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Posts Tagged ‘college’

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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The American Cancer Society estimates there were a total of 254,650 new diagnoses of breast cancer in 2009 (actual records are only available until 2005; newer information has not been compiled). As a member of the female population, I am very aware of these numbers. Television commercials, full-page magazine ads, and a virtual who’s who of celebrity sponsors make it hard not to be. Everywhere I look is the ACS “pink warning,” in ribbons, scarves, posters, bumper stickers, etc., trying to “raise awareness” about breast cancer. (Personally, I’m wondering what rock a person could be living under to not be aware.) And, as usual, I felt the need to question the authorities that be and look into these numbers more closely.

First off, let’s take that number of expected new diagnoses – 254,650 – for the 2009 calendar year and compare it to the female population of 2009: 154,000,000 (roughly, estimated from Census Bureau population charts). So with no more than a pocket calculator, I can conclude that, in 2009, any given female’s chance of being found to have breast cancer was essentially 0.00165%. There are other factors, of course, especially age and family history, but this wasn’t exactly the death sentence I was expecting. From all the media hype and social awareness I had expected much higher numbers. But 0.00165%? That means you’d have to get 1,000,000 women together to find 17 with new breast cancers (and that’s rounding up). That means if the entire metropolitan area of Memphis, Tennessee, were female, less than twenty would have been diagnosed with breast cancer during the year. I’m as likely to be killed in a freak accident involving jalapeno poppers and a road grader. Okay, maybe not, but it’s still pretty remote.

Now before anyone gets their bra in a bunch, I understand that it should not be dismissed. Like any disease, I think it should be kept in the back of your mind and those more likely to be affected (women over 45, smokers, of African heritage, or with family history of breast cancer) should take whatever steps they feel are necessary to protect or treat themselves. Breast cancer contributes to some 40,000 deaths each year; that cannot be ignored. Period. But I don’t believe it’s the plague it is played up to be. For instance, according to the National Safety Council, women under age 45 are more likely to die of accidental poisoning than to develop breast cancer.

So – to continue poking around these ACS estimates – women under 45 were expected to comprise only 25,100 of the new diagnoses. Which drops the chances to a whopping 0.00027%. Did you catch that extra zero in there? Now scrounging up 27 new diagnoses would require 10,000,000 women. That’s only slighty less than the entire Paris metropolitan complex … or the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix combined. And this is supposed to be a major concern? I’m more likely to be shot; to drown in a swimming pool; to die in a plane crash or from heatstroke; or even to suffocate in bed (according to the National Safety Council). I don’t see a lot of warnings about the dangers of bed-clothes. But maybe Martha Stewart has more up her sleeve than white sales and stock tips, eh?

The American Cancer Society’s own documents state, “95% of new cases and 97% of breast cancer deaths occurred in women aged 40 and older.” In fact, most breast cancers occur in women 70 and older, when chances of being diagnosed “skyrocket” to 0.016%. And one last percentage to throw at you … taken as a whole, over an entire lifetime, the average woman has a 0.125% chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

So why the media frenzy? Why the pink and celebrity sponsors and full-page ads? Why are they worrying college students and the MTV generation about something that really begins to pose a threat only at retirement age?

I don’t know, but it has provoked me to look into other concerns and do some digging. Consider this post the first of a series exploring medical concerns. And remember to take media “warnings” with a grain of salt.

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