Friday, November 14, 2008

The right stimulus

It's time for another stimulus package, and this time, it looks like the Democrats, at least, have it right -- extended unemployment insurance, increased food stamps, and direct aid to the states. The states are in bad shape, particularly those required by their state constitutions to have balanced budgets. In New York, Governor Patterson called for $2 billion in cuts just for the current fiscal year, which ends April 1. Most of the money would come from hospital and school budgets, primarily in the form of lay-offs.

While it's true you can't solve American education's endemic problems by "throwing money" at them, budget cuts will make schools a lot worse. Cut staff and schools become genuinely intolerable. The puddle of vomit stays on the floor all day, the decibel level in the cafeteria goes into the danger zone, and the bullies rule the hallways. In overcrowded classrooms, teachers spend more time on discipline and less on instruction. In some classrooms, that means there's no instruction at all.

The only students who seem to be able to learn under these conditions are the children of recent Asian immigrants. Before you call me a racist, let me call your attention to two recent articles in the New York Times.

In the first of those articles, we learn that Asian students are the group most likely to qualify for New York City's elite high schools, "including the storied triumvirate of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech." At Stuyvesant, 72% of those admitted, by competitive exam, are Asian. The second article is about the efforts of Long Island's well regarded Jericho school district to get the parents of Asian students to show up at school activities. They don't join PTA and don't attend concerts (even though the orchestra is 70% Asian.) Somehow their kids keep getting into top colleges even though they don't attend college nights.

Apparently, whatever Asian parents are doing to help their kids succeed is happening at home. If we really want to improve the results we get from American schools, we may have to replace some doctors of education with anthropologists.

Some say Asian parents put excessive emphasis on test scores (and violin?), but I don't see that as the reason their children tend to be so much more successful. I think the secret is that they care about accomplishment rather than "effort" -- that their kids never hear, "Don't worry, you tried your best." They trust teachers to do their jobs, but recognize that the student, not the teacher, is responsible for learning. It follows that Asian-American students actually find it necessary to work hard to gain parental approval. How innovative!

In his most recent column, Times contributor Nicholas D. Kristof calls on Barack Obama to make sure education isn't on the "back burner," and to make improvement of urban schools a primary concern. That, he says, is the "most effective anti-poverty program." Most would agree, but the difficult question is, how do we go about it? Nothing tried so far seems to have worked especially well.

Well, here's my idea. Let's replace all the administrators, guidance counsellors, and school psychologists with Asian immigrants. They know how to apply the right stimulus -- the one that gets results.

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