It’s for the kids, stupid!

coopdailysun[Reprinted from my column today in the Puerto Rico Daily Sun.]

Good-bye, optimistic campaign promises; Hello, calls for urgent action. In the midst of what government officials in Puerto Rico have characterized as a three year recession, President Obama’s stimulus package seems to have renewed the hopes of most politicians and citizens alike. The package contains some measures that are best conceived of as short-term boosters – such as extending unemployment benefits and investing in job-creating public works. Others, like those directed at the improvement of K-16 education, are presented as long-term investments to increase U.S. future workers’ ability to compete in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy.
The long-term intention behind education-related investments in the proposed package is evidenced, for example, by the 41 billion for K-12 Title I programs and the 6 billion directed at higher education.

I’m all for long term investments in education. I am however concerned with the potential loss of this important and timely opportunity.

Take for example the case of E-Rate, an ambitious effort designed to help poor schools connect to the Internet. This program has distributed billions of dollars to schools and libraries that serve low-income populations. In its early years, the amount of money involved was fertile ground for all kinds of trouble. In El Paso, the school district paid IBM 35 million to build a network that the New York Times describes as “powerful enough to serve a small city”; in Florida, a 1 million dollar network was created to serve the needs of a 650 pupil elementary school; in San Francisco, a contractor was found guilty of rigging bids and bribing officials; and in Puerto Rico, after an investment of 100 million to hook 1500 schools to the internet, only a handful were online – partly because the schools had no computers to hook to the new networks.

In spite of massive expenditures that promised to leave “no child behind”, the United States in 2006 was one of only three (out of 34) OECD countries where younger workers were less college-educated that older ones. Hundreds of Puerto Rican schools are in “Improvement Plan” (an euphemism for “academically troubled”). The effectiveness of big investments in the improvement of education will depend on careful management of funds that target well-known and well-researched problems. Good data and best practices abound. Let’s use them.

In times of crisis, a solid government investment in the economy makes sense-if the government doesn’t, who will? FDR applied this notion with great success during the Great Depression. But these investments need to be watched after carefully, and to include a plan that measures results and holds contractors accountable to the citizenry. We want this investment in education to be truly long-term – to focus on what is good for the children, conceived of as future adults that will have better jobs (and thus contribute to a better economy) as a result of our actions today. We do not want this particular portion of Obama’s stimulus package to end up in CEO’s pockets, like some of the recent bailout funds did, or to create short term jobs and feed ghost companies, as happened with E-Rate and other initiatives. As the package gains momentum in Congress, and people in Puerto Rico and the US enjoy some well-deserved and sought after hope, let us keep an eye on those who may see the effort to provide for the economy’s long term health as an opportunity for their short-term gain. Our education is just too important.

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4 comentarios en “It’s for the kids, stupid!

  1. Rima you are right on target. Uno de los peligros de las reformas a gran escala es similar a lo que tan a menudo nos ocurre con la evaluacion educativa, decidimos valorar y dar prioridad a lo que es mas facil de contabilizar con efectos inmediatos (o a corto plazo) por encima de valorar las transformaciones cognoscitivas, atitudinales y sociales necesarias para sostener el cambio. En la evaluacion es como cuando preferimos utilizar y adjudicar puntos a los ejercicios de memorizacion a corto plazo y comprension, preguntas tipo quien, cuando, donde y/o de repeticion de un algoritmo y su formula. En las reformas es el invertir en lo que es visible y facil de contabilizar, lo que tipicamente llaman “escuelas impactadas” por un proyecto con su consecuente conteo de cabezas (cantidad de computadoras, distritos o escuelas con internet, maestros que asisten a talleres, etc.) Pero se tiende a restar prioridad a la parte realmente interesante donde reside el “meollo del asunto” como el cambio de cultura escolar de una jerarquica a una mas colegiada y colaborativa, y el aumento en la demanda cognoscitiva de las tareas educativas.

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  2. Si, el assesment es una de esas buenas ideas que pueden desvirtuarse (que de hecho se desvirtúan) si acaban dictando el contenido de las intervenciones y hacemos solamente lo que pueda “medirse”.

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  3. I am drunk on hope, I suppose. The incompetence of the past administration seems a distant memory, and I can only think that this will not be another fiasco-laden initiative, but instead, one that is undertaken with wisdom and oversight. But like I said, I am drunk and giddy and feeling optimistic in a way I thought impossible. It has, in fact, given me cause to reconsider my drop-out approach to society. You make a valid point, and your examples are excruciating, but they were from another time, as far as I am concerned! Woo hoo, I am currently beyond reason! (P.S. This response was delayed because of internet issues… but I very much appreciated the English post, it was a special treat.)

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  4. Hey, we are somewhat drunk with hope here as well. Perhaps more cautiously, given our unique political situation, but still happy with Obama;s win after all those Bush years. The argument here is not against the stimulus, but a warning as to who should benefit. It is intended for the kids – and that is good. I just read a parallel argument made by Shorris from The Nation. Instead of looking at education, like I do here, he warns against misuse in the construction sector. You can check it out here: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090309/shorristhanks for reading!!!

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