Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How do you teach Civics in a Government School?

President Obama loves education, and he also loves green energy and "green jobs." He wants to make sure America and its children stay on top (or if they are not currently on top to encourage them to race there, quickly). If this means a Chinese child must be left behind because of the competitive nature of today's global economy, that's tough but at least it was a fair race. I support our President in these efforts.

To promote the jobs of the future we need "schools of the future," and these schools must teach the children how to engineer amazing products which allow us to maintain the lifestyle to which we are accustomed without polluting. However, this will not work if the solar panels for our roofs are constructed by the soft hands of children working under sweatshop conditions in China or anywhere else but here in the U.S.A.

President Obama and his Energy Secretary have a dilemma though which goes to the heart of trying to do education/economic battle with China on its own terms. The big government people know that the "free market" in the U.S. will not make me buy a twice-as-expensive-as-normal car right now when gas is so cheap. They know that I will not spend $10,000.00 on solar panels for my roof when my electric bill costs less than a decent sushi dinner.

So they figure that government has a role in promoting clean, green, or alternative energy. Not just to bribe me into using the stuff, but to actually try to get Americans to build things. The problem is both Democrats and Republicans have bought into the idea of "government by proxy"--that is, the notion that the private sector is better at everything so we just need to pull some levers and stuff will get done (often through contracting, for example).

Therefore the obvious, New-Deal-style thing to do--to have the government hire a bunch of unemployed people to build and run a solar panel design facility and factory--is never considered. Instead what we get is a gaggle of carrots and sticks designed to get otherwise-busy people to get into solar, wind, etc. with their time and (especially) their money.

But these people with enough money to create a solar-panel company are smart and whether or not they care about the environment they definitely don't want to lose their money. So of course they lobby politicians with cash and words to create a favorable business environment. It seems our present administration has been caught up in that, and Republicans are crying foul. It's very sweet for the G.O.P. because they're not into "green" that much to begin with, and they favor "free market" solutions (which as I pointed out are not working on me).

The Civics lesson here is that advertising-dependent democracy, capitalism, and government-by-proxy are dicey in combination. Chinese political leaders have it easy because they don't have to raise a lot of money for television ads to get elected. They don't have to be subtle in their use of carrots and sticks to get the "green economy" going because they have (more) centralized control. But we (Americans) have to live with messiness: we reject centralized planning and a command economy because of their freedom-restricting consequences. The Federal Government cannot mandate "green education" in every school in the nation because local school boards would object. I mean, we have trouble even forcing the nation's children to learn math because it might interfere with locally-sourced math curricula. I am sure that Lee Kuan Yew enjoys this problem and would probably say to us, "You made your bed, now lie in it" because there is a price to freedom.

In conclusion: because of strong sense of individualism permeating the American psyche, we are unable to easily create a strong 'mercantilist' economy. So all this effort to educate American children to win the race of the future (exemplified by "green jobs") toward nationalist aims may not work. If the best jobs in green sprout up in Asia somewhere, you can bet that the best American technologists and business-types will show up there, not on Main Street. If you ask a recent Stanford graduate if she'd rather take a great job in a totalitarian state or a mediocre one in Springfield, U.S.A., the answer is obvious.

Or is it?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Educating for Large-Scale Civilizations

Computers are important for running the world now because the world is getting very complicated, and computers are usually the best (and often only) way to represent complicated things. I like to look at the advertisements for large computer companies such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP in glossy magazines. They tell us that their products will help the executive make correct decisions under conditions of both uncertainty and (yet) data-overload. But we're all like that, now (or so we're told): We have a lot of data coming in (usually in the form of email or complicated financial statements), and we are expected to digest it, chew it, and spit back out some sort of "reply data" in order to further our interests. This also applies to every class you've ever taken in school or college.

Taking such a data-centric view of education is pretty unromantic, but it's what's happening now. I've become not too bad at crunching my own data, but what society demands is that our citizens get good at crunching other people's data. Therein the profit lies. It is one thing to be able to pay my own bills and do my own taxes, but when I can do it for others I become an "accounts payable bookkeeper" or "tax accountant." It is one thing for me to be able to get my client or tenant to pay up, but if I specialize in these activities I may become a "collections agent" or even "bounty hunter."

Thus the consumer can specialize in one or another area and become more efficient at it, until for example there is only one brand name on your CPU and one operating system on your computer. In a world where most goods and services are thus produced on an incredibly large scale, the most important skill for the human becomes the ability to work efficiently and effectively with large sets of data. In other words, to become a small but critical piece within an entity (usually a corporation or government) which serves millions, or even billions, of people. If you are really good at figuring out this world of monstrous scale, you may find yourself running such an entity.

Even though many people would like their sons and daughters to one day run a huge organization such as a company, a university, a hospital, or a government, there are not yet middle-school classes devoted to learning "how to run behemoth organizations." One would think it is largely a matter of motivational psychology. That is, as the head of such-and-such organization, how can I get the people one step below me to do the correct thing to advance its interests?

Let us contrast this sort of education--what I call "education to assist in running a large-scale civilization"--with the sort of education that a lot of Ivy-League type people miss out on. Let us call this "Zen and the art of troubleshooting your own engine" education. Perhaps you have hired acomputer-repair person, a car mechanic, a general contractor, a physician, or a "doctor the mind" and behaviour (a psychologist, psychiatrist, or even a social worker or clergy member). In general, these specialists are not very good unless they employ Practical Wisdom. That is, they cannot just be like robots or a simple artificial-intelligence/expert-system following straight book-learnin' rules....

Monday, September 26, 2011

Collegiate Athletes Are Supposed to be Students, Not Professionals

At what point did a college education become completely worthless to the collegiate athletes walking around on college campuses throughout the country?  A few weeks have already passed in the 2011 football season and it still seems like more and more college football scandals are revealed and investigations seem to be ongoing.  Athletes continue to constantly accept benefit after benefit along with violating many of the other rules.  It always makes me wonder about the values of the NCAA athlete and whether or not they really think they are students or professionals.

It is important to go back to what the original concept of an athletic scholarship is.  If a school identifies a talented athlete that has caught their interest and can qualify academically, the athlete is able to attend the school for free in exchange for competing for the school athletically.  Oversimplified?  Perhaps.  That is the essence of the athletic scholarship, though.  Of course, I am not completely na├»ve, as the schools with elite football and basketball programs will generate millions in profits from these teams.  Thus, it is an investment for the school, and they expect to get some return on their investment.  Regardless of whether or not anyone thinks this is fair, that is completely understandable.  Anybody who makes an investment wants, and expects, to have a significant return on their investment.  However, the fact that the schools may benefit more from this exchange is not what is disappointing.  The disappointment lies in the fact that collegiate athletes do not take advantage of the opportunity that is given to them through this exchange.

As an example, the total estimated cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, fees, etc.) at the University of Southern California, which is my alma mater, is $57,876 for the 2011-2012 school year, and the cost continues to go up every single year.  For a full scholarship athlete, the cost of attendance is absolutely free.  They are given the opportunity to receive an education and a place to live for four or five years, all of which is valued at well over $200,000.  In addition to the covered cost of attendance, they also receive a generous stipend every single month.  While most other colleges are not quite this expensive to attend, it does not change the fact that scholarship athletes across the entire country are receiving educational opportunities that are valued at tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars completely free of charge.  For some reason, though, this is not good enough for the collegiate athlete.  Because athletes see their jerseys for sale in stores everywhere and because they sell out stadiums and arenas, they figure they are also entitled to receive money or other benefits, too, as they constantly violate the rules by accepting benefits they know they should not be taking.  Does anybody really believe these students think about the monetary value of their education or the educational opportunity they are wasting when they decide to violate the rules and accept benefits?

Most collegiate athletes are simply using their scholarship as an opportunity to become a professional athlete and nothing else.  They are known for parading around campus like celebrities in addition to being known for declaring “easy” majors like sociology or history.  Although I do not believe there is a such thing as an “easy” major, there is a major difference between choosing to major in a subject because you have a genuine interest in it and want to do something with it in the future versus choosing a major (or even guided into a major by the athletic administration) because you think the coursework is not challenging and want to ensure you remain academically eligible to compete in your sport.

Once the opportunity to turn professional comes up, many of these athletes do not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity, even if they are not quite ready athletically; graduating and obtaining their degree is usually one of the last things they think about when it comes to making the decision to turn professional.  I have heard all of the excuses in the world as to why they decide to turn professional early.  Some will tell you directly to your face they are not concerned about school whatsoever and they were simply waiting for the first opportunity to leave.  Some argue that college students go to college in order to ensure they make more money.  Therefore, they feel if the opportunity to turn professional and become rich arises, they need to take advantage of the opportunity now and “get paid.”  Some argue they cannot take the risk of injuring themselves by staying in school while others argue that school is not for everyone.  Many argue that they can always come back to school and finish their classes (I dare somebody to do a study on how many professional athletes have gone back to finish their degrees).  And my absolute favorite argument (and the easiest one to hide behind) is that turning professional is best for them and their family.  While I am in no position to assess a family’s financial situation, I seriously doubt that another year or two of remaining in college to earn your degree is the “make it or break it” moment in their family’s financial situation.  For some of them, the context of doing what is “best” for their family is giving their family a chance to drive a Mercedes-Benz instead of a Honda Accord, or live in a mansion instead of a 3-bedroom house.

Think about how many students stand in line at the cashier’s office with an unpaid balance during the first few weeks of school.  Think about the student that has to apply for thousands in student loans to finish paying for the school year.  Think about the student who does not even qualify to receive a significant amount of financial aid because their parents make a little bit too much money.  How about the student that has to go to school full-time and participate in work-study in order to make sure their tuition is paid?  How about the walk-on athlete who has to pull “all-nighters” to complete their work because they have to work in addition to attending practice and going to class?  Sometimes, non-scholarship students have to endure some difficult challenges to ensure they get the chance to walk across the stage and receive their degree.  I can definitely relate, as I was a walk-on athlete.  I had many challenges and struggles just like so many other students, and I definitely had my fair share of Top Ramen noodles and instant burritos.  Thus, it did used to leave me scratching my head when I saw scholarship athletes complaining their stipend was not enough to cover many of their expenses, especially when I saw them buying a new pair of expensive shoes each week and driving around in nice cars.  It is to the point where they have the slightest idea as to what most other college students have to endure.  Ultimately, the majority of college students have to, and are willing to, endure hard times because they value the opportunity they have received to get an education.  Sure, many simply do go to college in an effort to make more money and may not necessarily value the educational aspect or the actual college experience.  However, that does not change the fact that they still had to earn their degree.  For them to still be willing to earn it means that some type of value has still been placed on the education, which is why it is absurd that many of these athletes expect to simply “skate” through school until they get the chance to turn professional; anything related to the educational aspect or the actual college experience is completely secondary to so many of the athletes.  Aren’t the athletes still supposed to be students?

They need to really think about the educational opportunities they are completely squandering.  In the same manner that the school may be using the athletes to be successful athletically in order to bring fame, fortune and prestige to the school, the athletes should be using the schools to get an education and graduate with a degree.  It is extremely disappointing that these students choose to walk away from the school with nothing other than the opportunity to go professional.  And keep in mind that it is only an opportunity.  I can count numerous athletes that attempted to go professional and did not even make the team’s final cut during their very first year.  They did not make the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars they anticipated on making and they have no degree.  They repeatedly try to make professional teams after that and still did not make them.

What is most disappointing, though, is when I hear athletes like Andrew Luck, the current starting quarterback for Stanford University's football team and one of the best players in college football, getting criticized for deciding to return to school for his senior season.  Had he left school after last season in order to turn professional, he would have certainly been a top-5 pick in the NFL draft and would have made millions of dollars.  Rather than turn professional, he chose to return to school in order to graduate and receive his degree in architectural design.  Ever since he made that decision, he has received a significant amount of criticism because he turned down the opportunity to become rich and could possibly get hurt, which could jeopardize his future as a professional.  There is no possible way that I can be the only one who sees something wrong with this type  of criticism...

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rep. Denny Rehberg: Pell Grants Are Welfare

That's what the GOP would like you to believe. The Hill reported late last night that one of the sticking points in passing Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) debt ceiling plan was an increase of $17 billion in Pell Grants over 2 years. An addition Boehner added to the plan in order to make it more palatable to Democrats and the White House. Never mind that Pres. Obama already has said that he would veto the plan if it happened to pass both the House and the Senate. 

What did GOP members think of the Pell Grant inclusion? 
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) called Pell Grants  “welfare”. He stated: 
"So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century," Rehberg told Blog Talk Radio in April. "You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, Section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Job Experience Vs. Higher Education

I had just come home from a long day at work at my minimum wage paying department store job when I was confronted with this question on a website that I had happened to stumble upon:

Considering the ever-increasing cost of higher education, and the student loans which many college kids amass while working for their various degrees, do you feel the economy actually turned the tide and made job experience just as or more valuable than higher education?

It’s true. The economy is in the crapper and there are millions of students out there drowning in college debt. Is it worth it? I still think so, but I do think having a bit of experience under your belt is also an incredibly smart thing to do.

I wrote in an earlier blog post about whether it was worth it or not to go to college and obtain a degree:

“People with a college education tend to be unemployed or a shorter amount of time than people with just a high school degree, said professor Sandra Emerson, MPA Director of Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona. “When the economy went south in 2008 there was a tendency for individuals with only high school diplomas to be the ones who were unemployed first and stayed unemployed longer. Those people went back to school because they realized their options were limited. It doesn’t mean people with a college education don’t go back to school, but you path is clearer during economic downturns.”

Regardless of how much more you would make as a college graduate, actually having a degree is far more beneficial to anyone dabbling in the job force than anyone just trying to reach, and keep that success, without it.

Having both job experience and a college education is obviously key, but if you had to choose between the two I would still put my foot down and claim that it is more beneficial to have a degree in your back pocket.

It’s a widely accepted notion that college gives future job seekers that extra boost when trying to break into the “real world.” Students not only receive the added skills necessary to think and communicate in a clear and intelligible way, but they have something that can be used to better themselves and their chances for success in life, and it’s something that nobody can ever take away from you.

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Jasmine's Articles on So Educated

Jasmine Lowe is currently a student at Cal Poly Pomona. She has experience writing for her school’s newspaper, The Poly Post, and as an intern for the online site, TheLoop 21.com.

She writes for her own blog, ‘Jasmine on the Issues.’ You can fan her blog’s page on Facebookand follow her on twitter @JasmineDLowe.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We Know What the Jobs of the Future Will Be- 21 million wanted

It is puzzling to hear in today’s economic climate that we do not know how to prepare the kids of today for the job market of tomorrow. We know it will require high competency in technology, the ability to work in teams and a willingness to think outside the box to solve problems.

As most Americans believe, our education system is not doing the job. It’s not like we as teachers do not know that as we get buried in more standardization and testing. Every teacher should take note and prepare kids for the massive economic restructuring that is occurring. Every teacher should read and fill their practice with the insight from June 2011’s McKinsey Global Institute’s “An economy that works: Job creation and America’s future”. The report provides a serious grounding for what we have just endured and what is coming. What is clear is that the output of today’s education system does not meet the needs of American companies. So start the new school year by telling parents and students the hard truth, “in the recent pace of job creation, it will take more than 60 months after GDP reached its prerecession level in December 2010 for employment to recover. The United States will need to create a total of 21 million new jobs in this decade to put unemployed Americans back to work and to employ its growing population" and finally “the United States will not have enough workers with the right education and training to fill the skill profiles of the jobs likely to be created” (Manyika et al., 2011).

We know that if young people go into certain professions that are experiencing and will continue over the next decade to decline: construction, finance, certain government jobs and MBAs, a middle class standard of living will be hard to obtain and retain. After a decade of net job losses and the weakest job creation since the Depression, it’s time to be real. Should we deter our students from those jobs? That is a matter of debate but it is not without a doubt we need to orient kids to the jobs our nation needs. We know what we need, more college graduates in the specialized fields of: health care, technology, mathematics, engineering, manufacturing, related green tech (solar, wind, efficiency inventiveness), energy independence and even leisure. In addition, with massive productivity gains due to technology, kids expecting a stable job will find more part-time flexibility and virtual jobs with lower pay unless you offer specialized highly sought after skills.

What should the education system do? Further specialty centers in information technology, green tech, automotive, electrical and welding. We have $2 trillion in unmet infrastructure needs (roads, bridges, ports, rail, out of date electrical grids and water systems). It’s time for a rebirth of technical schools connected to community colleges for the 21st century. Have your kid experiment and learn how to improve a fuel cell battery, make more efficient solar paneling, and develop the next online platform and energy independence. We need businesses to get off the sidelines and invest in partnerships with our high schools. We need more internships and apprenticeships with a direct path to employment with or without college. 21st century skills education needs to be in a child’s daily education experience. If it is not, then question, teachers and administrators. We need our schools to return a spirit of resiliency, ingenuity and free spirit which lays the seeds of our nation’s prosperity. Take a look below and get real:

Ben Nicely is a public high school teacher of 12 years in Central Virginia. He has taught AP Government, US Government, US History, ESL and World History from 1500. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science with a minor in International Studies and a Masters in Teaching from Virginia Commonwealth University.

He has a graduate certificate through American Public University in Homeland Security and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Emergency and Disaster Management. Ben has served on many high school committees on technology in the classroom, balanced assessments, school scheduling, and school safety. He is a strong advocate for teachers being treated fairly and moving away from educational norms to truly move students into a 21st century learning environment. In his spare time, Ben enjoys running, traveling, kayaking and volunteering with the American Red Cross. He is married with two dogs.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Too Many Attorneys? Pretty Much

The NYT tells us what we already know today but with some shiny numbers to back it up: there are too many attorneys these days. A consulting firm compared the number of persons passing the bar exam in a particular state to the number of job openings. This isn't foolproof by any means, but it does give offer a nice correlation. For example, some commenters pointed out (correctly) that the number of DC bar passers was low compared to job openings but that is due more to the fact that hardly anyone takes the DC bar in the first place. It is very easy to be waived into the DC bar. Nonetheless, the graph does offer some basic info that law schools can't wait to divulge law school applicants should heed.

(courtesy of NY Times)

2010-15 Est. Annual Openings2009 Bar Exam Passers2009 Completers (IPEDS)Surplus/ShortageMedian Wages
New York2,1009,7874,7717,687$56.57
New Jersey8443,0377872,193$43.84
North Carolina5031,032279529$37.79
South Carolina262506410244$33.03
New Mexico134298114164$29.78
Rhode Island102209184107$39.65
W. Virginia10019115291$32.51
New Hampshire9215414662$30.84
South Dakota38837345$29.19
North Dakota33638030$28.78