As one who grew up spending every minute I could outdoors either playing sports or wandering through woodlands, spent my adult life living in cities (10 years), small towns (10 years), suburbs (5 years) and in the country for over 20 year and as one who loves camping in a tent as an adult, I was not surprised to read the research described in Gretchen Reynolds NYTimes article “How Nature Changes the Brain“. I know from my own personal experience that nature is restorative. Watching birds at the feeder, listening to the wind rustling through the trees, watching the ocean or the waters on a lake or pond, or hiking through woodlands, deserts, or to the top of a mountain all bring an inner peace. But Reynolds’ blog post indicates that my opportunities to enjoy nature rare uncommon:
Most of us today live in cities and spend far less time outside in green, natural spaces than people did several generations ago.
City dwellers also have a higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living outside urban centers, studies show.
These developments seem to be linked to some extent, according to a growing body of research. Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.
As I’ve written in previous blog posts, research has demonstrated that the stress of poverty has an adverse effect on the brain and based on my experience as a city dweller I know that real estate near “green spaces” demand a premium price that often precludes ready access to those who cannot afford housing.
Two thought exercises:
- It will be interesting to see if the decision to tear down vacant homes in Detroit and replace them with green space changes the levels of anxiety, depressing and other mental illnesses over time.
- I wonder how our emphasis on “safety” will limit the access of urban dwellers to the parklands that are already in place… and if that fear generated by “safety concerns” will offset the positive effects of wandering in nature.
Bill Gates Acknowledges His Education Initiatives Fell Short… And Now He Wants to Take on Pre-School?
Nick Kristof’s column today profiles Bill and Melinda Gates, offering an overview of the work of their foundation on it’s 15th anniversary. In general, the foundation’s initiatives in medicine are wholly positive and, like Gates’ corporation, borderless. Absent a well funded international organization with a narrow focus on specific diseases philanthropy can eliminate diseases like polio, Guinea worm disease and, perhaps, elephantiasis and blinding trachoma. These diseases cause suffering to large swaths of the populations of third world countries and can be eliminated through comprehensive immunization and/or infrastructure changes and/or the introduction of specific proven hygiene practices.
Where Gates’ initiatives fall short is in areas like education, an area that has no clear solution and an area that defies the technological/engineering template that succeeds in fighting diseases. In looking back at the successes and failures of his Foundation, Gates acknowledges that “…the foundation’s investments in education here in the United States haven’t paid off as well” and “…started out too tech-focused”. What Gates DOESN’T acknowledge is the need for him to spend as much time and energy retracting his “tech-focused” solutions to education as he spent promoting them. As written repeatedly in this blog and most other progressive education blogs, the use of standardized test scores as the “hard metric” for teacher and school performance has resulted in drastic and seemingly irreversible changes in public education in this country. Standardized tests require a standardized curriculum the same way that software development requires standardization, and whether the curriculum is standardized at the national or state level doesn’t matter in the end… if the quality of teachers and schools are determined by performance on a standardized test of ANY kind the children in the classes and schools will receive instruction designed to have them succeed on that test. As Gates has learned, though, the narrow bore focus that cures diseases cannot improve public schools. Eradicating the causes and effects of poverty, which is inextricably linked to test results, requires a comprehensive approach and the use of the “squishy” metrics Mr. Gates admittedly disdains. Here’s hoping Mr. Gates has learned those lessons before investing in pre-school education.
Over the past four decades there has been a trend in employment in our country: corporations, in an effort to improve their bottom line have moved away from full-time employees in the direction of “contingent workers”. An article in todays NYTimes by Noam Scheiber titled “Rising Economic Insecurity Tied to Decades Long Trend in Employment Practices” describes how this shift played out in corporate America this way:
Far-flung business units were sold off. Many other activities — beginning with human resources and then spreading to customer service and information technology — could be outsourced. The corporate headquarters would coordinate among the outsourced workers and monitor their performance.
The article described at length how this shift was advantageous for some highly skilled workers whose talents enabled them to earn high wages while working flexible hours. But it downplayed the impact on unskilled employees whose work was scheduled “efficiently” to help the corporations achieve a higher level of profit while viewing their labor as easily replaceable. And here’s the rub: as technology advances more and more iterative jobs will be eliminated and more and more unskilled laborers will be marginalized. Worse, as technology advances, so-called “robots” will be able to perform more and more tasks that now require “skilled” workers, further diminishing the workforce. Those “robots” may take the form of DIY devices like ATMs and scanners that enable shoppers to replace check-out clerks or may be literal robots that take orders and deliver food at restaurants replacing the waitstaff.
Public education has not been exempt from the outsourcing phenomenon. Just as the organization of schools mirrored the corporate organizations in place through the 1950s, today’s schools, particularly larger school districts, are moving toward the corporate models when it comes to the provision of support services. It is not unusual for a school district to outsource food services, custodial services, maintenance, technology support, bussing, payroll, and a wide array of testing programs. All of the jobs associated with these services were once staffed by school district employees who resided in the district and willingly paid taxes to support their local schools. Once the jobs were outsourced, however, the employees no longer had an allegiance to the school district and no longer had the assurances that their jobs would be secure.
Until the past decade or so, teachers have been exempt from this outsourcing phenomenon… but no more. One of the results of NCLB and RTTT is the “takeover” of “failing schools” by non-government organizations who, in many cases, were staffed by uncertified college graduates who could provide the iterative instruction needed to improve test scores which are the primary metric used to determine the effectiveness of schools. And here’s the rub: as teaching-to-the-test increases the skill level required by a teacher diminishes and the availability of on-line instruction increases. This vicious cycle mirrors what is happening in corporate America… and the results have not been beneficial for employees or children.
I believe there is a way out of this cycle for public education. If schools embrace the opportunity to use on-line instruction to provide iterative instruction and demand that teachers use their talents and skills to diagnose individual student needs, to counsel students, and to provide the “soft” skills that cannot be measured by standardized tests but are critically important in our democratic society they can emphasize the craft of teaching and provide teachers with the same opportunities (and wages) that skilled workers receive in the “contingent economy”. If teaching is reduced to training students to pass tests, however, teachers will quickly become as replaceable as Walmart employees and burger flippers.