And another one bites the dust: Washington Square shrinking again.

The shrivilling of the Washington Square mall is continuing with a “Going out of Business” sale at Pier 1’s store. 

With malls across the country facing challenges even before the pandemic, the disease and associated economic upheaval has made things worse.

Pier 1 Imports, which was founded in 1962, filed for chapter 11 protection in early 2020 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va. and had hopes of a sale to an interested buyer, but none emerged.

On May 18, 2020, the company said it would permanently close all its 540 retail stores, including one at Washington Square, and then reopen them after the COVID-19 shutdowns. At that point they would proceed to liquidate all their merchandise in “Going out of business” sales. Pier 1 aims to have all its stores permanently shuttered by October.

Pier 1 traces to a single store in 1962 that sold beanbag chairs and love beads to hippies in San Mateo, California. It expanded to offer just about anything for the home, from lounge chairs to curtains, and it later adopted the logo: “From Hippie to Hip.” At its height, Pier 1 had more than 1,200 stores.

But in recent years, its business slowed as it struggled to compete with online retailers Wayfair and Amazon, which sold products sofas at a lower price and delivered them quickly.  Big-box chains like Target and Walmart also strengthened their home goods offerings.

The original Washington Square mall encompassed 1,093,500 leasable square feet and was the largest enclosed shopping center in Oregon. It has a long history of change and renewal.

A 160,000 sq. ft. Meier & Frank store was the first to open for business on August 16, 1973. A 211,900 sq. ft. Sears store came next in October of that year, followed by a 120,000 sq. ft. Lipman’s in November. In May 1974, Nordstrom made its debut with a 108,000 sq. ft. store, followed by an 89,300 sq. ft. Liberty House store in August 1974 and a 210,000 sq. ft. J.C. Penney store in August 1975.

Turnover among the larger stores began within a few years, but the mall weathered changes well and its current owner, Macerich, a real estate investment trust, has been rewarded strong average sales per square foot. But much greater challenges have now emerged, particularly with the mall’s anchor stores, but with some smaller retailers as well.

What store will close next? There are lots of candidates. Just wait and watch.

More

WHITHER WASHINGTON SQUARE MALL?

College rankings are out: which is better, UO or OSU?

The Wall Street Journal published its much-awaited 2021 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (WSJ/THE) College Rankings today.

So which is superior, the University of Oregon or Oregon State University?

The UO finished 225th and OSU finished 318th among nearly 800 U.S. colleges and universities examined in the WSJ/THE rankings. 

So now what do you know? Not much.

The fact is that if you depend on national college ranking programs in picking a school, it’s a crapshoot. That’s because each ranking system uses its own unique methodology in evaluating schools and assigns different percentages to ranking elements, leading to wildly different conclusions. 

The U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges 2021 methodology, for example, places UO at #103 and OSU at #153 among national universities in the United States. National universities are schools that offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs, and are committed to producing groundbreaking research. Washington Monthly’s annual College Guide and Rankings places UO at #118 and OSU at #159 among national universities. 

Key indicators in the WSJ/THE rankings are based on 15 factors across four main categories: Forty percent of each school’s overall score comes from student outcomes, including graduates’ salaries and debt; 30% comes from academic resources, including how much the college spends on teaching; 20% from student engagement, including whether students feel prepared to use their education in the real world, and 10% from the learning environment, including the diversity of the student body and academic staff.

Some ranking systems focus on the quality of incoming students at a university, examining standardized-test scores and how students ranked in their high-school class. Some also give significant weight to outside opinion, conducting surveys of university administrators to find out if they think competing colleges are doing a good job. The WSJ/THE College Rankings take a different approach, emphasizing the return on investment students see after they graduate. Schools that fare the best on this list have graduates who generally are satisfied with their educational experience and land relatively high-paying jobs that can help them pay down student loans.

That leads to the top-rated schools in the WSJ/THE College Rankings being those with a lot of money. “Metrics used around academic resources, graduate student debt, the diversity of the faculty and the salary of graduates certainly favor institutions with large endowments,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Looking at one common rating category, Social Mobility, illustrates the wide variability in each ranking system and shows how ratings can be influenced. 

In the U.S. News & World Report rankings, social mobility counts for 5% of the final figure. The indicator measures only how well schools graduated students who received federal Pell Grants. Students receiving these grants typically come from households whose family incomes are less than $50,000 annually, though most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000. 

The social mobility ranking is computed by aggregating the two ranking factors assessing graduation rates of Pell-awarded students:

  • Pell Grant graduation rates incorporate six-year graduation rates of Pell Grant students, adjusted to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. This is computed as a two-year rolling average.
  • Pell Grant graduation rate performance compares each school’s six-year graduation rate among Pell recipients with its six-year graduation rate among non-Pell recipients by dividing the former into the latter, then adjusting to give much more credit to schools with larger Pell student proportions. The higher a school’s Pell graduation rate relative to its non-Pell graduation rate up to the rates being equal, the better it scores. This, too, is computed as a two-year rolling average. 

Compare this with the complexity of how the Washington Monthly deals with social mobility in its rating system.

The social mobility portion of the national rankings by Washington Monthly considers a college’s graduation rate over eight years for all students, a predicted graduation based on the percentage of Pell recipients and first-generation students, the percentage of students receiving student loans, the admit rate, the racial/ethnic and gender makeup of the student body, the number of students (overall and full-time), and whether a college is primarily residential. 

The actual eight-year graduation rate accounts for 8.33 percent of the social mobility score, and the difference between the predicted versus the actual graduation rate counts for another 8.33 percent. The raw number of Pell recipients earning bachelor’s degrees counts for 5.56 percent of the social mobility score. This is designed to reward colleges that successfully serve large numbers of students from lower-income families. 

To gauge a college’s commitment to educating a diverse group of students, Washington Monthly measured the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants and the percentage of first-generation students at each school. It also measured affordability for first-time, full-time, in-state students with family incomes below $75,000 per year, student loan repayments, median earnings of graduates and dropouts, 

Washington Monthly also determines a community service score that takes into account the size of each college’s Air Force, Army, and Navy ROTC programs as well as the number of alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps. 

Finally, Washington Monthly measures voting engagement using data from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) at Tufts University and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. Colleges can earn up to six points for fulfilling each of six criteria. They could receive up to two points for publishing with ALL IN their data from NSLVE’s report on student voting behavior in 2016 or 2018 (one point for each year). 

They could receive up to two points for creating an action plan to improve democratic engagement through the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge in 2018 or 2020 (one point for each year). A college could earn one point for having a student voter registration rate above 85 percent and making their registration rate available through ALL IN. Colleges could also earn one point for being currently enrolled in NSLVE.

Good grief!

There may be nuggets of valuable information about colleges and universities within the ranking programs. But in slicing and dicing academia into sellable tiers, the ranking sites are principally the marketing branch of the higher education conglomerate, a way to assemble and peddle the publishers themselves and the schools they cover.

So don’t decide between the UO and OSU on the basis of their rankings on any of the programs out there. Be open minded. Be flexible. Be excited.

As Steve Jobs said, “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinion drown your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.” 

“Lawyers of Distinction”: just another scam

Portland attorney Andy Green, a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, is a “Lawyer of Distinction”.  So are attorneys Justin Johnson of Hillsboro, Usman Mughal of Lake Oswego, Jason Short of Salem and Bryan Donahue of Bend. They are among 48 Oregon attorneys who have been designated “Lawyers of Distinction.”

Usman Mughal was even featured in a large display ad in the Sept. 6, 2020 edition of the New York Times that congratulated a number of Lawyers of Distinction as “2020 Power Lawyers” being “recognized for their competency in jurisprudence and reputation amongst their peers.”

New York Times ad, Sept. 6, 2020

Impressed? Don’t be. 

About all that’s required to be named a “Lawyer of Distinction” is to apply yourself or be nominated, fill out some online forms and pay a fee. It’s like diploma mills, companies or organizations that claim to be a higher education institution but only provide illegitimate academic degrees and diplomas for a fee.

The Lawyers of Distinction website makes the application and review process sound complex. 

According to the website, it includes a review and vetting process by a Selection Committee. That involves an analysis of a candidate’s work, experience and abilities based upon 12 independent criteria using a platform spelled out under U.S. Provisional Patent #62/743,254. Once a final score is generated, an applicant is subjected a final background check and Ethics Review. Applicants who achieve a minimum passing score and have no disqualifying ethical violations within a 10-year period prior to completion of the application are then eligible for acceptance to Lawyers of Distinction.

Sounds tough and thorough.

Don’t believe it.

 Essentially, it’s just pay-for-play. It’s selling badges.  It’s paying for meaningless accolades. Apply, pay the annual membership fee and you’re in.

The annual cost, automatically renewed every year unless cancelled: Charter membership – $475; Featured membership – $575; Distinguished Membership – $775. The company says its most popular membership is Distinguished, its most expensive. That provides:

  • A link to the attorney’s website from the Lawyers of Distinction website
  • A profile page with the attorney’s picture and a link to the lawyer’s website
  • A national press release announcing the honor
  • A members-only Facebook private group
  • Discounts at national vendors including Hertz, Avis and Hilton
  • Brochures with inserts for a business card to display
  • Access to free online CLE courses
  • Use of the Lawyers of Distinction logo and trademarked materials
  • A customized 14”- 11” plaque
  • An 11” tall customized crystal statue attorneys can display to highlight their expertise. 

Conrad Saam, owner and founder of Mockingbird Marketing in Seattle, tested the membership vetting process at Lawyers of Distinction by applying for membership as his child’s pet chicken, Zippy. “Surely their ‘rigorous review process’ would disqualify a 3 1/2 month old Golden Wyandotte,” he theorized.  

Saam started by getting an email address for Zippy through Yahoo. Then he used an alias to nominate Zippy DeShickeen. He quickly received notification that Zippy had been nominated, but he chose not to send in the membership fee.  

“Surely they wanted to know more information about Zippy,” Saam wrote. “What about the background checks?  Independent Research? and Zippys scholarly writings?  Verdicts… Settlements…. Bar Certifications?  Surely that would follow in the next phase of the process; at a minimum, LOD would want to know what state Zippy was licensed in? a bar number? or a release to perform the background check?  Some of her awards?  Some bio information? But alas, the application required nothing more than a name, address and a domain.

Some lawyers at the Davis Law Group in Seattle decided to play the game, too. In 2019, they nominated Lucy, the office’s 5-pound teacup poodle, and paid the membership fee. Lucy didn’t go to law school, but she passed her state ‘bark exam, the law firm said, and had been recognized by the legal community as a ‘top dog’.

Lucy, a Lawyer of Distinction

Lucy was accepted by Lawyers of Distinction as one of the top 10% of attorneys in the country. Lawyers of Distinction even tweeted a welcome message to her. Lucy was thrilled.  See Lucy’s acceptance speech.

According to the Florida Division of Corporations, “Lawyers of Distinction Inc.” is a private for-profit company with a principal address of 4700 Millenia Boulevard, Suite 175, Orlando, FL 32839.

Robert (Robbie) Brian Baker at the same address is listed as the President in the company’s 2020 Annual Report. But don’t go there expecting to be ushered into an office with a clean, modern aesthetic that communicates success. The address is identified online as only a virtual office.

Robert B. Baker, President, Lawyers of Distinction Inc.

Baker, a member of the Florida Bar, is also the founder and owner of Baker Legal Team in Boca Raton, Florida. A 1989 graduate of Boston University School of Law, he focuses on representing plaintiffs in cases relating to personal injury, wrongful death, auto accidents, medical malpractice and product liability. 

Lawyers of Distinction’s website says it has “over 5000 vetted lawyers.” If 5000 lawyers signed up for the Distinguished category at $775 a year, Baker’s company will rake in $3,875,000 in 2020. Quite a haul.

Lawyers of Distinction tries to quell doubts about its legitimacy by including on its website a section headed, “Is Lawyers of Distinction A Scam? With Over 5000 Members, See What Lawyers Have To Say.” But all the section contains are a few member comments and ratings, such as, “Wonderful professional organization. Very nice looking materials. Bob Goldberg – February 12, 2020.”

It’s likely that few attorneys have been duped by Lawyers of Distinction, lured into believing they’ve been selected for a rare honor based on their legal work. They must figure that impressing potential clients is worth the chronic mendacity and deception.

And they’re probably encouraged by Lawyers of Distinction advertisements that appear even in the respected ABAJournal, the flagship publication of the American Bar Association that claims to be “read by half of the nation’s 1 million lawyers every month”.

Lawyers of Distinction ad in the ABAJournal

If it’s advertised in the ABAJournal it must be legit and an acceptable marketing tool, right?

But the widespread use of Lawyers of Distinction by American attorneys really just represents the decay of honest professional representation. If the ABA, and state bar associations such as the Oregon State Bar, really cared about lawyers’ clients they would be cracking down on such misleading marketing ploys, not promoting them.

And if an attorney ballyhoos their selection as a Lawyer of Distinction, beware. They are living in a world of unearned praise.

Portland Mayor Wheeler’s message to landlords: Tough Luck

“Next to bombing, rent control is the most effective technique so far known for destroying cities.”   Assar Lindbeck, former Professor of Economics, Stockholm University

 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has apparently decided that rental property owners are second-class citizens. 

At a Tuesday, Sept. 8 news conference, Wheeler announced a proposal to require landlords to pay tenants relocation money if they raise a tenant’s rent by any amount. That’s right — any amount. The proposal is expected to be considered by the Portland City Council on September 16. If approved, it would go into effect immediately and stay in effect at least until the end of 2020.

Under current rules, Portland landlords are required to pay $2,900 – $4,500 to assist tenants with moving expenses if their rent is raised by 10% or more over a 12-month period. 

There’s also a state law in place that limits rent increases on properties that are more than 15 years old to no more than 7 percent per year, plus the annual change in the consumer price index. Under Wheeler’s proposal, the state’s limit would be moot.

“Right now, with thousands of renters not able to pay their current rent, it’s likely that any rent increase would force renters to have to relocate,” Wheeler said. “While we’re in the middle of this pandemic, we need to do our part to protect renters from the tidal wave of evictions that we know is coming.”

As for protecting landlords, many of whom are small property owners, Wheeler seems to be making the assumption that all landlords have such deep pockets they can easily cover any escalation in their costs during a moratorium on rent increases. 

He appeared to understand the problem when he said on Tuesday he opposed proposals to cancel rent during the pandemic, saying that would just burden property owners, but his new proposal would clearly burden property owners as well. 

Landlords probably won’t garner much sympathy from the progressives who see  landlords as exploitative villains and are likely to enthusiastically back Wheeler’s proposal.  So it has a good chance of passing, continuing Portland’s slide down the slippery slope of rent control.

If it passes, it will be one more disincentive for investors to put their money in rental housing. As the National Apartment Association points out, that would further limit the availability of affordable rentals, increase the cost of all housing by forcing a growing Portland population to compete for fewer housing units, and reduce the quality of rental housing. In other words, it will harm the very community it purports to help by limiting accessibility and affordability.

Earlier this year, I wrote that Oregon real estate interests would rue the day state rent control became law because the pleas of tenant groups for even tougher rules would accelerate and progressive politicians would respond.

Point made.

Hypocrisy at work: National Geographic sponsors global environmental damage by the well-heeled.

It’s not your parents’ National Geographic.

The nonprofit National Geographic Society markets itself as a leading environmental steward committed to protecting our planet. So why is it running extravagant global travel programs for the rich that have major negative environmental impacts? 

National Geographic Expeditions is currently offering five trips by private jet, two of them trips around the world.

The Wall Street Journal’s August 25, 2020 issue featured a full-page advertisement by the Journal and National Geographic Expeditions for “The Future of Everything: Exploring Global Innovation by Private Jet, August 21, 2021 – Sept. 13, 2021.”

The ad tempted big spenders to “gain illuminating perspectives on how advances in science and technology are shaping tomorrow’s global economy and culture.” In addition, “A top-notch team of experts and leading journalists will accompany the expedition,” including experts from National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal.

A deeper look, however, reveals that the trip will be more a luxurious sightseeing journey for the affluent than a deep, intellectual exploration of global innovation.  

For example, according to the trip’s website, at their first stop in Kyoto, Japan, the travelers will have opportunities to tour the alleys of Nishiki Market, the historic geisha district of Gion, the bamboo grove of Arashiyama, the zen garden at the Ryoanji temple or traditional wooden townhouses called machiya. They will even be able toenjoy a cooking class in one of the historic dwellings. 

During a two-day stop in Seoul, S. Korea, the travelers will visit the War Memorial of Korea and the National Museum of Korea, learn about Buddhist traditions at the centuries-old temple of Jingwansa and, as in Kyoto, attend a cooking class.

In Mongolia, they will settle into traditional ger tents and and gather to hear National Geographic Emerging Explorer Federico Fanti discuss new methodologies for curbing the illegal trade of fossils and natural resources in the Gobi. They’ll also explore red rock landscapes, see the Moltsog Els sand dunes and ride horseback across the steppe. They will even meet a nomadic family for tea. 

All this for a mere $94,995 per person double occupancy or $104,490 single occupancy.

The private jet – “A Boeing 757—specially configured with VIP-style seating for just 75 passengers—affords us unmatched flexibility and is ideally suited for these remarkable expeditions,” National Geographic Expeditions says on its website. The plane’s usual capacity is 180 to 233 people. No small, fully loaded, and fuel-efficient plane for this journey. (Coincidentally, Donald Trump’s plane, which he bought in 2011 from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is a Boeing 757.) 

National Geographic’s Boeing 757

Powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce RB211 turbofan engines, the National Geographic’s Boeing 757 will fly around the world for 24 days.

Route of The Future of Everything trip.

Richard Heede, the co-founder and director of the Climate Accountability Institute, has estimated that a Boeing 757 emits roughly 26 tons of CO2 per 1,000-mile trip. The website for The Future of Everything trip doesn’t specify the distance the plane will fly, but a reasonable estimate is 22,000 miles. That means the plane will produce an estimated 572 tons of CO2 emissions. Human-related emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are a primary driver of climate change and present one of the world’s most pressing challenges with a range of potential ecological, physical and health impacts.

Why is National Geographic behind this jaunt?

You just have to know that National Geographic is no longer just the publisher of the ubiquitous magazine with the distinctive yellow border that’s been published continuously since 1888.

In 2015, the National Geographic magazine abandoned its nonprofit status and became part of National Geographic Partners, a venture between its parent organization and 21st Century Fox. Under the $725 million deal, Fox became the owner of 73 percent of the new company.  The National Geographic Society, which continues with the mission to “inspire people to care about the planet,” became the owner of 27 percent of the new company.

National Geographic Partners combined the National Geographic TV channels with a list of media properties that included National Geographic magazine as well as travel programs, including National Geographic Expeditions.

To say the least, promoting responsible environmental behavior is probably not high on 21st Century Fox’s mission, nor is inspiring people to care about the planet.

Now you know what’s going on, and it’s not pretty.

The flaw at historically black colleges and universities: dreadful graduation rates

HBCUgrads

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have a long history in the United States.

They played a significant role, for example, in educating Black veterans returning from WWII. According to the journalist and historian Edward Humes, writing in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 12% of Black veterans went to college on the GI Bill, with upward of 90% of those attending HBCUs.

Now, in the wake of renewed black activism, HBCUs appear to be on a roll.

In the wake of increased calls for racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, six HBCUs, Howard University, Xavier University of Louisiana, Tuskegee University,  Hampton University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, announced in July that they had received substantial donations from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Howard received $40 million, Hampton, $30 million, Xavier, Morehouse and Tuskegee, $20 million.

The previous month, Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, said they were donating $120 million to Spelman College, Morehouse College and the United Negro College Fund.

Frosting on the cake came on August 11 when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a Howard University graduate, became the first graduate of a HBCU to become a vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic or Republican party.

“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris told the Washington Post in 2019. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”

“HBCUs have a tremendous record,” Hastings and Quillin said in a news release announcing their gifts.

The 104 HBCUs do have a good record in some things, but not in one critical area, graduation rates. Their overall performance here is abysmal and large gifts to a few HBCUs likely won’t change that.

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has tried to sugarcoat the situation by asserting that “…in their most important function—enrolling and graduating college students—HBCUs perform far better than their small size and lack of resources would lead one to expect.” The problem is that the UNCF data is misleading.

For example, a 2018 UNCF report noted that “Florida HBCUs represent just 4 percent of the state’s four-year colleges and universities but enroll 9 percent of all black undergraduates and award 18 percent of all bachelor’s degrees to black college graduates.” More meaningful data is the graduation rate at individual HBCUs.

There are HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents 47 public HBCUs, the graduation rate for HBCUs is only 35%.

When the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education surveyed 64 HBCUs in 2014, only five graduated more than 50 percent of their students within six years: Spelman- 69%; Howard, 65%; Hampton, 59%; Morehouse, 55%; Fisk, 52%. At seven HBCUs, fewer than one in five Black students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The current U.S. Department pf Education’s College Scorecard shows an improvement in the graduation rate at Spelman, but declines at the other four schools: Spelman- 77%; Howard, 61%; Hampton, 50%; Morehouse, 52%; Fisk, 41%.

The Scorecard reports appalling graduation rate at some other HBCUs as low as:

  • Alabama State University, Montgomery, AL – 31%
  • University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C. – 28%
  • American Baptist College, Nashville, TN – 27%
  • Shaw University, Raleigh, NC – 27%
  • Langston University, Langston. OK – 23%

Then there’s Shorter College, a private, faith-based, two-year liberal arts college in N. Little Rock, AR. The average annual cost, which includes tuition, living costs, books, and fees minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients, is $16,044. The college says on its website, “The goals of faculty, staff and administrators are the same: student success.” But its graduation rate is only 8%, according to the College Scorecard.

shortercommencement

In comparison, about 62% of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in the United States in the fall of 2012 completed that degree at the same institution within 6 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In other words, by 2018 some 62 percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started in 2012.

The problem of pitiful graduation rates at so many HBCUs is compounded by the debt accrued by Black students who don’t graduate. It’s hard enough for many graduates to pay off their college debt. Median total debt after graduation from Fisk College, for example, is $28,000 – $30,000, which translates into monthly loan payments of $291- $317 on a standard 10-year payment plan.

But if a student incurs $30,000 of college debt and never earns a degree, the burden is substantially greater. When they drop out, they don’t get the better job or the wage increase that graduates get initially and over time. One result is that the default rate on federal student loans is three times higher for students who drop out without a diploma. Adding insult to injury, drop-outs in default don’t have access to federal student aid that could help them go back and finish school for a degree.

If wealthy philanthropists and HBCUs really want to help Black college students, they will put money and effort into ensuring that students graduate with a good education. HBCUs that fail this test are doing their students no favors, undercutting the very people they claim to champion, and should close.

Challenging shaming: Trader Joe’s takes the lead

 

joes2

Finally, somebody stood up to the mob.

Briones Bedell, 17, a California high school senior, thought Trader Joe’s used racist branding and packaging, so she started a Change.org petition to stop it. “We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores,” her petition says. “The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes.”

The petition touched a nerve with some people, generating castigation of Trader Joe’s by a Twitter mob and even a New York Times  story on July 19, even though the petition had captured fewer than 2,000 signatures at that point, hardly evidence of a groundswell in public condemnation.

That all led to what appeared to be capitulation by Trader Joe’s, though the company said it had decided to get rid of the allegedly racist branding and packaging before the petition emerged.

In an unexpected and groundbreaking twist, however, Trader Joe’s reversed course, issuing a statement on July 24, 2020 saying the branding and packaging would stay: “We want to be clear: we disagree that any of these labels are racist. We do not make decisions based on petitions…We make decisions based on what customers purchase, as well as the feedback we receive from our customers and Crew Members… those products that resonate with our customers and sell well will remain on our shelves.”

Has the tide finally begun to turn against social media zealots? There are good reasons why it should.

In the case of Change.org, one good reason to ignore it is because its petitions are useless social barometers generated by a for-profit private company, not a nonprofit charity as many falsely assume. It makes millions by selling advertised petitions on its website. According to Activist Facts, its revenues come from tracking profile data on petition signers and promoting advertised petitions to targeted Change.org members. The promotion comes from Change’s staff of professional campaigners and organizers.

The Wall Street Journal reported on how the system works on the individual user’s end:

[You] join Change.org and sign a petition. Your email is registered as having an affinity with that subject. Change.org then matches you with petitions dealing with similar causes that are sponsored by political groups, activists or nonprofits such as Oxfam. You can sign their petitions and opt to learn more about the groups. If you do opt in, the sponsor gets your address.

 “I have huge problems with Change.org because they are a lead-generation business disguised as a social-change organization for whoever is willing to pay them for the email addresses,” Clay Johnson, author of “The Information Diet” and a veteran of fund raising through social media, told the Journal.

A New York Times story on the effectiveness of online petitions expanded on this point. “Digital petitions are popularly used to build databases of names, emails and phone numbers of those who can be called on to act or donate. ‘It’s moved from an organizing effort to an intelligence-gathering operation,’ said Scott Payne, who worked as an organizer for a software company that helps clients gather supporters and donors. That granular level of detail also allows organizations to direct ads to supporters on Facebook.”

Change.org also makes money from people who choose to promote petitions. Promoted petitions let you pay to show any petition (including your own) to other potential supporters on Change.org or its distribution channels. As Change.org puts it, “When someone chips in to promote a petition it helps us share it with wide audiences of action-takers in the Change.org community. Each contribution helps cover the costs of distributing the petition to hundreds, thousands, even millions more people in the Change.org community, many of whom go on to sign the petition.”

Change.org petitions are also unreliable barometers of public opinion because, as the saying goes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The people the petition is trying to influence don’t know much of anything about the signers. Does a signer buy their product, for example? Petition targets also don’t know if people are signing multiple times or signing for other people.

Is the signer a registered voter in a congress member’s district? When I worked for a congressman from New Jersey, he paid a lot more attention to a communication from somebody in his district than from an activist in Santa Clara, CA. That’s why members’ websites ask commenters to identify where they live. In the case of Change.org petition signers, it’s not clear where they’re from or even if they’re Americans. Signers are pretty much a blank slate.

A large number of petition signers is also an unreliable gauge of public opinion. A petition calling for hazard pay for United States Postal Service (USPS) employees, for example, had attracted 979,249 signatures as of early Tuesday afternoon, but the petition is hardly an action by a public-spirited citizen. It was submitted by “Carrying Mail 365”, an organization of U.S. postal workers, who on their own number almost 500,000. Nevertheless, media such as Newsweek, Fox Business and MSN have covered the petition as though it is news.

As with Change.org, mobs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other Internet-based applications are often unreliable reflections of broad public opinion and should be treated with caution. One reason is because their algorithms pour gasoline on the flames, spreading the grievances of a scant few to the attention of millions.

In the case of twitter, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report:

  • Adult Twitter users are younger and more likely to be Democrats than the general public. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Twitter users ages 18 to 49 identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, leading to a lot of urban liberal condescension.
  • Twitter users are more highly educated and have higher incomes than U.S. adults overall.
  • Twitter users are more likely to see evidence of racial and gender-based inequalities in society.
  • Much of the content posted by Americans on Twitter comes from a small number of authors.
  • The 10% of users who are most active in terms of tweeting are responsible for 80% of tweets from adult U.S. users

As with Twitter, it’s important to understand the demographics of Instagram’s users. In the U.S. they skew young, with 67% of those age 18-29 and only 23% of those age 50-64 using the app. Users also skew urban. A  Pew Research survey found that 46% of urban respondents are using Instagram, but only 34% of suburban respondents and 21% of those living in rural areas.

Instagram’s audience is also a factor in its influence. Instagram is most popular with Hispanic Americans, with 51% of this audience using the app, compared to 40% of Black Americans, and 33% of white, according to Business of Apps. This may be connected with the rural/urban split, with Hispanic and Black users more likely to live in cities.

One unfortunate result of the insistence on personal accountability that emanates from social media campaigns is the lack of any notion of proportionality. Those with opposing views are assailed as enemies to be punished, rather than as fellow citizens to be persuaded (or, at worst, provocateurs to be ignored), U.K.-based researcher, Noah Carl, wrote in Quillette.

What’s the solution?

The best remedy would be resistance by strong adult leaders—university presidents, newspaper publishers, heads of corporations such as Trader Joe’s and so on—capable of standing up to Twitter, other nasty social media and profit-driven petition companies, says Lance Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

What’s the chance that will happen?  “The odds are against such a miracle,” Morrow says. “The woke, like hyenas, hunt in packs, and those in authority are craven.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jumping to homeschooling because of COVID-19 is a risky bet.

 

Homeschooling

Will the COVID-19 crisis lead to more homeschooling in Oregon? If it does, for many children (and parents) that will be a mistake.

David Henderson, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, thinks the forced shift of public school children to ineffective and impractical online schooling will lead many parents to opt for homeschooling. “What if, as I predict, home-schooling works, on average, better than the public schools before the pandemic?” Henderson asks. “Once the pandemic ends, many parents will want to continue with home-schooling.”

There’s no question that the idea of homeschooling can be seductive. After all, it can offer flexibility, more curriculum choice, religious freedom, self-paced learning, and protection from threatening ideas. And it can be appealing to parents who want to have a larger role to play in conveying important values to their children.

It’s not clear, however, that homeschooling is the right choice for a wide swath of children or that it adequately prepares young people to succeed and participate in our complex economy.

In addition, the fragmentation of our educational system may undermine the need for all members of our society to see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of our democracy. Where too many people are isolated from their peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to others.

The most recent analysis from the U.S. Department of Education/National Center for Education Statistics reported the number of homeschooled students increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1,690,000 in 2016. The percentage of students who were homeschooled increased from 1.7 percent to 3.3 percent over the same time period.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, almost every school district in Oregon has seen an increase in homeschooling in recent years, with more than 22,000 students registered as homeschoolers in 2018. There’s general agreement, however, that the number of actual homeschoolers is higher because not all homeschooling parents register their child with the state.

Parents of students between the ages of 6-18 are supposed to notify their local Education Service District (ESD) of their intent to home school within 10 days of beginning to home school, but compliance is not comprehensive.

A homeschooler is expected to take standardized testing by August 15 of the summer following the completion of 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grades, as long as the child has been homeschooled since at least February 15 of the year preceding testing (18 months before the test deadline).

The required tests include grade-level math (concepts, application, skills), reading (comprehension), and language (writing, spelling/grammar, punctuation, etc.)

Given the above information, you might be tempted to say that public oversight of homeschoolers is obviously comparable to that of public schools because the state knows how all homeschooled students are performing. You’d be wrong.

First, homeschooled students are not required to take common standardized tests that measure academic progress. They can opt out, and many of them do.

Second, homeschoolers’ tests are scored on a percentile, so the score a child gets represents how many people taking the same test got a lower score. In other words, the scores don’t represent how well the child knows the material, only how well the child performs relative to every other homeschooler taking the test. Even then, If a child scores at the 15th percentile or above, then the ESD simply files the report and there’s no follow-up.

Third, homeschoolers don’t have to report their scores to anybody unless their education service district (ESD) asks for them. But the state cares so little about how these children are doing that ESDs almost never request test scores, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Not that it would make much difference if ESDs did request the scores.

That’s because homeschoolers would only need to report their composite percentile score. This is an almost useless single percentile representing a child’s performance on all three subjects together. It’s almost as though the state doesn’t really want to know how homeschoolers are doing.

What is clear, then, is that nobody in the Oregon Department of Education really knows whether parents who are homeschooling their children are providing them with an equal or superior alternative to district schools.

I get it that homeschooling can reflect a lack of confidence in traditional educational institutions. However, despite the almost messianic belief in homeschooling held by many supporters, there are major flaws in this alternative. If one result of the pandemic is widespread abandonment of Oregon’s brick-and-mortar public schools for homeschooling, the damage inflicted on some children could be severe.

All Oregonians, particularly the legislature and governor, should care because education is not just a private good. Studied indifference or washing our hands of the consequences of educational malpractice can have serious consequences for the community at large.

As Chester Finn Jr., Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, “Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should…”