19 October 2010

How Confused We Are!

When I was in MBA school in the early '90s our Economics class was divided into teams each of which was to propose a new US federal budget. As my team dug into the existing budget we quickly noticed the rapid growth of mandatory spending would soon outstrip discretionary spending. Therefore, it didn't matter what was done about the budget (which only addresses discretionary spending) if the mandatory spending wasn't brought under control. Our projections had mandatory spending accounting for more than 70% of the federal budget by the year 2004.

Welfare reform delayed things a bit but we're still approaching the point at which mandatory spending will be unsustainable. In fiscal 2009, $2.1 Billion or 61% of the federal budget was mandatory spending including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the national debt.

This isn't really a surprise. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll indicates that three out of four Americans "predict that the costs of entitlement programs will create major economic problems." At first, this seems hopeful. With a majority of people concerned, perhaps there's the political will necessary to make reforms. However, only 44% are in favor of raising taxes and only 34% are in favor of cutting benefits. A mere 12% say both remedies are required. That means that for any proposed solution, a majority of Americans are against it.

How confused we are!

04 October 2010

Waiting for Superman

We went to see Waiting for Superman on Friday. Many critics are claiming that the movie oversimplifies the education problem by vilifying unions and promoting charter schools. While both arguments are made, the information is far more nuanced than that and there is a lot more to learn. You must see this film!

I just want to highlight and juxtapose two facts from the movie:

First: In the next 20 years our education system will not produce enough college graduates to fill US needs. By 2018 the shortfall will be 3 million and it will grow from there. These vacancies need to be filled either by increasing the performance of our education system or by immigration.

Second: While most of our schools (public, private and charter) preserve the "achievement gap" between lower and middle-class students. A growing set of innovative schools including KIPP charter schools and the Harlem Children's Zone have not only closed the gap but have elevated children of poverty-stricken areas to perform better than their middle-class competitors. Their models have been followed more than 100 schools with repeatable results.

These two facts combined mean that it's within our power to fill the need for a well-educated workforce from our most poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Updated 26 Oct 2010: Added correct employment shortfall number with link.

01 October 2010

Meridian School Legacy

The message on Meridian School's website is simple and to the point: "It is with deep regret ... that after 21 years, the Board of Trustees has decided to close the school."

Only last fall we celebrated the school's 20th anniversary with a Gala celebration and an expectation of many more years to come. Unfortunately, Meridian is another victim of the recession.

Many Meridian students have transferred to charter schools, others to the regular public schools. Most are happy and I expect that all will do well.

This post is to celebrate some of the things that made Meridian unique. The legacy remains in the hearts of hundreds of students, parents, teachers, staff and friends of the school.

Emotional Security
One year I served as chaperon when Meridian competed in the Utah Shakespearean Festival. Unlike larger schools that selected their best drama students, Meridian closed classes and took nearly the entire upper and middle schools. As I watched the kids perform monologues, dialogs, a dance number and two ensembles I was struck by their confidence on the stage and how much they were enjoying themselves.

Another parent and I pondered what might be the source of such stage confidence. We agreed that it was the safety these students felt among their peers. At an age when most kids are exposed to ridicule and bullying and struggle to find a place to belong, Meridian students welcomed new friends, encouraged each other to try new things and celebrated a variety of backgrounds, religions, languages and races. This welcome culture permeated the student body, faculty and staff.

Individualized Learning
Much of my work in education technology has been finding ways to customize the learning experience to meet individual needs. Meridian managed to do this with small classes and teachers who cared enough to adapt classes and offer individual assistance. Students would immerse themselves in subjects with language plays, historical banquets, period dance and may other fantastic activities.

Diverse Cultural Experiences
Meridian reached well beyond Utah Vally to expose students to other cultures. Full-time international students came from Korea, Japan, Europe and South America. Sister schools were chosen in Germany and Japan with biannual exchange trips in both directions. Students and faculty demonstrated understanding and respect for different religions, political beliefs and national background. International week and the language fair furthered this respect and students grew up knowing that their best friends could have very different beliefs from their own.

Breadth of Experience
At Meridian you didn't have to choose between sports, drama, music and language. Everyone did it all. The sports teams were open to anyone committed to making practice. The spring musical had to be scheduled around the basketball schedule because most of the cast was also on the team. When the seniors on the 2010 basketball team were honored it was disclosed that all were also taking AP Calculus! At Meridian we believed that high school was too soon to specialize.

Other things I'll miss:

  • Writing Rally
  • Broadway Rocks
  • Fear Factor
  • Extreme Theatre
  • Language Skits
  • Christmas Vespers
  • Medieval Banquet
  • German Exchange
  • Kindergarten Buddies
  • Mongoose Mornings (with Minton)
  • Quantum Leap and the Black Hole Cafe
  • Random students running up to me and saying, "I won the game!"
  • At the game: "Presenting... the Meridian Mongoo.. Mongeese... Mongooses... whatevertheyare!"
Goodbye Meridian. Farewell my friends!