Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sacred Words -- commentary

School board members must take six hours of continuing education each year, so there I was at the annual school board members’ conference where once again I heard those currently in vogue, sacred words being intoned by the then Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken James: “research based.”

I’m cynical about these words in that the educational landscape is cluttered by research based programs that didn’t live up to their promise; so much so, that many veteran teachers, when a new program is announced, just roll their eyes and think, “here we go again.” What happens between the research and the promise is a guess, but here’s mine.

Research works well in the hard sciences. You set up your experiment and repeat it many times. If you keep getting the same results, you have proved your hypothesis. It does not work so well in the soft sciences. When doing research on human behavior, there are too many variables that can change between the research and the real classroom. Is it even possible to set up exactly the same experiment time after time?

The educational experts doing research in our graduate schools of education are the people to whom law makers turn when making decisions about our public schools, but does their research really tell them more about what needs to be done and how to do it than classroom teachers who work daily with a given set of students?

I’ve never studied in a school of education so I’m going to validate my opinion with the insights of one who has and who teaches in such a school. Here are some notes from “The Classroom Crucible,” by Edward Pauly of Yale University. He’s quoting his colleague Harvey Averch of the Florida International University: “The literature contains numerous examples of educational practices that seem to have affected students’ outcomes. The problem is that there are invariably studies … that find the same educational practices ineffective. … Research has found nothing that consistently and unambiguously makes a difference in students’ outcomes.”

Pauly writes, “When a prescriptive policy tells teachers and students what to do and how to do it, the important differences among classrooms are ignored and even suppressed.”

He gives the following as the First Law of Education Policy: “Policies that prescribe teachers’ and students’ classroom activities do not produce sustain improvements in students’ achievement. To be effective education policies must give up the attempt to prescribe teachers’ and students’ actions.”

His second law states, “Policies applied to classroom activities are thoroughly reformulated by the actions of teachers and students in each classroom.”

Finally he writes, “Prescriptive policies record of failure suggests the need for a Third Law of Education Policy: Education policies should be designed to achieve their effects despite being changed by the choices and responses of teachers and students.”

So, if research doesn’t guarantee much, what are we to do? Years ago, I read an article on psychological counseling and what modality was most appropriate. The writer said that when you subtract the amount of harm done in counseling from the good done, you are lucky if you wind up with at least a zero.

However, he said without these three don’t even begin: total integrity, accurate empathy, and non-possessive warmth. He concluded that if counselors have these three attributes, their modality won’t make much difference.

I suspect the same is true with teaching. Students appreciate and respect a teacher who has total integrity and they trust her. Trust between the teacher and student is essential to learning.

Accurate empathy is also a critical aspect of teacher and student respect. Empathy plays a role in how a teacher relates to students from day to day. Many times I have had teachers tell me that when they saw what a student’s home life was like, it changed how they related to that student. They did not let the student get away with more, but if the student came to school grouchy, for instance, they would understand and maybe avoid a confrontation or respond with some understanding.

Finally, non-possessive warmth means you have nothing personally at stake in your students’ success so you are warm toward them when they are doing well and when they are doing poorly. A student who knows he is cared for will respond more positively than one who feels the teacher would rather he weren’t there or only cares for him when he is doing what she wants.

If a teacher possesses these attributes, it will not make much difference whether her methods are research based or not. Her classroom will be a secure environment where students will learn. Without these three, the teacher’s style or the program used will make little difference.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Profits? -- commentary

This headline in the October 26 edition of The Jonesboro Sun grabbed my attention: “Health insurer profits not so fat.” I wondered how long it would be before some aspiring reporter discovered this fact. It was an AP story.

I have stayed out of this health care debate, mostly because I have a lot of opinions but no answers. But, the afore mentioned article brings back some memories that do have some bearing on the debate.

When working as an insurance agent, I sold a rather large group health insurance plan to one of the Alaska Native Corporations. Because I sold the plan, I got to sit with the insurance executive as the plan was being put together. To my amazement, he began his model by assuming a two per cent profit. As part of the plan, the company insured itself against any catastrophic claims. In effect, all the underwriting company did was shuffle paperwork for their two per cent profit and assume the minor risk of routine claims which they paid out of premium dollars. Even at that, though, they lost money on the contract since there was no fat.

There is money to be made in insurance, but not health insurance. The public assumes the insurance companies are making huge profits because premiums keep rising. However, premiums are always a reflection of claims. As claims go up, premiums must follow. The key to controlling insurance costs is to find out what is driving up the costs of health care and reverse the trend if possible.

As a side note, one might ask why an Alaska Native Corporation wanted to pay thousands of dollars a month for a health insurance contract when they were all covered free under the Public Health Service, a government plan.

Health insurance companies are too often portrayed in this debate as making obscene profits. What is an obscene profit? When talking to students about capitalism and profits, I often set up the following scenario: If you had a million dollars of capital setting in a secure investment and paying you five per cent annually, which would be $50,000 a year, how much profit would you have to make to take it out and invest it in a business? Remember, once you invest it in a business, you have put it all at risk. Would you do it for 6 per cent profit? For 8per cent?

Before you answer, remember that while the money was setting in your secure investment, you did not have to do anything. It made that money whether you slept all day or didn’t. You didn’t have to be responsible for employees, put up with people who were incompetent, wanted the day off, called in sick, and so on. Also, you did not have to put up with government inspectors, regulators, and tons of paper work, and nothing was at risk. You didn’t need to hire a CPA or a tax lawyer. So, how much profit are you going to have to make before you will take your money out of that secure investment and risk it in a business?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t do it for 10 or even 15 per cent. The sad truth is; however, very few small business people make a ten per cent return on their investment. The article said that even of these big health insurers “profit margins typically run about 6 per cent, give or take a point or two.” However, ... “Profits barely exceeded 2 per cent of revenues in the latest annual measure.”

One step that ought to be taken in the health care debate is to quit using the term insurance. We are not talking about insurance; we are really talking about prepaid health care. Insurance is a financial instrument that helps people manage catastrophic risk. When we start talking about low deductibles or first dollar payments, we are no longer talking insurance.

People, who readily accept $500 deductibles for auto or homeowner’s insurance, want $50 deductible for health coverage with no co-payments. They insist on maternity coverage even though maternity costs can be planned and budgeted for. Many people run to the doctor for little things that they would not bother with if it weren’t for the insurance or if they had a co-payment. Others wake up sick on Thursday, but don’t go to the doctor. By Saturday, when the doctor’s office is closed, their problem has escalated and they run off to the emergency room. These things create unnecessary costs which in turn drive up the premiums.

Consumers of health care could do a lot to control costs if they would use common sense. Admittedly, claims are also higher because of some real positive things such as technology and modern drugs. I don’t think any of us want to go back to the health care of 50 years ago.

We already have close to universal health care, but it has been put together piece meal because it has been done incrementally by those who couldn’t get the whole package passed into law. Though I do not favor government health care, it looks like we are going to get it, and it would be better if it were carefully planned rather than done piece meal. It now looks, though, like there may be too many cooks preparing this broth.