NY Times doesn’t get it

While I generally concur with the Times‘ editors on most matters, I am confounded and bemused by their stance on education. Today’s editorial can serve as Exhibit 1.

The editors begin with a blanket condemnation of teachers’ unions. Why? Because the editors believe that the unions are frustrating the corporate reform movement, though there is no mention of Mr. Gates et al, who the editors must know lurks behind every education reform bush (pun intended). Contrary to the editors’ assertion, teachers do not as a rule equate academic improvement with the cessation of standardized testing. But teachers recognize that the focus on testing impedes genuine progress by narrowing the curriculum and squelching student’s desire to learn.

Nor have the editors bothered to familiarize themselves with what works elsewhere, aping the myopic predisposition so prevalent in what passes for American opinion. Take this sentence by the editors:

In reality, getting rid of the testing requirement in the early grades would make it impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year.

There is so much profoundly wrong in this statement, that one could spend weeks exploring its assumptions.

I’ll begin with a nitpick. Countries do not “know.” Nor do countries think, form opinions, or otherwise behave. They exist. Yet, the use of this semantically troubled expression speaks volumes about the editors’ wrongheaded collective judgment. Why should an entire nation of people, let’s say, want to know what or how all children are learning? Parents, we can justifiably assume, care about their own children’s academic achievement, and at some point in their educational journey, children themselves may care how they’re doing in school.

The wrong turn in education, if the problem didn’t already exist in its infancy, is the presumption that learning is a national concern. It leads to impositions from the top to the bottom; and let’s be clear, students are the bottom-feeders in this paradigm.

Rather, learning is interest-driven. That means that it begins with the child, one who is naturally curious upon entering his or her first classroom.

Back to the offensive sentence, the editors should try to understand that good teachers know very precisely the deficiencies and competencies of their pupils. They do not need a standardized test to provide this information.

Further into the editorial we encounter a familiar theme of the educational reform movement, led principally by Mr. Gates and his foundation. The editors:

With results like that [higher high school graduation rates yet lower college preparedness], it’s no wonder some South Carolina business leaders are worried that the state is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW.

This is a national problem.

These are the same businesses that replace workers with machines and ship jobs oversees to maximize profits. And, truth be told, the perfect worker would be a wage-less automaton, one that doesn’t call in sick or have babies or grumble when conditions turn nasty. More important, should the goal of learning be the satisfaction of corporate bottom lines?

Entirely absent in the Times‘ editorial is mention of income inequality and the transformation of the Finnish education system. American children of affluent parents do as well on international tests (e.g., PISA) as children from other countries, including Finland and Japan. But inequality in the U.S. is the highest of OECD states, with just a few exceptions (e.g., Mexico). The chart below, based on OECD data, shows the income ratio of the top ten percent to the bottom ten percent. Note the contrast between the U.S. and Finland.

top to bottom 2012

I have written extensively on the Finnish education system (here, here, and here). It focuses on developing quality teachers, in-school collaboration among educators, and a Dewey-like approach to student learning. It does not rely on standardized tests. Yet, Finland’s students score among the highest on the PISA exams.

Perhaps the most serious weakness in the critique of American schools is the assumption that we are, indeed, one nation. Yes, in a geopolitical sense the U.S. is a state. But the country is so sharply divided by politics and economics as to be rightly judged a multi-country within its geographical and political borders. That division begs for a different approach, one that is far more local and less global. Debating educational policy as a national issue undermines more practical and successful strategies that can only be applied in much smaller contexts. I suggest that we start with the schools, classrooms, teachers, and children.

Also, like Finland, Iceland, Denmark, and other northern European nations, resources must be expended to sharply reduce inequality. Unless we Americans resolve to do so, educational reform efforts, whether from the political right or left, will have little effect.

Finally, I should think that we would want our schools to enhance and sustain children’s natural curiosity about the world around them. We cannot predict what jobs will be available in the future. But we can prepare students to use their inquisitiveness and imagination to meet an array of challenges, including how to live well and cooperatively.

The narcissist wins

Ginandtacos bestows its latest Lieberman Award to Donald Trump. And what might be that award and how does one earn it?

It is named after former-senator Joseph Lieberman, whose idea of a moral compass was a weather vane amidst a tornado. One merits the accolade by, well, let’s see:

We aren’t going to give you people who are just kind of an asshole. You can rest assured that when we look back at a year and say “This person was an asshole of such magnitude that 2015 was in part defined by how rotten he is at being human,” the honor is richly deserved and well earned.

In the blogger’s words, Donald Trump rises far above the contender field.

There are no issues of morality or decency, only the goal of having cameras and microphones stuck in his face. Anything that accomplishes that goal is, by definition, acceptable behavior. The end result of his egomania, and the sad willingness of the ratings- and hits-hungry media to debase themselves by rewarding it, is the death of the last few vestiges of dignity in American elections. What were already expensive, hyperbolic spectacles of little interest to many voting-eligible Americans have now become fully indistinguishable from reality shows – and not even the higher class of reality shows that require participants to have some sort of talent to put forth for public consumption, but the most vulgar, Real Housewives of Whatever variety driven exclusively by egomania and delusions of grandeur.

If you believe that our democracy is a joke, then, by all means, cast your ballot for this man. The late George Carlin would be front and center in this theater of the absurd, should he score a ticket. After all, the queue is quite long.

Who wins this race?

As it happens, those with unimaginable sums of money arrogate to themselves some errant challenge to transform the world. The richest man on earth, Bill Gates, spends billions of dollars on ostensibly worthy causes. Eradicating malaria obviously counts.

More recently Mr. Gates placed a few billion on mitigating climate change, which he rightly considers an existential threat to much of the globe’s inhabitants.

My question, posed in the lede, is whether his efforts to systematically destroy—er, reform—public education will reach the finish line before the earth ends poorly.

Maybe economics has nothing to do with it

I’m speaking of Republicans’ appeal to the less-educated, money-challenged folk. I previously suggested that people turn rightward if they believe that their personal socioeconomic situation is trending south. I had cited analyses of voter trends during the Weimar Republic leading to Hitler’s legitimatization at the polls. As unemployment levels soared, so did the political fortunes of the Nazis. Such conjecturing may be wrong.

Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox, judged Obama wrong for essentially the same suggestion, that dour economic conditions push people toward conservatism, even if the policies clearly and loudly proclaimed by GOP candidates and operatives would actually render their lives worse off, should they be enacted.

A more plausible theory is to apply Occam’s razor: A substantial minority of white Americans are rallying behind Trump’s white ethnocentric agenda because they are — reasonably — concerned that ongoing demographic changes are threatening white people’s political power in the United States.

In short, racism is alive and now overtly practiced.

Next to weigh in is Digby. She writes:

I wrote about the fallacy that drives too many liberals to assume that Trump’s appeal is a matter of Marxist false consciousness: they may think they hate Mexicans and Muslims and  Blacks but really they’re just frustrated that they aren’t doing better economically. (I have to assume these people have never met a rich bigot…) This is the Sanders pitch to Trump voters and  I don’t think it will work any better than it ever has because it just isn’t true. Unless Sanders says that he’s ready to deport immigrants and support  abusive cops and surveil Muslims and worse, they’re just not going to respond. Their world is not organized around economics, it’s organized around bigotry toward other races and ethnicities (also, feminists and liberals…) Trump gets this and he’s articulating this perfectly — American will be “great again” once we put all these people in their places.

Ugly stuff, especially that last sentence.

I suspect that she is right on the mark, which bodes ill for the idealists among us, those who champion progressive causes and subscribe to the notion that the species is, or is capable of, evolving socially as well as physically. All those struggles should not have been in vain, the idealist avers.

Sinking canal

A very long time ago I worked a summer job near Wasco, Calif. As a college athlete under scholarship I was “hired” by a Berkeley alumnus who was project manager for a stretch of the California Aqueduct that ran through the state’s Central Valley. The job paid well, but it is one that I’d soon forget.

The southern California desert is goddam hot. My first assignment was to join laborers in placing rubber expansion strips into the sides of the freshly paved canal. Temperatures routinely hit 140 degrees F. It was my task to kneel on a wooden platform that followed behind the concrete paver, one of just two in the world at the time, and tamp down the strips. Imagine about a dozen or so of us situated at intervals along the walkway slanted at 45 degrees, the same angle as the canal side, all wielding a rather heavy tampering device. Nasty stuff.

I said “first assignment.” In truth, I sucked at this job, which I likened to hell on earth. My workmanship must have left much to be desired, as I was soon dispatched to another project job deemed less threatening to the project’s success.

So, why do I mention this bit of biography now? I happened upon this article in The Guardian. It reads in part:

A canal that delivers vital water supplies from northern California to southern California is sinking in places…

…Decades of over-pumping have destroyed thousands of well casings and buckled canal linings.

Oh, oh. Canal linings. Did my shoddy work contribute?

I think the statute of limitations protects me from misdeeds of more than half a century ago.

That’s a “black” problem

Gary Guting, who teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, argues that, since a majority of gunshot victims are black, legions of white people fail to muster sufficient passion for controlling gun ownership and usage. He writes:

The case for the racist effect of our permissive gun laws is especially powerful.  There’s no way of explaining away all these deaths as aberrations. If we fail to oppose with equal passion and vigor the relentless political pressure of (mostly white) gun advocates, we force a large number of black citizens to live with the constant threat of gun violence. We’re in effect letting the Second Amendment trump the Fourteenth Amendment, implicitly preferring the right of gun ownership to the right of black people to live free from fear.

Guting suggests that Second-Amendment enthusiasts preach a ludicrous defense of guns as a counter to government tyranny. Americans armed to the teeth offer no match to a nation that spends upwards of a trillion dollars a year on military hardware and services, not to mention city and county government police forces.

The freedom to bear arms should not trump freedom from violence.

Vocational skills

An exchange between Apple’s Tim Cook and 60 Minutes‘s Charlie Rose:

Charlie Rose: So if it’s not wages, what is it?
Tim Cook: It’s skill.

Charlie Rose: Skill?

Tim Cook: It’s skill. It’s that Chi–

Charlie Rose: They have more skills than American workers? They have more skills than–

Tim Cook: Now– now, hold on.

Charlie Rose: –German workers?

Tim Cook: Yeah, let me– let me– let me clear, China put an enormous focus on manufacturing. In what we would call, you and I would call vocational kind of skills. The U.S., over time, began to stop having as many vocational kind of skills. I mean, you can take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in a room that we’re currently sitting in. In China, you would have to have multiple football fields.

Charlie Rose: Because they’ve taught those skills in their schools?

Tim Cook: It’s because it was a focus of them– it’s a focus of their educational system. And so that is the reality.

So, what happened to U.S. manufacturing?
manufacturing jobs to 2014
I suspect that low wages in China attracted U.S. firms, including Apple. I also suspect that Chinese leaders projected a growing manufacturing opportunity, given its comparative compensation and surplus labor force. Then came the emphasis on developing vocational skills in China, with the expectation that the investment would yield ever-increasing returns.
real gdp china