Thursday, November 28, 2013

What is Common Core?

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an eight part series about Common Core

When I was an elementary school student in the 1980s the anxiety and urgency that teachers and administrators had for the California Achievement Tests were palpable.  Even as a child I could sense that the exams were make-or-break not just for the students but also for the school district’s workforce. The same observations held true a few years later when my classmates and I were being prepared for New York State Regents Examinations.

Looking back on those experiences, it’s obvious that the tests had a deleterious effect on educators and students alike.

Teachers and schools were being graded as much as their pupils were on the test grades, so they were being forced – either directly or indirectly – to teach to the test, rather than to the mastery of the subject matter. In order to conform, creative, engaging, and effective teachers saw their potential stifled and in turn, had to dictate rote material and administer an endless series of practice exams. It wasn’t the career they wanted or expected.

It’s not coincidental that as standardized testing has becoming more commonplace, even pervasive, at all grade levels and in all states since the advent of the US Department of Education in 1980, the outcomes have suffered. America, once one of the world’s leaders in student performance, now sports only a middling showing; according to the Program for International Student Assessment, of 65 countries featured in their study, we rank 23rd in science and 31st in math.  It’s no wonder that most high school graduates are ill-prepared for the rigors of higher education, let alone employment.

It’s obvious that the American educational system is in crisis. It’s in need of a significant transformation, one with both immediate and long-term positive results. Status quo will only cause our country’s brilliance to lose some of its shine in the coming decades as the more-learned people of other lands begin to dominate in our or ever-shrinking world.

Unfortunately, the latest attempt to right the ship will sink it further, because the Common Core State Standards (simply known as “Common Core”) are only a continuation of the status quo. American students and educators will be besieged by more standardized tests and, in essence, more standardized classrooms and more standardized students. Common Core will be the catalyst for mediocrity.

Common Core is supposed to redefine education through providing “…a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” while providing measurable results that are “…robust and relevant to the real world.”

Simply -- and more realistically put -- it’s a series of standards in English and math that will alter the landscape of education dramatically, dumbing down curriculum in order to accommodate and satisfy the relentless testing and tracking associated with the administration of Common Core. For example, classic literature will be replaced with manuals and articles while creative thinking will be unacceptable in English classes and the number of math topics covered per grade level will be reduced dramatically so students can learn the subjects more slowly, decreasing their knowledge base.          

Such foolishness was blindly implemented because Common Core is widely – and wrongly -- promoted as being a response by the states, working together, to address our educational needs. It can be sold that way to the people in power, as well as the citizenry, because an organization calling itself the National Governors Association (NGA) was one of the main progenitors of Common Core and most responsible for its integration into 45 states.   

Despite its moniker, governors are not directly involved with the NGA, nor were they involved with or even consulted about the development Common Core standards -- something that can be attributed to yet another mysterious outfit which calls itself Achieve, Inc. (which we will discuss in next week’s column). The NGA is not a fraternal organization. It is instead a trade group that serves as a public policy liaison between state and federal governments.

That last sentence is all you really need to know about Common Core. It further proves that it is an effort by the federal government to assume total control over education (the absolute worst thing that could happen), something that was already made evident by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program and its $4 billion carrot to states that adopted Common Core.          

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An introduction to Common Core

Editor’s note: This is the first in an 8-part series about Common core

One of the hottest issues of the last half of 2013 has been Common Core. I’m sure you’ve read or watched numerous reports about how parents and teachers are fired up about the latest and allegedly greatest attempt to redefine education and develop a world-class workforce and well-versed society.

These stories abound because conflict sells newspapers and airtime – just think about the brouhaha over New York State Education Commissioner John King having originally abandoned his statewide speaking tour just one event into it.

While we’ve been inundated with such reports, a great disservice has been done to the parents whose children will be educated under these new standards, taxpayers who are funding public schools and the employers who need them to produce a quality finished product: We haven’t been told what exactly the activists are so mad about.

Sure, we can sense the passion and urgency in their protests, but what good does that do us?

You would be hard pressed to find a community newspaper or TV news broadcast or talk radio show that gives its customers even a perfunctory lesson on what Common Core is all about.

So, for the next two months, this newspaper will, courtesy of this column, do what others have failed to do and offer a breakdown of the various components of Common Core.

Here’s what you can expect in coming installments:

Part Two: What is Common Core?
Part Three: The Standards of Common Core
Part Four: The Standards of Common Core (continued)
Part Five: Data-mining your kids
Part Six: Bringing the Police State to the classroom
Part Seven: Common Core’s impact on school districts
Part Eight: Who benefits from Common Core?

As I develop this series I welcome input from teachers who are as equally appalled by Common Core as I am so that we can emphasize how the new system is impacting classrooms here and now.

I also encourage letters to the editor from proponents of Common Core – I know there are a bunch of you out there somewhere -- behind the scenes, maybe -- or this wouldn’t have been foisted on Americans so quickly and so quietly.      

It is my hope that during and after the series I will have given you, the reader, enough ammunition to join any of the numerous coalitions of angered parents and educators (or you could start your own) so that we can turn back the tide on these onerous, intrusive and dim-witted standards and get back to the tenets of what had made the American educational system so great before the infiltration of the federal government and standardized testing in the late-1970s/early-1980s.

Simply put: We need to get back to basics, back to local control in education. We need to let the teachers teach and the parents parent.

Common Core doesn’t allow for that. It robs us of our powers and our rights. Its resulting bureaucracy will only continue to put us further behind and widen the already-disheartening educational gap that exists between our nation and the rest of the industrialized world.  

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


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Allow farmers, hunters to exterminate feral hogs

Feral hogs – wild free-roaming pigs – are the latest in a never-ending series of invasive species having a huge impact on our economy and environment.

Farms in the South and West have been especially besieged by the swine, where their insatiable appetites and scavenging ways account for $1.5 billion in agricultural damage every year.

Their pillaging is not limited to crops as they are altering forests at an unprecedented pace, destroying nutrient-rich topsoil (which results in erosion) while killing and consuming saplings, precious wildflowers and ground dwelling birds. 

They’re virtually uncontrollable as they can have litters of up to 8 piglets several times a year. 

And, they’re coming to a neighborhood near you.

Over the past half-dozen years feral hogs have made a home in the Empire State. So far, they have been found to maintain breeding populations in 6 New York counties, mostly in the central portion of the state. They have also made themselves known elsewhere; including a well-publicized sighting in Allegany State Park in 2009 and incidental appearances throughout Western New York (my trail camera photographed one in the wilds of Allegany County this fall).

The state, for the most part, has been trying to stop them. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), working in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture (USDA), has orchestrated numerous roundups and exterminations in an attempt to suppress the invasion. The state legislature even did well for itself in passing a bill this year banning the importation, sale and transfer of Eurasian boars in New York. The law essentially brings to an end canned hunts on game preserves for these beasts – those are places from which boars were escaping into the wild.

While the agency does not officially endorse feral hogs as a dedicated target species, the DEC has allowed, even encouraged, hunters to eradicate any feral hogs that they see in the field while hunting other wild game.

That may soon come to an end.

It was reported in New York Outdoor News last week that the DEC was given power to regulate all things feral hogs and officials are now weighing a ban on the hunting of the animals. They say that targeting and killing the pigs does not help the DEC or USDA in their eradication efforts because it is believed the hunters will scatter the animals, breaking up their passels and making collection by government agents almost impossible.

Outright prohibition of hog harvesting would be one of the worst things that the DEC could do for farming and the very environment it is charged to protect.

Imagine a farmer who sees wild pigs decimating his corn. Under a ban, he could do nothing to stop them. He would have to put in a call to game officers who (already understaffed and underfunded) would have to coordinate the personnel and resources for a roundup. That could take days, maybe weeks. By then, a farm could have incurred thousands of dollars in losses.

Or, think of the tens of thousands of deer hunters in the woods every fall. That army is the very best option New Yorkers have for totally eliminating feral hogs – they are stealthily venturing into areas that typically see little human presence the rest of the year, so they have a good chance of encountering the secretive hogs and, with gun in hand, wiping them out. Were the ban a reality, they would be unable to take aim and would have to report their sightings to the DEC. When would the state get to it? Certainly not in the fall when their attention is on the deer harvest and gleaning revenues from sportsmen.

So, if you are a farmer who cares about the security of your land or a nature lover who cares about the state of our forests, take the time to write the DEC and let them know that banning public extermination of feral hogs will lead to a population explosion and, ultimately, the destruction of our fields and woodlands.  

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

This column originally appeared in the 18 November 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, November 7, 2013


If there was anything that should have been learned from the Great Recession, it was that it’s not a good idea to keep up with the Joneses. The race to have everything that your peers have, if not have it better than they do, drove Americans to buy things (like houses) they couldn’t afford and, in turn, rack up reams of debt. The collective accumulation of this drove our economy, and countless families, to the brink of destruction.

Despite such a near-Armageddon, Americans have gone back to the old ways of doing things. This is a mutation of the American Dream, one that emphasizes materialism and frivolity over frugality and family. The practice is promoted by pop culture, mass media and academia, who make it seem that every household must have two breadwinners while subtly implying that any family that doesn’t is socially unacceptable (even though stay-at-home parenting/homemaking is one of the most important jobs in the world). 

It’s a silly way to look at things, because if you step back and really take a look at finances of families, the second full-time income really doesn’t work for most of them. It’s only an allusion that it improves their lot in life.

According to the Bureau of labor Statistics, the average salary for an employed worker in the Western New York job market is $42,520.

Suppose you have 2 people from a household gainfully employed in full-time jobs. The second worker would lose approximately $6,500 to federal taxes and another $2,900 to state taxes. Suddenly, that second income is down to $33,120.

Then, there are costs completely unique to maintaining a second full-time job.

The largest, by far, is child care. With no one home to raise the child during the day, you have to pay someone to do it (day care). Once the kid does go to school you’ll have to pay someone to care for the child in the hours between when school lets out and the breadwinners’ evening commute comes to an end. Even while the kid is of school age, you still have to account for child care during the holidays and summer break. According to a report by Child Care Aware, the average annual cost for center-based care is $14,939.

The second largest cost unique to a two-income household, especially in areas like Upstate New York where public transit is lacking for most, is the second car. Does a family really need 2 vehicles? No; for most, car #2 is not a necessity (even though most driveways and garages in WNY will signal otherwise). But they do need it if both parents hold down jobs in completely different communities. The average American car payment ranges between $380 and $460 a month. Let’s pick a number in between ($420 or $5,040/year). Then, we need to add automotive insurance. According to Forbes, the average annual rate in New York is $1,369.  Don’t forget the gasoline ($1,600 per year assuming a 20-mile commute) and maintenance ($1,200).

After taking into consideration those costs that are specific only to possessing the second full time income, that person’s income in terms of actual revenue to the family has dropped all the way to $8,972. It lost 80% of its value!

Does that make the job worth the effort? At the start, it had a wage rate of $20.44. If you break down what the actual value is to the worker because of the ancillary costs to holding that job, that person’s wage works out to be $4.31 per hour ($8,972 divided by 2,080 hours per year).

So, what is a family to do? It’s a big decision to make, for even when looking at the costs and headaches, $8,972 is a lot of money.

Some families could choose to do without it and focus less on keeping up with the Joneses and more on keeping up with their kids. Others could make a very wise decision and abandon the second full-time job and instead pick up a part-time job, which would not require the day care and car care expenses. Doing so would see the worker’s physical paycheck shrink, but his or her family’s financial strength would actually be just as good if not better than it would with a full-time job. 

Gasport resident Bob Confer also writes for the New American at Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer.

This column originally appeared in the 11 November 2013 Greater Niagara Newspapers