"What's the Big Idea?" Bolder approaches to job creation, health care, education, and our election system
By Marty Nemko
Before enacting national policy, we require broad buy-in: public hearings, smoke-filled-room negotiations, media massaging and messaging. Too often, that results in tepid policy that few could argue with, lowest common denominator.
In this article, not shackled by the constraints of consensus creation, I can be bolder: I propose reinventions of four linchpins of the thriving society.
Creating Many Good, Sustainable Jobs
Jobs are Job One. I believe these three ideas would create millions of enduring, pro-social, offshore-resistant jobs.
Both sides of the aisle agree that government stimulus spending, at best, is a jump-start., that permanent job creation must come from the private sector. Most people also agree that entrepreneurs, while providing better, faster, cheaper goods and services, also create jobs.
So why not replace just a fraction of our arcana-larded K-16 curriculum with entrepreneurship education? For example, most high school students spend many hours deriving geometric theorems. Could it be reasonably be argued that that is more important for all students than learning how to start an ethical yet successful business?
While some entrepreneurs are born not made, much is learnable, especially if taught not by academics but by successful, ethical businesspeople. I imagine that many, especially the retired, would be willing to do that,evenas a volunteer.
It's widely agreed that buying non-essential "stuff" is unlikely to lead to happiness. Don't we all know unhappy people who live in a capacious, la-di-dah-coiffed home, who replace their perfectly good used car with a new one, go on costly vacations, and buy lots of au courant clothes and jewelry, yet after a brief "shopper's high," are no happier, let alone kinder? Yet America remains addicted to trying to shop our way into bliss.
But what if the government launched a public service campaign like its successful anti-smoking initiative to encourage the public to buy less stuff and more services, which hold greater promise of improving life's quality. For example, hire a part-time:
- assistant to help care for your newborn
- a homework helper for your older child.
- a personal assistant to do errands, laundry, wait for the repairperson, etc.
- a personal geek to teach you the technology you're afraid of
- a health care advocate to help you get the care you need, affordably, in our labyrinthine, scary system
- a companion for your aging relative.
Those would improve the hirer's life as well as the employee's, certainlymore sothan yet another pair of shoes. The worker, piecing together a few such part-time jobs can make a reasonable living doing work that's clearly beneficial and ethical. Importantly, most of those jobs require only a modest skill set. Even many high school dropouts could likely find such work they could do well enough.
How would hirers and employees match up? Just as they do for other jobs: hirers would place ads, for example, on Craigslist. If hirers want a professional to do the screening and payroll, they could turn to employment agencies. That would create yet more jobs.
Crowd-funded businesses.Today, it's very difficult for new businesses to obtain funding because banks are reluctant to invest in unproven entrepreneurs and because of massive government regulations. I'd waive those regulations for new businesses seeking up to $50,000, thereby allowing them to solicit financing on what I callcrowd-financing websites.Potential investors could visit the site, read thorough various start-ups' prospectuses, and invest as little or as much as they wanted, from $1 to the maximum the new business wants up to the aforementioned $50,000.
A Reinvented Health Care System We Can Live With
You and I are about to get our health care in a very different system, defined in a 2400-page document that even the legislators who passed it didn't read. Can that be implemented effectively enough that when we desperately need it, we'll get timely health care?
Additionally, our health care providers are already overwhelmed: Already, there are over 100,000 health-care-provider-caused deaths and many times that in excess morbidity every year. And now, that same number of doctors, nurses, MRIs, operating rooms, etc., will have to care for 40,000,000 more people, who as a group, have high health care needs and will be paying little into the system.
And the cost? Perhaps businesses are just playing the violin, but they claim that the new system, which will require employers to provide health care not only for all its 30+-hour a week employees but a surcharge to pay for the health care of part-timers, the unemployed. and poor people, will force businesses to eliminate yet more jobs or even go out of business.
I'm scared that when I need it, I won't get good and timely health care. I'd place greater faith in what I believe is a simpler but better plan. I call it FreedomCare:
1. Except for the indigent and
for catastrophic health care, health care would be paid directly by
the consumer. If consumers had most of the money at stake, 300
million Americans would be exerting the power of the free market's
invisible hand to drive down costs and improve quality. The good
quality, cost-effective providers would succeed, the bad ones
driven out of business.
2. To ensure that consumers have the information to choose health care providers and procedures wisely, all doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc., would be required to make key consumer information available, for example, patient satisfaction (disaggregated by condition,) the provider's risk-adjusted success rates for different procedures, etc.
3. Shorten and make more practical the training of health care providers. That would improve quality while reducing cost and increasing the supply of providers. Currently, our health care providers are trained primarily by professors, who value the theoretical over the practical. Those professors are usually hired and promoted mainly on how much research they crank out (almost always in anarrow area, e.g., plantar fasciatis)not their ability as a clinician, let alone their effectiveness in training excellent clinicians.
Having spoken with a number of
physicians, I've become convinced that the status quo, which
requires pre-med students to complete courses in organic chemistry,
inorganic chemistry, physics, and calculus followed by four years
of theory- and arcana-larded medical school (particularly absurd
today when so much information is available instantly on the
Internet), should be replaced by a two-year practical program
taught by master physicians. That would improve patient care while
greatly reducing the cost of training a doctor, currently over
More and more money pours into election campaigns, heavily from special interests. That enables ever-more sophisticated Madison-Avenue types to concoct truth-obfuscating, manipulative messaging. Today, nearly every word spoken by major politicians are dial focus-group tested. As troubling, those special interests wouldn't be pouring billions into campaigns unless it increased chances of politicians doing their bidding rather than what's best for all of us.
I believe the following would ensure we elect far better and less-corrupted leaders:
- All campaigns would be 100% publicly-funded. That has been proposed and rejected in the past as a denial of free speech. I believe that abridgment is far outweighed by the benefit to society.
- All campaigns would be just two weeks long. That would control cost while minimally reduce voter knowledge: Most voters have long forgotten what they heard about the candidates months earlier.
- The campaigns would consist only of one or two broadcast debates, which would be followed by a job simulation: running a meeting. A neutral body such as C-Span or Consumers Union would post each major candidate's biographical highlights, voting record, and platform on key issues.
Such a system would reduce candidates' corruptibility while increasing the quality of information voters would have about the candidates. As important, better candidates would run, knowing they needn't run a long, expensive, press-the-flesh, beholding-to-special-interests campaign.
Here is an even more radical approach to reinventing the way we choose our leaders: Our government officials would be selected, not by voting, but using passive criteria: for example, the Senate might consist of the most newly retired of the 10 largest nonprofits, a randomly selected CEO of the Russell 2000, the Police Officer of America's Cop of the Year, the Teacher of the Year, the most award-winning scientist under age 30, etc., plus random citizens.
Of course, both of those reinventions of our electoral system are subject to the criticism, "The incumbent politicians would never allow it--the foxes are guarding the hen house." I'd address that by working with the media to urge the electorate to support candidates that would vote for a fairer electoral system.
Helping Education Live Up to Its Promise
Education is widely viewed as our best hope for competing in the global economy and for reducing the racial/socio-economic achievement gap.Alas, education hasn't turned out to be the magic pill we've hoped it would be.
And that doesn't appear to be a matter of spending. Some readers may be surprised to learn that for decades, the U.S. has ranked #1 or #2 in per capita education spending yet, in international comparisons, America ranks 23rd, tied with Poland. And despite disproportionate spending on compensatory education for a half century now, the racial achievement gap remains as wide as ever. Perhaps most dispiriting has been the research on Head Start, which had long been seen as the best hope for reducing the achievement gap. Just released is the definitive evaluation of three decades of research on Head Start. It finds the same as have nearly all previous studies: Head Start yields no significant, enduring positive effects.
The most frequently proposals for improvement are-reduced class size and increased expectations. But the research on those suggests that the key to unlocking education's promise doesn't fully reside there.
The following admittedly radical ideas would seem to have a greater chance of making education the magic pill we wish it were.
Dream-Team-Taught Courses Taught on Video
Imagine that every student--rich and poor, urban and rural--would, for every course, be taught be a dream team of the world's most effective, transformational teachers. If anything could be expected to increase education's potency, that would seem to be it. Each class session, presented on video and viewable on the Internet, would consist of the teachers' presentations abetted by world-class visuals, immersive demonstrations, etc. A live paraprofessional or teacher would be on-site to provide the human touch: answer questions, keep kids focused,give attaboys/girls,etc.
A First-Things-First Curriculum
In the abstract, most people would agree that it's better for students to graduate high school able to analyze a newspaper's editorial even if they don't understand Shakespeare's intricacies. Most people would agree that kids should graduate high school able to think probabilistically even if they can't solve simultaneous equations. Most would agree that students should graduate fully understanding the scientific method even if they can't manipulate chemical reactions. Even more would agree that it's wrong that interpersonal communication, parenting, and financial literacy should be absent from the curriculum.
Yet our curriculum demands the opposite. Indeed, do we all not know people with even advanced degrees who lack the ability to negotiate life's basics? Defenders of our arcana-first curriculum argue that practical matters should be taught at home. Nice ideal but far from real, and less realistic all the time. Schools should first teach what's most important so, by the time students graduate, students have learned what's most crucial to the life well-led.
High-Quality College-Prep and Direct-to-Career Paths
One of education's ironies is that diversity is a core principles yet ever more of its leaders insist on one-size-fits-all education. Today's mantra is "College for all!"
But let's step back and look at it dispassionately. Imagine that after nine years of school (K-8,) you were still struggling with fifth-grade-level reading and math, and indeed, millions of students are. Now you're starting the 9th grade and required to do yet four more years of yet more difficult academic work: While you're still trying to figure out long division, you're asked to solve quadratic equations. While you're still struggling with that fifth-grade level reading book, you're asked to write essays explaining the themes and symbolism in Wuthering Heights. Unless you are an unusually "good" kid, mightn't you become dispirited, feel hopeless, and view your ever poorer grades as a sign that society deems you a failure, a loser, and so you give up, drop out and feel you have little to lose by abusing drugs, joining a gang, and/or getting pregnant?
One is often called an elitist or even a racist if asserting that some students would be wiser to reject a college-preparatory curriculum in favor of a direct-to-career curriculum. In such a curriculum, students would improve their reading, math, etc., not with history, algebra, and foreign-language textbooks but while preparing for a career after high school as, for example, a robotics technician, chef, or entrepreneur.
The irony is that those calling for a one-size-fits-all education are the ones who are being elitist. They believe that, for all people, white-collar jobs are simply better than blue-collar jobs and so, even if a student's abilities and limitations suggest a blue-collar direction is a better fit, that student should be forced onto a white-collar path to--in another irony--"to keep their options open."
But fact is, such students usually find the college path far less beneficial than a direct-to-career path would have been. Even if a student who was reading on a fifth grade level in the eighth grade manages to graduate from high school having taken a college preparatory curriculum (often the result of grade inflation) and even if that student went on to college, and even if that student defied the 3:1 odds against such students earning their bachelor's degree even if given 8 1/2 years, they're likely to be less employable than if they had pursued a direct-to-career path to become, for example, the aforementioned robotics technician, chef, or entrepreneur. Today, even strong college graduates are struggling to land white-collar jobs while many skilled blue-collar jobs go wanting.
Others object that a direct-to-career program can become a dumping ground. There's no reason they need be. They can and should be of as high quality as a college-preparatory curriculum, just as they are in , for example, Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia.
It seems obvious that students should have a choice and not be forced into a one-size-fits-all education, and many teachers agree. But educrats and politicians get more votes with such slogans as, "High standards for all students! "No soft bigotry of low expectations!" Such slogans have apple-pie appeal but in practice, ruin countless lives.
Require each college to post a report card on itself
Despite college being one of our largest and most important purchases, the government provides us with less consumer information than we get before buying tires, which have a "report card" molded into each sidewall, or packaged food, which must bear a label of its contents from Vitamin A to zinc. Especially with the spate of reports demonstrating that college graduates grow frighteningly little in learning and employability, each college should be required, on its website, to post a Report Card on itself. It need include just six items:
- The projected four- and five-year full cost of attendance, including cash financial aid, broken down by family income and assets.
- Freshman-to-senior average growth in critical thinking, writing, quantitative reasoning, etc., broken down by high school record.
- The results of the most recent student satisfaction survey
- Four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates, broken down by high school record
- The accreditation team's most recent report on the college.
- The percentage of graduates professionally employed, including average salary, broken down by high school record and by major.
- To reduce cheating, the report cards would be externally audited.
Mandating such a report card would, of course, help students select a college wisely or even decide that, given their academic record, motivation, and finances, a non-college option, for example, an apprenticeship program, would be wiser. As important, making transparent the poor value-added most colleges provide would embarrass them into improving their quality of education. They'd likely replace some of their many unimportant-research-focused professors with outstanding teachers. They'd reallocate some of their athletic and shrub budget to providing peer and adult mentors for students as well as to a career center that actually got its graduates jobs.
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovative programs and subsequently taught in Berkeley's graduate school. He is in his 24th year hosting Work with Marty Nemko on KALW-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate in San Francisco. The archive of that program plus 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com.
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