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Tuesday: Finnish Baby Boxes

Finnish propaganda baby in state uniform

I was over at Apartmenttherapy yesterday and saw this link at their sister site Ohdeedoh.  What the heck is a Finnish Baby Box??  Is that like a BF Skinner box crossed with a cell phone?  So, I clicked on it.  It turns out that it has nothing to do with behavior modification (or *does* it?) but it is the kind of thing that would turn an ordinary Republican debate goer absolutely rabid.

A Finnish baby box is a devious device to turn parents into socialists.

Let’s say you’re about to become a first time parent.  Right about the third trimester, the post office tells you that you have to fetch a package.  You find that it’s for your precious unborn.  Up to now, the Republicans are on board.  We’re talking about innocent life here, not the bedirtied mother who might be a FORNICATOR.  So, you lug the box home.  It’s from Helsinki.  The government has sent you a box.  This should immediately arouse your suspicions because as Ronald Reagan once intimated, you should be on your guard any time the government says it’s here to help.  Without even opening the box, you should suspect a new, superlong tax form where you must account for every marrka.  Just let your imagination run wild.  You open the box…

…and find that the government has sent you a maternity package.

The contents of the Finnish Baby Box

It’s chock full of onesies and footed rompers and a snowsuit, baby sleeping bag, blankies, mattress, mattress cover, simple colorful chewing toys and a first book. (See complete contents broken down by item here)  The clothes colors and prints vary from year to year and are infinitely mixable.  Some of the items are made of recycled material.  One Finnish state welfare dad rationalizes his acceptance of the maternity package by noting that because the government buys in bulk, it saves a lot more money than if individual parents had had to buy all of those items themselves so he doesn’t even mind paying the extra taxes.  The box it all came in has handle cut outs on the side, it’s sturdy and just like those fiendishly clever Ikea design solutions from the next country over, the box converts to a basinet.  (hmmm, you could probably use the lid as a changing station.)

What kind of evil commie plot is this??  With everything the little bast, er, tot could ever need for a year in the box, what incentive will it have to start pulling its weight?  Not only does the government indoctrinate “cradle to grave socialism” before the preborn has gasped his or her first precious breath, it even provides the cradle.  Does it get more evil than that?  Yes, it does.  The box even includes 6 condoms (and a tube of lube.  How thoughtful.).  So, not only does it encourage its children to become deadbeats and parasites on the government dole, the government of Finland tells the parents that it is ok to indulge in sex for pleasure and helps them prevent God from blessing them with an additional preborn innocent life that they may selfishly consider inconvenient or untimely.  By God, you can be sure that some white male religious dude from Utah will have something to say about that!

And what do the put upon people of Finland get from the government handing over their hard earned tax dollars to these slacker parents who are both sitting it out on maternity leave?  Well, I’ll bet you won’t be surprised to find that the Finns overindulge their kids with public education too.  They consistently score at the top of the list on international tests.  Their educational system puts an emphasis on cooperation and sharing and disfavors competition while encouraging children to understand and develop their own abilities and interests.  They probably don’t even have a copy of Atlas Shrugged in the elementary school library.  And 98% of their teachers are unionized.

It’s enough to make a Perry Republican want to lethally inject some prisoner whining about his innocence.

I’m telling you, no good can come of it.  The next thing you know, those spoiled Finnish kids will grow up to do weird things with rusty old Volkswagons:

If those were American 20 somethings, they would be responsibly toiling away at some tedious job, provided they could find one, working to pay off a lifetime of student debt, not indulging in tongue-in-cheek works of creative musical humor in grassy meadows and saunas.  Clearly, Finland will be brought down by such decadence and ungodly disregard.  It goes against the laws of “dog eat dog” nature.

Pray, Conflucians.  Pray for a Finnish Baby Box.

It’s Time to Downsize the US

Alexander_cuts_the_Gordian_KnotIn difficult circumstances, such as the current economic crisis, it’s normal to work out how one got there as a means to avoid repeating the process. In the current situation, the discussion seems to range between those who feel that the situation is already working itself out, to those who feel that structural dangers remain and proper regulation is required, to those who feel that the problems were the result of regulation and government programs in the first place.

Count me somewhat on the side of the last group. I say somewhat because I think that the problem has to with the inappropriateness of the regulations that were employed, but unlike them I do not think that the problem is humans using morals and reason to regulate the marketplace. In other, more localized, words, I reject the notion that the Tenth Amendment prohibits spending programs and regulations.

My sense is that the regulations that were deployed to prevent economic disaster were structurally and functionally inadequate because they half-heartedly represented the Great American Project as manifest in the Constitution of the United States. The problem with the regulations wasn’t that they were half-hearted. That half-heartedness is symptom of the larger problem. They were structurally and functionally inadequate because the US can no longer afford to provide its citizens the rights and freedoms guaranteed in its Constitution. The regulations failed because they had a relationship to expectations that are suited to an America that does not exist, in an economic sense. The problems with the public education system, illegal immigration, crime and punishment, and social security, to name a few, are all relatively easy to solve, once the very costly, burdensomeness of the Constitution is overcome. It’s time for America to wake up and downsize its’ dream, the dreams of its citizens, and smell the aroma of the box store, bulk size, generic coffee reality that its best and its brightest have packaged for Uncle Sam’s future.

Downsizing America

Given the economic realities of the new US of A, what aspects of the American vision should no longer be seen as part of the covenant between the citizens and their government? A quick look at some fundamentals of democracy should provide some context about what avenues should be open to being cut. Then the process of contracting out the bureaucratics to the private sector can begin. This said, these are preliminary thoughts, so all that I will provide is a rough and general sketch.

Democracy is expensive and inefficient, even when it’s practised by politicians who are not neo-conservative Republicans. This is unsurprising by design. After all, it’s said that, in an ideal democracy, the populace is educated, they have access to all of the information they need to make a good decision, and they are free to make that decision. How does this ideal fare when it faces the real world?

Immediately, one is struck by the gross redundancy in the ideal system. Providing that much information to so many amounts to an excessive effort for minuscule return. The set of possible decisions for any question is extremely limited, given the options for action, and polling research has already proven that we only need small sample populations to get the gist of what people want. In fact, given the history of their wants, and given the nature of the question, there is probably no need to poll them further because it should be derivable from past decisions. The cost savings to be gained by dismantling the information network should be substantial. Mainstream media can remain as is.

The efficacy of sampling also suggests a direction for schooling provision. Once again, the system is entirely redundant. Imagine, though it’s a laughable thought, that a university degree was all the education one needed to be capable of making good decisions. What do you think it would cost to bring the 71% of Americans who do not have a degree, into the range of democratic competence? How could it possibly be worth the cost? In fact, apart from the decreasing number of specialty jobs that actually require a well-schooled employee, there is no good reason to maintain anything, but a shell of the existing system, apart from creating athletes for the circus part of social diversion. This is because we can use the same polling methodology and randomly choose children from the masses to receive schooling similar to the one that is provided today, and then poll them to find what the rest would have wanted, if they had the schooling.

Given the earlier recommendation of using past polling to extrapolate their wants, this process is admittedly redundant, but it does double duty in terms of providing training for the small percentage of jobs that actually require advanced schooling. Then again, perhaps it is wasteful to randomly select children, as this disregards the advantages of choosing children who are more likely to do well at university, based on their family background. Given past polling, it’s probably best to err on the side of efficiency. The point to take here is that there is no value in giving people more schooling than they need to do the small range of relatively unskilled jobs that await them. Furthermore, think of the dissatisfaction that is avoided when people don’t have enough education to be hired below their level of training.

If the vast majority of people are no longer making decisions, then there’s no reason to prop up the facade that they actually are involved in decision-making. If voter turnout is any indication, many will appreciate avoiding the exercise. To be fair, eternal vigilance is an unwieldy burden to bear, if the only benefits people accrue is to not have decisions made for them by their betters.

In fact, if they are not needed for decision-making, their representatives are redundant for the same structural reasons. The cash to be gained, by trading in the clunker of a public decision-making structure, should be sigificant.

All of these actions would save the economy trillions and once again put America front and center as an economic powerhouse, through the tax dollars it would free up and save. At the same time, it would give Americans a leg up on the rest of the developed/undeveloping world, by readying its citizens for a life of diminished possibilities long before the others face the challenge, should they.

The Constitution is in the way of progress in the US, to the extent it promotes the values of the ideal democracy. Perhaps it was prescient to send home Churchhill’s bust because his notion that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”, seems to have gone bust for America.


This is “a frayed thread” in honor of GW’s administration crying wolf at election time.

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Charter schools, Standardized Tests and the Tianamen Square Effect

Parent facing down the Educational Establishment

Parent facing down the Educational Establishment

Vastleft’s post on the NEA’s response to Obama’s education plans reminded me of piece I had seen in the NYTimes last week just before I went on vacation.  In Dangling Money, Obama Pushes Education Shift, the Obama agenda on education starts to crystallize as an increase in charter schools and an emphasis on standardized tests.

Now, before I get into this further I want to make three things absolutely clear: 1.) I’m no Obama fan because he doesn’t make policy based on principle so what is he up to?  2.) I am a strong supporter of teacher’s *labor* unions.  3.) I don’t like No Child Left Behind for many reasons, the main one being that it seems to be designed to make public education unpalatable so that many of us don’t want to support it anymore.  That being said, Obama’s plans are pretty reasonable as long as they don’t undermine the strength of the teacher’s labor unions and I’ll tell you why.  But first, an antecdote.

During my brief tenure as a school board member (I only ran for one term), my personal mission was to change the curriculum of our school district.  My district is about 10 miles from Princeton but it definitely couldn’t compete with Princeton or the school district I had recently left, West Windsor-Plainsboro, which is where many Princeton people live.  Central Jersey is chock full of high tech, pharmaceutical and academic types.  But what is really interesting is what you will find in graduate level classes at universities like Princeton and Rutgers, especially in the hard sciences.  Almost everyone is asian.  This is not a biased remark.  It is simply reality.  In fact, my brainiac #2 child took a 5 week algebra course at Rutgers Prep this summer and was the only caucasian in the class.

We noticed it at work as well.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, labs across the state got an influx of Chinese scientists.  I called it the Tianamen Square Effect.  Many of these Chinese students came after the failed uprising.  The lucky ones got out and came to the states to study.  They told us stories about what education is like in China.  It’s grueling.  There are standardized tests, high stakes standardized tests, constantly.  Those tests determine whether you will be able to go to a good school and study or whether you will end up making widgets in a factory somewhere.  It is really important to do well and parents push their children hard.

So, back in my days on the school board, I brought this up to the curriculum supervisors and asked why we weren’t performing at least at the same level as Princeton and West Windsor-Plainsboro where there was much more rigor and a more challenging curriculum in math and science?  The attitude I was met with might be described as, “So what?  They just do “drill and kill”.  Chinese students aren’t creative.  They just imitate everything we do.  We Americans have nothing to worry about.”  (Education propaganda is about as difficult to kill as the stuff that emanates from Rush Limbaugh.)  Educators seem all too willing to believe what other educators tell them but easily dismiss what people who work in the real world tell them.

I’ll tell you why we have to worry.  While their billions of children were clawing their way up the academic ladder, ours were coddled to the point of being completely useless to anyone but the finance industry.  Oh sure, we educate a lot of future accountants and teachers but future researchers of America who can use the scientific method or think rationally?  Not so much.  It is the sheer numbers of well educated Chinese and Indians that should be alarming to us.  Their populations are much bigger than ours, therefore the number of hard science graduates they have is also much bigger.  And those so-called imitative automatons are beating the pants off us in the world of outsourcing.  Why should American companies hire expensive American scientists when Indian PhDs are a dime a dozen in Hyderabad?  And yes, these same American companies don’t think twice about giving those PhD’s the boring, tedious work that *used* to be done by scientists with four year degrees.  So, if the US wants to re-establish its innovative bona fides, we have got to get crackin’ or send our kids to China for 12 years so they’re ready to compete when they get to college. It won’t be long before those Chinese and Indian scientists are inventing the next internet.

So, I was pained to see the NEA come out against charter schools.  I understand it but it still shows that they just don’t get it.  Or they get it but they’re in denial.  There is a HUGE problem with the US education establishment that will become a serious obstacle to any change in policy.  It is not unionization.  It is preparation.  Our teachers are simply not equipped to teach world class math and science.  I think this is part of the resistance to standardized testing.  It is very hard to teach standards which you do not understand.  Most teachers can handle the early grades fairly well.  It’s when children hit the intermediate grades that we have problems.  Here’s how the problem plays out in NJ:

Every child in our school district takes a statewide stadardized test called the NJASK.  A child is ranked partially proficient, proficient and advanced proficient based on the NJASK and is *supposed* to put into a class based on their score.  So, partially proficient kids should get extra help, proficient kids are the vast majority of students.  But what about the advanced proficient kids?  As I said before, in the early grades, teachers can differentiate their curriculum a bit.  But once they hit middle school, the advanced proficients meet the K-8 teacher certification limit.  At this point, teachers aren’t required to teach anything more than algebra I and most aren’t required to do that anyway with the vast majority of students taking pre-algebra.  So, if a kid scores at the top of the advanced proficiency range, there may not be enough room for him/her in the single class of 21 kids that gets the benefit of the single teacher in the school that is qualified to teach them advanced algebra I and geometry.  This is what happened to Brook last year.  She’s at the top of the advanced proficiency range and does very well on her math tests.  But she refused to do her homework. So she ended up repeating pre-algebra. (For some reason, teachers are convinced that every child has to do the same homework, whether they’ve mastered the material or not.  I’d give them homework on stuff they don’t already know but that requires a different curriculum and it’s so much easier to blame the kid and reinforce bad study habits.  Ok, the kid has an attitude problem too but I digress…)

What we do with these advanced proficients who don’t show zealous attention to their homework is we hold them back in 7th and 8th grade.  We slow them down so they don’t peak in algebra too soon, leaving them nothing to do for 2 years.  In the meantime, these kids start hating the subject matter.  It’s goes too slowly and it’s too easy.  They develop poor study habits.  We level them off to the same proficiency as their peers.  Wonderful. But it doesn’t stress the teachers and that seems to be the point.  We can reward teachers for taking continuing education credits and getting masters degrees but these classes seem limited to learning new pedagogy, not content.  And some curriculum supervisors admit that their teachers are afraid of science and math, especially in the lower grades.  They want pre-digested lesson plans and packets that can you can just add water and serve.  Nothing too stressful.

It’s not that these teachers are incapable of learning math and science to world class standards.  It’s just that we don’t make them do it.  We fall victim to the “guide on the side, not sage on the stage”, “drill and kill” and “we shouldn’t be teaching to the test” propaganda, but these memes are just smokescreens.  Take the last one for example.  We are talking about *standardized* tests.  That means that standards were to be taught.  If a teacher’s class hasn’t been learning the standards all year that are expected by local, state, and the national authorities, what the f^*) has the class been learning?  NO teacher should be cramming in the weeks leading up to a test.  The standards are there to be used as guidelines as to what is expected to be learned.  If teachers do not like the standards or are incapable of teaching them, they can always go into finance.  I personally don’t like New Jersey’s standards because they are fuzzy and indistinct, but by golly, the NJASK is a hard test so somebody better know how to teach this stuff.

What frosts my crockies is that many parents like myself and my internationally trained colleagues can’t afford to live in Princeton.  So, we’re stuck in these suburban school districts were “all of the children above average”.  And that’s it.  There is no pushing limits.  Teachers act as gatekeepers to the tiny number of slots in the enriched classes and the selection process appears to be subjective.  Many of my colleagues resort to sending their kids to Saturday Chinese schools or summer programs at local prep schools.  The local schools simply refuse to accommodate accelerated math and science programs for their middle schoolers.  If that’s the case, why shouldn’t we, the taxpayers, choose to allocate some of our hard earned money to a charter school, staffed by union teachers but teaching curriculum at a world class level?  What exactly is the problem?  That diverting some of the money from the general population would be a detriment to the students?  When we expect our children to perform at the level of our Asian counterparts, maybe they will have made a case.  But right now, we ask far too little in order to compete at an international level.  It’s time we asked more of our teachers.  For starters, let’s ask them to stop holding back our best students.

Teachers, educate yourselves.

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Factory Girls

Katiebird pointed to this extraordinary post from linfer at MyDD that I think is well worth a read.

Factory Workers at Sunrise

One of the things that has really ticked me off about the angry white male supporters of Obama and their media support group is that too often working class women have been characterized as “uneducated”. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t get degrees but to suggest that these people are uneducated or, what is clearly implied, stupid, would be a gross misunderstanding of the working class in our country. I come from working class roots. My paternal grandmother was the only one to have a high school diploma. My grandfather left school in eighth grade after his mother and sister died and his father abandoned him. His grandmother took him in but made it clear he had to make his own living. My maternal grandmother skipped two years of school, got bored and dropped out in 10th grade to marry my maternal grandfather, a happy-go-lucky guy, champion swimmer and steel mill worker. My parents did not have 4 year degrees. Both took college level classes for various things. My father was trained by the navy to maintain nuclear reactors at one of the toughest training schools that exist. My mother took classes but our constant moving made it impossible for her to attend seriously. My aunts and uncles all took the vocational route or homemaking. I was the first person on either side to finish college.

The reason I bring this up is because everyday I talk to people who have degrees but can’t think their way out of paper bags. This even occasionally happens with people with hard science degrees. I sometimes think that some kids would be better off pursuing a vocational degree than pushed into a worthless degree from a liberal arts college and for which they put no effort and learned nothing. But there are people in factories who go to work who through no fault of their own, or even by choice, do not have educations. And these people are turning to Hillary because they know that their vote is valuable and they are going to give it to the person who comes to them and asks them for it, not to the person who disparages their life situation in order to appear sexier to the young, the male and the snobby.

There’s a lesson in that. But I doubt that Obamaphiles, with all their degrees will understand it.