Monday, February 9, 2009

Magic bullets are for werewolves, not education reform

My mom passed along a recent piece by Malcolm Gladwell on education reform in The New Yorker. At the very least, the article does a good job of provoking thought and discussion, even if (especially if) one disagrees with him.

Gladwell is right about the problem of selecting teachers when there are no reliable predictors of quality, but the comparison to financial services is a bit misleading. "What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?" is the wrong question to be asking. If it were just a question of spending as much money on teaching candidates as we do on financial advisers, then it would have been solved already. Because teaching has so much more social significance than how we manage our money, there are different political pressures that would come into play.

Imagine what would happen to a financial services firm if their shareholders had a bunch of other priorities above making money. There are lots of self-described "single-issue" voters, and I have yet to hear anyone present a way insulate a teacher selection process like the one Gladwell suggests from the pressures of taxpayers who would reject, say, all teachers who believe in evolution or anyone who opposes gay marriage. Even post-Obama, there are lot of people who would be rejected by most voters based solely on who they are, and it would be a disaster if teachers were subject to the same sort of social/political litmus tests.

That said, the status quo is not working, and the system does need reform. The trouble is that the issue is far too complex to be solved by any idea that is simple enough to be summed up in an Op-Ed piece. I understand the temptation to throw out the existing dysfunctional system and start over based on a new model, but as satisfying as that might be, those sort of revolutionary changes always create more problems than they solve. Precisely because education is so important, it will take careful, incremental changes, and the first step is for everyone to understand that there is no magic bullet.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Inauguration Day

I had the extreme good fortune to get a ticket to the presidential inauguration ceremony from my congressional representative, and I traveled to Washington DC for a week to attend the historic event. The following is my attempt to record as thoroughly as possible my Inauguration Day experience.

My Aunt Laura works for the National Park Service, and I stayed with her while I was there. All of the National Capitol Region employees (and park rangers from other regions who were brought in to help out) were doing much of the work for the inauguration, and because of the bridge and road closures, everyone had to come in and spend the night at the NCR headquarters (near the Jefferson Memorial). Most of them had to spend the night on cots in a giant tennis bubble, but those who had offices spent the night there.

Because we knew that the Metro would be strained beyond capacity from the moment it opened at 4:00 am on the 20th, I came in with Aunt Laura and we both spent the night on Red Cross cots in her office. We got MREs, which I wanted to eat primarily for the novelty factor, and the new kind of MREs have really cool self-heating chemical packs. They also distributed sweet Red Cross blankets that we got to keep because it was easier for them to give them away than deal with disinfecting them, so I've got a pretty awesome souvenir.

I got up at 5:30 in the morning to get ready for the inauguration, and on my way to take a shower I walked in my pyjamas through a group of rangers in the middle of a briefing in the lobby. I had a shock (though it shouldn't have been surprising) because the shower in the building had no hot water. Even though my shower was just a few moments of splashing ice-cold water on my face and armpits, I still ended up running a little bit behind.

It was very cold, so I bundled up in boots, two pairs of warm socks, two pairs of jeans, a t-shirt, a long-sleeve thermal layer, a sweater, and my jacket. I wanted my Obama shirt to be visible, and luckily it was large enough that I could pull it on over my layers and then put my buttons on it. I capped off by wrapping my neck and lower face in the thick wool scarf that Laura had lent me and doing a fold and loop with my other scarf to hold it in place, then I wore my LSU hat with Laura's big wool hat on top of it. The advantage of spending the night there was that I only had to cross a bridge and I was basically right on the Mall, so I had planned on leaving at 6:30, but I ended up missing that by a few minutes.

When I walked across the bridge there was a solid stream of buses inching along beside me. I was by myself until I reached L'Enfant Promenade, but I quickly was absorbed into major crowds when I reached Independence Avenue (the south side of the Mall). At times I had to fight a tide of people who were heading towards the entrances to the non-ticketed areas to make my way toward the silver gate entrance on 3rd.

As it turned out, I was far too optimistic about where the end of the line would be, and around 4th I realized that the people standing on the side of the street for the last few blocks were the line. There were two girls who realized the same thing at almost the same time, so we walked together as we walked all the way back to 7th. I'm not actually sure if that was the end of the line, but at that point it got muddled by the flows of people, so we picked an unoccupied spot and planted ourselves in it.

One of the girls was wearing a bright red OU Sooners hat (which made it easier to keep track of her in the crowds), but it turned out that she was a college student from Nebraska. Her friend was a student in Richmond, and they had spent the weekend together there before coming up by commuter rail early that morning. We were joined in line by a friendly older couple from the DC suburbs. The girl with the Sooners hat didn't stay in line very long before she went off to find one of the thousands porta-potties that lined the Mall, but she didn't make it back before the gates opened.

The line ended up not meaning as much because there was a space in between the gate that they opened at 8:00 and the actual security screening area. There was such a rush to fill up that space in front of the security bottleneck that the line devolved into a bit of scramble to move forward. A handful of people actually tried to run and weave their way forward through the crowd, but the bulk of the former line moved forward at a brisk walk, and the only people who got passed were those unwilling or unable to keep pace.

I stayed with the older couple and the girl from Richmond until we reached the first bottleneck in front of security. The girl left at that point to try to reconnect with her friend because she had both of their tickets. We moved forward slowly in the crush toward the security screening area.

The police had 3rd blocked off as buffer between the two parts of the silver section, and the security checkpoints fed into the west section (further from the Capitol). They were preventing a headlong rush that would crush people into the Capitol reflecting pool by only allowing small groups to cross 3rd at regular intervals. I got across pretty quickly, and I positioned myself a little bit to the right of center. They had the area right in front of the pool blocked off while they got people settled in the handicapped section, and when they opened that final fence I was able to position myself in a great spot. I was just a couple feet back from the railing with only one person in front of me, and the spot I was in allowed me to see a jumbotron as well as glimpse the distant speck of the podium through some tree branches.

My immediate neighbors were several younger black women from South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. A few of them were vocal about placing a high value on "respecting the office," which mostly seemed to mean that they disapproved of booing George W. Bush. They did not represent the majority of the crowd, and when his face showed up on the big screen he was jeered by a rousing chorus of "Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!" They clearly were prepared for the crowd to have a negative response to Bush, and they quickly drowned out the chant by cranking up on the volume of the music. I expected that Palin would also provoke a significant response from the crowd, but they once again stage-managed things to avoid it. As the governors were being shown coming out of the Capitol building, the camera panned away before Palin came to the front of the line, so the crowd never got a chance to boo her. Interestingly, John McCain did not get jeered or booed at all as far as I could hear, and the only other person besides Bush to get booed was Joe Lieberman.

The excitement continued to build as we watched Obama's girls come in, and the air was thick with enthusiasm by the time he reached the podium. The miscue during the swearing in was barely noticeable in the crowd, and it was only later when I watched clips that I understood why people who'd only watched it on TV were making such a big deal about it. The cheer that surged through the crowd when he completed the oath of office was not the loudest I've ever heard, but unlike cheers at sporting events or concerts, it was all about personal emotion rather than making noise for its own sake. There were tears of joy on almost every face around me, and although I did not come close to crying, that has more to do with the fact that only certain very specific kinds of emotional distress get me cry. My primary emotion was excitement, with my whole body feeling highly charged in spite of the cold.

President Obama's speech was fantastic, and one of the most incredible moments of the whole day came when everyone went silent as he began to speak. All morning there was a constant happy murmur from all of the people packed in together, and not only did the Mall go completely silent, but all of the little movements of people brushing against each other in the crowd ended too. The feeling generated by two million people suddenly becoming completely still and silent is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It was like the abstract notions of importance, gravity, and historical significance were suddenly transformed into something visceral and powerfully tangible.

The content of his speech was no less powerful, and there were a few things that particularly stood out for me as I was experiencing it live. On Monday afternoon, I had talked with my friend Ben about the sad shape of the country and the inevitability of America's decline from the position of superpower, and Obama grabbed hold of me right from the start when he declared that the end of America's greatness is not inevitable. Normally I would not be moved by such a declaration from a politician, but he lifted it above the usual rhetoric of American exceptionalism by making it clear that the nation's problems would not solve themselves and that America's continued greatness depends on a lot of hard work from everyone. I also took heart in the fact that he included nonbelievers in with the Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus. I was tempted to cheer at that point, but that line did not go over as well with the rest of the crowd, and I hesitated and lost my chance. His declaration of support for science and education was a welcome poke (among others) at the outgoing president seated a few feet away from him, and I'm looking forward to having a president who doesn't treat academia like a punching bag. Last but not least, I was inspired by his call for a spirit of service among all Americans to work toward solving our problems and achieving our goals together.

Different people in the crowded reacted more strongly to different parts of the speech, but overall the feeling was extremely positive, and the surge of emotion at the end of his address was such that one woman near me actually fainted. I suspect that fatigue and cold were probably major contributing factors, but it was clearly his stirring conclusion that was the trigger. All of the surges of emotion before that moment were dwarfed by the flood of joy and relief that overwhelmed me at that moment. Usually a state of shock is caused by something traumatic, but I was stunned with happiness as I listened to the inaugural poem and closing prayer.

As the shock wore off, I was sad to see how quickly the mood turned more selfish in the aftermath. The police didn't even waste their time trying to prevent people from jumping the barriers and sliding all over the frozen reflecting pool (the sun had been shining on it all morning, and several times it cracked and people would scurry for the sides, but I was disappointed that there was no karmic justice in the form of people actually falling through). There was lots of pushing and rudeness as people tried to set up their ideal photos. It seemed vaguely like a disaster movie when I got through the crowds around the reflecting pool and saw the huge quantity of newspapers and other trash being blown all over by the wind amidst the mass exodus of people from the Mall.

It was surreal to be walking with huge crowds of people in the middle of the eight lanes of Independence Avenue. I saw the massive bottlenecks as hundreds of thousands of people tried to crowd into the Metro, and I was really glad to be able to avoid it. The walk back to Laura's office was a remarkably easy, and the people selling food and Obama stuff to the exiting hordes on L'Enfant Promenade were doing huge business at impressively high prices ($25 for a cheap t-shirt, postcards 2 for $5, knit caps $30, etc.).

When I got back to Laura's office, she was dying to get away, and they hadn't really needed her to work the phones anyway, so we were able leave at 3:00. They had done such a good job of keeping cars out of the city that we had wide open roads as we made our way to her boyfriend's house on the Virginia side of the Potomac. Laura's place is in the Maryland suburbs on the opposite side of the city and doesn't have TV, so we picked up a bunch of Yuengling (yay!) on our way and then settled in to watch the parade and relax after a superlative day.