Friday, October 19, 2012

How Would You Fix the World?

Ah, our candidates have been debating, and everyone has a fix for society's woes.  Romney has an easy plan: cut taxes, this will let businesses keep their money so they can hire more employees, create more jobs (he has the precise number, even) and help the economy grow and everything will fall into place.  If we cut funds to Medicaid, Medicare, undo ObamaCare, and fire Big Bird, then we'll be able to pay off the trillions of dollars of National Debt, all while growing the military, and all will be well.  I know, I'm exaggerating, and it really isn't clear that cutting government funds to public television would mean the demise of Ernie & Bert.  Obama -- I'm not sure what his plan is to save the nation, but whatever it is (? more of the same), it's probably not going to lower the national debt.  It seems we live in a place where our expenses exceed our income.

I don't want to use this as a soapbox to express my political views or to influence your vote, instead I want to tell you that sometimes I have fantasies about how I would fix the world.  Actually, I have a lot of them.  I thought I would tell you my main thought, and ask you to tell me yours.  I'm a doctor, I've never taken a single econ or poly sci course in my life, so please be gentle with me.  It's just a fantasy.  And I won't make fun of yours.

So here's my thought, and unfortunately, it would entail more spending by the government.  I would like to see public schools mandated to have class size limits, preferably to 10-12 students, for certain grades, in any area where poverty levels are high, crime and drug use is a problem, and graduation rates are low .  I'd like to see the class size brought down for either first or second grade so that each student could get intensive, individualized education so that as many children as possible would get a good start with being able to read, because once they fall behind here, they're lost forever.  I'd like to see school days be longer and include some time on the weekend. It doesn't need to be all grind and work: wouldn't it be great to include an hour a day of sports and exercise for children in poverty regions where obesity rates are highest?  And games (Scrabble, anyone?), music, and ideally a bit of immersion in a second language?  It would be very expensive: more teachers (oh, and more jobs for teachers...), more classrooms (oh, and more construction jobs to build the classrooms), more resources all around.  And longer days would give children a chance to do their homework in school, provide child care so that their parents could work and have more disposable income, and keep the children out of drug-ridden, dysfunctional environments.  (I'd be fine with having the extended day segment be optional).  Oh, and Head Start has tried such things and the children make gains, but they only last for 3 years.  Okay, so look at the school curriculum and figure which years are the most crucial in maintaining a student's success, and shrink the class size for a few other years.  Maybe we make sure everyone is able to read and do basic arithmetic by the end of 2nd grade, and make sure everyone can write book reports and simple research papers, manage money and measurements, know a little about science,  how to read a newspaper, keyboard, use technology,  and start to think critically in 5th grade.   Too expensive, you say?  And I would counter with Really?  It would entail putting much more money into education, and making sure it goes to direct child-centered resources, like teachers and books, and not towards more administrators, or more standardized tests.

  So how does this fix the world?  Well, perhaps if we can impact these children early, they will be in a better position to succeed later, they will have feel more self-confident and won't view selling drugs as the only way out of poverty.  They will be more employable, and more likely to contribute, rather than drain, resources.  And perhaps if just a few less children from every class end up in jail, that could pay for my plan.  We hear outcries about public spending, and certainly, in wealthier areas where children do fine in classes of 30, there would be an outcry that their children should have smaller classes, especially since they are paying more taxes, but those same people don't object to spending $25-50,000 a year of their taxpayer's money to house those same children in jail when they grow up to be criminals.  

Thanks for indulging my fantasy.  I would love to hear your plan for fixing some of our problems. 


Ann said...

I can only speak to the problem in the city where I raised my son. It is a fairly large SE city. About 15 years ago we were flooded with undocumented workers, because at the time we were one of the few states where a person could get a driver's license without a birth certificate. Most of their earnings went back "home". In two years the ratio went from about half black and half white, to a third each and the remaining third were children of undocumented workers who pay no income tax. These children got a majority of the teachers' attention and the other children's parents (tax payers) were told to hire a tutor if their child needed help. When it's your child who is being short changed and it is "politically incorrect" to point it out-it is difficult to be idealistic. Thanks for a space to rant.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA said...

I don’t think that drug dealing or drug use is a conscious decision. I think that it is a clear function of your family environment, genotype and how many drug dealers you have to walk by on your way to school. There have been successful school interventions targeting the drug dealers.

America politicians are locked into a Skinnerian model of financial incentives and money in general saving the world. The single most important factor when it comes to education is never addressed. That is a culture that supports diverse intellectual pursuits and diverse intellectual advancement. In such an environment people thrive even in the absence of the substantial resources that the US devotes to education. The best example I can think of is Hungary and its approach to mathematics. There was a broad cultural approach to mathematics and widespread interest on the part of the population in solving mathematical problems that were released by the government. Educators, parents , and students were all intensely interested. One of the results was Hungary produced some of the best mathematicians of that era. The Soviet Union used a similar approach to produce top scientists and engineers.

The major parties seem to be locked in a constant rhetorical battle in how they can force teachers and schools into educating students better. Politicians typically assume that they know more about the problem than anybody else and they can force people to do whatever they want. They look at a broad array of irrelevant variables. I doubt that financial incentives (or penalties) will work any better in schools than it does to prevent Medicare patients from being readmitted to hospitals.

We basically need a broad cultural approach that suggests that intellectual pursuits of any kind probably make more sense than high school sports or whatever is frothing over in the popular culture. Treating our teachers like they are professionals doesn’t hurt either – as evidenced by the fact that where they do this – the students have the best academic results in the world:

On the cultural level right now, about all we have is "The Big Bang Theory" and the nerd channels on cable TV. That's probably a lot better than what I see coming out of the government.

Anon8 said...

Speaking as a teacher, would you like my 50K salary to cover even more hours? Or even forget the salary, I have no idea where I could physically find the time. I - and the majority of my colleagues in our metroarea public elementary school - typically work 9-11 hour days, pre-commute time, as is to work well with our students during the 7 hours a day they are with us. We get most of our preparation done on weekends. Would you like us to work 24 hour days 7 days a week? Maybe if I was getting paid a psychiatrist's salary. Do you work a 24 hour day 7 days a week? Or maybe if I could charge each child's parents $200-$300 an hour. What you're proposing amounts to practically essentially indentured servitude. I know, it's a fantasy but it's just so far off from any feasible sort of reality. You, as a doctor, would never in a thousand years "settle" for a 50K/year salary with an average of 12 hour days. Why should I, as a teacher? And yet, without me, you doctors would never have learned to read or write in the first place, let alone make it to medical school....

Sunny CA said...

I think that to fix the world we would need to equalize resources better than we do today. We also need to breakdown and eliminate hatred based on religions, skin color, region of birth, eye color, language, accent, wealth. To fix the world, we would not want to take money used to feed poor Americans and divert that to war manufacturing plants. We would not want to cut money given in foreign aid that is used for food and drugs, and divert that ti missles, war planes, war ships. Increase in violence will only take us further from a more perfect world. When people are hungry and have no way to change that, they will riot and start wars. We solve nothing by taking away the food we give them.

Regarding education: The model developed by Geoffrey Canada, a black American educator who started Harlem Children's Zone, starts with the pregnant mother. Moms to be are taught nutrition, counseled against drug use, and learn to parent. When the children are babies, the moms learn how to talk to the babies and read to them. they are taught non-violent methods of controlling their children. The Children's Zone schools have extended days, but also have trained parents taking care of the kids at night. These Harlem kids exceed average Manhatten kids ion standardized test scores.

In our typical inner cities, every kid entering the school needs to pass through an airport screener and have guns and knives taken away and the campuses need to be closed to the outside. Teachers need a security person in each classroom. I taught in an inner city school and it was not safe for kids or faculty. The gangs controlled that school, and violence was daily, and threats were constant.

Also, I would support letting the kids that can learn and are willing to learn to not be held back by being put into classes with violent and disruptive kids. Special learners hold back regualar and talented students, because the curriculum started reverting to the level of the lower achiever. This is not the way to propare for our nation's future. "No Child Left Behind" has left our talented students behind and our average achiever behind, and favors the poorly self-disciplined, ADHD, and slow learners.

Sunny CA said...

Anon8, I agree with you. Teachers work constantly, seven days a week and are blamed for poor parenting the kids get at home. Most teachers couuld not work harder or longer if they wanted to. They would need two shifts of teachers, early and late.

Sunny CA said...

A related aside is that I went into teaching at age 57 got my credential at 58, because I was trained as a scientist and idealistic about helping educate our youth. After four years teaching, I quit. The environment that teachers are expected to endure is awful, and all decks are stacked against the teachers. It is a miracle that enough people can be found to accept low pay, rudeness from students, work a back breaking schedule, and have resources cut, and schools and teachers rated based on test scores that in some areas are virtually meaningless, because the population changes constantly and whoever happens to be your student on the day of the test counts, even if they arrived from Mexico the day before the test.

Dinah said...

Dear Anon8: I would definitely pay you more in my fantasy!!! I'm also thinking that it would be less draining and more rewarding to work intensively with 12 children rather than 38. But children can't sit still for a longer day, some of the time they could be doing music or language with another teacher, or the extended day part could be with college students who might help them with their homework and play games with them. And thank you for teaching, you are 100% right that is people like you who made it so that I don't have work a 12 hour day for 50K a year. I obviously think that education is undervalued by our society. (I wouldn't mind summers off, though... : ) )

Ann: your problem is more complicated because it also touches on what to do with illegal aliens. Feel free to offer your fantasy about how to fix that portion of the world. Anyway you look at it, though, if you want to try to impact children when they are young to maximize opportunities for children who live in awful environments and are likely to grow up and be homeless/incarcerated/unemployed/physically ill, and a general drain on society's resources, then I think we are stuck spending more money on the children who's parents don't pay taxes. The taxpayers tend to be the working parents who finished school and come home to play games with their children, read to them, do homework with them, and guide them towards productive lives. I would rather pay for intensive educational opportunities than for jails.

Anonymous said...

Quality EDUCATION for everyone - yes, #1. Also, single payer health care for everyone (that includes mental health). Stop providing tax relief and incentives to big business. Start providing more tax relief and incentives to companies with triple bottom-line business practices and in particular ones that locate/hire in the US. Everyone should vote, locally and nationally. Take big money out of politics. Citizens should spend every dollar like it is a vote (because our money makes our world the way it is) -- supporting local, indie businesses in preference to Walmart, investing in businesses that aren't evil, paying a little more to support companies with human values pays back dividends in the long run. More worker-owned businesses to create personal investment and wealth, promoting democratic values in the workplace (like the Mondragón cooperative in Spain or many businesses in US). More community-owned businesses, where the business is guaranteed to stay and to take care of employees and community (like the Saranac Lake Community Store). Banks should be owned by nonprofits in their communities (like OnePacific Coast Bank in Oakland, CA). No guns - hunting rifles only - with lengthy background check. Take nutrition and fitness serious, starting in schools. Find a way to support independent journalism again in a real way - we need watchdogs. Get our citizens out of jails unless they are violent crime offenders. Legalize but regulate pot and prostitution. Install breathalizers in all vehicles. Embrace unions but create a system to prevent corruption and keeping them competitive with non-unionized labor. Keep government workers relatively well paid with good benefits, but make it easier to dismiss low-performing employees regardless of tenure. Support fully gay marriage. Have more discussions in this country around racism, and fight harder for equality among all citizens and peoples of the world. I could go on and on...

Anon8 said...

Dinah - I teach in a specialized special ed class with 6 autistic students and 2 aides in my class (public school, new york city). It is infinitely more rewarding to do such intensive work but every bit as exhausting and draining, if not more. We share a building with regular teachers who can't imagine doing what we do with our 6 student classes. Everything I teach is differentiated at least 6 ways. The behavior we are constantly managing is often dangerous. (I get great stories out of it...and more then a few scars.) I could not imagine doing this effectively for 12 let alone 38 students, even if they were typically developing.

FYI: my students have 12 month school years. So do I. I have less vacation then my shrink does.

Ann said...

Dinah, Thank you for your thoughtful response. In theory I agree with you, but when you see middle class parents, who are working all day, until they pick up their kids from after school care(in our system there is no program, just babysitters). Then home to make dinner and get homework done. Then it is early bedtime because kids start school between 7:15-7:30. It is very frustrating when your kid can't get help from the teacher, because they have to tutor the non-native speakers to catch up. Then your kid falls behind and is "penalized" for being a native English speaker. I don't want to be disrespectful, but some of the"non-taxpayers" drive nicer cars than many and again the money that should go toward their child's education goes back to their relatives back home. Also I know many who send money back to buy a family home for retirement. Meanwhile taxpayers are paying for extra services for their children. You can tell this is personally frustrating for me and I don't know the answer, but a good parent will hopefully advocate for their child. I can take care of my family, just not the rest of the world. Thanks again for the topic. And I agree that teachers are the underpaid heros of our world.

Sarebear said...

I am having trouble thinking big, right now.

Jane said...

I liked the idea of smaller class sizes, even though it would be incredibly expensive. That would require a heck of a lot of teachers, but it would be a lot less stressful for them. I don't think I could be a teacher. I would be overwhelmed working with thirty kids every day.

I also don't think that we should force teachers to work with special needs kids if they don't want to. If I had a special needs kid, I wouldn't WANT a teacher who didn't want to teach special needs kids teaching my kid. I can assure you that the public education system does not favor it's "special learners." What I would prefer is teachers who are trained to work with special kids, and make it required that a certain percentage of those teachers be employed by schools. I also think they should be paid more. So if you are a high school physics teacher who is trained to teach special needs kids alongside your regular learners then you automatically get all kinds of perks.

Personally, I don't think special needs kids hold anyone back. But I do think schools hold them back. I would literally cringe when I would see a kid with ADHD, who could not complete as much homework (aka busy work) as everyone else, and then that same kid would fail a class after getting a perfect score on a final. I had one friend who was literally screamed at by her teacher after achieving an A+ on her math final in high school. She barely did the homework, so it didn't matter how much math she knew. She still failed the class, because she couldn't complete the homework. Her mother pulled her out of school and home schooled her after that. I had one Algebra teacher who actually said that because of scenarios like this he would not fail any student who achieved an A on his final exam. He would give the lowest passing grade possible for the course (a C because because they got rid of Ds in California high schools), but he wouldn't fail the student. I didn't know any other teacher that was intelligent enough (or ballsy enough?) to do that.

Failing a student who gets As on exams would NEVER happen in an American university. They don't even collect homework. Anyone who aces their exams in a university is basically guaranteed an A.

I have heard of adults who flunked out of high school because they were dyslexic, could not read their exams and quizzes as fast as the other students, and then would fail because they didn't have time to complete the exam. They were then diagnosed dyslexic in their adult years, received extra time to complete their exams in a community college, and then received As. This allowed them to transfer to universities and become teachers, etc. The problem was not that they did not know the material. The problem was that they were slow readers who could not complete timed assignments/exams fast enough.

I see no reason to allow teachers who do not value their special learners to teach them. It's not fair to the students. They deserve teachers who are trained to teach them and who want them to learn and pass their courses. I see no reason to fail really bright students because they read slow or cannot concentrate long enough to complete 2 hours of homework a night.

Thomas Edison was a special kid and so were a lot of other really bright people, and nobody wants to sacrifice a potential Edison or Einstein because of attention deficits, trouble reading, etc. But I think the only way to teach more of these kids and get them to pass their classes is by providing them with educators who are appropriately trained to educate them and make modifications as needed.