Friday, December 27, 2013

Is American Culture to Blame for Failing Schools?

December 18, 2013

Is American Culture to Blame for Failing Schools?


“Americans do not support an egalitarian society.”

That was the response of one reader, Jay David of New Mexico, to the final editorial in our series on science and math education, and in many ways it summed up the bitterness that many others expressed when the American school system was compared to those of other countries.

The editorial looked at some of the reasons students in Finland, Canada and Shanghai do much better in science and math than American students, and concluded that those places care more about preparing teachers and elevating the cultural position of education, while ensuring that more resources go to the neediest schools. In this country, teachers are poorly paid, poorly prepared and generally disdained, while the richest schools and students get by far the most money.

Scores of readers blamed that disparity on this country’s more libertarian culture, and on an outlook toward learning that if not overtly anti-intellectual is at least non-intellectual.

“Canadians’ acceptance and indeed pride in their more egalitarian society contrast with Americans’ acceptance of having an underclass,” wrote Blair P., of Palm Desert, Calif. “It’s an Ayn Rand philosophy.”

Several of the biggest Canadian provinces distribute school funds far more equitably than American states, which tend to let school districts fend for themselves based on the wealth of their property-tax base (or lack of it). Equity is a “laughable” idea in a country that lets low-income cancer victims die, wrote Jonathan Broder of New York, and Republicans “would never in a million years allow this type of socialist funds distribution system.”

Allan Dobbins, of Birmingham, Ala., said that he attended a small public high school in a poor working-class Canadian town in the 1970s where there were no frills but solid math, science, and language courses. The school produced a number of Ph.D.’s and physicians. “I believe the situation is quite different in the U.S. and in particular here in the South,” he wrote, “where the broad distribution of funding and quality means some schools have unqualified math and science teachers, or no physics courses at all.”
As Paul Karrer, of Monterey, Calif., put it: “Canada has the gentle hand of government guiding it. The citizens accept and want government. They have a general view of ‘we.’ Not so in the USA.”

The Finnish tradition of strong preparation and respect for teachers was similarly admired by many commenters, who nonetheless remain convinced it cannot be duplicated here.

“Show me a profession that has been vilified more than teaching in the US,” wrote Peter S. of Portland, Ore. “Real-estate agents and used-car dealers have more status and make more money.” He added: “Our best minds in the US go into hedge funds and high finance, where they figure out how de-fund education. No wonder our schools are places no one wants to be.”

David Meyerholz of Virginia Beach, who has taught in a public high school for 33 years, blamed a culture that doesn’t encourage students to strive for knowledge. “We have never been a nation of highly educated people,” he said. “Just because the modern world dictates that we now have to be, doesn’t mean it will happen unless we swim upstream against a current of dumb popular culture.”

Caring about teaching is expensive, but much more than money is involved. Too many lawmakers regard teachers as “a drag on public finances,” as Ole Holsti of Salt Lake City put it, or resent that many are unionized, or disagree even with the idea of a liberal education. The pessimistic tone of many of the comments suggested that few believe the situation is likely to change anytime soon.

“Our backwards system of ‘local’ control and insistence on short-term thinking like keeping costs down will work against this for some time in actual hiring practices,” wrote Tina B. of St. Petersburg, Fla. “It will take at least another generation to make a difference. But it would be worth it.”

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Bacteria Are Winning

The Peril of Antibiotic Use on Farms

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD of the New York Times
Published: December 21, 2013

After years of inaction, the Food and Drug Administration has finally taken an important (that's debatable) step to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in animal feed. The goal is to curb the rise of bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics used in both human and veterinary medicine.

Earlier this month, the F.D.A. issued a new policy asking drug companies to revise their labels voluntarily to remove statements indicating that the antibiotics can be used to promote growth in livestock. Such a labeling change would make it illegal to use the antibiotics for that purpose. Companies that comply will also have to ensure that the use of the drugs to treat, control or prevent disease in animals is authorized and overseen by veterinarians.

This step depends on the willing cooperation of the drug makers, which will have three months to tell the agency whether they will change the labels, and up to three years to carry out the new rules. Two major manufacturers have already said they will do so.

The rampant use of antibiotics in agriculture has been alarming. The drugs are given not just to treat sick animals, but added in low doses to animal feed or water to speed the growth of cattle, pigs and chickens, thus reducing costs for the producers. Such widespread use of antibiotics in healthy animals has stimulated the emergence of bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotics and capable of passing their resistance to human pathogens, many of which can no longer be treated by drugs that were once effective against them.

Each year, at least two million Americans fall ill — and 23,000 die — from antibiotic-resistant infections. Doctors are partly to blame because many prescribe antibiotics for conditions like colds that can’t be cured with such drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in September that up to half of the antibiotics prescribed for humans are not needed or are used inappropriately. It added, however, that overuse of antibiotics on farms contributed to the problem.

The F.D.A.’s new policy was praised as an important step by some experts and groups, including David Kessler, a former F.D.A. commissioner long critical of the overuse of antibiotics, the American Academy of Pediatrics and The Pew Charitable Trusts, a strong proponent of reducing antibiotic use in animals. Others like the Natural Resources Defense Council and two Democratic congresswomen, Louise Slaughter of New York and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, argue that the new policy is not sufficiently restrictive because it will still allow farms to administer antibiotics to healthy livestock to prevent disease — a potential loophole that could lead to indiscriminate use. Preventive use is particularly common in factory farms where animals are jammed together in pens where disease can spread rapidly.

A move to end the use of antibiotics to promote growth, while a strong first step, does not go far enough. The F.D.A. ought to limit antibiotic use to treating animals that are already sick or in special circumstances where a healthy animal is likely to become sick. The risks to public health from resistant bacteria require a stringent response.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why Don't Our Kids Do Better Than the Kids in Other Countries?

There have been several articles lately in the news about education.  I am assuming that all of you will find this information interesting: either you have children or grandchildren in the school system, or you are working in an industry where you see first-hand the results of our school system.  If you are an entrepreneur, you are looking for well-educated employees.  I believe that we must all take charge of our own learning to some extent.  Parents must educate their children and expose them to as much as possible.  Read to them, teach them to use the internet, take them to the symphony, the ballet, the museum.  And travel, travel, travel.  Make sure that your children, by the time they graduate from high school are aware that there is a big, wide, wonderful world out there, and they are not the center of it.

Why Other Countries Teach Better

Three Reasons Students Do Better Overseas

Published: December 17, 2013

Millions of laid-off American factory workers were the first to realize that they were competing against job seekers around the globe with comparable skills but far smaller paychecks. But a similar fate also awaits workers who aspire to high-skilled, high-paying jobs in engineering and technical fields unless this country learns to prepare them to compete for the challenging work that the new global economy requires.

The American work force has some of the weakest mathematical and problem-solving skills in the developed world. In a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global policy organization, adults in the United States scored far below average and better than only two of 12 other developed comparison countries, Italy and Spain. Worse still, the United States is losing ground in worker training to countries in Europe and Asia whose schools are not just superior to ours but getting steadily better.

The lessons from those high-performing countries can no longer be ignored by the United States if it hopes to remain competitive.

Finland: Teacher Training

Though it dropped several rankings in last year’s tests, Finland has for years been in the highest global ranks in literacy and mathematical skills. The reason dates to the postwar period, when Finns first began to consider creating comprehensive schools that would provide a quality, high-level education for poor and wealthy alike. These schools stand out in several ways, providing daily hot meals; health and dental services; psychological counseling; and an array of services for families and children in need. None of the services are means tested. Moreover, all high school students must take one of the most rigorous required curriculums in the world, including physics, chemistry, biology, philosophy, music and at least two foreign languages.

But the most important effort has been in the training of teachers, where the country leads most of the world, including the United States, thanks to a national decision made in 1979. The country decided to move preparation out of teachers’ colleges and into the universities, where it became more rigorous. By professionalizing the teacher corps and raising its value in society, the Finns have made teaching the country’s most popular occupation for the young. These programs recruit from the top quarter of the graduating high school class, demonstrating that such training has a prestige lacking in the United States. In 2010, for example, 6,600 applicants competed for 660 available primary school preparation slots in the eight Finnish universities that educate teachers.

The teacher training system in this country is abysmal by comparison. A recent report by the National Council on Teacher Quality called teacher preparation programs “an industry of mediocrity,” rating only 10 percent of more than 1,200 of them as high quality. Most have low or no academic standards for entry. Admission requirements for teaching programs at the State University of New York were raised in September, but only a handful of other states have taken similar steps.

Finnish teachers are not drawn to the profession by money; they earn only slightly more than the national average salary. But their salaries go up by about a third in the first 15 years, several percentage points higher than those of their American counterparts. Finland also requires stronger academic credentials for its junior high and high school teachers and rewards them with higher salaries.

Canada: School funding

Canada also has a more rigorous and selective teacher preparation system than the United States, but the most striking difference between the countries is how they pay for their schools.

American school districts rely far too heavily on property taxes, which means districts in wealthy areas bring in more money than those in poor ones. State tax money to make up the gap usually falls far short of the need in districts where poverty and other challenges are greatest.

Americans tend to see such inequalities as the natural order of things. Canadians do not. In recent decades, for example, three of Canada’s largest and best-performing provinces — Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario — have each addressed the inequity issue by moving to province-level funding formulas. As a recent report by the Center for American Progress notes, these formulas allow the provinces to determine how much money each district will receive, based on each district’s size and needs. The systems even out the tax base and help ensure that resources are distributed equitably, not clustered in wealthy districts.

These were not boutique experiments. The Ontario system has more than two million public school students — more than in 45 American states and the District of Columbia. But the contrast to the American system could not be more clear. Ontario, for example, strives to eliminate or at least minimize the funding inequality that would otherwise exist between poor and wealthy districts. In most American states, however, the wealthiest, highest-spending districts spend about twice as much per pupil as the lowest-spending districts, according to a federal advisory commission report. In some states, including California, the ratio is more than three to one.

This has left 40 percent of American public school students in districts of “concentrated student poverty,” the commission’s report said.

Shanghai: Fighting Elitism

China’s educational system was largely destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. Since shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country has been rebuilding its education system at lightning speed, led by Shanghai, the nation’s largest and most internationalized city. Shanghai, of course, has powerful tools at its disposal, including the might of the authoritarian state and the nation’s centuries-old reverence for scholarship and education. It has had little difficulty advancing a potent succession of reforms that allowed it to achieve universal enrollment rapidly. The real proof is that its students were first in the world in math, science and literacy on last year’s international exams.

One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality. Some poor schools were closed, reorganized, or merged with higher-level schools. Money was transferred to poor, rural schools to construct new buildings or update old ones. Teachers were transferred from cities to rural areas and vice versa. Stronger urban schools were paired with rural schools with the aim of improving teaching methods. And under a more recent strategy, strong schools took over the administration of weak ones. The Chinese are betting that the ethos, management style and teaching used in the strong schools will be transferable.

America’s stature as an economic power is being threatened by societies above us and below us on the achievement scale. Wealthy nations with high-performing schools are consolidating their advantages and working hard to improve. At the same time, less-wealthy countries like Chile, Brazil, Indonesia and Peru, have made what the O.E.C.D. describes as “impressive gains catching up from very low levels of performance.” In other words, if things remain as they are, countries that lag behind us will one day overtake us.

The United States can either learn from its competitors abroad — and finally summon the will to make necessary policy changes — or fall further and further behind. The good news is that this country has an impressive history of school improvement, as reflected in the early-20th-century compulsory school movement and the postwar expansion, which broadened access to college. Similar levels of focus and effort will be needed to move forward again.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Young People Make a Difference

Newtown Teen Leads Youth Movement for Gun Safety

Video on Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC

This young lady restores my faith in people.  When we start electing women like this, our government will become effective once again.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Who Teaches Teachers How to Teach?

‘What Is Good Teaching?’

Published: December 16, 2013 in the New York Times
Quotes in Red are mine, not Mr. Nocera's

In 2006, an idealistic New York public schoolteacher named Kevin Greer joined the faculty of an idealistic new high school, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media. Greer had previously taught English to 12th grade honors students at Dewitt Clinton, a huge high school in the Bronx. At B.C.A.M., which hoped to inspire students with an arts-driven curriculum, he would be teaching ninth graders. Most of the students had not chosen B.C.A.M., but had simply been assigned to the school. They weren’t nearly as self-motivated as Greer’s former students. Many if not most of them read below grade level.

Greer’s first approach to teaching these students was to refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He taught Plato and lectured about such things as “the rhetorical strategy of repetition of a phrase at the beginning of clauses. We call it anaphora.” He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted in kind, yawning or talking among themselves. Greer knew he was not getting through to them. He was frustrated.

Three years later, when members of this first B.C.A.M. class were seniors, Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” This time, however, his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by asking them what their own definition of poetry was — and they responded eagerly. He was more relaxed and more confident. “I had to learn how to really break things down,” he told me recently. “I had to learn to work on several levels at a time.” Because, after all, he had students of various abilities in his classes.

I know these details about Kevin Greer’s classroom performance because I recently saw a documentary about B.C.A.M. that has been passed from teachers’ group to teachers’ group, from reformers to union executives, like samizdat. The film, called “The New Public” and produced and directed by a filmmaker named Jyllian Gunther, tracks that first B.C.A.M. class in both the class’s first and last years at the school.

Once she finished the film, Gunther sent it around the various film festivals. None of them bit. “The New Public” was shown once on PBS, but aside from that, it has not been seen widely. Instead, teachers — as well as those who teach teachers — have slowly found out about it and have embraced it.

Partly this is because it is the rare film that sympathetically conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. “The New Public” not only shows what goes on in the classroom — which can be rough if the teacher can’t manage the classroom — but she also goes into the homes of the students she has focused on. There, the odds that the students are trying to overcome are made abundantly clear.

But it is also because the movie is an unwitting primer on how to teach disadvantaged students. There are teachers in the movie who know how to connect with their students, and teachers who don’t. Teachers College at Columbia University liked the film so much that it is creating a companion curriculum, so the film can be used to help train teachers. 

Until Gunther’s movie came along, Teachers College used to show “The Wire” to give prospective teachers a feel for what it’s like to teach in a disadvantaged community.

“What is good teaching?” asked Anand Marri, a professor at Teachers College who has championed the film. “Is teaching different in the Bronx versus the suburbs? How much do you start with where the students are?” For the most part, these elemental questions are ones that schools of education don’t ask nearly enough.

The lack of teacher training in education schools has also been borne out recently by a new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality, entitled “Training Our Future Teachers.” The question the group asked was a simple one: Do education schools teach classroom management? The answer was: not very much.

The group examined 122 teacher-preparation programs and found that while most programs could say they had classroom management as part of their curriculum, classroom management strategies rarely received “the connected and concentrated focus they deserve.” What’s more, “instruction is generally divorced from practice (and vice versa) in most programs, with little evidence that what gets taught gets practiced.”

Education schools, says Kate Walsh, who leads the group, “don’t see their job as training teachers. They see their job as creating professional identity.”

As the country continues to struggle with education reform, it seems obvious that education schools need to change, so that prospective teachers walk into their first classroom knowing how to teach. Maybe “The New Public” can help bring about that change.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You Think the Government Is Watching Out For You? Think Again

Yesterday, the FDA announced that the antibacterial soap makers had one year to prove their products would not have long-term harmful effects on the health of consumers.  Hospitals have been using triclosan for years - because it works.  But now, the good ol' FDA doesn't want you to have any to protect yourself and your family in your home.  I think that it is no coincidence that the antibacterial soap announcement was made to divert attention from the fact that this story about the very, very real dangers of antibiotics in animal production appeared about the same time.  On the one hand, it's "Look, look, how hard we're working to protect public health; and on the other hand, it's "But, please, don't look too hard at how we are still, after more than 30 years, ignoring the health threat caused by Big Pharma and Big Food."

The F.D.A.’s Not-Really-Such-Good-News

Published: December 17, 2013 in the NY Times

That “good” news you may have read last week about the Food and Drug Administration’s curbing antibiotics in animal feed may not be so good after all. In fact, it appears that the F.D.A. has once again refused to do all it could to protect public health.

For those who missed it, the agency requested (and “requested” is the right word) that the pharmaceutical industry make a labeling change that, the F.D.A. says, will reduce the routine use of antibiotics in animal production. I’d happily be proven wrong, but I don’t think it will. Rather, I think we’re looking at an industry-friendly response to the public health emergency of diseases caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, resistance that is bred in industrially raised animals.

You may know that around 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given (fed, mostly) to animals. Why? Because the terrible conditions in which most of our animals are grown foster illness; give them antibiotics and illness is less likely. There is also a belief that “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics help animals grow faster. So most “farmers” who raise animals by the tens or hundreds of thousands find it easier to feed them antibiotics than to raise them in ways that allow antibiotics to be reserved for actual illness. (And yes, there are alternatives, even in industrial settings. Denmark raises as many hogs as Iowa and does it with far fewer antibiotics.)

You may also know that this overuse of antibiotics is leading to increasing bacterial resistance, that we’re breeding an army of supergerms. This isn’t theoretical: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 Americans died of illnesses related to antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year. Another two million were sickened. (Some experts say that these numbers are low.) This makes resistant bacteria a greater health threat than AIDS, and there is talk by the C.D.C. of a post-antibiotic era.

The only solution, say most experts, is to stop the prophylactic use of antibiotics and use the drugs only to treat animals that are actually sick. (This is not news: Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, feared microbial resistance and discussed it in his Nobel Prize speech of 1945.) Preventing this is an ostensible goal of the F.D.A., which itself predicted — in 1977 — the very scenario in which overuse of antibiotics would lead to superbugs and, at that time, proposed to limit their use. But Congress got in the way and in the intervening years the agency appears to have been infiltrated by industry-friendly administrators who publicly write that “Using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided,” yet manage to avoid enforcing these pronouncements.

The story of the last 36 years is one of inaction. The F.D.A. is already under a federal court order to “ensure the safety and effectiveness of all drugs sold in interstate commerce,” and to withdraw drugs demonstrated to be unsafe — a court order the agency has appealed twice. One could see the new guidelines as little more than an attempt to convince the court to set aside its ruling.

Technically, reducing antibiotic use is simple. The science tells us it is the thing to do, the meat industry has the capability of designing animal-growing facilities that would foster less disease and, perhaps most important, the F.D.A. has the power to rule — not suggest — a complete ban of the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in livestock.

This last statement is contentious. (If you want to make your own judgment about the F.D.A.'s legal power, have at it.) Michael Taylor, the agency’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine (and — just in case you think the notion that there is a revolving door between the F.D.A. and the food industry is hyperbole — a former vice president for public policy at Monsanto), told me, “The approval of a new animal drug for specific indication is like the granting of a license; it applies to that company. There’s a prescribed process for withdrawing that license … a very formal administrative process. We can’t just issue a rule of general applicability that extinguishes their due process rights.
“We don’t feel we have the legal authority,” he continued, to do “what might be great to do from a public health policy standpoint. You’d have to show product by product that each is contributing” to a resistance problem. “This is a strategy to drive this to closure in the quickest way possible. We expect and hope folks will watch us closely.”

We are talking about 287 different drugs, and Taylor says it might take “three or four years” to go through the process for each one. These guidelines, he says — which were developed with the cooperation of the industry (uh-huh) — will work faster.

But there are other ways of looking at the F.D.A.'s ability to regulate. These drugs fall into seven categories; nothing was preventing the agency, three or four years ago, from picking a drug from each category and beginning what Taylor calls “a very formal” process. Nothing prevents them from doing it now — simultaneously with their new guidelines — except, I would suggest, a desire to maintain a noncontentious relationship with Big Pharma and Big Food. As each drug, or category, was demonstrated to be unsafe, the process would become less cumbersome and something “great” might actually be done for public health.

It’s not just me saying this.

Margaret Mellon, a lawyer and a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said to me, “The agency can legally withdraw the label claims approvals if it can show that uses under the label circumstances are no longer safe in terms of resistance.”

When I asked Representative Louise Slaughter — who happens to be a microbiologist, and is among the few in Congress with both the knowledge and spine to call out the F.D.A. — whether the agency had the authority to ban antibiotics for any use except direct treatment, she barely let me finish my question before exclaiming, “Of course they do.”

And Robert Martin, a program director at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins and a former director of the widely respected Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, told me, “They have the authority to make these guidelines mandatory; the problem is that it’s regulation by the consent of the regulated.”

I could go on.

This in part explains why millions more are doomed to be sickened by the F.D.A.'s failures. You can blame Congress for inaction, too — shocking, I know. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act would require the F.D.A. to review its approvals of antibiotics and cancel them for antibiotics that help breed resistant bacteria; in fact it would put the burden of proof back on the companies, alleviating the workload and contentiousness Taylor seems intent on avoiding. (In fact, if the F.D.A. were truly interested in public health it would be out there lobbying for the passage of PAMTA.) Slaughter has introduced this act four times since 2007, and it’s supported by almost everyone, but it hasn’t passed. One wonders, though, since the F.D.A. is already under court order to do pretty much the same thing, whether even PAMTA would spur them on.

Instead, the F.D.A. has created a “road map for animal pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily revise the F.D.A.-approved use conditions on the labels of these products to remove production indications.” No obligation. And no problem labeling those same drugs as disease-prevention vehicles, as long as those uses are “judicious and appropriate,” says Taylor. Whether you call it growth promotion or disease prevention, the effects are likely to be on labels only, not on public health. (It seems to me that if you prevent disease you promote growth, and vice versa. It also seems to me that if you prevent disease by having healthy growing conditions you don’t need to prevent it with antibiotics.)

And drug companies are O.K. with this new “guidance,” because it’s so benign it won’t affect their bottom lines. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Jeff Simmons, the president of Eli Lilly’s “animal-health division,” was quoted as saying, “We do not see this announcement being a material event.”

The F.D.A. says it “is asking animal pharmaceutical companies to notify the agency of their intent to sign on to the strategy within the next three months.” (There are no provisions for noncooperation.) “These companies would then have a three-year transition process.” In other words, drug companies have three months to “comply” with a voluntary plan to marginally change their labeling, and three years to implement that. Again, if they don’t … sorry, there’s no plan.

Strenuous oversight, huh? During which time industry can figure out how to increase the amount of antibiotics they sell, as long as they don’t label them as growth-promoting. Yet Taylor insists that “this will make a difference for resistance.”

In those three years, something like 69,000 Americans will have died from antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases; many subsequent deaths may be preventable if rampant use of antibiotics is curbed now. But when insiders talk about the expected percentage decline in antibiotic use as a result of the F.D.A. recommendations, the smart money is on “zero.” And when I asked Taylor, “How much do you anticipate routine antibiotic use declining in the next few years?” he answered, “It’s a fair question but I don’t have an answer for you — we need to work on that.”

It’s depressing. I root for the F.D.A. to do its job, but the power of industry and its anti-regulatory lobby adds up to an apparent unwillingness to put public health above all else. And by phasing this in over three years (by which time we’ll have a new and possibly less supportive president), the agency has bought itself and the industry more time before bowing to the inevitable change in our horrific animal production system.

In fact, the worst thing about the new guidelines may be that they’re seen as a first step, and as such rule out a more meaningful one. (Center for a Livable Future’s Martin said to me, “My fear is now we won’t see anything new for a decade.”) It’s bad news masquerading as good news. The F.D.A. is claiming, “We’re controlling the use of antibiotics in animal production!” But it’s more like Congress declaring, “We’re raising the minimum wage!” and then appending “ 10 cents an hour. And we’ll review the impact of this monumental change in three years!”

I should point out that some of my favorite antibiotic-overuse critics are more optimistic, among them the former F.D.A. head David Kessler, who was quoted in these pages as saying, “This is the first significant step in dealing with this important public health concern in 20 years,” and Laura Rogers, a director at the Pew Charitable Trusts, who told me, “These criteria represent a meaningful shift in the agency’s public policy, and bode well for future action.” (“That said,” Rogers added, “we are concerned that antibiotics will still be used for disease prevention, possibly in place of growth promotion.”)

Rogers is admirably diplomatic, but I agree more closely with Representative Slaughter, who wrote, “Sadly, this guidance is the biggest step the F.D.A. has taken in a generation to combat the overuse of antibiotics in corporate agriculture, and it falls woefully short of what is needed.”

It’s also worth noting that the F.D.A. has drafted (that means it’s not even yet a recommendation) a “directive” that would require that veterinarians supervise antibiotic use. Make that final and make that mandatory — as the agency is threatening to do if these voluntary guidelines don’t work — and we might be getting somewhere. But the best-case scenario is that within three years some or even all growth-promotion claims will have been dropped and the use of antibiotics will be approved by veterinarians — many of whom have jobs that will depend on approving just such uses. I see no reason to be encouraged. It may truly be worse than nothing, or it may simply be a delay we can ill afford.

Public safety is the F.D.A.'s job, and they’re doing it badly. What’s needed here is a drastic reduction in the use of antibiotics, now, and few people think these recommendations are going to do that. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Mellon said to me, “This recommendation involves voluntarily giving up making money in the interest of public safety. Who does that in the United States? No one.”

What can we do? Push for labeling, for one thing: “Raised without antibiotics” (period) is a label we could pay more attention to. And push our markets to carry more truly antibiotic-free meat, and buy it. Organic meat is another obvious solution. I’ll get to strategies like these in another column. But as Slaughter said, “I’m persuaded now that the only thing we can do is get an outcry from the public.” Make some noise, people.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Danger! Having Daughters May Turn You Into a Republican!

The Daughter Theory

Published: December 14, 2013
FOR our age of wonks and white papers and warring experts, there ought to be a word — something just short of, though not shorter than, schadenfreude — for the gentle thrill inspired by a social-science finding that mildly unsettles one’s ideological opponents. 

I’m thinking of the satisfied tingle a liberal might get from a study that suggests high taxes are good for economic growth. Or the spring added to a libertarian’s step by a report that environmental regulations hurt the poor.

Or the pleasure that I took recently from the headline: “Study: Having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.”

Why pleasure? Well, because previous research on this question had suggested the reverse, with parents of daughters leaning left and parents of sons rightward. And those earlier findings dovetailed neatly with liberal talking points about politics and gender: Republicans make war on women, Democrats protect them, so it’s only natural that raising girls would make parents see the wisdom of liberalism ...

But the new study undercuts those talking points. Things are more complicated than you thought, liberals! You can love your daughters, want the best for them, and find yourself drawn to ... conservative ideas! Especially if you’re highly educated, which is where the effect was strongest! Better dust off a different set of talking points — maybe something about the family as the source of all oppression and how deeply internalized patriarchal norms make parents subconsciously inclined to tyrannize their female offspring and then we can argue about that!

Yes, I’m afraid this is actually the kind of internal monologue that comes with arguing about politics for a living.

But let me make a more limited, more personal argument on the subject. The next round of research may “prove” something completely different about daughters and voting behavior. But as a father of girls and a parent whose adult social set still overlaps with the unmarried, I do have a sense of where a daughter-inspired conservatism might come from, whatever political form it takes.

It comes from thinking about their future happiness, and about a young man named Nathaniel P.

This character, Nate to his friends, doesn’t technically exist: He’s the protagonist in Adelle Waldman’s recent novel of young-Brooklynite manners, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”
But his type does exist, in multitudinous forms, wherever successful young people congregate, socialize, pair off. He’s not the worst sort of guy by any means — not a toxic bachelor or an obnoxious pick-up artist. He’s well intentioned, sensitive, mildly idealistic. Yet he’s also a source of immense misery — both short-term and potentially lifelong — for the young women in his circle.

“Contrary to what these women seemed to think,” Waldman writes of Nathaniel P.’s flings and semi-steady girlfriends, “he was not indifferent to their unhappiness. And yet he seemed, in spite of himself, to provoke it.”

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

Waldman’s portrait of Nate’s romantic life is sympathetic enough to have earned her fan mail from young men. But it’s precisely because Nate is sympathetic rather than toxic that the “Nathaniel P.” phenomenon — or what Rebecca Traister has dubbed “the scourge of indecisive men” — is a hard problem to escape. Indeed, it seems like one of the hidden taproots of well-educated women’s work-life-balance angst, and one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity.

And lurking in Waldman’s novel, as in many portraits of the dating scene (ahem, Lena Dunham, ahem), is a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name — or that can be spoken of only in half-jest, as when the novelist Benjamin Kunkel told Traister that the solution was “some sort of a sexual strike against just such men.”

Because Kunkel is right: One obvious solution to the Nathaniel P. problem is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them.

To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight that’s more immediately available through daughters than through sons.

And no matter what the next study says about your likelihood of actually turning into a Republican, once you’ve flirted with that insight, you’ve tiptoed a little closer to something that might be described as social conservatism.

Even if you live in Brooklyn.

Seven Articles Worth Reading

Happy 100th birthday to the crossword puzzle!

Support for gun control helped a candidate win in Virginia

The Gun Report: December 10, 2013

The Berkeley Model

Men With Pelvic Pain Find a Path to Treatment Blocked by a Gynecology Board

Broader Approach Urged to Reduce Gun Violence

Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Laws on Gun Control


Saturday, December 14, 2013

If You Want the Best for Your Kids, Stay Married!

This is what I like about information: you find out that what looks like a story about higher education turns out to be a story about marriage, divorce, and the effects on the children.  So, read this and see that getting a good job is only one reason to go to college.  The red italics are mine, not the author's.  And, it must be said, Mona Charen's article appeared in which appears to me to be a bit on the "conservative" side. 

President Barack Obama spoke about income inequality in a recent address but failed to mention one of the most significant contributors to rising inequality in America: the marriage gap. Jobs are changing, international competition has driven down wages, top executives are pulling down enormous salaries, but it is cultural patterns -- specifically personal decisions about cohabitation and marriage -- that are most responsible for deepening the divide between haves and have-nots in America. The contrast between the highly educated and the rest of the nation has become so pronounced that some are now calling marriage a "luxury good." If it becomes that -- if the collapse of marriage as a norm continues among the poor and the broad middle class -- much more than income inequality will result. We will institutionalize a productivity deficit, a healthy community deficit, a schooling deficit and a happiness deficit.

Marriage is decaying very fast. As recently as the 1980s, only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers (those with a high school diploma and perhaps some college) were born outside of marriage, according to research from the National Marriage Project. Today, it is 44 percent. Even more disturbing are the recent data showing that 53 percent of babies born to women under age 30 are nonmarital. Children of moderately educated parents are beginning to experience family dissolution, instability and pathology at rates more closely resembling the poor than the upper-middle class.

If you graduate from college, you are likely to choose a family life similar, if not quite identical, to the 1950s ideal. If you are a high school dropout, you are unlikely to marry at all. If you have a high school diploma or some college, your family life in many cases is going to be chaotic, featuring cohabitation, short marriages and high rates of instability. W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project reports that "cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence." Unlike trust funds, marriage is available to everyone and confers the same benefits on the rich and poor. There is no substitute for two married parents who care for each other in sickness, spell each other in child and elder care, watch the kids while a spouse takes night classes and contribute to thriving communities. In-laws give loans, jobs and other support they are unlikely to extend to live-in "significant others. In "Coming Apart," Charles Murray pleaded with the educated upper-middle and upper classes to "preach what you practice." But, so far at least, very few are willing to. Carolyn Hax, for example, a usually sensible advice columnist, responded to a young lady wondering whether to move in with her boyfriend by sneering, "Your mother sounds like a stealth subscriber to the why-buy-the-cow mentality, which is nothing but a bad deal for women . . . Yuck."

Actually, cohabitation is a very bad deal for all concerned -- especially women and children. The children of cohabiting couples do worse than those living with a single mother if the boyfriend is not the biological father of the children. The breakup rate among unmarried cohabiting couples is much higher than among married couples, with all that entails for disruption, poverty and pathology.
Fear of divorce is part of the reason many young couples move in together. (The divorce rate is actually lower than people imagine -- only about 30 percent of first marriages end in divorce.)

In a 2001 survey, two-thirds of respondents approved of living together before marriage. Even then, data suggested that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to divorce than those who went straight to the altar, but it wasn't clear if this was a result of selection bias (i.e., those more committed to marriage as an institution would be less likely to live together first). Newer research is showing that both men and women have lower standards for a live-in than for a spouse. The data also show, as Wilcox notes, that "children living with their own biological cohabiting parents tend to do almost as poorly as children living in a cohabiting stepfamily, as well as children living in a single-parent family. And the association between both types of cohabitation and negative child outcomes persists even after controlling for a range of socioeconomic factors."

Men cohabit with less expectation of permanence than women do. Many couples not destined for marriage waste good years in impermanent arrangements, often becoming parents. And, by the way, women do far more housework than men in cohabiting relationships.

Without the basics of security and permanence in their personal lives, people find it much more difficult to rise out of poverty or maintain middle class lifestyles. They are also far less happy. If you care about the poor and the middle class, you ought to worry about marriage.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Should Health Insurance Cover Contraception?

Ever since I worked at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, I have been interested in "the law."  It is endlessly fascinating how, as Linda Greenhouse shows in the following op-ed piece, the law seems to be about one thing, but is actually about something else entirely.  So often, though, this fact gets lost in the media.  For example, in their book, Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner showed how Roe v Wade lowered the crime rate 20 years later.  Read that book, it will amaze you.  In Greenhouse's article, the red italics are mine, not hers.


Doesn’t Eat, Doesn’t Pray and Doesn’t Love

Published: November 27, 2013 in the NY Times 

The question of whether for-profit companies can claim a religious identity, one that exempts them from obeying a generally applicable law, is fully worthy of the attention the Supreme Court is about to give it. But to the extent that much of the commentary about the challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception-coverage insurance mandate frames the issue as a debate about the rights of corporations – as a next step beyond Citizens United’s expansion of corporate free speech – I think it misses the point. What really makes these cases so rich, and the reason the court’s intervention will dramatically raise the temperature of the current term, lies elsewhere.

The religious-based challenges that have flooded the federal courts from coast to coast – more than 70 of them, of which the Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to hear two – aren’t about the day-in, day-out stuff of jurisprudence under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause: Sabbath observance, employment rights, tax exemptions. They are about sex.

As such, the cases open a new front in an old war. I don’t mean the overblown “war on religion” that some Catholic leaders have accused the Obama administration of waging. Nor do I mean the “war on women” that was such an effective charge last year against a bevy of egregiously foot-in-mouth Republican politicians.

I mean that this is the culture war redux – a war not on religion or on women but on modernity.

All culture wars are that, of course: the old culture in a goal-line stance against a new way of organizing society, a new culture struggling to be born. Usually, that’s pretty obvious. This time, somehow, it seems less so, maybe because the battle is being fought in the complex language of law, namely a 20-year-old law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This tendentiously named statute, aimed at overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision that cast a skeptical eye on claims to religious exemptions from ordinary laws, provides that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden serves a “compelling” government interest and is the “least restrictive means” of doing so.

What’s a substantial burden? What governmental interest is sufficiently compelling? And with particular respect to the two new Supreme Court cases, is a for-profit corporation a “person” that can engage in religious exercise? The lower courts are divided, making it all but inevitable that the Supreme Court would step in. (One of the cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., raises only the statutory questions. The other, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, presents the First Amendment issue as well; the company’s Mennonite owners, who employ nearly 1,000 people in their cabinet-making business, argued unsuccessfully in the lower court that the contraceptive coverage mandate violates both their own and their corporation’s right to the free exercise of religion.)

It’s of course a total coincidence that the Supreme Court granted these cases on the same day that The Times published a special section on the changing American family.

But Natalie Angier’s fascinating statistical and narrative portraits of the contemporary American household – declining birth rates; even more sharply declining marriage rates; 41 percent of babies born to unmarried parents, a fourfold increase since 1970 – offer some context for the sense of dislocation and alienation that, as much as anything else, seems to be driving the resistance to making contraception coverage, without a co-pay, a required part of employer-provided health insurance.

The religiously committed owners of the companies whose cases the court will decide – Hobby Lobby employs 13,000 people in its 500-store chain – say they object not to all birth control but only to the methods they believe act after fertilization to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and continuing to develop. This belief is incorrect, as a brief filed by a coalition of leading medical authorities demonstrates; although there was once some confusion on this point, the disputed hormonal methods are now understood to prevent fertilization from occurring in the first place. European medical authorities recently reached the same conclusion and have changed the label on an emergency contraception pill to say it “cannot stop a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.”

There is something deeper going on in these cases than a dispute over the line that separates a contraceptive from an “abortifacient.” What drives the anger about this regulation is that, as the opponents see it, the government is putting its thumb on the scale in favor of birth control, of sex without consequences. In a revealing article published earlier this year in the Villanova Law Review, Helen Alvaré, a law professor and longtime adviser to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes the contraception mandate as the culmination of what she calls the “contraceptive project.”

Professor Alvaré writes: “The churches opposing the mandate hold, and teach women and men to maintain, an understanding of the sacredness of sexual intercourse, and its intrinsic connection with the procreating of new, vulnerable human life.” The government policy of covering contraception, she says, would have the effect in law of characterizing these teachings “as violations of women’s freedom and equality.”

As Professor Alvaré surely knows, nearly all Catholic women use birth control at some time during their reproductive lives and they have abortions at the same rate as other American women. And her article acknowledges a recent and widely reported study that found that the abortion rate dropped by as much as two-thirds among women in St. Louis, most of them poor, who volunteered for a two-year project in which they received free birth control; the women were able to choose the highly reliable long-lasting contraceptives that are priced out of reach for many women who will now be able to receive them under the Affordable Care Act.

To the extent that the “contraceptive project” changes anything on the American reproductive landscape, it will be to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The objection, then, has to be not to the mandate’s actual impact but to its expressive nature, its implicit endorsement of a value system that says it’s perfectly O.K. to have sex without the goal of making a baby. While most Americans surely share this view, given the personal choices they make in their own lives, many nonetheless find it uncomfortable to acknowledge.

From the Obama administration’s point of view, of course, the contraception mandate is about health care. The policy was based on a report by the Institute of Medicine that listed contraception as one of the “preventive services,” along with immunizations and cholesterol and diabetes screening, among dozens of other services, that a comprehensive health insurance policy should provide.

The administration has framed this aspect of the Affordable Care Act as the implementation of evidence-based medicine, which of course it is and should be. But there’s a missing piece. One of the failures of the Affordable Care Act saga, it seems to me, has been the president’s unwillingness or inability to present universal health care as a moral issue, a moral right in a civilized society. Thus the administration meets the moral claims of its opponents in technocratic mode, one hand tied behind its back.

There’s a powerful argument to be made, both in policy and law, that an employer of any faith or no faith who chooses to enter the secular marketplace can’t pick and choose which rules to follow. As some of the federal judges who have rejected the religious claims in these cases have pointed out, no employer would have the right to tell employees that they can’t use their wages to obtain contraceptives, abortions or any other legal product or service. By paying employees as the law requires, neither a corporation nor its owner is endorsing the employees’ choice of what to spend their money on – no more than a local government endorses a parent’s choice to use a taxpayer-funded voucher for religious-school tuition. The Supreme Court for decades has embraced the notion that an intervening private choice of this sort, even when a government program is clearly designed to channel public money to religious institutions, avoids what would otherwise be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

So now, once again, the court will have the last word. A ruling against the contraception mandate won’t kill the Affordable Care Act – much as some justices might fervently desire that result. If the court grants the exemption the companies seek, its decision will most likely come packaged as an exercise in statutory interpretation. Only the old culture warrior, Antonin Scalia, can be counted on to acknowledge the deeper issues in play. But those issues will be there nonetheless, and that’s what makes these cases so compelling.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do I Need a Gun?

Do I need a gun?  Do you?  I don't live in a dangerous neighborhood, but I do have two little children that are in my home about 9 hours a day.  I don't hunt.  I don't enjoy target shooting as a hobby.  I am not afraid that the government is going to come take all our guns (if we have them) and round us all up and put us in camps.  And I have seen "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."  I know what 2 against 300 looks like - and it's not pretty.  I don't need a gun. 

I don't think Adam Lanza's mother needed those guns she had in her house.  If she was an avid target shooter, she could have stored the guns outside her home.  If she had not had those guns, she might still be alive and perhaps all those who died in Newtown a year ago might still be with us.  And Adam might have been able to get the help he most desperately needed.

Who Needs a Gun?
writing for The Stone
Published by the NY Times, Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

In September, Navy Yard; in November, a racially fraught shooting in Michigan and a proposed “stand-your-ground law” in Ohio; now the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre — there’s no avoiding the brutal reality of guns in America. Once again, we feel the need to say something, but we know the old arguments will get us nowhere. What’s the point of another impassioned plea or a new subtlety of constitutional law or further complex analyses of statistical data?

Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good.
Our discussions typically start from the right to own a gun, go on to ask how, if at all, that right should be limited, and wind up with intractable disputes about the balance between the right and the harm that can come from exercising it. I suggest that we could make more progress if each of us asked a more direct and personal question: Should I own a gun?

A gun is a tool, and we choose tools based on their function. The primary function of a gun is to kill or injure people or animals. In the case of people, the only reason I might have to shoot them — or threaten to do so — is that they are immediately threatening serious harm. So a first question about owning a gun is whether I’m likely to be in a position to need one to protect human life. A closely related question is whether, if I were in such a position, the gun would be available and I would be able to use it effectively.

Unless you live in (or frequent) dangerous neighborhoods or have family or friends likely to threaten you, it’s very unlikely that you’ll need a gun for self-defense. Further, counterbalancing any such need is the fact that guns are dangerous. If I have one loaded and readily accessible in an emergency (and what good is it if I don’t?), then there’s a non-negligible chance that it will lead to great harm. A gun at hand can easily push a family quarrel, a wave of depression or a child’s curiosity in a fatal direction.

Even when a gun makes sense in principle as a means of self-defense, it may do more harm than good if I’m not trained to use it well. I may panic and shoot a family member coming home late, fumble around and allow an unarmed burglar to take my gun, have a cleaning or loading accident. The N.R.A. rightly sets high standards for gun safety. If those unable or unwilling to meet these standards gave up their guns, there might well be a lot fewer gun owners.

Guns do have uses other than defense against attackers. There may, for example, still be a few people who actually need to hunt to feed their families. But most hunting now is recreational and does not require keeping weapons at home. Hunters and their families would be much safer if the guns and ammunition were securely stored away from their homes and available only to those with licenses during the appropriate season. Target shooting, likewise, does not require keeping guns at home.

More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.

Finally, there’s the idea that citizens need guns so they can, if need be, oppose the force of a repressive government. Those who think there are current (or likely future) government actions in this country that would require armed resistance are living a paranoid fantasy. The idea that armed American citizens could stand up to our military is beyond fantasy.

Once we balance the potential harms and goods, most of us — including many current gun owners — don’t have a good reason to keep guns in their homes. This conclusion follows quite apart from whether we have a right to own guns or what restrictions should be put on this right. Also, the conclusion derives from what makes sense for each of us as individuals and so doesn’t require support from contested interpretations of statistical data.

I entirely realize that this line of thought will not convince the most impassioned gun supporters, who see owning guns as fundamental to their way of life. But about 70 million Americans own guns and only about four million belong to the N.R.A., which must include a large number of the most impassioned. So there’s reason to think that many gun owners would be open to reconsidering the dangers their weapons pose. Also, almost 30 percent of gun owners don’t think that guns make a household safer, and only 48 percent cite protection (rather than hunting, target shooting, etc.) as their main reason for having a gun.

It’s one thing to be horrified at gun violence. It’s something else to see it as a meaningful threat to your own existence. Our periodic shock at mass shootings and gang wars has little effect on our gun culture because most people don’t see guns as a particular threat to them. This is why opposition to gun violence has lacked the intense personal commitment of those who see guns as essential to their safety — or even their self-identity.

I’m not suggesting that opponents of gun violence abandon political action. We need to make it harder to buy guns (through background checks, waiting periods, etc.) both for those with criminal intentions and for law-abiding citizens who have no real need. But on the most basic level, much of our deadly violence occurs because we so often have guns readily available. Their mere presence makes suicide, domestic violence and accidents more likely. The fewer people with guns at hand, the less gun violence.

It’s easier to get people to see that they don’t want something than that they don’t have a right to it. Focusing on the need rather than the right to own a gun, many may well conclude that for them a gun is more a danger than a protection. Those fewer guns will make for a safer country.

We Need A Different Kind of Affirmative Action - One to Get Girls and Minorities into Math and Engineering

When I was in second grade, my teacher told my mother that I would never be any good at math.  She said I could eventually get it, but that it took me longer than the other children.  And I believed her.  Because I thought I couldn't do math, I also assumed I couldn't do science.  I avoided all those courses in high school and my first year of college.  Years and years later, I found myself in Arizona and living near a community college.  I decided to earn at least an Associate's degree, but in order to do it, I would have to take a science class.  I signed up for a summer class in Biology.  What do you think happened? I loved it!  I couldn't wait to go to class every day.  If only, if only, that second grade teacher had not set a course for me in the humanities, I could easily imagine that I might have had a successful career in science, maybe even an advanced degree.  What I learned from my experience is that anyone can master math and science if they believe they can, and if they have inspiring teachers.  That means women and minorities, too.

Editorial from the NY Times, December 10, 2013

A big reason America is falling behind other countries in science and math is that we have effectively written off a huge chunk of our population as uninterested in those fields or incapable of succeeding in them.

Women make up nearly half the work force but have just 26 percent of science, technology, engineering or math jobs, according to the Census Bureau. Blacks make up 11 percent of the workforce but just 6 percent of such jobs and Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the work force but hold 7 percent of those positions. There is no question that women and minorities have made progress in science and math in the last several decades, but their gains have been slow and halting. And in the fast-growing field of computer science, women’s representation has actually declined in the last 20 years, while minorities have made relatively small gains.

These jobs come with above-average pay and offer workers a wide choice of professions. Opening them to women and minorities would help reduce corrosive income inequality between whites and other groups, and would narrow the gender gap in wages. Improving the representation of women and minorities would also enrich American scientific research and development, because they will add a different perspective to workplaces currently dominated by white and Asian men.
Moreover, the people who do well in these professions will be much more likely to lead the industry in the future and make decisions that affect thousands of workers and customers. Many technology companies, including Twitter until recently, have no women on their board of directors, and few blacks and Hispanics in senior management roles, in part because too few girls and minorities are becoming programmers and engineers.

The biggest career disadvantage faced by many lower-income blacks and Hispanics is their limited access to a good education. Compared with upper-income Americans, a greater percentage are raised by parents who have not gone to college or graduated from high school, and more grow up with single parents who do not have the time or resources to enrich their children’s education. Moreover, a smaller percentage of minority children attend enriching prekindergarten programs, which studies have shown aids the development of cognitive and analytical skills that are needed to do well in science and math. A recent study showed that nearly half of Hispanic 4-year-olds are not enrolled in any preschool classes. While more than 60 percent of black 4-year-olds are enrolled, most of them are in programs of low or mediocre quality.

Schools that serve minority and lower-income neighborhoods tend to employ teachers with fewer years of experience and less specialized training in math and science than schools in white and upper-income neighborhoods, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation report. By contrast, developed nations like Germany, South Korea and Belgium tend to devote more resources like teachers to schools that serve their most disadvantaged students than on schools that serve advantaged children, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Entrenched stereotypes about who does well in science and math also work against minorities in classrooms. Too many teachers give up easily on them simply because they are not expected to do as well as white students. Despite those challenges, many minorities still enroll in science and math programs in college but fewer of them earn a degree in those programs in five years — 22.1 percent for Hispanics and 18.4 percent for blacks — than whites (33 percent) and Asians (42 percent), according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. Many of those who leave are simply ill-prepared for the rigors of college-level math and science. Others feel socially unwelcome because they make up a tiny minority in largely white and Asian science and engineering departments. They also have far fewer role models to look up to.

Unlike minority children, girls as a whole do about as well as or better than boys asmeasured by their high school grade point averages in science and math. And in the last several decades, women have made great gains in fields like biology, chemistry, psychology and sociology; they now earn a majority of undergraduate degrees and a growing proportion of advanced degrees in life sciences.

But women have made far fewer gains in physical sciences and more math-intensive fields. When making choices about their majors and careers, many young women rule out engineering and computer science partly because they are uninterested, feel ill-prepared for them or because society identifies these domains as male. Women who do earn degrees in these fields leave those professions at much higher rates than men. And the women who graduate with degrees in engineering and computer science are less likely to be employed than men.

In many cases, women seem to have internalized society’s belief that they are incapable of mastering these fields as well as men. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford, and other psychologists have found that female students who are made to believe that math ability is innate have lower scores and are less likely to study math than girls who believe that math skills can be acquired through hard work. Another study showed that female college students got more questions right on math tests when they were told beforehand that “college students are good at math” than when they were told “women are bad at math,” which suggests stereotypes undermine women’s performance.

These gaps could be reduced if every child had access to free public preschools. Earlier this year, President Obama proposed making high-quality preschools available to 4-year-old children of families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, at a 10-year cost of $75 billion. Studies have shown that every $1 invested in preschools saves society $7 in the future through lower spending on remedial education, higher productivity and less crime.

The country should also make sure that the schools that primarily serve minorities have the resources and support they need to hire qualified teachers so their students are not at a disadvantage relative to children in more affluent areas. States will need to take the lead to make this happen, but the federal government can also assist through grants and other support.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, which operates 141 public charter schools around the country, has effectively used smaller class sizes, longer school days and summer school to help lagging minority students improve test scores in math, reading and science. Teachers at KIPP schools maintain high expectations of all students, working intensively one-on-one with children until they comprehend every important concept. Though the program has been criticized for its dropout rates and admissions policies, one recent independentstudy of KIPP’s approach showed that middle school students who spent three years in its schools had math scores that on average put them 11 months ahead of where they would have been had they not joined the school; they were 14 months ahead in science achievement.

Teachers also need to make science and math education much more practical and hands-on. Girls have shown much more engagement in subjects when they learn the connection between what they are studying and real-world problems. That may partly explain why so many talented girls prefer to go into life sciences, where that link has generally been more apparent.

Groups like the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering have been showingminorities and girls that they can imagine themselves as scientists or engineers, providing role models to speak to middle school students and helping high schools set up engineering academies. A five-year program funded by the National Science Foundation at Bowie State University, a historically black university in Maryland, provides training and mentorship to high school science and math teachers and a summer science academy to 10th graders.

For both women and minorities, academic and social support is critical. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has programs for minorities and women that provide students with scholarships, mentorship, internships and involvement in cutting-edge research. Students enrolled in its programs are much more likely to graduate than other comparable students.

More than half of the American population will be made up of minorities in 2043. And the number of women who are the primary or sole earner in their families is growing. Those trends make it imperative that one of the most dynamic sectors of our economy no longer remain a male and largely white and Asian domain.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Who Says Math is Boring?

I was, apparently, the parent of a rather unusual daughter.  When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she replied in all seriousness: "I want to sit in a room and do math problems all day long." This is a true story.  She went on to major in biochemistry and was awarded a Ph.D. from Rutgers University.  This story is not for parents of girls like mine.  But it is an issue that all parents need to be talking to their school principal about.  We can't afford to have Americans serving Starbucks to the Chinese and Indian engineers, computer programmers, and physicists.

American students are bored by math, science and engineering. They buy smartphones and tablets by the millions but don’t pursue the skills necessary to build them. Engineers and physicists are often portrayed as clueless geeks on television, and despite the high pay and the importance of such jobs to the country’s future, the vast majority of high school graduates don’t want to go after them.  This link is for the video on the NY Times web site.

Math Doesn't Have to Be Boring

Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they’re not interested in a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math, known collectively as STEM, according to a survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test. The number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the need for those workers is soaring. (Within five years, there will be 2.4 million STEM job openings.)

One of the biggest reasons for that lack of interest is that students have been turned off to the subjects as they move from kindergarten to high school. Many are being taught by teachers who have no particular expertise in the subjects. They are following outdated curriculums and textbooks. They become convinced they’re “no good at math,” that math and science are only for nerds, and fall behind.

That’s because the American system of teaching these subjects is broken. For all the reform campaigns over the years, most schools continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals only to the most fervent students. The mathematical sequence has changed little since the Sputnik era: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and, for only 17 percent of students, calculus. Science is generally limited to the familiar trinity of biology, chemistry, physics and, occasionally, earth science.

These pathways, as one report from the National Academy of Education put it, assume that high school students will continue to study science and math in college. But fewer than 13 percent do, usually the most well-prepared and persistent students, who often come from families where encouragement and enrichment are fundamental. The system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem solving rather than traditional drills.
Only 11 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields require high-level math, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. But the rest still require skills in critical thinking that most high school students aren’t getting in the long march to calculus.

Finding ways to make math and science exciting for students who are in the middle of the pack could have a profound effect on their futures, providing them with the skills that will help them get technical jobs in the fields of food science, computer networking or medicine. It would entice many students who are insecure in their own abilities into advanced careers. But it is going to require a fundamentally different approach to teaching these subjects from childhood through high school. Here are a few of the many possible ideas to begin that change.

A More Flexible Curriculum

American students need vastly improved skills in math and science — they ranked 30th among students in 65 nations in math — but they do not all have to be trained to be mathematicians or scientists. While all students need a strong grasp of the fundamentals of critical thinking and problem solving, including algebra and geometry, they should be offered a greater choice between applied skills and the more typical abstract courses.

This is not an endorsement of tracking, the old practice of shunting some students into vocational classes while others are prepped for college. Every graduate should be ready for college (whether for a two- or four-year degree) but should also be exposed to the variety of skills that will be demanded as the country continues its shift to a post-industrial economy. As a study by the Georgetown center notes, very few high schools offer career or technical education; any deviation from a classical math education is viewed with suspicion.

Research has shown that the right mix of career and technical education can reduce dropout rates, and the courses offered don’t have to be from the old “industrial arts” ghettos. They should be taught at a challenging level and make students aware of careers that are now being ignored. Take engineering, for example, a field that pays well and needs ever more workers. Most high school students say they have no interest in the subject. That’s largely because few of them ever encounter it: Only 3 percent of graduateshave taken an engineering course. Only 19 percent of students have taken a computer science course, mostly at the advanced placement level.

The Common Core math standards now being adopted by most states are an important effort to raise learning standards, particularly in primary and middle school, when many students begin to fall behind. They encourage the use of technology and applied thinking, moving students away from rote memorization. At the high school level, they would introduce all students to useful concepts like real-world modeling. But the standards also assume that all high school students should pursue a high-level math track, studying quadratic equations, transformational geometry and logarithms. The standards need more flexibility to ensure that they do not stand in the way of nontraditional but effective ways to learn, including career-oriented study.

Very Early Exposure to Numbers

Only 18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size of the room and the per-yard price of the carpet, according to a federal survey. One in five American adults lack the basic math skills expected of eighth graders, making them unfit for many newly created jobs. In many cases, that’s because they weren’t exposed to numbers at an early age.

A new study, by researchers at the University of Missouri, showed that the most important factor that predicted math success in middle school and upward was an understanding of what numbers are before entering the first grade. Having “number system knowledge” in kindergarten or earlier — grasping that a numeral represents a quantity, and understanding the relationships among numbers — was a more important factor in math success by seventh grade than intelligence, race or income.

Children of all backgrounds can build a good foundation in math with early exposure to numbers, which should be required in all preschool classes. But less than half of 4-year-olds are enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and only 70 percent of kindergartners go all day. Although preschool enrollment has increased in recent years, it is still not a high priority in many states and cities, as shown by the cold reception to expansion proposals by President Obama and Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio of New York.

Better Teacher Preparation

The most effective teachers have broad knowledge of their subjects. Too many lack that preparation. More than half of the 6.7 million students studying physical sciences — chemistry, physics and earth science — are learning from teachers who did not major in those subjects. Only 64 percent of those teachers are certified. The number is better for math teachers, as 78 percent are certified, but that still leaves three million math students being taught by uncertified teachers. The problem is significantly worse in low-income communities and in middle schools.

Some districts give additional instruction to science and math teachers, or team new teachers with more experienced colleagues. But the most important effort is the national campaign to add 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021. The Carnegie Corporation has led a coalition of businesses, universities and other institutions to make it happen at the ground level. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, has pledged to prepare 130 certified science teachers by 2015. The University of Chicago will train 500 new teachers for Chicago’s public schools over five years. The campaign now has commitments for more than 37,000 new teachers, but it still has far to go.

Experience in the Real World

A growing number of schools are helping students embrace STEM courses by linking them to potential employers and careers, taking math and science out of textbooks and into their lives. The high school in Brooklyn known as P-Tech, which President Obama recently visited, is a collaboration of the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with IBM. It prepares students for jobs like manufacturing technician and software specialist. Students work with IBM mentors and are encouraged to earn both a diploma and an associate degree after a combined six years in high school and college.Ten more such schools are planned around the state, and last month President Obama announced a promising new grant program to encourage dozens more high schools to offer job-oriented STEM education.

In Seattle, Raisbeck Aviation High School is working with Boeing and other aerospace firms to mentor students in engineering and robotics. Many schools are teaming with software companies to teach programming, including two schools that are very popular in New York City. Though many of these efforts remain untested, they center around a practical and achievable goal: getting students excited about science and mathematics, the first step to improving their performance and helping them discover a career.