A 15 million dollar clock: How much is too much?

In September 2015, Ahmed Mohamed, a freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, brought a homemade digital clock to school. Ahmed showed his creation to his engineering teacher, who cautioned him not to show it to others.

Ignoring this advice, Ahmed set the time, which caused an alarm to ring during class. Understandably, his English teacher confiscated the gadget. Even though Ahmed insisted it was only a clock, his teacher notified the school principal because she believed the device “looked like a bomb.”

Ahmed was pulled out of class and questioned by five police officers, the principal, and the assistant principal. They regarded him as both “non-responsive” and “passive aggressive” when questioned. Deemed uncooperative, he was handcuffed, fingerprinted, and interviewed again at police headquarters. Finding no malicious intent, Ahmed was soon released to his parents. While no criminal charges were filed, he was suspended for three days.

The Irving Police Department conducted its investigation of the suspicious-looking item because they believed it to be a “hoax bomb.” They claimed their inquiry was meant to determine Ahmed’s intent for bringing in the device, not whether or not the device was a bomb, as made evident by the fact that the school was not evacuated. Under Texas law, it is a misdemeanor if a “person knowingly manufactures, sells, purchases, transports, or possesses a hoax bomb with intent to . . . (1) make another believe that [it] is an explosive or incendiary device; or (2) cause alarm or reaction of any type by an official of a public safety agency or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies.”

Since the incident, independent bloggers have reverse-engineered the homemade clock, and concluded that the device was a commercially available alarm clock, from which Ahmed simply removed the plastic casing and placed the open wires into a pencil box.

When Ahmed’s arrest was first reported, it received immense attention on social media. According to the Los Angeles Times, Topsy, a social analytics site, reported close to a million people (including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and various NASA scientists) outpoured support through the hashtag: #IstandwithAhmed. The news focused its narrative on how this inventive, hard-working, and industrious young man was unjustly harassed simply for being a Muslim of Sudanese decent. Supporters claimed the situation typified racism and Islamophobia in America, and many vilified the teachers, the school officials, the school district, and the police for anti-Islamic sentiments and racial profiling.

The school district charged media outlets as presenting a completely one-sided report of the incident. It seemed to officials that Ahmed spoke more with reporters than to the officers investigating the issue.

Both Beth Van Duyne, Irving Mayor, and Jim Hanson, a former member of the United States Special Forces and now Executive Vice President of the Center for Security Policy, said the situation was handled properly because the teacher was reacting to the device, not the child who brought in the device. Larry Boyd, Chief of Police for Irving, said the situation would have been handled in the same exact manner, regardless of the religion and nationality of the student. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools – Healthy Students Initiative, every student is held to the same stringent zero tolerance policies found in most school districts.

To emphasize this point, the school sent a letter to all parents, reminding them to tell their children to report any suspicious items or behaviors. The school stressed that such precautions were necessary to protect the students from potential or threatened harm. The school’s statement read that if something is out of the ordinary, “it is [important] to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior . . . to any school employee so [it] can [be] addressed . . . right away. [The school] will always take necessary precautions to protect our students [and keep our school community as safe as possible].”

Now, the Mohamed family seeks to file a civil suit against the city and school officials of Irving. Ahmed’s attorneys allege civil rights violations, which caused severe psychological trauma after Ahmed’s “reputation in the global community [was] permanently scarred.” They are demanding relief in the amount of an astounding $15,000,000 (and, of course, an apology).

Inconsistent with his claim of a scarred global reputation, after his story went viral, invitations poured in for Ahmed to visit Facebook, attend a Google science fair, accept an internship with Twitter, meet with Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, pose with the Jordanian queen at a United Nations Summit, appear on various television programs, and go to Astronomy Night at the White House, where the president hosted astronauts and students to promote science and technological careers. In addition, Ahmed and his family have since moved to Qatar, where Ahmed accepted a generous scholarship to join the Young Innovators Program under the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

It is unknown whether Ahmed will continue to pursue this civil rights lawsuit. If he does, hopefully the city and school officials of Irving will not reach a settlement with him just to avoid another social media outcry. He may have been upset about being placed in handcuffs, but under the circumstances, the school district acted reasonably and within the guidelines of Texas law, the Safe School – Healthy Students Initiative, and MacArthur High’s Code of Conduct.

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Invest in Education

National security threats have often been viewed as potential attacks—often foreign—against the United States, as observed in the eight key issue threats established by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national security threat list:

Terrorism
Espionage
Proliferation
Economic Espionage
Targeting the National Information Infrastructure
Targeting the U.S. Government
Perception Management
Foreign Intelligence Activities

More recently, however, national security threats are not just foreign and domestic enemies. Instead of identifiable enemies, new threats still stem from recently experienced and ongoing concerns.

For instance, climate change—which is much more complicated than ice caps melting—has been labeled a national security threat. Climate change has given New York City “a hundred-year flood every two years,” is responsible for floods and droughts that destroy agriculture and livestock, and strains military resources and capabilities.

Subtly hidden, other legislative policies are creating an impending threat that may only first be experienced in years to come. Education policies are wasting human capital—as is a dramatically reduced labor force participation rate due to our current economic depression—and are causing the United States to lose its status as an influential world power. Such destructive policies threaten national security because the policies damage the livelihood and capacity of Americans.

The risk of poor education is a reality and education is too important to rely on individual motivation alone; leaders in education are necessary. The risk is grave, warns the new Council on Foreign Relations–sponsored Independent Task Force: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

To help Americans realize their potential, and to help America realize its national potential, the education system in America needs more support. Legislators must discuss with education policy experts the best policies for each region, but there are some immediate improvements that legislators can make. Such changes may not mean simply throwing funding at the problem because despite the United States already spends more on public education than other developed countries, K-12 test scores are lackluster and more than 25% of students fail to graduate high school in four years. Instead of just increasing available funds, education policy needs to provide the institutions and the students appropriate support.

Some examples of potential changes include: enhance equality of education among income groups, increase access to lunch programs for income deficient students, increase hours of instruction, increase after school programs (which can have positive return on investment), increase vocational programs for students not interested in higher education, reduce higher education costs (which have increased significantly in recent years), and provide more institutional placements for graduate degree holders. The increased costs in pursuing a higher education decrease the relative incentive to have an educated population because wages have stagnated. But because reducing degree costs is not the same as increasing wages, more loan repayment programs  should also be available for public service work.

Support needs to be available to a broad range of studies, not just the high-demand fields that provide a “return on investment,” because culture, literature, and the arts are incredibly important to society and because the United States needs both scientists and critical thinkers. Although there are many allegations that American workers do not have the right skills to match employers needs, such as in fields as math and science, the underlying problem may actually be a pay mismatch—not a skills mismatch.

Education is key to national security because of its importance in democracy, just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed 1938:

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. It has been well said that no .system [sic] of government gives so much to the individual or exacts so much as a democracy. Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest. To prepare each citizen to choose wisely and to enable him to choose freely are paramount functions of the schools in a democracy.

Instead of wasting human capital and hurting America’s future, the legislature must address education policy to help ensure the democracy’s security.

Reevaluating the Evaluations

Educators are great assets. Among the wide variety of assignments teachers face, they teach, nurture, discipline, and lead children. This costs tax dollars. Teachers must be held accountable for this funding—just like Big Bird. Quantifying teacher performance is relatively easy with modern standardized tests, student evaluations, and the opportunity for professionals to observe courses. By placing performance accountability on individual teachers through measured data, this education policy seems to provide incentives for teacher performance and reasons for schools to fire underperforming teachers.

But these data ineffectively measure the nuances in teacher performance and they fail to understand the fluctuations in student performance, which can be caused by number of external factors. Instead, education policy should promote teacher and district success by providing training resources that build upon our existing assets and to enhance outcomes.

Teacher performance evaluations are the new thing. In the last three years, 36 states and the District of Columbia have adopted new teacher evaluations. Once argued to be an immeasurable “art,” teaching can now be easily measured to identify good and bad teachers. Simultaneously, this will help school districts keep great teachers and fire bad teachers; both great and bad teachers are often unnoticed for years, until they switch schools or a problem finally arises.

But maybe these systems miss the point of teaching and do not adequately address teachers’ needs—or even students’ needs. When asked after his keynote address at a Save Our Schools march whether teacher job insecurity would increase performance, Matt Damon described why teachers even teach:

So you think job insecurity is what makes me work hard? I want to be an actor. That’s not an incentive. That’s the thing. See, you take this MBA-style thinking, right? It’s the problem with ed policy right now, this intrinsically paternalistic view of problems that are much more complex than that. It’s like saying a teacher is going to get lazy when they have tenure. A teacher wants to teach. I mean, why else would you take a shitty salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really love to do it?

Instead of using “MBA-style thinking” of teacher performance, legislatures should implement Ph.D.-style thinking and utilize data on what creates great classrooms. Instead of just asking which teachers are underperforming, more questions should be asked to determine why the teachers are underperforming and how to make all teachers perform better.

If teachers want to teach, then policy should stop micromanaging teachers and start to fully support teachers. And if the goal is to create a good education system, then policy should focus on positive support for teachers (and students), not negative support.

Positive support programs might still evaluate teachers, but more importantly, they can determine what teachers need in order to better perform in the classroom. Certain teachers might need more supplies, others might need more training; certain districts might need more teachers to reduce class sizes, others might need more after school programs. Negative support programs, however, stigmatize and punish certain behaviors with punishment (loss of a job for a teacher or loss of class time for a student) without providing the retooling necessary. Simply put, the problem is not solved but just pushed under the rug.

Altogether, teachers and school districts need more support, first in high standards to meet the future demands of the nation and then in infrastructure and funding. No matter what, harshly punishing the teacher on account of poor performance for year or two is the opposite of what education policy needs. Such tactics dump valuable but under performing assets when cheaper adjustments can be made for greater long-term gains.