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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

shifting gears to education for a bit...

A debate that is coming up in my place of employment is best framed by the question: What is the point of high school?  The quick background is the administration did away with the rather popular foods program last year, and this year has been presented with a petition from the top 20% of students seeking to do away with the graduation requirement that all students take 10 credits (two classes) in a general education category, consisting of classes like music, art, business, and other courses that don't fit the traditional English, math, social studies, science, or language labels.  I don't intend to go into their rationale (which is about their GPAs and desire to take more AP courses), nor do I mean to go into the response of the administration (which can be seen as a classic Chamberlain approach...), but I do want to spend a moment thinking about the purpose of a high school education.

I am a strong believer in the liberal arts as a vital component of education.  I do not believe that it is a good thing for adolescents to specialize in a field of education while in public high school.  That being said, it should be easy to guess the drift of my post here.  As long as education is compulsory, it should be as broadly based as possible. This is for the micro level of the individual.  A broadly based, comprehensive education for high school students ensures that we have individuals who are exposed to many different subject areas. This is important because we can't know what passions will catch people's eye.  While adolescents are questing for meaning in life, they may find it in unlikely places.  By being exposed to lots of different disciplines, they may find the one that leads them to a future vocation or avocation that will provide them with satisfaction/fulfillment or even happiness.
But this is also true for the macro level. By exposing our youngest, newest citizens to all manner of academic disciplines, society benefits from having members who are able to understand each others' interests.  By having exposure to the different areas of study, students are able to draw connections between them and are thus able to communicate new ideas, formulate unique approaches to the new problems our society faces.  Building a common culture is important to do (thanks Nat!), and a broad based education can do that.

That being said, my school needs some reform, and the students are sort of onto something. I'd go in a radically different direction though, and I don't think they would like my proposal.  At the present time, there is a four year requirement only for English, and all the other subjects are at three years or fewer.  So the first proposal I would make is for all subjects to be a four year requirement. English, math, language, Social Studies, science and the Fine and Performing Arts.

The second proposal is that all subjects offer survey courses in the 9th and 10th grade years. Though I hate the phrase, they should be a mile wide and an inch deep; provide as broad an exposure as possible to as much of the content and skills of the discipline.  After that, each discipline would shift gears to offer semester long electives that deal with different aspects of the subject matter. This would give students some options/choice in topics they study, but would also allow for deeper study/experience with material that would allow them to build up some expertise in the material as well.
I'll talk about the content of the Social Studies curriculum in a later post, because I think that needs to be fleshed out and changed a great deal from what the state of Massachusetts currently requires, but I'll dip into two areas I know not much about first.

A) Language study must always be either with the goal of attaining fluency in the language, or with the goal of exposing the learners to as many different languages as possible to facilitate later study.  The present halfway attempts at teaching students Latin, French, Spanish and Italian in my school fall far short of anything students can use in the future. This isn't a knock on the teachers who teach these subjects, as much as it is a commentary on the slackness of the language requirements/guidelines enacted by the state. Two years isn't enough time to study a language if fluency or broad exposure is the goal. Additionally, language study needs to be broadened from the four languages mentioned above.   Latin and French need to be supplemented or be replaced (if enrollment is declining, which may or may not be the case, I'm not sure) by Arabic, Chinese and an African language like Swahili.  I'd love to discuss the idea of a linguistics course in 9th grade followed by a more specialized study that is more based in real life speaking and writing than in textbook repetition.

B) Math Three words: Creative Problem solving.  Stop labeling courses as being algebra or trig or that topic.  Teach bridge building, architecture, physics, structural design, algorithms, statistics, probability etc.  Make it relevant, make it practical, make it as real world as possible.  Throw away the textbooks, get out the building materials and let's get teenagers excited to build, create, innovate and tackle the mathematical problems our world faces.

Lastly, the AP program should die. Now that the College Board is certifying classes, it means that the curriculum I teach is not impacted by my control, local control, or even state control, but is being dictated by a private company whose interests are not my students but their profit margin. Oh, I'm sorry, they are a non-profit that charges students $8 to call them, $10 to electronically send their SAT scores, $80+ dollars to take an AP exam, sells SAT prep materials for $25, and and collects hundreds of dollars from teachers to be trained in how to teach their materials. Non profit my ass.  The point, though, is that what they offer can be done better, with more rigor by teachers, so we should not be held hostage to their program of studies.

Are they kidding?

Wow. Now we have reached a new low in legislative history. The senate wing of the republican party votes to extend a tax cut that aligned with their party's values, with the understanding that they will take up the issue again in two months.  They forced Obama, hereafter "jellyspine", to back off another "solidly held principle" about an oil pipeline that he wouldn't approve, and voided a provision that would have taxed the rich to pay for the payroll tax cut, an act that will continue to cause a problem with the later funding of Social Security...Nonetheless, the Senate, in a rare fit of bipartisanship, passes the bill then goes on vacation. (cause they were working so hard, right?)

Then it goes to the House where once again Agent Orange demonstrated that he too has no ability to say no to the junior members of his party, and he sends the bill into conference, knowing that the senate is gone on holiday!! All because he is not willing to actually toe the line with the newest members of Congress in his own party.  I'm actually longing for the days when the GOP fell into line unthinkingly...

And Agent Orange says jellyspine has to call the Democrats back into session, demonstrating his ignorance of the constitutional proceedures...but that isn't new...

So the GOP has to be wondering the same thing I am: who the hell is driving this train?And at what point do we the voters say we've had enough of this crap?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sorry Adam Smith...we figured out your loophole

The "invisible hand" of the market.  The corrective force that keeps the overall market in line.  The idea Adam Smith came up with is pretty simple: The purchasers of the goods and services available help to determine the cost of the items.  They make rational decisions to buy something based on the cost and quality of the good, coupled with their taste.  Goods that either cost too much, are not well made, or that fall out of the prevailing taste will disappear from the market, cheap crap won't flood the market, and in the end, supply will be kept in line with demand.

Of course, this is theoretical, but the theory was pretty sound.  But it was based on an assumption that is no longer true: people are rationally concerned about how they spend their limited money.

With the advent of the common use of credit cards and debit cards, people have become inured to the bad feelings that come from spending money.  Swipe the card and the item is bought.  No one is opening a wallet, counting money and feeling it physically depart.  With a credit card I can spend more than I actually have, secure in the knowledge that I can then pay it off a little at a time for an indefinite period.  And the more I do this, the higher my credit limit will rise and the more I can purchase. (Of course, the crash that comes later when I can no longer make those monthly payments is a problem...) So people no longer treat their money in the same way they used to when it felt like a more finite resource.

So there is no longer the presumption of rational spending. People disregard price, and may even disregard taste as they make decisions about how to spend their money, because the money is no longer as valuable to them as it once was. So price is removed from the invisible hand's arsenal.

Nor are the products as valuable; they can be easily returned.  Buy it and decide you don't like it? Return it and the money goes back on your card.  Broken?  Poorly made? Return it for a refund or even exchange it for a similar item.  And, if you can't do either of those, the credit card company will step in and help you out.  Since there is no longer a need for the average consumer to worry about the quality of the items, quality is no longer a part of the invisible hand.

And taste...ah, taste.  I shall not begin to rant about how homogeneous we have become as a society, but I will say that as this has happened, the idea that the market contains a variety of versions of the same item and this can influence people's purchasing decisions is no longer as true as perhaps it once was, and thus the invisible hand is less effective.

The end result of all of this?  Well, on the one hand the consumer is less potent a force in the marketplace, and can not influence the behaviors of corporations through spending decisions. A self-inflicted wound to be sure, but a problem for the marketplace none the less.  On the other hand, and in the larger picture, it means that we can't rely on the market to regulate itself.  Laissez faire policies can not and should not be followed, for there is no "natural" brake on the behaviors in the marketplace.  Which means we need tighter regulatory systems and a greater oversight on the behaviors of the actors in the marketplace, especially those in a position to manipulate swaths of the market.

I would argue that as part of the general Welfare, it is the responsibility of the government of the United States to act to protect consumers if the market is no longer able to regulate itself.  Dodd-Frank is only the beginning of the regulations that the SEC and other agencies need to begin to implement if the market is to maintain any sense of integrity and the consumers aren't going to get hosed.

And it wouldn't hurt if the consumers began to wean themselves from credit cards and make a swing back to using more cash to restore some integrity to the invisible hand of the market...