All posts by subir

The case for FEMA and federal emergency management.

A Big Storm requires Big Government: The Times editorial page is a bit shrill, but they do have a point. The federal government does have a crucial co-ordination role to play when organizing the response to big natural disasters that can overwhelm local resources. I look at FEMA as a cheap insurance policy. For about 13 billion dollars, FEMA coordinates disaster relief, trains local emergency response units, and funds the upgrade of equipment and infrastructure. For lower income states and communities (most in the south), this can make all the difference in a disaster. This was abundantly clear when Katrina hit.

The tacit belief that all civilian agencies within the federal government are inherently incompetent is ridiculous. There are fine, talented people working for the federal government, and it isn’t clear to me that privatizing those services would improve quality. Anyone who’s worked in a large company knows there’s ample waste and bureaucracy to be found there as well.

Contracting services out, doesn’t seem to do much except support a small group of large federal contractors. Most of these are large firms who’ve had defense businesses for a long time. It’s ironic that the largest of these (Halliburton/Brown & Root) was so closely connected to LBJ, and of all the post-war Democratic presidents, his legacy is what the right in the US has been trying to reverse ever since. One of the unintended consequences of business getting involved in politics.

Road-Trips: The cure for partisanship in Congress.

Another week, another lament for bi-partisanship in Congress. Red states, Blue states, Senators from Citibank (variously Delaware or South Dakota), special interests, earmarks, gridlock. There is no end to opinion pieces decrying the extreme narrow-mindedness among our current crop of representatives and candidates. None suggest a meaningful remedy. On the budget and longer-term fiscal challenges, it seems most members of congress have decided they will represent their own narrow interests as vigorously as they can. A desire for fairness and the courage to ask for shared sacrifice, are hard to find, and yet these are the essential ingredients for the tough financial decisions our large and diverse nation will have to make. Most continue to hold out for a solution that inflicts no pain on their team, one where the other side bears all the costs. Yet in their heart of hearts, everyone knows solving our immense challenges will require some sacrifice within their own camps.

I’ve driven across the US a total of seven times. That’s coast-to-coast, usually in excess of 7,000 miles over the course of a summer, generally taking a different route each time. Six of those seven trips were with my parents and brother, on break from school. We drove across Europe once, and the length of India over one 5-month long summer. But, this country was the default option, partly because driving in the USA is so much easier, and no doubt because it was so beautiful. No part of it has every seemed a fly-over state to me.

The very day I arrived in the US to attend university full time, I felt at home, largely due to those trips. When I’d run into a fellow student from Nebraska, I knew the land they were raised on and could say that I too had experienced it. The last of those seven drives across the country was on a motorcycle, solo, the summer after my green card came in the mail (pictures are at Every spring, without fail, as the weather gets warmer, I think of road-trips, and what they do for my imagination.

Those trips, though the last of them was six years ago, gave me a far better perspective on the country than my many years in New York would suggest. When I hear of South Dakota politics, I don’t think of “Senators from Citibank”. I remember stop-light to stop-light races on motor-bikes and Ford Probes along 41st Street in Sioux Falls, bales of hay drying in the morning dew outside of Mitchell. I think of whether South Dakota’s representatives are trying to do the best they can for the people who sent them to Washington.

Here’s my suggestion to reduce some of the rancor and divide in congress over the budget. Have each congressman or congresswoman pair up with a colleague, someone from a different part of the country, and preferably from the other party. Over the August Congressional break, have them take a 2 week road-trip out to each other’s district as a family vacation. It’ll be an amazing experience for their families, as they see the immense breadth and great beauty of this country and its people anew. They can stop off at a national park, and marvel at the grand vision and great collective financial commitment required to create and maintain our parks and highway system. And see, rather than hear about the differing needs and views of their fellow-countrymen.

The hope is, they’ll come back in September with a different receptiveness to the other side’s argument. Not to mention a new-found appreciation for this great country and a sense of responsibility towards all its people. Perhaps they’ll regain the courage, vision and internal fortitude to ask the American people for shared sacrifice. They might even begin to see merit in the other side’s argument. And maybe, just maybe, they might work diligently to produce a road-map that tackles the immediate and longer-term budget issues facing our country while being fair to all. The reward would be knowing that they had done their part to ensure future generations could see the USA, in all its variety, and furthering in a small way, that elusive goal of creating a more perfect union.

The mythical magic calculus pill.

There’s a New York school district which is providing iPads to all sixth graders as a pilot program, and intends to expand the experiment to all students if successful. The current fascination with tablet computers seems to me the latest in a long and exhausting search for the next, great technology or teaching method that will magically improve academic performance in schools. I doubt  iPads will instantly turn children into better scholars.

Maybe I’m wrong and a new generation of applications on tablet computers will provide the technological equivalent of one-on-one tutoring and single-handedly raise math scores across the country. Who is to say though, that the child who struggles with old-fashioned paper homework or doesn’t have parents who insist he do the work will persevere when the same exercises are presented on the iPad? It seems to me that this faith in the latest gadget betrays far too much confidence in stage-craft and colorful visual effects. Learning something new is hard work for children as well as adults. A touch-screen may make material more accessible, but it doesn’t make it any easier. At the risk of coming across as a curmudgeon, I will note that American public schools seem to be far better equipped and funded than my school ever was, and I attended an elite private school in India’s largest and richest city (though one that remains immeasurably poor by American standards).

Which brings me to the environment outside school. Growing up in socialist India, we had little by way of entertainment, a couple of state-run television channels and a rather limited selection of books. That is certainly no longer the case, and many Indian households receive hundreds of cable channels today. I can’t imagine what it is like to have a constant river of entertainment to distract you from schoolwork. Parents today clearly need to keep much closer tabs on how their children are spending their time.

The sheer paucity of entertainment and media seemed to have led my generation in certain directions. I remember having to read the newspaper every morning by the time I was eleven. I wonder how many households have a broadsheet delivered at home every morning, and where children are getting their understanding of current affairs from. Is it the televised news shows which are so light on content, but heavy on stagecraft and packed with remarkably handsome presenters? A recurring news story this week on major network news in New York City was the story of a young girl’s service dog who mauled the neighbor’s daughter (in New Jersey). It amazes me that network news supposedly covering a diverse city of 8 million routinely chooses to present stories better suited for the neighborhood block association’s pamphlet. In general, the focus is increasingly skewed towards entertainment and sports rather heavily in the vast majority of modern households. How could it not be, our culture imposes no costs on entertaining ourselves endlessly as adults.

Of course exceptions exist. There are certainly parents who spend most of their time thinking up learning activities for their children, and they are not always Asian or first-generation immigrants. We all know parents who quiz their children on homework, drill them on mathematics, limit pure entertainment and generally send a clear signal that academics and learning are important.  But realistically speaking, what proportion of households does this describe? If most children are growing up in households where reality television, entertainment news and sports are on tap, is it realistic to expect that our teachers and schools can keep students motivated on the hard work of learning? We expect a lot of our children if we imagine that even those who gain deep inner satisfaction from inquiry and learning can resist the allure of competitive sport and entertainment.

For an earlier generation, astronauts, scientists and explorers provided alternative role-models to media celebrities, I know they did for me. Most children take their cues from the social context around them, and school is only one of them. If every adult conversation outside of school revolves around sports and entertainment figures, can teachers alone be expected to tilt the balance of a child’s attention towards science and math?

The Times and a number of other papers have successfully petitioned the courts to release the names of teachers and how well their classes are doing. I expect the goal is to figure out which teachers have classes that are under-performing. No doubt there are teachers within the school system who have lost the drive to teach, or never were particularly effective. But why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the teachers who struggle with distracted, unmotivated students leaving school for households where expectations are low.

All the focus on teaching methods, tools, resources, the relative talents of teachers and school systems seem to miss one essential fact. Learning for most students will boil down to hard work and practice. Exceptional teachers can deliver exceptional results, but at the end of the day, all of us learn by working at a concept and practicing it over and over again. Calculus isn’t easy to learn, but if you keep working away at problems, eventually you get the hang of it, and at some point it begins to make sense. Yet I get the distinct impression that many feel the answer to low math scores should be better math teachers, or a magic calculus pill. In reality, at least half the solution has to be students working harder at math. Our conscious brains require engagement and practice to absorb knowledge or learn a new skill. There is no magic pill that will do that.

There are no simple, satisfying answers to how American public education can be improved. There are no silver bullets, nor will endless teacher or management shake-ups be effective in isolation. Any reorganization is doomed to failure unless the broader cultural context, home environment and community tilt towards emphasizing math, science and student achievement. Many of those clamoring for reform are fond of applying commercial logic to the education system. Perhaps though, the problem is not with our education factories, but that the target consumers don’t want the product. The schools alone cannot drive students to perform better, their parents and community have to expect and demand it of them as well. This to me is the crucial difference.

It is a futile exercise to worry about our schools. Rather, we should be worried about our students and whether they can overcome an environment saturated with entertainment and distractions to do enough work that they acquire an education for themselves. Which brings me back to how the question is normally phrased. Everyone accepts that it’s American schools that are failing. That seems to be the easy phrasing, especially when the “problem” can be isolated to specific schools. Perhaps the more meaningful question to ask is why certain students are failing American school standards. Schools cannot fix problems with the wider community, they may help, but they will not magically turn a crop of students into academic super-stars if the community around them does not value academic achievement and encourage it.

When competition ends at the classroom door.

One of the most remarkable differences between US schools and those in the rest of the world must be the expense and effort spent in America on competitive sports. A relatively well-off school district in Texas is building a 60 million dollar football stadium seating 18,000, for its high-school. That’s the cost of three separate elementary schools in the district. The bond issue is guaranteed by the Texas Permanent School Fund as a school facilities project, and the entire enterprise paid for in some form by the tax-payer.

This is football crazed Texas, so maybe some perspective is needed. The town’s old stadium was built 30 years ago, seats 12,000 and by all accounts is chronically overcrowded.  Presumably, the community derives entertainment value from high-school football games, whose tickets must be cheaper than college or professional games. And this is a well-funded school district, where test scores are above the national and state averages. To most non-Americans it will seem perverse that the school’s football team entertains the community to such an extent. Or that academic budgets wither while sports programs swell across the country.

I also wonder what the average 8th grader gathers from the fact that 18,000 people attend the high-school football game. Do similar crowds show up at the science fair?  In stark contrast, the extent to which sports intruded on my life at school in Bombay was the annual “sports day”, a day long track meet at rented facilities. Apart from a weekly P.E. class, and qualifiers a few weeks before the “sports day”, no organized sports intruded on academics.

Undoubtedly participating in sports adds to the educational experience. Competitive sports teach participants the value of effort, teamwork, and strategy. Most adults will rely on these skills much more during their lives than any recollection of elementary calculus. But these admirable qualities can rarely be applied successfully in the world outside of the arena unless students have the rudiments of an education. And does the vast mass of students who are simply spectators absorb these values? All of which should make you pause and wonder whether the focus on sports is sucking air, and resources out of American classroom. Will graduating students be obsessed with televised sport but lack the literacy, logic and arithmetic to function in a service and knowledge based economy? And if that is the case, is the educational system to blame, or the community as a whole?

I recall mid-term tests and final exams every year starting in third grade. Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Twelfth grade were more important than others since they were considered watershed years. Every examination was intensely competitive. Every test was written and in essay form, I’d never encountered a multiple-choice test till I prepared for the SATs and then it seemed comically easy to have the answer in front of you.

Every term, my parents came in to meet the teachers and collect my report card. As they waited to speak with the teacher and I sat with them, we’d look up at the blackboard and read the names of the top ten students in the class, and their test scores. All the scores were numeric, and there was no where to hide, your parents knew exactly how well you were doing compared to the top 25% of the class. I knew I’d be letting them down if I was too far from the top quartile. It was a brutal, sobering, public assessment of how I was doing. When I look back at it now, that list of the top ten was pretty evenly divided every year between those who had innate ability, and another group who just worked harder than anyone else. Every student knew you could get your name on the board by sheer effort alone.

There is no end to the collection of American movies celebrating success achieved in sport through perseverance. I don’t think it would hurt American public schools to bring some of that drive and competition off the sports-field, into the classroom. Nothing motivates students and parents like a little competition. It would do good to recognize and reward the top ten students every term. In many Asian countries, names and test scores of students who performed particularly well in system-wide tests are printed in newspapers. Parents of these children are justifiably proud, and virtually every child knows it took a lot of hard work to get onto that list. There are drawbacks to be sure, the stress of academic under-achievement can drive some to despair, and many who succeed in structured academics are ill suited for the real world. Yet, on balance the signal sent is that scholarship matters, that academic success is a matter of student achievement and effort, not simply the quality of schools and teachers.

Failing schools or failing students.

Are American schools failing? Or are American students?

A staple of American journalism and political commentary is the sorry state of American public schools. The standard refrain one hears is that American public schools are failing their students. Schools are either too crowded, teaching standards poor, schools districts operated for the benefit of teachers and administrators, or that the entire system is just plain dysfunctional. If you follow the standard narrative, all the faults lie with the public school system. Yet, much of the blame for poor academic performance must be placed on our broader society and factors outside the control of our schools. What if we changed the standard refrain and said instead American students are failing school?

If you think American public schools are failing their students, all your remedies will focus on schools and teachers. If, on the other hand, you say American students are failing school, we may begin to look for another set of remedies, in the home. These might include setting higher expectations for student academic achievement, perhaps even raising the expectations we have of their families.

I should start off by saying that I have no first hand experience with public schools in America. I graduated from a high school in Bombay, and entered the American educational system as a college student. Virtually everything I’ve learned about the schools has been as an outsider. I don’t have children yet, so I haven’t had to deal with the schools from a parent’s perspective. But there are some stark differences I see when I compare and contrast my own education with what I’ve gleaned about the American public school system.

I wouldn’t hold my school or the Indian system of education out as the perfect model model. It has many faults, and one glaring one, the relentless emphasis on rote learning, made me (and many others) opt out of it when it came time to attend college. The public school system in India is also prone to the same corruption that riddles most state institutions. Yet, I can’t deny that the rigid, unforgiving curriculum and its emphasis on tests virtually ensured that we knew how to read, write and had acquired a basic understanding of science and mathematics. It wasn’t very good at encouraging critical thinking, but we did acquire the fundamental skills and knowledge required for further academic success. The rote learning also gave us some facts and figures on which we could practice any critical thinking skills we were lucky enough to acquire.

Expanding class sizes are often cited as as a problem for US schools. Yet classes tend to be a lot smaller in most American public schools than I was used to, or those in most Asian schools. All my classes from second grade onwards had at least thirty children in them, and we had forty students to one teacher in each class by fifth grade. Yet classes were relatively strife free and efficient, largely because the burden to learn and retain material was firmly on us, never on the teachers.

Brute force and repetition was, and is, in large part the answer to everything in Asian schools. If you didn’t understand a concept, you worked on yet another group of practice problem sets, till eventually you understood the pattern. The expectation was for hard work from the student, not creative presentation from the teacher, on learning, not teaching. I can’t recall ever thinking it was a teacher’s responsibility to make the material interesting enough for us to learn. It was my job to understand and retain it. We certainly complained about the dull textbooks, and I would definitely have liked to pin the blame for academic under-performance on a teacher or two, but I’d have been laughed out of town for trying that.

No doubt, we had teachers who inspired us, and others who didn’t. Our Hindi Literature teacher, for instance, has a popular fan page on Facebook, populated by students who remember his classes fondly from 20 years ago. I can still recall his passionate lectures vividly, and many of us looked at Hindi Literature differently after his class. Few of us though, have continued to read Hindi literature, he was fighting a losing battle against an urban culture in Bombay which aspired to speak English, and a wider culture that valued hard sciences above anything as impractical as literature. The broader culture won out despite his best efforts. Which is where I’ll start next week.