Sunday, July 19, 2015

Leave the Department of Education Behind

Two weeks before the 1980 presidential election, the Associated Press published a story explaining that the two major-party candidates were "poles apart on education issues."

Carter, the story reminded readers, was the Founding Father of the federal Department of Education.

"The fate of the Department of Education, the $14-billion federal agency elevated to Cabinet status less than six months ago, may hang in the balance on Election Day," said the story.

"Republican Ronald Reagan," it said, "hopes to dismantle the agency, which was created following a promise that Jimmy Carter made to the National Education Association in seeking and winning the union's support four years ago."

The story ended with a direct quote from Reagan.

"I think that this Department of Education is hoping to make come true the dream of the National Education Association, which for many years has been that we should have a federal school system, a nationalized school system," said Reagan.

The Washington Post published a similar story in September 1980.

"And only Reagan speaks and writes about ending the public school 'monopoly,' a theme that fits in with his broad philosophical belief that the private sector can do most jobs better than the government," said the Post.

The paper then cited a passage from Reagan's book, "Call to Action."

"Right now in public education we are very close to a monopoly," wrote Reagan. "Every year thousands of parochial and private schools close down because they can't compete against the public schools, which drain off more and more in taxes. Most of us are left with no choice but the public schools, good or bad."

In addition to terminating the federal Department of Education, were there any affirmative education policies Reagan wanted America to pursue?

"Reagan favors tuition tax credits, amount unspecified, for parents of parochial and other private school students," reported the Associated Press.

"Reagan also supports experimentation with a controversial plan to issue vouchers entitling children to attend private or public schools of their choice," said the Post.

During his entire presidency, Reagan faced a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, which would not have enacted legislation to abolish the Department of Education.

In 2001, a Republican-controlled House passed the No Child Left Behind Act, co-sponsored by Republican Rep. John Boehner and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Republican President George W. Bush signed it into law — putting a "bipartisan" seal-of-approval on federal involvement in public schools.

Today, Republicans control both houses of Congress — and what are they doing?

They are trying to craft yet another law to reauthorize federal programs aimed at local public schools that President Barack Obama will find acceptable.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

"If we should succeed next week, as I believe we will, why then we will have a conference with the House of Representatives, and we will develop a bill we hope the president will be comfortable signing," Alexander said on the Senate floor last week.

Alexander calls his bill the "Every Child Achieves Act."

But what has happened in the public schools since Jimmy Carter created the Department of Education?

In the 1979-1980 school year, according to the department itself, public primary and secondary schools spent an average of $6,876 per pupil (in constant 2013-2014 dollars) on their "current expenses." By the 2011-2012, they were spending an average of $11,732 per pupil (in constant 2013-2014 dollars).

Real per pupil spending increased by $4,856, or almost 71 percent.

Did public-school students get a better education as a result? No.

In 1980, according to the National Center for Education Statistics' "Trends in Academic Progress 2012" report, 17-year-old public school students scored an average of 284 out of a possible 500 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test. That rose to a peak of 289 in 1988 and 1990, then dropped back to 285 by 2012.

By contrast, the average NAEP reading score for 17-year-olds in Catholic schools rose from 300 in 1980 to 309 in 2012 — the highest it has ever been.

In 1980, Catholic school 17-year-olds scored an average of 16 points higher in reading than their public school counterparts. By 2012, they scored 24 points higher.

In 2013, only 38 percent of American 12th graders were grade-level "proficient" or better in reading, according to the NAEP test.

In math, the average NAEP score for 17-year-olds in public schools in 1978 was 300 out of 500. That rose to a peak of 307 in 1999 and dropped to 305 by 2012. By contrast, the average score for 17-year-olds in Catholic schools rose from 309 in 1978 to an all-time high of 325 in 2012.

Only 26 percent of American 12th graders were grade-level "proficient" or better in Math in 2013, according to the NAEP test.

Was Ronald Reagan right in 1980 that America should move away from the Department of Education and toward school choice? Absolutely.


Cafeteria Capitalism in public schools - Black market candy, childhood hunger and obesity in America


I was sorely tempted to take a serious bit of literary license when I first learned that some enterprising youngsters were selling salt, sugar, and pepper packets in schools to counter the apparently bland taste of food provided by public school lunch programs that have become standard faire courtesy of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK). This law represents some significant changes in school meals, as well as likely influencing what vending machines can sell on school property. Promoted by Mrs. Obama and signed by her husband President Obama, I was tempted to quip "finally the Obama's have created a new industry (cafeteria condiment capitalism) to employ Americans."  But in a spirit of bipartisanship to foster collaboration, I'll avoid such comments.

And, at first blush it really is funny to think children are adding to their allowances, or creating an outright revenue stream meeting a large, unmet demand - providing seasonings for the non-tasty, but healthy food served to school kids. But think about it - children prescribed medicinal marijuana may soon be able to use it in Colorado schools, but they still won't be able to get a sugar cookie! In reading the USDA regulations, in fact they couldn't get a hash brownie even if it was infused with medicinal grade relaxants - not because of the drug, but because of the sugar content. The HHFK Act means well. But prohibiting sugar is???

In lemonade stand fashion, such cafeteria capitalism - elementary school entrepreneurialism is to be applauded - it is truly reflective of a largely American practice (lemonade stands) and rite of passage where kids learn the basics of business - location, inventory control, management, and profit margins.

I can just imagine a growing underground industry of teens being the regional distributors -purchasing bulk quantities of caffeine water, soda, even chocolate milk, as well as beloved snack foods, supplying local kids in supply chain fashion.  Only these godfather's of the sugar set - Drakes Cakes Don Corleone wannabees are too young to vote, or drive, let alone buy flash cars with their profits on such things as salt, or snack foods and Hershey syrup to flavor up milk. Which is part of the don't vote, yet they are important constituents. The contraband capitalists are sending us a message. But do we actually engage kids or listen to them, balanced against what we think they need?

As part of a nationwide health policy fellowship, we encountered a rare politician who, though passionate about nutrition, banning vending machines and soda in his district, took the time to ask students what healthy foods they would be willing to eat consistently, and what schools need to do to make milk appealing ("serve it cold, and allow chocolate milk" was the consensus). He, like the students learned about balance - in terms of diet and politics.

Interestingly the cafeteria contraband is not new; kids in the UK were noted to do this in 2006 as a response to their school cuisine.

But while black market candy bars may be funny, childhood obesity and hunger are no laughing matter.

For several years I ran an adolescent health practice, and lectured extensively on critical issues that impact the health of young adults. Behaviors, not diseases, are the leading risks for adolescents. Among them, and there are many, one cannot overlook the medical implications of both obesity and hunger. Children suffer adverse psychosocial, cognitive, and medical effects from being fat or hungry. The causes and solutions are complicated, neither being zero sum, or one size fits all, or catchy band aids more amenable to sound bites than solution, nor amenable simply to the stroke of a legislative pen.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act - flawed though it may be- was one attempt to address these issues, and I won't impugn motivation that was well intended.

Some partisans may be tempted to protect or criticize the first lady and POTUS for putting forth such legislation, changing the food kids eat at school cafeterias that set the stage for the cafeteria contraband industry. Don't! This is a big problem needing lots of ideas. I still have flashbacks to the cuisine (term used loosely) served when I went to public school and recognize it would take Gordon Ramsey or Robert Irvine to fix the flavor problem as it stands today, cafeteria capitalists notwithstanding. Maybe that's part of the solution - hire some ‘Iron Chefs' accustomed to creating flavor from challenging ingredients.

Moreover, the tug of war across the aisle between the Left and Right on virtually every policy issue in America will invariably enter the discussion. Folks on the left may be tempted to suggest it is a good use of government influence to try and help decrease childhood obesity, or increase food security - both significant problems in our nation - while folks on the right may counter that the USDA is doing a political overreach to control yet another aspect of society, or overpowering common sense. The left and right are fighting the wrong battle.  For once it truly is "about the children."

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) national survey - an important epidemiology tool, there was an increase from 1999 to 2013 in the prevalence of students nationwide who were obese (10.6 percent to 13.7 percent) and who were overweight (14.2 percent to 16.6 percent).  Obese children often become obese adults. Based upon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies, adult obesity in the US is an epidemic! Over 30% of adults living in the US are obese, with people who identify as Blacks having the highest levels at 47.8%, Latinos 42.5%, and Whites 32.6%. Many of these people are parents; parents of obese children.

There is no getting away from the fact that while much of the world starves, or is food insecure, America looks the part of a glutton. Perhaps it is a problem of being too blessed. I am not suggesting we FedEx our leftovers to Africa. But I am suggesting we look for solutions together - Blue and Red, Left and Right - because we are way beyond the blame game.

When over 30% of the adult population is obese, is it any wonder we have a problem with weight challenged kids in the US. Consider these CDC data - Childhood obesity more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents since the 1980's. The percentage of obese children aged 6-11 years is nearly 18% in 2012 and 21 % aged 12-19 years.

Contrast this with a sizeable proportion of kids living in food insecure homes, and going to school hungry. The nation's girth casts a wide shadow that hides another sad reality - while many children go to school as supersized kids, in their classrooms you can also find hungry kids. With increasingly impoverished children comprising a larger percentage of public schools nationwide, filled with both hungry and overfed, under exercised children, is it any wonder outcomes - the competitiveness of public school attendees is declining? Nutrition is a contributor to function.

Beyond the cliché that children are our future, is the harsh reality that we are failing this generation, and no amount of political bickering will change that. This is not the time to vilify or sanctify people with whom we disagree/agree on policy issues - talking over each other instead of engaging in dialogue with each other on the substantial challenges facing children today.

The threats facing young people in contemporary America are more challenging than in prior generations.  For starters, if you are over 30, you can probably agree - your contemporaries were like mine - very few friends or classmates suffered from hunger or obesity, let alone violence, smoking, binge drinking or drug use, let alone drive by shootings -from public school to prep school to college, even med school.

Times have changed. Many today are born into single parent homes - a significant risk for poverty. Inner cities are increasingly dangerous for children - as the homicide, drive by shooting, gang violence and drug related injury data reveal from LA to Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and well you get the idea.

Kids are often unsupervised, or parented by checkbook, leaving children to their own devices, including high tech babysitting from TV to hand held electronics.  And with it comes the expected decline in exercise, discipline and focus.  Schools can't do it alone. They are under fiscal pressures as communities wrestle with revenue shortfalls, and deciding whether sports and arts are going to be paid for, or will children and their families have to pay a fee - sometimes beyond house hold budgets even when sliding scales are applied. Playing in sports was the great equalizer - now in some school districts it is the great divider. As an aside, you don't need fancy uniforms or expensive gear to get adequate exercise; walking a couple miles with a can of soup in each hand may look goofy, but is low cost, and burns off calories.

Health is influenced by multiple factors - family, community, school, medical care, faith-based, enterprises, government agencies, the media, and entertainment industries. Are we exposing our children to the Proverbial "it takes a village" or village idiots - not as surrogate parents, but in support of good role modeling and behaviors or just the opposite?

The CDC rightly suggests "schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors." But they are not a substitute for concerned parents, and the home. Nevertheless, failing a stable home life, we will continue relying upon schools to provide a wider range of services that attempt to fill the void.

With the increase in school based health clinics, one could argue greater effort at screening, counseling and support for overweight children be provided. The black market entrepreneurs have reminded us there is more to obesity than legislating bad food away. Prohibition rarely works - on food, prostitution, liquor or drugs. Oh were it that easy! But behaviors - cause, effect and remedy - require more than the stroke of a pen, no matter how well intentioned.  My local congressman took the time to visit schools, and talk with the stakeholders - kids and adults, and made a dent in the hunger issue. 

The clock is ticking. If we want our children to be competitive in the 21st century, and healthy, we need to pay attention at the local level, because therein rests ideas, innovations, and community solutions to community problems. Federal efforts - well intentioned though they may be - are often a one size fits all approach to a complex problem requiring multiple approaches - allowances for exemptions and alterations to the food law notwithstanding. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue - it is a US issue, requiring federal, state, and local collaboration. Moreover, each of us - mentors, physicians, teachers, and parents must be more committed to act as good role models, taking a more proactive interest in our own health, as well as that of our young people, which may result in kids following suit. Hunger and Obesity - we can make a difference in the lives of our local kids, if we work together. 


Australian maths students do well in 56th International Mathematical Olympiad

Aussie team comes 6th and achieves Australia's highest global ranking ever.  Amusing and unsurprising that 3 out of 5 top scorers were East Asian

Australia won two Gold and four Silver medals coming sixth (out of 104 teams) at the 2015 International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), which concluded this week in Thailand.  In our best result in 35 years of competing, our team improved Australia’s ranking from 11th last year to 6th position surpassing such highly rated teams as Taiwan, the Russian Federation, Japan, Ukraine and Singapore.

Competing with 577 contestants from 104 countries, multi-medallist Alex Gunning scored Gold and was ranked fourth in the world.  After tying for first place with a perfect score last year, he has a total of three Gold medals and a Bronze and now appears on the IMO Hall of Fame leader board.

In his third IMO, 16 year-old Seyoon Ragavan was awarded Gold this year for his 19th place, adding this to his two Bronze medals. All four other team members scored Silver: Yang Song at his second Olympiad, and Jeremy Yip, Kevin Xian and Ilia Kucherov on their first attempt.  More results can be seen at

Team members are first identified by the annual Australian Mathematics Competition (AMC) sponsored by the Commonwealth Bank. This year’s AMC will be held on 30 July. Success in AMC leads talented students like these into the Australian Mathematics Trust’s Olympiad training program.

Adjunct Professor Mike Clapper, Executive Director of the Australian Mathematics Trust said, ‘At a time when maths education in particular is a concern in Australia, the outstanding achievements of these students are inspirational. They are indicative of the enormous talent and capabilities of our young people. They have repeated and exceeded last year’s extraordinary results’.

Hosted by a different country each year, the annual UNESCO-sanctioned IMO is the pinnacle of competition between students of pre-university level around the world and the premier international competition in mathematics for secondary school students. It began in 1959 and is the oldest, largest and most prestigious of the International Science Olympiads.

Press release

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