Just Imagine

“Demarcus Taylor, a seventeen-year-old junior at King, had had enough. He was tall and slender, with broad shoulders, and as he spoke, he shook his hands in exasperation:
I’m not here to put the blame on anybody. I’m here just to reflect. Just imagine being at a school where you sit down, get your education, you get back up, go home, next thing you know you brought bedbugs from school to your home. Now you have an infestation at your house. Just imagine being at a school where your teachers are all sick and tired, and they’re acting like they’re not able to teach because they’re not getting paid for what they do. Just imagine when your teachers say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me next year, I don’t know if I can afford my car loan. How can I afford to pay rent, how can I afford to even live with the wage I’m getting?””
—Alexandria Neason, “Held Back” in Harper’s Magazine

Change the Environment to Change Behavior

PROJ_Codman_Exterior

A “high level of student engagement may be at least partially due to the school’s new Lithgow Building, which opened last August. The historic building was renovated with a trauma-informed design that houses the school’s lower and middle grades. “In many elementary schools, people use bright primary colors,” says Codman’s executive director Meg Campbell. “But for kids who’ve been traumatized or on the autism spectrum, red can be a trigger.”

. . . Campbell says she has seen a dramatic improvement in students’ behavior following the Lithgow renovation, even with the addition of 44 more students this school year.“Last year we had 16 students with 50 different incidents that warranted a suspension,” Campbell says. “This year to date, we’ve had three students with six incidents warranting suspension to date. If you put kids in a different environment, the behavior changes, and the teachers are happier.” [Bold added]

—Susan Johnston Taylor, “Want To Keep More Kids In School? Design A Smarter Classroom” on Good

The Shameful State of American School Buildings

One of this blog’s key arguments is that the influence of environment and infrastructure has a large, and all too often ignored, impact on student learning.

In the conversations we have on public education, we often talk as if teachers and students operate in some kind of a vacuum. Many fail to acknowledge what it feels like for a child to walk into a building each day in which high pitched sounds reverberate sharply off walls and floors, mold grows in the ceiling, harsh florescent lighting beams off bright surfaces, and the infrastructure is decaying.

So it is heartening to see this report from The US Green Building Council drawing attention to the shameful state of public school infrastructure.

Here’s a quote from the press release:

The analysis found that the federal government provides almost no capital construction funding for school facilities, and state support for school facilities varies widely. Local school districts bear the heaviest burden in making the investments needed to build and improve school facilities. When school districts cannot afford to make these significant investments, they are often forced to make more frequent building repairs from their operating funds—the same budget that pays for teacher salaries, instructional materials and general programming.

2016_state_of_our_schools_infographic
Infographic from thr USGBC website

Please help to build awareness of the need for investing in our school infrastructure and promote the report using#StateofOurSchools.

 

We have decided to let our cities (and schools) decay

By UpstateNYer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. . . . Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too.”

–Philip Kennicot, “We caused the Metro shutdown when we decided to let our cities decay” on Washington Post

America’s Decaying Infrastructure

By Laitr Keiows (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Technological advances and cultural change can do only so much to fight rust. . . . We can greatly slow corrosion, but we cannot stop it outright. Exposed iron and steel naturally revert to their lowest energy states by giving up their electrons to oxygen and water. The process is formally known as oxidation. Informally, it’s called rusting. By any name, it’s inevitable. “We’re fighting the second law of thermodynamics,” Dunmire likes to say.

At some point, higher concerns must come to bear in a war we can’t win but can’t afford not to wage. Changing America’s report card from a D+ to a B, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, would take $3.6 trillion of investment by 2020. The current shortfall, by the organization’s estimate, is $201 billion annually. The odds of closing that gap, and the costs of failing to, are similar to the odds and costs of the next bridge you drive across collapsing while you’re on it: respectively, minuscule and catastrophic.”

—Tim Heffernan, “Rust Never Sleeps” on The Atlantic

Lessons for both liberals and conservatives from Flint

By abarndweller (AC Spark Plug, Flint Michigan) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What happened in Flint is absolutely appalling.

Imagine the horror of a mother in Flint, knowing your child has been irrevocably poisoned. Poisoned as the direct result of the decisions of civic “leaders” whose very job, ostensibly, was to serve and protect you and your children. A poison, lead, that is insidious because it manifests in a slow and invisible devastation of decision-making, attention, and behavior that can all too easily be blamed on your child. And will be, because our society always blames the poor for their suffering. It’s so much more convenient to be able to dismiss someone’s suffering—their humanity—outright, without thought or empathy or even that moment’s worth of consideration, due to skin, or appearance, or where they may happen to live.

This is so wrong on so many levels. Beyond the inestimable human cost of the state’s failure, there is a damage that may outlast even the children whose bodies and brains have been poisoned. That damage is the fear and complete and utter mistrust of government that any family in Flint will never forget and will pass on to future generations.

When a community of people no longer can trust their government at any level, this is a damage that will not be fixed by an apology, nor by a formal indictment (and I sincerely hope that Snyder and his myrmidon are prosecuted for their crimes—especially in light of recent information), nor by any immediate action and intervention. What Michigan governor Snyder has wrought upon his people is criminal not simply for the poisoning of his constituent’s bodies and minds that he has been elected to serve, but furthermore for the stain he and his administration have left on civic institutions that his citizens can no longer trust. It will take generations to rebuild that trust.

In an article in Rolling Stone, Stephen Rodrick squarely blames the Republican party, et al, for this crime:

“I hate to get all MSNBC-y, but this man-made disaster can be traced to one fact: Republicans not giving a [expletive] about poor kids as much as they give a [expletive] about the green of the bottom line.” [Edited for language]

I frequently have much the same reaction to the Republican party myself, yet I think it’s all too easy to lay the blame on a political ideology or party in such a knee-jerk manner. In fact, later in the very same article, Rodrick presents some evidence for liberals such as myself to consider. When describing the historical context for how Snyder came into office, he writes:

“There was a $20 million budget deficit, as Flint was having difficulties meeting the pension requirements of union retirees who had worked in a more prosperous time and with a much larger tax base.

I have the same urge to belittle conservatives and the austere and even inhumane policies they often seek to perpetrate. Yet I fear that liberals (well, really, any of us humans) can all too easily get caught up in a rapturous cycle of blame and shame, rather than acknowledging the complex, deeper, and ongoing issues confronting civic leaders and representatives.

The context for what led to the situation in Flint will continue to recur in other cities. As our elderly population increases, the financial burden for health care and pensions will also steadily grow, stressing already taut public budgets. As Robert Guest argues in an article in an article in the Economist on the “millenial” generation:

“Throughout human history, the old have subsidised the young. In rich countries, however, that flow has recently started to reverse. . . . Within families, intergenerational transfers still flow almost entirely from older to younger. However, in rich countries public spending favours pensions and health care for the old over education for the young. Much of this is paid for by borrowing, and the bill will one day land on the young. In five of 23 countries in Messrs Lee and Mason’s sample (Germany, Austria, Japan, Slovenia and Hungary), the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now heading from young to old, who tend to be richer. As societies age, many more will join them.” [Bold added]

At some point, something’s got to give. Many liberals dig in their heels against any consideration of cuts or changes to pensions or health care, or privatizing the provision of some public services, without considering how those amenities will be paid for, and by whom.

Furthermore, our infrastructure is decaying, most especially in older East Coast cities like Detroit (where schools are literally falling apart, such that teachers are resorting to “sick-outs” to protest the decrepit conditions), Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. But even in younger cities, such as Seattle, updated infrastructure to prepare for potential catastrophic earthquakes is needed.

At some point, something will give, as it has in Flint due to decaying water infrastructure and poor political decisions by state officials. Many conservatives dig in their heels against any and all investments in public infrastructure and the necessary regulations to provide accountability and oversight, without considering how a failure to make such investments will impact future generations.

So there are lessons to draw from Michigan for both conservatives and liberals alike which will be increasingly salient to our rapidly changing cities and states:

  • There are very real financial issues looming due to unsustainable allocations to pensions, health care, and other large administrations of public funds (such as education).
  • There are very real infrastructural and environmental issues looming due to a lack of long-term planning, foresight, and investment.

Pragmatic solutions do not frequently come from ideological partisanship. And yet, our country often appears unable to get beyond superficial political polarization of real issues, preferring, instead, to elect leaders who play into and intentionally manipulate our fears to gain power. Unless we can learn to take our civic institutions and responsibilities seriously, we may well witness more horrors wreaked upon our citizens as the result of unscrupulous governance in the oncoming decade.