Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Forming the Battle Plan for Addressing Teaching Reform in the 21st Century

The notion of education reform is certainly not a new concept, but it certainly seems to accomplish less and less meaningful and appropriate change as the years advance. One of the major reasons various reform movements appear to produce little success is too much focus on specific “pet” methods without critically analyzing their applicability in large-scale environments. Instead of focusing on how to better fire teachers, lauding some trendy non-scalable niche example as the solution and looking to divert money to charter schools that perform no better to worse than their public school competition, reformists should systematically look at the system, identify the flaws and then act to remove those flaws with scale appropriate solutions. So what are important elements to advancing education that reformers tend to get wrong.

An important element that must be addressed in education is facilitating student motivation with career prospects at an early age to ensure appropriate enthusiasm. Unfortunately not all students appreciate and understand the underlying benefits to education, the acquisition of information in general, thus they can reject its importance. If a student does not possess the drive to learn through some form of motivation then any teacher, regardless of overall quality, will struggle to transmit knowledge to that individual. Incorrectly most reformists believe that it is the sole responsibility of teacher to nurture and cultivate any motivation potential in a student. The idea that it is the responsibility of teachers to motivate their students is ridiculous solely, but not limited to, the simple vast diversity in psychological make-up of their students. To focus on numerous different strategies to ensure student motivation is asking for something completely unreasonable and untenable.

Most of the time motivation for learning comes from engaged and caring parents for it is standard psychology that most children want to receive praise from their parents by acting in a manner that will be received positively. Even for those that do not fit this profile, an educationally engaged parent can use his/her position as parent to command the child to “care” somewhat about education via either carrot or stick type motivators. If the parent is not engaged in the value of education the student needs to find motivation elsewhere, either through competition with other students or through their own desires, but not expect such a void to be filled by the teacher. Can it, yes, but it should not be expected. Overall though none of these motivating factors are relevant if not directed towards a meaningful conclusion.

Therefore, the entire process of education must be more cooperative both from the home environment and the school environment in identifying the passions and interests of students and applying those interests to the education process largely through demonstrating how even so-called “mundane” topics like math and various science tie into those passions. With this methodology, education becomes an amplifying positive force for that particular passion rather than a negative detracting and distracting force. In addition not only will this process provide internal motivational fuel for the student (i.e. “I want to be an astronaut”), but it will also provide a road map of sorts to achieving that passion for in the past there have been plenty of educationally motivated students that have fallen short because they were ignorant of the prerequisites and other requirements demanded by their passion.

How this methodology should be achieved will highlight the importance of guidance counselors, which has waned in modern times. Early in a student’s academic career (1st/2nd grade) guidance counselors should be the principal actors in identifying the student’s passions and deduce the best career path for that student to exercise those passions. Every two years there should be some “check-in” period to reassess passion and interests and formulate a new path if needed. This method allows guidance counselors to actually perform their assigned role and no longer burdens teachers with a task outside of their intended role, motivating the student. Now teachers can instead focus on providing an optimized educational environment in which to instruct the students, an actually appropriate expectation, rather than play cheerleader to the individual tastes of their students.

Proper management of student expectations is also important for increasing the effectiveness of education. Course syllabus must be presented early (day 1 or 2) and be transparent in how grades will be produced, what type of class behavior is expected, what students are expected to learn, schedule of events and special projects, etc. Also expectations regarding instruction is essential for despite what some critics would like the public to believe, education cannot be exciting and entertaining all the time, or heck even most of the time. Certainly quality teachers can add certain dynamic elements to lectures to produce a more “inspirational” product, but no one can make teaching something like, a literature review for a research paper to ensure proper background and sourcing, fun. Such a task is one of drudgery that demonstrates the importance of gumption and focus in the educational process.

Tied to the above point, another important element is to psychologically prepare students to embrace the discomfort of learning. Some argue that learning is not fun and education needs to reflect that, but it can be countered that such an environment for a number of students has already been attained; this is a major problem for if students acknowledge learning and education as painful and frustrating then they will be less interested in engaging in the process and will look for shortcuts (i.e. cheating) just as easily as if they think learning should always be fun and exciting.

Instead one must focus on the discomfort of learning in the context that it is frustrating when one does not know something one wants to know, but proper instruction and hard/smart work makes that frustration ephemeral. Basically learning is only “not fun” when no progress is being made. If progress is made (i.e. some knowledge being acquired piece by piece) then learning produces a noticeable sense of accomplishment and pain/frustration is limited and short-term. Therefore, one of the chief strategies in the educational process is to focus on why someone is not making progress and rectify it. This is not to say that education and learning is always effortless, but there is always a purpose to the effort.

One of the more hotly debated elements of education is the structure of how information is transmitted from the teacher to the students. Many modern “educational reformists” lament and criticize the large continuation of traditional education involving a teacher lecturing students on a given topic. These individuals frequently cite the advantages of engaging in teamwork-based activities and focusing on the Socratic Method (SM) of teacher-student engagement in lieu of basic lecturing.

The most significant advantage of the SM is that the interaction between the teacher and the individual through direct question and answer session increases the probability of understanding due to active learning rather than passive learning. During “traditional” lectures students must focus on self-motivation to ensure dynamic learning rather than hoping for learning through osmosis (in a sense). The SM takes some of the motivation burden off of the student through the direct discussion of the topic with the teacher.

Unfortunately most “educational reformist” lack classroom experience and seemingly fail to realize that most public schools have large class sizes (25+ students, usually more) that make the administration of the SM rather difficult without utilization of a scattershot strategy (randomly engaging certain individuals not everyone). A meaningful concern with the SM in large groups is that direct one-one engagement can cause other students to lapse in their attention limiting the effectiveness of the current learning experience. One thing that lectures are not given credit for is that they do provide a meaningful focal point for all students that direct one-one discussion can lack. Also too much interaction can lead to time crunches when it comes to instructing on all of the requisite information.

This misinterpretation of the “universal applicability” of the SM in public institutions largely exists because “reformists” largely focus on viewing the practices of schools with small overall enrollment and class size, typically highly privately funded charter schools, as the bases for determining “what works in the classroom” and what should be applied in public education. This mindset does nothing but continue to make real and appropriate reform more difficult. Overall as noted above the appropriate way to instruct in the modern “educational environment” appears to be the combination of the SM and lecture by periodically and consistently engaging random students in a brief 1-2 question session that captures the individual’s attention, but does not expend enough time to significantly threaten the loss of attention from the rest of the class.

The matter of teamwork is a little more interesting because the advantages of teaching to teams are significant. For example working in a team can provide a less stressful environment for certain individuals, which can eliminate the detriments of working alone, which could negatively impact the educational process. It can help interpersonal relationship development by giving individuals experience with working through problems with others in low stress/stakes environments. Also it provides growth and intellectual development by exposing individuals to additional and different viewpoints and interpretations of the lessons from other team members that may help augment understanding of the information.

However, there are some disadvantages to working in a team. The most pressing issue, that most do not either want to talk about or are not aware of, is that most of these above advantages are born from motivated students that want to learn and want to actively interact with their fellow classmates. Without this motivation, weaker and/or less enthusiastic students can hide behind stronger students letting those individuals do the work for the team and not focus on learning the material themselves. This strategy of “let the smarter kids who care about their grades do the work because they don’t want to fail” has always been a problem in teamwork related elements in primary and secondary education, especially for big large-time period projects.

This behavior is manageable in the scope of small assignments for while homework and in-class work could be performed in groups, quizzes and tests would still be individualized forcing students to limit the practice of the strategy for a vast majority of the grade is still based on their own accumulation and practice of course knowledge. However, for large projects this behavior can be significantly detrimental to the team as well as individuals because it is difficult for the teacher to dissect how important each student’s contribution was to the success or failure of the project.

One means of addressing this problem has been to have students evaluate the performance of their teammates at the conclusion of any big projects, but such a method always draws concern of bias between teammates. An alternative option for big projects may be weekly evaluations of performance on a 1-10 scale over 3-4 different categories with explanation areas for why the numeric score was given. The teacher can keep these evaluations and then use them as a metric to how the dynamic of the team may have changed and a more accurate assessment of how the students felt the workload was divided instead of relying on a single evaluation at the end of the project when emotion and tensions can influence the product as well as spotty memory interfere with accuracy.

Another concern with teaching teams is that weaker voiced/low confidence individuals can have their opinions overshadowed by stronger voiced individuals, which can lead to a reduction in their already wavering confidence. Handling this problem can be tricky because dominating personalities are not necessarily malicious and teachers cannot proctor each group to ensure all opinions are being heard and given a fair evaluation. There are two direct ways to lessening problems stemming from this type of personality clash. First, the teacher can periodically poll the group when asking for an answer inquiring how each student views the problem. Fortunately such a strategy does not appear too time consuming because once per class should be enough for more shy students to have their voices heard. Second, allow the students to form their own teams.

This issue of the origins of team formation creates a third smaller problem. Clearly allowing students to form their own groups can eliminate a large amount of potential interpersonal conflict within the team; however, allowing students to only associate with what is already familiar mitigates a lot of the advantages born from teams through the ability to work with the unfamiliar and understand different types of thought. Overall a middle solution appears most appropriate; before selecting the teams the teacher asks each student to indicate on a piece of paper the 3 classmates he/she would not like to be associated with in a team and then seeks to accommodate as many of these wishes as possible. This strategy limits the amount of interpersonal conflict in a team by eliminating individuals that might have outside conflicts while retaining enough differentiation to ensure value from working in the team. Note it is not the responsibility of the teacher to resolve these conflicts, thus they are best avoided in the classroom.

Overall with regards to teaching to teams: when possible teams should be used basic lectures, including those with a level of interactivity, but tests should be individually based to ensure a strong motivating “carrot” for individual learning. Team interactivity and creation should follow the above suggestions to maximize learning potential and effectiveness.

Another element that is widely touted as the “wave of the future” with regards to education is not only in-class teamwork, but also large team projects where the team engages in a multi-week, even multi-month, task. Clearly the motivation behind this idea is that learning by doing is one of the best way to acquire knowledge, especially to practice critical thinking and creativity; in addition such projects can provide a venue to evaluate the depth of that acquired knowledge by applying theoretical concepts in empirical practice.

Unfortunately while the sentiment is understandable a number of supporters of this methodology fail to acknowledge that such projects are very time consuming and expensive from the school’s perspective, thus such an instructional strategy is an almost guaranteed non-starter for most inner city and rural schools. Also initial project design is important to ensure students stay on task and have organized benchmarks to document progress, thus making the introduction of such a program difficult as well because to test the theory one must put it into practice which takes time and resources and redundant projects may not be valuable depending on the subject matter.

Proponents will conclude that such projects have succeeded before citing various group projects involving building robots, devising responses to various natural disasters or culturing different types of cells to determine how they interact with various types of bacteria. While there are certainly a number of success stories regarding this method, the failures are less known because they are not made public, so it is difficult to deduce the effectiveness of such programs. Overall it is reasonable for a high school to explore a single elective class that focuses on the completion of large-scale project and introduce smaller two-three week long projects for some other classes, but any expectation that such a methodology will become the norm is foolhardy until the public school system is funded at a much larger level than current.

The structure of grading is also an interesting issue with regards to the future of education. One of the more prominent discussions over the years has been the amount of homework that should be assigned to students. Before discussing the level or amount of homework it is important to establish the purpose of homework. For the course of this discussion the role of homework will be defined as: a tool to produce a means for a student to genuinely increase the probability of understanding particular concepts in a low stress environment versus proctored on-site examinations. Also for homework to be relevant it must be designed in a way that maximizes its practicality and usefulness. Rarely will reality simply give a person a single equation or thought process that will solve the problem. For example while a common math problem may read: “21 divided by 4 = ???”; this is clearly not how problems are encountered in reality, with 90%+ of the work already done. Instead such a problem should be presented to the students as:

John and Suzie want to bake some apple pies for their school’s bake sale. John has collected 10 apples from the trees around his house and Suzie has collected 11 apples from the trees around her house. If it takes 4 apples to bake 1 pie how many pies can John and Suzie bake and how many apples will they have left over after all the baking is done?

From this structure, which is much more akin to reality, a student should create the equation 21 divided by 4 = ???. So step 1 with regards to the homework aspect of knowledge evaluation is make sure homework problems properly represent real life experience.

Step 2 is to ask how homework should play into the evaluation process. One could inquire about the fairness of homework being a significant portion or even any portion of the grade if its central role is that of a low stress practice tool for understanding the general overarching concepts. What if the student does not need to do the homework to understand the material, the lecture period is enough to achieve understanding? Should that student be, in essence, forced to do the homework when he/she could use that time for other activities, either family-oriented or pleasure based? For example some students may not have a sufficient amount of time to do unnecessary, due to already achieving understanding, homework because of an imperfect family life where brothers/sisters have to take care of younger siblings, go to night work to earn extra money to help support the family, etc.

One point of argument for a high evaluation metric for homework is that it provides another avenue for students who struggle with communicating acquired knowledge in a testing environment. It cannot be argued that a test in a classroom environment inherently provides more pressure than homework assignments in an environment of the student’s choosing. Some students do not have the ability to effectively manage this increased pressure, thus their ability to demonstrate their knowledge suffers accordingly. The principle characteristic of the grade for a course is to conveniently measure how well a student acquired knowledge in a course, not how well a student can manage a high-pressure situation. Therefore, a high evaluation metric allows the grades for a student that “does not test well” to more accurately reflect the knowledge acquired within the course.

Some opponents could argue back that while addressing students that “do not test well” is a positive element for a high evaluation metric, it is more probable that highly evaluated homework conceals poor performance. Students can use homework to bolster overall grades that are detrimentally marred by poor examination results; poor results not due to mishandling stress, but simply due to lack of knowledge. Thus, this evaluation structure misrepresents a student’s knowledge in a particular topic portraying that student as more competent than they otherwise are, a disservice to colleges, future employers and the students themselves. However, this analysis only seems valid if the assigned homework is of substandard quality and/or design. If the homework is properly designed to reflect acquired concepts of the class then using homework grades as a counter measure to examination grades is reasonable.

It must be remembered that the bounds of time do not only impact students. Teachers, especially those with more dynamic topics like history, find themselves having to impart more and more information over the same fixed time period. Unfortunately the total amount of information that needs to be discussed limits the available amount of instruction time for each specific topic. Therefore, without the ability to rigorously cover a particular topic to the point where students have been exposed enough to reasonably understand the topic the probability that the students understand the topic decreases. Homework substitutes for this lack of class time to increase learning and retention probabilities. This supplementary aspect of homework hurts those who argue for no/little homework.

It can be argued that there is a typical perceived knowledge vs. actual knowledge gap for most students. There are a number of instances in school and, life in general, where an individual may think he/she has sufficient knowledge in a given subject, but when actually tested on that topic this individual quickly realizes that he/she does not have as much knowledge as previously thought. Homework provides a means to address this perception/reality gap before it becomes exposed on a test to a greater academic detriment of the student. Overall, is there a strategy that can provide a motivational aspect to do homework while not burdening those who do not need to take advantage of the practice characteristics of homework? The strategy below seems to be one way to address this issue.

• Homework is given out on a weekly basis; Every Monday an assignment is given out which will cover all of the scheduled material that will be discussed in class over that same week; the assignment will be expected to be turned in at the beginning of class on the next Monday (for example homework assigned on Oct. 13 would be turned in on Oct. 20 at the beginning of class); answers for the homework would then be posted or handed-out for the last week’s homework at the end of class on Monday.

• Homework will count for 0% of the grade. The reason is that homework, as previously discussed, is designed to give the student multiple opportunities to practice learning the given material. Taking a grade from material that is supposed to be practice is not very fair. Therefore, because homework does not count for any percentage of the grade the students do not have to do it or turn it in if they do not want to.

• Grades will be determined by 4 tests; 3 section tests worth 25% of the grade and 1 cumulative final worth 25% of the grade. As a partial motivator to do homework, students may retake one of the section tests if they turned in at least 75% of the assigned homework within the corresponding section and demonstrated a legitimate effort to learn from the homework.

Overall while the above suggestion is merely that, a suggestion, it appears that the above discussion has focused on two important principle issues in the ‘homework’ discussion. First, is the issue between homework motivation vs. maintaining the practice characteristic of homework designed to enhance learning. Second, is the issue of opportunity cost in doing homework vs. undertaking other activities. The chief element of this issue boils down to immediacy of the opportunity cost. The time crunch created by homework, which is frequently associated with increased stress, is typically developed through two methods. First, most students, especially as they advance in grade, have to deal with multiple subjects demanding multiple solution methodologies. Second, homework frequently functions through daily turnover. While the individual assignments may not account for much having to sacrifice enough of them due to more important tasks (like the job to help your family) can add up quickly damaging the overall grade when using a high evaluation metric (commonly suggested for motivational purposes).

Unfortunately there does not appear to be a single magic bullet to deal with both issues, but expanding the homework turnover scope could certainly help. As suggested above assigning homework at one particular time to account for the entire week gives the students more flexibility to address the homework. If their time is demanded by a particular activity on a given night, time can be budgeted later in the week to complete homework that would have been missed due to that activity. Another potential advantage to assigning homework in a greater than day-by-day quantity is that it may be easier for students to make connections between building block concepts when doing ‘three days work’ of homework in one sitting instead of doing the work over a three day period with multiple interruptions. Such a system could also encourage more ambitious students to ‘read ahead’ in an attempt to do the homework before the class lesson address the material.

One question that comes to mind for such a system is how does it change the grading burden on teachers? Under a more expanded turnover system with a firm homework hand-in date teachers may have more homework to grade, but by providing a universal answer key after turning it in, the teacher has more flexibility in allotted time to grade the homework and return it to the student. This increased time flexibility is important for grading homework is one of the most daunting and potentially frustrating tasks for a teacher, one that is commonly overlooked by most education reformers when considering teacher workload. Also teachers have lives outside of the educational environment, just like students, and may want to devote certain periods of that time to other tasks.

Another useful change to improve the educational experience would be more cooperation among teachers within a given field of instruction. For example synchronizing the free/prep period for all teachers of the same general subject matter, i.e. all English teachers, would provide opportunities for teachers to converse regarding the instruction of certain subjects within the field. In fact it would be appropriate for teachers to have a weekly meeting during one of these prep periods to maximize problem solving and instruction capacity.

Obviously one of the most critical elements to improve the educational system is to create an environment where the profession of teaching is respected once again. One aspect of this change would require teachers having more power in the classroom to control improper behavior. One means to accomplish this change is to allow teachers to negatively influence a student’s grade when that student provides a disruptive influence to the learning environment. A good pilot program would be that the teacher would have the authority to deduce up to a maximum of 10% from the grade of an individual for misbehavior at certain predetermined intervals.

Some might immediately object to such a system using the argument that behavior should have nothing to do with determining the class grade because the grade should be exclusively contingent on demonstration of acquired knowledge through prescribed evaluation metrics like homework, quizzes and tests. While on its face this objection may seem appropriate and fair, the problem is that it views the behavior in a vacuum. Basically it suggests the premise that negative behavior only produces a detriment towards the practicing individual and if the individual can perform at a certain level on the evaluation metrics without showing respect or paying attention in class then there should be no punishment. However, such logic is clearly incorrect because in the classroom environment a vast majority of negative behavior provides a detrimental element to the overall environment, disrupting the ability of all parties to learn the information. The behavior commonly produces a detriment towards multiple parties even if it is undesired or unwarranted by those parties.

For those who attempt to retain the purist assumption from above, Even despite this reality, it is important to acknowledge that tolerance for such negative behavior is typically not allowed in the professional workplace and if one of the chief elements of education is to prepare an individual for a career on some level, then such behavior should not be allowed in the classroom without consequence either. For example if an individual performs his/her job well, but facilitates such a negative environment that it negatively affects the performance of others to the point where the company as a whole suffers, that individual will typically be either told to change their behavior or he/she will be fired. Legal barriers prevent students from “being fired” both from the classroom and the education system in general, thus the best secondary option is affect grades.

Another possible argument against this strategy is that the individuals who have the highest probabilities for misbehavior are those who care the least about grades and school in general. Therefore, how will this punishment system act as a meaningful deterrent? Well, if the suggestions from above relating to linking various aspects of education to successful advancement of one’s passion then a vast majority of individuals should care about their grades to the point where behavior can be reasonably managed through such a punishment. Even for those who do not accept the link between their passions and education, to simply produce no consequence to disruptive behavior is irrational. For example it is widely acknowledged that various people will exceed legal speed limits over the course of their driving career, so with this reality in mind should there be no punishment for violating these laws? Certainly not for it makes no sense to eliminate a valid and appropriate punishment for the violation of a valid social norm or law. Understand that grade reduction would only be one tool in the toolbox for teachers to address bad behavior.

Another important issue addressing the improvement of education in modern society is managing the integration of technology into the classroom environment. This point is certainly not unique, however, most individuals who sing the praises of technology as a “revolutionary” force in education are not teachers; instead they are business people, entrepreneurs, educational commentators, etc. and only see the positive elements of technology in education, frequently commenting with annoyance that technology is not more widespread.

Interestingly enough if these commentators did have teaching experience they would quickly realize that technology has already penetrated almost all classrooms in the form of smartphones. Unfortunately these elements are not positive, but a net negative producing significant distractions and emboldening those who which to cheat on quizzes and tests. It is true that technology can provide a significant boon to education, but it can also provide a significant detriment and it is important that all parties acknowledge this reality. So what can be done to neutralize the detrimental aspects that technology can bring to education?

The main aspect of this issue is how to manage technological distractions? The best solution is to put instruction into place where there is no legitimate cause to need to utilize the technology and then ban its use for the duration of class time. Now it stands to reason that technophiles would cry foul to this type of strategy once again citing the importance of technology in the classroom, especially in sparking student interest due to the length of time technology is incorporated into student life outside of the classroom. This objection highlights a problem in the presented arguments from those who support technology in the classroom, the general drive to force the influence of technology into all aspects of the classroom. The simple fact is that most classroom activities do not benefit from the incorporation of individualistic technological action. Yes, teachers can typically instruct more effectively using programs like PowerPoint versus transparent slides or a chalkboard, but students are not significantly benefited by following along with the lecture on their smartphones or laptops.

In essence there needs to be a dividing point when students can use technology and when they cannot and the cannot would occur during the lecture portion of the class. Clearly there are very small and specific exceptions to this principal; for example when lecturing about computer programming it would make sense for students, if applicable, to be at computers applying the elements of the lecture to increase familiarity with the operation of the concepts. However, despite the erroneous beliefs of technophiles, most topics do not lend themselves to this type of interaction, thus the utilization of technology by students during the lecture will result in a reduced probability of comprehension not an increased probability.

What would possible penalties be for student driven technological distractions? This question leads to two schools of thought relative to the expectation of respect for the instructor. Clearly one can argue that a student that does not pay attention in class, after accounting for outside psychological factors, is not showing proper respect to the instructor. However, if this lack of attention does not create a distracting environment for others (for example the student is doodling in a notebook, but not making enough noise to draw attention to this fact), should such behavior matter?

The answer to this question boils down to two issues? What is the obligation of the student to demonstrate respect for the teacher and what is the obligation of the teacher to ensure the student pays attention to the instructed material? The simplest philosophy in this issue is that the student is chastised for the lack of attention and told to correct the behavior and the lecture will not continue until the student complies. The general goal of this practice is to reestablish the authority of the teacher in the classroom setting and ensure the student receives some benefit from the lecture.

A more interesting strategy is if the student is not demonstrating behavior that will actively disrupt class and his/her behavior is on a limited scale (only 1-2 individuals in a class of 30 is not paying attention) then the teacher should not care about the behavior leaving the student to understand the instructed material his/herself. If the individual cannot understand the material then he/she should score poorly on the evaluation metric(s) that cover the particular material, which would be the fault of the student. Again it is not part of the teacher’s job to ensure that all students pay attention. If the individual can understand the material without the assistance of the lecture, why should the student be forced to pay attention to the lecture instead of engaging in a non-class distracting alternative activity?

A more interesting question is what does the teacher do when a number of individuals demonstrate a lack of attention, which could be viewed as a lack of respect to the authority of the teacher? As from above the teacher has two options: 1) stop lecturing until the class ceases their lack of attention; 2) continue to lecture placing the individuals who are not paying attention at a possible disadvantage for later evaluation metrics. A traditional and even modern viewpoint of teaching would instantly dismiss the latter option and criticize the teacher for not being able to keep the attention of the students. Of course almost all with this opinion have never taught a day in their life in an educational environment, thus the significance of their opinion is heavily marginalized. The problem with the first option is that rarely is the lack of attention from a student acute, but typically is habitual, thus correcting the behavior is more difficult than simply telling the student to pay attention. This reality is what makes the second option interesting when combined with the career affinity option discussed earlier.

One could argue that most habitual and “disrespectful” lack of attention behavior can be addressed by applying the above strategy of tying the passions of individuals to the subject matter taught in various classes. Thus once again after accounting for outside factors the chief motivation behind a student not paying attention in class would be the internal perception of redundant knowledge. Basically the student already believes that he/she has grasp of the knowledge presented in the lecture and elects to do something else.

This perception is not a significant problem because either the student is correct and should be spending time in the classroom doing something else while not distracting others, which only arrogant teachers would find fault with (all students should pay attention to me, etc.) or the student is incorrect and this perception and resultant behavior will be corrected after a poor performance on the next evaluation metric.

The above discussion demonstrates that the important concern is not an individual distracting him/herself, but an individual distracting others. It is this point where individually utilized technology becomes the problem. All rational people will agree that there is a significant difference in noise generation between an individual doodling in a notebook or working on math homework for next period versus an individual incessantly tapping on keys/screen or periodically making a sound like a laugh in response to a piece of video. Basically the utilization of technology as the element of distraction dramatically increases the probability that the distraction distracts others who do not want to be distracted from the content of the lecture. Therefore, individual technology must be appropriately managed though similar penalties as discussed above for behavior infractions.

Overall the administration of technology in the classroom is the prerogative of the teacher despite complaints from non-teachers. A problem technophiles have with this strategy is the incorrect belief that only technology can make a modern lecture innovative, dynamic and impactful. A quality teacher can give these characteristics to a lecture with just a piece of chalk and a chalkboard and if these non-teacher commentators had any real experience in education they would have a better understanding of this reality.

One of the improvements that must be made to establish better teachers is changing the means at which training experience is acquired. Overall there is too much single-experience watching/observing versus actual multi-experience hands-on training. For example a number of training programs involve a prospective teacher sitting in and observing the behavior, style and actions of a veteran teacher. However, rarely do these prospective teachers teach in the class while receiving feedback from the veteran teacher, they do little prep-work/grading/discussion and do not interact with other veteran teachers either.

Instead of this old method, new prospective teachers during their “observation” period should act as teaching assistants doing a significant amount of the grading and preparation work for the veteran instructor and teaching for a set period of time (maybe once per week). Then the prospective teacher should move to another teacher in the same subject to experience a potential different viewpoint in how to manage a class and/or teach the subject matter. Of course the logistics associated with such a new design would require work.

Another important change to positively advance teaching is to hold charter schools to actual academic standards or disallow public funding. Some love to make the utopian argument that money does not really matter with regards to improving public education, but such arguments are incorrect and self-serving. It makes no sense that charter schools can receive public funds, but have no accountability to those who provide those funds. Therefore, charter schools must either be removed from public funding or be held accountable to the same standards as public schools.

Similarly the return of respect to the teaching profession can never be achieved as long as organizations like Teach for America are allowed to continue to undermine the profession by introducing unprepared individuals into the profession. Teach for America and similar organizations produce negative propaganda regarding teaching under the motto “its so easy anyone can do it”, but refuse to accept responsibility for the reality that over half of their “qualified” candidates exit the profession after only two years.

Similar to the general propaganda spread by Teach for America and other similar organizations, one must abandon the idea that teaching is an occupation undeserving of respect due to the perceived hours of operation. A common refrain in public discourse is that teaching is not difficult because “teachers get the summers off”. What these false criticisms fail to acknowledge is the total hours worked versus days worked. Good teachers that care about ensuring a proper learning environment work more hours than average over the course of the week and also work over the summer. Overall quality teachers, those who the public claims to want in schools, do not fit this “not real work” profile and are negatively impacted by its continued propagation.

It is appropriate to briefly touch on a couple of indirect methods that could improve the educational experience. First, it makes sense to follow scientific research regarding the way lighting and room color influence performance and behavior. For example it has been reported that “warm” yellowish white light supports a more relaxing environment that promotes play and probably material engagement, standard school lighting (neutral white) supports quiet contemplative activities like reading and “cool” bluish white light supports performance during intellectually intensive events like tests.1 Thus equipping classrooms with LED lights that could be changed between these different types of lighting tiers should provide useful advantages to both teachers and students.

Second, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that early start times in high schools and some middle schools (7:30 and earlier) have negative educational influence on students.2-4 While this issue has received attention in the past and is still receiving some attention here and there, unfortunately it is not as cut-and-dry as simply starting school 30 minutes later for there are significant logistical hurdles to the successful administration of a “later school day” policy.

One of the major problems is how to manage bus transit for a single fleet of buses tends to service one school district or region. The tiered start times for different schools (high school, middle school/junior high, elementary school) is typically necessary for transit efficiency allowing this single fleet to manage all schools. Change the start time for high school and the efficiency of bus service collapses unless start times for middle schools and elementary schools are also changed.

However, changing start times for these schools is not beneficial to younger age students because they are already starting at times later than 8:00 am, and starting even later may even be detrimental because of the much later release times (4:00 pm or later). Not surprisingly the solution of “get more buses” is a non-starter for most school districts are already rather cash strapped to begin with due to tax funding dependencies and charter schools taking money from that pie as well. This transit problem and the resultant potential detriment for younger students is exactly what Montgomery Country in Maryland experienced when they changed school hours in 2015.

Another meaningful logistic hurdle involves the administration of after-school extra-curricular activities and how they could disrupt home life due to students arriving home at 5:30 or 6:00 pm, especially during the late fall and winter months when daylight becomes limited. Also there may be increased costs for the school for heating and cooling, especially cooling for those districts in high temperature regions for starting later in the day means hotter average school hour temperatures. This issue is tough because the costs could be prohibitive for some districts and meaningless for others. Of course one significant problem is that studies involving the incorporation of later school hours only seem to focus on health and/or possible changes in academic achievement and do not address obstacles to applying later school hours, which is rather ridiculous.

In the end one of the most pressing problems in education is misrepresentation of the overall goal of education. Some reformers seem to think that the most important role for education is to foster a level of knowledge that allows an individual to gain employment in some particular field. While such a role is important, it is not so important that it should displace other important elements to education like:

1) Produce citizens that can make rational decisions, which will allow them to make positive contributions to society.
2) Produce citizens that can effectively form solutions to both qualitative and quantitative problems.
3) Produce citizens that can use both spoken and written word to effectively communicate their ideas and feelings to other individuals as well as understand and analyze the validity of the ideas and feelings of others.
4) Produce citizens that do not tolerate individuals that attempt to manipulate or deceive society for their own ends or do not tolerate those that practice and/or preach ignorance or idiocy for the sole purpose of satisfying their own personal beliefs and ends.

Overall blind devotion to test scores and technology will not help achieve these goals and without the ability to produce these types of individuals society becomes vulnerable to manipulators and opportunists that would produce net harms. It is the responsibility of education to produce a society that is not only productive, but also able to protect it from these unscrupulous individuals, thus it is the responsibility of society to ensure an educational environment that accomplishes these goals. Current reformers are not offering solutions that will produce such accomplishment, thus something must change.

Citation –

1. Suk, H, and Choi, K. “Dynamic lighting system for the learning environment: performance of elementary students.” Optics Express. 2016. 24(10):A907-A916.

2. Eaton, D, et Al. “Prevalence of insufficient, borderline, and optimal hours of sleep among high school students–United States, 2007.” Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010. 46(4):399-401.

3. Wahlstrom, K, et Al. “Examining the impact of later high school start times on the health and academic performance of high school students: A multi-site study.” 2014.

4. Au, R, et Al. “School start times for adolescents.” Pediatrics. 2014. 134(3):642-649.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Food Labels – Do They Properly Inform Consumers?

The unsurprising and non-controversial role of food labels is to present the ingredients and elements of a food product both independently and in the context of dietary guidelines to ensure consumers are informed to what they are purchasing and how “healthy” the product. In the United States the National Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) in 1990 required the inclusion of nutrition information on packaged foods, with a few exceptions, and set the standard for how the information should be presented. This legislation was important because before the NLEA nutritional information was only required when producers wanted to make claims about specific nutritional benefits derived from consuming their product. However, the lack of standardization in presentation of nutritional information made it difficult to contrast and compare even when the information was available. Thus the famous standardized side panel conveying nutritional information for food products was born.

Interestingly enough very little has changed in the presentation and information of this standard U.S. labeling since the NLEA up until now. Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released information regarding how this food label would change by 2018; this news was met with cheers from some health circles and jeers from others. Overall the changes are rather uneventful with an increased font size for calorie count, elimination of calories from fat, more nuanced language for per serving and per package identifiers including more empirically based serving sizes, gram amounts in addition to percentages for vitamins (this change seems rather meaningless), Vitamin D and potassium switch required status with Vitamin A and C and more clarification regarding the % Daily Value footnote. The one supposed “big ticket” change is that labels are now required to breakdown the sugar content between natural sugars and added sugars.

The level of usefulness for the consumer within the divergence between natural and added sugars is questionable because without specifically breaking down the sugar content into its molecular complements: glucose, fructose, maltose, etc. the total sugar amount is still the only real meaningful piece of information. Knowing how much sugar was added versus how much sugar naturally occurs in the product is rather irrelevant regarding how the body will process it. Is someone really going to buy product A over product B because it has 28 grams of natural sugar versus 14 grams of natural sugar and 14 grams of added sugar? For some the answer will be yes, although most will not have a good reason why (the only real valid reason would be the contention that added sugars have a higher probability of being simple sugars and negative for health), but for most the answer will be no.

Some individuals could counter-argue that various groups like the AHA, AAP, WHO and Institute of Medicine have recommended decreasing intake of added sugars with general estimates that only about 10 percent of total daily calories should come from added sugar. While all of this is true, the problem is that differentiation between added sugar and natural sugar is more propagandized than meaningful. Again without differentiating between the specific molecules that make up the sugar content, total sugar is the only metric regarding sugar that actually matters. The propaganda stems from individuals promoting the reduced consumption of processed foods, which are more likely to have added sugars. Certainly it is true that added sugars do nothing positive to the nutritional content of the food, but again total sugar is what matters without specific differentiation.

The “debate” about added vs. natural sugar aside, in reality this new label certainly falls short of Michelle Obama’s endorsement “you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids…” It is difficult to support the accuracy of that statement based on the changes; a sentiment shared by many other individuals who think the food labeling requirements should have been much more substantial.

For example applying the labeling itself is only a part of the battle for the information on the label is only meaningful when consumers read and understand it. There is some question to whether or not the label needs to change for studies have demonstrated that while a vast majority of individuals in the U.S. read food labels, this information does little to influence their food choices.1-3 However, in the EU, which has a more intensive and thorough labeling system, food labels do influence consumer choice.4

While it is difficult to directly determine if the critical factor in this difference in behavior is born from the food labeling methodologies due to cultural differences between the U.S. and the EU, it is also difficult to dismiss the differing labeling strategies as playing an influencing factor. The key difference between the two labeling systems is that the U.S. system places a greater emphasis on the consumer to understand the nutritional context of both product A and how it may differ from the nutritional context of product B versus the more categorized labeling system of the EU in general.

For example in the UK labeling follows four core principles enumerated by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) for front of the package:5,6

1) Separate information must be provided on fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt; (this is also a guideline in the U.S. via Facts Up Front, but it is a voluntary program)

2) A red, amber or green color coding, similar to traffic lights, must be utilized to indicate whether the levels of those elements outlined in the first principle are high, medium or low respectively per 100 g (or ml for liquids) of product content;

3) Color metrics are established by nutritional criteria set forth by the FSA;

4) Provide portion ratios relative to the elements outlined in the first principle for color coding;

When this proposal was first made in 2006 there was significant resistance regarding the traffic light identification system as numerous food manufactures and producers questioned the use of the traffic light system and instead favored more of a U.S. style system using percentage of daily recommended values.5 Furthermore food manufactures also disagreed with the use of 100 g/ml as a standard invoking the argument that consumers think more in portions of the consumed product. It would be difficult for consumers to deduce a gram weight-based portion size. This complaint produced an alternative system using the needlessly large number of portion sizes by various food products creating a much more difficult comparison environment for consumers; such was ironic because it produced the result that was exactly the rational used by food companies to argue against the 100 g/ml standard, an overly complicated system.

Regardless of the bumpy road to establishing a universal labeling system and the lack of ideal standardization in the UK (note the confliction between points 2 and 4 from above), numerous studies have demonstrated that front of the package simple signal (like color coding) labeling of the “healthiness” of a food product does influence consumer choice both by increasing the probability that the customer purchases healthier products and increasing the probability that food producers create healthier products;7-10 also traffic light systems have proven superior to other systems like single compounded numbers or guiding star type systems.8,11 Therefore, clearly creating regulations regarding the nutritional or “health value” of a food for the front of the package is a meaningful step to increasing the probability of an informed consumer.

Part of the battle for the front of the package (FOP) is not just to produce a standardized system to convey the health of the product, but to ensure genuine portrayal of the product itself. For example advertising for some food products tends to mislead consumers that the product may contain a larger quantity of a component than in reality. Such is common with fruit juice products; for example in an attempt to draw attention away from the top ingredients commonly being concentrated water and high fructose corn syrup with pictures of fruit. One means that helps support such trickery is that ingredients are only listed in order of percent amount, but the percentages are not given. Actually requiring the percentages may help limit the impact of this type of advertising.

Ensuring proper labeling design is important because studies have demonstrated that simple, transparent and clear labeling engage subconscious emotional elements in the brain including the amygdala.12-14 Therefore, the FDA may need to properly regulate front of the box labeling because the side panel may be at a psychological disadvantage to the “health proclamations” that commonly adorn the front of the box in stylized and eye-catching presentations.

In the past some parties have acknowledge the importance of the front of the box and lamented the U.S. government’s acquiescence of its power to corporations. These parties have proposed taking back the front of the box in such a way to “inform” consumers of whether or not their choice is a healthy one. For example one proposal is that the upper right portion of the box should contain the three most prevalent ingredients in the product, the calorie count and the number of total ingredients beyond those first three in bold and clear font.15

The proponents of such a system believe that it will produce a fast means for consumers to identify healthy food versus unhealthy food that is so easy it is impossible to ignore. However, the problem with such a system is that it can be easily manipulated where producers can fine-tailor their produces where 3 seemingly healthy ingredients can be the 3 most plentiful ingredients by an incredibly small amount before the “unhealthy” ingredients.

Also calorie counts in such a system would have to identify serving size to be placed in proper context and even then such counts may prove to complicate the issue. Note that the above proposition suggests posting the calories per serving on the front of the package. However, if all similar products do not have standardized serving amounts (all listing 100 grams for example vs. ½ cup or 8 to a box) then listing the calories is not simplistic strategy to optimize food choices on the basis of health. Varying serving amounts force the consumer to undertake some general arithmetic. For example suppose Cereal A has 120 calories per ½ cup (10 servings) and Cereal B has 160 calories per ¾ cup (7 servings), front of the box labeling would imply that Cereal A has fewer calories, but that is not the case in either equivalent serving calories or total calories for the entire box. Therefore, front of the package labeling must be less simplistic unless a standardized serving metric is established. Facts Up Front suffers from this serving difference problem limiting its effectiveness.

The possible problems with the above differing option notwithstanding, it is clear that the EU, including the U.K., has a better labeling system than the U.S. with regards to helping consumers acquire and understand nutritional information. So why does so little change in the “updated” U.S. labeling system? Most would argue, probably correctly, that lobbying by food companies prevents the FDA from going further thanks to interference from Congress. If the FDA had the “freedom” to make any changes what changes should they make?

Obviously it is important for there to be some form of comparison information that goes beyond Facts Up Front. A traffic light system certainly holds promise due to its successful application in the UK. However, it is understandable that food companies would balk at such a condition, especially those with significant “red” light products. The proper response to such complaints is two-fold: first, who cares if the food companies have complaints again the proper utilitarian construct of ensuring transparent information. Second, one could attempt to lessen the impact of the traffic light system in the context that a primarily “red” food should not be viewed as something that should never be consumed, otherwise no one would ever eat something like a piece of cheese cake, but instead a food that should be consumed rarely in the context of good health. Thus, the green, yellow and red lights simply transition into anytime, once-a-day and rare, food choices.

Another interesting idea would be to establish a standardized declaration system for the front of the package involving commonly referred health terms against an empirically derived metric. Basically it is commonplace for food producers to put labeling on the front of a package that states: “high in fiber”, “low sodium”, “x number of essential vitamins and minerals”, etc. This newly proposed system would eliminating that ability of food producers to make such claims and instead replace this system with a five or six bullet point checklist in the upper right corner of the package confirming a given “positive health feature”. A check would be earned by meeting a standard floor or ceiling for the given attribute per 100 g of product; where the FDA would establish the standard. For example the “high fiber” box would be checked if a food contained 3 grams of fiber per 100 g of product, not checked otherwise. Five possibilities for such a checklist are shown below.

1) High Fiber;
2) Low Sodium;
3) Whole Grain;
4) Low Sugar;
5) Low Saturated Fat

In the end both of these strategies: the traffic lights and the checkbox, should significantly increase the probability that consumers are informed about the general nutritional value of their food product choices without an unreasonably long analysis period. Overall there is no good reason that the FDA and its surrogates should not establish and enforce such a labeling system.

Citations –

1. Cha, E, et Al. “Health literacy, self-efficacy, food label use, and diet in young adults.” Am. J. Health. Behav. 2014. 38(3):331-339.

2. Campos, S, Doxey, J, and Hammond, D. “Nutrition labels on pre-packaged foods: a systematic review.” Public Health Nutr. 2011. 14(8). 1496-1506.

3. Huang, T, et Al. “Reading nutrition labels and fat consumption in adolescents.” J. Adolesc. Health. 2004. 35(5):399-401.

4. Storcksdieck, G, and Wills, J. “Nutrition labeling to prevent obesity: reviewing the evidence from Europe.” Curr Obes. Rep. 2012. 1(3):134-140.

5. Lobstein, T, and Davies, S. “Defining and labelling ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food.” Public Health Nutrition. 12(3):331-340.

6. Food Standards Agency. Board Agrees Principles for Front of Pack Labelling. 2006. Food Standards Agency.

7. Lobstein, T, Landon, J, and Lincoln, P. “Misconceptions and misinformation: the problems with guideline daily amounts (GDAs). A review of GDAs and their use for signaling nutritional information on food and drink labels.” National Heart Forum. 2007.

8. Temple, N, and Fraser, J. “Food labels: a critical assessment.” Nutrition. 2014. 30:257-260.

9. Hersey, J, et Al. “Effects of front-of-package and shelf ntrition labeling systems on consumers.” Nutr. Rev. 2013. 71:1-14.

10. Hawley, K, et Al. “The science on front-of-package food labels.” Public Health Nutr. 2013. 16:430-439.

11. Sutherland, L, Kaley, L, and Fischer, L. “Guiding Stars: the effect of a nutrition navigation program on consumer purchases at the supermarket.” Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2010. 91:1090S-1094S.

12. Grabenhorst, F, et Al. “Food labels promote healthy choices by a decision bias in the amygdala.” NeuroImage. 2013. 74:152-63.

13. Pessoa, L, and Adolphs, R. “Emotion processing and the amygdala: from a ‘low road’ to ‘many roads’ of evaluating biological significance.” Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2010. 11:773-783.

14. Seymour, B, and Dolan, R. “Emotion, decision-making, and the amygdala.” Neuron. 2008. 58:662-671.

15. Kessler, D. “Toward more comprehensive food labeling.” N. Engl. J. Med. 2014. 371(3):193-195.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Addressing the HDL Problem in High Cholesterol Treatment

Cardiovascular disease is still the biggest cause of death in the developed world including the United States. One of the critical elements that influence this rate of death is the disruption of cholesterol homeostasis, especially in the context of increasing the risk of arteriosclerosis.1,2 One of the current principal medical therapies for managing high cholesterol is the administration of statins. However, while statins have demonstrated a relatively strong safety profile with minimal sides effects, there are individuals who are unresponsive to treatment or may prefer a different option. The chief influence of cholesterol concentrations is tied to both high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) concentrations. Stanins address the LDL side of the equation through their inhibition of HMG-CoA reductase; it makes sense that the next step in producing another effective form of cholesterol treatment is to focus on HDL.

HDL is one of five major lipoprotein groups that are responsible for transporting lipids like cholesterol, phospholipids and triglycerides. Both apolipoproteins, apoA-I and apoA-II, are required for normal HDL biosynthesis with apoA-I making up 70%.3 In contrast to LDL, HDL is responsible for moving lipids from cells, including within artery wall atheroma, to other organs for excretion or catabolism, most notably the liver.4 Both HDL and LDL concentrations are indirectly measured through the concentrations of HDL-C and LDL-C due to difficulties and costs associated with direct measurement. Since the 1970s HDL has been acknowledged as having a direct inverse relationship regarding risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).5 This HDL-CVD relationship has also been conserved over different racial and ethnic populations.6 A seminal study known as the Framingham study also identified high LDL-C and low HDL-C levels as a strong predictor of CVD risk.7 Finally it has also been noted that close to 30% of lipids are transported by HDL in healthy individuals.8

The general belief is that HDL is able to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease through the inhibition and even reversal of atherogenesis via initiating the process of reverse cholesterol transport (RCT).9-11 RCT is the common term for the removal of cholesterol from peripheral cells and transport to the liver. While RCT involves multiple steps, the major ones involve the transfer of cholesterol from peripheral cells to HDL by ATP-binding cassette transporter (ABCA1) through apoA-I interaction and phospholipid interaction, conversion of cholesterol to cholesteryl esters by lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase (LCAT) and the removal of these esters by interaction with either a direct removal pathway, scavenger receptor class BI (SR-BI), or the indirect removal pathway, cholesterylester transfer protein (CETP).4,10,11

CETP interaction involves the exchange of triglycerides of VLDLs with the cholesteryl esters of HDL resulting in VLDL being converted to LDL that later enters the LDL receptor pathway where the triglycerides are degraded due to their instability in HDL resulting in a smaller HDL lipoprotein that can begin to reabsorb new cholesterol molecules.12

The strategy of manipulating HDL concentrations or interactions to produce better health outcomes is certainly not unique and has not gone unnoticed by the pharmaceutical community. For example one of the initially more promising therapeutic treatments for high cholesterol was increasing expression of endogenous apoA-I due to its role in HDL synthesis. To this end some research has focused on using PPARgamma agonists to increase APOA1 gene transcription to eventually increase apoA-I concentration.13,14 ApoA-II has also received some attention because it appears required for normal HDL biosynthesis and metabolism. Increasing either apoA-I or apoA-II concentrations produce an increase in HDL-C levels and supposed HDL levels.

In contrast to increasing apoA synthesis rates, there is already effective means for increasing HDL-C levels via the supposed reduction of apoA catabolism through increasing nicotinic acid (niacin) concentrations.15 Niacin has demonstrated the ability to reduce HDL apoA-I uptake in hepatocytes in vitro.16 Whether or not this influence occurs via interaction with a HDL receptor or G protein-coupled receptors (most notably GPR109A), is unclear,16,17 but what is known is that niacin reduces apoA catabolism and increases HDL-C concentration.15

In addition to research on increasing HDL synthesis, other research has focused on reducing the degradation/loss of HDL through focusing on influencing the esterifcation and de-esterifaction HDL pathways. As mentioned above HDL-C is esterified to HDL-CE by LCAT. Low concentrations of LCAT in both humans and mice produce significant drops in HDL-C concentration and rapid catabolism of apoA-I and apo-II whereas high concentrations of LCAT result in significantly increased HDL-C concentrations.18,19 These results are more than likely due to feedback systems in that increased LCAT activity via higher LCAT concentrations increase conversion of HDL-C to HDL-CE, thus increasing the demand for HDL-C and its reactants (HDL and apoA-I/apoA-II).

Of the two major ending points for HDL-CE, labeling studies suggest that a majority of HDL-CE is transported to the liver via CETP exchange instead of through direct liver uptake via SR-BI.20 Therefore, CETP inhibitors, like JTT-705 and torcetrapib, are also viewed as an effective means of increasing HDL-C (and by association) HDL concentrations.21-23 Interestingly enough there also appears to be a negative influence on LDL-C concentrations.4,21 However, despite this increase in HDL-C concentration from CETP inhibition, there is a question of whether or not this pathway actually reduces CVD. For example large genetic and observational studies have contrasting results,24 but lean towards increased CETP concentrations increasing CVD probability, but inhibition of CETP does not seem to reduce CVD beyond standard rates (the reduction seen from not having elevated concentrations); this behavior may occur due to CETP negatively interacting with RCT.20

Overall despite the notion that higher native HDL levels (and higher HDL-C levels) are associated with lower rates of CVD and that all of the above methods have some ability to increase HDL-C concentration levels, pharmaceutical derived increases of HDL-C levels, be it from HDL-C direct increases, niacin, or CETP inhibition, do not instill the same CVD health benefits as native levels.25,26 Isolated genetic variants also appear to have little to no effect; for example a loss-of-function variant in LIPG raises HDL-C, but did not change CVD probability.26,27 So what could be a reason behind this inability of HDL-C concentration alone to decrease CVD probability?

One important element in the HDL pathway that has only been alluded to so far with regards to pharmaceutical intervention is the expression of the direct removal pathway through SR-BI. Various studies have identified that overexpression of SR-BI reduces HDL-C concentration and under-expression of SR-BI increases HDL-C concentration.28-31 Neither of these two results should be surprising as SR-BI is an end point pathway for eliminating HDL-C and/or HDL-CE converting it back to HDL. However, the interesting aspect of this change in SR-BI expression is that increased SR-BI reduces the rate of arteriosclerosis and decreased SR-Bi expression increases it.26 So how could SR-BI have this effect?

SR-BI, which is encoded by the gene SCARB1, was identified as the primary liver related HDL receptor decades ago.32 The principal role of SR-BI is to selectively uptake HDL-CE into hepatocytes and steroidogenic cells as well as, to a lesser extent, HDL-C.4,32 Most importantly the interaction between SR-BI and HDL-C(E) results in the internalization of the whole HDL resulting in the removal of the cholesterol and return of the non-cholesterol carrying HDL into the bloodstream.33

This absorption of HDL-C(E) and associated return of HDL could explain the reduced rate of arteriosclerosis over CETP interaction for among other things the SR-BI and HDL relationship trigger macrophage derived RCT.34,35 Basically SR-BI is returning HDL, not HDL-C(E) to the bloodstream which is ready to absorb more cholesterol; this readiness somehow signals the associated macrophages to induce greater rates of RCT. Whereas CETP does not reduce the cholesterol load of HDL as much due to the reliance on other limiting factors making them less capable of increasing RCT rates due to reduce cholesterol absorption capacity.

With this information about the functionality of SR-BI, a theory can be posited regarding why increasing HDL-C does not result in improved health outcomes. It makes sense to consider the idea that SR-BI is a form of limiting factor in the capacity of HDL to reduce the risk of CVD. Due to the fact that CETP appears to manage a majority of HDL-C(E) reduction it stands to reason that SR-BI expression is not significantly tied to HDL, HDL-C or HDL-CE concentrations. Therefore, when HDL or its cholesterol variants increase in concentration there is no corresponding increase in SR-BI. One possible explanation for this outcome is that a certain minimum concentration of cholesterol is required to circulate in the blood, which is managed by a level of negative feedbacks that maintain SR-BI expression levels at a certain floor and ceiling.

So why is SR-BI more important overall than CETP if CETP manages a majority of HDL reduction/eliminations? Perhaps CETP has a limit to what type of HDL it can manage. If HDL gets too “big” via its total level of cholesterol absorption the only means to remove that cholesterol could come from the direct pathway, i.e. SR-BI. However, if HDL concentrations outpace SR-BI expression by a significantly higher than normal level then it stands to reason that significant amounts of HDL will become too big for CETP to manage. Eventually these HDL molecules can breakdown (i.e. explode in a sense) while still circulating in the blood stream releasing all of the previously absorbed cholesterol and transformed cholesterol-esters. If this happens the cholesterol is not properly managed and can result in the increased the rate of arteriosclerosis and associated CVD despite the higher HDL concentrations.

In the end while in general statins have been impressive at controlling high cholesterol and its associated detrimental side effects to health, it is always wise to have alternative strategies. The best sought alternative to statins is a pharmaceutical agent that increases HDL(-C) concentrations due to their positive relationship with quality health outcomes to cholesterol related events. However, numerous studies have produced disappointing results for agents that increase HDL levels with regards to cholesterol related health outcomes, including the potential that more negative events become more probable. So what can be done about this issue?

Clearly if the above proposed theory regarding SR-BI as a limiting factor in the effectiveness of HDL is accurate then if one wants to raise HDL pharmaceutically to produce some form of health benefit, one must also increase SR-BI expression to properly manage the increased HDL and cholesterol associate concentrations. This process on its face should not be difficult as there are already existing pharmaceutical agents as well as natural agents that appear to increase SR-BI expression, but will demand proper study to identify its viability and safety over the long-term.

Citations –

1. Koyama, T, et Al. “Genetic variants of SLC17A1 are associated with cholesterol homeostasis and hyperhomocysteinaemia in Japanese men.” Nature: Scientific Reports. 2015. 5:15888-15899.

2. Arsenault, B, Boekholdt, S, and Kastelein, J. “Lipid parameters for measuring risk of cardiovascular disease.” Nat. Rev. Cardiol. 2011. 8:197-206.

3. Lewis, G, and Rader, D. “New insights into the regulation of HDL metabolism and reverse cholesterol transport.” Circ. Res. 2005. 96:1221-1232.

4. Rader, D. “Molecular regulation of HDL metabolism and function: implications for novel therapies.” The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2006. 116(12):3090-3100.

5. Miller, G, and Miller, N. “Plasma-high ensity-lipoprotein concentration and development of ischaemic heart disease.” Lance. 1975. 1:16-19.

6. Goff, D, Jr, et Al. “2013 ACC/AGA guideline on the assessment of cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2014. 129(2):S49-S73.

7. Kannel, W. “Lipids, diabetes, and coronary heart disease: insights from the Framingham Study.” Am. Heart J. 1985. 110:1100–1107.

8. Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III). Executive summary of the third report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP). JAMA. 2001. 285:2486–2497.

9. Ross, R, and Glomset, J. “Atherosclerosis and the arterial smooth muscle cell: proliferation of smooth muscle is a key event in the genesis of the lesions of atherosclerosis. Science. 1973, 180:1332–1339.

10. Barter, P, et Al. “Anti-inflammatory properties of HDL.” Circ. Res. 2004. 95:764-772.

11. Mineo, C, et Al. “Endothelial and anti-thrombotic actions of HDL.” Circ. Res. 2006. 98:1352-1364.

12. Agellon, L, et Al. “Reduced high density lipoprotein cholesterol in human cholesteryl ester transfer protein transgenic mice.” J. Biol. Chem. 1991. 266. 10796-10801.

13. Tangirala, R, Regression of atherosclerosis induced by liver-directed gene transfer of apolipoprotein A-I in mice.” Circulation. 1999. 100:1816-1822.

14. Mooradian, A, Haas, M, and Wong, N. “Transcriptional control of apolipoprotein A-I gene expression in diabetes.” Diabetes. 2004. 53:513-520.

15. Carlson, L. “Nicotinic acid: the broad-spectrum lipid drug. A 50th anniversary review.” J. Intern. Med. 2005. 258:94–114.

16. Meyers, C, Kamanna, V, and Kashyap, M. “Niacin therapy in atherosclerosis.” Curr. Opin. Lipidol. 2004. 15:659–665.

17. Tunaru, S, et Al. “PUMA-G and HM74 are receptors for nicotinic acid and mediate its anti-lipolytic effect.” Nat. Med. 2003. 9:352–355

18. Kuivenhoven, J, et Al. “The molecular pathology of lecithin:cholesterol acyltransferase (LCAT) deficiency syndromes. J. Lipid Res. 1997. 38:191–205.

19. Ng, D. “Insight into the role of LCAT from mouse models.” Rev. Endocr. Metab. Disord. 2004. 5:311–318.

20. Schwartz, C, VandenBroek, J, and Cooper, P. “Lipoprotein cholesteryl ester production, transfer, and output in vivo in humans. J. Lipid Res. 2004. 45:1594–1607.

21. De Grooth, G, et Al. “A review of CETP and its relation to atherosclerosis.” J. Lipid Res. 2004. 45:1967–1974.

22. Kuivenhoven, J, et Al. “Effectiveness of inhibition of cholesteryl ester transfer protein by JTT-705 in combination with pravastatin in type II dyslipidemia.” Am. J. Cardiol. 2005. 95:1085–1088.

23. Clark, R, et Al. “Raising high-density lipoprotein in humans through inhibition of cholesteryl ester transfer protein: an initial multidose study of torcetrapib.” Arterioscler. Thromb. Vasc. Biol. 2004. 24:490–497.

24. Boekholdt, S, et Al. “Plasma levels of cholesteryl ester transfer protein and the risk of future coronary artery disease in apparently healthy men and women: the prospective EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and nutrition)-Norfolk population study.” Circulation. 2004. 110:1418–1423.

25. Rader, D, and Tall, A. “The not-so-simple HDL story: Is it time to revise the HDL cholesterol hypothesis?.” Nature medicine. 2012. 18(9):1344-1346.

26. Zanoni, P. “Rare variant in scavenger receptor BI raises HDL cholesterol and increases risk of coronary heart disease.” Science. 2016. 351(6278):1166-1171.

27. Haase, C, et Al. “LCAT, HDL cholesterol and ischemic cardiovascular disease: a Mendelian randomization study of HDL cholesterol in 54,500 individuals.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2011. 97(2):E248-E256.

28. Wang, N, et Al. “Liver-specific overexpression of scavenger receptor BI decreases levels of very low density lipoprotein ApoB, low density lipoprotein ApoB, and high density lipoprotein in transgenic mice.” Journal of Biological Chemistry. 1998. 273(49):32920-32926.

29. Ueda, Y, et Al. “Lower plasma levels and accelerated clearance of high density lipoprotein (HDL) and non-HDL cholesterol in scavenger receptor class B type I transgenic mice.” Journal of Biological Chemistry. 1999 274(11):7165-7171.

30. Varban, M.L, et Al. “Targeted mutation reveals a central role for SR-BI in hepatic selective uptake of high density lipoprotein cholesterol.” PNAS 1998. 95(8):4619-4624.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What is the Future of Education and the Workforce in the United States

In recent years certain parties have begun to question the economic value of a college education based on changes in both the available number of jobs as well as the success rates for those of various majors acquiring their intended and/or desired job. Overall it seems foolish to argue that a college education does not have any value. In fact one could argue that a college education has never been more valuable relative to the ability to acquire a “quality” job. For example a recent Pew Research Center study determined that an individual with only a high school graduate level education will only earn, on average, about 62% of what an individual with a four-year degree will earn down from the high school graduate earning 77% back in 1979.1

Of course statistics like this appear impressive; typically significant problems come from the utilization of averages. Few will argue that certain jobs have significantly higher financial windfalls than other jobs both of which may require an individual to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Basically the wage curve for jobs in the United States has not increased in a linear manner; the wages associated with the top portion of “quality” jobs have dramatically increased over the years leaving the rest behind in the proverbial dust. Therefore, if one were to remove the top 5% and bottom 5% of wages for jobs held by those with four-year degrees it stands to reason that this 62% number would significantly increase to a number much closer to the 1979 derived 77%. Overall due to education displacement and college graduates taking jobs they are “over-educated” for, it would not be surprising if overall bachelor’s degree wages have decreased in recent years, especially since wage growth in general has been so poor.

This element is an important consideration when contemplating the economic value of a college degree. One of the problems in modern society is the rise of the “gig” economy; basically due to a much lower pool of full time jobs with benefits, individuals now must instead engage in numerous part-time short-term tasks/opportunities with few to no benefits at much less money both in total value and consistency of acquisition. This trend bucks those of the past where the advancement of technology would facilitate increased job growth both in number and salary.

Unfortunately technology may have begun to reach the tipping point where it is a net detriment to job growth instead of a net benefit. Combining this reality with the continued outsourcing of jobs by numerous corporate interests to lower cost environments in other countries, it becomes fair to question the panacea of education that some tout with respects to job prospects. For example there is still this simplistic notion that when individual A loses a job to another individual in a lower cost environment or to a piece of technology, then that individual A simply needs to acquire new skills and that education will “magically” produce a new quality job for this person. Clearly this belief is not supported by reality for numerous well-educated individuals do not have quality jobs despite their determination and skill sets and this trend appears to be worsening not improving.

Based on these conditions instead of “upgrading” one’s position in the job market, the college degree has almost become a prerequisite to compete for a quality job, thereby making the college degree important even for those who are not prepared to excel in college. Strangely enough the “importance” of a college degree has evolved rather inexplicably for even those jobs that in the past were filled by those without college degrees. The general expectations and duties of these jobs have not changed, yet a larger number of companies expect applicants to have college degrees for jobs that involve secretarial or simple logistics work. Why, what does the college degree bring in modern society that in the past was “excluded”? Overall unfortunately with this increase in the general employment “importance” of a college degree the costs associated with acquiring one have also increased, thereby dramatically increasing the risks associated with failure, not only in acquiring the degree, but also in acquiring a job after earning the degree.

To better identify these new risks one looks to the old adage that education is akin to investing in one’s future. In the past one could view going to college as investing 10 dollars for a 80% chance at making 50 dollars (a high quality job) otherwise one could frequently, but not always, still acquire 15 dollars (a lower quality job) even upon failure versus the ability to acquire 15 dollars without having invested that 10 dollars. Now going to college is akin to investing 30 dollars for a 50% chance at making 50 dollars otherwise one is limited to a lower probability than in the past at making 10 dollars (lower quality job with lower acquisition probability). While simplistic this analogy basically demonstrates the almost irrational change that has occurred in the job market in modern society within the United States, more money must be invested for a lower probability of success at achieving a smaller average payday. Note that success is not only acquiring a degree, but also acquiring a job that is appropriate for that degree.

One interesting aspect of this degree acquisition are those who feel community colleges should no longer be used as jumping off points for traditional four-year educations, but instead should focus more on becoming vocational schools to train individuals for specific jobs. Such a strategy is inherently questionable because the purpose of education in general is to produce individuals that can effectively rationalize, make positive contributions to society and responsibly participate in government whether it is as an elected official or a voting citizen. A narrow educational experience in a vocational institution hardly has the capacity to aid in the achievement of such a goal. Thus, converting community colleges into “cogs in the machine” educational environments does not appear to be a responsible choice at this point.

Furthermore it is the second portion of this equation that has failed in the modern economy. Acquiring college degrees is not the problem with more degrees awarded, both proportionally and in total number, than at any other time; the problem is that such accomplishment has lost significant meaning for outsourcing and technology have shrunk the “quality” job pool. Thus, numerous individuals with four-year degrees have had to settle for jobs below what would be expected of individuals with such a level of education.

In fact the unemployment rate for recent college graduates remains higher than years before the Great Recession in 2008 and higher for all other age groups. For those graduates that have jobs they are more likely to be underemployed than past younger college graduates as well as other age groups.2 Wages are also down for them relative to other age groups and their past peers.2 Further exasperating these problems is that these types of jobs seem to no longer have an effective and transparent advancement track. Basically the ability to steadily advance in the company both in responsibilities and salary have ceased to exist in part due to the “gig” economy and in part due to unknown reasons (maybe in the name of more profits).

Some might argue that this conclusion of a shrinking quantity of “quality” jobs is erroneous due to continuous claims of the need for qualified individuals in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. Unfortunately this counter-argument is complicated by the expected requirements of those jobs. First, not everyone is attending college for the purpose of receiving a STEM-based degree. Basically the “quality” job demand is not large or widespread, thus should everyone simply attempt to acquire one of these degrees even if it is not in their field of interest or expertise? The problem with chasing the “hot” or “trending” degree, especially for some the very specific fields within the STEM umbrella, is that those areas can contract in a blink of an eye based on changes in market conditions leaving individuals with a near worthless degree (as far as the job market is concerned). Part of the problem in this respect is that not surprisingly the public typically only hears about the successful individuals in these fields not those who struggle or fail.

Second, and more importantly, the limiting factor for acquiring a vast majority of the available STEM-based jobs is not education, but experience. Basically these jobs are reserved for individuals who have degrees in the appropriate field as well as at least 5 years of experience in that field. The problem is that there are not enough entry-level jobs in advanced fields so individuals can acquire this desired experience. Another problem is that the entry-level jobs that exist do not shut out those with experience. Thus, there can be individuals with 3 or less years experience vying for these entry-level jobs as well and not surprisingly they have a higher probability of getting them over one without any experience. In short a young graduate can receive the necessary education, but will still lack the most desired element, experience. Overall the fad in the early 21st century was referencing this glut of demand for STEM qualified individuals and a cooling science and tech environment has reduced this demand, yet the public line has yet to acknowledge this reduction.

This new mindset of a college degree being a prerequisite for a quality job, both in the present and in the future due to the lack of advancement opportunities, has hurt the process of education itself. Education has become a means to an end or a de facto commodity instead of a tool to enrich the life of an individual, thereby turning education into a rote activity with reduced levels of creativity, fun and enjoyment for a number of individuals. This issue is further complicated by the fact that if everyone is acquiring an advanced education then its value becomes diluted psychologically in that it is not viewed as a boon or achievement, but instead as “just something that you do” stripping even more enjoyment from the educational process, especially for those who are not naturally motivated to learn. A side issue is that so many people have advanced degrees employers are less likely to reward applicants for having one in addition to it being expected.

With education becoming more of a commodity it is treated more deterministically, in that people attempt to devise the “optimal” way to provide education forgetting that the students, especially in their formative years, do not learn the same way and have their own strengths and weaknesses. This mindset produces a “one size fits all” methodology, which due to the aforementioned differences will inherently produces winners and losers based on who is best supported by this universal education method. Also this mindset has the significant potential to produce a single blueprint for the future of society, which is dangerous for inherent flexibility and diversity is superior to rigidity. This new mindset is demonstrated in the new testing culture that has arisen in the last 15 years in public education as well as the quasi-retreat from public schools to private and specialized charter institutions by wealthier families.

This testing culture also facilitates a sprinter’s mindset where the only thing that matters is preparing and succeeding on the next test or the next quiz, thus focusing on skills that are only relevant to acquire in the “now” instead of a marathoner’s mindset where long term retention of knowledge and skills is important in order to provide foundations to build upon when acquiring new and more complicated skills (i.e. the basis of quality learning and education). This mindset has also seeped over to the “future” of education in MODO courses and micro-degrees, which can be largely viewed as “cram” courses where 1-2 years of knowledge is comprised into a 2-3 month period. One wonders how effectively this strategy will be in the long-term, but it is difficult to see it as a net positive.

Not only are students hurt by this new culture both in education and the job market, but so are teachers. The single mindset of “make sure students can pass the test” and the seemingly incessant testing schedule has fostered the idea of teachers as simple “cogs in the machine” as well, further eroding the importance placed on the position and diminishing unique and inventive teaching methodologies. Groups like Teach for America and their supporters contribute to this mindset by selling the idea that quickly trained amateurs, most of whom will be out of teaching in five years, can be as successful, if not more successful, than fully trained and/or experienced teachers by simply following “the playbook”.

A sad state of affairs is that these programs, in addition to charter schools, on average have not produced higher test scores or even more “educated” students with the exception of those privately funded institutions with much more money than public schools that hand-pick their student body ensuring high student quality and potential from the start. Failing to produce improved results is not the only accomplishment of these institutions; they have also driven a continuing public and private lack of respect for the professional teaching position, which when combined with continuing negative elements of institutional control as well as negative financial incentives, has created an environment where fewer individuals want to be teachers, thereby inherently reducing the total number of quality teachers in the educational pool.

Not surprisingly teachers, like any occupation, gravitate towards the best financial, occupational and social environments and with less quality teachers entering and remaining in the profession society has created small concentrated environments of universal teaching quality leaving other areas significantly devoid of this element. The current environment regarding education has only exacerbated this division. This exodus of quality teachers and administrators to environments that frankly do not need their talents combined with the lack of respect for the process of teaching has created a serious financial issue for a number of schools. The idea that “anyone can teach” has created the erroneous philosophy of “schools can operate on shoestring budgets”.

This philosophy is dangerous for two reasons: 1) a teaching environment with limited resources place unnecessary pressures on the staff and limits their ability to evolve and grow; evolution that would create a more positive and meaningful educational environment; 2) limited resources place psychological burdens on students, which will commonly result in less motivation, shorter attention spans and greater levels of misbehavior because such an environment facilitates the idea of future prospects seeming so bleak that the overarching mindset is “what is the point?”;

The idea that outside environment matters is a convenient and common exclusion made by teacher critics. When students are motivated, work hard and follow instruction, as well as are curious and ask questions because they want to learn, then even a mediocre teacher appears to be a great and inspirational teacher. When students are frustrated, starving, concerned for their safety, do not respect the institution or its instructors, then even a creative and visionary teacher appears to be a failure unable to “reach” his/her students.

This above discussion has raised two unquestionable issues regarding future job markets and education. 1) the number of available quality jobs relative to the number of applicants is trending downwards in both respects (fewer quality jobs and more applicants) and it is difficult to see a scenario in which this trend changes in the near future if government does not act; 2) the demand of a college degree and the deemed “tools to succeed in college” for even a sufficient opportunity to acquire a “quality” job has produced a single-mindedness relative to the educational process destroying teaching diversity, prestige, and importance; this loss makes the evolution and maturation of a divergent number of intelligent personalities much more difficult, thus diminishing the overall quality of society;

Focusing on the second issue first, some argue that the problems associated with any quality teacher exodus can be overcome by technology. Proponents of MODO and other online instruction methods are already hyping its transformational potential, especially in the avenue of lowering class sizes. However, applying these mediums to education raises questions regarding personal instruction. For example what happens when a student has a question? Basically what is the dynamic of how a teacher is supposed to interact with a classroom of 20 students and other 10-15 “tele-educating” from their homes? What happens if the teacher is the one “tele-educating”? It is difficult to scale any success at the college level to the middle or high school level.

While this is one a single issue of many involving “tele-education”, an interesting element is how does this inherent increased complexity of student/teacher interaction reflect the new modern narrative/trend in education of “anyone can teach”. Others talk of providing personalized education through technology. Such a goal seems incredibly ambitious and complicated, especially since proponents do not provide a clear definition for what a personalized education or personalized educational experience is supposed to represent.

At the moment there are two significant problems facing the incorporation of technology into the current educational system. First, the incorporation of technology appears to be following an inverted need curve, basically the communities that could benefit the most from technology are the least likely to incorporate it due to lack of finances and lack of specialists; instead more wealthy communities have and will continue to incorporate technology while poorer and more rural communities will not. Therefore, instead of acting as an equalizing force in education narrowing the education gap between the rich and the poor or between whites and non-whites, as envisioned, technology is turning out to be simply another means in which the “haves” separate themselves from the “have nots”. Unfortunately for technology adopters this general funding issue appears to be semi-permanent until the financial culture surrounding the importance of education changes.

Second, the utilization of technology as a negative force on education has been widely demonstrated numerous times already. Simply ask almost any teacher to name the most detrimental device to teaching and it stands to reason that a vast majority will reply “the smart phone”. Not only are smart phones huge sources of distraction during class both for the directly interacting student and any others he/she may choose to communicate with via text, but they have also been demonstrated to be useful tools for those who attempt to cheat on assignments and tests. Unfortunately most of the “expertise” that the younger generations are supposed to possess regarding the application of technology appears front-loaded in the entertainment field and lacking in the education and enlightening discovery fields.

For example it could be successfully argued that technology as a whole has fostered an increased level of laziness and carelessness as students simply plagiarize from online pieces regardless of their accuracy. A number of students seem to believe that because something is online then it must be true; or just “Wikipedia” something and call it a day refusing to engage in any deeper level of analysis and understanding. Understand that Wikipedia can be a valuable resource for background as a jumping off point, but too many students view it as the only needed reference. Part of the reason for this increased detrimental behavior in education is the fact that, as mentioned above, education itself has been marginalized to a results-only system, thus the actual process or methodology behind education is viewed as irrelevant, just “getting it down” is important. Overall before technology can actually become a boon in education these problems must be address for technology cannot solve them, only exacerbate them.

So what can be done about the marginalization of education? If one of the hallmark traits of the United States is the idea that anyone can rise from nothing to be something and that education is a central element increasing the probability of such success then establishing a firm set of rules to foster an educational environment that favors some and opposes others, the system that current exists, flies directly in the face of such an ideal. The overall solution is not a difficult one in that successful change needs to involve re-establishing education as a meaningful learning and growth experience, not as a means to an end (i.e. a job).

The first step is to grant methodological freedom back to teachers decoupling their wages and tenure from standardized testing results. Instead evaluations can take place through exit interviews, written student evaluations and final test performance. Finals in given subjects should represent a cumulative knowledge and retention of what was supposed to be taught, thus final grades would be a meaningful measurement element regarding both teaching and learning success. Remember education is a two-way street between the teacher and students, quality instruction and quality reception/retention.

Another part of accomplishing this larger goal is to reintroduce the value of previously vilified as meaningless elements like recess for elementary school level students and a wider array of liberal and performing arts for older students. Basically make education a more global and involved process rather than systematic rote analysis of narrow topics that for most students have little excitement, i.e. create a situation where individuals see value in actually going to school rather than having an environment that could be easily replicated at home through simple focal study.

A meaningful element to stimulate the above process is for both schools and families to better identify the passions and interests of the students and then correlate those elements into the learning process by demonstrating how learning “perceived” mundane things like math and chemistry tie into those passions. This way education becomes an amplifying force for that passion rather than one that detracts and potentially changes it to something that may be more ill-suited for the individual.

Another important element is to psychologically prepare students to embrace the discomfort of learning. Some argue that learning is not fun and education needs to reflect that, but it can be counter-argued that such an environment for a number of students has already been attained; this is a major problem for if students acknowledge learning and education as painful then they will be less interested in engaging in the process and will look for shortcuts (i.e. cheating). Instead one must focus on the discomfort of learning in the context that it is frustrating when one does not know something one wants to know, but proper instruction and hard/smart work makes that frustration ephemeral.

Basically learning is only not fun when no progress is being made. If progress is being made (i.e. some knowledge being acquired) then learning produces a noticeable sense of accomplishment and pain/frustration is limited and short-term. Therefore, one of the chief strategies in the educational process is to focus on why someone is not making progress and rectify it. This is not to say that education and learning is always effortless, but there is always a purpose to the effort.

In summary some of the most important first steps to resolving the second problem… on its face at least, is to increase the value for students in attending school itself, couple individual passions with more perceived mundane topics to demonstrate their overall value, and enhance the educational process by psychologically prepping students that learning is short-term frustrating long-term satisfying and that adversity makes the process worth it. Also while not discussed above it is important to honest evaluate students as well, if they are not ready to move on to the next level then they should not move on to the next level. However, while these goals are noteworthy and commendable, one could question if they even meaningful?

A central problem in education is the influence of the future job market for the sad reality is if one’s education cannot be parlayed into meaningful employment then most will look unfavorably upon that education. The current dictum of society has deemed that diversity in education is not applicable to “maximizing” output efficiency for future employment, thus diversity in education is not properly funded. Another concern is that just having a degree may not be enough as studies have shown that most employers in the “quality” job fields focus on candidates with degrees from elite institutions foregoing even quality well-known and regarded public universities. So how can the process of education be decoupled from the job market?

The most obvious solution is the return of a number of “quality” jobs that do not require a college degree, which would allow more freedom in education instead of degree chasing and resume padding, especially at the high school level (in order to gain entry into those elite colleges). Unfortunately achieving this solution appears very unlikely due to the continuing march of technology and the reduced spending power of young adults limiting the further expansion of the last holdouts of quality jobs not requiring an advanced degree, jobs in the entertainment industry.

There was an initial belief for a significant resurgence in domestic manufacturing, a past bastion of “quality” jobs, at some time in the future driven by dramatically increasing oil prices born from supply issues (i.e. peak oil), which would increase transportation costs to the point where cheaper outsourced manufacturing environments would become prohibitively expensive. However, the surprising significant drop in oil prices in recent years has dramatically decreased the probability of this hope coming to pass, in the near future at least. Overall as long as capitalism fuels the idea of chasing profits as the most important thing to a corporation, it is difficult to anticipate a change in the trend of fewer “quality” jobs available to those without advanced degrees.

A second option is significantly increasing the salaries for various service jobs and the like (the “non-quality” jobs) until those jobs become “quality” jobs. There has been a significant movement towards increasing minimum wages in various cities and a smaller movement for increasing the Federal minimum wage up to $12-$15 an hour. However, while California recently boasted the greatest success for this movement, it is difficult to see any type of major Federal legislation regarding wages in the near future and a number of states are taking steps to neutralize the ability of cities to independently change wage policy. Incidentally the new law in California will be an interesting test case for the viability of increasing wages on service jobs, but because the increase is incremental quality data will probably not be available until the early 2020s. Overall though regardless of the results from California it is difficult to conclude that increasing minimum wage is a valid overarching strategy, it will take hold in certain regions, but not others, which unfortunately may further complicate income inequality.

A third option is changing the admissions process for college by lessening the value of standardized testing and grades and increasing the value of interviews and critical thinking questions. Some would argue that such a process has taken hold in certain universities with optional weighting of SAT or ACT scores and more “holistic” admissions methods. This weighting change would also make sense with regards to grades; for example grades are significantly arbitrary based on some numerous uncontrollable environmental and academic circumstance; i.e. an A at high school x does not always carry the same weight as an A at high school y and some high schools allow students greater amounts of extra credit which conceal their actual knowledge of the subject through grade inflation.

However, the chief problem with these current holistic methods is that universities are not transparent in their application, thus stripping significant credibility from the methods themselves. Also one could argue that these holistic methods are not tangible enough to identify individuals with distinctive and valuable viewpoints in order to validate selecting a high achiever from a less difficult environment versus a lower achiever from a more difficult and/or diverse environment, which could create problems. Whether this problem corrects the “degree value” issue is questionable, but it can aid educational diversity and creativity at the middle and high school level, which is an important element in solving the overall problem between education and employment.

It must be noted that changing the admissions process does nothing to manage increasing tuition costs, especially at elite universities, which is another problem unto itself. However, due to the inherent economic demand detriments associated with most universities due to difficulties meeting enrollment goals from less interest in college and higher levels of competition, it is highly unlikely that significant drops in tuition will be seen in the near future. Government intervention may come from lower interest rates on various student loan programs, but without changes in the general economic system, increasing government grant programs seems wasteful.

Another possible solution is to significantly limit the risk associated with taking more indirect educational pathways that society may find “inefficient”. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this diversification of educational philosophy is by ensuring individuals have available resources to pursue their own educational identities. The chief aspect of risk in modern society is financial; the idea of absorbing risk is one of the elements that produces unbalance in society between rich and poor individuals where individuals with connections and/or resources are typically not punished when engaging in risky ventures and failing whereas those without connections are commonly severely punished when engaging in the exact same behavior and also failing.

One can point out numerous instances when an individual has talent in subject matter x, but needs to take a job in a much less desired and low talent field in order to “pay the bills” because the potential risk associated with attempting to gain employment in the talent field is too great, in part to “secret handshake” connections having nothing to do with skills or education. People like to believe that talent eventually wins out, but modern society has demonstrated too many times that such is not the case.

The most direct way of limiting the negative repercussions of risk is establishing a guaranteed basic income (GBI) which would provide basic living resources for all adult citizens with minor to clean criminal histories within a certain income bracket eliminating the need to take jobs solely to survive. A GBI creates freedom that will increase the probability that individuals will maximize their educational opportunities, talents and passions because of a mitigation of risk. While increasing wage is a nice idea there is question to how much it will actually affect poverty due to potential reduced work hours and the possibility of increased taxes due to tax bracket changes whereas a GBI will definitely eliminate poverty on a meaningful level.

Some may attempt to argue that a GBI will foster laziness and a lack of ambition if individuals receive a certain amount of money for simply existing, but such arguments fail to acknowledge that a GBI will only contribute to survival, it would be very difficult to live comfortably, enjoy luxury and make a mark on the world by forgoing a job only to live on the GBI. Also without things to do, individuals would quickly become board and would look to accomplish things to productively fill their time. Finally a GBI will allow individuals to better “invest” in themselves by providing them the necessary seed money to get started. Realistically there is no accuracy in the argument that a GBI would “corrupt” the work ethic of society and anyone who argues that such corruption would occur is simply wrong.

While the application of a GBI would be the most effective means to decouple the restrictions and risks of employment on education, it would definitely be a significant task to accomplish due to the preconceived notions regarding the application of capitalism in human society. This perception is a problem, for a number of individuals only regard a task as having value when someone is paid to do it, which is a dangerous attitude to have. Overall despite a GBI making sense to all major political parties and supporting most of their fundamental philosophical economic beliefs, its actual passage is presumed to be difficult, in part because no one has the guts to try.

A concerning element with the issue of employment and education is that it should be clearly obvious to anyone that the current method is not productive, does not benefit most individuals or society as a whole and cannot hold. So why did the current method ever rise in the first place and why does anyone actually support it? A cynic might think that such a system is desired by the powerful, those who have championed it in the first place by passing legislation like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, because it benefits their children, but provides far less benefit and even potential detriment to less wealthy families and children. Therefore, in such a system individuals who could become competition for these wealthier children are handicapped before the competition really begins. Hopefully this is not the intent of the supporters of the current system, but unfortunately there have been too many scenarios in human history where one individual/group has had no problems “screwing over” another to get ahead even when they do not need to.

In the end a change needs to be made at the basic economic level because even if the appropriate changes are made at the educational level at this point in time, the end result will simply be a society filled with a larger number of well-educated under-employed, if employed at all, frustrated and even possibly angry individuals. Overall it does not appear that the form of capitalism currently practiced by the United States will be able to properly manage this trend and therefore, must evolve in some manner. Whether this evolution is the administration of a GBI, the re-localization of manufacturing, the general abandonment of the “absolute profit above all else” mindset for most corporations or some other significant change is uncertain, except for the fact that such a change must happen. The increasing detrimental economic link between employment and education should simply be viewed as a significant and early warning signal.

Citations –

1. The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. Pew Research Center. Feb 11, 2014.

2. Davis, A, Kimball, W, and Gould, E. “The Class of 2015: Despite an Improving Economy, Young Grads Still Face an Uphill Climb.” Economic Policy Institute. May 27, 2015.