Archive for the ‘OP-EDS’ Category


January 3, 2012

Two years ago, volunteers from the U of A and Pima County Medical Society (PCMS) assisted several schools in Tucson to weigh and measure 6th grade students.  I inputted much of the data and did the entire analysis.   We had a census, not a sample, of 1100 students in 5 schools.  We learned that the median body mass index (BMI) was the 89th percentile, 14% were above the 95th percentile (5’3”, 150 pounds), and 7% were above the 99th percentile. The typical student was obese. One in 14 was massively obese (5’, 220 pounds).

These are the most complete data on obesity prevalence I have seen.  What has been quoted nationally has been a sample of 40,000 teenagers.  With volunteers, we obtained complete data on 1100 6th graders in one city.  School administrators told us these data would be taken to other superintendents.  We heard nothing; our calls and e-mails were not returned.

Tucson still has the chance to be the only place in the country where we could know the BMI on every 6th grade public school student.  We could do it at virtually no cost with volunteers.  What we would discover is not known, but these data suggest we have a major local problem with obesity.

I am discouraged that as far as I have determined Activate Tucson has not considered determining the scope of the problem.  Unless we know the obesity prevalence annually, we will never know if what we do is worthwhile.

We need only the following:  permission to come to each school for two days, the second day to measure those who were absent on the first, a scale, a tape measure, somebody inputting the data, and somebody to analyze it.  As both a physician and a statistician, I am willing to do the last two for free.  U of A nurses and retired physicians are willing to volunteer.

In 2009, I hoped for national volunteerism and mandatory national service.  I hoped that we would actually count something important, count it right, and then determine what we should do with the data.  I hoped we would do away with the “fluff” that so many community activities have had, and I hoped we’d finally do something right in Arizona.  I was wrong.

The schools have ignored the data, the community isn’t interested in dealing with facts, we have significant numbers of obese 12 and 13 year-olds, and those who have $15 million to spend have not shown a way to prove whether their actions will work.

I am disappointed but not surprised.  I live in Arizona.



May 26, 2010

We now know the current body mass index (BMI) for all 926 6th graders in 4 different Tucson middle schools: 45% are overweight (BMI above the 85th percentile), 27% obese (above the 95th percentile).  From 926 students we would expect 46 to be obese; the actual number is 250. If these schools are typical, and the four have remarkably similar results, we may have the highest proportion of obese 12 year-olds in the country.  But we don’t know for sure, because we haven’t studied enough middle schools.  National surveys of childhood obesity in 2007 included 44,000 10-17 year-olds; I would expect 9 Tucson 6th graders in those statistics.  Nine.

I find the lack of complete, current local and national data appalling.  We know obesity is a problem; how difficult is it to weigh and measure every 6th grader?   It isn’t, and we can do it here at NO ADDITIONAL COST with current school nurses/health aides, U of A student nurses, volunteers from the Pima County Public Health Department and the Medical Reserve Corps.  All have helped and are willing to continue helping, using a known efficient process to perform health screening in schools.  At no charge, I entered much of the data; I interpreted all of it.

A 12 year-old 5’, 155 pounds, or 5’ 4”, 175 pounds, is obese and will have increased medical problems and costs during a shortened life. Many of the students weigh more than 200 pounds.  More than half, should nothing change, will be unfit for military service, which concerns me as a veteran. We don’t want young people smoking because it is harmful and addicting.  Obesity in young people is harmful, and we know certain foods are addicting.

Here is what we do:

  • Establish a baseline by screening every public school 6th grader (I welcome private schools, too) early in the school year.  Such screening is an excellent math and biology project in its own right, and obesity should be addressed both in the schools and at home.  Each school should know its own and district data; the public should know district and community data.  We don’t want inter-school competition; we want to know the number of overweight students in each school, which determines where and how we act.
  • Perform pilot projects in schools to test efficacy of changing meals or vending machines, mandatory physical education, parental notification and nutritional counseling.  Having a baseline will allow us to evaluate an approach.
  • Recognize this problem will require years to address.  But if we don’t act, it will not vanish; indeed, it will likely worsen, as it has this decade.

We must address child obesity, and we can,  if we have the support of local leaders, superintendents and principals.  Screening all our 6th graders and acting on solid, current data during state penury would put Tucson in the national spotlight and stun the nation–favorably, for a change.


April 18, 2010

Last week, I volunteered to teach an adult education course at Heritage Highlands.   Regrettably, few people showed, because a golf tournament occurred simultaneously.

That epitomizes Arizona’s attitude towards education.  Sports matter.  Schools and learning don’t.  Look at the space devoted to each in the media.  Compare salaries of coaches and teachers, then ask who influences more individuals.  Having been both a substitute teacher and a classroom volunteer on successive days in the same school, I know what teachers do.  Rich retirees need to volunteer in the schools, teach reading or otherwise give back to the community, in addition to playing golf.  Make no mistake, nearly all of us receive more from America than we give, Social Security heading the list.  The exceptions are those public servants and military who risk and give their lives.  And only 7% of us are veterans.

If ever a time to prove it takes a community to educate a child, this is the time.  If ever America needed an educated citizenry to compete in a fiercely competitive world, this is the time.  If ever education needed money and volunteers, this is the time.  If ever we needed parents to make education a priority for their children, motivating them to study, dress, speak and write well, this is the time.  The teenage brain matures later than the body.  We must recognize that fact and understand that teachers alone cannot mandate proper behavior.

We need to pay for education with money and time.  An educated society wouldn’t have tolerated keeping Iraq war spending off budget.  I don’t recall the anti-tax crowd, most of whom supported the war in 2003, serving or demanding fiscal honesty and responsibility from the previous administration.  But suddenly they are using precisely that reason to destroy public education.   How many dollars we need for education depends upon how many of us are willing to volunteer.  Regardless, I want my taxes go to education rather than to unwinnable wars and impossible nation building started by old men who never served one single day abroad in uniform.

It’s time to embrace what Horace Mann wrote 172 years ago:  the public should no longer remain ignorant; education should be paid for and controlled by an engaged society; classroom diversity is important; schools should be non-sectarian; children should be taught the values and spirit of a free society; and there must be well trained professional teachers.

Sales tax raise?  Absolutely.  Triple it for luxury items.  Income tax?  We need a marginal tax rate of 90% for income over $3 million, comparable today to the 90% rate over $400,000 under Eisenhower, a Republican.  It might decrease greed.  Saving Arizona and America is more important than saving par.  We must spend whatever required to ensure we graduate students who meet reasonable standards to move to the next level.  Cutting education funding is about as stupid as it gets.  But that’s Arizona.  And that is why we’ll leave.  Enjoy your golf.

‘No Child’ law undermines public education and must be reformed

February 23, 2010

When I was 18, I guided four canoe trips into the wilderness of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. I was in charge of several other teenagers for six days, paddling, carrying a canoe and a pack, navigating, choosing the campsite, cooking and first aid, one to two days travel from the nearest adult.

Today, at 61, experienced and competent, I cannot teach full-time with the nearest other adult a few yards away. For eight years, I have been an active volunteer in math at two high schools. At least 20 times, I have taught when a substitute did not know the material.

I want to do more, and there is great need. My father was a public-school teacher, principal and superintendent. I believe in public education; with liberty and national parks, it is one of three gifts America has given the world. If public education fails, and many legislators hope it does, we will destroy the middle class that is America’s strength.

I now have a substitute certificate. But I want to create a statistics course at a high school that needs one. I have a master’s degree in statistics and taught many semesters at New Mexico State, Pima Community College and other venues.

For four years, I graded the free-response portion of the national Advanced Placement Statistics exam; only three of nearly 400 graders were Arizonans. I have created a syllabus, prepared lessons, taught and graded. I’d teach the course for free if necessary, because I can afford to, and high school students should learn basic statistics.

But I can’t, because of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), even as children are being left behind in droves. I encounter them every day I tutor. I don’t see the many others who need help or mentoring and don’t get it, and those who drop out.

With appallingly inadequate funding, many schools nationwide remove problem students, gaming the system to survive. NCLB is like Clear Skies, Healthy Forests and Clean Coal: the intent of each perverted the name. I believe NCLB’s original intent was to close public schools, outsourcing education to for-profit charters.

Public schools need money, volunteers, evening and weekend hours, and an end to promoting those who aren’t ready. Teacher certification should mean demonstrated competence; demonstrated competence should allow certification.

A former neurologist, I saw many who practiced in my field with nowhere near the eight years of post-college training I had. But to teach full-time, I must return to school despite two advanced degrees and teaching experience using both. Where is the America I served as a shipboard Navy physician, the country that found innovative approaches to solve problems?

Public education, an American invention, needs help. The Iraq war was funded by an off-budget emergency authorization. Public education needs an emergency authorization. I don’t want to hear politicians say “children are our future.”

All I ask is to serve young people and America to my fullest potential. And make NCLB a literal reality.

Michael S. Smith has taught statistics, neurology, reading and astronomy. E-mail him at


December 30, 2009

The scan didn’t come through well, so here it is the old way (goes with the old guy).

29 December 2009

On another such marriage–a.k.a. ” a couple of thoughts from an old guy.”

Here are a few rules I try to live by, and believe me, I’m no husband of the year.

1.  In relationships, the little things are the big things.  I say please and thank you a lot to my wife when she does the dishes I usually do or takes care of an errand I usually do.  If I clean the litter boxes (which she usually does), she thanks me.  It shows respect and appreciation, which are essential for a marriage to last.  I don’t say “I love you,” a lot; neither of us does.  But we do thank each other often and “please” is part of our house vocabulary.

2.  Take 100% percent responsibility for your part in any conversation.  That means instead of, “I didn’t say that,” you acknowledge that you did say that (maybe you really did–we all misspeak), not in a passive-aggressive manner, but that you truly believe that you did.  Then you can add, “What I should have said was….”  I’ve learned this defuses a lot of hot issues.

3.  I’m a “have to fix it” guy when my wife has a problem.  One day, long ago, I had no fix, so I sat there and listened.  Afterward, my wife thanked me profusely for just listening.  I didn’t think I did anything.  But I did a lot by keeping my mouth closed and my ears open.  Such a concept!

4.  When I mentioned that I was going to write you, my wife commented that when she came in at the end of the day,  I got up from the couch and kissed her.  Just that.  I never really thought it was a big deal, but to her it really is.

I wish I had known all this stuff 38 years ago when we got married.  Then again, I did learn it and, obviously, I’m still learning.  Makes me wonder what else I’m missing!  But at least I try.

I tell teenage guys to marry women smarter than they are; fortunately for them, that won’t be difficult.



December 3, 2009

After 7 years as a volunteer math tutor at a local high school, I was allowed to be an on-call volunteer math teacher, meaning I teach with a certified substitute present.  I address the occasional problem when a teacher is absent and a fully qualified math substitute is unavailable.  On my first day, I was given a lesson plan for algebraic inequalities and prepared one for geometry.  While I don’t find these subjects difficult, understanding a subject is far different from teaching it. 

I arrived at 7 a.m. with water bottle, lunch and objects needed to explain the material, for good teachers don’t parrot the textbook.  The official substitute took attendance, introduced me and I began teaching.  Fortunately, I had no problems with student behavior, because the teacher for whom I substituted is an exceedingly good disciplinarian, knowing when and how to act with words, inflection and body language.  My experience could easily have been worse. 

What’s it like to teach for a day?  I was on my feet nearly continuously for 7 hours.  I needed a bathroom break at 10:30, but preparing for the class before lunch took priority, and I nearly sprinted to the men’s room an hour later.  Other than a few swallows of water, I ate nothing until I finished at 2:20.  I left at 3:45 and wasn’t the last teacher leaving.  That evening, I relaxed, not having to grade homework or prepare the next day’s lesson. 

My parents were both hard-working teachers, and I frequently heard, “You can’t eat dedication.”  I’ve taught exactly one day and didn’t deal with problem students, parental e-mails, after school tutoring, worth $40/hr, but freely offered by many teachers or faculty meetings.  I’m 61 and want to teach math.  I can afford to; many of our best and brightest teachers, with whom I’ve had the honor and pleasure to be associated, struggle to pay their student loans.  Summers off?  Many teach summer school out of necessity. 

A properly educated populace won’t solve all our problems.  But it is a necessary condition if we ever hope to address them sensibly.  Arizona ranks last in per capita spending for what is arguably the highest yield and lowest risk investment of all – education.  Nationally, we invest far more in low yield/high risk unwinnable wars and impossible nation building.  Those whose high risk complex financial instruments devastated our economy receive annual bonuses greater than a teacher’s lifetime earnings.  Important, difficult jobs requiring significant training and long hours deserve appropriate compensation, which is how we attract and keep good people.  As a former neurologist, I was paid well for my training, work and hours.  Teachers are not paid commensurate with their extensive training, hours and immense responsibility preparing the next generation.  Teaching math, or any other subject, to 35 teenagers who’d rather be elsewhere is difficult:  doubters should try it – assuming they have the skills to do so.  Increased funding for teachers and education is one of the best investments Arizona and America can make.  Our future depends upon it. 

Michael Smith, retired physician and statistician, has been a grader for the AP Statistics examination.


September 16, 2009


STAR OP-ED 8/20/2009

September 13, 2009



September 6, 2009

Tucson Citizen op-ed 3/07