Monday, December 15, 2014

Dimes to dollars, money best spent

   'Tis the season. Long before "holiday giving" became a catch phrase, a group sought to slow down America's No. 1 infectious killer, one penny at a time. So began Christmas Seals – the campaign which in 1907 set out to conquer the "white plague."

   A few readers will guess what that plague was, or is. Most won't.

   Indeed, visit the Christmas Seals website and see that the plague — tuberculosis – is but a turn-of-the-century footnote. The National Lung Association, which launched Christmas Seals, now focuses mostly on lung cancer, asthma and emphysema. By the time this century rolled around, TB effectively had been tamed on these shores.

  Yes, just a footnote, except that with all the attention given to Ebola of late, do you know the second greatest infectious killer in the world? That's tuberculosis. You read it corectly. Nearly eradicated here. Ravaging continents "over there."

   At the height of the Ebola scare, I heard from James A. Holcombe, professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas, who observed of the hysteria, "People have trouble 'scaling' and understanding probability" when it comes to real and perceived threats.

    "In a world of 7 billion people, it is trivial to find hundreds (thousands?) of atrocities on any given day. Such events are, unfortunately, fodder for media outlets . . . I worry that many fail to see the difference in the size of the landscape on which these unrelated reports are occurring."

     Meanwhile, few Americans know that TB keeps killing on a grand scale. And why? Because there's nothing sensational about it.

     TB, for instance, is a major cause of death among people with HIV. It takes them when AIDS has ravaged their immune systems.

    Speaking of AIDS: It used to be sensational, too. But few Americans, bottle-fed on televised hype, happy talk and political spin, know this sobering fact: AIDS is the No. 1 infectious killer on the planet.

    Ah, but 'tis the season. In that spirit, let me spread a little good news. Better than good: It's stunningly good:

    The United States, which can't seem to get its act together to deal with any matter that doesn't involve military drones, has done a positively herculean job confronting AIDS, TB and malaria.

    Michael Elliott, CEO of the international advocacy group ONE, says the fact that the $50 billion our country has committed over the last 10 years has saved more than 7 million lives overseas. The leadership and the credit are shared by two administrations – Bush and Obama. 

    U.S. contributions have made the work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria one of the most amazing stories in the history of human interaction.

    When it comes to tuberculosis, two players have been key, and both are regular punching bags for America's political right. The first is the World Health Organization. The second is the United Nations – yes, that tea party villain — whose service arm, UNICEF, has shouldered the lion's share of providing affordable prevention and treatment. It is effective in part because prevention and treatment of TB is relatively inexpensive.

    Such efforts wouldn't be possible without the Global Fund. An unsung hero in helping the fund is RESULTS, a no-nonsense non-profit that focuses on global poverty and its causes. I invite you to Google RESULTS, then ask yourself if a government supported by you would do well to follow its advice aimed at needs domestic and international.

    Christmas Seals — as with the March of Dimes in its battle against infantile paralysis — is a great American success story. But no one presumes that piles of pennies and dimes alone could have done what the two hoped to do. Government had to get involved.

   Of course, if government isn't about saving lives, maybe we should do what some poorly informed people ache to do and just shut her down.

    Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A nation of generalizations

   Police did not kill Michael Brown. One policeman did.

   Black people did not burn down buildings in Ferguson, Mo. A few idiots did.

   It is our sad nature to assign the acts of one, or of a few, to the many (see: Islam) and that's one reason why we appear to be going nowhere when it comes to racial harmony in this country.

  The other day while police escorted students from Denver East High School in a peaceful protest over events in Ferguson and Queens, N.Y., a motorist inadvertently slammed into four officers, critically injuring one.

   Police asserted that a few students cheered the accident. Denver Post reporters on the scene said they heard nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, Fox News reported, "Denver high school students protesting recent civilian deaths involving police chanted "Hit him again!"

    Whatever the case, by all reports, most of the students – of many colors -- behaved just as peaceful protesters should. They were aghast.

    What happened in Denver and wherever police do their jobs brought home the collective sacrifice they make, the collective dangers they face.

   The destruction in Ferguson and at a few other protests around the country brought home the fact that a few idiots can succeed in distracting the easily distracted masses from the justifiable grievances others seek to address.

   One of the under-reported stories of the civil rights movement was the extent to which Martin Luther King Jr. went to keep people peaceful and peaceable in the protest marches he led.

   In fact, King pulled out of a much-anticipated march in Memphis just as it began when a few hooligans started breaking windows. He didn't want his movement associated with idiots. Of course, opponents of the movement quickly supplied the linkage between King and the worst kind of behavior. So, too, with the destruction in Ferguson.

   When the TV scenes show flames, it's easy for those who aren't there to assume the worst about generally peaceable people.  So, too, of course, in generalizing about police.

   That doesn't mean the protesters don't have a legitimate grievance. They do indeed.

    I spoke to an African-American in Central Texas who likes to customize cars and who has a dazzling set of wheels. He constantly gets stopped by police -- the quintessential crime of "driving while black."

  No one who doesn't share his pigment can understand the added dimensions this man's life assumes simply by stepping out the door.

  As to injustices, when I read John McWhorter's words, "Black bodies are devalued," in Time magazine, I didn't think of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. I thought of the frantic search in the summer of 1964 for Mississippi civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney – frantic only because Goodman and Schwerner were white.

  When dredging creeks and ponds looking for the three, whose grisly deaths shocked the country, searchers found a succession of unidentified black bodies. What had sealed victims' fates? Registering to vote? Whistling at a white woman? No calls for justice would ring out on their behalf.

  Back to King. Though he and his fellow protesters faced horrific indignities at the hands of police, at some point police became allies in the movement by making it possible for participants to carry out what King wanted – calculated nonviolence. That's all we can hope for some day in this land – that "the few" on either side will become fewer still. Fewer cops will shoot first or otherwise use excessive force. Fewer protesters will see communal outrage as reason to break and enter.

    Maybe that day, because of King's successes and the example his movement set, fewer of us will be in our neutral corners on matters of race, and all will be outraged about pointless violence.

  Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Learning is not a political process

   Maybe the most insidious modifier in the ongoing disservice we call education reform is "outcome-based."

  As in, "To make students voracious readers, use this method."

  As in, "To prepare students for four-year colleges, use this method."

  Usually "outcome-based" methods are described as "evidence-based." Bring out the charts and graphs.

  "Outcome-based" sounds like the modus of industry or agriculture and the processing of raw materials. Of course, that sounds just fine to most education reformers, with their corporate, top-down philosophies.

  "Outcome-based" requires "input," and treats all students as equals or at least similar, so all that is necessary is an "evidence-based method" on which experts agree. Of course, too often the experts aren't the ones doing the teaching. 

   I have my own term for this costly and misleading folderol: destination education.

  In destination education, policy makers mandate that from wherever point students might have started, all will end up at the same destination. That, of course, is readiness for a four-year college.

   The destination spiel is very focused on core requirements, and for its adherents, "raising the bar" is the ultimate virtue. If some students ultimately can't scale that bar, say by bombing out on college-level algebra, we don't look to flawed logic. We blame teachers.

   So let's take a moment to consider and identify the logical fallacies behind the "destinations" built into "outcome-based" education reforms.

  The 'higher-math' destination -- As drawn out by policy makers, our approach to math looks right past how difficult basic math is for some students, as well as the fact that some people will have no use for higher math in their lives and careers.

  Once, after writing a column denouncing school reformers' algebra-at-all costs overemphasis, I heard from a math teacher. I expected him to challenge my premise. Instead, he affirmed it vigorously.

  What had happened in the heavily mandated quest to get all students to stay on track for college-level algebra, he said, was that some students didn't get the emphasis they needed to perform basic math.

  Some students do just fine on the state's time and arrive at the destination in time for college. Some students, he said, needed twice and three times the amount of time spent on basic math. If held to a destination timeline, he said, a teacher is powerless to make up the difference. The result isn't stronger math skills but weaker ones, and students who are completely frazzled as they are nudged up the line -- this in a full-throated quest to end "social promotion."

   The "good college" destination – Two logical fallacies bear on this matter. First, though a high school diploma rarely will get a person ahead, not every young man or woman needs a four-year education. Two years at a community college or technical school are all that many need to move into lucrative, in-demand jobs.

  Second, the premium attached to a "good college" does not make it a good buy, considering the unbelievably high cost of attaining a diploma.

  Baylor University, for instance, long has advertised itself as an affordable private college. I'm sure it can trot out charts to say that remains the case, compared to other private schools. But with an annual tuition of $34,480, even with generous financial aid, Baylor is excluding a lot of promising young people.

   Regardless, it is false to assume that people with degrees from, say, a Sam Houston State, or a Florida Atlantic, or a Northern Arizona after two years of, say, Pima Community College, are in any way disadvantaged. And a student may have more opportunities on a smaller campus than on a sprawling, prestige university. It's about education, not a designer diploma.

     Let's get our heads out of destination education. Learning is not a political process. It doesn't translate well on a PowerPoint. Charts and graphs may entertain certain policy makers, but they rarely enlighten anyone.

    Education comes down to one educator and one child. That's it. Let teachers do their jobs.

     Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.