Thursday, July 27, 2006

Recharging America: think globally, think kindly, think outside the schoolroom / Newsweek

Originally uploaded by phitar.

15 Ideas to Recharge America
How to keep pace in changing times.
June 12, 2006 issue - Can the United States remain competitive in the changing global environment? NEWSWEEK asked 15 leaders in the fields of science, technology, education and business to assess the challenges we face and to offer some solutions.

Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from Silicon Valley addressed the issue of how immigration policies help—and hurt—our competitiveness; educators from the East spoke of the need to beef up basic skills like math and science in our schools, and to re-create the scope of investment in university research that triggered the technology boom after World War II.

Should the Internet remain "free"? Has the erosion of core values—like the rewards of hard work and the postponement of short-term gratification in favor of long-term gains—weakened our future? Should we be frightened by the explosive growth of countries such as China and India, or see it as an opportunity to expand our own horizons?

Some voiced frustration at the federal government, while others pointed fingers at big business. But all agreed there is a lot of work to be done. Excerpts:


We Need to Fix Our Schools
The key to long-term success is to cut down government regulation.

We have declared three big crises in education over the last 60 years. One was after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. We thought that we might lose the cold war, and we blamed our public schools for not producing enough scientists. The second declared crisis was in 1983, with the publishing of "A Nation at Risk," when we were worried about losing the economic battle against Germany and Japan. And now in the last five years, with the rise of job outsourcing and globalization, education is again perceived as being in crisis. In other words, we project our current fear on the public-school system.

Sure, there are major problems in education. But they are not new. K-12 education is the last big government monopoly in America. School boards struggle with growing state and federal regulation. When a government monopoly is underperforming, politicians just add more state and federal rules, which only makes the monopoly less performance-focused.

The solution is to free our school districts, and to make it easier for educators to form more charter public schools to provide healthy competition and increased innovation. When we have monopolies, we need plentiful regulation. But if we embrace charter schools as competition, we can eliminate most of the government regulations that are strangling school districts today.


Spend More on Research
Half of our growth since World War II is thanks to technology.

The 21st-century economy is fueled by competition that is innovation-based rather than resource-based. Keeping our innovation system strong will be key to the United States' remaining competitive. To do that, we must invest in talent and research. First, that means investing in education—especially core science, math and engineering. Second, we must invest in university research. After World War II the U.S. government pioneered such investments in order to capture, in peacetime, the technological gains that had been made while the nation was at war. This led to astonishingly productive growth in research and industry. By the mid-1960s the United States was investing, in terms of federal dollars, about 2 percent of GDP in research. This year, it's about 0.8 percent. Today other countries are ramping up their investments in research. Robert Solow, an MIT faculty member and Nobel laureate in economics, did a study that estimated that 50 percent of this nation's economic growth since World War II can be attributed directly to technology. That's a big fraction. We shouldn't back off investments that fuel that kind of economic growth.


Change the Culture
It's time to emphasize creativity in technology and science.

We don't revere scientists and engineers anymore. We revere movie stars. We're at the point of too much tolerance of laziness and bad behavior. It's not that we should all be uptight, but let's acknowledge that it's a good thing to be studious, to be hardworking. We need to celebrate and encourage creativity that's not just artistic but also functional.

Politicians and the media pander. They rarely inspire or challenge, and we need people to start feeling the satisfaction of rising to a challenge, rather than being given self-esteem because they tried. Yes, it's good to try, and failure is not dishonorable. But actually achieving something is worth celebrating.

One model to accomplish this is organizing competitions, like the X Prize for private spaceflight, or the FIRST competition, sponsored by inventor Dean Kamen, where high schoolers compete to make the best robots. The goal is to help change our culture by celebrating people who are creative technically. When I say creative, you think about artists and dancers and musicians, but you can be very creative in designing things that work. There is an art to technology that I think is under-revered, in part because of the image of the wonky scientist. It's an unfortunate caricature, because as our economy develops, it's the ability to innovate and be creative and build new things that will help us compete.


View Rivals as Partners
Competitors can present opportunities rather than threats.

It's pretty clear to me that in somewhere between 10 and 20 years, the Chinese economy will eclipse that of the United States, and it will go even faster if our currencies come into balance. Historically, when one country passed another, the result was war. Now we are so interconnected with China and Europe and India and all different parts of the world that the idea of attacking someone is like attacking yourself. I think we have a fabulous opportunity to recognize that we are, in fact, helping each other. We should view the Chinese as business partners. Every country benefits from the strength of the others. If Mexico were a much, much stronger country both economically and politically, crossing the border would go both ways and no one would think about putting up a bunch of walls. We need to recognize that geographic barriers are crumbling and people are going to be more mobile, so geographic boundaries are less important. Businesses are going to be global. That will force governments to compete. They will have to adopt policies that attract capital and great minds to their countries. That will force them all to become better and more efficient. If people like the Chinese government more, they'll move to China. If they like the U.S. government more, they'll come here.


Look Beyond Political Labels
We have to draw on ideas all across the spectrum.

We live in a world moving at Internet speed, where India and China aren't playing for second place. Confronting this challenge will require a national competitiveness strategy that connects the dots between education, our human capital, our intellectual capital, our inadequate infrastructure, the world's most expensive health-care system, fair-trade policies, the fiscal meltdown in Washington and an energy strategy that decreases our reliance on foreign oil, addresses global warming and increases American jobs.

A comprehensive approach requires the real engagement of government, the business world and educators. And a recognition that the change needed in many areas will be transformational—not incremental.

Fundamental to this challenge will be the requirement that America produces the most educated, innovative and entrepreneurial work force in the world.

This strategy must also allow America (which has fallen to 16th in the world in broadband deployment) to have a 21st-century infrastructure, so we don't leave behind wide swaths of our country, particularly our rural communities.

To get this right, we're going to have to draw on ideas all across the spectrum—and not worry about whether they come with party labels or D's and R's attached. These challenges demand that we move beyond left versus right and liberal versus conservative. It's got to be future versus past.


Focus on the New Age of Creators
Web sites like Flickr and Second Life depend on their users for content.

We are entering an age in which the most important economic actors are neither producers nor consumers, but creators. Blogs are the most obvious indicator of this creator trend, but other examples proliferate. Selling on eBay is creation, loading photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube is creation, as is adding an entry to Wikipedia. Or consider the massively popular online environment Second Life, where members can hang out, socialize, buy and sell things, and also create their own virtual spaces.

Just as the time clock symbolized the worker-centric economy and the credit card represented consumers, the computer mouse is the symbol of the new creators. Personal media are very different from television, with its one-way message: shut up, watch and then go buy what you see. On the Web one must always be clicking, selecting and browsing. Personal media don't just allow two-way interaction—they demand it, and this is the cornerstone of the new age of the creator. This is truly a revolution without bystanders.


Bring Back Those Offshore Jobs
We need to increase our factory workers' productivity.

It's impossible these days to not think globally. If you're a high-tech company, your market is the world, and you have to think about it as soon as you start writing a business plan. Even companies with one or two people on staff are now turning to China for quick, small-scale, custom manufacturing. In the next decade, our outsourcing is going to bolster these countries' economies—and eventually the cost of sending work there will rise. That will give us an opportunity to bring more craft-based, specialized manufacturing back to our shores. But we can't do it unless we use technology—robotics in particular—to increase our factory workers' productivity. Not just the giant robotic arms of big factories but also easy-to-program smaller robots that could help with more delicate tasks. If we stop funding the basic science that underlies this kind of innovation, it's a recipe for long-term disaster.


Cut Out the Bullying
Customer good will is a key aspect to building global success.

One underappreciated aspect of American competitiveness is how we are perceived in the world. Depending on the perception, it can have a real impact on Americans who are trying to do business globally. On the positive side, I still see a pretty deep reservoir of good will toward American entrepreneurship. When you meet business people in China or in Europe or in Latin America, you find that their conceptual model is the American entrepreneur. On the other hand, after the second beer they inevitably raise the question: "If America is such a great country, why is it such a polarizing force in the world?" It's a sign that geopolitical antipathy might have an impact on our economic competitiveness.

It doesn't affect us at Real Networks too much, because we're not a giant and we make popular software. But the bigger companies, the Wal-Marts, the Microsofts, have a problem when they try to do business internationally, because there's a natural fear of their size. That fear can wind up connected to the burgeoning feeling that America is politically and militarily unilateralist or a bully. I'm guessing that the greatest damage in this regard is probably in the Middle East and in the Arab world.

Smart companies can deal with this. Starbucks, which was a big target several years ago, has done a brilliant job of humanizing the actual values and ethics of the company. They partner with people like Conservation International to help the environment, they help indigenous suppliers—and they let people know about that. Customer good will is a key aspect of what causes consumers to habituate to one product or service versus another and to feel good about one brand versus another.

And, of course, it would also help if our foreign policies change and we go back to more multilateral policies.


Let's Extend the R&D Tax Cut More
Spending on R&D increases our competitiveness.

If properly nurtured, research and technology will respond to the biomedical, energy and environmental imperatives that we face in the 21st century. Not only will this solve problems and improve quality of life, but it will also bring about economic opportunities that we can barely imagine today. The goal of the president's American Competitiveness Initiative, announced in January, is to create the right conditions, the right nurturing environment, in which a new golden era of U.S. innovation can flourish.

First of all, that means making the research-and-development tax credit permanent. This credit allows businesses to deduct part of their R&D spending from their taxes—and it has expired in the past. Two thirds of R&D spending in America today takes place in the private sector—that's $200 billion each year. Private-sector companies need to have a high degree of reassurance about what the tax treatment of R&D spending is going to be.

The second component is increasing federal support for vital basic research in the core physical sciences. President George W. Bush is proposing doubling the government's commitment over the course of the next 10 years. With this increase, the federal lab that we run, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, will be focusing on three areas: nanotechnology, quantum computing and the hydrogen economy.

The third component is improving math and science education for America's students to make sure that we've got a full pipeline of kids today who are going to be the scientists, mathematicians and engineers of the future.


Don't Let the Big Guys Take Over
Why letting the telecoms control the Internet is a bad idea.

We need to preserve Internet neutrality, which is key to American innovation. The Net is a two-way medium of mass communication with essentially no cost of entry, making it the perfect tool for re-distributing power from a relatively small group of very powerful people to much larger groups of people with small amounts of power. Hence, more opportunity for innovation. The American people are fully capable of competing and making things happen—I've seen it at Craigslist. But now the telecoms are threatening to throttle innovation for their own profit. The folks in charge are saying, "If you want fair treatment, you have to pay to play." And the new innovators—like us, like YouTube, like Flickr—simply don't start out with that kind of cash. Meanwhile, the big guys, who may not be innovating anymore, can say, "Hey, big telecom, here's some extra money." In exchange, they get the extra privileges—and ensure that we don't get a fair shake. You can bet that a system like that will, among other things, force a lot of development offshore. It will mean that the next innovation in, say, video will happen in Bollywood instead of Hollywood. Net neutrality is the embodiment of American values: play fair, work hard and get ahead. We need to protect that vision.


Get a Handle on All That Data
We need information before we can expect innovation.

Imagine that all the records of your life—photos, diaries, tax documents—were shoved haphazardly into a pile. Now imagine that on a national scale. From presidential libraries to protein databanks, this country is being deluged with data, and it's so disorganized that we can't even access all of it, much less search it easily. It may sound geeky, but we need a national data-management plan. We have to decide what information to keep, and how. Scientists, business leaders and governments rely on this wealth of data to innovate—and students need it to learn. With better data management, we could teach our kids to think creatively about real-world problems, with real numbers, rather than teaching them how to take standardized tests by rote. That will make them better innovators in the future. We've always had top-tier brains in this country; let's give them a data-rich environment where they can flourish.


See Immigration as a Strength
Having workers from all over the world gives us an advantage.

We don't really think in terms of geographic boundaries. At the end of the day, what's exciting for people like me is how you turn technology and ideas into value. I think it's modern alchemy. You start with smart people, an idea, some basic technology, and out of that grow companies, jobs and value for shareholders. You don't want to be in a protective crouch—you want to be out there in the world and thinking, "What are the things that are good for America?" That means being completely engaged in the flow of people, capital and goods around the world. At virtually every one of my companies, if you look around at a management or board meeting, you'll find people born in India, China, South Korea, Turkey, the United States—all over the world. The founder of one of my companies is a Korean who got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford, went to work in Japan, then home to Korea to work at Samsung, and then he started his own company. His next key executive is a Korean who got his Ph.D. at Berkeley and stayed in the United States. This is a company that is headquartered in the States, designs its chips in Korea, outsources manufacturing to Taiwan and has a sales office in Hong Kong. These people can go back to India, China and Korea and create those links to American suppliers and customers. It is such an important part of how the global economy is growing. The immigrant-rich society has a definite advantage.


Face Up to Fiscal Realities
Our current short-sighted spending habits threaten our future.

Increasing globalization of the economy brings with it ever more cries for improving U.S. competitiveness. Given the increasingly technological state of things, it is only natural that high on the competitiveness agenda is more investment in research and development, particularly at the federal level. After all, federal researchers helped make possible such breakthroughs as the Internet, microwave ovens, lasers and atomic clocks, and advances that led to Global Positioning Satellites, which guide so many cars on the road today.

But the awkward and unasked question is: where do we get the money to pay for this? Before we get too distracted by the "richest nation on earth" rhetoric, let's look at some sobering fiscal realities: federal investment in nondefense R&D is getting crowded out by the ballooning cost of health care and retirement programs. Four decades ago these R&D expenditures were nearly 6 percent of the federal budget. Today they are less than 2 percent. During that period, spending on health-care programs like Medicare and Medicaid increased by more than 12 times as a percentage of GDP, whereas non-defense R&D spending fell by 60 percent. These benefits for seniors—largely Social Security and Medicare—threaten to devour the entire federal budget. And these programs, focusing on us older fogeys, are, alas, about the past and not the future.

So let's face reality. We must get rid of our aggravated case of short-termitis, the mentality of "I want it all," "I want it now" and "I don't want to give up anything." If we don't fundamentally reform our gargantuan entitlement programs and at the same time our gluttonous energy and consumption habits and meager savings levels, we simply won't have the resources for these desperately needed R&D investments.


Give All Children a Good Education
Turning out kids who can't read at a basic level holds us back.

We will maximize our contributions to the global economy if we as a nation realize our ideals. Today we are far from actually being the place of equal opportunity we aspire so admirably to be.

Half of the 13 million kids growing up in poverty in our country will not finish high school, and those who do graduate will be where eighth graders are in privileged communities. We are turning out so many kids who can't even read at a basic level, and that holds us back as much as a deficit in math and science education.

Yet in urban and rural communities across the country, we at Teach for America have seen firsthand that kids growing up in poverty excel when given the educational opportunities they deserve. This should fuel our sense of responsibility and our sense of urgency as a nation to do more to ensure that all of our nation's kids, regardless of where they are born, fulfill their true potential and have a chance at the American Dream. To me, this is a matter of fairness. But it is also the most promising strategy for unleashing the full potential of our country. Not only will we discover new human resources, but we will develop some of our most promising leaders and innovators—because kids who overcome the challenges of poverty and attain an excellent education are likely to have the grit and the leadership skills to take our society to a whole new place.

Globalization gobbles old jobs; CMHS helps you dream & create the new ones

Originally uploaded by joshbzin.

How to Embrace Change
The new world economy is disorienting, but full of opportunities for us to seize.
By Gordon Brown
June 12, 2006 issue - In the last year 1 million jobs have been lost from America, Europe and Japan—and one quarter of a million service jobs gone offshore. For the first time Asia is out producing Europe. And driven not just by political uncertainty but by the rising needs of Asia, oil and commodity prices have been rising fast.

Unsurprisingly, we are seeing not just the ever-faster advance of globalization but of globalization's discontents too. Protectionist forces are on the rise again: "economic patriotism" in Europe, populism in Latin America, anti-immigrant feeling and sullen resistance to change on just about every continent. Take one example. The European single market aspires to be what it says it is—an open market with the free movement of goods, people and capital. But in the last few months, Europe has seen France seek to block Italian utility takeovers, Italy threaten Dutch banking acquisitions, Spain stall German energy bids and Poland resist Italian financial-service mergers. Today an ambitious world-trade deal seems more elusive than ever, with rich-country protectionism criticized for standing in the way of poor countries' development.

The paradox of today's globalization is that even its winners feel themselves to be losers. Globalization is cutting the price of consumer goods, from clothes to electronics—putting what were once luxury goods into the hands of millions of ordinary households. Sadly, however, the citizens of the richest countries are more likely to think of globalization as the loss of jobs offshore.

This ignores the fact that cheaper products and sometimes services from newly emerging countries create the competition that spurs us on to greater productivity and innovation. And emerging markets are, in fact, expanding markets for us just as we are for them: U.S. and European company brands are emblems all over the world, and their global penetration, as much as homegrown entrepreneurship, is the key to our future success.

Isolationism, partial retreat and protectionism—attempts to stop the clock, freeze-frame and postpone the inevitable—are self-defeating options. By attempting to shelter ourselves we will only fall behind, risk competitiveness and pay a higher price for long-run adjustment. Indeed, the success of the American economic experience teaches us that the lifeblood of a market economy is the continuous injection of new competition.

It has been the hard work and enterprise of the American people, responding to the new opportunities brought by each successive wave of global economic change, that have been the foundation of American economic progress. And it is when America has shown that same commitment to leading the opening of markets in the rest of the world, such as the dismantling of trade barriers following the second world war, that the conditions are put in place for rising growth and prosperity in the global economy to the benefit of all.

It is clear that we need a global conversation about both the risks of protectionism and the benefits of globalization. The starting point—the most powerful anti-protectionist signal we can send—is breaking the world-trade deadlock. The prize is a 50 percent increase in world trade. And the key that will unlock that door is Europe and America offering progress by reducing protectionism in agriculture, and India and Brazil being willing to respond with liberalization of services and greater market access.

A globalization that works will mean not only open markets, free trade and flexible labor conditions but higher investment in innovation and education. For Europe this also means escalating the pace of economic reform. For Britain in particular, it means an emphasis on productivity—convincing people that while we may not be able to stop them from losing the last job, we can do a great deal to help them be equipped for the next jobs. And it also means looking at new sources of jobs at home—not least from the environment. In Britain alone we believe we can create more than 100,000 jobs from energy conservation to micro generation.

If nations leave dislocated workers to feel hopeless and forgotten with only the offer of dead-end jobs, they will be increasing the chances that their citizens will fuel the fires of backlash and protectionism. But if we expand the opportunities for new skills and then new jobs, make that work pay and invest in strengthening communities, then citizens will be far more likely to see the larger benefits of globalization. Throughout industrialization, we have been right to say that if people work hard, play by the rules and acquire skills, they will do well and the next generation can aspire to do even better than the last. It is now our task to demonstrate to those who lose jobs to the global economy not only that we are on their side, but that new and good opportunities will be available.

The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown is the United Kingdom's chancellor of the Exchequer.


© 2006

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Consider the pleasure & importance of sketching, even as a non-gifted amateur

Sushi instructions
Originally uploaded by MontanaRaven.
July 19, 2006
An Exhibition About Drawing Conjures a Time When Amateurs Roamed the Earth

“Playing the Piano for Pleasure” is a minor classic of self-help by Charles Cooke promoting musical amateurism, published in 1941 in the upbeat style of Dale Carnegie. It lays out a strict regime of practice and discipline, the musical equivalent to a better body in 30 days. “We will worm our way, expending considerable effort, into the small end of the cornucopia,” he promises, “in order that we may later emerge, expending less effort and having the time of our life, out of the large end.”

I was reminded of Cooke while visiting the Grolier Club, where a show called “Teaching America to Draw” provides a refresher course in pencil-pushing and other sorts of sketching as a collective pastime. It’s about that golden era, from the time of the founding fathers nearly to Cooke’s day, when educated Americans drew as a matter of course.

Drawing was a civilized thing to do, like reading and writing. It was taught in elementary schools. It was democratic. It was a boon to happiness.

From 1820 to 1860, more than 145,000 drawing manuals circulated, now souvenirs of our bygone cultural aspirations. Not many of these manuals are still intact because they were so heavily used, worn down like church relics, which supplicants rubbed smooth from caressing.

We’re addicted to convenience today. Cellphone cameras are handy, but they’re also the equivalent of fast-food meals. Their ubiquity has multiplied our distance from drawing as a measure of self-worth and a practical tool. Before box cameras became universal a century or so ago, people drew for pleasure but also because it was the best way to preserve a cherished sight, a memory, just as people played an instrument or sang if they wanted to hear music at home because there were no record players or radios. Amateurism was a virtue, and the time and effort entailed in learning to draw, as with playing the piano, enhanced its desirability.

Drawing promoted meditation and stillness. “A sustained act of will is essential to drawing,” Paul ValĂ©ry put it. “Nothing could be more opposed to reverie, since the requisite concentration must be continually diverting the natural course of physical movements, on its guard against any seductive curve asserting itself.”

A century ago it was possible for a Philadelphia educator named J. Liberty Tadd to instruct young women to stand in pigsties to learn to draw animals directly from nature. There’s an illustration in the show from Tadd’s “New Methods of Education” of a girl in a long, improbably immaculate dress sketching pigs on a blackboard.

The exhibition is full of such exhortatory books, many of them discomfiting today because they presume a degree of skill among ordinary citizens — even children — that would now be regarded as noteworthy in the art world. There are exceptions, like a popular manual from the 1840’s by Benjamin Coe, one of Frederic Church’s teachers, who, to judge from his illustration of a maiden in a glen, needed a little brushing-up on perspective.

On the other hand, there’s J. T. Bowen’s “United States Drawing Book,” from 1839, with its moody view of a crumbling cathedral in a landscape, and P. Fishe Reed’s “Little Corporal’s Drawing Book,” a progressive manual from 1869 with bird drawings that Audubon might have been proud to make, conjuring an America in which 10-year-olds are absorbed not by Game Boys and iPods but by the finer points of mastering realism.

Clearly these manuals were aspirational no less than educational or recreational. It’s hard to imagine that most American schoolchildren during the 1870’s could duplicate the leaves and bugs and complicated curlicue patterns that Herman Krusi Jr. drew in his manuals for classroom instruction. But Americans wanted their children to: that’s the point.

Something happened between then and now, and it wasn’t just the invention of gadgets that eliminated the need to draw.

There was also a philosophical change, away from drawing as a practical endeavor and toward art appreciation. From dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem: the shift in values is implied by some of the later books in the show. Consciously or not, they parallel changes in modern art, which threw out the rule books of draftsmanship and proposed a new, free-thinking attitude.

As for expending effort to become skilled at drawing, the post-Cooke postwar generation introduced Paint by Numbers, and the situation has gone downhill from there.

“Drawing in America is as much a basic human activity today as it has always been, even if it is not perceived to be as necessary to economic and cultural progress,” Albert A. Anderson Jr. writes in the slim pamphlet accompanying the show.

I don’t think so. Drawing and doodling are not the same. With the arts, American adults have acquiesced to playing the passive role of receivers.

In a new memoir, “Let Me Finish,” Roger Angell recalls trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium in the 1930’s with his father, who also liked to join pickup games when middle-age American men still did that. Today baseball is like the arts, with grown-ups mostly preferring not to break a sweat. “We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it,” Mr. Angell writes.

So it is with classical music, painting and drawing, professional renditions of which are now so widely available that most people probably can’t or don’t imagine there’s any point in bothering to do these things themselves. Communities of amateurs still thrive, but they are self-selecting groups. A vast majority of society seems to presume that culture is something specialists produce.

Rembrandt Peale published one of the drawing manuals in the Grolier Club show. Besides being an artist, Peale became Pennsylvania’s first high school art teacher in the 1830’s, hired by Alexander Dallas Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. People, Franklin pointed out, can often “express ideas more clearly with a lead pencil or a bit of chalk” than with words. “Drawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations,” he reminded Americans.

We have given it up, at a cost that, as Franklin might have put it, is beyond words. Mr. Angell goes on in his book to say that television and sports journalism have taught us all about the skills and salaries and private lives of professional ballplayers, on whom we now focus, instead of playing the game ourselves.

As a consequence, he writes, “we don’t like them as much as we once did, and we don’t like ourselves much, either.”

You can draw the analogy.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On teachers: NY Times writer Michael Winerip

Dance is in her blood...
Originally uploaded by Nameet.
Teachers, and a Law That Distrusts Them

July 12, 2006

THIS is my last education column after four years. What I will miss most is the free ticket it gave me into classrooms all over the country, where I watched and learned from teachers.

I got to be there at 7:15 a.m. on the first day of this school year with Irene Ray, a terrific high school English teacher in Huntington, W. Va. Ms. Ray had intended to leave small-town Appalachia long ago for the big city, but there she was again, for her 23rd first day, sipping a Diet Coke, nibbling an Atkins breakfast bar, more excited and jittery than her students, wanting to know how their summer reading went, whether they’d enjoyed “The Scarlet Letter” or, like Ms. Ray, preferred “The Poisonwood Bible.”

Ms. Ray spent a week readying her room for the first day, including adding to the favorite quotations that line her walls. Bored students distracted by iPods and the Internet? “She’s got new quotes,” whispered a girl, who was reading Ms. Ray’s walls.

I also got to be there at 3:15 p.m. on the final day of school this year, in Dahlonega, Ga., at Lumpkin County Middle School, when Pat New, a science teacher, taught her last lesson, after 29 years. Ms. New, 62, had fought to the end for her right to teach evolution, winning out against a group of parents and students and an administration that preferred not to make waves.

The columns about teachers generated the most mail, but lots of others were fun to write. Chronicling the mess-ups with New York State’s standardized exams — in math, English, English as a second language, physics, reading — was always great sport.

But the people who took me to the heart of education? Laurin MacLeish, kindergarten teacher in Orlando, Fla.; Roger Cline, diesel engine teacher in Canton, Ohio; Jeff Kaufman, G.E.D. teacher at the Rikers jail in New York City; Liza Levine, English teacher in South Central Los Angeles.

Principals? A little bit. Superintendents? Chancellors? State education commissioners? You can probably still name your kindergarten teacher (that would be Miss Goddard, Beechwood Knoll School, 1957). But how about the secretary of education during any of your 13 years in school?

The education press spends so much time writing about people far removed from the classroom that it’s easy to lose sight of those individuals’ real purpose — to help teachers do their jobs well, the best hope for student success.

As readers know, I’m not a fan of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law aimed at raising education quality. Instead of helping teachers, for me it’s a law created by politicians who distrust teachers. Because teachers’ judgment and standards are supposedly not reliable, the law substitutes a battery of state tests that are supposed to tell the real truth about children’s academic progress.

The question is: How successful can an education law be that makes teachers the enemy?

Even No Child’s strongest supporters acknowledge that one of the law’s most important provisions — to guarantee a highly qualified teacher in every classroom — has been the most poorly carried out to date.

So, to improve classroom teaching and make teachers more enthusiastic about the law, I have three departing suggestions for when the legislation is expected to come up for reauthorization next year.

First, why not add a provision rewarding states and districts that mandate small class size? It’s an idea that enjoys great support among parents and teachers and is easily carried out on a national scale.

Why small class size? Deborah Meier, the teacher, principal, author and MacArthur Award winner who has created successful public schools in New York and Boston, says the best chance for educating poor children well is surrounding them with as many talented adults as possible. The same premise drives one of the most hopeful efforts in urban education today, the Gates Foundation’s small schools movement.

Joe Gipson, a black public school parent in California, which has had a mandatory cap of 20 in grades K to three for a decade, told me small class size is the best thing that’s happened to his children’s education, giving them what rich private school pupils have. While small class size is no guarantee that teachers will be good, he said, with just 20, you can tell faster if teachers are performing well, and get rid of them if they’re not.

Gov. Jeb Bush is very popular in Florida, and in 2002, he opposed a constitutional amendment to cap class sizes, including a maximum of 18 for grades K to three. He said it would be too costly. And yet voters in Florida, hardly a tax-and-spend state, voted for it. Every year since, the Republican governor has tried overturning the class size amendment, and every year he has lost, most recently last spring, when the Republican-controlled State Senate defeated his efforts.

“It’s a moral issue,” said Senator J. Alex Villalobos, a Republican whose wife is a public school teacher. “Class size is the great equalizer. Anybody who has children understands this. We have a moral responsibility to take care of our children.”

In 2003, 115,000 New York City residents signed petitions aimed at setting class size limits, and in 2005, 100,000 did. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the city cannot afford to do more now, and has successfully stalled advocates’ efforts in court, but at a price to children. A recent state audit shows that 26 percent of New York City children in grades K to three are in classes of 25 or more.

The intent of the No Child law could not be more important — to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority children. But what angers public educators is that under the law, schools get all the blame if students fail, when they see many other variables at play, including the crippling effects of poverty on families. Studies show that the economic status of a child’s family has a major impact on a child’s performance on standardized tests. On the SAT, for example, for every $10,000 increase in family income, a child’s SAT scores rise about 10 points.

Which leads to my second proposal. We need a No Family Left Behind Law. This would measure economic growth of families and punish politicians in charge of states with poor economic growth for minority families.

FOR example, in Ohio, black families earn only 62 percent of white household income, one of the biggest disparities nationally. So every year, under No Family Left Behind, Ohio would be expected to close that income gap. If it failed to make adequate yearly progress for black families’ wealth, the governor and legislators would be judged failing, and after five years, could be removed from office. This way public schools wouldn’t be the only institutions singled out for failing poor children.

And if states succeeded in closing the economic gap, test scores would be expected to rise, giving politicians and teachers a chance to celebrate together.

A final concern with the federal law is that it is so driven by state testing that there’s too much time devoted to test prep, too much time spent drilling facts for survey courses, and not enough emphasis on finding something children will fall in love with for a lifetime — the Civil War, repairing engines, science research, playing the trumpet.

Fortunately, the remedy can be found on Ms. Ray’s walls in Huntington, W. Va., a quotation from William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I recommend that as the official motto for a new, revitalized No Child Left Behind law.