Sunday, April 15, 2007

Johnny Still Can’t Read

Are the nation’s politicians so obsessive about remaining in office that they are willing to compromise the educational process through distortion and misrepresentation? Of course they are — after all, the phrase “honest politician” has always been viewed as an oxymoron. You may recall a recent six-part article in this blog titled “Are We Losing the War for Innovation?” Its conclusion was, whereas the 20 th century went down in history as the “American Century,” the consequences of a failing educational system as well as a major demographic shift will prevent America from a repeat performance in the 21 st century.

The Innovation article emphasized the fact that unlike the last century, we are now competing in a “Flat World,” as Thomas Friedman terms it — a global economy that values knowledge workers with high level educational skills. Our educational performance is not only failing to keep up with the increasing standards of countries on a world-wide basis, our students can’t even match test score averages of their counterparts from 15 years ago — regression instead of progress.

But wait a minute! Hold it right here! That statement can’t be true. One recent federal government report that came out in late February of this year, described the results of tests that measured the performance of 12 th graders. The results were quite encouraging, showing the Grade Performance Average (GPA) had risen appreciably from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 in 2005 (the latest year) — close to a solid B. So, things are not as bleak as some might think, right? Wrong!

For one, the above results did not take into account the fact that a startling 30 percent of students failed to even graduate from high school and thus the test scores obviously are overstated when applied to all high school students. The larger problem was that the above statistics were included in one of two reports issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and the second report essentially refuted the reliability of the GPA scores. The second report, popularly known as the “National Report Card” is based on the only consistent test given nationwide to a representative sample of 21,000 high school seniors attending 900 public and private schools.

This report was more than disappointing since it exposes an educational system-wide failure that has occurred over the past two decades. It also raises the question as to whether efforts to raise school standards have been nothing more than political posturing.

Some of the numbers are stunning. For example, the share of students lacking even basic high school reading skills rose from an abominable 20 percent in 1992 to an even worse 27 percent; and an overwhelming majority of high school students have not mastered high school level math. Unfortunately, the major decline in reading since 1992 occurred in scores for Blacks and Hispanics students.

So here we have a major disconnect between the two reports. One shows a nation-wide average of high school graduates at the relatively high level of “B,” yet the NAEP reading and math scores belie that figure. However an even larger problem exists, one that has received little or no publicity — it relates to the basic or “core curriculum.” It is probable that just about every reader of this article was exposed to and completed this discipline, or an even more rigid format. It consists of four years of English, and three years of social studies, math, and science. Despite the fact that the number of graduates who had taken the full core curriculum almost doubled since 1990, the percentage today is a stunningly low 17 percent. Can you imagine that 83 percent of all high school graduates have been cheated out of a core education?

But the scandal worsens because of political misconduct. This is depicted clearly in the March 5 th issue of U.S. News & World Report that explains that the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) was supposed to insure that a child in California will leave schools “as well educated as their kids’ friends in Massachusetts.” In fact, according to U.S. News, “The federal law requires all states to draft standards — minimum expectations for each grade level — and annually assess how well those standards are being met. But critics of the law argue that all the tests that have followed have not clarified matters at all. Every state administers a different test tied to different standards, and few of the state standards seem to match national ideas about what kids should know.” Some states have even deliberately lowered standards when scores did not match expectations.

The article displays in graph form test scores as reported to NCLB from every state, and they range from a high of an 87 percent grade in Colorado and Mississippi to a low of about 27 percent in Missouri. Florida clocks in at about 60 percent. Once again however, those scores become more than suspect when compared to the state scores as recorded on the “National Report Card” referred to above. For example, the 87 percent score reported by Mississippi to NCLB is patently false when compared to its score as defined by NAEP of around 18. Think about it: The Mississippi state government calculates that it has the highest score in the nation based on its standards, but when tested against its peer state scores Mississippi has the second lowest rating in the country. Florida’s score is around 33, almost half the value of the NCLB test, and 24 th in the nation. In almost every case where both reports were listed, the NCLB score was greatly exaggerated.

The explanation for this disservice to the educational process is explained in the U.S. News article as follows: “Critics say No Child Left Behind is the source of the problem. To avoid labeling hundreds of schools ‘failing,’ they say states have simply lowered the definition of proficient, [better known as the ‘cut score’], to ensure more schools make the grade.” (The three score levels are, from high to low, Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and by default, Failure.) The NCLB law decrees that all schools must achieve 100 percent proficiency scores by 2014. Considering the lack of progress so far shown, and the willingness of state politicians to deliberately and shamefully misrepresent student performance will insure that the NCLB goal of all states meeting the 100 percent level in just seven more years is farcical and will fall way short.

Here is what The New York Times editorial page suggests as a solution: “Congress, which is preparing to reauthorize both the No Child Left Behind Act and the Higher Education Act, needs to take a hard look at these scores and move forcefully to demand far-reaching structural changes. It should start by getting the board that oversees The National Assessment of Educational Progress testing to create rigorous national standards for crucial subjects. It should also require the states to raise the bar for teacher qualifications and end the odious practice of supplying the neediest students with the least qualified teachers. This process would also include requiring teachers’ colleges, which get federal aid, to turn out higher quality graduates and to supply many more teachers in vital areas like math and science. If there’s any doubt about why these reforms are needed, all Congress has to do is read the latest national report card.”

Now do those recommendations sound outlandish to you? The suggestion to have the NAEP establish national standards would be a good starting point. I’m afraid however this would never be approved by the states (in other words, the politicians) who claim they have a right to establish standards as they see fit. Does anyone really believe these state (so-called) standards are providing America with the caliber of workers necessary to compete favorably in the newly forming global environment? Well, there’s always the 22 nd century.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Doomsday Book, An Environmental Nightmare — Part I

How would you like to pursue a new career, or if you are retired, perhaps a part-time job? If you are willing to wait a couple of years, the government will be hiring tens of thousands for the upcoming 2010 census. This will be quite a contrast to the earliest censuses that were conducted; there were far fewer people then, and the costs associated with the enterprise were surprisingly inexpensive. For example, in the second census, taken in 1800, the U.S. population stood at around 5,300,000, and the cost was just over $44,000, or about 1.24 cents per person.

One hundred years later, in 1900, with a population of over 76 million, the census cost $11,854,000, a rate of 15.54 cents for each person counted. By 2000, the most recent census, between inflation and a population explosion to 281 million, the expense ballooned to $4.5 billion, and the per-person rate was over 100 times higher at $15.99 per person.

As you can imagine, any effort of this nature, demanding the extraction of definitive and accurate information, is difficult at best. So, consider what it might have been like in the Middle Ages when, in 1085, William the Conqueror commanded that a survey be administered to determine the value of the possessions he had conquered in 1066. The rationale for this effort was dictated by a need that still exists today — taxes. It seems that England was threatened with invasion from Denmark, so William ordered a survey to determine the taxable value of his kingdom in order to pay for a mercenary army.

Royal agents were appointed to take evidence from over 13,000 locations of not only the population, but each piece of land, its present and past holders, every bit of their personal property including livestock and other animals, and what annual dues (taxes) were lawfully the King’s. So thorough was this venture, one description from that period stated, “Not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig… escaped notice.”

The result of this effort is considered the most remarkable administrative feat of the Middle Ages. The products of this survey were recorded (by hand) in a book originally called the “Winchester Roll” or “King’s Roll.” By 1180 however, the book had gained more popularly and become known as the “Domesday” (Old English spelling for “Doomsday”) Book. This was a Saxon word meaning Judgment Day — the end of time, when God will pronounce judgment against all mankind. Richard Fitz Nigel, King Henry II’s treasurer wrote, “This book is metaphorically called by the native English ‘Domesdai’, the Day of Judgment, for as the sentence of that terrible last account cannot be evaded by any subterfuge, so when the Book is appealed to in those matters which it contains, its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity.” In other words, the book had become the court of last resort since there could be no appeal from the census takers’ evidence and rulings.

A New Doomsday Book

I was reminded of that book and of the biblical “Doomsday” after reading a book published last year — rather like a 21 st century version of the Doomsday Book — that compellingly outlines a bleak future for the planet, possibly as a result of mankind both ignoring, and contributing to potentially devastating climatic and environmental changes. This is a “must read” book providing a literal depiction of an environmental “Judgment Day,” a book that so impressed Ted Turner that he distributed over 3,500 copies to heads of state, cabinet members, Fortune 500 CEO’s, and the U.S. Congress.

A New Doomsday Report

Allow me however, to digress for a moment in order to address those readers who are skeptics about the reality of climate change and who might believe, as does Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma that, "much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science," at the same time calling the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." You might have seen his clash with Al Gore during the March Senate hearings on climate change (as well as the slap-down imparted By Barbara Boxer). If that indeed is your predilection, read the following and try to determine what group issued this report:

“By 2020, average rainfall in Europe drops 30 percent; "Megadroughts" affect Southern China and Northern Europe; massive boatlifts of people from the Caribbean attempt to enter the United States and Mexico; China is unable to feed its population due to the combination of droughts and violent monsoons and flooding; Eastern European countries invade a weakened Russia to seek minerals and energy; nuclear India, Pakistan, and China go to war over water, land, and refugees. In all, 400 million people could be forced to migrate from uninhabitable regions. In the United States, the East Coast population areas experience severe shortages of freshwater; flooding creates an inland sea in California's Central Valley and disrupts freshwater supplies for Southern California; and energy disruptions are commonplace due to storms, ice and conflict.”

No! This was not produced by some ideological, wacko ecologist group, nor was it the work of a politician determined to ingratiate himself with environmentalists in a potential bid for the presidency. Instead, this was part of an analysis commissioned by the Pentagon back in October of 2004. However, some say the report was deliberately suppressed, and withheld from the public for four months, until it was leaked to Fortune magazine and published therein in February, 2005. (For the full article, google “The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare”).

Referring to climatic changes, the article emphasizes that these changes “hammer the world’s “carrying capacity — the natural resources, social organizations, and economic networks that support the population”. It then explains that, “As the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, an ancient pattern reemerges: the eruption of desperate, all-out wars over food, water, and energy supplies.” The report further states, “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,” and suggests, “Once again, warfare would define human life.”

You might assume that a report of this nature would create some concern on the part of government officials as well as the public at-large. The fact that two-and-a half years later the report has been pigeon-holed and nothing has been done could be attributed to an administration that not only denies the existence of global warning, but whose non-scientific officials demanded that scientists excise that phrase from every scientific report. Fortunately, the main culprit resigned from the government.

It is important to note that the authors of the Pentagon issued analysis emphasized that the dire warnings were “not a prediction but a plausible scenario given what we know.” At the end of the report the authors state, “In sum, the risk of abrupt climate change remains uncertain, and it is quite possibly small. But given its dire consequences, it should be elevated beyond its scientific details. Action now matters, because we may be able to reduce its likelihood of happening, and we can certainly be better prepared if it does. It is time to recognize it as a national security concern.” Perhaps the most sobering comment in the report is, “While alternative fuels, greenhouse gas emission controls, and conservation efforts are worthwhile endeavors,” the authors argue, “we must prepare for the inevitable effect of abrupt climate change – which will likely come regardless of human activity.”

Thus, the report takes the position that whether or not human alteration of the environment is causing climatic change is irrelevant. The fundamental problem is that regardless of the cause, the consequences outlined above — a colossal catastrophic environmental effect that will eventually impact our world — is a plausible and probable scenario. What is more, it is not a matter of if, but when.

Climate Change: The Result of Human Activity

PARIS, Feb. 2 [2007] NY Times —“ In a bleak and powerful assessment of the future of the planet, the leading international network of climate change scientists have concluded for the first time that global warming is "unequivocal" and that human activity is the main driver, ‘very likely’ causing most of the rise in temperatures since 1950 They said the world is already committed to centuries of warming, shifting weather patterns and rising seas, resulting from the buildup of gases in the atmosphere that trap heat. But the warming can be substantially blunted by prompt action, the panel of scientists said in a report released here today.”

The account continues, “This report, the fourth assessment since 1990 by the group, as summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, sized up the causes and consequences of climate change. But it is the first in which the group asserts with near certainty — more than 90 percent confidence — that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases from human activities have been the main causes of warming since 1950”

The above article from the NY Times recaps the results of an ongoing study, previously published in 2001, concluding that, as stated in a United Nations news release, “ Evidence is now ‘unequivocal’ that humans are causing global warming.” Despite this strong endorsement that includes the opinions of scientists from 113 nations, there are still some who doubt the UN report. You will find a number of these contrary judgments in Part II of this article, but if you can’t wait, google “Opinion Journal – Climate of Opinion,” an editorial piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Back To the 21 st Century Doomsday Book

Much of the debate over the cause of climate change revolves around the impact on the environment of fossil fuel burning, the degree that this actually affects the planet, and whether humans are the basic source. However a seminal book published last year titled Plan B 2.0 approaches the problem in an idiosyncratic manner, one that is uniquely logical, all encompassing, and thoroughly convincing. The author is Lester R. Brown and his biography is described in part in Wikipedia as follows: “Though he has written over twenty books (the number is actually 50), he is best known for Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. With books in more than 40 languages, he is one of the world's most widely published authors. The recipient of 40 honorary degrees and a MacArthur Fellowship, among numerous other awards, Brown has been described by the Washington Post as "one of the world's most influential thinkers." After reading the book, I concluded that is an understatement.

Mr. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit, interdisciplinary research organization located in Wahington D.C. He states, “Our global civilization today is on an economic path that is environmentally unsustainable, a path that is leading us toward economic decline and eventual collapse.” (Is that “doomsday” enough?) While the problems he cites (many more than have been considered by others) are doomsday-like in nature, unlike most other experts, he also provides practical solutions and suggestions as to how these seemingly unresovable issues might be mitigated. Here is an example of Mr. Browns “out-of-the-box” thinking:

“As world population has doubled and as the global economy has expanded sevenfold over the last half-century, our claims on the earth have become excessive. We are asking more of the earth than it can give on an ongoing basis, creating a bubble economy. We are cutting trees faster than they can regenerate, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, overpumping aquifers, and draining rivers dry. On our cropland, soil erosion exceeds new soil formation, slowly depriving the soil of its inherent fertility. We are taking fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce. We are releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect.”

Mr. Brown then says, “As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, so does the earth's temperature. Habitat destruction and climate change are destroying plant and animal species far faster than new species can evolve, launching the first mass extinction since the one that eradicated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Throughout history, humans have lived on the earth's sustainable yield the interest from its natural endowment. But now we are consuming the endowment itself. In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principal along with interest in the short run, but in the long run it leads to bankruptcy.”

If you were not one of the recipients of Ted Turner’s largesse when he distributed the book, Mr. Brown has made it available, free of charge on the Internet. In the address box type: I must warn you however that if you wish to download it, be prepared for 360 pages to come tumbling out of your printer. But at the very least, read the introduction section on-line. You can also wait for next month’s column for more details — provided of course, that climate change has not seriously affected our ability to stay above water.