Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Answering a comment

In reference to an offhand comment in my Economy post, Coralius said:

I curious as to what you think the core problems in education are.
That's a question good enough to warrant a sizable response, so here goes (and I'm sure I'll cover more of this when the "Education" segment of the Agenda comes up).

In the educational system itself? The biggest would be teacher training and retention, systemic focus on testing over thinking, and basic classroom budgets. The first is an issue for maintaining school quality. Many systems require ongoing training and learning, but don't have a good measure of effectiveness, nor is the training necessarily related to subject matter (the training is often more about method than content). Add to that problems in pay, benefits, and general job satisfaction, and you've got a high turnover, even among the best. Secondly, the focus on testing has driven me crazy for years. Standardized testing isn't a good model for learning or thought, particularly with how districts try to manipulate scores. Poor scores also tend to result in punitive measures, like funding cuts. That makes sense, right? It's a carrot-and-stick system where the carrot is made out of plastic, and the stick has a nail in it. Finally, classrooms have nowhere near the funding they need for basic supplies. Going to my kid's "technology night", I was impressed by the Smartboards they had for use in several classrooms. I'm less impressed that I was asked to donate glue sticks and other basic supplies, both now and at the beginning of the year. The balance is wrong there, as you are well aware.

However, even if these issues are fixed, they weren't the problems I was talking about in the main post. Socioeconomic status is a far better predictor of scholastic success than the quality of the school or teacher. The biggest problem in education is poverty. As I argued elsewhere recently, social safety nets do more than provide basic needs. When a person doesn't have to worry about whether there is food at home, or a place to sleep, or if they can afford the doctor, they have more time, energy, and inclination to devote to improving themselves. It's they hierarchy of needs; other considerations only come in when survival needs are covered. A strong social safety net not only keeps the least fortunate from falling off the map in society; it also gives them the opportunity to make sure they don't remain the least fortunate. Work on poverty, and educational success will begin to follow. That was the point I was trying to make, above. A new computer lab is great; retrofitting outdated school buildings is necessary. Neither of those will address the fundamental point that a poor student is less likely to graduate with an adequate skill set, if at all. And that's part of what we need to work on.

A friend just today pointed out that things that lots of us take for granted about how to survive in a society are actually learned skills. Things like "not selling the refrigerator to go to the movies", or even just changing speech patterns in a formal setting like a job interview. The same person who pointed this out referenced this paper as an example. Without passing judgment on the whole paper, I have some experience with the ideas therein, and can say that they are somewhat accurate Looking at the differences on how classes perceive similar, basic, situations and the habits for dealing with those situations is as key as any type of social help and education.

Like I said, too much to leave languishing in the comments. I hope that at least partially answers the question.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Agenda: Economy

Continuing my series on The Agenda posted on whitehouse.gov, we come to Economy.

This section, frankly, is lacking. We get a couple of bullet points, followed by a copy of a speech from January 8th, 2009. Given the issues facing the nation, I expected more. Of course, specific economic policy is hard to define until you understand how much cooperation you will receive from the opposition, as well as how effective your own staff will be. I'll hit some points on the speech, but I'm not going to quote and tear apart the whole thing.

On to the bullet points:

  • Doubling the production of alternative energy in the next three years.
This is a good move, if vague. Alternative-energy infrastructure is lacking, and really needs government support to get off the ground. Doubling the practically nonexistent, even in this time frame, won't be hard. At the moment, alternative energy is not a profitable part of the private sector. It doesn't yet have the economies of scale that other energy generation technologies currently enjoy. It's going to take long-term subsidy to get a foothold. Most European nations figured this out some time ago, and legislated multi-decade tax breaks and subsidies to establish an alternative-energy economy. Part of where the US has gone wrong is that the government has ben offering subsidies -- for a couple of years. You can't build a whole new infrastructure-dependent sector in less than a decade or two, and we have to start thinking long term.

  • Modernizing more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.
Construction jobs + energy savings = good, but why is this under economy?

  • Making the immediate investments necessary to ensure that within five years, all of America’s medical records are computerized.
This is a good investment. Streamlining medicine will reduce errors and costs, putting more money in people's pockets. It's also a huge project, which will take a lot of people, time, and money. That's a lot of spending. I guess that also answers my question about the previous item.

  • Equipping tens of thousands of schools, community colleges, and public universities with 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries.
If you have to spend money, spending it on education is rarely bad; bringing schools up-to-date is a good thing. However, materials and facilities don't address the core problems that exist in education.

  • Expanding broadband across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.
This really brings up two points. First, this is really an infrastructure issue. Broadband access isn't really going to turn Bob's Spatula Hut into a world retail power. Laying the cable to help modernize systems across the board, now that's a great thing. What this also indicates is support for Net Neutrality (which I've seen elsewhere in various policy statements and certain appointments). That neutrality is of more benefit to commerce and competition than broadband itself. I still despise my House Representative for answering the lone letter I ever wrote him (concerning Net Neutrality) by essentially saying I didn't know what I was talking about. I know more about the 'Net and its infrastructure than that dinosaur ever will (I'm not sure if he's up to the "series of tubes" level of understanding, because Jeezus hasn't endorsed it).

  • Investing in the science, research, and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries, and entire new industries.
Basic research = money in the long run. It's an easy cut when it comes to budgets, because it can be hard to justify without direct applications or quick results. No funding is more important, however.

As for the speech, once you get past the first few layers of Inspiring Rhetoric™ you get some more salient statements:

To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America. Yes, we’ll put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges, and schools by eliminating the backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects. But we’ll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy. That means updating the way we get our electricity by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation. It means expanding broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world. And it means investing in the science, research, and technology that will lead to new medical breakthroughs, new discoveries, and entire new industries.

In other words, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure. Now, where could I have seen that before? And some of that text looks sort of familiar, as well.

Finally, this recovery and reinvestment plan will provide immediate relief to states, workers, and families who are bearing the brunt of this recession. To get people spending again, 95% of working families will receive a $1,000 tax cut – the first stage of a middle-class tax cut that I promised during the campaign and will include in our next budget. To help Americans who have lost their jobs and can’t find new ones, we’ll continue the bipartisan extensions of unemployment insurance and health care coverage to help them through this crisis. Government at every level will have to tighten its belt, but we’ll help struggling states avoid harmful budget cuts, as long as they take responsibility and use the money to maintain essential services like police, fire, education, and health care.
While I generally despise tax cuts as political tool, it really can't hurt anymore at this point. Alongside the benefit extensions, that can get a lot of money into the hands of both those who need it most, and those who are most likely to spend it. I don't expect to see real budget cuts for a while, though. What you're more likely to see is cuts in things like science spending and education; you know, the frivolous stuff.

To summarize the remainder, we're looking at a promise of greater transparency in spending (which they aren't doing badly on so far, Rush Limbaugh's inability to read a .PDF notwithstanding), a fight against earmarks in this process (less successful), and oversight of the banks (I'd give 'em a D-minus on their efforts to this point).

Overall, I like the plan. The execution doesn't look fast enough or really even broad enough for my tastes. People point out that it wasn't Roosevelt's policies and spending that ended the Great Depression, but rather World War two. What you have to take note of there is that he managed to halve unemployment and shore up the economy in just a couple of years; the problem is, when you start out at 25% employment, that miracle-working doesn't look all that impressive from a distance. Our hole isn't that deep yet, but if we can employ similar tactics to prevent it from getting as bad as the '30s, I'm all for it.


Other posts in this series can be found at the Agenda Index.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Agenda part 3: Disabilities

Here, we continue my ongoing series on the "Agenda" section of the new White House website.

This section was formatted a bit differently. We have a four-part plan, to start, follow by one of the familiar subheadings. That subheading also has four parts. I'll divy up this response into two sections of four parts each, then.

The plan:

First, provide Americans with disabilities with the educational opportunities they need to succeed by funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, supporting early intervention for children with disabilities and universal screening, improving college opportunities for high school graduates with disabilities, and making college more affordable. Obama and Biden will also authorize a comprehensive study of students with disabilities and issues relating to transition to work and higher education.

The IDEA act has existed for some time, and is occasionally updated, the last time being in 2004. I've seen both good and bad results of it's provisions, such as abuse of Individual Education Plans (by both schools and parents), but this point seems to be focused on the 40% of IDEA programs that the federal government is supposed to fund. They have yet to do so, and this plan seems to say that the commitment will be met. I'm all for that -- I despise unfunded mandates. They put an untenable burden on lower-level constituencies. As much as IDEA is an imperfect law, meeting the funding commitment may mitigate some of the issues.

Second, end discrimination and promote equal opportunity by restoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, increasing funding for enforcement, supporting the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, ensuring affordable, accessible health care for all and improving mental health care.

Decent goals here. I worry about some places when it comes to ADA enforcement, though. Reasonable accommodation is difficult when you're dealing with older structures, such as might be found at a college. My own alma mater was a beast -- my fraternity's charity occasionally put administartors and professors in a wheelchair and challenged them to move about campus. It wasn't easy, by any means, and given that the school was perched at the top of a mountain, it occasionally resulted in near-injurious comedy. Watching the school president roll a hundred yards downhill in one of our parking areas, out-of-control, was a priceless, if later sobering, vision. Aside from that, though, a point was made when the only way to access the cafeteria was through an elevator in the kitchen. I had to assist a grown man through a narrow space filled with hot food, stoves, people, and dishes, just so he could get a meal. It could not have been managed alone. Making it into half the dorms is no easier. From my last visit, which nearly a decade after the incident described, access is no better. The school is wide-open to ADA suits. The funds to modernize often just aren't there. However, on the side of discrimination in employment, housing, or other areas, I don't think there can be enough (reasonable) enforcement. One can always be overzealous, of course, but applying the law in an evenhanded and fair manner is simply a means for social justice.

Third, increase the employment rate of workers with disabilities by effectively implementing regulations that require the federal government and its contractors to employ people with disabilities, providing private-sector employers with resources to accommodate employees with disabilities, and encouraging those employers to use existing tax benefits to hire more workers with disabilities and supporting small businesses owned by people with disabilities.

I have few issues with this. The only concern I have would be an abuse of hiring regulations; if they are so worded that you are likely to see someone in a job which their disability would reasonably prevent them from performing, then things will have gone too far. If we stop short of that, it's a good move to help empower a class of people that are often left out in the cold through no fault of their own.

And fourth, support independent, community-based living for Americans with disabilities by enforcing the Community Choice Act, which would allow Americans with significant disabilities the choice of living in their community rather than having to live in a nursing home or other institution, creating a voluntary, budget-neutral national insurance program to help adults who have or develop functional disabilities to remain independent and in their communities, and streamline the Social Security approval process .

I've got no problems here. Home- and community-based care tend to have better outcomes, with more dignity that institutional care. As far as streamlining the SS process, any reduction in a bureaucracy that size is usually a big cost-saver, though changing byzantine systems without letting them collapse is a hell of a challenge. I wonder about that budget-neutrality, too. This looks like a first step toward nationalized or single-payer care on a general level. If they can manage a good program here, I think it would be a good showpiece.

Heading: Autism

Now, before we get into this one, I have a couple of points to make. First, it's likely the only reason that this is in here is because of the antivaccine militia. However, given the structure of the points below, I think it is a repudiation of the points raised by antivaxxers. Coupled with the failure of the test cases before the vaccine compensation program court, and the continued exposure of Andrew Wakefield (who help drive the initial manufactured controversy, apparently with falsified data),I hope that the public start getting some better reporting on the matter. Now, on to the agenda statements:

  • First, President Obama and Vice President Biden support increased funding for autism research, treatment, screenings, public awareness, and support services. There must be research of the treatments for, and the causes of, ASD.
  • Thumbs up, no problem here. This may be the only sop to the antivaxxers, actually, because they always cry for "more research". Of course, that's mainly because the research, when well-done, never shows what they want it to.

  • Second, President Obama and Vice President Biden support improving life-long services for people with ASD for treatments, interventions and services for both children and adults with ASD.

  • Frankly, I figure this would be covered by the items listed in the non-autism segment. Doesn't hurt to restate things, though.

  • Third, President Obama and Vice President Biden support funding the Combating Autism Act and working with Congress, parents and ASD experts to determine how to further improve federal and state programs for ASD.

  • Looking at this act, I think the best money spent is on improved screenings. Disorders on the spectrum are far easier to mitigate (note that I didn't say "cure"; there is no "cure") when caught early. Research on early markers is good, too. However, it looks like the bill originally contained provisions looking at "environmental" factors, like mercury and vaccines. In a move that gives me some hope for Congressional intelligence, someone with sense stripped them out prior to passage. The law looks good, and is money well spent, in my opinion.

  • Fourth, President Obama and Vice President Biden support universal screening of all infants and re-screening for all two-year-olds, the age at which some conditions, including ASD, begin to appear. These screenings will be safe and secure, and available for every American that wants them. Screening is essential so that disabilities can be identified early enough for those children and families to get the supports and services they need.

  • Thumbs up on this. Screening is probably already at a point that it needs to be moved even earlier, though.

    All in all, this is a short section on the agenda that mostly involves funding or enforcing laws already in place. I think most everything here will see an easy implementation, but nothing is going to be a high priority.


    Other posts in this series can be found at the Agenda Index.


    Work this week has been, um, "hellish" is a bit too strong, but you get where I'm coming from. First, my boss was out with the birth of his first kid (non-sarcastic yay!), so I got to cover part of his work. We had our pickiest customers in, dangling major new products in from of us, in exchange for flaming hoop-jumping. Added to that, the FDA showed up! For three days! Yay! It was unexpected on my end, but I have heard from other sources that parts of the company knew they were coming. I dunno. Given that my group is on point for audits, I would think an email would have bounced around. I think we manged to avoid major issues, but we shot ourselves in the foot a few times, documentation-wise. The audit could have been far worse, as they only sent one person. I was expecting one in the near-term, because we had some changes to some drug products that would require review, anyway. This week, though, was a bit of a shock. Now I just have to catch up on the work that piled up while I was running documents for the audit. Bleargh.