The Washington Post

Rob Porter Is My Ex-Husband - Here’s What You Should Know About Abuse

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Sunday that she has no reason not to believe statements that Jennifer Willoughby and I have made about our ex-husband, former White House aide Rob Porter. I actually appreciated her saying that she at least did not not believe us.

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Why Does WikiLeaks Keep Publishing U.S. State Secrets? Private Contractors

When WikiLeaks released more than 8,000 files about the CIA’s global hacking programs this month, it dropped a tantalizing clue: The leak came from private contractors. Federal investigators quickly confirmed this, calling contractors the likeliest sources. As a result of the breach, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said, the CIA had “lost control of its entire cyberweapons arsenal.”

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Here's Why School Is So Confusing for Kids

The federal and state education reform initiatives kicked off about a quarter-century ago by the No Child Left Behind legislation assume the following: that the institution itself is basically sound, that teachers bear major blame for poor school performance, that the Common Core State Standards tell teachers what to say and kids what to remember, that bringing market forces to bear will make them do it, and that high-stakes tests monitor what’s important.

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Who's Behind the Devastating Movement to Privatize Public Schools?

When, about 30 years ago, corporate interests began their highly organized, well-funded effort to privatize public education, you wouldn’t have read or heard about it. They didn’t want to trigger the debate that such a radical change in an important institution warranted.

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Noam Chomsky: The Country Where Journalism Is Being Murdered

Journalists are the “watchdogs” of democracy, according to the European Court of Human Rights. Anyone who wants to control a country without being troubled by criticism tries to muzzle reporters, and unfortunately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a past master at stifling the cries of freedom. As journalists from around the world converge on Antalya to cover this weekend’s Group of 20 summit, many of their Turkish colleagues are being denied accreditation.

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The Big Problem With the Common Core That Keeps Getting Ignored

The role of the Common Core State Standards in attempting to improve schooling has prompted countless editorials, op-eds, and letters to editors. Opinion about them has split political parties, faculties, and friendships, and even created an unusual progressive-conservative alliance in opposition.

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My Township Calls My Lawn ‘a Nuisance’ - But Still I Refuse to Mow It

A mutilated garter snake, a sliced frog and countless slashed grasshoppers. That was the scene of carnage in my yard in September, after local officials ordered me to mow my overgrown lawn or be fined $1,000. Three months earlier, I had stopped mowing my nearly one acre of country land outside of a rural Ohio town. A diverse potpourri of plants began to flourish, and a rich assortment of insects and animals followed. I had essentially grown a working ecosystem, one that had been waiting for the chance to emerge.

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Why the Conventional Wisdom on Schooling Is All Wrong

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint the root cause of poor school performance. Here’s a theory: Because education policy in America is made by non-educators in state legislatures and Congress, it’s shaped by the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom says schooling is primarily about “delivering information.” The conventional wisdom is wrong.

Delivering information isn’t the problem. Kids are drowning in information, and oceans more of it is at their fingertips ready to be downloaded. What they need that traditional schooling has never given them and isn’t giving them now isn’t information, but information processing skills. They need to know how to think—how to select, sort, organize, evaluate, relate, and integrate information to turn it into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom.

How do kids learn information processing skills? The same way they learn to walk, read, swim, write, catch a ball, keyboard, ride a bicycle. They learn by doing—learn to process information by processing information.

Let me try to explain why the delivering-information model of educating makes it almost impossible for schools to pursue the most useful, legitimate, important, satisfying, philosophically defensible aim of schooling: improving learners’ ability to think for themselves.

Imagine a horizontal line representing a continuum of kinds of information. On the lefthand end of the line, insert the word, “Unmediated,” “Unprocessed,” or “Raw,” for information that goes directly to our brains by way of our senses—seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. If a kid walks into a room and says, “It’s too hot in here,” she’s created firsthand, directly experienced information.

On the right-hand end of the line, insert the word, “Mediated,” “Processed,” or “Refined” for information that’s the product of others’ thought. If I say, “Einstein said space and time are relative to the position of the observer,” I’m passing along secondhand (or fifteenth-hand) information that was the product of complex thought processes in Einstein’s head.

The “too hot in here” information goes to the extreme left end of the information-type continuum, creating opportunities for speculation, investigation, and wide-ranging thought processes. Did she enter the room from a colder one? Is what she’s wearing affecting her perception? Is she sensing air temperature or radiated heat? Has she been exercising? What does her metabolism have to do with what she’s sensing? What does the thermometer say? What’s the best way to find answers?

The Einstein information goes to the extreme right end of the continuum. All the heavy-lift thinking has already been done, and relatively few people know enough to do anything with the information except assume—based on Einstein’s reputation—that he was right.

To help kids improve their ability to process information, they need information on or near the left-hand, raw end of the continuum, and the traditional curriculum isn’t giving it to them. Open typical textbooks to almost any page, listen for a few minutes to a lecture or teacher talk, check out the reference section of a library or seek information on the Internet, and it’s obvious that what’s being delivered is on the far right end of the continuum. Learners can’t process it—can’t improve their ability to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, integrate, and so on—because the information delivered has already been processed to levels beyond their ability to challenge or question.

As my brother and I say in one of our short PowerPoints designed to stimulate thinking about big issues in educating, what delivered information gives kids is about as interesting and intellectually challenging as crossword puzzles with all the squares filled in. They can’t do anything with the information except try to store it in memory. And, not having thought through for themselves the delivered information to a useful level of understanding, and having no immediate use for it, it goes into short-term memory, then disappears.

We’re kidding ourselves if we assume those “A” grades being hung on American schools based on scores on standardized tests mean that the students who attend them are being taught to think. We’re kidding ourselves if we assume the high test scores of students in Finland or Poland or South Korea mean they’re being taught to think. Standardized tests are sideshows on the periphery of effective schooling because they can’t evaluate original thought, without which humankind can’t adapt to continuous change and survive. What matters is our individual and collective ability to make sense of the world as it was, is, and could be, and the means to that end are far too varied and complex to be measured by machine-scored tests.

There’s a solution to the problem. Choose any idea in any school subject for which a solid case can be made that every kid in the country needs to understand it, and within the property boundaries of her or his school are the kinds of immediately accessible real-world prompts that allow that idea to be studied firsthand. The prompts just need to be identified and examined until they emerge from environments ignored because they’re too familiar.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for acceptance of the obvious fact that direct experience teaches best. It’s been 99 years since Alfred North Whitehead, in his Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of England, said, “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity.”

There are administrators and teachers not only willing but powerfully motivated to move beyond today’s emphasis on mere learner (temporary) recall of delivered information, but “the system” won’t let them. The system—district offices, boards of education, state legislatures, state bureaucracies, education publishers, chambers of commerce, colleges, universities, Congress, courts, philanthropic foundations, mainstream media—the system assumes that delivered information is what educating is all about, so that’s what gets taught and tested and scores treated as if they meant learning had taken place.

It’s gratifying to see the growing student, teacher, administrator, and parental resistance to the present misnamed “reform” effort. The rate at which testing is wasting the potential of kids’ minds that don’t work in standardized, text-centric ways, is inexcusable. But resistance would be far more effective if demands to stop high-stakes testing were accompanied by demands to get serious about improving thinking skills.

Given learner diversity, given the accelerating rate of social change, given an unknowable future, no one really knows what information needs to be delivered. Given the WorldWideWeb, delivering information isn’t a problem. Given abundant, daily evidence of humankind’s ability to create messes it doesn’t know how to clean up, helping learners improve their ability to think is Job One.

Educators can solve this problem, but there’s no point in their even trying as long as the rich and/or powerful are on their stumps peddling the myth that what ails America’s schools are educators clinging to the status quo and kids with insufficient grit to do what they’re told to do.

The “reformers” are the ones stuck in the status quo. The Common Core State Standards are the status quo with the screws tightened. High-stakes tests are the status quo with life-destroying potential for those who can’t guess what the test-item writer was thinking. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are the status quo with performance bars raised high enough to produce failures “proving” public schools need to be handed off to charter chains or privatized.

Kids, teachers, and taxpayers are being taken for a very expensive ride to nowhere worth going.

Here, from my younger brother Howard, is a link to a pdf for those who may be interested in re-purposing schools—turning them into living laboratories that capitalize on the teaching and learning potential of immediate, here-and-now, firsthand experience:

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The Important Things Standardized Tests Don't Measure

As my students were taking their seats, Myrna, sitting near my desk, said she’d just read a magazine article about secret societies in high school. What, she asked, did I know about them?

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Here's One Thing Schools Should Do to Boost Students' Intellectual Growth

America’s schools aren’t going to significantly improve until a main reason for their flat performance is correctly diagnosed and addressed.

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The Paradigm Shift Schools Need Now

Modern education, worldwide, has lost sight of its primary mission—helping humankind survive.

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What the Common Core Standards Can’t Do

“Mr. Brady, you have to read this book!”

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School Reforms That Actually Work

There is a story about a guy who banged his head against a stone wall because “it felt so good when he stopped.” It’s time that we stop banging our heads against the wall trying to implement school reforms that are ill-conceived, and it’s time for policymakers to look at reforms that have actually succeeded in raising achievement for challenged populations of students.

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I Understand Why Westerners Are Joining Jihadi Movements Like ISIS. I Was Almost One of Them

The Islamic State just released a gruesome new beheading video, again helmed by a western-bred Jihadist. As often happens, I received messages asking for explanation.

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What Do Standardized Tests Actually Test?

A headline in the January 26, 2009, issue of Forbes magazine reads: “Bill Gates: It’s the Teacher, Stupid

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10 Things Wrong with What Kids Learn in School

Mainstream media, cued by corporate press releases, routinely claim that America’s schools are markedly inferior to schools in other developed nations. The claim is part of an organized, long-running, generously funded campaign to undermine confidence in public schools to “prove” the need to privatize them.

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The Ukraine Crisis Calls for Less Neocon Bluster, More Common Sense

The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling and muscle-flexing in this country. My Post colleague Charles Krauthammer sees this as a Cold War faceoff, calling for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a flotilla to the Black Sea. A front-page headline in The Post on Sunday said that the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over force,” quoting Andrew C. Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama for “taking the stick option off the table.”Right-wing and Republican posturing fills the airwaves.

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Want To Solve America’s Curriculum Problem? Here's How

In my January 31st contribution to The Washington Post's “Answer Sheet” blog, I joined Rene Descartes, Buckminster Fuller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Alfred North Whitehead, Felix Frankfurter, Thomas Merton, Neil Postman, John Holt, Harlan Cleveland, Ernest Boyer, John Goodlad, and dozens of others saying that the Common Core Standards are reinforcing an idea that's doing great damage to education. 

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Why Common Core Isn't the Answer

As far as I know, no one has asked the general public’s opinion about the Common Core State Standards for school subjects. My guess would be that if polled, most people—including most educators—would say they just make good sense.

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Do You Know What ‘The Procedure’ Is?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, high-profile education reformer Lou Gerstner, Jr., wrote, “We must start with the recognition that, despite decade after decade of reform efforts, our public K- 12 schools have not improved.”

In a speech to the American Federation of Teachers, multi-billionaire Bill Gates agreed, saying the United States has been “struggling for decades to improve our public schools,” and the results have been “dismal.”

In his December 19, 2013 Education Week blog, Marc Tucker, another influential long-time education reformer, asks, “Why has US education performance flatlined?”

Like Gerstner, Gates, and Tucker, I don’t see any evidence that the army of corporate types who left business suites and corner offices to come to the rescue of American education have done anything but dumb down the public’s conception of the ends of public education and the proper means to more acceptable ends.

Corporate reformers have had two decades to make their case that what ails American education is a lack of rigor, and two decades to test their theory that market forces are the surest way to kick-start that needed rigor. To that end, they’ve introduced competition with a vengeance—kids against kids, parents against parents, teachers against teachers, schools against schools, districts against districts, states against states, nations against nations.
 
And it hasn’t worked. But like all true believers, it doesn’t shake their faith that rigor is the key to quality performance, that competition is the key to rigor, and that more of it will make America the winner in the bubble-in-the-right-oval race.

I come to the reform problem from a simpler, more direct perspective. Although at one time or another I’ve played most of the roles connected to education—student, parent, teacher, researcher, school board member, textbook author, contributor to journals, college professor, consultant, administrator, and so on, I think of myself primarily in the role I most enjoyed and in which I learned the most—a classroom teacher of adolescents, working with kids sent to me against their will, on orders from vague authority figures, behaving as kids could be expected to behave when caged for hours at a time in a small, dull space.
 
For years I wrote newspaper columns for Knight-Ridder, trying to help general readers think freshly about long-ignored school problems. Below is a response to one of my columns from John Perry, a classroom teacher in Central Florida. Read what he has to say and ask yourself how more rigor would solve his problem.

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What's Wrong with the Common Core?

A particular interest of mine has long been what kids are taught in the early years of adolescence. No surprise, then, that when the Common Core Standards went public, I clicked on the standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects and scrolled down to pages 61 and 62, where you can find lists of standards for different grades.
Let’s look at the standards for 9th and 10th graders.  There are two lists for the various subjects, but they are nearly identical. Reading them, I was struck by something I’ll boldface for the sake of emphasis:

Standard 1: “Cite specific textual evidence…”

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A Teacher’s Troubling Account of Giving a 106-Question Standardized Test to 11 Year Olds

We’re just a month into school and already the testing madness has begun. Many Pittsburgh Public School students have just taken their first round of standardized tests, and it’s time to ask some serious questions about their purpose, the ever-increasing number of tests, and the impact on our children.

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What Makes an Effective Teacher? Here are the Right and Wrong Roles

Bill Gates spent$45 million trying to find out what makes a school teacher effective. I’ve studied his Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, and think it ignores a matter of fundamental importance.

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When Will Wall Street Pay Its Share? Why We Have to Tax Financial Transactions

On Friday at midnight, the sequester kicked in, triggering $85 billion in deep, dumb budget cuts that sent “nonessential personnel”— such as air traffic controllers — packing.

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Do Textbooks Really Help Teach Our Kids?

A few days ago I watched a Public Broadcasting System, Independent Lens video titled “The Revisionaries.” It follows Don McLeRoy, dentist and longtime conservative member of the Texas Board of Education, as he campaigns for the position of chairman, then, later, to continue to serve on the board.

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What a REAL Paradigm Shift in Education Would Look Like

I envy Thomas Paine’s way with language. I’ve been searching for years for words that would have the impact of those he penned in his 1776 pamphlet,
“The Crisis.”

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Why We Should Consider Letting High Schoolers Pick Their Classes

Both my late mother’s and my father’s right foot tended to be heavy when in contact with car accelerators. Their brothers and sisters shared the tendency, suggesting some sort of genetic propensity — which I, unfortunately, seem to have inherited.

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The Ultimate Education Reform: Learning by Doing

We learn most of what we know by doing something while thinking about it—learn about cooking by cooking, learn about getting through airport security by going through airport security, learn about removing appendices by removing appendices.

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8 Reasons We Should Be Seriously Suspicious of the Common Core Standards

E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book, “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” was published March 1, 1987.

So it was probably in March of that year when, sitting at a dining room table in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, my host — a publishing executive, friend, and fellow West Virginian — said he’d just bought the book. He hadn’t read it yet, but wondered how Hirsch’s list of 5,000 things he thought every American should know differed from a list we Appalachians might write.

I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably some version of what I’ve long taken for granted: Most people think that whatever they and the people they like happen to know, everybody else should be required to know.

In education, of course, what it’s assumed that everybody should be required to know is called “the core.” Responsibility for teaching the core is divvied up between teachers of math, science, language arts, and social studies.

Variously motivated corporate interests, arguing that the core was being sloppily taught, organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to super-standardize it. They named their handiwork the Common Core State Standards to hide the fact that it was driven by policymakers in Washington D.C., who have thus far shoved it into every state except Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia.

This was done with minimal public dialogue or feedback from experienced educators, no research, no pilot or experimental programs — no evidence at all that a floor-length list created by unnamed people attempting to standardize what’s taught is a good idea.

It’s a bad idea. Ignore the fact that specific Common Core State Standards will open up enough cans of worms to keep subject-matter specialists arguing among themselves forever. Consider instead the merit of Standards from a general perspective:

One: Standards shouldn’t be attached to school subjects, but to the qualities of mind it’s hoped the study of school subjects promotes. Subjects are mere tools, just as scalpels, acetylene torches, and transits are tools. Surgeons, welders, surveyors — and teachers — should be held accountable for the quality of what they produce, not how they produce it.

Two: The world changes. The future is indiscernible. Clinging to a static strategy in a dynamic world may be comfortable, even comforting, but it’s a Titanic-deck-chair exercise.

Three: The Common Core Standards assume that what kids need to know is covered by one or another of the traditional core subjects. In fact, the unexplored intellectual terrain lying between and beyond those familiar fields of study is vast, expands by the hour, and will go in directions no one can predict.

Four: So much orchestrated attention is being showered on the Common Core Standards, the main reason for poor student performance is being ignored—a level of childhood poverty the consequences of which no amount of schooling can effectively counter.

Five: The Common Core kills innovation. When it’s the only game in town, it’s the only game in town.

Six: The Common Core Standards are a set-up for national standardized tests, tests that can’t evaluate complex thought, can’t avoid cultural bias, can’t measure non-verbal learning, can’t predict anything of consequence (and waste boatloads of money).

Seven: The word “standards” gets an approving nod from the public (and from most educators) because it means “performance that meets a standard.” However, the word also means “like everybody else,” and standardizing minds is what the Standards try to do. Common Core Standards fans sell the first meaning; the Standards deliver the second meaning. Standardized minds are about as far out of sync with deep-seated American values as it’s possible to get.

Eight: The Common Core Standards’ stated aim — “success in college and careers”— is at best pedestrian, at worst an affront. The young should be exploring the potentials of humanness.

I’ve more beefs, but like these eight, they have to do with the quality of education, and the pursuit of educational quality isn’t what’s driving the present education reform farce.

An illustration: As I write, my wife is in the kitchen. She calls me for lunch. The small television suspended under the kitchen cabinets is tuned to CNN, and Time cover girl Michelle Rhee is being interviewed.

“On international tests,” she says, “the U.S. ranks 27th from the top.”

Michelle Rhee, three-year teacher, education reactionary, mainstream media star, fired authoritarian head of a school system being investigated for cheating on standardized tests, is given a national platform to misinform. She doesn’t explain that, at the insistence of policymakers, and unlike other countries, America tests every kid — the mentally disabled, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, the transient, the troubled, those for whom English is a second language. That done, the scores are lumped together. She doesn’t even hint that when the scores of the disadvantaged aren’t counted, American students are at the top.

If Michelle Rhee doesn’t know that, she shouldn’t be on CNN. If she knows it but fails to point it out, she shouldn’t be on CNN.

It’s hard not to compare Rhee with Jennifer, a friend of my oldest son. He wrote me recently:

…I asked Jenn if she was ready for school.

“I’m waiting for an email from my principal to find out if I can get into my classroom a week early.”

“Why a whole week?”

“To get my room ready.”

She teaches second graders. I ask her why she loves that grade. She laughs and says, “Because they haven’t learned to roll their eyes yet.”

But I know it’s much more than that. Her sister was down from Ohio for Jenn’s birthday, and when she asked her what she wanted, Jenn said she needed 18 sets of colored pencils, 18 boxes of #2 pencils, 18 boxes of crayons, construction paper, name tags and so on — $346 dollars total.

She’s been doing this for 25 years. I’m sure she makes less than I do, but they could probably cut her salary 25 or 30% and she’d still want to get into her room early.”


Rhee gets $50,000 a pop plus first-class travel and accommodations for putting in an appearance to tell her audiences what’s wrong with the Jennifers in America’s schools, and what clubs should be swung or held over their heads to scare them into shaping up.

Future historians (if there are any) are going to shake their heads in disbelief. They’ll wonder how, in a single generation, the world’s oldest democracy dismantled its engine — free, public, locally controlled, democratic education.

If they dig into the secretive process that produced the Common Core State Standards, most of their questions will be answered.

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The President Needs to Hear Millions of Second Opinions on His Economic Plans

This is part of a special AlterNet series on Obama's latest plans for a rescue of the bankers and Wall Street's toxic assets.
Read our editorial on the big picture.

The president is getting what he asked for, but perhaps not what he had in mind. During the campaign, Barack Obama beckoned Americans to put aside their cynicism about politics and re-engage as active citizens. They are now doing so with red-hot anger. They are outraged by events and forcing their way into congressional affairs and behind closed doors where policy wonks discuss issues with cerebral civility. The president is now trapped between these two realms -- the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed. Which side is he on? If he does not choose wisely, the anger could devour his presidency.

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The Boom Was a Bust for Ordinary People

It begins to sound a bit naughty -- all this talk about the need to "stimulate" the economy, as if we were discussing how to make a porn film. I don't mean to trivialize our economic difficulties or the need for effective government intervention, but we have to face a disconcerting fact: For years now, that strange stimulus-crazed beast, the economy, has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans.

The economy, for example, has been expanding, at least until now, and growth is supposed to guarantee general well-being. As long as the gross domestic product grows, World Money Watch's Web site assures us, "so will business, jobs and personal income."

But hellooo, we've had brisk growth for the past few years, as the president has tirelessly reminded us, only without those promised increases in personal income, at least not for the poor and the middle class. According to a study just released by the Economic Policy Institute, real wages actually fell last year. Growth, some of the economists are conceding in perplexity, has been "decoupled" from widely shared prosperity.

I first began to sense this in the boom years of the late 1990s, when I was working in entry-level jobs for my book "Nickel and Dimed." While the stock market soared and fortunes were being made in the time it takes to say "IPO," my $6-to-$8-an-hour co-workers lunched on hot dog buns because that was all they could afford and, in some cases, fretted about whether they could find a safe place to sleep.

Growth is not the only economic indicator that has let us down. In the past five years, America's briskly rising productivity has been the envy of much of the world. But again, there's been no corresponding increase in most people's wages. It's not supposed to be this way, of course. Economists have long believed that some sort of occult process would intervene and adjust wages upward as people worked harder and more efficiently.

We like to attribute our high productivity to technological advances and better education. But a revealing 2001 study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. also credited America's productivity growth to "managerial ... innovations" and cited Wal-Mart as a model performer, meaning that our productivity also relies on fiendish schemes to extract more work for less pay. Yes, you can generate more output per apparent hour of work by falsifying time records, speeding up assembly lines, doubling workloads and cutting back on breaks. That may look good from the top, but at the middle and the bottom, it can feel a lot like pain.

And what about the unemployment rate? The old liberal certainty was that "full employment" would create a workers' paradise, with higher wages and enhanced bargaining power for the little guy and gal. But we've had nearly full employment, or at least an official unemployment rate of under 5 percent, for years now, without the predicted gains. What the old liberals weren't counting on was a depressed minimum wage, weak unions and a witch's brew of management strategies to hold wages and salaries down.

So thoroughly is the economy decoupled from ordinary experience that according to a CNN poll, 57 percent of Americans thought we were already in a recession a month ago. Economists may complain that this is only because the public is ignorant of the technical definition of a recession, which specifies at least two consecutive quarters of negative growth. But most of the public employs the more colloquial definition of a recession, which is hard times. And -- far removed from whatever happens on Wall Street, the Nikkei, Dax, or the curiously named FTSE -- most Americans have been living in their own personal recession for years.

I could see this when I was doing research for a book on white-collar unemployment in 2004. Although the economy was officially on an upturn, I met laid-off people who'd been searching for a job for more than a year and often ended up -- after selling their homes and borrowing from relatives -- taking low-wage work as big-box sales clerks or even janitors.

In the months ahead, we can expect the hard times to spread. Citigroup has announced plans to eliminate 21,000 jobs; investment banks in general will shed 40,000. The mortgage industry is in a meltdown; Business Wire predicts a 37 percent increase in the number of companies planning layoffs this year. This is what a stimulus package needs to address: the persistent and growing struggles of the middle class and the working class, which is increasingly conterminous with the working poor.

There are reasons for doing so other than compassion. The chronically poor and the battered middle class have become a tripwire in the American economy -- generating defaults on debts, depressed consumption and global market turmoil.

Consider how we got into the current credit crisis in the first place, through defaults on subprime mortgages. These went to plenty of affluent folks and have wreaked havoc in gated communities. But overall, subprime loans were designed for, and snapped up by, the poor. According to a recent study from United for a Fair Economy, 55 percent of subprime loans went to African Americans and 17 percent to whites. Among whites, they went far more frequently to low-income people than to the wealthy -- 39 percent compared with 24 percent. Hence the subprime industry's noble boasts about providing the opportunity for home ownership to people who might otherwise have been excluded from it.

And why were so many Americans poor enough to turn to subprime mortgages and other dodgy credit schemes? The chief reasons are low wages and job insecurity. Chronically low wages afflict about 25 to 30 percent of the population -- more than twice the 12 percent the federal government counts as "poor." And even earnings in the six-figure range can be canceled overnight when an employer downsizes or outsources, leaving a family without income or health insurance.

For years now, we've had a solution, or at least a substitute, for low wages and unreliable jobs: easy credit. Payday loans, rent-to-buy furniture and exorbitant credit card interest rates for the poor were just the beginning. In its May cover story on "The Poverty Business," BusinessWeek documented the stampede to lend money to the people who could least afford to pay the interest on it: Buy your dream home! Refinance your house! Financiamos a todos! It wasn't just the bottom-feeders that joined the unseemly frenzy to lend to the poor; big companies, such as Wells Fargo and Countrywide Financial, plunged right in. But somehow, no one bothered to figure out where the poor were going to get the money to pay for all the money they were borrowing.

When personal finances are squeezed hard enough, you have the possibility of a genuine recession. People buy less, so growth declines to the point where even the economic overclass has to sit up and take notice. We saw the beginnings of that in the last Christmas season, which even Wal-Mart survived only through perilously deep discounting.

Not that we hadn't been warned. A century ago, Henry Ford realized that his company would only prosper if his own workers earned enough to buy Fords. But, like Wal-Mart, too many of our employers today haven't figured out that their cruelly low wages would eventually curtail their own growth and profits.

Government intervention, whether short-term or long-term, needs to get to the heart of this problem by offering a hand to the poor and the unemployed. Until the House capitulated to Bush two weeks ago, Democrats seemed to be standing solidly behind a stimulus package that would include an increase in food-stamp allotments and an extension of unemployment benefits, both of which are screamingly obvious measures. Current unemployment benefits last just 26 weeks in most states and end up covering only a third of people who are laid off. Food stamps are in even shabbier shape, with an allotment amounting to about $1 per meal. Nothing could be more stimulating than putting money in the hands of those who will spend it quickly.

But you can't jump-start a car that lacks a working battery. We need less titillating talk about "stimulus" and more commitment to some fundamental repairs -- higher wages, a real safety net and a return to progressive taxation among them. The challenge isn't just to prop up stock prices but to rebuild an economy in which everyone shares the good times -- and no one is consigned to a permanent recession.

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