Saturday, May 30, 2009

Internet-based Democracy?

I see from the morning paper (LA Times, 5/29/09) that the Los Angeles Unified School District is canceling most of its summer programs due to budget cuts. According to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, this action "will contribute to the dropout rate and...a less competent workforce."

Is this really the result intended by California voters who trashed the propositions during our recent election? Presumably, even conservative business owners, who typically oppose tax increases, would like to have employees who can read and write. Doesn't the general populace also want serviceable roads and bridges, medical care for kids, programs for people with disabilities, etc.?

Historical political analysis demonstrates that people will frequently vote for LOCAL taxes when they know exactly how such revenues will be used and when they perceive some benefit to their immediate community. Therefore, to some extent, our current predicament over funding of vital public functions results from the (possibly unintended) migration of these functions to the "highest" levels of government -- almost by definition, those seats of government power farthest removed from the average citizen.

Clearly, the national defense must be funded and organized by the federal government. So, too, must interstate commerce be regulated, and certain minimal standards of behavior (e.g. food and drug safety) be established, in our nation's capital. I don't pretend that the list of items appropriate to the federal government is short; imagine the chaos that would ensue, for example, if nobody actively regulated securities transactions. (Oops, we already know the answer to that!) But many things are better left to the states and local governments.

Readers may argue that we already have this system. It's not the federal government, after all, that picks up our trash and makes land use (zoning) decisions. But, at least in California, several significant problems still exist: 1) cities, counties, special assessment districts, and school districts have limited taxing power; 2) State and Federal taxes collectively "eat up" such a large chunk of disposable income (at least by current subjective standards) that additional local taxation may become less desirable than it otherwise would be; and 3) no mechanism exists for the average citizen to weigh in on local and regional policy decisions on a frequent basis.

But if we can vote on who should become the "American Idol," why can't we vote on whether to keep schools open during the summer? Surely the technology exists, or could easily be developed, to allow Internet voting only among those who ought to be eligible for such local plebiscites. (Yes, allowances would have to be made for non-Internet users and those without cell phones -- surely a gradually decreasing percentage of the population.) Then, maybe, we could stop hearing about "what percentage of our tax dollars sent to Washington we 'get back'" and start voting to fund those projects dear to our local hearts.

Note: I am aware that it's easier to write a blog post on this subject than to change the way our American political system works. That's the beauty of writing a column -- I can spew forth random ideas and let others point out the flaws and work out the details! Reader comments welcomed, as always!

P.S. One of my astute readers pointed out in his comment to last week's post that standardized tests have some advantages. I totally agree, and it was careless of me to imply otherwise. Let's use such tests when appropriate. But what would be wrong with random sampling, if our purpose is to ascertain general levels of accomplishment? To my knowledge, we don't use the results of standardized testing to prescribe individualized educational programs anyway. If sampling were introduced, perhaps we could avoid or at least reduce the counterproductive and widespread "teaching to the test" that the current system engenders. Also, let's not forget that the methodologies of modern social science permit valid and reasonably accurate ways of measuring many different types of data -- subjective as well as objective. Why settle for measuring only what's easy; let's also measure what's important. If we seriously want to know how public schools are affecting attitudes toward lifelong learning, or ability to reason, we have the capacity to find out. The problem is, I'm not sure many people really want to know.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An "Education" Dilemma

Should algebra be taught to every eighth grader, as some in California propose? How about Thoreau in the third grade? Calculus in kindergarten?

OK, I realize I'm getting laughably extreme. But extrapolating ideas to their logical conclusions can be an instructive process.

Politicians and educational* policy makers debate what subjects should be taught to students of various ages in the absence of rational guidelines or strategic objectives. With few exceptions, it just seems like everyone wants kids to learn more and more at younger and younger ages -- preferably with "success" measured through the use of standardized tests!

This approach earns a failing grade for several reasons. First, developmental stages cannot be hurried along. Like flowers, they can be fertilized; but they grow in their own good time. Psychologists now believe that people are still experiencing cognitive (and certainly emotional!) development at least into their early twenties. It does no good to force them to deal with matters that are over their heads, any more than it would be useful to force a three month old to walk. Algebra, for example, requires the ability to think in abstract terms; trying to teach it to people who don't yet understand the manipulation of actual numbers is just plain dumb.

The second reason that the "calculus in kindergarten" syndrome fails is that knowledge of facts represents only the most basic and elementary type of academic learning. Treating kids like buckets and pouring as many isolated pieces of information into them as possible might help them become Jeopardy champions, but it neglects the more important abilities to comprehend data, to synthesize facts into concepts and theories, to write clearly, and to evaluate the veracity of what one hears and sees.

Third, knowledge is exploding. What today's young adults need to know the most -- at least from a cognitive perspective -- is how to learn new things. Wouldn't they be more inclined to do so if they enjoyed learning? And how exactly does homework in the first grade help accomplish that objective?

Finally, a great deal of current research indicates that social competence and the ability to engage in collaborative behaviors are far better predictors of success than knowledge of facts or even the capacity for sheer brilliance. "We have lacked the political courage and we have lacked the will to do the right thing by our children," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Los Angeles Times, 5/23/09). "Our dysfunctional adult relationships have hurt children in far too many places." Could it be that one reason so many adults are dysfunctional is that they lacked socialization opportunities as kids? OK, I'm not pretending that's an easy question to answer, or that schools can counteract dysfunctional families. But I don't think schools do enough, in an organized fashion, to help children mature emotionally as well as intellectually.

Spare the world the maladjusted genius -- we've had enough of those already! Let children play -- with appropriate guidance and supervision -- and they will develop into the kinds of human beings who can make the world a better place.

*Note: Has anyone else noticed that the word "educational" is falling into disuse? "Education" has become both a noun and an adjective. For example, according to the LA Times, "California already has received about $4.3 billion in education funding from the economic stimulus package..." (5/21/09, emphasis added). If this trend continues, pancreatic cancer will soon be a disease of the past; unfortunately, pancreas cancer will probably be just as lethal.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lady Justice

Statues of Lady Justice frequently portray her wearing a blindfold, signifying impartiality and objectivity. But careful readers of the "Los Angeles Times" on May 13, 2009, have good reason to believe that the Lady is peeking -- at least in California -- and it is entirely possible that her vision is distorted in favor of "white collar" criminals.

Voters in the "Golden State" adopted the "three strikes" initiative in 1994, requiring a sentence of 25 years to life for defendants convicted of two previous violent or serious crimes. An effort to amend it, which would have required the "third strike" to also qualify as violent or serious, was defeated in 2004 by a vote of 47.3% to 52.7%.

As a consequence, along with many thousands of admittedly deranged and dangerous people, others have received "three strikes" sentences for such infractions as shoplifting and abusing illegal drugs.

One such person, according to the Times, is free today, thanks to the efforts of a law clinic at Stanford University where students identify people convicted of what they view as relatively minor offenses resulting in disproportionately long imprisonments. Norman Williams was sentenced in 1997 to 25 years to life for stealing a car jack and tools from a tow truck. Williams, along with 11 siblings, was raised in a household with no father and an alcoholic mother, whose boyfriend reportedly raped him and beat him with electrical cords.

The Times also reported on May 13 that San Bernardino County is suing 6 former employees following "years of alleged crime, fraud, and sordid activities inside the Assessor's office," including the falsification of time cards and unauthorized political campaigning at taxpayer expense. The former Assessor, Bill Postmus, who resigned effective February 13, 2009, is in rehab for an addiction to methamphetamine, according to the "Inland Valley Daily Bulletin," which also carried the story. Two of Postmus' former employees in the Assessor's office have been arrested, with allegations including perjury, preparing false evidence, destruction of public property, vandalism, and improperly reporting gifts from a well-known local developer who recently negotiated a $102 million settlement with the County.

How many times did these people come to "work" and engage only in political activities (oh, by the way, Postmus is the former head of the County Republican Party)? Does each day count as a separate event (strike)? Is stealing taxpayer money a "serious crime"? Does anyone think the people connected with this affair are going to be sentenced to 25 years to life? (If you do, please use the comment feature to explain your rationale.)

The juxtaposition of these two articles in the Los Angles Times tells us something about our State and our country -- perhaps more than we want to know. And as long as we are juxtaposing things, I'll close by quoting the official California website: "California's future and its promise are nothing less than the future and promise of America. It has a California context, to be sure, but it is nothing separate from the dreams and hopes and aspirations of all the American people in their collective struggle to create a decent, fair, and secure republic."

On a separate note, in last week's post I said I would reveal the source of the quote regarding the struggle of imperfect people to establish a government that approaches perfection. It's actually the first sentence of Appendix III of my novel "Operation Capitol Hill," written in essay form purportedly by one of the characters in the book. Please note: I am in no way attempting to put my writing into the same category as that of J.D. Salinger, Charles Dickens, etc. I just really liked that sentence and thought it encapsulated a lot of "truth."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I seek a memorable, lasting, first impression -- one that will drag readers back to this blog week after week, putting pressure as it were on their very cerebral cortexes to ascertain what nuggets of truth, fancy, or downright stupidity await them.

Therefore, I invoke the muse of the enlightened first sentence -- a literary technique known to many but perfected by only a handful of the most deliriously talented writers.

Witness, for example, Camus: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know." (OK, you purists, I agree that's two sentences. But you get the idea.) Or Karl Marx: "A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of Communism." Powerful, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.

Everybody knows "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." But did you know that these are only the first 12 words of an introductory sentence containing 119 words and 17 commas?

No compendium of famous first lines would be complete without this: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." Inspired!

The following, no doubt, is less well known: "The history of modern civilization is essentially the story of the never-ending attempt to conceive a form of government that approaches perfection despite the imperfections of the people who create it." One colossal gold star to anyone who correctly identifies the source. (Answer in next week's entry.)

Herewith, my all-time favorite: "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." (Purists, you win again. Rousseau precedes this line with a three paragraph introduction to Book I of "The Social Contract.")

I invite readers to submit their favorite "first lines" and test this author and their fellow readers. Let's have some fun!