Sunday, February 20, 2011

100 Billion Dollars of Budget Cuts

The Tea Party wing of the Republican party who ran on a platform of balancing the budget did so without being very specific on what specific programs they cut. They made a very irresponsble promise to cut $100 billion dollars from the discretionary budget and they produced something with devastating cuts to the budget, eliminating programs despite their popularity or effectiveness.

Cutting spending like this in a recession is a very bad idea. We need serious proposals that tackle long-term entitlement growth that finds ways to make our tax code more efficient, raising revenue without significant impact to our economy and ways to slow down the growth of health care costs.

Seriously, where is Mr. Rogers when we need him:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Half Baked Idea for School Reform Part III

The general theme of these last three posts is how we can get more adults involved in the education of our children. More expansively, we are all teachers, right? Or at least we should be, teaching and learning from each other. We should all, in some way, find ways to mentor and teach each other and especially our little ones.

At the company I work, they have recently emphasized the need to strengthen their employees because they feel the employee is among the company's most valuable resource. To that end, they implemented a fairly formal mentor/mentee program and I was encouraged to sign up to do both. Last week, I met my mentor for the first time - who, I'm a little embarrassed to say - is younger than me :-). But that's ok, we should be able to learn from anyone.

But he's also pretty impressive. He started out at my company from college, left for a couple of years to try his shot at a tech startup, and now he's back. He's constantly tinkering with new ideas, submits constantly to our "Lab Rats" - which is an in-company contest where employees submit ideas and prototypes for innovation within the company. He won once.

He gave me some really good advice in our mentoring session, invigorating advice. To that end, I want to get out my last idea for School Reform. In my last post, I used the current traditional school as the starting point for my reform. You have the current system of a relatively large-sized classrooms led by usually a single teacher. If we could get more teacher's aides into the classroom, preferably from the pool of parents, there's a greater opportunity to individualize the learning experience.

Now, I will come at the problem from the opposite spectrum. Let's take the home schooling model and modify it so that it could become a viable alternative to traditional schooling for more families. Here, in my opinion, are some problems with home schooling:

1) It takes a tremendous amount of effort from the parents. We have to come up with the curriculum; we have to prepare each day; we have to individually coax our kids (who are very experienced in opposing our best laid plans for them) into a rigorous school day; and we have to stay consistent day in and day out.

2) It's pretty expensive. Not only are we paying taxes to fund every one else's education, we are refusing societal help in teaching our own kids. We pay for all the books, the lessons, the instruments, the materials, not to mention the time.

3) Our kids lose out on opportunities to learn from a wider array of teachers and, most critically, from their peers. The ideal education is when we build up networks so that we can support each other. Nobody accomplishes anything worth doing by themselves. We need each other and we need to learn and to rely on one another. Home schooling makes this harder as we silo ourselves from others.

These critiques of home schooling can be overcome - we reach out to other home schooling families and have weekly coops. We have signed up for weekly home school PE. My kids are involved in choir, karate, and music with other kids. But its harder and as a result, most parents simply cannot or choose not to embark in it.

But, there's actually another model that's interesting, let's call it the Suzuki model that we're using to get our kids trained on their respective string musical instruments.

One day each week, my wife takes our kids to a lesson from a trained, experienced teacher in the instrument. The teacher gives our child an individual lesson. Actually, my son shares his lesson with his teacher's son who is the same age. My wife listens in on these lessons taking notes. Through the week, she practices with our children based on the material that was covered in the lesson. Additionally, there's a bi-monthly group class with other suzuki kids that provide more opportunities to get exposed to other children at the same level.

Why do we think that learning to master a musical instrument is any different than mastering math, or the English language?

I can easily imagine the classroom working in the same way Suzuki works:

1) You have a teacher (or set of teachers) skilled in child development: language, vocabulary, math, basic history. Really, elementary education seems to be more about child development than it does about being a subject matter expert. But these teachers should also be skilled at dealing with parents and families - almost taking on the role of a social worker.

2) The parent (or another suitable adult) takes their child (or set of children since you probably won't be able to get every parent engaged) to get individual or very small group instruction from the teacher on the relevant subjects - at least once per week, maybe more. And ends the session by assigning a weeks (or less depending on the frequency) worth of material to study and learn from.

3) The teacher tests their knowledge and introduces new material. The parent or adult takes notes.

4) Through the week the parent works with the child individually to make sure the child follows through on their studies.

This is exactly how music training works and the dedicated combination of both parent and child will almost certinaly lead the child to develop some suitable level of instrument mastery (based on the child's own passion for the instrument) over a number of years.

Not every child will excel at math or science or literature, but every child should have a well-rounded basic proficiency in these subjects. As the child gets older they can find their niche and develop mastery in their area of passion. In the meantime, they will be able to go on their own pace having the right amount of individual adult mentoring, and being able to access adult subject matter experts on a regular basis for feedback and assistance. Through the week, children could also have the opportunity to work with each other and learn from one another.

I'm not sure you need grades or formal tests necessarily. In the weekly session, the teacher would assess where the child was through an "oral exam" or by examining the child's work for the week - say the paper they wrote or the project they worked on - or an on the spot ungraded quiz. If the child is struggling, they slow down the progress and focus on it.

All of this happens in music lessons. Our children don't get to progress to the next, slightly harder piece, until they have mastered the current one. There are no grades or exams, but they have recitals.

It seems like this, to me is a much better model than our current one.


This paper talks about how the traditional school model has grown less efficient over the years. We're spending more money but have not gotten better results. Toward the end, they suggest looking at other models for inspiration, including home schooling and music lessons. Looks like this post is on the right track.

"The second step goes then to other learning systems, to explore what alternative visions of schooling are feasible. Talk of 'schools of the future' is too much in the realm of imagination, and bold visions are often hard for policymakers, educators, and parents to understand and support. In order to begin to consider dramatically different
production processes, such an investigation would examine various forms of organized learning routinely taking place outside public K–12 systems, and include:

  • Home schooling

  • Distance learning systems

  • Foreign language learning

  • Franchise tutoring programs

  • Summer content camps

  • Parent-paid instructional programs (music, swimming lessons, etc.)

  • Armed services training }Industry training/development

  • Apprentice programs

  • Education systems abroad"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Half Baked Idea for School Reform (part II)

My initial idea about school reform is here which basically amounts to nothing more than getting parents in the classroom. I thought about this idea for the past couple of days and now it's time to flush it out a bit more.

I can think of a couple of problems with my idea:

1) What about parents with more than one child - especially when the children are too young for school. These parents would not be easily available to help in the classroom.

2) What about parents who because of work obligations can't get help.

3) What about marginal parents. I am sure there are some parents who would simply not be good in the classroom.

Well, first let's start with the obvious. If in a classroom with say 20 or 30 kids in attendance. Let's say every parent with school age children, that could volunteer as a teacher's aid in the classroom did. My first question, since I simply do not know, would teachers be accepting of this help? My second question is, how many parents could we get in the classroom - certainly we could get at least a few, right - and that would be huge. And even if a parent had multiple school age children and wanted to be in both classrooms, the teacher would at least get this parent a couple of times a week. (By the way, my next door neighbor volunteers at an inner city school in Phoenix once a week - so I know this sort of thing is possible and valued).

Now, if we were sending our kids to publics school, my wife would not be one of those parents (or me certainly) who could easily be in the classroom - with a newborn and a two year-old in toe. But let's increase the numbers slightly. What if (once our newborn got older) we could get a babysitter a couple of times a week - say we split time with another parent who also had young kids. This would increase the level of participation.

Let's expand this idea even more. Let's say the school, in an expansive attempt to get as many parents on the campus as possible, started to accommodate parent volunteers with younger children - say a mother with a slinged newborn could come in the classroom and maybe a day care or pre-school was part of the school where the two year old could be temporarily deposited.

Finally, what about single parents who have to work? Well, why not hire them to be teacher's aids in the classroom? This is a bit tricky and would only work for marginally paid single parents - since I just can't imagine a scenario where we could pay them very well to do this. And it's tricky because you would want other parents who didn't need to work to do the exact same classroom work for free.

But this used to be the way things were to some extent at least.

Consider this passage in this book about the near poor in America, some of whom have been pushed off of the welfare rolls because of the welfare reform bill passed during the Clinton presidency in the 1990's. This book is a bit dated - now with near 10% unemployment, many of these people have probably been pushed back into the realm of the unemployed and poor.

Here's the passage about a mother, Danielle, who used to volunteer at her children's inner city school:

Danielle used to do much more for her children. Until she started her workfare job, she was the treasurer of their school's PTA and she spent nearly thirty hours a week volunteering there. It was a labor of love but also a cause of frustration. Sometimes only ten people would show up for meetings - in a school of seven hundred kids. Though Danielle found plenty to gripe about, she wasted no time mustering a constructiive response. Making a difference at P.S. 57 became her mission.

Ironically, it was her very freedom from work that allowed Danielle to become a fixture at the school. Because she didn't have to clock in at an office, barely a day went by in the late nineties when she wasn't at the school, working in the library, going over PTA accounts, helping out with playground or lunchroom supervision. She visited with the teachers, became a conspicuous adult presence during dismissal, dropped in on the principal most mornings as kids climbed off the school buses, and made sure that she was present to fight for the cause at every District Five school board meeting. For someone fighting depression, her devotion was impressive.

It was also pragmatic. 'If you're not involved with what's goin' on behind doors, then you don't know what's behind [them],' she reasoned. She has seen teachers yank kids by their clothes, push them against the wall, and scream at the top of their lungs. By inserting herself into the school hierarchy, Danielle made sure she could protect her own.

Danielle's proactive presence at P.S. 57 was not without its detractors. Whenever her name came up, school security guards would roll their eyes skyward. Some of the Latino parents thought she was high-handed. Even the PTA president, someone Danielle worked with fairly closely, denounced her on occasion. 'Are you a crackhead or something?' Yvonne, the president, yelled down the corridor during one of their dramas. When Danielle retored with an equally unpleasant rejoinder, Yvonne told her in no uncertain terms whose ass she could kiss. The whole incident left Danielle so steamed that she considered quitting the PTA and pulling her kids out of P.S. 57. In the end she decided against it. The school had become her avocation. She knew enough about its inner workings to guarantee a certain level of attention for her kids, and she couldn't give up that advantage. Still, the episode taught Danielle that you can't rely on anyone but yourself. Nobody covers your back. On the other hand, nobody covers your kids either. That's a mother's job.

Until welfare reform pushed them into the labor force, mothers on welfare like Danielle were the mainstay of many Harlem elementary schools. They were the helpers whom every school depended on to keep things on track. In middle-class suburban schools, this 'job' falls to nonworking moms (and a few dads) who organize bake sales, publicize the school play, ride along on the bus when kids take field trips, and drum up class representatives for as many grades as they can manage. Principals and teachers depend on these parents to keep the institution running, and in big cities, where budgets are always tight, they have become ever more important for maintaining basic order.

When there is no money for official, paid classroom aides, non-working moms - often on public assistance in poor communities - do what Danielle did. They watch the hallways and the lunchroom and pitch in during bus-boarding time, dismissal, and those Friday afternoons when, to hear Danielle tell it, the whole school goes 'off the hook.' They make sure that kids return the forms that qualify them for free lunches, which provide nutrition that is better than what many families can afford.

Welfare reform put an end to this volunteer workforce. Danielle and thousands of other mothers like her now spend their days toiling at the office or sweeping the city park and struggle to find the energy to get to evening school meetings when they can. Their days as hallway monitors are over."

This is the unintended consequences of welfare reform - it drove single parents out of the schools and weakened their influence over their children's lives. Granted not all parents took advantage of welfare to engage in the community and in their children's schools, but certainly some did.

Why not reform this reform? Pay parents who are willing to volunteer in their children's school. Why not provide society support to keep mother's actively involved in their children's lives. I guess what I'm suggesting is that we as a society should reform our schools in ways that encourage parents to get on the campus and in the classroom of the schools their children attend. Because, really, nobody is motivated to teach a child like that child's mother.

My third and final post on this subject will propose an even more radical idea for school reform.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Funny Thing About Homeschooling

You end up signing your kids up for a lot of different things to make up for what they aren't getting in regular school - well, at least we do. And I know many people get caught up in this even while sending their child to regular school, so, it's not just home schooling that's driving this. But the cool thing about joining different "schools" - the Suzuki school of string instruments, or the Karate school we just joined, etc., is you get a lot of different takes on education.

Today I took my kids to the Suzuki bi-monthly Saturday morning group classes and they had a special class for parents.

Here's a quote from a flier I received on tips about practicing:
  • "Let the child learn at his OWN pace. It allows him to learn each step VERY WELL before going on to a new idea. (Example of rushing a child - is pushing him to memorize a new piece when he is still stumbling over the notes of his last piece.) Definition: Child's own pace -- is speed at which he learns something under optimal conditions.
  • Because of lifestyles we have chosen, too often practice sessions are not at an ideal time, or are rushed.
  • Because of 'other things' we have scheduled, 'careful repetitions' are not done (poor practice timing, interruptions, or distractions.)

Here's another suggestion:
Let a child practice only as long as he is interested and can cooperate. Once his attention is gone, his learning stops. Practice then becomes a measure of endurance and bad attitudes can develop from it. A few minutes, several times a day may work best at first.

This is focused on instrument training. But I see very little difference, really, in learning how to write or learning math and mastering the violin. These kinds of skills take years to learn well. They also take regular, consistent practice to gain proficiency.

The problem I have with public school is that we expect every child to learn a certain amount every single year (do we expect this from a musical instrument? No, most people just give up.)

Another thing about Suzuki is that the parent should be attentive at the lesson - really focused on how its gong so that the practices can be focused accordingly. The music teacher is training the parent right a long with the student.

So, here's a thought about school reform that has probably no chance of getting implemented. Why not set the expectation that parents should be in the classroom at least part of the time learning and getting guidance from teachers? Instead of turning your children over to the school for most for of the day transferring over to the state (or church, or other private institution) for the education and improvement of your child. Why can't we get to more personalized, individualized training by getting many if not most of the children's parents in the classroom. The school becomes more of a partnership with the family. In that scenario we would need less formally trained teachers, these teachers could then be paid more and parents pick up the slack.

For those families with multiple kids, or families where parents just can't get in there, obviously, getting 1:1 adult to child ratio is not practical - but certainly the ratio could be much lower if the expectation of the parent as the primary child's teacher were more pervasive.

Here's why this is probably unrealistic: "a record 41 percent of all live births were to unmarried women, up 22 percentage points since 1980."

"I’m not the type to get nostalgic about the good old days of patriarchy, but the fact of the matter is that from a strictly economic point of view a married couple household is a much more efficient arrangement than the one-adult alternative"

And borrowing from Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation, he spends a chapter talking about how our education system has gotten less efficient over the last 30 years - we spend more and continue to get worse results.

Th reason why our public schools are not efficient is because our family structures are becoming increasingly inefficient, with more and more of them led by a single adult, or with parents working full time jobs. This is not efficient educationally. It's just not practical to hire enough teachers to get the ratio's down to the ideal (very close to 1 teacher to 1 student) without an enormous amount of help from parents. And parents are increasingly concerned with other things. So, instead, we try our best to lure enough talent through the teacher certification process and into the classroom, paying them marginal salaries and filling up the classroom with 30 or 40 kids per one teacher.

This is not true, of course, for the well off, who earn enough money to divert a larger percentage of this constrained education resource their way, leaving less of those resources available for other children.

The answer is getting more people involved in education and parents are a natural resource we are vastly under-utilizing.