Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Let’s Spend More…

In my last article, The Wishing Well, I pointed out that Ned Lamont has wishes for the Federal government that are going to cost an awful lot of money. Universal Health Care was one – and at that we never talked about what type of impact such a plan would have on the economy. As the term “universal” implies, would government health care be for everyone? Or would it only be for the people who cannot afford to pay for their own insurance (which – as usual with federal programs puts the burden of paying for the system on people who are already paying for health insurance personally)? If it is for everyone, what happens to all the people who are now employed in the health insurance sector? What is the overall cost of such a plan? My bet would be that it would easily cost more than the Iraq War and Katrina combined. So while Universal Health Care sounds good in a 30 second TV ad, there is no substance to it – no plan – and certainly no thought as to how it impacts the country.

Nevertheless, I find I have to retract a statement I made. I said that Ned was a single-issue candidate with no plans for anything other than to retreat from Iraq. I am the first to admit I was wrong. Yesterday, Ned unveiled his plan for education. If you have not seen it, you can read the pdf version here. In this article I want to cover some of the basics of Ned’s plan.

In his opening paragraph, Ned states:

We face a competitiveness crisis as workers in other countries compete against ours on wages and skills. The quality of our workforce is Connecticut’s competitive edge and America’s edge. But now Europe is turning out twice the number of scientists and engineers as the U.S; and Asia is outpacing us by a factor of three. Our graduate enrollment in math and science is down 20% from its peak in 1985. Our twelfth graders fall near the bottom in the international competition in math and science. By many, many measures, we’re losing the talent race.

Like many of Ned’s public statements, this is one you can’t argue with. It is true that, as a country, we are falling behind in education. The real question though is, if we throw more money at the problem, will the education crisis be resolved? Of course, Ned’s solution is to spend more money – as any Democrat will tell you. The Lamont camp spells out a five-point plan to solve the crisis. We will cover the top three points.

Ned points out that NCLB promotes “teaching to the test” and that the American education system is “rigid.” I could not agree with him more on this. No matter what comes from the testing, there is a fair segment of children in our society who just do not “take tests well.” Standardized testing does not take these children into account. The approach also does not take into account the fact that many kids are not ready for the tests to begin with, but we’ll talk more about what may be the root cause of that later.

The Lamont plan seems to yearn for the days after Sputnik when American schools did well to educate children not only in Math and Science, but also created:

…curious mind and creative thought, a liberal arts basis which has served the creativity and energy of our entrepreneurial capitalist system very well.

Again, this may well be true. Ned also says that it has been documented that from Fourth Grade on, students in the United States fall behind their contemporaries in other countries. This, also, is true.

John Stossel covers this subject quite well in his book (p. 108-109), Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. He says:

We gave identical tests to high school students in New Jersey and in Belgium. We asked the Belgian kids, “What did you think of the tests?”

FIRST BOY: Well, I thought it was pretty easy considering the tests we usually get here. This was kinda a piece of cake.

SECOND BOY: The test was so easy, I think that if the kids in America couldn’t do this, they’re really stupid.

“Stupid” was harsh, but the Belgian kids cleaned the American kids’ clocks, getting 76 percent correct vs. 47 percent for the Americans. We didn’t pick smart kids to test in Europe and dumb kids in the United States. The American students attend an above-average school in New Jersey and New Jersey kids have test scores that are above average for America.

The American boy who got the highest score told me: “I’m shocked, ‘cause it just shows how advanced they are compared to us.”

I asked the New Jersey kids:

STOSSEL: So, are American students stupid?

FIRST STUDENT: No, we’re not stupid.

SECOND STUDENT: I think it has to be something with, with the school, ‘cause I don’t think we’re stupider.

Stossel goes on to point out that (red-font emphasis mine):

At the age of ten, students from twenty-five countries take the same test and American kids place eighth, well above the international average. But by age fifteen, when students from forty countries are tested, the Americans place twenty-fifth, well below the international average. In other words, the longer American kids stay in American schools, the worse they do in international competition. They do worse than kids from much poorer, less-developed countries, like Korea and Poland, which spend much less on education than the United States.

With all of that said, let’s explore what Lamont thinks we should do. His first point is this:

In the long run, provide support to local school districts, on a sliding scale basis, to ensure that every child in America enters kindergarten prepared to learn. In the short run, in the most poverty-stricken cities in towns in every state, where children have not learned basic skills, Congress should fund the full cost of implementing well-tested approaches to early childhood education for those kids not presently being served. The projected annual cost would be $6.545 billion.

So, if we get kids ready to enter kindergarten, will we do better overall from an educational standpoint? How then does Lamont’s plan, and this section in particular take into account the fact that the slippage in our national scores develops between 4th grade and high school? Remember, at 10 years old America’s children, while behind the curve, are still performing fairly well in international comparisons. So Ned’s point here must be something different than just preparing children for kindergarten.

Maybe I see – it is the implementation of this “action” point based on federal help to schools on a sliding scale, with the most “poverty stricken” cities and towns top on the list. In other words, let’s take more money and let “Congress…fund the full cost of implementing well-tested approaches to early childhood education.” Let’s translate this to English: Let’s give more money to experimental early childhood educational programs and hope that they show results. And who would get the money, and who would pay for it? Ned’s plan is a typical democratic approach to problems. Throw more money at it and hope it sticks.

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I seem to remember that kindergarten was a place to get used to being in school, to maybe learn to count, and draw; to eat a snack and have nap time and recess. Where did we as a country decide that kids need to read before they get to 1st grade? When we were the top in education, was that how things worked? Have our kids become dumber? Or is there another reason we don’t do as well? Read on.

Ned’s action point number two:

Through grants to selected recipient educational institutions, encourage the development of full-service “community schools,” which leverage the educational program of each school with additional services provided by the school or its community partners to students during extended hours before, during and after school and on weekends. Such services might include early childhood education, Head Start, academic enrichment activities, mentoring, promotion of parental involvement and family literacy, career counseling, mental health, and primary health and dental care. Initial grants would target schools in high-poverty areas. As contemplated in a proposed bill introduced by Representative Steny Hoyer, the initial annual funding for grants would be $200 million.

Other than the fact that middle-America will have to fund this program, I can see where there is probably a need for it, or something like it. In the “targeted” areas, we have an epidemic of broken nuclear families, violence ridden neighborhoods, poverty, and the people who care about their children are really struggling to make ends meet (remember there are many people who don’t care about their children – all over America). Giving the schools the ability to be open early and late – to provide supervision and learning opportunities – is at first glance a good thing.

From a slightly different point of view though, I dislike this idea, but am admittedly not sure how to solve the issue. When my spouse and I were raising our children, we both worked long hours. Typically we would drop our kids off about 6:00 AM and pick them up at about 6:30 PM. We thought, “Such is life.” But over time we began to realize that other people were raising our children. We had abdicated the responsibility of raising our children to others. That was not right – we ended up restructuring our lives so that one of us could be home with the children.

That is what is missing from Ned’s plan in this step. The incentive to break that cycle and become parents. The “taking” of responsibility by the parents who had these children. There needs to be a stick that goes along with the carrot. And what we need to avoid is another system that rewards parents for not taking responsibility for their own lives. I would think that needs to be coupled with more job training of some sort so that parents can either begin paying a minimal amount themselves for this service, or so that they can eventually restructure their lives to raise their own children. Obviously this problem is a mess and just throwing money and half-solutions at it is not going to solve it.

Overall, I really think the biggest worry is that “big brother” ends up with the responsibility or raising children. That is scarier than anything.

Step three in Ned’s plan:

Invest in math and science education to the extent analogous to the support provided in the decade after Sputnik. The 2005 report by a blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, provides recommendations for

1. increasing America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education,

2. developing, recruiting and retaining the best and brightest minds,

3. strengthening the nation’s commitment to long-term basic research, and

4. providing incentives for innovation.

The first two categories of the above recommendations focus on education.

Truly, this is where Lamont’s plan runs into the most trouble. The first two points in this action step are the ones we need to look at with regards to education. These are great talking points, but underneath it all, the plan is lacking. First off, how do we “increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K-12” education?

Believe it or not, the Specter’s are heavily involved in K-12 curriculum development. My spouse has been employed in that specialty for a quarter of a century, and I have worked in the periphery for about 15 years. We have seen – as have many of you – the new “theories” of how to educate children come and go. And as the new experiments have been tried – and failed – the nation’s kids have fallen further and further behind their contemporary counterparts. There are many possible explanations for this:

1. Kids are less intelligent now. Somehow I do not believe this.

2. Parents are less involved in making sure their children are keeping up. Personally I feel that this is one of the biggest factors. The Baby-Boomers – in their rush for material goods and pleasures – have stopped doing all the things that need to be done to ensure that their children do their best. This is huge. As a society we’ve gone from one where parent’s supervised their children as far as homework and activities, to one where about the only time parent’s get involved is at report card time. Caveat – Not all parents are like this, but many, many are.

3. The curricula being taught to children is not as good as it was in the 50’s and 60’s. Well…I’m not sure how to answer that one. In many respects it is better. But, as I noted above, we have seen so many outright failures in new methods (take for example Whole Life Language Arts and Inventive Spelling – great ideas on paper that left millions of students without the ability to read and spell properly), that I can’t say every approach is better than it was before.

4. The teachers. Which leads us into Ned’s “best and brightest.”

Teachers. Here is what I believe is the crux of the educational issue – and quite honestly where Ned’s plan fails the test. Lamont says let’s just “develop, recruit, and retain the best and brightest (paraphrased slightly).” That’s a great talking point. But again, no real plan. But let’s talk about this.

The first thing I need to point out is that there are some very, very good teachers out there. And what I have to say here does not detract from their abilities or dedication – and their worth to our society as a whole.

Teachers today are faced with an increasing number of “objectives” that must be taught to students each and every year. These objectives are mandated at local, state, and federal levels and there is no coordination among the mandating entities. With the number of things that have to be mastered increasing, teachers have less and less time to work with students who are falling behind. In essence, we need less government micromanagement of our schools.

I remember the old days when a group of us would stand at the board and work math problems. Basic math. And when we made a mistake, it could be embarrassing, but the teacher was able to watch and see where we were having difficulty. When they saw issues, they would find a different way to teach the curriculum. They had the time to take different approaches – approaches that fit better with the varying learning styles of the students (visual, aural, kinesthetic, and combinations). It is not that way any more. Today, if a student is falling behind, well, for the most part, too bad.

The “good” teachers I referred to above somehow find ways to keep up with the increasing mandates and still help all students. But they are far and few between. In his book, Stossel talks about the way that the American education system has become a government monopoly. I agree with that wholeheartedly. But he also points out that “the only thing worse than a government monopoly is a rigidly unionized government monopoly.” With my apology to the “good” teachers, I agree with Stossel. Currently there is no way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher – brightest mind or not. And even if there was, it is near impossible to get rid of a bad teacher.

On page 124 of his book, Stossel says:

At a high school in New York, students told us some of their teachers don’t try very hard. “I’m standing, today sixth period, outside my room, ‘cause I don’t know where my teacher is,” said one, adding, “One of my teachers tells me he does this for the health benefits.”

This seems odd because teachers I know want to help kids learn. Some are passionate about education. They take extra courses to learn how to be better teachers. Some pay out of their own pocket to learn the latest techniques.

Yet again and again, kids told us, “You got teachers that say, ‘I don’t care. I get paid for it anyway.’”

I shouldn’t be surprised. If you pay everyone the same, and pretty much guarantee their jobs, there’s little incentive to try harder.

I talked to a group of NYC high school students.

STOSSEL: Are there teachers that students dread?

GROUP OF STUDENTS: (In unison) Yes!

PATRICIA STUART: They talk like – like they’re dead, and – and it makes you want to go to sleep. And when you do go to sleep, they get mad. But you – but you can’t help but go to sleep, ‘cause they – they talk like they – like somebody is forcing them to be here. When they don’t have no enthusiasm, we don’t have no enthusiasm.

Isn’t that true? Imagine trying to learn from Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Stossel continued talking about trying to get teachers to take an informal teacher’s test. From what he says, ABC went to “dozens” of cities and teachers refused to take the test. Stossel interviewed a group of teachers in NYC who did not take his test. He tells us that these teachers were already involved in a law suit against the state because “the state had the nerve to use a test called the National Teacher Examination or NTE, to partly determine benefits and pay.” The interview went like this (read this with the understanding that many of the teachers failed the test):

FIRST WOMAN: I’ve taken the NTE probably twenty times, maybe more.

FIRST MAN: I’ve taken it numerous times. I lost count.

STOSSEL: Usually, if you take something and you fail, you study so you can pass.

SECOND MAN: There’s nothing to study from.

SECOND WOMAN: I don’t need to be tested.

STOSSEL: You test the kids. Why shouldn’t we test you?

THIRD WOMAN: If I’m tested by outsiders, that’s unfair. Every day that we go into the classroom, that’s a test.

Their lawsuit claimed the test was racist, because many who flunked the test were members of minority groups.

MARC PESSIN, SOCIAL STUDIES TEACHER: Now I will give you an example of a common question. Let’s see if you get it. What is the hue of that wall?

STOSSEL: Hue? That means the color of the wall?

MARC PESSIN: I’m asking you the question.


MARC PESSIN: All right. You are lucky because, based on your understanding, the word hue is understood to mean color. People who come from poor neighborhoods, those people may not have the enriched vocabulary that the people who make the test have.

That is ridiculous. Someone who has a teacher’s certificate, which generally means a college education, doesn’t know the word “hue” loosely means color? I should note that great credentials doesn’t necessarily equate to great teachers. I don’t think that is what Stossel was getting at.

What we really need in this country is a way to measure whether or not a teacher, no matter their “credentials”, is effective in getting students to learn. We need to be able to get rid of teachers who do not meet that standard, and reward those that do. We need to find teachers who motivate children to learn. Ned was involved in volunteering at schools – he should know this.

Lamont’s plan does not address this need. It does not get to the root of the problem (and neither does NCLB). Instead, Ned wants to spend more than $7 BILLION per year. He wants to throw money in areas that are not the root cause of our educational crisis. Maybe we would be better off by using NCLB testing results to also measure how teachers are doing year to year. Almost everything else is fluff…..