Friday, August 5, 2011

Educating a Broken America: Closing the Achievement Gap

I imagine it would be difficult to find someone who has succeeded in America and who would argue against the importance of education. It is no secret that the skills we learn in school allow us to make a better life for ourselves. And for the most part we have seen a constant improvement in the quality of our lives. That is, our generation is better off than the previous generation, who in turn, is better off than the generation before them. This means, as a population, we have been experiencing the American Dream. However, 80 million Americans still live in “Broken America” where the American Dream is not obtainable. Alex Blumberg on NPR’s Planet Money asks the obvious question ‘how do we get these Americans out of “Broken America” and into “American Dream America?”’ The answer is not to simply say education.

We can all agree that education is the catalyst for social change. But what type of education is the most effective? The hosts of Planet Money argue that teaching technical skills is not enough to enable the population of Broken America to acquire jobs. They often lack the more intangible skills such as making eye contact, controlling your anger and the ability to focus. These skills are more fundamental and more essential to functioning in the American Dream America. “Soft skills” are not learned in the formal classroom setting. They are discovered through play and social cooperation in Preschool. In fact, trying to learn these skills later in life is almost impossible. Several studies have concluded that it is too late to learn these skills even as early as elementary school. If then we only have a small window to learn these skills, how can we optimize this development?

Playtime in Preschool can be categorized into Organized Play such as games which have rules and boundaries. It can be expected that conflict resolution and using words to get what you want are useful for this type of play. The other group is Unorganized Play which makes use of the child’s imagination. This variety of play is open-ended such that a child might wonder “where does this stream of water go?” Both are essential to the healthy development of the child. Richard Louv, however, argues in “Last Child in the Woods” that Unorganized Play is often neglected; especially playing outside in nature in what he calls “Natural Play.” The disappearance of Natural Play is a result of development of natural areas into urban and suburban neighborhoods and an over protective concern for the safety of the child and the environment. The result is children spend more time getting their imagination from the TV. Indoor Play is limited in originality and is more broken up, that is it’s played in short segments. The more open-endedness of Natural Play allows for children to invent through trial and error without interruption, thus nurturing creativity.

The completion of The Perry Preschool Study in 2005 examined the importance of Preschool education and its effect on an individual later in life. The researchers took children from poor families and randomly sent half of them to Preschool for two hours each day while the other half acted as the control and received no Preschooling. From Kindergarten through high school and beyond there was no intervention thus the only variable between the two groups was whether or not they had a Preschool education. The study followed up with the subjects forty years later and discovered that the Preschool group went to prison less often, earned a higher salary, and had higher all-round achievements. This study illustrates that it is in the public good to send every child to Preschool. They will become better citizens, innovators and workers and will have a real opportunity to pursue the American Dream.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Consider the following...

We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others' actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others' activities. For this reason it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.

Nor is it so remarkable that our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for others. But that is not all. We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness but they also lessen our experience of suffering. Here I am not suggesting that the individual whose actions are motivated by the wish to bring others' happiness necessarily meets with less misfortune than the one who does not. Sickness, old age, mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace -- anxiety, doubt, disappointment -- these things are definitely less. In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves an experience of our own suffering is less intense.

What does this tell us? Firstly, because our every action has a universal dimension, a potential impact on others' happiness, ethics are necessary as a means to ensure that we do not harm others. Secondly, it tells us that genuine happiness consists in those spiritual qualities of love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness and so on. For it is these which provide both for our happiness and others' happiness. [Ethics for a New Millennium, by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama]

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Transgender Tax Collectors

From the
The wealthy in Pakistan are unwilling to pay their taxes and the politicians have a conflict of interest to hold them accountable. Without these taxes Pakistan's public services suffer which has the greatest impact on the poor. The nation receives billions of dollars in foreign aid money from the US allowing the Pakistani elite to continue evading their taxes. In an attempt to put pressure on the rich one neighborhood hired transgender tax collectors to embarrass the defaulters into paying up.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen - Introduction

I stepped outside my apartment today and stumbled upon the 12th Annual Harlem Book Fair only a few blocks away. Tents lined 135th Street with book sellers and authors hawking their words and prose. It was not surprising that most of the books catered to the population in Harlem – Urban fiction, Black Literature and books on social justice dominated the tables. I wandered past the AK Press booth and picked up a copy of Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfiker, MD (Seven Stories Press). Hilfiker presents a history of the social structures that created ghettos and keep African Americans from rising out of poverty. His experience comes from practicing as a physician in a medical recovery shelter for homeless men in Washington, DC and cofounding a community and hospice center for formerly homeless men dying of AIDS.

I chose this book because it expresses the mission of this blog: Create an argument for social equality to promote the health and wellbeing for those affected by injustice. Future posts will analyze chapters from this book and comment on my own experiences and opinions.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obama Introduces National HIV/AIDS Strategy

Today Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced a new national strategy to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Early in his administration President Obama organized a committee to consult doctors and persons living with HIV/AIDS, researchers and health workers, activists, community leaders and academics to develop a plan with three goals:

1) reduce the number of people who become infected with HIV; 2) increase access to care and improving health outcomes for people living with HIV; and, 3) reduce HIV-related health disparities.

The vision is that “The United States will become a place where new HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.” Said Secretary Sebelius.

The Strategy calls for a 25% reduction of HIV prevention over the next five years. In order to achieve this objective the administration acknowledges it must target the populations at higher risk. The disparity between HIV infection and treatment is drastic in the United States as Sebelius explains:

“we’ve been very successful at keeping HIV/AIDS incidence low for some populations. If you’re a white, heterosexual woman like me, your chances of being infected by HIV/AIDS are very low – just 1 in 50,000. But if you’re a black female who’s an injection drug user, your chances of being infected are more than 1,000 times higher – closer to 1 in 35. If you’re a gay Hispanic man, your chances are 350 times higher. In some U.S. cities, it’s estimated that almost half of all gay black men are HIV-positive.Read her full speech.

The Strategy is praised for its ambition and thoughtfully outlining a road map with milestones and targets.

However, Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, was critical of the Strategy: "This strategy is a day late and a dollar short: 15 months in the making, and the White House learned what people in the field have known for years. There is no funding, no "how to," no real leadership." Said Weinstein, "Access to care for HIV is declining in this country. You can't say this is a new strategy, if you don't intend to spend any money on it."

Charles King, president and chief executive officer of Housing Works which tries to ameliorate the problem of AIDS and homelessness, was also disappointed. A snippet from a Housing Works press release:

“The president’s plan is so flawed that it might actually represent a step backwards in combating HIV and AIDS in the United States,” said Housing Works President and CEO Charles King. “Since his days on the campaign trail, President Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to lead the fight against AIDS. Unless he commits significant new resources intended to make major inroads against the spread of HIV, he will be regarded as a leader who did next to nothing about the most devastating epidemic of our time.”

In a press conference, Obama reviews the three goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Profile: Alan Aderem

Alan Aderem was featured in last week's Seattle Times for his work as a biologist and activist. He is the co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and has dedicated his life to developing an HIV vaccine. Aderem was raised in South Africa under the dominion of apartheid. His experiences growing up fighting for equal rights left an indelible impression that has guided his politics and career in biology.

South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world. The distribution of infection effects the poor and children orphaned by the disease. Aderem comments, "I find it pretty sad that a virus is doing what apartheid wasn't able to do." Read the full article.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Tour de Congo

Hundreds of bicycle riders, racing over a demanding course, supported by international organizations, conversing in French is coincidentally the scene of the Tour de France and also that of the southeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, the Congolese riders are not in pursuit of a yellow jersey like the riders of the Tour de France, which began this Saturday. Instead, they are on a mission to deliver food and seed to villages devastated by war. Flying in food is expensive and inefficient while trucks often get stuck in the roads destroyed during the war, however bicycles are reliable and employ the locals. Follow the riders on their journey as they bring hope to a forgotten land.

The documentary, Hope in the Congo, originally aired April 4, 2008 on Bill Moyers Journal. Watch the full program online.