16 June 2014

Glass Half-Empty Monday

* Iraq.  There has been a sea change in the ongoing civil war in Iraq that we walked away from when it was in a relative lull (probably a wise choice).  Al-Qaeda insurgents have take the second largest city (Mosul), and much of the northern Tigris-Eurphrates basin, as well as the city of Aleppo in Syria.  Large numbers of soldiers loyal to the Iraqi government taken as POWs by the insurgents were taken into a field and slaughtered en masse.  The U.S. is relocating many of its Baghdad embassy staff to its consulate in Basra in Southern Iraq, putting U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf on alert, and are deploying another company of Marine guards to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, but are not reinserting U.S. troops into the renewed civil war there.

There are no good outcomes here.  If the current government wins, then this is preceded by a bloody civil war in which lots of Iraqis kill lots of other Iraqis, global oil prices shoot up, the Iraqi economy crashes strengthening extremists, and in the process the war criminal current regime of Syria becomes allied with the Iraqi government to put them down legitimating a highly non-democratic government.  If the current government loses, that all U.S. led coalition efforts to put an Islamic democracy with sound institutions in place following the Iraq War are obliterated, we have a freshly minted authoritarian Islamist theocracy larger than any that have preceded it that validates Islamist insurgents everywhere else in the world to renew their efforts, regional wars with neighbors become likely and will continue to drive up world oil prices, and the U.S. diplomatic presence is probably swiftly expelled from the country.  If there is a stalemate, we get a never ending hostilities, a divided country, and an Iraqi democratically elected regime that is probably to torn with internal divisions and incompetent to rise to the task.

* Ukraine.  In the Ukraine, now that the dust has settled a bit, it appears that a slow NATO and Ukrainian government response to Russia's annexation of Crimea earlier this year starting on February 26, 2014.  This has made this an irreversible a fait accompli. has demonstrated that NATO mutual self-defense promises to its members aren't worth much, undermining the credibility of the alliance as a whole, although to respond promptly and militarily to this annexation which a majority of Crimeans weren't deeply opposed to, would have very likely led to a World War III with nuclear armed powers on both sides of the conflict. This annexation has also given heart to separatists in Eastern Provinces of Ukraine, probably with covert assistance from Russia, who would themselves like to leave Ukraine for Russia.

Predictably, like most secessionist movements, it is the more economically well off portion of the country (in some other cases, it is the part of the country with the most national resources wealth) that has sought to secede as Ukraine has lagged behind the rest of Russia in the post-Cold War era.

Honestly, in my humble opinion, a result in which Crimea and many of the Eastern Provinces of Ukraine seceded from Ukraine in a peaceful, lawful process, either to become a new independent country of East Ukraine, or as a new East Ukrainian province of Russia, which would have had the support of majorities in those regions and in Russia, would have been for the best, leaving a smaller, more united, Western leaning Western Ukraine, without destabilizing fundamental geopolitical assumptions like respect for international boundaries and legal processes.

The process as it happened, in contrast, dredges up the specter of unlawful Nazi annexations of majority ethnically German neighbors in advance of World War II to which the rest of Europe acquiesced with dire consequences as Nazi Germany was emboldened by its painless success.  Russia is betting now, not inaccurately, that Europe's dependency on Russian natural gas supplies routed through the Ukraine may stay Europe's hand once again.

Pre-February 2014, the political divide in Ukraine between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions was razor thin.  Crimea, which was administratively annexed to Ukraine only in 1954 during the Soviet era, long after Ukraine's other provinces, was probably the most decisively pro-Russian of Ukraine's provinces.  Its departure tips the balance of political power significantly towards pro-Western forces in rump Ukraine.  And, the Ukraine's new leaders following the messy departure in the face of mass street protests of its previous President, Viktor Yanukovych who fled the capital of Kiev on February 21, 2014, are opposed even to converting the Ukraine from a unitary government bureaucracy into a federal state or to giving Eastern Ukraine increased autonomy.  Thus, Eastern Ukrainians may now see political recourse to their aspirations of autonomy as hopeless.  Now, a low grade violent insurgency with dozens of deaths on both sides and military weapons in use by both sides is in full play.

It isn't easy to see a way for this to end well.

The new status quo may require a post-Cold War remilitarization of Eastern Europe, destroying the Cold War peace dividend as a new cold war ensues and draining American and European economies as money is spent on guns instead of butter.  And, natural gas supplies for non-Russian sphere Europe become perpetually insecure, a harbinger of future blackmail ploys by Russia in the depths of cold European winters.

Russia's new found embrace of nationalism over sovereignty, also asserted in Moldova and some of the former Soviet provinces of the Caucuses is also strikingly hypocritical.   Russia has, after all, violently suppressed independence aspirations in Chechnya.  Yet Chechnya, viewed purely through the lens of nationalistic self-determination, has a better claim to independence than probably any other political and military nationalist movement in the world today. Chechnya's people have a strong and well defined ethnic identity that is linguistically and religiously and in their views of a "good society", profoundly different from that of the remainder of the Russian state, which is far less diverse ethnically than the Soviet Union that came before it.  And, they are eager to fight for that vision.  Yet, rather than respecting rights of national self-determination for a semi-autonomous political subdivision of a Soviet Union that no longer exists, Russia has ruthlessly and violently put down this ongoing insurgency.

* CIGNA  It was a long and ugly process for my family to get health insurance (a "Silver" plan through CIGNA) through the Connect for Health Colorado that cost me thousands of dollars relative to what it would have been had the process proceeded as promised, and left us at the very brink of being uninsured entirely.  Dealing with CIGNA now that I have that coverage in place hasn't been a pleasure either.

CIGNA has been very aggressive in refusing to honor prescriptions from physicians for anything but cheap generic drugs (without very clear explanation), unless you are willing to engage in their administrative appeals process - even when the brand name drug in their formulary that your doctor has prescribed and that you have been taking for many months has no exact generic equivalent, but an entirely different brand name drug sometimes used for the same purpose (that is a bit cheaper but not all that much) exists, or for example, when a not very expensive topical antibiotic that your doctor prescribed has an only slightly less expensive oral antibiotic alternative.  A three day appeal process when the drug you need is for a currently active bacterial infection, amounts to an appeal a denial of the physician's first choice of a prescribed drug by a health insurance bureaucrat who isn't a physician.

It is also quite inconvenient, that while other insurance companies have mended fenced with the Walgreen's pharmacy chain after a tiff over contract terms, that CIGNA has not done so, making the most convenient pharmacy locations for us unavailable.

My research shows that CIGNA is apparently notorious for aggressive and arguably bad faith handling of health insurance claims.  I'd know when I chose it that CIGNA was not number one in customer service, but hadn't realized just how bad it was in substance until we were committed.  Unlike Connect for Health, their telephone response time is not horrible, but I am likely to switch insurance companies next year, even if it costs a couple of hundred dollar a month, to get an insurer who I can be confident will provide what I am entitled to without making me fight for it.

It doesn't help that CIGNA is apparently a for profit company run by a CEO making something like $9 million to $16 million a year on the backs of short changed insureds.  Unlike many cases wrongly described in this way, this is exploitation, the insurance company receiving profit at the expenses and harm of the people who get less than they reasonably expected to receive as a result.

* Declining White Pages Data Access.  Why is it that I used to be able to have free, easy access to white pages information (both phone numbers ad addresses) for almost everyone that was a tool I used daily without a problem, and the list included everyone but truly privacy obsessed famous people, but now, the phone company no longer distributes residential white pages listings and the white pages phone listings are not easily available on the Internet where everything else is cheap and easy to find, despite dramatically reduced privacy in every other respect?  Now, I have to resort to specialized directories and dig my way through shady pay per view services.

* DPS Reforms.  The Denver Public Schools, while well meaning, are engaged in a dramatic program of reforming the high school options for students most attractive to my family in a way that is ham handed, secretive, and ill conceived.  Next fall, my eighth grader is going to have a much more challenging task when it comes to choosing a high school than my daughter who made her choice before these reforms did.

One of the core principles of managing any organization is that when you innovate, you should innovate democratically.  This doesn't mean that you have to make decisions by majority rule, but it does mean that you need to meaningfully solicit input from all affected parties and genuinely listen to what they have to say before you have made a decision.  DPS, instead, made its decisions behind closed doors with minimal consultation and then rolled out its predetermined decision in the guise of seeking input.  Not surprisingly, its proposals reflect this lack of consideration and the process has alienated parents who support DPS ultimately needs to thrive.

Pre-reform, DPS had a number of decent options for academically talented kids that were winning back middle class parents from suburban school, parochial school and secular private school options.  It also had a number of decent options for seriously troubled kids who were pregnant, had young children, were homeless or had hit bottom with extreme disciplinary or academic failure.

But, the district is absolutely correct in recognizing that the Denver Public Schools does a poor job of providing good high school level offerings for academically average or mediocre but not absolute academically failing kids with no discipline issues or only relatively less serious discipline issue with a couple of exceptions (its vocational education options and the Denver School of Science and Technology).

The district is also not wrong in recognizing the strong social divisions created when the same school building effectively houses two difference schools: one made up mostly of low income, academically underperforming, disproportionately minority students in programs with no real mission or vision; the other with in a program that have a strong mission and vision that serves middle to high income, academically high achieving students who are less often minority students than the district as a whole.

The district has failed utterly, however, in grasping the kind of solutions to the problems with its current offerings that will work at a practical, day to day level when implemented.

For example, the district wants to dismantle the selective admission pre-International Bachelorate (PIB) program at George Washington High School (which my daughter attends) with an open enrollment approach in which students in its non-PIB students are free to take one or more very rigorous PIB classes.  (PIB classes are generally more academically demanding than George Washington High School's Advanced Placement classes for which students who score well on a national exam can earn college credit.)

There are a multiple big flaws in this plan.

First, one of the things that makes it possible for PIB classes to be so rigorous, is that the program is restricted to kids who are academically high performing, so teachers don't have to slow down the rest of the class to accommodate students who aren't ready for this rigorous material.

Second, a shortage of more rigorous than AP classes is not what non-PIB students at George Washington High School are missing out on.  In the non-PIB student body, 50% are performing below the "proficient level" for their grade level in reading, 60% are performing below the "proficient level" in writing, and 70% are performing below the "proficient level" for their grade level in math, according to Colorado's standardized testing system.  The failure rates of non-PIB students in AP classes on the AP exams is twice the national average rate, before you even consider the fact that many non-PIB students in AP classes aren't taking the AP exam at all.  There are some non-PIB students who are ready for more rigorous academic offerings than they are receiving in a program built around a student body that mostly needs remedial level academic course work.  But, access to ultra rigorous PIB classes isn't what the vast majority of non-PIB students at George Washington who aren't ready for those kind of academic challenges need to improve their educational opportunites.  Enrolling someone in a class that they are more likely than not going to fail does them no favors.

Third, as recent educational research at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs demonstrated, integrating weakly performing students and strongly performing students in the same classroom leaves both groups worse off, unless the gap between those two groups of students is bridged by students who are performing at an intermediate "average" level.  Without students of "average" academic ability to bridge the gap between students who are above average, and below average, the potential synergies that a mixed ability classroom setting can provide don't materialize.  The problem at a school like George Washington that makes it so hard for its two different academic programs to mesh well is that there few students in the middle ground between the PIB students who are mostly performing at above their grade level and the non-PIB students who are mostly performing at below their grade level, to provide middle ground that can integrate the school as a whole.  Without this group of students to bridge the gap, the two groups of students are naturally going to separate like oil and water, no matter what kind of window dressing you try to put on the effort.

Fourth, any change, even a good sensible plan for change (which this is not), is not going to succeed unless the people affected by it were sincerely involved in the process of formulating it before the decision to implement the changes was made.

It is sad to see the district unilaterally undermine one of its most successful programs in such a bumbling way.  And, the district is equally eager to undermine a reasonably successful and attractive set of academic programs at East High School, but proposing to divert all East High School freshmen to Manual High School whose academic program has been such a failure that students have overwhelmingly voted with their feet to attend high school elsewhere, leaving its classrooms mostly empty.

DPS can offer better programs to all of its students.  But, the solution to improving the lot of its many low income, disproportionately minority students who are not performing at grade level academically as entering high school freshmen, or at just barely performing at grade level, is not to throw them into classes taught at an above grade level standard.  This approach, like the existing DPS policy of enrolling kids who aren't ready for Advanced Placement level course work in Advanced Placement courses simply sets those kids up for failure.

The unpleasant reality is that when there are immense disparities in academic ability of students entering high school, no program DPS can offer is going to close all or even most of that achievement gap over the next four years.  Any DPS initiative that sets out to do that is going to fail.  Instead, DPS needs to take its incoming high school students as they find them and offer them curricular options that engage them at the level of academic achievement they are at now, and makes those options relevant by preparing those students for realistic post-high school goals, instead of indulging the polite myth that every child can be (or should try to be) President, a doctor or lawyer, or even a traditional college student.  Offering students who aren't at grade level as freshmen, watered down versions of curricula designed to prepare them for liberal arts educations at selective colleges that will never admit them does nobody any favors.

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