How to Reign in Health Costs—Build Sidewalks and Bike Lanes

If I promised to give you two dollars five years from today, for one dollar right now, would you give me the dollar? What if I promised to give you twice as much of a much larger sum right now? Could you scrape together the funds and muster up the self-discipline to wait for your return? What about your family and friends?

Great article by Mike Maciag in “Governing the State’s and Localities”. Thanks to “Dan Dan the Transpo Man” for forwarding the link.

In short, cities with more walkers and cyclists are less obese. Key excerpts:

• An estimated 35 percent of U.S. adults are obese, and another third still maintain weights exceeding those deemed healthy. This doesn’t bode well for governments and individuals paying insurance premiums, especially with the country’s aging population.

• Historically, studies have linked trails, sidewalks and bike lanes with an increase in walking or cycling. As medical costs continue to rise and evidence mounts that such infrastructure also improves well-being, more officials might look to give health consideration greater standing in transportation planning.

• While only a fraction of workers in an area may opt to bike or walk to work, having the necessary infrastructure in place compels others to use it more regularly.

• . . . the correlation between commuting and residents not considered obese nor overweight was strong–16 percent greater than the relationship with median household income.

• When cutting expenses, health costs are an easy target. A recent study by two Lehigh University researchers reported obesity-related costs accounted for $190 billion annually in U.S. health expenditures, nearly 21 percent of the country’s total bill.

• Those looking to move can use the popular walkscore.com website to measure how accessible an apartment or home’s various neighborhood amenities are on foot.

The problem is we’re not financially savvy enough to tax ourselves—say in terms of raising the federal gas tax by a $1/gallon—in the short-term to fund the necessary walking and cycling infrastructure in the medium-term that would lead to health cost savings in the long-term. Collectively, we’re unwilling to pay a little more for a hybrid when the “buy back” is somewhere down the road.

In our Southeast Olympia corner of the world, the Byrnes family’s walkabililty score is a pathetic 18 out of 100. On the other hand, we’re blessed with wonderful sidewalks and bike lanes almost everywhere. Maybe I should start using them. Maybe I should walk more. Or run. Or cycle.

Just one of many nice bike lanes in the State capitol.

Despite the blue, cars still pass cyclists then turn right. Too often, out of sight, out of mind. Ride defensively my friends (said the most interesting man in the world).

Uncle!

Growing up, that’s what I had to scream to get my older, more muscle-brained brother to temporarily stop pulverizing me. The other night, the youngest, the oldest-Betrothed, and I streamed an episode of Wonder Years. I said to youngest daughter, “Every time you watch Wayne, think Uncle D because they’re one and the same.” If you don’t know Wonder Years and aren’t familiar with Wayne, fix that.

One time, in my late elementary or junior high years, I frantically called my mom, a secretary, at work, “This time he means it! He’s really gonna kill me!” Her somewhat shaken co-worker said, “Aren’t you going to go home?” To which she replied, “No, he’ll be fine.” Yeah, if by “fine” you mean found unconscious in the fetal position on the kitchen floor. Once, when the most mad I had ever been, I remember “Wayne” saying to me, “If you hit me, you better knock me out, because if I get up I’m going to kill you.” What’s the statue of limitations on something like that?

Our last fight was when he was 19 or 20 and I was 16 or 17. All I remember is flying across the family room. My girlfriend was aghast. Everyone of the innumerable beatdowns will fuel me when racing Iron-person Canada in late August as I desperately try to level the score by beating Wayne’s time.

But I digress. My most recent reason for crying uncle has nothing to do with my knumbskull older brother. It has everything to do with this picture, taken while on the Eastern Sierra climbing trip I blogged about a month ago.

Living REALLY large

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve been going through a transformation of sorts—a reordering of my life based upon an amalgam of ancient philosophy, minimalism, and discontent with mindless consumerism. All of that exhausting, status quo fighting non-sense is now in my RV rearview mirror, thanks to a reverse Paul of Tarsus-like conversion inspired by seeing this badass rig up close and personal.

Uncle! I give up on trying to live more simply so that others may more simply live. My new motto is “You only live once. Embrace the bling. Less is less, more is more.” Admittedly, a tad wordy, but in the spirit of my conversion, if some words are good, more are better!

My plan is to find a similarly equipped rig on Craigslist. Well, maybe a little bigger. If you know of one that has a flip down plasma t.v. built in so that I can watch Will Smith movies outdoors, holla’.

A smaller ecological footprint be damned. Greater energy independence be damned. As one of my friends says, “Only when we’ve used up all the carbon-based energy, will we have real incentive to find alternatives.”

If you’ll excuse me. I’ve got a lot of shopping to do for the inside of my new rig-to-be. And no bro, you can’t roadtrip with me. You should have considered the possibility I’d end up living really large when you were floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.

Stop Linking School Improvement, Economic Competitiveness, and National Greatness

This commentary of mine is currently appearing here.

Most efforts to improve schooling in the United States have limited impact because opinion leaders’ repeated appeals to global economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teachers or students.

Following World War II, the United States enjoyed steady economic growth, which led to unprecedented prosperity. People’s standard of living steadily improved, the U.S. economy became the world’s largest, and successive generations of parents assumed that their children would enjoy even more secure and comfortable lives.

More recently, the fastest growing countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil, have grown more quickly and made long-term investments in infrastructure to further reduce the economic gap with the world’s largest economies. Also, many Chinese and other Asian young people are attending U.S. and European universities while their governments invest in higher education at home at record levels. Meanwhile, the United States has been challenged by higher than normal unemployment, declining real wages, the bursting of the housing bubble, and runaway health care and higher education inflation. Now parents increasingly fear their children will not enjoy as secure or comfortable lives as they have. It’s impossible to overstate how much economic anxiety informs proposals to improve schools from opinion leaders such as Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.

Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama sing from one choir book with this chorus: “Our economic dominance is ebbing, our standard of living is threatened, and righting the ship depends upon improving our schools.” They’re also of one mind on what’s necessary to improve schools—a distinct emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

They implore students to work harder for the sake of the country. For example, consider Secretary Duncan’s October 2011 speech in Portland, Oregon, to the Oregon Business Association. Early on, he said, “I absolutely believe education is now the engine for long-term economic growth. But that is not a Democratic theory. In fact, the vast majority of governors from both parties subscribe to that view. And it’s a view shared by many business leaders as well.” “This summer,” he added, “I was at a White House meeting with President Obama and a number of leading CEOs. And the consensus about the link between education and economic growth was striking, even among corporate leaders who might disagree with the president on other issues.”

Or consider President Obama’s “Back to School” pep talk to Wakefield High School students in Arlington, Virginia, in September 2009:

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

A year later, in September 2010, the president gave another “Back to School” speech at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. The speech was also streamed to students nationwide:

The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life.  And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century.

Taken together, Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and the president articulated what Maxine Greene has referred to as a utilitarian purpose of schooling. In this view, business principles are applied to schools, and economics trumps everything. Students are thought of much more as future workers and consumers than citizens. Schools primarily exist to prepare students for the workforce. Greene labels this a “self-regarding, education for having” orientation that emphasizes math and science coursework, competition, and job skills. In this now dominant paradigm, concepts like “self-actualization,” “service,” “citizenship,” and “democracy” are slighted, along with the arts, the humanities, social studies education, and foreign languages.

Teachers and students are told to work harder for the sake of our economic competitiveness and national greatness. Again, the president asks students, “What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama don’t understand what motivates public school teachers given that none of them has ever been one.

Teachers don’t commit to the profession the way some enlist in the military. Few educators are motivated by nationalism. Most elementary teachers love working with children and get great satisfaction from helping their students become literate. Most secondary teachers love some particular content and get great satisfaction from introducing their students to that content. The best ones also enjoy working with adolescents and helping them mature into competent and caring young men and women. Teachers don’t lack patriotism; their patriotism just doesn’t inform their day-do-day work with students.

If teachers find appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness uninspiring, it’s doubly true for students. Academic achievement isn’t a question of how much young people love their country; it is whether they have inspiring teachers, positive peer pressure, and, most important, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

The debilitating disconnect between opinion leaders’ rhetoric and what motivates teachers and students has at least two costs. First, when science, technology, engineering, and math are all that’s important, and qualitative aspects of learning and living are ignored, teachers, students, and families grow disenchanted with reform proposals. Teachers, students, and families want schools that acknowledge and honor the whole child and develop skills and personal attributes that may not have immediate and obvious economic benefits. They resent the opinion leaders’ myopic materialism and assumption that our nation’s gross national product is more important than children’s well-being.

Teachers and parents want schools to help students develop skills and sensibilities that will enable them to not just earn a living, but also live well. Teachers and parents instinctively know that if schools succeed in creating curious, caring, well-rounded, and resilient young people in the short term, the economy will be fine in the long term. Economic growth should be a positive by-product of a humane, child-centered school system, not the all-pervasive starting and ending point that Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama want us to believe.

Second, appeals to national economic competiveness and greatness will do little to inspire a new generation of culturally diverse, high-achieving undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. Half of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire in the next decade. Our greatest and most important educational challenge is to recruit and retain over one million culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates. Because teacher compensation is unlikely to improve much, the way the profession is presented to potential candidates is especially important. If people are encouraged to teach primarily for the sake of our nation’s economy, we will fail to inspire the number of new culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates we need to reinvent schooling in the 21st century.

Ultimately, as educators and citizens, we have a choice. We can passively defer to the combined voices of the opinion leaders who dominate the nation’s newspapers and airwaves, or we can resolve to challenge their narrow utilitarian assumptions about the purpose of schooling and instead frame teaching as a profoundly challenging, rewarding, and important form of community service.

In Praise of Meghan Vogel

All the news isn’t bad. And maybe today’s youth aren’t a lost cause after all.

Sick and tired of big time college and professional sports? Knuckleheads running afoul of the law, the commercialism, the cheating, the excesses of competition. Then take a few minutes and read about how Ohio high school trackster Meghan Vogel (on the right below) recently stopped to help a fallen competitor across the finish line near the very end of the 3,200 meter final.

Maybe it’s an especially touching story because we mistakenly think competition is an elixir for all that ails us. Vogel’s decision highlights the power of cooperation. Her compassion and humble response to her fifteen minutes of fame inspire me. And the surprising decision by the meet officials not to apply the letter of the law and disqualify the two student-athletes warrants praise.

[But of course, all the news isn’t good on the adolescent front.]

Vogel, “I just did what I knew was right.” Credit: AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

In Da’ Club

The title of a thumpin’ Fiddy Cent track.

It’s well known that adolescents place great importance on fitting into groups. It’s less well known that we never outgrow our need for affiliation. Our happiness isn’t contingent on being in da’ club, but in clubs, as the following experiences have recently reminded me.

Cycling up and down Washington State’s mountains. The roads we cycle routinely attract motorcycle and car clubs. No motorized vehicles for ten minutes then whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—twenty five Miatas, Nissan Cubes, or Christian Harley riders. Interesting how special interest groups form around a common interest—like climbing mountains on bicycles—or by driving a common car or motorcycle.

Working out at the Y. The Y is teeming with clubs including traditional aerobics, yoga, water aerobics, Masters swimming, 5:30a.m. basketball, spinning, and the retiree coffee klatsch.

Reading a Sojourners Magazine interview with Rebecca Barrett-Fox who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Westboro “Baptist Church” which just protested at our state capitol and local high school. Here’s the relevant excerpt: SojournersDid the actual church service resemble mainstream Christian worship? Barret-Fox—I saw a lot of circling the wagons, with sermons about things like Noah and the flood and how only eight people got on the ark. This church is the ark, so if you’re a part of this church you’re getting on. The sermons are actually very typical of themes addressed in Calvinist teaching: questions of how you know that you are in or how you know that they are out. Sojourners—So the attraction is the appeal of being part of the “in group.” Barret-Fox—Exactly. And I could see the attractiveness of that in a world that is fragmented and scary, especially if you are not okay with doubt or gray areas.

Westboro isn’t a spiritual community, it’s a sociological one. Members have distinct identities—chosen hate mongers. The hate-filled rhetoric, signage, and protests are shared experiences that reinforce a distinct group mindset. Barret-Fox adds: . . . church members create a culture that makes it uncomfortable to leave, and that becomes a high hurdle. They’ll take you off the church rolls, so you are excommunicated, but it amounts to more than simply excommunication from church services; it is de facto shunning because, as one member has said, “We don’t have time to talk to people who aren’t part of the church.”

I’m not the clubber that more extraverted peeps like the GalPal are—church council club, Spanish book club, and a coffee klatsch among others. I have a small group of friends I run with a few mornings each week (known affectionately as the Baboons, after a homeless woman yelled angrily at us “You look like a bunch of baboons!” while we were running shirtless on a hot summer morning on 4th Street) and another that I cycle with a few evenings each week for half of the year. Add that to my list of oddities, the bulk of my clubbing takes place at between 7 and 24 miles per hour.

Suburban neighborhoods—where I’ve spent too much of my life—conspire against community. There’s the occasional neighborhood garage sale or July 4th potluck, but suburbanites are usually stuck driving to fitness centers, grocery stores, post offices, and the bulk of their small groups activities. We need more urban planning that promotes community—with walking and bike trails, parks, and small accessible stores and service providers.

Once safely ensconced in a group most teens forget about what it feels like to be on the outside. Too often, we don’t outgrow that either. One thing I’ve always admired about Betrothed is she’s always conscious of people who are new to church or a social gathering and she goes out of her way to introduce herself and talk to them. The world is a tad more humane and friendly as a result of her presence.

Once securely in a group, we tend to adopt specific behaviors to signal that we’re “in da’ club”. At my Iron-distance triathlon in late August, there will be a ginormous merchandise village at which nearly everyone of the 3,000 participants will load up on t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, visors, and all things fitness to “signal” they are “in da’ club”. Dig the sweatshirt—I am an Ironperson, you’re not. (To which the ambivalent clubber in me says, “Big whoop. So you’re well-to-do, over-exercise, and probably suffer from early onset narcissism.)

At Lutheran churches we sometimes signal we’re “in da’ club” by referencing all things Garrison Keiler and Norwegian. Numb to the fact that “inside references or jokes” make newcomers who aren’t Scandinavian feel less than full members of the community.

Self-important academics (sorry for the redundancy) are especially skilled at drawing circles around their clubs which are usually tied to specific disciplines. Among other methods, they create and use elaborate terms and acronyms that leave outsiders wondering exactly what the hell they’re talking about.

We should acknowledge our need for group affiliation and build neighborhoods that promote the formation and success of small groups. We need more people like my Better Half who are especially conscious of those not “in da club”. And we would be well served by reflecting more regularly on the ways our clubs sometimes exclude others.

Why Obama Will Be Playing Even More Golf

I’m doing my best to block out Presidential politics, but you can’t expect me to remain completely silent.

My liberal friends roll their eyes at me when I predict this election is going to be really close and could very well go Romney’s way. They don’t appreciate the magnitude of conservatives’ dislike for President Obama (P.O.). As one of my right wing nutter friends puts it, “ABO—Anybody But Obama”.

W was a mountain biker. Obama is a golfer. My guess is he likes golf because it’s the exact opposite of Presidential politics in that you control your destiny. No person is an island. . . except for when they’re on the first tee. Roll in a 25 footer for birdie and bask in the glory. There’s no infielder you have to throw to for the relay at home, no catcher that has to hold onto the ball, no other oarsman or woman to keep rhythm with, no doubles partner to cover the alley, no teammates at all. Slice it out of bounds and accept the responsibility for the two stroke penalty. No projecting.

P.O.’s re-election hinges upon improving economics at home. And because our economy and Europe’s are increasingly interdependent, that will be determined in part by people named Angela, Francois, Mario and Wolfgang. And then there’s Congress. P.O. wants temporary tax cuts and spending initiatives to spark public sector job hiring, but Congressional Republicans have no incentive to help him.

And China is letting its currency devalue again, making its exports cheaper and those from the U.S. to China more costly. India’s economy is slowing and the phrase “financial contagion” is appearing with increasing frequency in business periodicals. Eurozone unemployment is at 11%, the highest since tracking began in 1995.

Then there’s the Supreme Court which sometime soon will decide whether P.O.’s controversial first term focus—expanded health care coverage based upon required participation—is constitutional or not.

And there’s this picture from my California cycling sojourn.

A suggestion, fill up before or after Lee Vining, CA.

Economists are quick to say a President doesn’t control the cost of gas or the nation’s growth rate, let alone the unemployment rate in Europe or at home, but perception is reality. Add up last week’s anemic job growth numbers, the tick up in unemployment, higher than average gas prices, the mess that is the Eurozone, stagnant wages, especially tough job prospects for college graduates, and any challenger would have a decent shot at defeating the incumbent.

If those variables don’t improve or get worse, an Obama loss will not surprise me. Either way, look for him to play more golf whether as a second term president or a former president because the golf course is the only place where he alone controls his destiny.