Sunday, October 23, 2005

Republicans' "No Child Left Un-Indebted" Initiative

This Sunday's NY Times Magazine has a lot of interesting stuff in it, but this dialog with Deborah Solomon and Connie Mack, in a section of the magazine entitled Taxing Issues, was priceless, in addition to going to the heart of what I find so reprehensible about our current fiscal problems in this nation. Connie Mack, for those of you who don't follow this sort of thing Mack was one of the lead honchos on Bush's tax-reform panel. A republican and a retired U.S. Senator, he had these wonderful tidbits to share with all of us (note: my comments within the following are bracketed, [ ], and boldfaced):

Indeed, he is still calling for tax cuts. He would like to eliminate the estate tax permanently.

I think there is a likelihood that Congress will deal with that issue before this term comes to an end. I would vote to eliminate, as we refer to it, the death tax. I think it's an unfair tax.

Really? I think it's a perfect tax. The idea behind it was to allow people to postpone paying taxes until they die, at which point they presumably no longer care. Why do you call it unfair?

Well, let's say, if you are in the farming business and you have the desire to pass this farm on to your children. The problem is that when your parents die, you have to come up with cash to pay the estate tax. One thing you don't have is cash. You've got plenty of land. So I just don't believe it's a fair tax.

That strikes me as a red herring. The issue is not really small farms, but zillion-dollar estates made up of stocks and bonds.

I don't know what the percentage breakdown is. I still go back to the same notion that these individuals who have accumulated these resources have paid taxes on them many times in their life, and then to say, when you die, now you pay more taxes on it? There is a limit.

[Given his role with "tax reform" I'm hard pressed to believe that Mack isn't familiar with the percentage breakdown on this. Those affected by the "Estate Tax", or in the words of spinmeisters who love to mislead the average Jane and Joe, the "Death Tax", amount to less than 5% of the overall population. Those affected have overwhelmingly benefited from tax breaks in the course of their amassing their wealth - especially now with the tax breaks that Bush has put in place for income specifically tied to stocks and bonds - and people who inherit farms, etc., are hardly the representative population affected by this tax. Of course Connie Mack's progeny would likely have to grapple with this tax were it still in place, as would be the case for the vast majority of our politicians - they don't mention that.]

Well, the U.S. government has to get money from somewhere. As a two-term former Republican senator from Florida, where do you suggest we get money from?

What money?

The money to run this country.

We'll borrow it.

[That's right, he said we'll borrow - not scrimp and save, but rather put ourselves in a position where we're beholden to other nations for the money we need. Of course scrimping and saving means we have to increase taxes, and God forbid we do that. It's just simply better to borrow what we need ... uh huh.]

I never understand where all this money comes from.

When the president says we need another $200 billion for Katrina repairs, does he just go and borrow it from the Saudis?

In a sense, we do. Maybe the Chinese.

[We borrow from the Chinese - awesome. The one full-fledged and notable communist country on the planet (yes, there are others, but please ...), and we're going to go to it with our hats out for a loan. Wild - he actually admits this, I mean I must be totally not understanding something here.]

Is that fair to our children? If we keep borrowing at this level, won't the Arabs or the Chinese eventually own this country?

I am not worried about that. We are a huge country producing enormous assets day in and day out. We have great strength, and we have always adjusted to difficulties that faced us, and we will continue to do so.

[Wow, I mean this is where the crux of the "No Child Left Un-Indebted" program comes from. We're a great country with enormous assets and great strength (i.e. if we don't get what we want we threaten to kick some butt with that oversized military the Republicans have come to be so fond of over-using), and the heck with having to actually pay for our adventures or whatever, we can just borrow the money and defer the cost of whatever we're borrowing for into the future. I remember when it was the Democrats who were the ones accused of being fiscally irresponsible - if I used Connie Mack's guide to how to "fiscally manage a country" for my personal life, I'd be living off of credit cards and loans, and then handing the bill over to my daughter.]

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On the Frontline, and it Ain't Pretty

Two days ago, in the course of a test review, I was going over an exam that one of my "regular" (as opposed to "accelerated") chemistry classes took and did very poorly on. Very
poorly in this case means not a single person passed, in fact the highest grade was a 68. Bad, bad, bad ... On this day we were reviewing the test and any problems that anyone may have had with it. This test covered some very basic material, density being one of them. Many of you may remember mister density, which you obtain by dividing the mass of something by the volume it happens to occupy, which is mathematically represented as: D = M/V. On the test there were two density problems, and these were very straightforward ones by any measure of the term "straightforward". In both cases you're given the density and the mass, and asked to find the volume. So to do this you'd algebraically manipulate the density equation as such:

D = M/V, multiply both sides by V, therefore DV = M, and since you want to find V you need to then divide both sides by D, giving you V = M/D.

Simple, right? Well yeah, it is, but why was it that about a half dozen kids in the class came up with V = MD? What in the world is going on there? I would have understood this with one or two kids doing this, but six? What was more frightening was asking two of the kids to come up to the board to do the problem the way they understood it, i.e. starting with the density equation derive a formula that would give you a way to find volume. Neither could. Mind you I had two kids who were game enough to actually get up and try to do a problem on the chalkboard in front of the entire class, and both of them couldn't do it.

So I'm standing there in front of a classroom full of 18 kids and I'm sure I had the most befuddled expression on my face after I realized how incapable many of them were at doing what I consider to be a very, very rudimentary mathematical operation. First of all I had done at least six of these problems in front of them for homework review and no one questioned how I was coming by my answers. Then they also had the problems in the textbook to review and from all of that no one asked any questions nor were apparently put out by the fact that the book was arriving at an answer via means that somehow didn't jive with their particular mathematical worldview. I suppose I should be happy from a "better late than never" perspective that this came up as an issue during the test review; I mean in all actuality they could have been just as stoic about their problem with the test as they were about all else that they'd encountered so far, but this just flipped me out.

Upon realizing how poorly suited these kids were to the simple math required of them in this class, the next thing to go through my head was what math they had completed before getting into the course. The school's web site tells us that the math requirement for this course is as follows:

Pre-requisite: Algebra II taken previously or concurrently.

In fact they needed to have gotten through at least algebra 1 and technically should be in at least algebra 2 to be in this course, so they should have completed a year's worth of algebra,
preferably two years, or at least be in their second year of algebra. That's in fact true for some of these kids but a sizeable majority, which seemed to represent all of those who failed to get these questions right, were in something called IMP. I had to scout around a bit to find out what this was, and indeed I found a web site, Inside IMP which enlightens us with a number of things, not the least being the following:

The Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) is an exciting new way for high
school students to learn mathematics. IMP's four-year program of problem-based mathematics replaces the traditional Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra I/Trigonometry-Precalculus sequence. This new curriculum meets college entrance requirements and prepares students to use problem-solving skills at school and on the job.

This program is intended to do away with all traditional math training but interestingly enough the only ones taking these courses are the kids considered to be on the "slower" track. My other students, by and large, take the traditional math courses and for all of that with those kids solving for "V" in a density problem doesn't seem to be a problem. Ok, so maybe who takes it isn't that much of an issue really, I mean if this is really a new and exciting way for kids to learn math, well darn, this is the group that you think would be sucking this stuff up, right? Well, yeah, you'd think, but at this point I'd have to say that the results are a tad short of anything to get excited about.

Yesterday I had to spend time with one of the school's guidance counselors when a student's mother asked for a meeting to discuss his place in accelerated chemistry. That went well and it was agreed that this young man should shift into the "regular" class, but before I got to leave the counselor's office she hit me with a request sheet for another student in the class alluded to at the start of today's entry. He pulled a 40 on the test and did nearly as bad on an open-booked quiz, and apparently had come to see her about getting out as he didn't really need the course and, given his other avenues for getting into college, he's right, he doesn't "need" the course. His specific stated problem with the class is the math, with his strongly expressing the feeling that he didn't think he'd be able to keep up with the math requirement. In his specific case he's been in the IMP pipeline for four years, he's a senior so this would be his last year in IMP. So he has three years of math under his belt and he can't do a 3 variable problem with 2 of the variables given - whoooooooooooa, for sure.

What I know is that I clearly have kids in a chemistry course who likely aren't mathematically prepared and that's a huge problem as what makes chemistry hard is NOT the whole idea of atoms and mixing things together. Mind you, I'm not saying the conceptual side of chemistry isn't difficult, it certainly is. In fact having to learn anything that exceeds the grasp of your day-to-day experience requires an exercise of imagination and, for lack of a better word, faith that for some can be quite taxing. But most people can make the necessary leap, they can handle it on the whole, but what kicks many of them in the gut when it comes to chemistry is the math. One of the things that makes chemistry "hard" is the applied math that's necessary to get through a wide range of different problems that comprise the curriculum. At the high school level we're not talking calculus or anything that requires higher-level math, we're talking about being able to manipulate a three-variable problem with some ease and fluidity, something that's at this point beyond the grasp of a significant number of students in this class.

I'm not sure where this is going to go, but I'm somewhat amazed that there's a math program that's in place to supplant the "traditional" math curriculum and there are no metrics being sustained to see if, indeed, the kids making it through the program are where they need to be as they move along. If kids who've had three years of math and are currently sitting in their fourth don't feel that they're qualified for a chemistry course I can only imagine their level of unpreparedness for when they step out into the world past high school. This pretty much seems to epitomize why so many people these days are wringing their hands over the inability of our kids to go out in the world to do math, or much of anything else that requires a skill level regardless of subject, because for whatever reason we seem to be increasingly less and less successful in imbuing those skills. Part of the problem, I'd surmise, is teachers or school administrators (I'm more and more convinced that it's not always teachers who are the culpable parties, but rather administrators looking to save money in some fashion) taking a fancy to new and aggressively marketed "innovative" teaching programs for which they're insufficiently trained and for which there are either no, or otherwise poor metrics with which to see if the program in question is indeed working. As I remind myself on a regular basis, "Welcome to the world of education."

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Tangled Bank

If you're in anyway interested in science, regardless of the field of endeavor within the sweeping domain of science in toto, then you want to check out The Tangled Bank. TB gathers the best science blogging over a period of time (I should know what that is but my brain's fried right now) and presents it to you in one easy to access from blog. This week it's hosted by my good friend Hedwig the Owl, so why don't you check it out by visiting Living the Scientific Life (or Scientist, Interrupted): Tangled Bank #38, and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

It's a Girl!


We just got back from the ultrasound which was intended to check for numerous other things but, given the age of the baby at this point, was also able to determine the sex of the baby, we found out that we're going to have a girl! In truth both Feri and I wanted a girl, but ... well, a healthy baby was the main priority. Given today's ultrasound it would seem we're not only going to have a girl, but a healthy one at that. We're both very happy ...

And I apologize for my disappearance from the blogosphere in general, but life of late has been so hectic and finding free time to get on here has not been easy. I intend to try and catch up soon as I do miss being in touch, even in this odd bloggish sort of way.