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.