Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rational Health Care Reform

The health care debate continued to rage last week in Colorado when a sub-committee in the state house voted on a bill to move to a state-wide single-payer system. This is surprising in a traditionally libertarian place like Colorado, though it is understandable as the state turns more Democratic and voters continue to lose faith with the current system and the lack of a viable alternative. Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post's Editorial Board responded with a typical ideologically conservative commentary that was long of criticism and scare tactics, yet predictably short on alternative proposals. Though I was disappointed to see him immediately resort to the "red flag, talking-point" of rationing, I was pleased to see his concession that the current system already rations care based on ability to pay into the private system. Reform critics claim that single-payer would lead to rationing and prevent people from seeing their own doctors, as well as turn medical decisions over to a bureaucrat. However, that is already true. My employer-based coverage cost me my personal physician, and specialist care is limited. Decision are not simply left up to me and my physician; they are vetted through the administration of the insurance company. Conservative critics who cite those as effects of single-payer are fools. That situation is the essence of the private system as it exists. For, far worse than a cost-cutting bureaucrat (whose bosses are still responsible to voters) focused on budgets, is a cost-cutting executive focused on profits. Insurance companies are in the business of collecting premiums and denying claims.

As Colorado attempts a move to single-payer, I am hoping they will take a more pragmatic approach and blend the public-private system as many countries do, and as we currently do for nine million federal employees. Thus, I hope Mr. Carroll will consider researching and writing about options that would do this, and alleviate the need for states to push for a single-payer system. A good place to start is the Healthy Americans Act, also known as the Wyden-Bennett plan. It is an adaptation and extension of the logical move of extending FEHBP (Federal Employees Plan) to all Americans. In FEHBP, there are more than 250 providers that competitively bid to cover federal employees. Employees are given the choice to purchase as much or as little coverage as they need, but all are guaranteed some basic coverage. Obviously, large pools lower cost, and if a pool of nine million employees works, then a pool of 300 million would work even better. An extension of FEHBP to all Americans is the best and most logical reform, the the HAA is a good second-best.

As Mr. Carroll notes, reform is necessary, and it will come. As the private sector eliminates more people from coverage, the masses will eventually take what they can get. And having lived under it for five years, I can say with all honesty that national health care is far better than being un-insured in this county. Thus, I urge the Denver Post to research and write extensively about plans, such as the HAA or the FEHBP, that blend public and private. I have contacted my congressional candidates and representatives about this, and I hope more people will as they become aware of it. Otherwise, we will be stuck with a system that the masses begrudgingly accept.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Knowledge is the Key

People may logically assume that learning leads to the acquisition of knowledge. However, the converse may, in fact, be true. It appears that knowledge is the key to learning. I've have been intrigued in the past week by all the talk of "knowledge" as the fundamental component of learning. From op-eds in the New York Times to the education blogs, there has been an exciting degree of discussion about the importance of knowing information. This is intriguing, as I've often noted the importance of background knowledge as the key to accessing new material. It first impacted me after reading I Read It, But I Don't Get It by a Denver-area teacher and researcher Cris Tovani. The insights I gained from Tovani's book were revolutionary in my teaching career, as the epiphany about knowledge impacted the way I taught reading, writing, and critical thinking.

That discussion of background knowledge in reading was accented by E.D. Hirsch this week in his New York Times piece "Reading Test Dummies." Hirsch argues very effectively about the importance of background knowledge in students interpreting passages on standardized reading tests. The disconnect between the focus of knowledge in the classroom and the obscure passages in reading tests negatively impacts the validity of the tests. Hirsch notes some impressive research from 1988 about the performance of weak and strong readers based on previous knowledge, where weaker readers performed better on tests than skilled readers if the weaker ones had an interest in and knowledge about the subject. I've often noted to people the significant differences in academic performance between kids of lower and higher socioeconomic status, simply based on background cultural knowledge, especially vocabulary. Poorer kids who arrive in kindergarten with roughly one-third the vocabulary of middle-class kids face a disadvantage in learning from which most will never recover. Until this gap is acknowledged and closed, there will be no fundamental change in reading scores, literacy rates, or achievement gaps.

Hirsch's arguments are even more intriguing as I ran across Joanne Jacob's entries on both Hirsch and Dan Willingham of the Core Knowledge Blog. Willingham, a psyche professor at Virginia, added to the knowledge discussion by explaining how important "knowing facts" is, and how integral it is to learning and understanding. The "very processes that teachers care about most-critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving-are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment)". Learning "new ideas" is fundamentally linked to having the correct understanding of the relevant "old ideas." There is no more clear explanation of the problems in literacy rates, reading scores, college readiness, and the achievement gap. It's all about a knowledge gap. According to Willingham, "understanding is remembering in disguise."

Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School is my next purchase, and I expect it will have a similar effect on my teaching that Tovani's book did. His discussion of "cognitive science" is integral to understanding how we can more effectively educate. The discussion reminds me of my questions about why students lose the ability to "wonder." However, it's clear they actually don't. Kids do like learning; they love acquiring new information; they become quite engaged in many activities, including some very philosophical discussions. They don't have an inability to focus - they have an inability to focus on much of what they encounter in the classroom. It reminds me of the "flow experience" described by authors Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm in their book Going With the Flow which was a follow-up to Reading Don't Fix No Chevies. I encountered this book and concept in a great staff development class on adolescent male literacy, and it inspired me to seek more ways to engage all my students with knowledge and learning.

Clearly, the concept of factual knowledge as a key to learning is an important component of the education game, and any serious discussion of reform must take into account the ideas put forth by all these authors and researchers.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Need a Job - Go Abroad

Young, college-educated, and unemployed? Get out of this country. And take with you a most precious and desired commodity you acquired for free - the English language. The opportunity to travel, live, and work abroad has always been a great option for the newly-graduated and unencumbered, and in the current economy, it is becoming an attractive option for those young people facing a tough job market. This issue was featured on Right-on-the-Left-Coast, and it reminded me of my own experience, graduating with an English teaching degree in the recession, and tough job market, of 1992. I haven't written about this before, but I have often meant to, as I regularly speak about it to my students. With few high school English teaching positions available - and actually little interest in or motivation to start teaching high school at the age of twenty-one - I up and moved to Taiwan with my future wife to teach English. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Because one of my wife's roommates in college was Taiwanese, she had been there before, and she was well aware of all the opportunities to teach English in Taiwan. At the EPO (Educational Placement Office) of the University of Illinois, we ran across a flier for an organization known as Hess Language School. It was based in New York, and it was the largest cram school, or bushiban, on the island of Taiwan. After filling out an application and undergoing a brief phone interview, we moved six-thousand miles from home, and began teaching Taiwanese children the finer points of ABC and "How are you?" The school was founded by an American woman and her Taiwanese husband, and they had basically cornered the market for cram schools, where parents send their children after school for a few hours a week to give them a jump start on the rigors of English instruction in junior high school. Hess provided us with a work visa and a yearlong contract teaching roughly twenty hours a week for about twenty dollars an hour. It was great gig.

We went to Taiwan at the same time my wife's roommate moved there to live at home. She lasted nine months; we stayed five years. During that time, we lived the dream and traveled the world, not to mention saved a lot of money. We knew numerous Americans there who paid off their student loans and credit card debt in a year or two. There are so many options for work abroad, and there is no better time for a little adventure.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Home Ec Returns

"We should learn how to balance our checkbooks, and things like that."

Comments such as this occasionally arise in my class, as students debate (and complain about) much of the core curriculum in high school. I don't know if there is any really "useless information" in the standard high school curriculum, but there is much to be said about addressing more practical issues as we invest in the education of young people. While I point out to my students that learning to balance a checkbook should take about fifteen minutes, I can imagine many basic competencies that I'd incorporate into a "life skills" curriculum, not the least of which is home finance and basic repair.

With that in mind, the Denver Post recently spotlighted a resurgence in home economics in local high schools, with the added emphasis of an increase in both male teachers and students. The classes are now referred to as Family and Consumer Science, and they are focused on being far more practical than the home ec classes of yore. As the economy changes, and more people are adjusting to lifestyle changes, the acquisition of basic skills that not only save money, but might open up a new career, seem like a good investment in education. I'd like to see an expansion of this sort of investment in education, as it strikes me as the sort of basic competencies we should expect of young adults after thirteen years of education. The ability to cook, budget, organize, create, and repair are never useless skills. This also might be a great way to adapt a workforce more quickly, especially for those jobs that don't need a four year degree. So, on with home ec and shop classes.

In the immortal words of Breakfast Club, regarding shop class:

Brian: "Bender, do you realize without calculus, there'd be no engineering."

Bender: "Without lamps, there'd be no light."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Colorado's Lawmaker Poses Questions

In quoting the Bible as a model for what the state government of Colorado should and should not do, Senator Scott Renfroe, a Republican from Greely, has generated a serious discussion for which more information is needed. I am hoping he will address the following issues during his next speech on the floor of the legislature:

1. Exodus 35:2 says people who work on the Sabbath should be put to death. I'm wondering how many doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, grocers, and other merchants Senator Renfroe thinks the State of Colorado should kill?

2. Leviticus 10:10 says eating shellfish is an "abomination." Interestingly, that's the same word used to describe homosexuality. Is Senator Renfro as aggressive in pushing legislation that denies the rights of shrimp eaters? If not, why not?

3. Exodus 21:7 sanctions selling children into slavery, and I am wondering if the senator has done this. Should Colorado laws be re-written to address this? Or is that a constitutional issue?

3. Leviticus 25:44 allows the purchase of slaves from other countries. Was the Civil War wrong, as well as the government's current efforts to combat the slave trade? Should Colorado secede from the union?

4. How does Senator Renfroe propose to kill his male friends and neighbors who cut their hair, especially around the temples, as forbidden by Leviticus 19:27? Should the state complete that task?

7. If Senator Renfroe learns of people who plant two different crops in the same field, or who wears garments made of two different kinds of thread (say a cotton/poyester blend) does he get the whole town together to stone them to death, as required in Leviticus 19:19? Does he stone everyone who curses as required by Leviticus 24:10? How many public burnings has he attended for people who sleep with their in-laws, as required in Leviticus 20:14? Should the state organize these activities, or does the senator want to leave it up to individual communities?

Obviously, there is much in the Old Testament that doesn't necessarily work in practice in America in the 21st century. Christ focused clearly on a personal relationship with God and with the plight of the poor and downtrodden. That, of course, brings up an entirely different issue.

What should the state of Colorado do, in a legislative capacity, to erase the problem of excessive wealth and ease the suffering of the poor? Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to get into heaven.” Is Colorado’s tax policy making it difficult for people to live Christian lives? Christ told a rich man to give half of everything he owns to the poor. Should the state increase taxes to fifty percent, so that each citizen can live according to the word of Christ?

Senator Renfroe has said the government must not make laws “that go against what biblically we are supposed to stand for.” If that is true, then the legislature has a lot of work to do. Of course, if Senator Renfroe seeks to initiate a theocratic government, he might want to put that to the voters first.

(NOTE: many of these citations originated from the oft-published "letter to Dr. Laura" featured in a West Wing episode)