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Playground Basketball Dying… and so is Childhood

July 28, 2014 Comments off

Two article recently drove home the point that my experiences as a child have gone the way of defined benefit pensions and full paid health care.

A few days ago I read “Playground Basketball is Dying” a multi-part ESPN article written by Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neill. I spent the greater part of two years playing outdoor basketball in West Chester PA in the mid 1960s, sometimes with young adults and “wannabes” and sometimes with members of the varsity high school team. The games had no referees and were “make-it-take-it” games that you HAD to win if you wanted to stay on the court. Growing up as a college and professional basketball follower I read about the various urban basketball playground meccas in the 1970s described in this ESPN article and was saddened to read that fewer and fewer youngsters are playing pick-up games outdoors in part because the “elite players”, including high school athletes, are being siphoned off to play indoor AAU basketball. Why? Because they want to avoid the possibility of getting injured on the court and jeopardizing their college opportunities. With no local pick up games happening, marginal athletes, like me, have no hope of playing with “elite” athletes… and in cities, where the crowds drawn to pick-up games made the courts safe havens, the lack of these games makes the courts part of gang turf.

All Played Out” orthopedic surgeon/parent Ron Turker’s Sunday NYTimes, illustrates how the death of playground basketball is playing out in the more affluent communities. Turker describes the situation in suburban America:

The landscape of youth sports has changed markedly in the last 20 years. Free play, where children gather after school, pick a game and play until called in for dinner, is almost extinct. Highly organized and stratified sports have become the norm. Time, place and rules are now dictated to our kids rather than organized by the kids.

And as adults interpose themselves into athletics, pressure to succeed becomes higher and higher and Turker sees mental stress as well as physical stress in his practice as an orthopedist. Like the urban athletes, the suburban athletes are increasingly motivated by the almighty dollar:

As parents, we want what’s best for our kids but we’ve abdicated our parental rights and duties to the new societal norm. Youth sports have become big business. Millions of dollars flow to coaches, leagues, equipment, road trips, motels, tournament fees — and the list goes on. We give in to the herd mentality along with our confounded friends so that our kids won’t be seen as outliers.

So instead of a bunch of kids playing half-court basketball on asphalt courts we have a small group of “youth athletes” playing in arenas on corporate sponsored teams. Instead of town recreation leagues (“Wreck Leagues” to use the disparaging term cited in Turker’s article) children are expected to select one sport to play and make a “traveling team”. The result: more and more kids are using out of team sports altogether and playing video games… and we are losing the cohesion that comes from playing on a team and the self-regulation that is developed when adults are not available to intermediate… and turning back is going to be a daunting challenge.

Tax Dodgers and Schools

July 28, 2014 Comments off

Paul Krugman’s column in this morning’s NYTimes describes the latest development in profiteering:

…the tax-avoidance strategy du jour: “inversion:”… a legal maneuver in which a company declares that its U.S. operations are owned by its foreign subsidiary, not the other way around, and uses this role reversal to shift reported profits out of American jurisdiction to someplace with a lower tax rate.

Readers of this blog should recognize this as the same strategy that corporate tax dodgers use to pit town-against-town and state-against-state in their efforts to race-to-the-bottom on employee compensation… and local and state property taxes.

I believe two underlying principles that “everyone agrees with” make it impossible to change our attitude toward taxation. The first principle, repeated over and over again by BOTH parties in various shades, is the Reagan mantra: GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM. If “everyone agrees” that government is the problem then all taxes are confiscatory and those of us who are being “robbed” by the government taking OUR money have sympathy with the government taking, say, the Koch brothers’ or the Walton’s money… and we don’t begrudge a company for taking steps to avoid paying these onerous taxes.

The second principle is that of shareholder primacy, whereby profit-making trumps any sense of corporate public responsibility. As noted above, this plays out in local and State governments as well as at the Federal level. Pull the curtain back behind any announcement of a corporation locating in a community and you’ll see a sweetheart tax deal.

Both of these principles effect public education. Over the past decades the term “government run schools” was coined, repeated, and entered into the lexicon as evidence that PUBLIC education can’t work because it is run by the government… and we “all know” that government is the problem. And when local corporate taxes are rolled back or limited the burden is shifted to either state sales and/or income taxes or local property taxes and when they start increasing the push back is inevitable… and is often to the detriment of schools, roads, and publicly funded services.

I keep waiting for some politician to make the point that we are all in this together and we need to share in the responsibility for improving our country by paying our fair share of taxes. Doing so would not hurt 99% of the taxpayers…. but for the time being, it appears that the majority of Americans don’t see it that way, in part because no one has taken the time to explain how the system works.

Changing Gears in Mathematics

July 27, 2014 2 comments

Todday’s NYTimes Magazine features an article by Elizabeth Green titled “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?”, an article well worth reading because it provides a good description of what it would take to make Americans perform at a higher level but an article that underemphasizes or overlooks some of the subtle reasons that contribute to our deficiencies.

Ms. Green contrasts the Japanese methods of teaching mathematics with those used in the US, focussing on Akihiko Takahashi, an education reformer from Japan, and Takeshi Matsuyama, an elementary teacher affiliated with a university-based lab school who was his mentor. Together, they transformed mathematics instruction in Japan. Like Deming before them, Takahashi and Matsuyama implemented the recommendations of US experts, recommendations that our country rejected because they did not fit the hierarchical “factory model” of management that blinds us to new and different ways of thinking. Surprisingly Ms. Green overlooked the parallel to Deming’s experience, which mirrored that of Takahashi and Matsuyama and continues to limit our ability to innovate.

Ms. Green also contrasts the Japanese method of teacher training, which is ongoing and organic, with the virtual absence of training in our country. Instead of stand-alone workshops or the accumulation of graduate credits, Japanese teachers engage in “lesson study”, which is time provided for teachers to meet and discuss their teaching methods and to observe each other’s instruction. But she fails to emphasize the funding that would be required to provide the time needed for teachers to have the time for lesson study nor does she note that shift in thinking that would be required to move away from our credential-based method of measuring teacher learning, a method that is often based on seat time.

As one who led school districts from 1980 through 2011 I saw two other factors that Ms. Green overlooked or underemphasized: our country’s obsession with standardized tests and the unwillingness of parents and school boards to accept “non-traditional ways” of teaching mathematics and scheduling teacher time.

Ms. Green described how the emphasis on standardized tests reinforced “traditional” methods of teaching when she noted that while “…lesson study (in Japan)is pervasive in elementary and middle school, it is less so in high school where the emphasis is on cramming for college entrance exams”. In our country, the emphasis is on cramming for examinations from the very outset… and that emphasis is deleterious. Especially since to date, standardized tests have NOT measured the kinds of mathematics instruction valued by NCTM: they have focussed on the “skills” traditionally taught to parents and school board members, skills that are easy to test (see yesterday’s post for evidence of this).

Ms. Green made no mention of how any effort to introduce “non-traditional” methods of mathematics instruction meets with resistance from parents who complain that “they can’t help their children with homework” because they “don’t understand” the work assigned. And when that attitude is combined with our obsession with test scores, if the scores don’t jump immediately the “new math” books are soon be abandoned in favor of the worksheets that match the tested curriculum and the meme about the “failure of new mathematics” is reinforced.

School boards not only face resistance from parents, they also face budget challenges, which can pose the biggest obstacle to introducing innovation. When administrators contemplate the implementation of something akin to “lesson study” they need to hire additional staff to provide release time for teachers to engage in such a program. One way to provide more release time is to increase class sizes (Japan has much larger class sizes than the US), a recommendation that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the US and meets resistance from teachers as well as parents.

Finally, as noted repeatedly in this blog, we need to stop thinking of our schools as factories that pour information into students who progress along an assembly line in lockstep based on their age and whose progress is measured by standardized tests and hours spent in the classroom. The bottom line: until we stop thinking of our schools as factories we will see no meaningful change or improvement.