are completely incapable of – or more accurately “disinterested in” - meeting deadlines or completing assignments or preparing for exams, despite the modern students being spoon-fed their expectations through their syllabus, regular updates, and the internet (the latter of which allows teachers to post and rehash virtually everything of note, making it instantly accessible to students and parents alike 24/7). They’ll tell you that these same students relish just getting-by, and see a passing grade as some sort of reward akin to a good student earning a “90” on an exam.

Look at the statistics and you’ll see that approach to schooling. We discussed outcomes last week. What about those who don’t contribute to the outcome?

You would think that my school district (Royalton-Hartland) which -- thanks to the short commuting distance to Lockport, Amherst, and the like -- sees an income level atypically high for a truly rural district, would have a higher graduation rate (commensurate with the socioeconomic make-up of the community) than the pitiful 82% it sports. It’s not much more than the state’s overall graduation rate of 74%, which is driven down by the high dropout rates associated with dirt-poor urban areas like those in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. A 26% dropout rate is not the fault of the schools and in this era it is unacceptable, especially when every American knows how competitive the job market is and that its future remains cloudy. It’s so different from when we had agrarian and simple production economies in which one could get by comfortably in life following an uneducated adolescence.

While that 74% is bad enough, consider another number that contributes to the educational malaise: attendance. In Buffalo City Schools over 42% of all students miss 18 or more days per year, a month of school. Wow.

Those numbers point one type of parent, those who don’t love their children enough to ensure that they, one, attend school and, two, graduate from school. In today’s world it’s neglectful, outright abusive, to allow a minor to skip out on the system that prepares them for the Real World. By deemphasizing the value of an education and allowing a teen to be free-willed to that end, they destine the child to failure in adulthood and a lifetime of low-income wages and/or public assistance.

But for every parent who doesn’t love a kid enough, there’s another one who loves his child “too much”. The goals of parenting are to provide physical, emotional, and intellectual nourishment to your offspring while helping them become quasi-independent teens and, ultimately, truly independent adults. Many modern parents don’t foster an environment that creates those building blocks of dependence. You’ve heard of these helicopter parents who shield their youth from the harsh realities of the world and the life lessons that are necessary to overcome them. They protect their children from everything, from losses on the ball diamond to failure in the classroom, where they aggressively blame every teacher for every bad grade and totally take student accountability out of the equation, never addressing the pupils’ weaknesses and/or lack of drive, let alone the motivation and ability to succeed that was robbed from them by the overprotection.

Helicoptering has become such a sickness that numerous college professors have shared with me concerns over such parents continuing this behavior well into their kids’ college years. This practice has actually been legitimized and recognized by federal policy that forces health insurance companies to cover the insured’s sons and daughters until 26 years of age. Didn’t adulthood once begin 8 years earlier? How is it suddenly acceptable to baby someone into her 20s? By doing so, there’s no need to strive for achievement!

The discussion will continue in next week’s column when we look at the traits of the underachieving students who come from the ranks of the unloved and overloved.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 02 July 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, June 21, 2012


According to the recently-released Business First rankings, my school district (Royalton-Hartland) hasn’t performed very well. In the latest study Roy-Hart ranked 62 out of 97 districts in Western New York, putting it in the 37th percentile. It was 9 out of 10 in Niagara County with only Niagara Falls seeing lower performance. In specific subjects it placed 47th (science), 50th (English), 56th (math) and 80th (social studies). The District also rated 80th in the number of graduates receiving advanced designations.

A lot of parents and community stakeholders will be right in saying some of the teachers and the education system itself (diluted by the morass of local, state and federal controls) are to blame, but they’d only be kidding themselves if they didn’t accept some of the blame as well. That’s because the most damning statistic in the report was Business First’s Achievement Index, which looks at a school’s performance as related to socioeconomic factors within that district (like income).

Despite having the 31st best quality of life in all of WNY, Roy-Hart students performed so poorly in the classroom that they ranked 93rd in achievement, 4 from the bottom. It’s an unexpected outcome because it’s always been assumed that the better the socioeconomic make-up of a community, the better the grades (highly-regarded Williamsville is the old stand-by when making such a claim). That simple – yet telling - statistic would lead one to label Roy-Hart’s students as major underachievers, a statement about households as much as classrooms.

Looking at Big Picture, though, it’s not so much that Roy-Hart is an anomaly, rather it’s a reflection of the norm: We have a nation of underachieving students.

If the theory that quality of life yielded better classroom performance, the United States would absolutely crush the rest of the world in public education. We aren’t. The United States sports the second largest economy in the world with a gross domestic product at $15.04 trillion (the European Union, in the first spot, sports a collective $15.4 trillion). The US remains $4 trillion ahead of the third-best (China) and $11 trillion ahead of the countries in fourth and fifth (India and Japan). Despite such a stellar quality of life, American students are lagging behind. In a 2010 study the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked our students 14th overall. Some of the countries ahead of us are South Korea (1), Canada (3), Japan (5), Australia (6) and Poland (12). This is despite the United States spending more per pupil (just over $11,000) than anyone else but Switzerland (which spends just a hair more than we). It should be noted that we spend a third more on education than first-ranked South Korea does.

I’ve written at length before at the collapse of the once-vaunted American education system under the weight of federal oversight (for something best left to local control with only minimal state input) and standardized testing (which begat teaching to the test and not to mastery of the subject). But, when you look at how the outputs just don’t match the inputs -- both here in our neighborhood and throughout our collective nation -- and the label of “underachiever” gets thrown around, the discussion needs to be expanded to include parental expectations of a kid’s learning and that child’s participation within the process.

Today’s parents – which include the second half of the Baby Boomers and my generation (X) – are, shall we say, a little “different.” The standards that their parents once set for their children (and their parents’ had set before them) seem to have been cast aside and replaced with a kinder, gentler approach to parenting which has yielded a generation of mentally, emotionally and intellectually weaker children all of whom contribute to America’s mediocre success in education and will, more than likely once these kids have aged, have the same effect on our economy, public policy and society.

In next week’s column we’ll look at some real world examples of the modern parents’ indifference to education and how that has contributed to what looks like a generation of underachievers.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 25 June 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers


In a couple of weeks we will be observing the quintessential American holiday — our Independence Day. From coast to coast, people will celebrate with their usual vigor the greatness that are these United States. Sadly, much of that patriotism will not be based on true Americanism. Instead, for a majority of our citizens, the vision of what America has been, is, and will be is but a mutation of what our nation is supposed to represent.

In its simplest terms July 4 celebrates the independence that our Founding Fathers achieved from the British in 1776. But it’s much deeper than that. When they cut ties with the motherland, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence were also cutting ties with — then and for the future — onerous forms of government. They were founding a nation, perchance a heaven on Earth, based on the basic yet so magnificent premise that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Founding Fathers believed that we as individuals were just as independent from control and oversight as our embryonic nation was from the grip of Great Britain. Our singular destinies were based in self-determination and we — not the government — were to decide how we lived our lives. That new form of self-rule that they devised at the time (which was so eloquently defined by the Constitution 11 years later) ensured that the federal government was an object of and by the people (not the other way around) and was there only to provide for an environment that guaranteed the protection of our natural rights and ensured that no one, not even the government itself, could infringe upon those rights and prevent anyone from pursuing his life’s dreams.

The times have changed, however. Many of the same Americans who will celebrate our formative document and its philosophies have willingly decided to abandon those tenets. They clamor for a form of government that our nation won its freedom from. Slowly but surely, even subconsciously, they have declared their dependence.

They want a ruling body that will do more than create and execute the rule of law. They want and need a ruling body that will provide for their everyday comforts — from income to food to housing to health care to retirement. They want a federal government that, in defiance of the Declaration of Independence, will not allow the pursuit of Happiness but will instead outright issue Happiness, or at least a sickeningly limited version of it, while snuffing out the Happiness of those souls from whom it pilfers its resources.

Looking at what our citizens have come to expect over the years -- and what they are now demanding amidst the throes of the economy’s struggle to regain its footing -- it’s obvious that the majority don’t value independence anymore. On July 4 they should lock their doors and stay away from any and all of the festivities. Celebrating as they would otherwise would be but a display of total hypocrisy.

If they truly believed in what the day stands for, they should demand that the government get out of the business of providing a cradle-to-grave existence and, instead, put an end to the taxes and freedoms it extracts from productive sectors of the economy and the free nature of good people in an effort to make functional its corrupt – and, yes, totally un-American -- system of social and corporate entitlements, alleged security and the resultant bastardization of freedom. Ending the federal government’s destructive actions and getting back to our roots would allow every one of us to pursue our own version of Happiness….the very thing that America and independence are all about.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 18 June 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, June 7, 2012


With the piece de resistance of pyromania – Independence Day – nearly upon us, it’s that time of the year when thousands of New Yorkers make their annual pilgrimage to Pennsylvania where they can legally purchase recreational explosives that will illegally be used to supplement their July Fourth festivities back home. It’s ironic that New Yorkers have to tiptoe around the law – which prohibits the sale, possession or use of fireworks – before and during a holiday that celebrates personal freedom.

It’s time that we changed the 103 year-old law and allowed people to have some fun.

Last year that nearly happened – albeit it in limited fashion – when the state legislature approved a bill that would have allowed the sale and use of handheld or ground-based party explosives (aerial displays would have remained a no-no). Governor Cuomo vetoed the bill. That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the end for future legislative attempts; over the years numerous bills have been resubmitted annually before finally receiving executive approval and - as we’ve seen with his recent about face on marijuana - the Governor’s mind can change. But, going forward, it would be nice to see rockets and Roman candles added to the list of permissible items.

The economic benefit would be astounding. The abbreviated list that would have been allowed under last year’s bill would have resulted in $50 million in sales per year. $2 million would have gone to state coffers in the form of sales taxes. If larger and more exciting displays were allowed as well, both of those numbers could double. Instead, dollars are being spent in neighboring states before the fireworks are brought home.

More important than that, though, is the fact that we would glean social benefit. If someone wants to celebrate a holiday or special event and, in the process harms no one, let him do it. Why should we take away something that’s joyous and entertaining to people? Those New Yorkers who now break the law are subjected to harassment by neighbors and police and they could face a potential penalty that is 15 days in jail and/or $250 in fines.

If the state allowed the sale of fireworks, there would still need to be some limits. This goes back to my interpretation of personal liberty -- also briefly mentioned above -- that one can do as he chooses as long as the rights of others aren’t affected. The first such right would be property rights. As we saw last July in Buffalo, a family lost their home and a second, vacant home went up in flames when illegal fireworks struck them. The second right is the right to peaceful existence. You wouldn’t want someone blowing off explosives in a populous neighborhood on a week night when people are trying to sleep for work or school.

To mitigate such concerns we should rely on the most primal form of rule: local governments. It is best left to the towns, villages and cities to best determine when and where fireworks can be used. Aerial displays should be outright banned within all densely-populated areas -- hamlets, suburbs, mobile home parks, cities, etc -- due to the proximity of homes and the risk of unintended fires occurring as they did in Buffalo. But, the people living in those areas shouldn’t be excluded from using the safer ground displays and noisemakers on the holidays. Likewise, those who live in rural areas should be allowed to launch the most-impressive rockets since there is no risk of igniting another’s’ home. Locally-determined limits could also be imposed on when fireworks could be used. Most towns have noise ordinances, so the control of such boisterous activity is not something new. Common sense exceptions could be granted for use of fireworks on specific holidays (Memorial Day weekend, July 4, Labor Day weekend, New Years Eve, and maybe even most Saturdays).

We can certainly make Independence Day much more festive and colorful in New York by eliminating Big Government – and empowering Small Government – recognizing that in 46 other states people can pursue the right to ignite small scale explosives on their property…and their parties are better for it!

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 11 June 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers