Four metrics: four conversations.

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Four conversations – and their juxtaposition –merit our reflection on this three-day weekend. Interestingly, each swirls around an indicator.

The first is the Dow. The Dow and other stock-market indices hit new highs toward the end of 2014, but the past two weeks have seen gut-wrenching volatility for those invested (both dollar-wise and emotionally) in financial markets. Day-to-day swings of a percent or more since the first of the year have spawned a nervous buzz: Where are the markets headed? What are the root causes for the volatility? Global oil prices? Threats to the Euro? Instability in the Crimea and the Middle East? Southeast Asia? Were last year’s advances based on fundamentals? Or merely signs of a bubble? Should I buy? Sell?

The second is “Earth’s warmest-year-on-record.” In the last day or so, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released figures for 2014 suggesting that the year was the hottest in 135 years of record-keeping, and that December 2014 was the hottest December on record. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration reached similar conclusions. Needless to say, the press releases have prompted a lot of comment. Chances are good you’ll find versions of it from whatever news source you favor. One interesting read: the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang collected responses to the news from individual, well-known climate scientists; you can find CWG’s summary here.

Financial indicators and the calculations of global temperatures have been with us a while. Over time, each has nourished a cottage-industry of analysis and interpretation. Not surprisingly, in each case the news of recent days has functioned essentially as a Rorschach test. Few minds have been changed. The respective discussions show similarities; the dialog surrounding Dow-hits-new-high, or subsequent selloffs sounds much like the debate on Earth’s warmest year of record and the so-called “pause” teased out of different segments of the record in recent years.

All this is probably a good thing. It’s not much different from any-other high consequence discussion – that surrounding a hurricane making landfall, for example. Each departure of track or timing of landfall or estimated storm surge from that previously expected generates thought, reexamination of responses either planned or already underway. That constant surveillance and reinterpretation is the key to successful living on the real world.

Which brings me to the last two indicator-based conversations. The first appeared on the front page of this morning’s print edition of the Washington Post: Most public school students now living in poverty, by Lindsey Layton. The article merits reading in its entirety, but here are some (extended) excerpts:

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

“We’ve all known this was the trend, that we would get to a majority, but it’s here sooner rather than later,” said Michael A. Rebell of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, noting that the poverty rate has been increasing even as the economy has improved. “A lot of people at the top are doing much better, but the people at the bottom are not doing better at all. Those are the people who have the most children and send their children to public school.”

The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

It also means that education policy, funding decisions and classroom instruction must adapt to the needy children who arrive at school each day…

…Schools, already under intense pressure to deliver better test results and meet more rigorous standards, face the doubly difficult task of trying to raise the achievement of poor children so that they approach the same level as their more affluent peers.

“This is a watershed moment when you look at that map,” said Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, the nation’s oldest education philanthropy, referring to a large swath of the country filled with high-poverty schools.

“The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people…”

The report comes as Congress begins debate about rewriting the country’s main federal education law, first passed as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and designed to help states educate poor children. The most recent version of the law, known as No Child Left Behind, has emphasized accountability and outcomes, measuring whether schools met benchmarks and sanctioning them when they fell short.

That federal focus on results, as opposed to need, is wrong­headed, Rebell said.

“We have to think about how to give these kids a meaningful education,” he said. “We have to give them quality teachers, small class sizes, up-to-date equipment. But in addition, if we’re serious, we have to do things that overcome the damages of poverty. We have to meet their health needs, their mental health needs, after-school programs, summer programs, parent engagement, early-childhood services. These are the so-called wraparound services. Some people think of them as add-ons. They’re not. They’re imperative.”

This brings us to the fourth conversation. This one isn’t so longstanding. It took place around the kitchen table at a friend’s house only yesterday. I was sitting in as a spectator to a meeting of our church’s mission committee with a missionary who was paying the U.S. a brief visit. The seven of us were sharing a simple meal. He reported on his work with Water for Life (WFL[1]) and Youth with a Mission (YWAM) in Africa. For a number of years he’s been working with in-country men and women in Rwanda to build clean-water access, primarily by capturing roof-water runoff from schools and hospitals and collecting it in cisterns. More recently his work has been expanding across Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and other portions of Africa.

At one point he brought up the subject of indicators. Can’t offer a precise quote, but here’s an (inadequate) paraphrase: “You know, when we went to Rwanda [a few years ago now], we had in mind making clean water available to 100,000 people. I think we achieved that goal. If you count only the school students and the medical patients we might be a bit under. But if you include school and the hospital staffs, and the use by the larger surrounding communities, we’re probably way over. I can’t help thinking though, that the real benefit is not in that number, but the intangibles. For example, school enrollment where’ve instituted water capture is way up. Those kids who had been spending two hours a day finding water safe to drink for their families are now spending that time in class. Their entire lives are changing; they’re finally getting the education they’ll need for later in life.[2]

Two notes in closing. First, it’s hard to escape the thought that if we make education for our young people a priority here in the United States and abroad, we will see favorable consequences for both global financial markets and global temperatures over the longer haul. By contrast, if we ignore the challenge of educating our kids, the long-term outlook for both the world’s finances and the planet’s habitability will sour. Second, the Dow and the Earth’s temperatures have the look and feel of challenges that require action from small groups of leaders, either of the financial world or those directly responsible for the world’s energy infrastructure. The majority of the world’s seven billion people are being carried along for the ride. Their fates are intertwined with macro-economic success or failure and with the use of fossil fuels, but there’s little they can do day-to-day to change matters. By contrast, public education and the contributions and threats to that arising from conditions of affluence or poverty are matters that can be addressed by the population more broadly. There all of us can take matters into our own hands, can make a difference working collaboratively and locally.

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[1] my apologies, couldn’t find a better website for this

[2] from the rest of our conversation, I’d estimate that YWAM and WFL are accomplishing this for a one or a few dollars-a-person-served installation costs.

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