Five Questions: Got health questions? Ask your Philly librarian

Libraries are known for their wealth of information on many topics.

But health? Shouldn’t that information come from your physician?

Sure — up to a point. New research shows that libraries have a unique position when it comes to addressing public health needs, especially in communities that are considered medically underserved.

A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia, published in a recent issue of Health Affairs, found that the library already routinely helps its patrons find housing, food, employment, and information about health care – all topics integral to their health.

The researchers noted that Philadelphia is the poorest of the nation’s 10 largest cities, and that its rates of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are among the highest in big cities.

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers developed a “Healthy Library Initiative” in which Penn staff collaborated with librarians to bring more public health programs to local libraries.  They also started to train library staff as “community health specialists.” We recently spoke to one of them, Will Torrence, who works in the South Philadelphia branch, at 1700 S. Broad St.

Tell us what you do.
A couple of years ago, the Free Library did research to find out what questions were being asked in libraries — an internal evaluation of what we were offering —  and discovered a third of the questions being asked in our libraries were health-related.

Our own South Philadelphia branch was being built right under a new health center and a new primary care office of Children’s Hospital.  So my position is partly just to focus on those health questions and focus on getting health-specific programming into the library.

For instance, we’ve had Medicare sign-up  help. We’re having a community baby show in December that’s being put on by Bethanna [a child welfare nonprofit].  It’s basically a health fair targeting new parents and women who are expecting. Specifically, that’s targeting mostly new immigrant women, since we do have a lot of new immigrants in this part of the city. There will be more bilingual and multilingual resources available.

I’m also just a standard branch librarian – one of two adult librarians at the South Philly branch. People can ask me anything. It doesn’t have to be a health question.

What kind of needs do you see?
We see all kinds of requests. One of the things the researchers found is that we can be a safety net for the vulnerable. If people are experiencing homelessness, the library is a great place for resources. We have a computer lab designated almost exclusively for job assistance.  We’re also a place where older people can come in if they just need to get some community contact. We’re accessible.

People can ask us about things they have talked to their doctors about. We have information about heart conditions. People ask about diabetes.  People get a diagnosis from the doctor a few floors above, and then they’ll come ask us about it.  They’ll ask us if we have any more reading material on what the doctor was talking about.

Doctors do give people information. But sometimes people just want to read more. They want to reaffirm that information. Also, especially for people with young children, a lot of things they’re asking for are things their pediatrician is talking about. One of the big things we get asked about is nutrition for babies and for toddlers. They want to know how quickly their kids should be doing things.

Can you describe any experience in particular where you felt you really helped the person?
There are a lot of little ones, I feel. I helped one gentleman find a new doctor through Medicare. A lot of our patrons aren’t comfortable with computers, so it was a case of guiding him through the website.  A lot of it is standard library practice. But it is contributing to the social health of the patron.

What was important about the recent study’s conclusions?
The most important thing, certainly, from the library’s perspective, is that it reaffirms the value of the library for communities. All those things we normally do — story time that contributes to childhood literacy, adult literacy that contributes to overall well-being, job fairs — it really affirms the value we have, even if it’s just a warm place in the winter and a cool place in the summer.

The researchers also put together classes where they would evaluate certain segments of our base — the mentally ill, new Americans, families, the homeless. They gave us very concrete information about who to call to help people find something.  Say you’re a veteran who needs housing, they gave us all sorts of numbers. That was one of the most pragmatic outcomes of the study.

With 54 branches, ideally just about everyone should be able to walk to a library in Philadelphia. We take all comers. Everyone is welcome. We answer all questions to the best of our abilities.

Right now, since we’re only taking questions in person, that probably limits the questions we will get. We’re out in the open. There’s no way to guarantee other people can’t hear what they’re asking us. We’re working on ways to combat that.  Long term, we might like to have health-specific  email reference or phone reference, just like the library has for general topics.

What advice can you offer for how people can go about doing health research for themselves and their families?
Two sites I would recommend in particular are the Mayo Clinic and MedlinePlus.

Mayo is good because they have a lot of citations on their sources. They have a well-established medical reputation as a hospital and a research institution. Medline Plus is part of the National Institutes of Health. It is also very reliable and much less likely to be biased.

With anything, the most important thing is that you want to check multiple sites and see that there’s consistency with what you’re reading.

Here are more things we recommend you look for: Pay attention to who’s making the sites. Is it a well-respected institution or the government, or is it just some person’s blog you found on a Google search? Pay attention to how many advertisements are on the page and what they’re for.  If an article is mentioning a specific brand name, you want to see if the pharmaceutical company that made the drug is sponsoring the site.  A reliable site should always have some way to contact them.  You want to see that there are a lot of citations. You want to make sure that it’s written in a very simple, clear, and concise way. If there’s a lot of  jargon, that’s a red flag.  Also, check the date that it was produced. You want to make sure that it’s current information.

And, one of the most important ones: You definitely want to be wary of any site that’s asking for any personal information. It’s not a very good sign. They’re possibly doing it for commercial reasons.

One final thing: When in doubt, ask your doctor. We want to help people as much as we can, but we can’t diagnose people. We are neither licensed nor qualified to administer medicine or diagnose treatment.


Reporter’s Notebook: Muzzled nurses limit coverage of First Nations health

The Isaac Barkman Memorial Nursing Station is off limits to journalists, according to Health Canada.

Some federal agencies are cautious about talking to the media — so much so that they make journalists jump through hoops to get answers to even simple questions.

I experienced this firsthand while working on a project about access to health services on northern reserves, and the experiences of First Nations people who have to leave their communities to get even simple health services.

First Nations treaties with the federal government state that Ottawa must provide them with health care.

While many health services are made available to First Nations people under provincial programs, any services that go beyond that are covered by the federally run Non-insured Health Benefits Program.

First Nations people on remote reserve communities, where health services are scarce, rely heavily on the federal program. Often people must leave their communities to receive even simple health services, since nursing stations typically have limited equipment and medication on hand — not to mention a lack of trained professionals.

Free to speak with nurses

To learn more about what people go through to access health services, I went to Sachigo Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. I had previously lived in the small community of 500 people, and knew many people who lived there, making it a lot easier for me to gather stories.

At the suggestion of a senior producer at CBC, before I flew to the community, I called Health Canada and asked to speak to the nurses at the Isaac Barkman Nursing Station in Sachigo Lake.

I was assured by Health Canada media relations advisor Maryse Durette that I was free to talk to the community nurses, assuming they were willing to speak.

When I arrived in the community in early September, I went to the nursing station as soon as possible to speak to the nurses, confident that I could secure a few interviews. When I arrived, however, the head nurse told me that she knew I was coming and said her employer prohibited her from speaking to me.

Isaac Barkman Nursing Station

The Isaac Barkman Nursing Station serves the small community of Sachigo Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

I was later told by Dr. Lisa Letkemann, a physician who works in Sandy Lake First Nation, that Health Canada nurses sign a non-disclosure agreement and therefore can’t speak to the media.

A few days later, I received an email from Durette. She explained that she was unable to find nurses willing to speak to me and stressed that the nursing station was “off limits.”

Workers are muzzled, but the message Health Canada sends to the media is that they aren’t.

Getting the runaround

With the nursing staff off limits, I spent my time in the community talking to as many residents as I could about the troubles they face when flying out of Sachigo Lake for health care.

Near the end of my trip, I was told by the community’s health director — who is employed by the band, and not Health Canada — that there was a senior representative from Health Canada visiting the community who wanted to speak to me.

When I returned to the nursing station, I was immediately told by the senior representative that he could not speak to me.

I was getting the runaround.

The senior official told me that Health Canada restricts their interaction with the media because reporters focus too much attention on negative stories and don’t cover the many positive things nurses and physicians are doing in the North.

But if Health Canada continues to muzzle its workers, it is impossible to cover stories — whether positive or not.

[Source:-CBC NEWS]

It’s Not Necessarily a Bad Idea to Have a Health Expert Lead HUD, Though

Donald Trump’s choice to have his one-time rival Ben Carson head the Department of Housing and Urban Development has triggered a lot of head-scratching. Carson’s ongoing dilly-dallying on whether to accept the job has perhaps driven many into full excoriation disorder, wondering why a retired neurosurgeon with no housing policy experience is even being considered. CityLab’s Kriston Capps assembled a comprehensive set of opinions from housing experts on why having Carson lead HUD would be a huge mistake—not least of which is the doctor’s allergy to fair housing principles.

But if the critique is that a medical professional is unfit for the HUD position, then that doesn’t square with the research, which is increasingly convinced that housing is indeed a health issue. Dr. Megan Sandel, the former medical director of the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, calls housing a “vaccine” for protecting children against societal ills. And there’s global agreement on this. The World Health Organization states in its international guidelines for “healthy housing” that:

There is a clear need and opportunity for governments and others to promote health in the course of making investments in housing. International guidance on healthy housing–targeting construction experts, architects and engineers as well as housing agencies and local authorities–would enable action that is scientifically-based, and protects and advances public health.

“There are clear and obvious links between health and housing,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Whether Dr. Carson would use his position and his expertise to make that case in order to protect and expand proven affordable housing solutions remains unknown.”

A brain surgeon like Carson might not make that kind of connection. But another person with a public health background likely would. That wouldn’t be a bad prescription for HUD right about now, given the important discussions being held about, for example, toxic lead spewing from faucets and flaking from window frames in low-income communities.

Earthjustice staff attorney Eve Gartner agrees that it would be “extremely important” for the next HUD secretary to have a health background. She’s been involved in an effort to force the federal government to take stronger action on home-based lead poisoning—a campaign mostly aimed at the EPA, but which calls for HUD’s attention as well.

“Housing is not just about construction and bricks and mortar, but also about whether there is mold, or are their other substances in the housing that are causing or contributing to things like elevated asthma rates in kids,” says Gartner. “[It’s also about] really understanding that any exposure to lead puts a child at risk of having brain damage”

But as Yentel mentioned, there’s also tremendous health value in assuring that housing is affordable. Yentel points to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent advocacy for an expansion of the Section 8 voucher program into healthcare services as evidence of this. A summary of research on the impacts of affordable housing on health, published by the Center for Housing Policy in April 2015, attests to this:

Affordable housing alleviates crowding and makes more household resources available to pay for health care and healthy food, which leads to better health outcomes. High-quality housing limits exposure to environmental toxins that impact health. Stable and affordable housing also supports mental health by limiting stressors related to financial burden or frequent moves, or by offering an escape from an abusive home environment. Affordable homeownership can have mental health benefits by offering homeowners control over their environment. Affordable housing can also serve as a platform for providing supportive services to improve the health of vulnerable populations, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and homeless individuals and families. Safe, decent, and affordable housing in neighborhoods of opportunity can also offer health benefits to low-income households.

To see how this works, look no further than East Harlem, affectionately known as “Spanish Harlem,” which has lost nearly 2,000 affordable housing units since 2011. It’s slated to lose thousands more over the next ten years. Over half of the neighborhood’s population is rent-burdened, meaning a family pays more than 30 percent of its income on rent, leaving little for other needs like medicine. This is especially problematic given that East Harlem has some of the highest asthma rates in the nation.

For the New York Academy of Medicine, there is a clear link between the kind of financial suffocation experienced by East Harlem renters and the asthmatic kind. Which is why East Harlem leaders involved NYAM researchers when the city began scoping out the neighborhood under its new affordable housing plan. There was a desire from the community to prioritize the health conditions of East Harlem residents in the new rezoning process, so NYAM performed a health impact assessment of the neighborhood’s housing needs.

It’s a novel concept—planners and developers perform economic and environmental impact assessments, but usually not health-based ones. The East Harlem study was just the second ever done in New York City and it wrapped in September. Based on the data gathered, NYAM found that the city’s inclusionary zoning policy—requiring developers to preserve a portion of new housing units for families making well below the area median income—would be a “crucial part of maintaining a stable, health-supporting environment in urban communities.”

Other recommendations from the East Harlem Neighborhood Plan Health Impact Assessment include setting annual goals for reducing housing code violations, integrating active design and alternative green spaces, and reducing dust exposure and noise pollution during construction.

Lindsey Realmuto, one of the lead researchers on the health assessment, says that their study has been well received by planners in both the public and private sector, but there’s no telling how much of it will be incorporated into the actual redevelopment.

“Implementing what we know to be healthy design strategies sometimes takes longer and requires more community involvement, and as you can imagine, when developers want something built, sometimes that kind of community engagement and extra effort doesn’t get done,” says Realmuto, “but some developers, especially nonprofit developers, have been doing a really good job trying to make this an essential component of their housing plans.”

Health advocates would no doubt like to see a program like this scaled up, used in communities and cities across the country as the urban landscape continues to transition. What would be helpful is a strong cheerleader or ambassador who holds tremendous sway over how homes and urban communities are developed in America—someone like a HUD secretary. Even better: a HUD secretary with health care expertise. Maybe someone like Ben Carson.

But it would also require someone who respects the roles of desegregation and civil rights in making cities stronger and lifting people out of poverty. So, given his aversion to these things, then maybe someone not like Carson.

“Given the complexities of the growing affordable housing crisis and the multitude of programs under HUD’s purview, an ideal candidate for HUD secretary would have some experience with and understanding of the programs he will oversee—Dr. Carson has little to none,” says Yentel. “However, if Dr. Carson accepts the position and chooses to use his leadership and his significant health expertise to better make the case for the importance of affordable housing solutions to the health of kids, families and communities, that could be very powerful.”

[Source:-CITY LAB]

Minimum alcohol price ‘would improve UK health’, says Public Health England

Spirit bottles lined up behind the bar in a pub on March 11, 2011 in London, England

The review by Public Health England (PHE) said people were drinking more than they did 40 years ago, especially women.

Most alcohol was now drunk at home, PHE found.

It also discovered alcohol was more affordable than ever and found evidence that a minimum price would save on healthcare costs.

PHE’s study said deaths due to drinking had risen and more working years of life were lost as a result of alcohol-related deaths than from more than 12 types of cancer combined.

It added there were more than one million hospital admissions relating to alcohol each year and liver disease had increased four-fold since 1970.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “Increased duty on the cheapest drinks, alongside minimum unit pricing, would make a real difference to the lives of some of our most vulnerable groups and ease the burden on our health service.

White cider

Video:October: Study finds women drink almost as much as men

“These measures would also lower the burden of premature mortality due to alcohol, thereby increasing economic output.

“At the same time, ordinary drinkers will not be penalised.

“Minimum unit pricing will leave pub prices untouched, and tax on the cheapest, strongest drinks will be targeted at those drinks which are preferentially consumed by harmful and dependent drinkers.”

The Children’s Society said millions of children were at risk of abuse and neglect because their parents drank too much.

Chief Executive Matthew Reed said: “We know children as young as five are calling helplines because they are worried about their parents’ drinking.

“We need the Government to act now and protect children from alcohol misuse by increasing prices.”

The Scottish Parliament passed legislation four years ago to introduce a 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol.

This was challenged by the Scotch Whisky Association and is the subject of an ongoing legal case.

Number 10 said it would continue to look at minimum prices in light of the latest findings.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “What this report shows is that clearly abuse of alcohol can cause significant health problems, but no one wants to interfere with the rights of adults who want to enjoy a drink responsibly.

“The issue of minimum unit pricing is under review while we await the outcome of the court case in Scotland.”

A plan to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol was shelved by the coalition government three years ago.

The Portman Group, which represents the drinks industry, said parts of the PHE report were not accurate.

[Source:-SKY NEWS]

Walking regularly benefits physical, mental health of dialysis patients

Highlight Story

Even walking for 20 minutes every day can significantly boost the quality of life of dialysis patients, say researchers.

Scientists made 296 dialysis patients undergo a normal physical activity or a low intensity exercise program — 20 minutes of walking at low-moderate speed every second day — and gradually increased the intensity over 6 months.

After 6 months, the distance covered during a 6-minute walking test improved in the exercise group (average distance: baseline 328 m; 6 months 367 m) but not in the control group (baseline 321 m; 6 months 324 m).

The process of dialysis. (Shutterstock)

Similarly, the 5 times sit-to-stand test time improved in the exercise group average time: baseline 20.5 seconds; 6 months 18.2 seconds) but not in the control group (baseline 20.9 seconds; 6 months 20.2 seconds).

Cognitive function and quality of scores improved significantly in the exercise arm compared with the control arm.

“Poor physical functioning is perhaps the most pervasive and disabling disturbance in patients with advanced kidney disease who are on chronic dialysis,” said lead researcher Zoccali.

Adding, “While the effect of regular physical exercise training on physical performance in selected dialysis patients studied in standardised experimental settings in the laboratory is well documented, how exercise training should be articulated and implemented still remains an open problem. Our study shows that simple, home-based exercise programs hold potential for improving physical functioning in dialysis patients.”

The study was published in the Journal of American Society of Nephrology (JASN


Trump’s Presidency Will Be a Disaster for Public Education

I didn’t post here until recently because America’s election of the least qualified president in our history has me scrambling to assess and mitigate the damage. Much of what he’s done so far doesn’t yet touch on geology, which is what this blog is mainly concerned with – but we will be talking about the threat to our national parks, and there will doubtless be impacts on the USGS and other agencies responsible for essential geological services like volcano monitoring, seismic studies, and similar.

Trump is already showing which direction he’s taking the country’s public education. If you care about kids being taught science, you’d best gird yourself for a war, because we’re going to have to fight to preserve our children’s right to a strong STEM education.

To begin with, Trump’s Vice President, to whom he plans to delegate most of the actual presidential work, is an evolution-denying Christian extremist who wants creationism taught in public schools. He’s also brought all his political power to bear on overturning the will of Indiana voters while he pushes for expansions of school vouchers and charter schools.

Trump also plans to slash NASA’s earth science division, which would not only cripple our nation’s climate change research, but also have a terrible impact on earth science research.

That rather sets the tenor for what’s to come.

But Pence is merely the beginning. It gets worse.

Among the first people Trump reached out to for Secretary of Education is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Falwell runs Liberty University. Their Earth Science department is actually a Creation Studies department. And they’re not in the Old Earth camp.

Liberty University’s Center for Creation Studies is a dynamic, teaching-based academic center. Our purpose is to research, promote, and communicate a robust young-Earth creationist view of Earth history. Beginning with sound Biblical interpretation, we seek to understand how science can inform us about God’s magnificent creation.

The Center’s activities are wide-ranging, both within and without the campus of Liberty University. In addition to our two courses (CRST 290 and CRST 390) which serve LU students, we regularly sponsor prominent speakers representing young-Earth creationism and Intelligent Design to the LU community, provide in-service lectures to LU faculty, and produce informative museum displays on young-earth creation. Our faculty are also regularly requested for speaking engagements both locally and far beyond, with invites from schools, organizations, and churches from California to Canada.


The purpose of the Center for Creation Studies is to promote the development of a consistent biblical view of origins in our students. The center seeks to equip students to defend their faith in the creation account in Genesis using science, reason and the Scriptures.

So. Trump’s first pick to oversee our public education was a young earth creationist whose private Christian college teaches that Genesis is literal history and the earth is less than ten thousand years old. If you want to get an idea of the havoc that wreaks on earth science and the study thereof, I encourage you to read my reviews of Christian creationist textbooks. These are the ideas that are taught in such a curriculum. Do you think a man who promotes those ideas would do a good job ensuring public school kids get an accurate, science-based STEM education?

And before you breathe a sigh of relief thinking that the Dover verdictprevents public schools from teaching such schlock, remember that Trump is going to be able to appoint at least one and possibly several Supreme Court justices. The chances of his people protecting science education are virtually zero.

Falwell ultimately decided not to take the job – not because Trump is a con artist and authoritarian bully, but because his family didn’t like it. But Trump loves him, and you can bet he’s going to have a direct line to the Oval Office any time he wants to discuss “reforming an overregulated government system that he believes micromanages colleges and universities.” This should chill anyone who believes America needs strong public schools, colleges, and universities.

So Trump went with his second choice: a conservative Christian billionaire who also loves charter schools and vouchers for private (including religious) schools. She pours money and support into anti-evolution Christian schools and organizations like Grove City College and the Willow Creek Association. Betsy DeVos has been a disaster for education in Michigan. Now, she’s being given the chance to push that failure of an agenda nationwide.

If you’re horrified, you need to get involved. There are a lot of ways you can help protect America’s schools from the worst excesses of the Trump regime.

  • Tell your Congresspeople that you want them to vote against Betsy DeVos and any other anti-evolution, anti-education picks Trump puts forward. (Write or call them – letters and phone calls are far more effective than emails or petitions. Here’s some help for those who have phone anxiety.)
  • Support groups like the National Center for Science Education and the ACLU who will be fighting against anti-education policies. Volunteer with local and state groups devoted to ensuring the best possible science education for our nation’s kids.
  • Vote in your local schoolboard elections. I can’t even begin to emphasize how important it will be to ensure the people running your local school district are devoted to appropriate STEM education.

There will be many other opportunities to help, whether you’re mentoring a student or marching in a protest. Stay informed, stand ready, and fight for STEM.


Trump’s education pick says reform can ‘advance God’s Kingdom’

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.

In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.

The audio from the private gathering, though 15 years old, offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of DeVos’ personal views — views that may guide her decision-making as the nation’s top education official. DeVos has repeatedly said she wants policies that give families choices about their children’s education — the choice of public schools included — but her critics fear that her goal is to shift public funding from already beleaguered traditional public schools to private and religious schools.

DeVos remains a harsh critic of the traditional education system, which she calls a “monopoly” and a “dead end.” But she said in the audio that she doesn’t want to destroy public education — only inject competition.

Dick and Betsy are not radical fundamentalist, ‘in the hills’ kind of people,” said Rev. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, who described himself as a close friend. “They’re not the kind of people who want to force their beliefs down anybody’s throat.”

DeVos’ spokesman referred questions to the Trump transition team, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The DeVos family are billionaires, but in the interview, Betsy DeVos said that rather than just give money to boost Christian schools, she’s fighting to change the whole system because there “aren’t enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education.”

Betsy DeVos also described her efforts, using the biblical term “Shephelah,” an area where battles — including between David and Goliath — were fought in the Old Testament.

“Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory,” she said.

Those who know DeVos say her goals are not sinister — though they acknowledge the policies she’s likely to advance would benefit Christian schools. In fact, Trump’s $20 billion school choice program that would allow low-income students to select private or charter schools was devised with the help of the advocacy group DeVos headed until recently.

“What she wants to do is just make sure education is much more locally controlled,” said Sirico, who talked to DeVos about her “dreams generally” while celebrating Thanksgiving with her family. “That it’s sensitive to the localities, to the states, to the cities, to the families. That’s just going to naturally involve — at least in the great swath of flyover America — that’s going to involve religious education.”

Betsy DeVos has served on the board of directors of Sirico’s Acton Institute, which seeks to educate religious leaders of all denominations, business executives, entrepreneurs, university professors and academic researchers “in the connection that can exist between virtue and economic thinking,” according to the group’s website.

But the views expressed in the audio disturb advocates for the separation of church and state.

“It’s very alarming,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Boston’s group has referred to DeVos as a “four-star general in a deceptive behind-the-scenes war on public schools and church-state separation.”

“People support school vouchers for different reasons. Some make a free-market argument because they are opposed to public schooling. Others want to prop up sectarian teachings with taxpayer money,” Boston said. “DeVos has a foot in both camps, which does not bode well for our public schools.”

The audio of the 2001 interview was given to POLITICO by Bruce Wilson, who works for the LGBT rights nonprofit Truth Wins Out and has researched the “Gathering” conferences. The Devos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to “Focus on the Family”, a conservative Christian organization that supports so-called conversion therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation.

During the DeVos interview, the couple talks about a trip to Israel where they learned about a geographical region, called the Shephelah, where battles were fought between the Israelites and Philistines. Betsy DeVos then links this topic to education.

“It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country,” she says.

Using an anecdote about pig remains found on archaeological digs in the Shephelah, the couple compares their work in education reform to the long-ago battles waged in that region. Pigs are not kosher, Dick DeVos says, so you could tell where the Jewish people influenced what the couple call “pagan” communities, because “the pig bones were gone.”

“We could run away and just go back up in the hills and live very safely and very comfortably — or are we going to exist in the Shephelah and try to impact the view of the community around us with the ideas we believe are more powerful ideas of a better way to live one’s life and a more meaningful and a more rewarding way to live one’s life as a Christian?” Dick DeVos says. “Our job is to figure out in the contemporary context — how do we get the pig bones out of our culture?”

In the decade-and-a-half since that interview, the DeVoses have poured millions into school choice efforts. Through a variety of DeVos-backed groups — including the American Federation for Children and All Children Matter — the couple made contributions to voucher-friendly state lawmakers and pushed statewide ballot measures for vouchers.

At this year’s American Federation for Children Policy Summit, Betsy DeVos boasted about the growing momentum for her “education revolution.”

“We are winning in state after state,” she said. “In the past six years, we’ve doubled the number of private school choice programs to 50, the number of private school choice states to 25, plus Washington, D.C., and doubled the number of students currently benefiting from private school choice to 400,000. All told, together, we’ve helped more than a million kids in private school choice programs, and we’re just getting started.”

The DeVoses say in the 2001 interview that they adhere to the Calvinist perspective of Christianity. Richard Israel, a professor of the Old Testament at Vanguard University in California, said Calvinists see it as the work of Christians to influence culture.

“Their view of the Christian mission isn’t to be in the fortress and hold out against the pagans, but to engage culture from a Christian worldview and transform it,” Israel said.

At one point in their interview, the Devoses are asked directly if they want to “destroy our public schools.”

“No, we are for good education, and for having every child have an opportunity for good education,” Betsy DeVos says.

“We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition — there were more choices for people to make freely — that all of the schools would become better as a result.”

However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.

“It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education,” he said. “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.”

When asked why they don’t just spend their time — and money — funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to reform the whole system to bring “greater Kingdom gain.”

“We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases … not well spent.”


A quiet education revolution worldwide is giving kids the skills to be 21st-century citizens

Students play a game inside a primary school on the first day of their new semester in Hefei in east...

As a child, Dana Narvaiša hated school. Her teachers thought she asked too many questions and her English instructor used to gleefully skip over her when it was time to read aloud to the class.

Narvaiša now runs Cesis New Primary School in a town of 40,000 people, about an hour and a half from Riga, the capital of Latvia. Kids decide how to construct much of their own learning. Every child has his or her own learning plan. “They take responsibility for their learning, and how they want to develop it,” Narvaiša said.

In doing so, they also develop skills that go well beyond the purely academic. For example, third-graders recently decided to observe the changes brought on by autumn. They wanted to learn why leaves change colors, so they decided to write a story about it and document what they were seeing in pictures and a with a PowerPoint presentation—thus gaining not only scientific knowledge but also literacy, digital literacy, and communication skills. Other students put on an art show about emotions, and laid out all of things they would need to do to pull off the show—thus practising communication, collaboration, and project management.

Narvaiša is not alone. In small pockets around the globe, teachers and education innovators are looking beyond rigid systems and high-stakes standardized tests. They are trying to use education to allow students, especially poor ones, to “become architects of their own lives,” in the words of Fernando Reimers, director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University.

“The good news is there is a growing consensus among educators that we have to educate the whole child, and there is a lot more knowledge about how to do that,” Reimers said. “The bad news is we don’t have 100 years to solve this.”

At stake, Reimers thinks, is nothing less than world peace itself.

This year’s Brexit vote and the US election revealed the remarkable inability of citizens to have thoughtful debates on policy. Both events revealed electorates divided as much by education as anything else. Rebecca Winthrop, head of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, said the US election showed that education needs to go beyond academic knowledge to deal with the disruptions wrought by automation, free trade and other economic shifts. “It’s not just skills for work, but skills to develop strong citizens,” she said.

 “The bad news is we don’t have 100 years to solve this.” Fernando Reimers, Harvard University 

Reimers concurs: Give kids the right skills, and they can be productive citizens and fulfill the great promise of the Enlightenment, which “espoused that ordinary people can rule themselves, assisted by reason and science and by the capacity to associate with others to improve themselves and their communities, and in so doing reduce human suffering,” he wrote in a 2014 paper. Fail to give them the skills to be part of a fast-changing, interconnected, digital economy, and they will strive to take it apart, as voters around the world are now doing.

Those skills include the ability to take control of one’s own learning; to empathize and get along with others; and to appreciate the wider world and its diversity of viewpoints. They are what cutting-edge educators around the world are now finding ways to instill—often despite still being constrained by rigid, test-based systems.

The problem with testing and the debate over skills

For the past 25 years, most developed countries have pursued standards-based educational reform. They have built standardized tests for a few core subjects, like math and reading, and looked for ways to hold teacher accountable for the results. Many aim to teach other skills, but when a school’s or a teacher’s worth is measured by a standardized test, meeting that inevitably becomes the priority.

But while you can’t think critically without substantive knowledge, you also cannot work productively or engage in civil discourse if you can’t control your emotions, get along with your teachers and peers, and persevere when things get difficult.

That realization is gradually leading some to a broader movement to reduce the focus on standardized testing and teach more skills relevant to life. In Singapore, a country notorious for the pressure to succeed academically, the government, and some citizens, are now trying to de-emphasize test scores and focus on things like effort and self-worth. In Denmark, empathy is part of the curriculum.

In the US, after decades of intense debate about how to test kids, and on what, a broad acceptance exists that it’s important to learn more than just reading, writing and math. After 20 years, “people are finally having a more holistic conversation about what it takes for kids to be successful in work, career and college in the 21st century,” said Diane Robinson, deputy director of Global Nomads Group, which connects kids virtually to spark conversation and empathy.

 They call these skills the “six C’s”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. There are ample ivory-tower debates over which skills matter most: some say grit, others say self-regulation. But policy groups like the Partnership for Twenty-First-Century Skills (P21), active in 19 US states, are working with governments and schools to change mindsets about what 21st century skills are and then to help them put them into curriculum.

In Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising SuccessfulChildren, Kathy Hirsh-Paseka of Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff from the University of Delaware integrate the sciences of learning—neuoroscience, developmental psychology, and education research—to figure out what skills matter and why. They map the most important skills and how they materialize in different developmental stages of childhood. (Self-regulation in a five-year-old looks different than a teen, for example.)

They call these skills the “six C’s”: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence. These are intricately intertwined.

“Creative innovation requires knowing something. You can’t just be a monkey throwing paint on a canvas. It’s the 10,000-hour rule: You need to know something well enough to make something new,” Paseka told NPR.

This skills discussion is by no means limited to the US. Winthrop, from Brookings, mapped out what she calls the “breadth of skills” movementaround the world. She and her colleagues looked at 102 countries, and what they found surprised her: “The mindset shift has already happened,” she said. Dozens of countries said communication and creativity were top goals; critical thinking and problem solving were also cited in mission statements, curriculum documents, and educational-reform materials. “We really didn’t know how much most education systems wanted to move in this direction.”

Countries identifying 21st Century Skills
(Center for Universal Edication at Brookings)

The skills don’t matter just because a bunch of academics think they do. Research shows that kids who show perseverance and self-control perform better academically than those with higher IQs. Jobs don’t require people who have high scores on standardized tests, but who who can work analytically with others to solve problems.

Moreover, automation is leaving a sea of workers without work, and with few prospects of re-training. Winthrop notes the dramatic drop in jobs that require mostly routine tasks, including routine “cognitive” skills like accounting and routine manual skills like assembly-line work. At the same time, non-routine analytic jobs and non-routine interpersonal jobs like nursing are on the rise.

Governments need to help displaced workers get new training. But schools also have a responsibility. And Winthrop said for all the desire to teach new skills, a huge number of educators expressed frustration over how to do it. Even fewer were actually pulling it off.

Agency: Owning your education

The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research defines agency (pdf) as “the ability to make choices about and take an active role in one’s life path, rather than solely being the product of one’s circumstances.” When it put together a framework for young adult success, agency was a key component.

“If every single kid assumes ownership over their own education and develops the sense of agency that they can solve problems today, that’s the only way they will know they can solve bigger problems tomorrow,” says Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for All, a network which supports local efforts in 40 countries to recruit teachers and develop local educational leaders.

 “There is a reasonable trade-off to be made; it’s OK to lose a little efficiency for the long-term outcome of students owning their education.” Agency has many roots. Teachers know that kids thrive when they play an active role in their own learning; when they know and can reflect on how they learn (metacognition and mindsets); and when they can relate it to others (empathy). Innovators, educators and technologists know all this can be shared across borders.

At the Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California, kids shun traditional subjects, grades and school calendars. Instead they work towards “independence levels” and learning targets such as self-control, goal management, and self-evaluation. They choose their learning goals, design spreadsheets for meeting them, and work on their own and with “advisors.” Technology is ubiquitous, and kids are trusted to manage it.

“Agency is at the forefront of what we do,” said Orly Friedman, head of Khan’s lower school.

If you give students a choice about their time, she says, sometimes they waste it, just as adults do. “We take the perspective that there is a reasonable trade-off to be made; it’s OK to lose a little efficiency for the long-term outcome of students owning their education.” Giving them more control, she argued, helps to guarantee they will become lifelong learners, something that is critical to being able to adapt to a changing world.

At the Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, kids use design thinking to solve real-world problems of their choosing, such as trash collection in their local communities. “The school is a lab to prototype, to design processes to infect minds with ‘I can’”, says Kiran Sethi, the founder, in this TED talk. That process includes showing kids the stages of how to make change happen: feel, imagine, do, share. The school then builds the time and expertise to let them go and try it.

 “At the heart of global citizenship is this simple well-being that needs to be developed.” For example, grade five children spent eight hours rolling incense sticks to see what the life of a child laborer was like. Once aware of the back-breaking nature of the work, they became child advocates, talking to local leaders and shop owners in their communities to discourage the use of child labor.

Riverside is based on building up children’s inner worlds so they can confidently manage everything outside. The school encourages them to be agents of change, but it also recognizes that they must show them how.

“Kids are so much more than their grades,” Sethi said recently. “At the heart of global citizenship is this simple well-being that needs to be developed.” Sethi is also quick to point out Riverside consistently outperforms the top 10 schools in India. Academics and active citizenship are not at odds.

Empathy: Why can’t we all just get along?

Allowing kids to play a bigger role in their education may help build future leaders, but they also need to know how to get along with others and understand their views.

In the US, empathy appears to be waning. A University of Michigan study of nearly 14,000 college students found that students today have about 40% less empathy than college kids had in the 1980s and 1990s. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our-All-About-Me World, writes that the rise of narcissism and loss of empathy are key reasons why nearly a third of US college kids are depressed and mental-health problems among them are rising. When the US president-elect is someone who insulted Mexicans, Muslims, and the disabled, there is clearly room for improvement.

 “It is our role to help our kids understand who they are and how they fit in the world.” When the Iraq war broke out, Global Nomads connected students in Iraq with kids in Connecticut. The US students talked of sending fathers off to a war they did not understand; the Iraqi children expressed fear about having their cities and homes bombed. A decade later, some of those students remembered the call, and what it meant to them to see another person’s perspective. “It is our role to help our kids understand who they are and how they fit in the world,” said Robinson, the deputy director of the program.

Other schools are trying to do similar things. The School for Ethics and Global Leadership brings 11th graders from around the US to Washington, DC for a semester of study designed to broaden their perspective. “We have students with live-in housekeepers and students whose parents clean homes,” Noah Bopp, the school’s founder and head, told Foreign Policy. “They do chores together. We have students who are gay and students who think homosexuality is sinful. They live in the same dormitory. We have libertarians and socialists. They write collaborative political speeches together.”

Globalism: It’s a small world, if you look out your window

According to the US Department of Education, a globally competent student (pdf) is one who can investigate the world, weigh perspectives, communicate effectively with diverse audiences, and take action.

And yet, for most US schools, “global” comes in the form of a once-a-year festival with international foods. Only four US states prioritize some kind of global and cultural competencies.

 “People are finally having a more holistic conversation about what it takes for kids to be successful…in the 21st century.” Some educators are trying to change that. As chancellor of Washington, DC’s public school system, Kaya Henderson spearheaded a program to send 400 children in the 8th and 11th grades to 13 countries for a week. Many of the kids were poor; Henderson helped raise $2 million to fund the program, which included fees for passports and clothes for children who needed it. She said she had traveled as a student and wanted others to have the same experience.

“Those experiences completely changed my life,” Henderson told the Washington Post. “I know what the power of language and study abroad can do for regular little neighborhood kids like me,” she said.

Others are trying to find ways to scale global awareness by producing teaching materials. Reimers, from Harvard, and his colleagues wrote a global curriculum for kindergarten to 12th grade called Empowering Global Citizens: A World Course. (It was originally created for an exclusive New York City private school, but he has made it free and available under Creative Commons.) It is project-based, inter-disciplinary, hands-on, and encourages mastery—all the buzzwords of 21st-century education.

Reimers says we need it because we are at a moment when we can try to make globalization relevant and accessible to more people, or we can let it be an agent of further division and potential destruction. “Which way things go rests on what teachers do,” he wrote.

The short end of the stick

“Education systems, in most parts of the world, are slowly getting better,” said Winthrop, of Brookings. “But it’s so slow compared to the pace of change, and it is not fast enough for kids who are on the short end of the stick.”

Friedman, from the Khan Lab School, used an example to show that pace. At her school, kids see Google’s self-driving cars pass by every day. She notes that Uber—which is also in Mountain View, and also trying out driverless cars—started life in 2009. In other words, less than a decade after the ride-hailing industry was born, the people who found new careers as Uber drivers already face the prospect of being replaced by machines. “That’s less time than a kid will spend in school from kindergarten to graduation.”

Networks, plus technology, will help. Teach for All supports educators in more than 40 countries who build “locally-rooted-globally-informed” networks of schools which recruit teachers. After a two-year stint teaching, they often go on to become principals, or education innovators, or local and government leaders in education.

Tomas Despouy taught for Enseña Chile (Teach for All’s group there) and later launched Panal (“honeycomb”) to help students develop skills such as collaboration, perseverance, curiosity, and empathy through designing and doing service projects. After meeting Despouy, Agustina Faustin, an alum of Enseña Argentina,,a similar effort in her country. There are now groups in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

Ultimately, though, it falls to teachers and innovators like Narvaiša in Latvia or Sethi in India to make the changes, one classroom and one school at a time. “Children are learning what you are not teaching them,” said Sethi at a recent conference in Bulgaria. “The students will see your face for 180 days. What will your face show them?”


Four major cities vow to ban diesel vehicles by 2025

Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City mayors pledged to ban diesel vehicles in the coming decade to improve air quality, urging other cities to follow suit.

The mayors, during the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico, said diesel-powered cars and trucks will be off the roads by 2025 and said they will be offering incentives for alternative-power vehicles and promoting walking and bicycling.

“Mayors have already stood up to say that the climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face,” said Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and new chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. “Today, we also stand up to say we no longer tolerate air pollution and the health problems and deaths it causes — particularly for our most vulnerable citizens. Big problems like air pollution require bold action, and we call on car and bus manufacturers to join us.”

Clean-air advocates welcomed the announcement, saying it shows world leaders are heeding the pollution warnings.

“This shows political leaders across the world are waking up to the damage diesel is doing to our health. But 2025 is a long time away when you consider the 467,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in Europe every year,” Alan Andrews, lawyer at NGO ClientEarth, said.

Diesel fuel used in engines produces harmful gases including nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants.


The cricket wrap: Virat Kohli rises to career-best No. 3 ranking, and other top stories

The cricket wrap: Virat Kohli rises to career-best No. 3 ranking, and other top stories

The big story: Kohli in hot pursuit of Joe Root and Steve Smith

Indian Test skipper Virat Kohli rose to the No. 3 spot in the International Cricket Council rankings for the first time after the third India-England Test at Mohali.

While Kohli’s team put some daylight between them and the rest with an 8-wicket win, the 28-year-old soared in the Test ladder. He dislodged New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson to sit behind Australia’s Steve Smith and England’s Joe Root, who continued to hold on to their first and second spot respectively.

Only 14 points separate Kohli and Root while 50 points separate the latter and the Australian skipper, who sits pretty at the top despite seeing his team succumb to a 1-2 series loss against South Africa at home. Cheteshwar Pujara is the only other Indian in the top 10, lying in the eighth spot.

Other top stories:

  1. England brought in Keaton Jennings and Liam Dawson as replacements for the injured Haseeb Hameed and Zafar Ansari for the remaining two Tests against India, announced the England and Wales Cricket Board on Wednesday. The two players will join the squad in Mumbai ahead of the fourth Test.
  2. England pacer Chris Woakes has suffered a small crack in his right thumb sustained while batting in the second innings on Day Four of the third Test against India in Mohali. The 27-year-old went for an X-ray after the game which showed what the England management are describing as a ‘tiny crack’, ESPNCricinfo reported.
  3. The International Cricket Council has given Pakistan all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez the green light to resume bowling in international cricket after his action was found to be legal. The offspinner had been suspended from bowling for 12 months in July 2015 after he was reported during the Galle Test against Sri Lanka, the second time within 24 months he had been reported.
  4. The Bangladesh Cricket Board has levied fines on pacer Al-Amin Hossain and batsman Sabbir Rahman after they reportedly entertained female guests in their hotel rooms, AFP reported. Both players were fined around $15,000 for “serious off-field disciplinary breaches” during the ongoing Bangladesh Premier League, the BCB said in a statement.
  5. Opener Priyank Kirit Panchal became the first cricketer from Gujarat to score a triple century at the first class level. He scored an unbeaten 314 on Day Two of the Ranji Trophy Group A match against Punjab in Belgaum on Wednesday. Panchal played 460 balls and hit 32 fours. With his marathon innings, he eclipsed Mukund Parmar’s 283 to become the first triple centurion from the state.
  6. The Kerala Cricket Association has decided to form a four-member committee to inquire into alleged acts of indiscipline committed by cricketer Sanju Samson during the ongoing Ranji season, the Times of India reported. The cricketer is accused of breach of discipline including his unruly behaviour in the dressing room and his father’s “abusive” telephone call to KCA president TC Mathew, the report said.

What’s the one thing that makes you feel most fulfilled? This was one of the simple questions asked to more than two million people in a worldwide survey conducted by Abbott, the global healthcare company. According to the survey, on a scale of 100, with 100 being “living fully”, Indians ranked themselves at 61, behind the global average of 68.4 and much behind China at 79 and Mexico at 75. Not surprisingly, with such a massive scale and scope, the survey results offered some startling insights into how people across countries think about their lives.

One of the biggest paradoxes the survey uncovered was that most people—nearly 44% of the respondents—felt money was the ultimate stumbling block keeping them from a fulfilled life. When asked about the one thing that makes them feel most fulfilled, money was not the number one response for even a single country. So why did people still claim it to be the top barrier?

One way to understand this is to study the top things that do make people fulfilled across the world. This showed a remarkable consensus. Globally most respondents selected “family” as the number one factor of fulfillment except in China, where “health” was considered more crucial to personal fulfillment. Attributes like “spirituality”, “success”, “giving”, “travel”, “community”, “health”, “music” and “adventure” also scored well in different parts of the globe.

Source: Abbot Global Study
Source: Abbot Global Study

It is clear that money can enable us to accomplish many of the things which give us a sense of fulfillment. It enables us to travel more, learn new things and even take better care of our health.

However, it is when we consider the pursuit of money as the primary key to fulfillment and an end in itself that the problems begin. Perhaps this is because we postpone our immediate happiness or ignore the things that give us joy for the sake of some distant financial goal. In India, especially, there is a tendency to prioritise work over family and friends. In the pursuit of wealth, we often avoid social occasions and get-togethers and skip simple acts of companionship like dining with family or wishing friends on important occasions like birthdays or anniversaries. Tellingly, nearly 23% Indian respondents chose “priorities” as the top barrier to fulfillment. This can lead to fatigue or burnout. It can also lead to increased emotional distance from friends and family, and contribute to a general sense of apathy in life. To top that, we may never realise how much money is enough money to do things that will bring us happiness and may continue to chase money at the cost of other joys. While being financially responsible is undeniably a virtue, it should not distract us, at least for long, from other drivers that directly contribute to personal fulfillments.

Ultimately, happiness is a choice. Many people choose to hold on to the “negative stimuli” in their lives. They choose to focus on the problems they face rather than the positive aspects in their life. Once you choose to be happy and focus on taking decisions that will make you happy rather than just make you money or bring you superficial success, it will become a lot easier to feel fulfilled. Think of happiness as a resource—an asset that needs be grown and cultivated just like your bank balance.

The path to greater fulfilment is a deeply personal one. Thankfully, there are many resources available that can help people around the world define and lead a more fulfilled life. Abbott is committed to helping people live the best life possible. Their website features life hacks for work or personal time like those listed below. These are great tools for those ready to lead a more fulfilled and meaningful life, starting today.