School Buildings Matter

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I spent nearly two months, off and on, researching the state of our schools for an article that The 74 published last week. When I dove into stories in local newspapers, I was shocked at what I found.

There were stories about students and teachers suffering in overheated classroom, mold on the walls, administrators begging local taxpayers to pass local bonds, boilers on their last legs. Everyone that I spoke to on the phone used words like “crisis” and “desperate” and “unthinkable.”

Local newspapers were full of these stories. It’s probably one of the biggest concerns of local school districts, along with costs of special education and healthcare costs for teachers. But there has been very little written in the national press on this topic. I think that Warren is the only candidate who addresses this problem with a proposal for additional federal spending on schools.

It’s a tragedy that isn’t getting nearly enough attention by the national press or by politicians. Students are missing school and having their instruction interrupted, because the buildings are already falling down. In another five years, the situation will be worse. And people who know about schools know this.

Why don’t people care? Well, maybe because the teachers unions haven’t taken a strong enough stand on it. They want money to go to the teachers first, which isn’t totally crazy. Maybe it’s because the public thinks that this is an urban-only problem and won’t affect them, which is wrong. A. Suburban schools are falling down, too. And B. Ugh.

But the fact that schools are all falling down at the same time does offer some opportunities. Opportunities to rebuild and create new learning centers that reflect modern educational needs.

One guy told me that schools should look like modern workplaces. If students are going to work in a modern workplace some day, they should be ready for it. What does that mean?

When Steve got his first job at a big named Wall Street firm, I remember stepping out of the elevation with the kids in the stroller to meet him for lunch one day. As someone who had spent most of my life in university classrooms, I was shocked.

His office building which took up nearly one whole block of Manhattan was a big open space. A football field with long desks and computers. Something like this.

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Modern schools should look like this, at least at the high school level.

Each kid would have their own desk, their permanent space. They then would go into small conference rooms in the interior of the building where they work with teachers and other students in small groups to work collaboratively on projects or to get mini-lectures on Descartes or Napoleon or The Civil War. Rooms would be filled with natural light from full length windows.

The school day wouldn’t be broken up into 8 modules made up of 50-minute classes. Instead, students would have various learning goals that they would have to master at their own pace. Some students could plug through Algebra 2 in six months; others might need two years.

There is a strong movement to ditch the old system of year-long classes and instead work towards mastery of particular topics. Oh, look I wrote about this movement a couple of years ago for Edutopia.

I talked about this concept with my brother-in-law, who is the director a major architecture company. He said that their firm does a lot with higher education, because colleges have all the money, but not with K-12 schools. He said he would hollow out existing buildings and then rebuild the floor plans to look like this.

If rebuilding schools happened simultaneously, using common plans, with well-vetted construction companies, with federal dollars, it could happen. It might even bring costs down, if buildings were constructed using green technology and modern methods of insulation.

Neglected school buildings, and their coming demise, might be an opportunity to rebuild better and more efficiently.

More on Transportation


We didn’t move willingly out to the suburbs. We were pushed out of New York City by the need for good neighborhood schools and the mosquito-like annoyances of being poor in the city — alternative side of the street parking, inconvenient laundry, four flights of stairs, a heating system that might conk out in the middle of winter for two days, cockroaches in the kitchen. There wasn’t one particular issue, but when all those problems swarmed around you constantly, nipping at your ankles, city life became draining.

Still, in the back of our heads, we planned to move back when the kids finished school. Since Ian will be in the system until he’s 21, we thought we had another six years before getting a two bedroom on the A Train line.

But I’m not so sure about that anymore. My family and friends who live in New York City,  DIE-HARD city-types, are miserable. The subway system is falling apart. The cars are more crowded than ever. Crammed into cars trying to grasp a handrail isn’t a fun way to start the day. And the trains keep breaking down. Repairs means that trains are rerouted, so it might take three trains to get to work, instead of one.

Everybody knows that the subway system, which still uses 120-year old parts, is falling apart. While corruption and union rules have made repairs prohibitively expensive, the real solution is to rip it all out and start over again. Which is impossible. Nobody could get to work or school for five years.

And then getting around the city by car has also been a nightmare. We drove into the city to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week. In ten degree weather, the line to get into the museum curled around the front fountains. (Insider tip — the parking lot entrance to the museum was empty, so we zipped right in.) There are tons and tons of tourists in New York City these days.

After the museum, we went to our favorite dive Chinese restaurant in Chelsea. We drove down Fifth Avenue. It was bumper to bumper Uber cars all the way downtown. Uber cars have made traffic so much worse.

So, that’s just my commuter gossip for the day.

Dr. Manhattan sent me two links to transportation articles that he likes. I’m still reading them: James Q. Wilson piece from 20 years ago writes there’s no way in hell the car could be invented today.  Charles C.W. Cooke piece on the politics of self-driving cars.

The Times has had several excellent articles on the transportation issues: How Politics and Bad Decisions Starved New York’s Subways and Your Uber Car Creates Congestion.

The Future of Public Health

Diseases know no borders.

With ebola in Texas, the return of whooping cough, and some new paralyzing virus making the rounds of children’s hospitals, public health is back on the agenda in a major way. The questions are how do we deal with contagious diseases when they brew in less developed nations and how do we deal with contagious diseases when a group of people refuse to comply with public health guidelines.

The United States has an adequate way of dealing with contagious diseases that don’t have the complications of a resistant minority and international issues. When Ian was diagnosed with whooping cough a few years ago, I was flabbergasted at the speedy response by officials. After the seven minute drive home from the doctor’s office, I walked into the house with my sick, flushed kid. My phone was ringing. The local public health nurse was on the phone.

For 30 minutes, she had me trace back everybody that we had been in contact with over the past two weeks, and where they were. Whooping cough is tough, because you are contagious before you come down with symptoms. This was incredibly complicated, because we had just finished with the Christmas holidays and we had been to a ton of parties. My in-laws stayed with us and then travelled to Cleveland, where they saw a ton of people, including an aunt who was on dialysis.

The entire family was immediately put on antibiotics. Ian missed a couple weeks of school. I think I had to keep Jonah home from school, too.  The nurse alerted our guests’ and friends’ the public health officials. She alerted the school districts. Ian’s school sent home a notice to every child in his school. (Luckily, Steve and Ian didn’t get anybody else sick.)

The public health machine worked well. The disease ended on our doorstep. Sure, there were some errors. Steve was misdiagnosed by the family doctor. Steve must have gotten the disease from work, where there were a large number of workers who travelled internationally or who had lived in countries without our vaccination requirements. Still, the local response to our ill kid was impressive.

But these tried and true methods of dealing with infectious diseases can’t handle the two new challenges of a resistant minority (those who refuse to vaccinate their children) and the poor public health systems in developing nations. Public health policy needs some new ideas.

UPDATE: Uh, I guess I wrote a blog post about this right after it happened. The public health officials responded a day later, as soon as the doctor got the results.

Words and Themes

I’m test driving this new blog. I’ve changed formats and platforms again. I think I’ll stick with this layout for a few weeks and see how it goes.

Switching from Typepad to to has been a huge learning experience. I’ve gotten a much better handle on how to organize information on the Internet. It’s funny how the presentation of material affects what you write.

A couple of days ago, I was chatting with a long-time Internet writer. He asked me if he thought there was any room on the Internet for smart writing. We started blogging back when it was a small circle of insiders. We could write long 1,000 to 2,000 word blog posts about politics or society, and the traffic followed. Then traditional media jumped in and patiently let us write our long articles for them. But traditional media is going in a different direction. With the blogosphere gone and traditional media in disarray, he wondered if there was a place for smart on the Internet anymore.

I do think that there is a place for smart on the Internet, but it has to done in the right way. In the right format.

So, that’s what I’m going to be fooling around with this summer. I just finished off my last freelance article until September. In the next few months, I’m going to launch a few new websites. I’ll show you what I cook up.

UPDATE: Check out this great Awl article about the online writing industry. 

The Promise of Self-Driving Cars

ImageA few years back, my sister went to her mother-in-law’s house to take away her car keys.  Alzheimer’s disease had taken hold of Joan, and it was no longer safe for her to drive to the supermarket and the beauty parlor. She gave the keys up without too much fuss, but it was an emotional moment. She lost her last strands of independence.

My parents have been closely following stories about Google’s self-driving car. They hope that the technology will be in place in the next ten years, so they don’t have to face the indignity of the removal of their car keys. They know what that means. My mother has a collection of older women that she shuffles to appointments and to the supermarket. Out here in the burbs, there isn’t adequate public transportation, so old people rely on the kindness of relatives and neighbors.

Timothy Lee discusses the incredible benefits of self-driving cars, but misses out on the obvious winners: the oldies.

Parenting Policy

I am a huge fan of language development research for obvious reasons. [Gestering at the formerly mute child in the Skylanders t-shirt.] A couple of weeks ago, the Times had a great rundown of the recent research in this area and a look at a new program. 

Basically, the research finds that parents who talk and talk and talk to their kids end up with smarter kids. In addition, they find that parents with a higher SES talk to the kids more than parents from lower SES. Therefore, kids from lower SES families start school with a much greater deficit than other families, and they never catch up. 

This research  is pretty solid. So just on a personal note, don't ever shut up around your kids. Babble all the time. Car time is talking time. Do not have silent dinners. And words on TV don't count. 

So what to do about this gap in parenting experiences? If we all want to reduce inequality, and we all do I think, then we have to start giving parenting lessons. It's almost too late even by Kindergarten. You have to start earlier. But then we start moving into a really icky area of government. Who wants government to start intruding into the very personal matter of parenting? 

Providence, RI has an interesting program that will provide parenting advice, but in a non-icky fashion.

The idea has been successfully put into practice a few times on a small scale, but it is about to get its first large-scale test, in Providence, R.I., which last month won the $5 million grand prize in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, beating 300 other cities for best new idea. In Providence, only one in three children enter school ready for kindergarten reading. The city already has a network of successful programs in which nurses, mentors, therapists and social workers regularly visit pregnant women, new parents and children in their homes, providing medical attention and advice, therapy, counseling and other services. Now Providence will train these home visitors to add a new service: creating family conversation.

That seems a fairly benign way of teaching people about the impact of family speech. 

Applying Behavioral Economics to Lunchroom Policy

In Choices Magazine, behavior economists tackle the lunchroom cafeteria. (Via the Monkey Cage.)

In general, when schools require students to take vegetables, only about 35% of the students actually consume the vegetables, resulting in substantial waste of food and resources (see, for example, Price and Just, 2009). In fact, a recent study suggests that requiring students to take vegetables rather than allowing them to control this choice by selecting or rejecting vegetables has virtually no impact on vegetable consumption, while nearly doubling the waste from vegetables (Price and Just, 2009). Alternatively, consider what might happen if students were given the choice between carrots and celery. In a recent experiment we conducted at Cornell, 120 junior high participants in a summer 4H program were told they must take carrots with their lunch, while another 120 were given the choice of carrots or of celery (103 of 120 selected the carrots). Of those required to take the carrots, 69% (83 of 120) consumed the carrots, while 91% (94 of 103) of those choosing between carrots or celery consumed their vegetable. Such results suggest that requiring a vegetable, while offering an active choice between at least two options substantially reduces the waste from vegetables, and increases the nutritional content of the foods consumed.