Creative Destruction

March 7, 2008

Outsourced Memory

Filed under: Education,Ethics — Brutus @ 1:15 pm

Cheating on a standardized test isn’t exactly unheard of, especially when competition is tough and the stakes are high. (Otherwise, who cares?) Recently, a student in Bangkok used a watch-phone capable of receiving text messages to take university entrance exams, which resulted in a variety of watches with similar capabilities being banned from test sites. The educational establishment is (so far) unwavering in its insistence that students learn and commit material to memory prior to taking exams. A chink in that armor appeared with the approval of using calculators on tests. An argument can be made, however, that open-book or open-source (as in electronics) testing should be considered for the future.

A student who has mastered and memorized a body of knowledge has indisputable advantage over another who has to search for that same information, but it’s a sign of the times that fewer students, and more importantly, fewer businesses, believe that it’s worthwhile to possess information except in the rarefied instance of test taking. In the real world, looking something up and problem solving on the fly is challenging the notion that acquired knowledge and skill give people better (read: more efficient) job performance.

I’ve yet to see any substantial evidence that the Google effect or the Wiki effect — the outsourcing of memory, in short – has significantly diminished the value of traversing a large body of knowledge to be prepared for adult life, be it the level of a high school diploma or an advanced university degree. However, it’s clear that the communications age and its technologies have placed at our fingertips amazing information resources that many of us consult daily. Ironically, that has inadvertently cheapened the value of expertise in many walks of life, as most anyone with a few functioning brain cells can easily acquire the information to handle most of life’s tasks and quite a few job requirements. Our attitudes toward what constitutes cheating have been similarly degraded as the obvious utility of all types of workaround sweep aside ethical considerations. It remains to be seen whether educators, who themselves are known to indulge in cheats of one sort or another, can uphold the value of learning the traditional way. If it were left to business, we’d all be cheating.

December 2, 2007

It’s a Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki World

Filed under: Blogosphere,Education — Brutus @ 6:07 pm

The so-called wiki phenomenon — where you set up a website based on a niche database and let your users create all your content while you do very little — has become widespread in the last few years. Though not the first wiki, the granddaddy of them all, of course, is Wikipedia, which has by now spawned Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks, Wikisource, Wikinews, Wikispecies, Wikiuniversity, all of which fall under the Wikimedia umbrella. Other wiki-style websites include YouTube and Flickr (and doubtless others of which I haven’t yet heard). The fanciful word wiki is Hawaiian and means fast, which refers not to the rapid growth of such websites but to the software and style of communication they use.

Critics of Wikipedia point out that because the source is editable by users who may not possess proper academic training or credentials, the content found there is often unreliable. The website is replete with disclaimers that facts have not been checked or verified. Indeed, enough examples of editing wars between competing writers promulgating their own versions of content have been observed that some editors have been banned and some articles have been locked and made uneditable. It has also been observed that some articles have considerable political influence brought to bear on them.

Last year, the U.S. Patent Office banned Wikipedia as a source to aid in the determination of the patentability of inventions. More recently, teachers and librarians at schools in Easton, Pennsylvania, have adopted policies similar to those at Centenary College and Lehigh University to discourage students from consulting or citing Wikipedia. Some schools have gone so far as to block access to Wikipedia from their computer networks.

We have discussed the uses of Wikipedia in this venue in the past, and as memory serves, most commentators were favorably disposed. Without launching into a major epistemological debate, I pause now to observe that perhaps the worm has turned and academics have begun to insist on the integrity of their sources of information. I for one heartily agree. As for the straightforward entertainment wikis such as YouTube and Flickr, well, by all means enjoy without conflict.

October 23, 2007

GMU Econ Bloggers

Filed under: Economics,Education — Adam Gurri @ 6:08 am

Arnold Kling has up a list of GMU Econ bloggers, including faculty, students, and alumni.  It’s quite substantial.

Huge Numbers of Unqualified Students Attend Elite Colleges…

Filed under: Education,Race and Racism — Robert @ 2:41 am

and it isn’t who you might think. About 15% of the freshman slots at the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher education are going to students who do not meet the institutional criteria for admission – specifically, athletes and legacy admits, the bulk of whom are white.

Consistency time. I’m opposed to strong (quota-based/preferential) affirmative action. This is no better – worse, in fact, since at least preferential AA can be plausibly motivated by a desire to help people who are behind the eight-ball. Admitting unqualified students to boost a sports team or placate donors is cronyism and hypocrisy.

It’s bogus either way. If the institution is going to have standards-based admissions, then publish the standards and admit students who reach them – and nobody else. No more preferential AA – not for the “disadvantaged” sons of upper-class blacks, not for the genuinely disadvantaged in the slums, not for the talented but dim football star, not for the well-connected scion of privilege.

Admit by merit – or acknowledge that the institution is not interested in merit, and has some other agenda in mind.

A fair liberal (or conservative, for that matter) might then ask, “ok, but then how do you help the genuinely disadvantaged?”

My answer is, by providing a first-rate education to every student who wants one in the primary and secondary grades, ensuring that the disadvantaged have a shot at learning things of value and increasing their human capital. And then create scholarships for the poor – of whatever “race” – but worthy student. Not perfect, but it gets us 80% of the way there without hurting anyone at all – a Pareto optimal situation, or close to one.

(I have an old friend on a discussion list who is an absolutely devastatingly good scholar on proving that Pareto optimality never really happens, in the service of arguing against the unbridled market’s efficiency. She’s right; it almost never does. But we very often get what I’d call a “Pareto good enough” – a situation where there’s a big benefit and most people aren’t hurt by it.)

In the case of affirmative action of the preferential variety, there is a definite benefit. Though we may quarrel about the existence and magnitude of the ratchet effect, I agree with liberals that strong affirmative action does help the people it is designed to help, overall. Unfortunately the negatives to specific people are large enough, I think, to break even my relaxed standards for Pareto goodness.

August 28, 2007

Nation of Readers

Filed under: Education,Media Analysis — Brutus @ 10:35 pm

A new poll by the Associated Press and the accompanying story published everywhere (I link to USA Today for no particular reason) reveals that 73% of Americans read a book in the last year. That’s a much higher number than the 6% I remember seeing reported elsewhere or even the 57% noted in a 2004 report mentioned in the article. How the question is posed and how response error (or straight up lying) is handled could account for a lot of the variance. Interestingly, readers gravitate toward religious works and popular fiction, and the typical number of books read yearly is about seven.

True to form, though, the news story tries to scare us with the spectre of 27% of Americans who are nonreaders. A percentage of them are no doubt illiterate, and another percentage of them are non-English speakers/readers or are functionally illiterate in English.

It’s impossible to know quite what to make of such a story. Although book sales are reported to be flat for the past few years, there are still many, many books being read, and not just by enthusiasts. I always see lots of people on the train commute reading, and the Chicago Public Library routinely has lots of patrons. Moreover, lots of folks are reading newspapers, journals, and blogs. But the book, understandably, remains the flagship bearer of textual value. So are we really curious and well-informed folks, or are our reading habits marked by lethargy and enthusiasm for mere entertainment?

Ultimately, this poll (where is the poll data, BTW?) and story have all the earmarks of a “significant” bit of information that is in actually just so much fluff. The fuller story is told in “Reading at Risk.” If it’s true that responsible civic participation requires both knowledge and paying attention, to say nothing of the ability to think critically about what’s going on, then I fear we far more likely to see the average citizen offering up blithering nonsense like the would-be beauty queen who couldn’t respond to the question about a fifth of American’s inability to find the U.S. on the map.

August 11, 2007

Unintended Consequences

Filed under: Blogosphere,Education — Brutus @ 12:50 pm has a brief article about Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos marketed by Brainy Baby Co. and Walt Disney Co. Commentary has been all over the blogosphere for the past few days. In short, the article says that children exposed to visual stimulation fare worse than those exposed to storytelling and reading as determined by the size of the children’s vocabularies.

Um, could this be any more obvious? Teach words and kids learn vocabulary. Teach images and kids learn … what … more images? It also seems rather obvious that kids would prefer visual to verbal stimulation, much as they prefer sugary foods to veggies. The ironic thing, funny perhaps if it weren’t so insipid, is that parents who take their cues from corporations selling this junk innocently believe they’re doing their kids a favor when in fact the kids are being stunted — a classic case of unintended consequences.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, recommends that even primary education be suffused with semantic analysis of the information environment. Why? So that we can better understand this:

To oversimplify more than is probably justified, we might say that (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2) because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different media have different political biases; (3) because of the physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4) because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media have different social biases; (5) because of the technical and economic structure, different media have different content biases. [from Postman's Teaching as a Conserving Activity]

If teachers and parents better understood the various biases of information to which children are exposed, would they ever even consider admitting things such as TV, video games, iPods, and various other electronics into children’s daily lives, much less buying into the fatuous notion that these things are educational tools?

May 25, 2007

Education Reform

Filed under: Education — Brutus @ 12:44 am

The Christian Science Monitor reports on a new paper by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce with some curious recommendations for educational reform. Even though the paper is informed by an impressive “bipartisan group of scholars and business leaders, school chancellors and education commissioners, and former cabinet secretaries and governors,” its recommendations are inevitably controversial:

• Offer universal pre-kindergarten programs and opportunities for continuing education for adults without high school diplomas.

• Create state board exams that students could pass at age 16 to move either on to community college or to a university-level high school curriculum.

• Improve school salaries in exchange for reducing secure pension benefits, and pay teachers more to work with at-risk kids, for longer hours, or for high performance.

• Create curriculums that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts over rote learning or mastery of facts.

Even modest educational reforms typically founder on two factors: funding and methodology. No matter what grand ideological scheme is promised to deliver better results than the current set of results (1970 is looking pretty good compared to 2007), implementation stinks when there’s not enough financial support or well-thought-out lesson plans in the hands of teachers who face students in classrooms. Let me comment briefly on two of the four recommendations above.

First, moving on to college at age 16 is a egregiously poor idea. Even if radical reforms in education were accomplished to make this possible for a majority of students, a 16-year-old is not yet an adult in the legal sense, and residential colleges and universities would be forced into the position of proxy parents, or in loco parentis as it is frequently called. At this stage in history, we simply aren’t equipped to hand over widespread parenting of minors to educational institutions (who really believes that most 16-year-olds are ready for adult responsibilities, even if that’s only attending college?). Boarding schools are the exception, not the rule.

Second, curricula that emphasize creativity and abstract concepts sounds like a liberal arts approach, which has been pretty soundly rejected by most people over time. They want professional training. This recommendation is rather ironic coming from a group with the phrase “Skills of the American Workforce” in its name. In point of fact, I’m a supporter of fostering creativity and abstract thinking rather than emphasizing workforce skills, but it’s a mistake to believe that the rote learning and factual mastery inhibit creativity and abstract thinking, as their juxtaposition in the recommendaton above suggests.

My final comment before the discussion begins relates to the ridiculous phrase that the paper “is calling for a certain revolution, but it hasn’t been put together by revolutionaries.” Are we supposed to turn off our brains because the speaker used different forms of revolution in the same sentence? He reversed his position even as he spoke it. If educational reform calls for a radical reorganization of the very institution, then I should hope for some revolutionary thinking, not rhetoric. There’s been plenty of that already.

February 24, 2007

Don’t Tell Your Kids They’re Smart

Filed under: Education,Personal Ramblings — Robert @ 11:23 pm

Instead, praise them for working hard or trying or being persistent.

Interesting stuff.

I can certainly testify that a child – at least, this child – does indeed respond to praise of intellect with a slackening of effort. “If I’m such a genius, things won’t be hard” – and then, of course, when they are hard, the result is frustration and avoidance. I’d be 1000% further advanced in my goals in life if I was 10% dumber and 100% more hard-working.

December 3, 2006

Affirmative Action Once Again – Answering Amp

Filed under: Blogosphere,Debate,Education — Robert @ 5:25 am

For those of you with time horizons shorter than the leisurely weeks and months that we lofty Internet intellectuals think in terms of, in this post from last week Ampersand attempts to discredit the ratchet effect, a hypothesis about racially preferred students’ placement and performance in higher education. He is, of course, wrong and bad, although a decent enough fellow. I continue to believe that the ratchet effect is a valid interpretation of the data we have, and something which supports the idea of ending purely racial preferences in college admissions.

Because Amp has written a novel, and because I have no wish to reciprocate, I will basically ignore all of the opinions that Amp states and respond strictly to the facts.


Empirical evidence shows that the mismatch hypothosis is fiction. The truth is, minority students in colleges that practice AA are more likely to graduate than minority students with identical academic “qualifications” (i.e., SAT scores, class rank, etc.) who attend less-highly-ranked colleges.

How can this be?…[long list of possible explanatory factors for the good performance of racially preferred students at elite institutions snipped, because agreed with]

There is no doubt whatsoever that going to a good school means going to a good school, Amp – which of course means higher performing people and higher performances turned in. That’s what elite means.

But most folks at college aren’t at Yale. They don’t have lavish endowment grants and peer groups made up of high-social capital individuals and the most brilliant TAs in the world. It would be nice if they did, but they don’t. The majority of the people who are affected by the ratchet effect – the VAST majority – attend community colleges and state schools, not the Ivy League.

I need you to clarify one point. The citations you have provided support the idea that at the high end of the spectrum, racially preferred students’ collective performance is higher than at lower levels, and I concede that point above. You have rhetorically, however, generalized this into a sentiment that a higher level automatically means a higher performance, across the entire curve. That does not appear supported in what you have presented, and so I ask you to clarify the strength of your claim, and to provide appropriate citations if it is in fact stronger than what I have yielded.

The quibbles about study design and methodology I lack competence to address, so I won’t. I will note, however, that the “zinger” paragraph you pulled from Light and Strayer doesn’t, in fact, support you in the argument we’re having. You write:

Light and Strayer conclude that the data is “consistent with the notion that racial preferences in college admissions boost minorities’ chances of attending college and that retention programs directed at minority students subsequently enhance their chances of earning a degree.”

I wouldn’t disagree with either of those points. I’m not a scholar of minority college attendance per se, but it would seem logical to assume that preferences would boost that statistic. And of course, retention programs directed at anyone, if competently run, will boost that group’s numbers – and good on ‘em. What do either of these propositions have to do with the ratchet effect? (Particularly the ex-post-facto retention effort point – do you believe that if I open an umbrella, that means the rain isn’t falling?)

The Alon/Tienda results you quote simply provide more evidence that higher-quality schools are better than lower-quality schools. Of course performance is better the higher you go up the ladder. The question isn’t “will Yale help Frank graduate” – of course it will. The question is whether Frank will do better if he goes to Yale, or if he goes to Cornell, and whether the currently existing Franks are making decisions that are suboptimal for their life outcomes.

Amp again:

The evidence is clear:There is no “mismatch” problem with affirmative action. Being able to attend better universities increases the odds that black and hispanic students will graduate. Right-wing proposals to eliminate affirmative action, far from helping hispanic and black students, would deprive some minority students of access to the best colleges while lowering their odds of graduating.

Well, the evidence may be clear somewhere, but that isn’t here. You’ve produced evidence that better schools are better places to go to school. This wasn’t a controversial point, and it doesn’t have any bearing on whether there is a mismatch between students and institutions.

I believe that your basic error here is conceptual, not philosophical. You see a result that says “the grazing is better on field A than on field B”. You see a report that says “the cows on field B are not as fat as the cows on field A”. And you reach the conclusion that “the more cows that graze on field A, the better off all cows will be!” Which will be true – for the first few cows to switch pasture. (What you ought to be asking is “how do we make field B more like field A”.)

Higher education isn’t a cow pasture. (Although the end product often bears a certain resemblance.) But you are thinking about it statistically, instead of individually – and it all happens individually. The statistics are just the mirror, they aren’t the view – and if you go by the mirror, you’ll get everything backwards.

September 5, 2006

Most Black Americans Oppose School Vouchers

Filed under: Debate,Education,Race and Racism — Ampersand @ 3:10 pm

When an argument comes up multiple times in comments, it’s probably worth making my response a post of its own, if only so that I can link to the response in the future rather than having to write it again. A few months ago, in “Alas” comments, Bob Hayes (who later backed down from this position, to his credit) wrote:

If you want to talk about black disenfranchisement, how about this: most black people want school choice and they want it bad, and most people on the left won’t even talk about it with them. How non-racist can a political movement be, if it won’t even address the issues that the minority group wants to address?


August 20, 2006

Advertising and Sponsorship Everywhere

Filed under: Education,Navel Gazing,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 12:51 pm

Maturation of marketing and branding practices over the past 25 years or so has led to increasingly intrusive demands for our attention in order to make a brand impression. As the Communications Revolution of the 90s expanded the media available for advertising, advertising expenditures grew and a media event without advertising and/or sponsorship became unthinkable. This table shows data for the years 2002-2003 indicating the greatest increases in media that existed only modestly 25 years ago. Further, stunts such as tattoos on foreheads (here and here), printing on eggs , and ads on stairs are indications that there is no space beyond the reach of advertisers in their desperation to raise their messages above the din that the deluge of advertising has created.

It is problematical, to say the least, that we can’t escape advertising. Anyone with a whit of understanding knows that TV networks aren’t selling shows to advertisers. Instead, shows attract viewers, and it’s viewers who are being sold to advertisers. While we make modest attempts to protect children from cigarette and alcohol advertising on TV (which isn’t working), the ads themselves and the ubiquity of product placement in programming guarantee, according to this website, that children as young as two — before they can even read — recognize two-thirds of popular brand logos. Parents who plunk their kids down in front of the TV are effectively selling out their kids to advertisers.

One new practice that functions as a harbinger of doom is the placement of advertising in textbooks. Apologists offer that the upside of this practice is that students will soon be able to get textbooks for free when advertising and sponsorship replaces the revenue normally derived from sales. That rationalization is, of course, a sign that the battle is already lost. Economic utility (grooming pliant young consumers right in the schools) won out long ago (see here and here) over the broad educational ideal of instilling in young minds a love of learning. Another example of children’s education being sold out to commercial interests is the sponsored field trip — to stores. The pretense may be instruction in health, hygiene, safety, or history, but the underlying motivation of sponsors is selling.

One might hope adults are less vulnerable to advertising than the young. However, when our reality from birth is informed by the influence of advertisers, what hope is there really that we can form our ideas objectively and without the undue influence of those with a commercial agenda? Once coopted as a child, do adults really break free and operate independently? If the example of the SUV, marketed and sold to us as a desirable vehicle to own and operate, despite significant drawbacks, that answer has to be “no.”

August 16, 2006

The Connecticut Mastery Test. – Ampersand is Wrong.

Filed under: Education,Feminist Issues,Race and Racism — Daran @ 9:28 pm

In his recent post here (also duplicated at Alas), Barry takes issue with the claims made in this news report.


August 15, 2006

More “Boy Crisis”: The Connecticut Mastery Test

Filed under: Education,Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 1:25 am

Asher from Dreams Into Lighting emailed me this article, from the Hartford Courant:

While black, Hispanic and low-income children again lagged far behind others on statewide mastery test scores, another group of students also remained mired in a chronic – though often less noticed – achievement gap.

Boys continued to trail girls by substantial margins in reading and writing on the annual Connecticut Mastery Test. The pattern has persisted since Connecticut first started keeping track of scores by gender in 2000, and is consistent with longstanding patterns on national tests. [...]

In writing, “Boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group are falling far behind girls of similar backgrounds,” Kleinfeld wrote in a recent paper for the White House Conference on Helping America’s Youth. [...]

“It’s a huge problem,” Kleinfeld said. The literacy gap between girls and boys “has been very large since the beginning of time,” she said. “Think back to Tom Sawyer and Becky.”

So wait, which is it – are boys currently falling behind, or has it always been this way?

Also, as I’ll show below, the evidence from the Connecticut Mastery Test shows that the boy crisis does not exist among “boys of every ethnic and socioeconomic group.” On the contrary, the results are consistent with my belief that without racism and poverty holding them back, boys do just as well as girls.

July 14, 2006

Simplified Spelling

Filed under: Content-lite,Education,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 5:24 pm

If anyone has been paying attention to me at all, then I don’t even need to provide an opinion about this in the Boston Globe:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?

Those in favor of simplified spelling say children would learn faster and illiteracy rates would drop. Opponents say a new system would make spelling even more confusing.

Eether wae, the consept has yet to capcher th publix imajinaeshun.

Must … keep … opinion … to … self … heroic … effort … involved.

July 9, 2006

The Slow, Steady Collapse of American Preeminence

Filed under: Education,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 2:26 pm

We’ve all see the reports. U.S. high schoolers rank at or near the bottom in math and science. Admittedly, that link is to a story eight years old, but I doubt rankings have changed significantly. A new study and report are due out next year. See this link.

What interests me is that we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. While the U.S. may still be in the vanguard, I wonder how long that can last when the source of inspiration and creativity — human knowledge and understanding — is dying at the roots in American schools. It’s a sad joke, really, that follow-the-directions instructions for setting the clock on a VCR (remember those?) proved so formidable for most end users that a time-setting function is built into more recent recording systems such as TIVO. Technical workarounds may actually enable ever-increasing levels of disability working with our own tools. Software design takes a similar approach by removing as much need for user thought as possible. Templates and wizards take expertise out of the use of much software.

So if the U.S. is to participate in technological change proceeding at an exponentially accelerating rate, where is the expertise going to come from? Right now, from abroad. We still have robust immigration into the U.S., and they’re not all migrant farm workers from Mexico. Many of them are scientists from India and China. In patent practice, literally the leading edge of innovation, there are three distinct players: inventors, patent attorneys, and patent examiners. Browsing recent filings and recently issued patents reveals a significant number of foreigners responsible for inventing and examining. Only the attorney ranks are mostly Americans, which is a result of the U.S. Patent Office inexplicably making it difficult for foreigners to be admitted to practice in the U.S. Patent Office. For now at least, the U.S. remains a beacon, attracting many of the best and brightest, who believe they can attain a better quality of life (difficult to assess) here than where they came from. But that’s changing, too. The emergence of a sizeable middle class in India and China points to a decreasing imperative for the science elite to come to the U.S., the so-called “brain drain” that also characterizes rural relocation to cities and flight from Indiana.

What will stem our slide toward a reversal of American preeminence in the sciences? Recognizing the cause of the effect would be a good start. Currently, a starting teacher’s salary in the Chicago Public Schools is $36,956 with a Bachelor’s, $39,516 with a Master’s, slightly higher than the average for the ten largest urban districts. Maximum salary is $67,706. Those pay rates indicate how we as a society value the preparation of our young for entry into adulthood. To those with a combination of scientific expertise and communication skills, which is a more significant skill set than the typical nerdy engineer or chemist, pay rates for teachers are a significant disincentive. Further, students mostly regard their teachers in any discipline as chumps, and of course that old saw “those who can’t, teach” relegates teachers to a prestige ghetto.

Two other factors contribute: distractions of entertainment and cultural decadence. Plenty of diatribes have been written about how entertainments attract a disproportionate amount of our attention. Whether it be TV, sports, movies, video games, books, or music, Americans spend a huge amount of time and dollars preoccupied by entertainments. Even worse, those embodiments that are the most popular are also the ones that require the least mental activity, understanding, and taste. It’s obvious that most of us identify better with Everybody Loves Raymond than Masterpiece Theater, Steven King rather than William Styron, or Britney Spears rather than the Juilliard Quartet, but I for one don’t consider matters of culture and taste even remotely equivalent, especially when a popular form — by definition low culture — completely masks an art form. By way of another example, most Americans just love to see shit blown up, not so different from our collective fascination with Fourth of July fireworks. But the time, patience, and understanding it takes to see how something is built can’t compete with the immediate gratification of demolition. Writ large, we may be well entertained (I dispute that, actually), but we’re losing our ability by attrition to function well in a technological world.

A culture of decadence is not specific to the U.S., but it’s especially prominent here. In the last 150 years, we’ve worked damn hard to raise our standard of living, and for those of us fortunate enough to benefit from that rising tide (not all Americans by any stretch), it’s become easy to rest on our laurels, or rather, those of our parents and grandparents. Unlike India and China, we’re no longer fighting and clawing to reach the brass ring; we’ve already grasped it. Our perspective now is that we must remain on top of the heap, among the biggest consumers of resources per capita (see this and this and this). But we’re not doing this by continuing to strive, or at least strive effectively. See this evidence of student apathy toward their studies, which we as a culture either allow from inattention or encourage as students are regarded as mere consumers. Rather, we try to stay at the top through politcal and economic oppresion that no one wants to acknowledge, and we often couch it in terms of charity. The argument usually goes that without those manufacturing jobs we outsource to Third World countries that pay below subsistence level, those poor souls would be starving. Meanwhile, we love our low WalMart prices gained off of exploitation of economically disempowered peoples.

Is if fixable? Hard to say. Like global warming, it will have to get very bad before we will believe that any action must be taken, by which time, of course, it will be too late.

June 23, 2006

Brussels Critics The Subject of State Harassment

Filed under: Current Events,Education,Human Rights,International Politics — Robert @ 2:57 am

If this self-report is true, a blogging family (outspoken critics of the EU) in Brussels is being repressed by their local governments.

(Via National Review Online)

June 19, 2006

The Ghetto of Edutainment

Filed under: Education,Philosophy — Brutus @ 1:41 pm

At the Chicago Public Library recently, I stumbled across a couple DVDs from a 16-title series called Physical Science in Action. See this container:


My science background is woefully inadequate, so I thought perhaps I could get some succinct info on basics such as magnetism, gravity, properties of matter, characteristics of waves, etc. I neglected to notice that the DVD series is intended for Grades 5 to 8. All well and good, I suppose, but once I viewed the DVD on gravity, I got rather irritated.


May 8, 2006

No, The Florida Supreme Court Didn’t Say That

Filed under: Current Events,Education — Ampersand @ 3:20 pm

The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page splinters even further from reality:

…In one of the most absurd legal decisions in modern times, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the voucher program violated the “uniformity clause” of the state constitution guaranteeing a high-quality system of public schools. Because the performance of the voucher kids was superior to those in public schools, the court ruled that education was not uniform — or in this case not uniformly miserable. As they used to say in the Soviet Union, everyone gets to share their poverty equally.

(I found this through Protein Wisdom, where the above passage is quoted approvingly).

Whenever a conservative says something unbelievable has occurred, it’s a good idea to do some fact-checking before you say “holy shit!” About a minute of googling turned up the Florida Supreme Court decision in question (pdf file). The Florida Constitution mandates that a uniform system of public schools be provided by the government. Until that passage in the Florida Constitution is amended, the legislature doesn’t have any authority to take money from public schools and give it to private schools, especially when those private schools are free of the constitutionally-required uniform regulations public schools are subject to.

People can disagree with the Court’s decision. But no honest person can agree with The Wall Street Journal‘s claim that the Florida Court’s ruled that educational outcomes must be “uniformly miserable.” Not a word of the Court’s decision referred to different outcomes; the Journal op-ed writer made up that ridiculous claim.

The trouble is, a lie travels around the world twice before the truth even gets its pants on. (Who did I swipe that from?) The right-wing attack on the judiciary doesn’t need to be truthful to be effective.

March 20, 2006

Facilitating Access

Filed under: Education — Adam Gurri @ 8:55 pm

In January of 1956, the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution that would create a new branch of the University of Virginia up in the City of Fairfax. According to one Professor Hawkes, this was in order to reach the WWII vets with GI Bill tuition money up in Northern Virginia. This campus would eventually become George Mason University, where that very same Professor Hawkes would make the case to a class of his students that the money spent on veterans under the GI Bill was paid back in full by the increased revenue from the better jobs they all went out and ended up getting.

I believe that education is one of those few areas that’s worth sinking substantial tax-dollars into. I don’t think that this is a very controversial assertion. People who make the statement tend to do so in order to use it as a blunt instrument with which to beat whomever they are criticizing. That’s not my intention.

What I want to discussion isn’t so much whether it’s worth it to shell out government money for education, but rather, how that money should be spent.

The American debate has come to focus on vouchers, and the ethics of spending government money to send a child to a private school.

I am going to be honest here: I do not see the appeal of any of the arguments against vouchers. Not to say that persuasive arguments of that nature don’t exist, just that they haven’t really been brought to my attention.

This article argues that vouches send the message that “we are giving up on public education”. This notion is absurd–first of all, there is a touch of selfishness in the notion that children should be held hostage at bad schools because we are unwilling to work outside of the public school system to get them a good education. Long term improvements of public education are of course important, but we should always give people the choice of opting for private schooling.

This of course stems back to the Law of Pluralities. The situation is always fluid, and so the best system is the one that provides the most choices. Even if public school systems were solid gold across the board right now, you should never go into a program looking to give the one, true, best approach a monopoly. If public schools start going sour, you want to give people the immediate option of turning to private schools. Conversely, if a private school goes rotten, you want to have a lot of schools, private and public, for parents to fall back on.

What the author of the above article doesn’t seem to realize is that vouchers would improve public school conditions, not cause their decline. First off, it would lift the burden of overcrowding off of public school teachers, making it easier to give their students a full and in-depth education.

Secondly, when people start flocking away from certain schools, it will send red flags up to the people in charge that something is probably not right there.

In other words, using vouchers creates a situation whereby a public school has to have some standing in order to attract students.

I find arguments of cost to be kind of hilarious. It’s important to spend on education when you’re spending it on public schools, apparently, but spending to support parents who want to pursue a better education for their children elsewhere is a whole other matter.

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Arnold Kling has this piece on overhead costs of public schooling.

The county spends about $8000 per year on each student. Multiplying 30 student-years by $8000 gives $240,000, which represents the annual “sales per teacher” for the County.

Meanwhile, the cost per teacher, including salary and benefits, cannot be more than $80,000 a year. In other words, the County’s primary cost is $80,000, and they mark it up all the way to $240,000. What a business! A consulting firm would love to have those kind of profit margins.

For comparison, consider Sandy Spring Friends School, where our oldest daughter goes to high school. Tuition is $14,000 a year, which at first makes it appear more expensive. However, the number of students that a teacher sees in a day is much lower. I believe that 60 per day is a conservative estimate. Again, we take 1/6th of that to get “student-years,” because there are about six academic periods per day. This gives us 10 student-years per teacher at Sandy Spring. Multiplying by tuition, “sales per teacher” amounts to something like $140,000 per year.

Teachers are paid less at Sandy Spring, so that the cost per teacher might be just $60,000, including salary and benefits. Nonetheless, it is not as good a business as the public school. The public school charges a $160,000 markup over its direct cost ($240,000 – $80,000), while Sandy Spring only has a profit margin per teacher of only $80,000 ($140,000 – $60,000).

Of course, what I am calling “markup” or profit margin actually is overhead. My point is that public schools have a lot of overhead.

Bringing Public schools into a competitive environment would in fact save money in the long run, as a lot of that overhead would be eroded and lot more of the money spent would actually be invested more efficiently.

The ADL article argues that:

A $2,500 voucher supplement may make the difference for some families, giving them just enough to cover the tuition at a private school (with some schools charging over $10,000 per year, they would still have to pay several thousand dollars). But voucher programs offer nothing of value to families who cannot come up with the rest of the money to cover tuition costs.

The easy answer to this is: take the family’s income into consideration! If they are poorer, pay more of the tuition of the private school they want to go to!

Once again, the only difference in financing here is that right now, this sort of thing occurs behind the curtain. Higher-income families pay more taxes, which are then spent to maintain and improve the public schools that all income brackets take advantage of. So, no big change here.

I of course believe that vouchers should be reserved for people who maintain a GPA average of at least 3.0, and that there should be no restrictions at all on parents’ abilities to transfer their students to any public school they want outside of their local one. The point isn’t a worship of private schools or a hatred of public schools, the point is to give parents easy access to many different kinds of education for their children.

Professor Hawkes argues that we should do this kind of thing as far as the university level. Well, I’m not sure he’d approve of the parallel to the voucher system, but what he said was that a college education should be made free for any student who keeps up a 3.0 average.

I’m not sure if free is the way to go, but I definately think that expanding vouchers to the university level would be well worth it.

Investing money in making it easy for people to get an education can only be a good thing.

Cross posted at Sophistpundit

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