Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Put PISA Tests in Perspective

The latest test results of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), are out and for the alarmists of America, the sky continues its free fall. Indifferent parents, incompetent teachers and irresponsible students collude within a toxic culture that values entertainment over education by several orders of magnitude. Is it any wonder, they ask, that our teens fare so poorly compared to their international peers in math, science and reading? End of discussion.

It is time to put an end to the alarmist, some would say nihilistic, reactions to PISA tests, or for that matter, to any standardized tests.

But first, the facts.

Source: www.yahoo.com

PISA tests are given every 3 years. The latest results reflect the test given in 2012 to 65 countries - 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries. A total of 510,000 students, mostly 15-year-olds, participated. American teens ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading among 34 developed countries. Specifically, out of a possible 600 points, American student scored 481 in math, 497 in science and 498 in reading.

In all categories, students from the Chinese region of Shanghai topped the list, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Macau, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
There is no denying that American students have never done well compared to their top-performing peers in PISA tests. But how strongly does the PISA results correlate with a nation’s future, with its creativity and innovation?

Statistically it is possible to show some type of correlation between any two sets of numerical data. The correlation may be weak, medium or strong. It may also be bogus or genuine.

In the case of standardized tests, particularly at the international level, the correlation surely reveals something but not to the extent that our grim pseudo-analyst-pundits claim. PISA tests are not all multiple-choice, fact-driven exams. They include questions that require free-form answers and the ability to apply word problems to real-world situations. 

From that perspective, the poor showing of our teens is troubling. They have fallen short and will continue to fall short academically unless they take ownership of their learning. However, help is on the way in the form of student-centered Common Core Curriculum (CCC), which all the states, except Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Alaska, have adopted. The curriculum focuses on critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills and starts from the 2014-2015 academic year.

We will, of course, have to wait for several years before the results of CCC are in but there is no doubt that it represents a step in the right direction for America’s K-12, and by extension, community college, students.

But we must be wary of seeing too much in the results of standardized tests even after students have had several years of experience with CCC. We must be cautious in drawing sweeping lessons from any test. Creativity and innovation occur at the confluence of myriad factors that include culture, freedom, ability to challenge authority, and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Besides, top-performing Asian countries are known for teaching to the test and for their extensive programs of after-school tutoring. Very high scores in a test like PISA may simply mean that the students have mastered the art (or science) of acing the test, nothing more and nothing less. Their goal is not to become independent thinkers but to become excellent test takers. A Hong Kong educator puts it bluntly: “This after-school education is my world. I am one of the thousands of tutors helping Hong Kong students achieve high test scores. To me, the recent test results were no surprise: Of course East Asian kids test well. They are tested every day, even when they are sick. Our children sit for lengthy, rigorous and confusing examinations, starting at age 6. Weekends, summers and holiday breaks are golden opportunities to catch up on some R&R — review and revision, that is. But the thing about testing is that it creates excellent followers, not leaders. Doing well on tests requires constant test prep. Granted, when it comes to buckling down and cramming for hours on end, Asians kids will beat their U.S. counterparts to a pulp. But give them a task that is not testable or not directly related to school, ask them to do something not for their college application but for themselves, and they’ll draw a blank.”

Americana kids reading this cannot afford to feel smug. (We must also not ignore the fact that many of them are taught to the test as well.) They need to recognize that a creative and fulfilling life demands the kind of rigor and aptitude they have generally failed to show so far.

At the same time, Americans must also realize that teachers are at the heart of our K-12 system. Unless teachers are accorded the respect they deserve in our society (as they are in Finland, Singapore and other top-performing nations), with salaries consistent with their calling (meaning that their salaries be on a par with what lawyers, doctors, engineers and entertainers earn), we will only be paying lip service to improving the dismal showings of our teens while the alarmists continue their perennial lament of threatening clouds darkening our nation's future.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela and the Power of Forgiveness

On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela, age 46, was sentenced to life for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. On February 11, 1990, prisoner number 46664, who would not let despair dictate his soul, walked out from the Victor Verster Prison into the bright sunshine of freedom.

Mandela was first imprisoned in Pretoria and later taken to Robben Island, an infamous penitentiary near Cape Town that had previously been a leper colony. He stayed there for a few weeks, then taken back to Pretoria where he was charged in the Rivonia trial, from which he was sent to Robben Island for life. He spent a total of 27 years behind bars.

The world has paused to remember this iconic figure who breathed his last at age 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela’s timeline is etched in the memory of multitudes but even those not aware of the milestones of his life saw in him a revolutionary and a visionary the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again.

His ‘I am Prepared to Die’ speech, delivered from the dock during the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, on 20 April, 1964, will always serve as an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere.

Of all the traits that defined Mandela, perhaps the two most remarkable were his humility and his willingness to forgive.

“I am not a saint,” Mandela often told his admirers, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Here was a man who had attained the moral high ground through superhuman courage and patience in the face of evil, yet who could resist the seductive pull of arrogance. He was aware of his flaws and frailties, some of which his countrymen were to witness during the five years (1994-1999) he was the President of South Africa, such as charges of cronyism and selling out the liberation struggle to white interests.

But Mandela’s rare gift was that he never lost sight of his goal: democracy, equality and the rule of law for blacks, whites, Afrikaners and every other race in his tormented country. He could do it because he had the humility to know that it was not about him but about South Africa and its people. The source of his humility sprang from a combination of high purpose, generosity of spirit, strength of character, grace and daring, a combination tragically absent in any of today’s leaders anywhere.

Mandela’s inclination for reconciliation over revenge marked him even more as the definitive moral leader of our time. Half-a-century of inhuman apartheid had stoked the flames of revenge among his dispossessed, nameless, faceless, vote-less people. A blood-bath between blacks and whites in South Africa seemed inevitable. But Mandela would have none of it. "Great anger and violence can never build a nation,” he declared. “We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”  And, "Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” And again, (from his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, 1995), "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."

This, from a man who was forced to toil day after day in a limestone quarry without sunglasses under a merciless sun that destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed him even of his ability to cry!

Freed after 27 years, only a Mandela could say with conviction that he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.

Ever the humble man, Mandela pointed out during an interview that “I am not the only one who did not want revenge. Almost all my colleagues in prison did not want revenge, because there is no time to do anything else except to try and save your people.”

For many, Nelson Mandela became a revered and iconic figure only after his story of sacrifice and magnanimity became widely known. For decades during the cold war, however, American presidents backed apartheid as a vital front in the war against communism. In 1981, President Reagan went so far as to call South Africa’s diabolical regime “essential to the free world.” Both Reagan and Margaret Thatcher labeled Mandela’s African National Congress Party a terrorist group. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that Mandela be released from jail. When, in 2004, Mandela criticized George Bush for launching the Iraq War, (just as Martin Luther King had criticized Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War in 1965), he was denounced by some in the mainstream media for his “vicious anti-Americanism” and for his “longstanding support for terrorists.”

But when President Clinton visited South Africa in March of 1998, he told Mandela in a joint session of parliament in Cape Town that "For millions of Americans, South Africa's story is embodied by your heroic sacrifice and breathtaking walk out of the darkness and into the glorious light."

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Madiba) went for the stars. Not for him petty fights and small dreams. “There is no passion to be found playing small,” he said, “in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” His definition of a life of purpose: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” As viewers saw in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” he had the courage to surprise his adversaries with restraint and generosity.

This fierce yet gentle freedom fighter has now made his final walk to eternal freedom. And we are the poorer for it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Contrasting Indian Heroes

If you are a cricket fan, there is no need to repeat the incomparable (some would say, unbelievable) statistics that India’s Sachin Tendulkar has compiled in a 24-year career that began when the little master was a mere 18. If you are NOT a cricket fan, that is, an American (not naturalized!), well, there is no point in repeating Tendulkar’s record either. It will make no sense to you.
However, most of the world has taken note of the retirement of the great one. It was - surprise, surprise - front page news in my local San Jose Mercury News.
What has been the hallmark of this unassuming man in all the years he has been under the relentless spotlight was his humility, a quality that will undoubtedly continue to characterize him as he settles down into a normal life. 
It was on full display in the emotional speech he gave after batting for the last time against West Indies in his hometown of Mumbai.
(Ask yourself, in which other country would fans fast - that’s right, give up food for a day when their hero was batting, so he could score another century? Only unconditional love and respect can compel fans to do that.)
Class. Grace. Courage. Persistence. Plowing on when adversity strikes. These qualities sum up Sachin Tendulkar. For the Indian government to honor him with the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India) was perhaps the most obvious coda to a life lived so well both on and off the field.
There is another momentous match going on India now as well: the world chess championship between defending champion Vishwanath Anand and the 22-year old Norwegian “Mozart of Chess,” Magnus Carlsen.
The match is taking place in Chennai (formerly Madras). Anand is also an Indian, so a billion Indians are gripped by the progress of this hero of theirs as well.
But other than their Indian origin, one will be hard-pressed to find any similarity between Tendulkar and Anand. 
This became glaringly obvious during the press conference following the Carlsen victory in the 6th match (Carlsen leads Anand 4-2 in the 6 games played so far).
Obviously Anand was in a sour mood. After all, he was playing white and his blunders were obvious to chess players around the world. 
Yet his responses to reporters’ questions showed the wide gap between him and Tendulkar in the grace department. 
“I will do my best in the remaining games,” he said response to a query about his chances of defending his crown. When another reporter asked him to elaborate on what he meant by “I will do my best,” Anand snapped at the reporter: “Do my best means do my best. Don’t you understand English?”
In a previous question, Anand was asked about Tendulkar and the adulation that Indians were showering on him. He was vague about it but then added, “I have other things on my mind.”
Vishwanath Anand makes his home in Spain. He is undoubtedly up there with the best chess minds the world has ever produced. Anyone who has won the world chess championship five times and who has been the undisputed champion since 2007 surely ranks among the best. He may yet regain his poise and beat Magnus Carlsen to retain his title.
But when it comes to grace and humility, Tendulkar, who would never dream of living abroad, is ahead of Anand by miles.

Two Indian geniuses in their respective fields but only one is also a towering human being.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Bachelor's Degrees in Community Colleges

The 1960 master plan for higher education in California identified the following distinct roles for its three-tier system:
- University of California (UC) is to be the state’s primary public research university, with authority to grant bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and other professional degrees.
- California State University (CSU) is to focus on liberal arts and sciences and grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
- California Community College (CCC) is to offer lower-division instruction transferable to 4-year colleges, provide remedial and vocational training, and grant two-year associate’s degree.

According to the plan, the top 12.5 percent of all graduating public high school students are eligible for admission to UC, the top 33.3 percent for admission to CSU, and all persons 18 years or older who can “benefit from instruction” are eligible to attend CCC.
Fifty plus years later, it is clear that dramatic shifts in California’s demography, mode of education, jobs and “facts on ground” require a thorough review of the master plan and quick enactment of core recommendations from educators, legislators, teachers, unions and students.

Although the plan had gone through several official reviews in 50 years, resulting in hundreds of recommendations, only a few, and that too at the most superficial level, had seen the light of day.

It is clear to anyone but the most jaded and reactive segment of the population that the master plan, designed when baby boomers were reaching college age, fails to serve the needs of Californians in the 21st Century. A high school diploma that back then would have sufficed for a managerial position is more likely to elicit scorn for even a door-to-door sales position now. 

Nowhere has the master plan’s inadequacy become more apparent than in the objectives it set for California’s community colleges half-a-century ago.  

It is imperative that the role and scope of the CCC system be expanded as soon as possible not only to increase graduation rates but also to meet the Golden State’s growing workforce needs.

There are two areas in which immediate intervention is required.

First, the increasing complexity in transferring credits to CSUs and UCs force many community college students to repeat courses, which not only delay their progress but sometimes force them to drop out. Students who take prescribed courses and do well are, in theory, guaranteed admission to CSU or UC systems. That’s the problem: the plan works mostly in theory and not often enough in practice. This has to change immediately if the CSU and UC systems are serious about educating all eligible Californians for purposeful employment and self-fulfillment.

Second, and more importantly, community colleges should have the right to grant bachelor’s degrees in selected vocational fields, such as nursing, automotive and biotechnology, to meet workforce demand and boost employment.

Demand for nursing, for instance, is consistently strong. But CSUs cannot graduate nearly enough nurses for the healthcare system. Many community colleges, on the other hand, have been training nurses for decades. (Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, to name only one, has had a top flight nursing program for several years).

What can be more logical than the right to confer bachelor’s degree in a field that community colleges are eminently qualified to do?

Nothing, except that officials from universities and private colleges, fearing competition, are vigorously lobbying against the idea, claiming that granting four-year degrees would undermine the original mission of the two-year system.

This is, of course, a red herring. Universities and private colleges are trying to protect their turf at the expense of justice and economic well-being of Californians, particularly those from poor families and rural areas.

Despite their resistance, Brice Harris, Chancellor of California’s 112 community colleges with its 2.4 million students, has appointed a 16-member panel to consider the plan. The group includes faculty, administrators, a student, a college trustee and representatives of UC and CSU systems. (In all fairness, the panel should include more student representatives since it is their future that is at stake.)
Californians must throw their support behind the plan to allow community colleges the right to grant four-year degrees, at least in selected vocational fields. While cost and accreditation issues will certainly pose challenges, they are expected to be more than compensated by employment and economic benefits.
Besides, California would merely be following a growing trend: As many as 21 states have already approved baccalaureate programs at community colleges, most recently Michigan, which last year granted junior colleges authority to offer four-year degrees in a limited number of fields such as maritime technology and culinary arts.

Proposed in 1960, California’s master plan for higher education no longer fits the bill. The time has come for its significant overhaul, one of which would be to enlarge the scope and power of community colleges in granting four-year degrees in selected fields. After all, if public colleges cannot meet the aspirational and professional needs of their communities in the 21st century, how can they continue to be called “community” colleges?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Trials of Muhammad Ali"

If you have the courage of your conviction and act on it, people will love and respect you, even if they hate and scorn you at first.

More than anyone else in recent memory, Muhammad Ali epitomizes this truth. Ali spoke truth to power long before politicians turned the phrase into a cliché. In the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s, when lynching of Blacks were daily occurrences, Ali stood out for justice and dignity for his people, unafraid of losing his life, challenging White America to look into its soul and acknowledge its bigotry and racism. From “I am free to be what I want to be” to “I have seen the light and I am crowing,” Ali opened raw wounds in the American psyche, provoking anger and fury that in the end proved cathartic.

That he was also a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion seems, in retrospect, almost incidental to the enormous religious, social and political role he played outside the ring.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” a new documentary (Director: Bill Siegel, Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes), examines Ali’s life in the context of a turbulent America in which segregation was the norm and Blacks were convinced that “The White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.”
The combination of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests in the mid sixties shook America to its core. Drawn by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Ali had become a Muslim in 1964. Earlier, he had shocked the boxing world by defeating the “unbeatable” Sonny Liston.

Most Americans regarded Black Muslims as a cult, sinister and treacherous, bent on destroying their country. When Cassius Marcellus Clay publicly and proudly shed his “slave name” and became Muhammad Ali almost fifty years ago, Blacks had found their hero and racially-driven Whites, politicians and pundits their enemy. Even the TV talk-show host David Susskind, considered a liberal, labeled Ali in 1968 “a disgrace, a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
The documentary pulls no punches. Stokey Carmichael of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam (who later split from Elijah Muhammad and was assassinated in 1965) gave Ali the framework he needed to articulate his bitterness against racist America. He defended Islam as the “slave-breaking” religion. When the draft board reclassified him as eligible for military service in 1967 and ordered him to join the Army, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector because of his Muslim beliefs. Overnight, he became a traitor for refusing any role in America’s war machine. He was convicted but Ali never wavered. His logic was as powerful as it was simple: Why should I travel thousands of miles to kill brown and black people who never harmed me or my people for a government that continues to oppress and kill my people, he demanded to know. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously declared. When an army brass kept calling him Cassius Clay during a hearing, he politely but firmly kept telling him, “It’s Muhammad Ali, sir,” until his interlocutor obliged.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction on technical grounds.
“I am no slave,” Ali is quoted in the documentary more than once. “Don’t call me by my slave name.” When boxers Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him Clay, Ali punished them so viciously in the ring that the New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte called the Terrell fight “a truly terrible moment in boxing history.”
In this young 21st-century, history seems to be repeating itself. America now finds itself as polarized as it was during the ‘60s. The sacrifices that African-Americans made has no doubt led to much racial progress, but the toxic social forces that Ali and others fought against seem to have reappeared, although in subtler forms. Wealth inequality is the new Jim Crow, the rise of Tea Party ideologues the new racial reality. We need brash and bold “loudmouths” like Ali, be they white, black, brown or any shade in between, to demand just and legitimate distribution of wealth and opportunities, in the absence of which American society is bound to fatally fracture.
Ali has been silenced and immobilized by Parkinson’s disease. People who see him now cannot bear to look at him a second time. Yet his legacy endures and inspires. There have been several excellent documentaries on his life and boxing career, including (1996) “When We Were King” and “Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.” But in “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” Bill Siegel has woven a complex and fascinating story that is at once bracing and disturbing, a story that is worthy of the subject whose elusive essence it tries to capture and largely succeeds.
Hana Ali, the third-youngest of Ali’s nine children and by all accounts closest to him of her siblings, calls her father in the documentary “the eighth wonder of the world.”

How true, how so very true!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Archer Kent Blood's Lasting Legacy

The recent publication of “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” by Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, has reopened raw wounds in the collective psyche of Bangladeshis.

Drawing on recently declassified White House tapes and documents, Bass has summoned a searing story of hubris and genocide that will shock readers four decades after the violent birth of Bangladesh.

That Prof. Bass was able to find an American publisher for his book is rich in irony. Archer Kent Blood, Bass’s protagonist, wrote an even more searing first-person account of the blood-bath in Bangladesh but not a single American publisher would touch it. It was eventually published by The University Press Limited of Dhaka in 2002.

Author of “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh: Memoirs of an American Diplomat,” Blood was the United States Consul General in the-then East Pakistan during the turbulent ‘70s. When the Pakistani army mounted a war against unarmed Bangladeshis to reverse the results of the 1970 national election in which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a clear majority, Blood was stunned by the silence of his government.

The diabolical Nixon-Kissinger duo was obsessed with appeasing Yahya Khan for the general’s role in facilitating the “grand opening to China.” They supplied him with all the arms, ammunition and spare parts he asked for. 10,000 Bangladeshis were massacred in the first three days alone. Over a period of nine months, as many as 3 million were killed (other conservative estimates put the figure much lower) and 10 million had to flee to India for safety.

Responding to the call of his conscience, Blood sent a telegram to the State Department that read in part, “… Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak government and to lessen likely and deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy …”

The late Christopher Hitchens, in his 2001 book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," described the cable as "the most public and the most strongly worded demarche, from State Department servants to the State Department, that has ever been recorded."

Kissinger was furious and recalled Blood to Washington where he was assigned to the State Department’s personnel office, a public demotion. It was the same Kissinger who, at the height of the genocide in late April of 1971, sent a message to General Yahya Khan to thank him for his “delicacy and tact.” Nixon was equally invested in the asinine dictator when he told him, “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced.”

In 1973, when Blood’s name was proposed for a possible ambassadorial position, Kissinger responded with: “Get that guy out of Washington!”

Blood’s book is filled with glimpses of men steeped in arrogance and their attempts to trash the truth. In June, 1971, for example, a World Bank Mission visited East Pakistan and filed a devastating report on Pakistani brutality. World Bank President Robert McNamara desperately tried to suppress the report but the New York Times obtained the document and splashed it on the front page. McNamara sent a letter to the Pakistani government apologizing for the leak! During a briefing in 1971 in Islamabad, a sneering Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, the first test pilot to break the sound barrier, challenged Blood’s contention that Bengali resistance would win out in the end. “Do the Bengalis have any aircraft? Any tanks?” Yeager asked. “Then, how can they stand up to the well-equipped, disciplined Pakistani army?”

Blood’s testimony is proof that people armed with hope and a will to be free can defeat armies equipped with weapons of war. The diplomat saw a parallel between his own country’s war of independence against the British in 1776 and Bangladesh’s war of independence almost two centuries later.

Blood received the Herter award in 1972 for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and creative dissent.” The award was named after the former Secretary of State Christian A. Herter and established by the American Foreign Services Association in 1969. In 2005, he was posthumously given an Outstanding Service by the Bangladeshi-American Foundation, Inc. (BAFI) in Arlington, Virginia.

Archer Kent Blood passed away peacefully at Ft. Collins, Colorado, on Sept. 3, 2004, at the age of 81, survived by his wife Margaret Millward Blood, two daughters, Shireen Updegraff and Barbara Rankin, and two sons, Peter Blood and Archer Lloyd Blood.

Reflecting on the fateful “Blood Telegram” years later, Blood said, “I paid for my dissent. But I had no choice. The line between right and wrong was just too clear-cut.”

If this is not human spirit at its finest, what is?

Prof. Bass’s “The Blood Telegram” will undoubtedly contribute to a renewed appraisal of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy and the lasting damage these two “statesmen” inflicted on the world, reverberations from which continue to be felt to this day.

At the same time, it should serve as a reminder to the leaders of Bangladesh that they too are under the spotlight of history, that they too will be judged by whether or not they have squandered the sacrifices of millions. It is easy to point fingers and wallow in the past. It is far more challenging to develop policies and institutions that can move the nation forward. Bangladesh is now politically polarized to the point of paralysis. Integrity, magnanimity and farsightedness are missing from the national discourse. Perhaps our politicians should read and re-read “The Blood Telegram” and “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh” to gain perspective on what constitutes hubris and what constitutes enlightened leadership. Forty-two years later, surely it is time. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Oracle Team USA's Amazing Victory

The come-from-behind victory by Oracle Team USA over Emirates Team New Zealand in the picturesque San Francisco Bay is being rightly hailed as one of the greatest in sailing history.

Team USA was down 8-1 on 11th September. But in the following two weeks, culminating in the spectacular and decisive victory on 25th September, Team USA had run off 8 straight wins to claim victory in the first-to-nine regatta.

How improbable was 8 straight victories?

A student taking an elementary course on statistics may calculate the probability this way: Probability that either Team USA or Team New Zealand will win in any given race is 1/2, or fifty-fifty, similar to when you toss a coin and ask for the probability of getting a head or a tail.

The probability of getting 8 heads (or tails) in a row, using the law of multiplication for independent events, is (1/2)8 = 0.0039, or 0.39%, less than one-half of one percent.

That’s highly improbable. In other words, the likelihood of getting 8 heads in a row, or running off 8 straight victories in a regatta is extremely low.

The student can shrug off the victory by saying, “well, the improbable happens all the time in life, even if statistics says otherwise.”

That’s true, but the logic of (1/2)8 is faulty in this case.

The probability of winning was higher than ½ for Team USA. As the Team began to win and gained psychological momentum, meshing technology and sailing skills in ways that eluded members of Team New Zealand, its probability of winning increased dramatically from 0.5.

In addition, the races were not independent events. Each win increased the probability of subsequent wins, so that the probability of running off straight wins was much higher than what one would expect from a series of independent, binary events.

Statistics comes to life not only when its basic laws are proven true in real-life events but also when simplistic applications of these laws reach their limits and one has to consider other factors, some of which are within the reach of statistics and some not.

In the case of the 34th America’s Cup and the amazing win by Team USA, conditional probability, along with all its associated quirkiness, had to be considered before estimating a probability of running off 8 consecutive victories. That would be an amazing feat by itself!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Voyage Across Infinity

Voyager 1, the little plutonium-powered spacecraft launched thirty-six years ago by NASA and equipped with primitive technology by today’s standards, has left the solar system. It is now traveling in the vast empyrean space between dazzling stars, still radioing back data that can help scientists increase our knowledge of the universe.

A debate has ensued as to whether Voyager 1 has actually gone beyond the heliosphere or is still traveling in its backyard. Details are important in any scientific endeavor but in this case, this particular detail is insignificant (although given the sudden vanishing of sun’s charged particles and the spike in galactic cosmic rays that Voyager 1 started recording a year ago, it appears that the starship has indeed broken through the solar bubble.)

What is significant is the immensity of Voyager 1’s accomplishment, both literally and figuratively.

Consider first the facts. The lonely probe that took off from the earth in 1977, the same year that saw the release of the movie “Star Wars,” is now 11.7 billion miles away from the earth (that’s 122 times the distance between sun and earth, or 122 Astronomical Units) and hurtling away at 38,000 miles per hour. It takes 17 hours and 22 minutes for Voyager’s signals, traveling at the speed of light at 186,000 miles per second, to reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (Its twin, Voyager 2, is now 9.5 billion miles away from the earth and is expected to take 3 more years before slipping the bounds of the solar system.)

But if these facts are impressive, consider that at its current velocity, it will take Voyager 1 another 40,000 years to reach the Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our sun. Long before that, of course, the spacecraft will run out of its nuclear fuel and power down its instruments in about a dozen years from now.

Beyond the data loom the larger questions: What does this mean? In what ways can the Voyagers alter our perspective about, or at least compel us to reconsider, our place in the universe? Is there an associated element of transcendence as this 1,592-pound starship continues its journey across infinity?

On the day NASA announced Voyager 1’s leaving the solar system, another piece of news set California’s Silicon Valley all atwitter: the impending initial public offering (IPO) of Twitter, the “140-character” micro-blogging social media company. It grabbed headlines in all the major online and print publications in the U.S. The financial world, in particular, was abuzz with Twitter’s estimated value, set to about $10 billion.

Voyager 1, in contrast, made no comparable splash. In the days that followed, Twitter’s every step toward IPO was tracked and turned into breathless headlines while Voyager 1 practically vanished from the media.

Our priorities are askew. Companies may soar and fall and forgotten but the first man-made object to enter interstellar space is, by any definition, a historic milestone that time cannot erase. “The Little Nuclear-Powered Engine That Could” is now voyaging across an unimaginable immensity, affirming our transient place on earth under the heavens. We are here for a reason and even if we cannot bathe in the cosmic afterglow of the Big Bang or witness celestial fireworks in regions where time and space are probably more intricately knitted together, what we build with our ingenuity and launch toward the stars, can.

Voyager 1 reminds us that science is not a catalog of facts but an unending quest for the unknown. Every time we unveil one of nature’s mysteries, we find more mysteries nested within, infinity within infinity. Physicist Richard Feynman defined science as an “expanding frontier of ignorance.” There’s lot more we don’t know than we do. Science is more about the former than the latter. We forget this sometimes, absorbed in our mastery of the known and the commercial success of our products, and lose sight of the profound truth that we are surrounded by mysteries, only a few of which we have been able to solve.

Will the Voyagers, or their descendants, register ripples radiating from dark energy, thought to be the source of an expanding universe? Will the next generation of Voyagers navigate the sea of distant quasars and supernovas and galaxies, enriching future generations with wondrous truths about the universe we cannot even begin to imagine today? Will human beings one day travel between stars and galaxies? No one knows. What we do know is that our quest to know the unknown will continue for as long as the fire of curiosity burns within us, the one quality alone that makes us human above all else.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Consequences of Crossing Red Lines

Bashar al-Assad has crossed the red line not once but several times since the Syrian uprising began almost three years ago. Every time it happened, America threatened to take action but did nothing, emboldening Assad to continue his genocide.

Now the “ultimate” moment of truth has arrived for both the United States and Syria. There is unmistakable evidence that Assad's forces used nerve gas in August to kill more than 1,400 Syrians, including at least 426 children, in attacks on the outskirts of Damascus.

President Obama has no choice but to take action because American credibility is at stake. It came as a surprise to many last week when, at the last moment, he delayed the attack on Syria to gain Congressional approval for his order. It was a diplomatic and tactical move but perhaps not a strategic one.

Although he faces considerable opposition in Congress, Obama will get his authorization for the attack. In spite of the setbacks he has suffered as president, at critical moments Obama has proved to be extraordinarily lucky. There is no doubt that he will be "lucky" this time as well.

For Assad, buoyed by the false assurances of Russia, there is also no turning back. He knows it’s a do or die situation for him. Either call America’s bluff or prepare to take up residence in a Russian dacha, unless, of course, the rebels get to him first and he goes the way of Libya’s Gadhafi.

The critical question is: what happens after the tomahawks fall on selected targets in Syria and the playing field between Assad's forces and the rebels is leveled?

Since America will not put boots on the ground and certainly has no stomach for a drawn-out war as in Afghanistan and Iraq, a flurry of diplomatic moves will ensue. 

Russia, as always, will try to save face by “convincing” Assad that he must give up power and leave the country. Once that happens, America and Russia will use the United Nations to call for a truce between the rebels and Assad’s forces. Inevitably, power will flow to the rebels but since there is no unity among rebel factions, chaos, bordering on catastrophe, may follow. The nihilistic Al-Qaida faction will try to sabotage any peaceful negotiations. The Sunni-Alawite clash may degenerate into an all-out and unending civil war.

From any perspective, the possibility of a stable Syria, at least in the near future, is dim. Yet America must act because the price of inaction is incalculable. America alone has the power and the moral obligation to punish a regime that used Sarin nerve gas on its own people. Everyone in the Syrian government involved in the decision to use chemical weapons must face the music before the International Criminal Court in Hague.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.

Who would like to live in a world like that?

Yes, America has acted on its imperialistic impulses and brought untold sorrow to millions. It has committed atrocities at home and abroad. But in the case of Syria, America cannot afford to wallow in its mistakes and misbegotten wars. No dictator, tinhorn or otherwise, can be allowed to get away with crimes like the ones that Assad has committed. America alone can right this wrong.

Syria will eventually find its way. Syrians will learn to live with one another in spite of their differences. And one day perhaps they will break free of their tortured past when 'hope and history rhyme.'

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's the Teacher that Makes the Difference

(Every year, foundations, think tanks and various other organizations produce lengthy papers detailing what‘s wrong with the state of education in our public schools and colleges, and what can be done to improve it. Yet nothing happens. Billions of dollars are spent on technology but the scores don't budge, and the same (if not more) percentage of students continue to drop out of school or take forever to graduate. The tomes that the educators and the educational-industrial complex produce to rectify public education have one thing in common: they never reflect what the students themselves think! It is as if they are convinced that students aren’t capable of analyzing what’s wrong with education, yet the pundits are full of suggestions as to how to foster critical thinking among them. The paradox is obvious to all except to the tome producers!

This is the first of a series on what students think is wrong with our educational system and the meaningful and practical steps that can be taken to improve it.)

Kathy had been falling behind in her classes since elementary school and enrolled in special needs level for almost all subjects, after being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. These special programs consisted of about ten to fifteen students and were very hands-on. Teachers could give the needed attention and because of this, Kathy back to normal grade level. But as a full-time community college student, she is frustrated because it is so hard to enroll in core classes. They fill up quickly, yet halfway through the semester, half the class drops out! These students take up spots that could have gone to more serious students. As a result, these students are forced to delay their academic schedule and transfer to 4-year colleges much later. “I strongly believe there should be a policy to prevent this from happening, such as putting a limit on how many times a person can drop a class or even putting people on hold for a semester because they failed to pass classes, instead of letting them take them over a thousand times and taking up a spot that a some else desperately needs.”

For Kaz, the lack of qualified and inspiring teachers is the greatest hindrance to a good education. “Sometime we come across a teacher who influences us, pushes us, shows us how great we can be, and inspires us. But in the public school system, the sad truth is that such teachers are hard to find. For whatever reason, it may be money or housing or transportation, public school systems do not attract outstanding teachers. And due to the judgmental, critical outlook that students have for teachers, all it takes is the first day for a student to dislike a teacher. Yet I believe that the student-teacher relationship is one of the most important and overlooked factors in education.” In Kaz’s experience, teachers make all the difference. “I am motivated to try hard if he thinks assignments handed out by teachers deserve my time and effort. If I see that the teacher is lazy about lectures, assignments, grading, et cetera, then I see no reason not to be lazy myself when completing assignments. On the other hand, on the rare occasions when I come across a teacher who inspires me, I try harder not to disappoint someone who puts in so much time, effort, and emotion into his or her students. My freshman English teacher in high school was a man who greatly influenced me. Today I see him as a mentor, someone who I can go to with my problems or talk on a personal level. Good teachers are the key to a good education. Unfortunately, in a community college with less funding and less motivated students, they are harder to come by. The key is to encourage teachers to form a strong student-teacher relationship from day one, starting with addressing students by first name and speaking a little bit about his or her personal life, so that the students know that their teacher is a human being. If teachers can do a better job and form healthy mentoring relationships with their students, high schools and community colleges would be much improved.”

Maddi has gone to public schools her entire life, from kindergarten to senior year of high school. The downside she found in her high school was the unhealthy competition among students, with little or no care for each other. Everyone seems determined to go to Harvard or Stanford at any cost. While she found the teachers genuinely caring and passionate about their subjects, the students acted as if the GPA was the only yardstick by which to measure a life. They were ruthless about teachers they didn’t like. In fact, in her school, a math teacher committed suicide because of the ridiculed he faced from his students. For Maddi, what is lacking in public schools is compassion among students. That is why she feels strongly that, along with algebra and history and literature, a subject on ethics and compassion and kindness, combined with community service, must become a part of the core curriculum. “What is the point of being smart by the book if you fail as a human being? Education is not just about GPA but also about learning how to lead meaningful lives.”

For Christy, current educational reforms focus on the wrong elements. Instead of investing in expensive, state-of-the-art technology, which she thinks actually distances a teacher from students, teachers should focus more on motivating their students through challenges tempered by kindness. Teachers should design their curriculum so that learning becomes a joyful experience, instead of being a chore or a mechanical process. Trying to craft a perfect educational system is a waste of time. If teachers use simple tools, such as using card games to master the periodic table, for instance, education can improve by leaps and bounds.

Educational think tanks and foundations may believe they are helping students but they are only hurting them by making them angry and frustrated to the point that students don’t feel education is important anymore. This is Roshmita’s strongly-felt opinion. She feels that educational foundations are making a fool of themselves by offering pie-in-the-sky suggestions for improving our educational standards, whether it is more technology or investor-funded online classes. Educational software is no solution. What Roshmita finds lacking from her own experience is that students who need extra help must have someone to show them how to master concepts and solve problems, instead of asking them to fend for themselves with web-assigned homework.

Stephanie is concerned about the poor pay of teachers in America. No matter what high-sounding suggestions may come from educators, unless teachers are paid at the same level as engineers and lawyers and doctors, as they are in Finland and Singapore, educational progress will be hard to come by. Also, in America, teachers are hardly respected. Additionally, tuition increase and shortening of the school year in which students are expected to learn the same extensive material in less time are two reasons why they are dropping out in large numbers. Students cannot be at their best when the pressure on them keeps increasing daily. Online classes take the pressure off a bit but their quality must improve significantly for more students to sign up for online classes. Finally, teachers must step up to the plate as well. If students are convinced that a teacher is genuinely interested in their success, they will perform better. Teachers should constantly seek feedback from students to adjust and improve their method of teaching and make it more relevant and interesting.

As Oscar sees it, times have changed but our educational system hasn’t, other than some cosmetic changes here and there. We are still applying the same 19th-century model in the 21st-century. “We not only seek different skill sets in the professional world, our nation’s population has also changed drastically. Many of the jobs that used to be well-paying and in abundance have now been made obsolete by modern technologies. Our colleges still offer many courses that have no benefit for career. We really need to change our whole system of education because the current one was simply not designed for today's world. The suggestions for change can come from teachers and educators but the most important ones can come only from students themselves. That’s what we should do: Create a national project lasting 6 months to a year and get opinions from students all over the country to improve our educational system. Only real data from the field, that is, from students, can show us the way.”

For Brandon, as for Kaz, it’s not technology or different forms of classes that makes the difference but the teacher. “Even the most boring material can be fun and engaging with a good teacher.  I pick teachers, not classes, when I sign up for classes. What frustrates me most is that there are a lot of bad teachers in our schools and colleges. That really has a devastating effect on students. The damage can last for years, if not a lifetime. So the first step to improving our educational system and student success is for schools to find the best teachers possible.”

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Making Summer Hang Around Longer

Just the other day in June we marked Summer Solstice and the First Day of Summer but already, with August having made its insidious appearance, we are preparing to bid summer goodbye. “Back-To-School” ads are all over the place, touting everything from crayon packs and pourable glue to 2-hole manual pencil sharpener and 2-ply facial tissue pocket pack. Most of the products have “scholastic” added in front of their labels, although it is anybody’s guess how a glue, other than being sticky, can also be scholastic.

How can this be? How can summer come and go so blindingly fast? It’s not fair. So here’s a list of things we can do to make summer stay longer, or at least linger, until we have repaired our body and soul from too much work, worry, stress and the unbearable irony of, well, life.

1. It all depends on the kids, really. Refuse to go to school until the second week of September. Easier said than done, you say? Maybe but it’s not as difficult as you think. Contrary to what they may say in public, teachers (the tenured ones anyway) will be delirious with joy if they don’t have to see their unruly, screaming wards until two or three weeks later than usual. The real problem is with the parents who had been praying for schools to reopen right after Independence Day celebrations. How to convince the parents? Simple. Start doing chores around the house with a single-mindedness that borders on the creepy. Do the dishes and then do the same dishes again. Do the laundry. Clean the kitchen and the bathrooms and the garage until they glow like fireflies. Haul out the garbage and if there is no more garbage to haul out, create some. In short, astound your parents with your conscience. They will hold you tight and not let you go until they must because it is September 15.

2. Fill up the hummingbird feeders with nectar. In a magical, mystical way, if hummingbirds linger, so will summer.

3. Drag the parents and the family cat to the local park and make them feed the ducks or the squirrels. If there are no ducks or squirrels, do some jumping jacks with the cat and wow everyone around with feline and human dexterity, even if a few scolds threaten to call the police for something about being a public nuisance. What’s summer if it isn’t also a little subversive?

4. Improve your vocabulary by memorizing a long word (at least ten letters) for each of the 26 alphabets in the English language. Use them at family meal times (all 11 meals per day must be with at least one member of the family) until mom and dad are convinced that sending a budding Brown (Dan) or Bellow (Saul) to school (that nips any talent in the bud anyway) too early will be criminal.

5. Talking about eating, be sure to include in your menu blueberries, green bananas, yogurt sprinkled with tiny heirloom tomato slices, carrots dipped in hummus, and the occasional partially-cooked eel. No parent will have the heart to replace this super-healthy food habit with what passes for food in the school cafeteria, until they must, starting September 15.

6. Swimming. Ah yes, swimming. What’s summer without swimming? Whether it’s in the ocean or the neighborhood creek, don’t begin your swimming adventure before the third week of August. Dangle the prospect of an Olympic medal before mom and dad. Although you come close to drowning more than once, you convince them that you are the next Missy Franklin or Michael Phelps. Even if your ability in water isn’t persuasive, your contagious enthusiasm is. Surely it is out of question, particularly since you are not drowning anymore, to return to school before September 15, yes?

7. The starry nights of summer are enlivened by the thrilling sight of shooting stars. With mom and dad, you marvel at the celestial objects streaking across the sky one warm and late August night. As you start naming the various meteor showers and the constellation they spring from, your dad tells you that unless you shut up, he is going indoors. You become silent and hug him and tell him astronomy is in your blood and if only you can hone your expertise for just three more weeks, unencumbered by homework and tests, you can become another Tycho Brahe. Tyke who? he asks, alarmed. You sigh. Dad is embarrassed. Alright, he says, alright, but if your grades don’t move north by Novemmber, all bets are off.

8. For the rest of us, start reading the Collected Works of William Shakespeare and the Collected Prose of Woody Allen, alternating between the two. Othello followed by Without Feathers. Midsummer Night’s Dream followed by Play It Again, Sam. Once you are done, pick up “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust but stop when you come to the part about madeline and memory. Thereafter, simply indulge in madelines until your memory turns upside down and you begin to see dead people. Even if time doesn’t stand still, you will find that it has started to crawl. And that will be enough to add a few more weeks to summer.

Summer was always meant to stay longer than it does, at least in these frenetic times. Unlike the weather, however, we can do something about it. The list is limited only by the imagination. And isn’t summer the season of imagination?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Narrowing the Education Gap

While soaring income inequality in America receives intense media attention, the widening achievement gap among students does not. But that is changing. Several recent reports focus on the educational inequality between rich and poor kids in America. One recent report paints a grim picture of this disparity and the threat it poses to America’s democratic ideals.

What do college students think? After all, they are the ones experiencing this unsettling trend. They are the ones being forced to brace for a future that appears bleaker by the semester.

Amy is keenly aware of the widening educational inequality in America. She grew up in a low-income home with parents who worked full-time. She chose community college because that was her only realistic option. Applying to Stanford or Harvard was never an option. Currently she works as a nanny for a wealthy family. “Their seven-year-old son attends a local private school with a yearly tuition of twenty thousand dollars. He attends math camps, science fairs, music classes and many other educational programs that foster learning and curiosity. Harvard and Stanford are within his easy reach.” Amy wants the government to create programs for underprivileged children. When the economy is bad, it is education and the children who suffer the most. In Philadelphia alone, for instance, 3,000 teachers recently lost their jobs. Private donors can do just so much. Unless the government focuses on improving the education of children from under-served areas, the gap will continue to widen.

Yvonne sees the educational gap widening at an alarming rate between rich and poor kids. Students aren’t graduating from high schools and colleges compared to baby boomers. “One radical way I would solve the educational inequality would be to eliminate private and independent magnet and charter schools and make one main type of schooling with just two other options: homeschooling and parochial schools. Currently, the rich have access to the top schools because they know how the system works and how to control it. I started out at the bottom but I learned to be mentally strong at school. I also learned how important it was to work hard and get a good education to move ahead in life. It is what they say: knowledge is indeed power.”

Krithika sees the growing educational inequality as a crippling problem for America. “It’s a vicious cycle: people without college degrees cannot get jobs so they fall behind even more. The middle class is disappearing. Without a solid middle class, no nation can progress. One way education inequality can be eliminated is if the distribution of tax funds for public education is done by the state or federal government instead of individual counties, so that these funds can be equally distributed to all public schools and community colleges. Another solution would be for state or federal government to allocate more money for public education instead of forcing budget cuts. This money could be obtained if the United States would restrict its overseas involvement in other nations, by avoiding expensive foreign wars and using that money to enrich the lives of Americans.”

Cabot has always been aware of the two very different educational stories in America. The wealthiest families can provide top quality education for their children, while the majority of the lower class cannot. Students in high-poverty areas do not have access to quality curricula, technology and qualified teachers. What makes the situation worse is that minority students with the same test scores as Whites or Asian students are less likely to be placed in accelerated courses and more likely to be placed in lower or remedial academic courses. Cabot feels that America should study and evaluate educational systems in countries like Finland and Singapore that consistently rank high in international evaluations. “America’s educational system has drifted away from teaching students how to reason and think, replacing it with rote learning. This must change.”

While Andrea agrees that education is becoming increasingly unequal in America, she doesn’t think it is because the government doesn’t spend enough money. The problem is that the money is not spent wisely. “There needs to be a better system for low-income schools. They need to spend money on tutors for the kids who struggle in class. There should also be more after-school activities for poor kids, something wealthy kids have. The wealthy are already set up for success. As a country, we need to provide these resources to the middle class and the poor as well.”

Shannon grew up in the Evergreen area of San Jose where families are generally upper-middle-class or higher. At Evergreen Valley High School, one of the top schools in the area, the test scores are ranked very high compared to other schools in San Jose, suggesting that students from richer families have higher-quality education. As Shannon sees it, a big part of the reason why low-income students do not acquire higher education is because their home environment detracts their focus from school. “These students have to worry about the dangers in their neighborhood. Often, their parents aren’t good role models. The parents may not even know how to properly communicate with their kids. Rich kids have more money because some of it comes from local property taxes. To generate money to support poor communities, the government should raise state and federal taxes on rich peoples’ incomes and allocate that to poorer communities. Such funds can be used to create mandatory parenting sessions for low-income parents. Any parent with at least one child in school must attend these sessions that will teach them how to provide a good home environment so that their children can perform to the best of their abilities.” The second solution Shannon proposes relates to moving teachers around. “Wealthier schools often have more effective teachers. Moving good and proven teachers around, even if for a semester or two, can motivate poor and under-performing students to excel.”

According to Keenan, it is not just money that explains the growing educational gap in America. Drive and passion are as important. Students who do well in school are those who take an active interest in what they are learning. This doesn’t come from money. It comes from how fascinated they are with what they are learning. A good teacher can make a big difference, of course, but ultimately it is up to the student. Although some schools do not have the latest technology and the best teachers, a student from such a school can use the Internet in libraries to acquire knowledge. Many of the great discoveries in almost all branches of knowledge came from students whose families were dirt poor but whose hunger to know and discover knew no bounds.

Rachel was surprised to learn that the “United States has the highest college dropout rate in the developed world.” However, she finds the comparison between today’s students and the baby boomers misleading. In the 50’s and 60’s a college education was not a requirement for landing a decent and well-paid job. Students who had no aptitude for higher studies could pursue full-time work right after high school. Not anymore. Students who don’t want to go to college or who aren’t ready for a college education are forced into something they are ill prepared for. It is this factor that explains the dismal state of education in America today. The solution is to create varieties of jobs that can absorb people with varying interests and skills. “That way, people who are more interested in blue collar work are able to get a good job without competing for positions requiring a college degree. “

Andrew is convinced that if the government stops offering financial favors to the wealthy and pursues a more ethical and equitable policy, the educational gap will shrink considerably.

The most practical solution to narrow the educational gap in America is to change the way schools are funded. As Michael sees it, school funding should be controlled at the federal and state level, and it should be based on the parents’ income. This will allow poorer schools to acquire the resources they need to give their students quality education. Michael has seen firsthand the disparity in education in different neighborhoods in San Jose, where he lives. In the well-funded elementary school in his neighborhood, the teachers are among the best, with access to the latest technologies. The school benefits from property tax measures that the wealthier parents can afford. In contrast, in East San Jose, where poor neighborhoods abound, the schools barely function. If the government creates a more humane funding program, there will be less educational gap between students.

Brandon feels that the rich are used as scapegoats in too many debates in America. Sure, part of the gap in education can be attributed to the unequal distribution of wealth, but anyone focused and willing to work hard can get a great education. His parents came from low-income families but both were determined to advance their careers through education and they both did, graduating from a California State University. The real issue is whether or not parents are interested in the education of their children. If they are, their children will find a way. The contrast can be seen with rich but unmotivated kids who go nowhere with their lives.

For Krish, eliminating educational inequalities can, to a large extent, be achieved by providing free preschool education to low-income children. Countries that provide early education for children have been more successful than other countries in raising achievement levels. A barrier to achieving equality is that American colleges are becoming prohibitively expensive. Many students have an extremely difficult time paying for college tuition. Even public colleges and universities such as the University of California, California State, and California community colleges have had one fee increase after another. “The cost of higher education is increasing at a far higher rate than the cost of other goods and services. If we agree that the community benefits from well-educated youth, then the government must prove so through increased funding. I have relatives in France who went to college there at a very low cost. Many universities in countries such as France are either free or have lower costs and are heavily subsidized by the government. To ensure equal access to all students, public colleges and universities should waive tuition for low income students, while the wealthy students could pay more. If tax payers are expected to support secondary schools because of the benefit to society, the same argument can be made for subsidized college education.”

Brett sees investing in teachers as a powerful way toward ensuring equal educational opportunity for all students. Schools and colleges need to hire qualified and inspirational teachers who can make subjects come alive for students. If the class is interesting, more students will be motivated to go to schools and appreciate the education they are receiving. Students must also recognize the value of a good education. “My mom made it clear to me at an early age that working hard in school will only benefit me in the future. She made sure I did my homework. She laid the foundation for the student I am today. I know that not every student in the country has the same support that I have. For this reason schools should implement various educational and recreational programs for those who don’t receive enough support at home. This will create a drive within the students to succeed in school and allow them to strive for a successful future.”