October 26, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits: Part V

(Continued from Part IV)

Before I address the many fine issues raised in the battle raging over in the comment section of Part IV, I want to address the currently preferred organization for education entities, including universities, most private schools, and most charter schools –the dreaded non-profit organization.

We have seen that the role of profit-seeking businesses is better understood when they are recognized as profit-and-loss businesses, with all the pressures and incentives created by these dual potentialities. By the same token, what are called "non-profit organizations" can be better understood when they are seen as non-profit and non-loss institutions—that is, institutions which operate free of the constraints of a bottom line.

That freedom from turning a profit has resulted in the same kind of stagnation we see in our public schools which are basically organized along non-profit lines as well.

Freedom from the bottom line does not mean that non-profit organizations have unlimited money. It just means that, with whatever money they do have, non-profit organizations are under very little pressure to achieve their institutional goals to the maximum extent possible with the resources at their disposal. Those who supply those resources include the general public, who cannot closely monitor what happens to their donations or their taxes, and those whose money provided the endowments that help finance non-profit institutions Much or most of these endowments were left by people who are now dead, who cannot monitor at all.

What would be called "losses" in other kinds of enterprises are called "deficits" in non-profit organizations and serve as reasons given when seeking donations or government subsidies to cover shortfalls. Non-profit organizations have additional sources of income, including fees from those who use their services, such as visitors to museums, audiences for symphony orchestras, and tuition from students. These fees are in fact the main source of the more than half a trillion dollars in revenue received annually by non-profit organizations in America. However, these fees do not cover the full costs of their operation—which is to say, the recipients are receiving goods and services that cost more than these recipients are paying and some are receiving them free. Such subsidized beneficiaries cannot impose the same kind of economic discipline as the customers of a profit-and-loss business who are paying the full cost of everything they get.

Adam Smith noted how academics running universities financed by endowments can run them in self-serving ways, being “very indulgent to one another,” so that each academic would “consent that his neighbor might neglect his duty, provided he himself is allowed to neglect his own.”  Tenure granting lifetime appointments are common  in non-profit colleges, but practically unknown in businesses that must meet the competition of the marketplace.

The fact that some organizations’ income is called profit and other organization’s income is not does not change anything economically, however much it may suggest to the unwary that one institution is greedy and the other is not.

It is the non-profit organizational nature of private schools and charter schools that has contributive to the less than ideal competitive state affairs. Charter schools are most newly entities, run by activists (not businessmen), and typically thinly capitalized.  Moreover, they operate in a somewhat hostile highly regulatory environment with many regulations that tend to coerce these new entities into conforming to the current practices of public schools.  We are still a long way from a competitive market in education even with the presence of charter schools.

October 22, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits IV: The Steamship Industry

(continued from Part III)

Let’s take a brief break from the economics lessons (at least one student needs a recess break) and see how all this “ideological” theory plays out in the real world. (As we know, novices learn best by seeing examples.)

The steamship Industry was one of America’s first large-scale businesses.  It was mechanized in the early 1800s and was an the vanguard of technological change.

As in education, government played a key and active role right from the start in America.  Once government shows a willingness to intervene in an industry, you will invariably see business, who will attempt to succeed primarily by seeking subsidies, aid, and pools (monopolies) from government. These are the political entrepreneurs.  And, if we are lucky, we will also find market entrepreneurs who try to succeed primarily by offering a superior product at a low cost.  These are the market entrepreneurs. (In education, we only have political entrepreneurs:  the teacher’s unions and the administrators.)

We’ve all heard of Robert Fulton and his steamboat, the Clermont, one of the first commercially successful steamboats. What we often don’t hear about is that Fulton’s company obtained a monopoly from New York state giving him the privilege of carrying all steamboat traffic in New York for thirty years.  Fulton is your classic political entrepreneur. He used the New York government to reduce his competition to zero and merrily collected his monopoly profits.  Who’s at fault here?  Fulton?  the New York government? of both?  I’m going with both.

In 1817, steamboat man Thomas Gibbons hired Cornelius Vanderbilt to crack Fulton’s monopoly by carrying passengers between New Jersey and New York for below the monopoly rate Fulton was charging.  This was, of course, illegal, but Vanderbilt managed to elude the law and cut fares up until the landmark case of Gibbons v. Ogden struck down the Fulton monopoly.

Following the decision, steamboat traffic along the Ohio river doubled in the first year and then quadrupled after the second year. By magic?  Hardly.

Freed from the Fulton-Livingston monopoly, the market entrepreneurs quickly improved technology in steamboating.  These new ideas were encouraged by the influx of capital which began soon after the monopoly was struck down.  (This would be the all important capital part of capitalism.) (Note to Dick:  this is how most productive research gets financed and why research and the adoption of research is reduced in monopolistic systems like our school  system.)

The new ideas included tubular boilers which replaced Fulton’s heavy, expensive copper boilers (he had no incentive to replace them as a monopolist).  Also, anthracite coal soon replaced the cordwood fuel used by Fulton, leading to expenses being cut in half.  Fulton had no incentive to switch to a more efficient fuel as long as he could charge monopoly prices as granted to him by the New York government.  Again, this should all sound eerily familiar to anyone who views the antiquated and stagnant ways of our education system.

With the removal of the Fulton monopoly, prices immediately dropped – from seven to three dollars from New York City to Albany, for example.  Nonetheless, with the adoption of new technology by Gibbons and Vanderbilt, lowered their costs enough so that they managed to earn a $40,000 profit each year during the late 1820’s. Gibbons and Vanderbilt made these profits which are thought to be so troublesome and dirty to people like Downes regardless of how much customers actually benefit.  they want to have their cake (a profitless system) and eat it too (the customer benefits).  Except in the fantasy world of Marxist theory – it doesn’t work that way.

At this point Vanderbilt left Gibbons, bought two steamboats, and went into business for himself. He soon established trade routes all over the northeast, becoming known for his fast and reliable service and low rates.  he cut the “standard” $3 fare between New York City and Philadelphia from $3 to $1.  For the New Brunswick to New York City Vanderbilt charged 6 cents and provided free meals.

Vanderbilt then moved into the New York City to Albany run on the Hudson River, competing against the Hudson River Steamboat Association, the largest line in America, which was trying to informally fix prices at the then prevailing $3 rate (down from $7 under the Fulton monopoly) to guarantee them a regular profit by eliminating competition on prices.  Normally, this would be a good opportunity for government to step in and eliminate such restraints of trade between businessmen.  But, in this case they didn’t need to.

Vanderbilt didn’t become the richest man in America by being complacent.  First he used two of his boats on the Albany/New York City and cut the fare from $3 to $1, then to 10 cents, and finally to free.  Vanderbilt figured it cost him $200 per day to operate his boats, so if he could fill them with 100 passengers, he would break even if they would each eat and drink $2 worth of food during the trip.  Vanderbilt later helped to invent the potato chip.

This put pressure on the Steamboat Association who dealt with Vanderbilt by buying him out for $100,000 plus $5,000 a year for the next ten years as long as he promised to leave the Hudson River.  Vanderbilt agreed and the Association tried raising the prices back up to $3 for the Albany/NYC route.

This bribery had little practical effect.  With no barriers to entry, other steamboaters came along and quickly cut fares.  Vanderbilt had shown them that it could be done for less and they saw how Vanderbilt had benefited by being paid off.  Almost immediately, other steamboaters entered the market, cut fares, and were bought off by the Association.  All the while passengers enjoyed the reduced fares.

Meanwhile Vanderbilt took his payoff money and bought bigger and faster ships, entered the New England market, and began doing to them what he has done to the Hudson River Association.

Business is almost never pretty, and these buyouts are little more than naked bribery in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but the primary beneficiaries of all this unseemly business were the customers.

Here’s how Harper’s Weekly summed it up:

[Vanderbilt’s actions] must be judged by the results; and the results, in every case, of the establishment of opposition lines by Vanderbilt, has been the permanent reduction of fares…  Wherever {Vanderbilt] ‘laid on’ an opposition line, the fares were instantly reduced; and however the contest terminated, whether he bought out his opponents, as he often did, or they bought him out, the fares were never again raised to the old standards.

Vanderbilt is your classic market entrepreneur:  he fought monopolies, he improved steamship technology, and he cut costs.

Education needs someone like Vanderbilt.  Superman might come to education’s rescue  for altruistic reasons.  That’s why we’re still waiting for him to come; he doesn’t exist.  A Vanderbilt, however, will come if there is a profit motive. And, I would bet that we wouldn’t have to wait very long.

See The Myth of the Robber Barons for a more detailed account of Vanderbilt and other businessmen.

October 21, 2010

Economics for Edu-pundits Part III

(Part II is here)

Fixing the problems we see in the present public education system is easy, but in the short term highly disruptive.  But, that’s only because the present system is so screwed up and the interests within the system have gotten so comfortably entrenched and skilled at gaming the political forces by which the system is controlled.

The solution is simple – the system needs an injection of both profits AND losses.  The losses part is the critical component.

Businesses are only interested only in the profit half. If they can avoid losses by getting government subsidies, tariffs and other restrictions against imports, or domestic laws that stifle competition, they will do so. Losses, however, are essential to the process that shifts resources to those who are providing what consumers want at the lowest prices—and away from those who are not.

Here’s a good example of profits and losses in action in the airline industry from Thomas Sowell’s Basic Ecomonics from which I’m stealing a large part of this discussion.  (I’m not providing proper quotations for readability purposes; just assume the well-written parts are his and the poorly written ones are mine)

Between the last year of federal regulation in 1977 and twenty years later in 1997, the average air fare dropped by 40 percent and the average percentage of seats filled on planes rose from 56 percent to 69 percent, while more passengers than ever were carried more safely than ever. Meanwhile, many airlines went bankrupt. That was the cost of greater efficiency. It has been estimated that, during the era of federal regulation, government intervention in the market had caused costs and fares to be 50 percent higher than they would have been in a free market. When the protection of federal regulation was removed, those airlines which could not survive with lower fares and rising fuel costs went out of business.

In 2010, the inefficiencies are still being sucked out of the system and it remains a painful process, especially for inefficient airlines.  we haven’t reached airline travel mecca yet, but consumers have it better than ever.  Bad airlines still remain and you fly with them at your peril.  The situation is the same with bad charter schools.  But, the system as a whole is far better off.

People often have a knee-jerk reaction to “profits.” They think it is a valid criticism that business are “just in business to make profits.”  Schools  shouldn’t be in it for profit, but for more altruistic reasons.  By this kind of reasoning, it could be argued that teachers are just working to earn their pay.  What matters is not the motivation but the results.

To understand why profits and losses are so important, we need to examine what is needed for a business, such as a school, to turn a profit.

One precondition is that profit-seeking businesses cannot squander scarce resources like schools currently do. Businesses operating in a market economy have to pay for all their inputs—whether labor, raw materials, or electricity—and they have to pay as much as others are willing to bid for them. Then they have to sell their own end product or service at a price as low as their competitors are charging. If they fail to do both, they fail to make a profit. And if they keep on failing to make a profit, either the management will be replaced or the whole business will be replaced by some competitor who is more efficient.

In this case failure is a good thing.  if you don’t want children attending bad schools, you have to let them fail and allow the resources to shift to better schools.

Some people, like Downes, charge is made that profits are short-run gains, with implication that they come at the expense of longer-term considerations. Sowell deals with this argument handily:

But future values are reflected in the present value of a business' assets. A factory that runs full blast to make a profit today, while neglecting the maintenance and repair of its machinery will immediately see a decline in the value of property and of its stockholders' stock. It is in the absence of a profit-and-loss economy that there are few incentives to maintain the long-run productivity of an industrial enterprise or a collective farm, as in the Soviet Union.  What happens to the enterprise after the current management's tenure is over is of little concern in a system where there are no profits and no present values to influence decisions.

Ever notice how decrepit inner city schools are.  This explains why. It certainly isn’t for lack of funding.

Couldn’t we achieve the same results by running schools as non-profits?  We’ll see the problems of non-profits in the next post.

October 20, 2010

Economics for Edu-Pundits II

(Part I is here.)

Most people don’t understand the distinction between capitalism and capitalists (i.e., businessmen).  The former is almost always good when there is a high degree of free competition; the latter are usually bad and often attempt to stifle competition.

Being pro-capitalism is not the same thing as being pro-business, yet this is often how those who favor government intervention in markets tend to paint those who favor capitalism. Free-market economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo,and Milton Friedman have been harshly critical of businessmen.  Smith wrote against “the clamour and sophistry of merchants and manufacturers.” Any suggestions about laws and policies coming from such people, he said, ought to be “carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with most suspicious attention.” Skepticism about the business community has remained part of the tradition of free-market economists.

Businessmen seek to reduce or eliminate competition because it is in their self-interest to do so.  By reducing competition, they are able to squander scarce resources and increase their own profits.  It is competition that forces the efficient use of resources by businessmen, lowering prices and thereby competing down profits.

Today, the preferred method businessmen use to stifle competition is through the political process by lobbying the government to intervene on their behalf through subsidies, by keeping out foreign and domestic competition, through favorable regulations, by bailing out failing companies, and the like.  The reality is that businessmen don’t like free-markets and competition any more than Marx did. And government, both parties, is often all too willing to comply with these lobbying requests.  Business leaders are not wedded to a free market philosophy or any other philosophy. They promote their own self-interest any way they can, like other special interest groups. Economists and others who are in fact supporters of free markets have known this for at least two centuries.

Often only businessmen receive the scorn for their anti-competitive, self-interested behavior.  But their willing partner in this malfeasance, government, is just as much to blame. Behind every market scandal there is inevitably a bad regulation which played a significant part.

So what does all this have to do with public education? Plenty.

In public education, government has intervened to replace the businessmen with government officials (the school board). public schools are basically run as non-profit organizations.  This presents a special problem which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post.  For now, it’s only important to recognize are being run along traditional corporate lines with government officials serving as businessmen.  And, if government has been all to willing to intervene on behalf of private businessmen to stifle competition, it’s not difficult to recognize their willingness to do the same when they are the businessmen.

Since government officials are political actors they act in their self-interest not to seek profits (there aren’t any), but to seek political favors from school officals and employees and other related third parties.  Let’s go down the list.

Management.  The administrators who run the schools.  Always highly compensated, as in most industries.  But these guys have extracted a special advantage from their government overlords – zero responsibility to perform well.  when schools fail, like they are in the inner cities, these guys should be the first against the wall.  Are they?  Almost never. What typically happens is that they get reassigned or voluntarily move to another school to burden themselves with.  They have also been successful in shifting responsibility down to the next tier – teachers.

Teachers.  The employees, unfortunately not professionals, who in theory should be merely following orders from on high.  So when schools fail, it’s technically should not be their fault.  But, these are no white knights either.  they’ve formed themselves in unskilled labor-like unions and have successfully eliminated all competition in the labor market which might have served to keep their compensation in check and to make them somewhat responsible for performing with some degree of competence.  Their unions have been highly successfully in lobbying government for favors that are in their self-interest.  Teachers and administrators have in effect stepped into the shoes of the businessman who would normally be running schools.  They are now the loathed businessmen, as the public is starting to recognize. And they are certainly acting like capitalists  by converting what would normally be excess monopoly profits into increase compensation and job security for themselves.

Third party contractors.  All the people who provide services to schools – builders/contractors, publishers, schools of education, and anyone else who provides any service to schools.  These people benefit by being awarded contracts through the political process and by having administrators who aren't too concerned about  the bottom line.  This is why we see Taj Mahal like buildings and overly-produced and priced textbooks.

Only two groups are being screwed in our present system –students and taxpayers (i.e., the public).  The groups that the schools are supposed to be serving.  Bear that in mind the next time you read some lofty rhetoric about “public institutions.” “public good,” “society does to advance its own objectives,” “education being too important to be left to private enterprise,” and “the social harm that would be caused outweighing the profits.”

Forget about the public-good and private-enterprise labels.  That is a difference without a distinction.  We could easily have the same awful system under private enterprise.Private businessmen have also been successful in lobbying for the same kinds of reduced competition benefits.

The trick is to avoid the kinds of problems we see in the present public education system. The next post will discuss how that can be accomplished.

October 19, 2010

Basic economics for Edu-Pundits

Those who favor government running the education system often seem to think that government is somehow immune form economic and political forces.  They often believe that by having the government run the education system, we’ve somehow managed to avoid the common problems of free enterprise.  For example here’s Downes:

I think the point being made is that education is not something that is simply bought and sold, as a commodity, but rather something a society does to advance its own objectives. That it is, therefore, something too important to be left to the whims of the marketplace. And that the content of an education cannot be determined merely by economic pressures, but by the wider set of values of a society as a whole.

Most societies have decided that the management of education is too important to be left to private enterprise, that there would be too many poison pills to swallow, and that society would be irreparably damaged as a result. That even if private enterprise were to be able to manage education more efficiently, the product offered would be harmful to society.

The fostering of an educational resources regime where publishers and academics produce, and everyone else consumes, at once promotes their business objectives and undermines our social objectives and disempowers learners as a whole.

Implicit in this argument is the belief that government acting as both regulator and service provider is somehow immune from market forces, political forces, and self-interest such that it will inherently use education resources more effectively, provide education services more effectively, and serve society’s objectives better than free enterprise would.

More specifically, does eliminating profits and the risk of losses improve outcomes?  Does eliminating competition improve outcomes?

It’s basic economics.  Once you strip away the lofty rhetoric, it’s easy to see that our education system suffers from common maladies that plague other areas of the economy and for the same reasons.

There’s nothing inherently different because government is providing the education services.  If a private company was offering education services under the same conditions, the services provided would be equally bad and the the prices equally steep.  And, most importantly, the outcomes would be equally abysmal for the same students being under-served in the present system.

Unlike Downes and others of like mind, I am not willing to sweep the bad outcomes under the rug by blaming the failures on outside forces like poverty.  The majority of people who favor the present system, like Dick , recognize that reform is needed.  But, they are mistaken in believing that the present system can be reformed in a way that improves outcomes.

To understand why requires a brief overview of basic economics which I’ll provide in the next post.

In the meantime, feel free to present your arguments, pro and con, on the wonders and failures of the present system and why you think I’m wrong or right.  I’ll address them.

October 18, 2010

I win Open Left’s Dunce Hat Award of the Week

Woo Hoo! I win.

I’d like to thank all my readers and, especially, all my commenters who make all of this possible.  Without you I wouldn’t have the will to persevere to do daily battle with the mighty intellects at blogs like Open Left.  It’s very difficult to display your ineptitude in the face of Open Left’s withering criticism without support.  And, it’s not just ordinary everyday ineptitude; it’s dunce hat award level ineptitude.  That must be especially difficult to read.  I also want to thank Open Left for offering such a prestigious award to us dunces.  So, again, thank you, thanks to all of you.

Apparently it was my post on poverty and student achievement that set me apart from lesser dunces.  Let’s go through Open Left’s analysis.

His claim, in a nutshell, is that the fact that Asian students, despite their poverty levels, have higher achievement than any other racial or ethnic group of students proves that there has to be another more important variable than poverty influencing student achievement.

Actually, that’s not my claim in or out of a nutshell.  What I said, in response to Parry’s comment, was:

SES and student achievement are correlated. (You can't tell the tightness of the fit with this graph.) But, as you indicate SES can clearly not be the only independent causal variable.

SInce we’re in the realm of correlational studies, the data isn’t capable of proving any hypothesis.  The data can only disprove a hypothesis.  In this case the data disproves the hypothesis that poverty is the sole independent causal variable.

"Asian children with parents having only a high school diploma performed better than black children with parents having graduate degrees," he points out.

However, instead of rejecting outright that there is a consistent positive relationship between parental income or parental levels of education and student achievement (a correlation that is undeniable), he instead insists that there is an "invisible variable" at work.

I don’t reject the correlation outright.  The correlation exists. What I reject is the drawing of the causal inference that poverty causes low student achievement.  The correlational data is incapable of proving causation regardless of how consistent or positive the correlation may be. (In actuality, the correlation is rather low, as I pointed out here. Less than 20% of the variance in student performance is accounted for in the variance of socio-economic status, at best.)

And, I didn’t insist there was an invisible variable, I merely indicated there might be a third variable in play.

In fact, SES doesn't have to be an independent variable at all; there could be a third variable(s) that drives both SES and student performance.

And, that’s only because when drawing causal inferences from correlational studies, there is always the possibility that there is a third variable in play or that or that the causality is backwards (the wet streets causes rain problem).

Open Left goes on to conjecture:

And what is that invisible factor? he only hints at.

A few days later and many times previous I explicitly indicated what researchers conjecture those third variables might be:

But maybe, it’s that affluent kids possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that will allow them to stay out of poverty and do well in school.

Open Left also conjectures:

But even if he is right - that there is something about what happens in Asian households (parenting habits, for instance, or nutrition) that matters more than poverty - that only proves that the determining factor is still outside the control of schools. Unless of course he wants schools telling parents how to raise children.

Open Left is so blinded by their own ideology, they can’t even draw fair inferences from what I wrote.  There is no implication in my post that Asian performance is attributable to what goes on in Asian households.  It could be that Asian students possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that allow them to access the education being offered in their schools better.  And as far as Asian parenting styles go I pointed out Stanley Sue and Sumie Okazaki’s paper, "Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation" that noted

the parenting styles and values found in East Asian-American homes tend to correlate with lower test scores when they are found in white homes.

So much for that correlation as well.

Open Left concludes:

The difference between school-based factors that influence achievement and factors outside of schools' control is a distinction that in no way does the ed reform movement want to discuss. And they'll go to any lengths to avoid that discussion.

I’m not the one handing out dunce hat awards in an effort to “avoid discussion” now am I?  I’m not the one with only correlational data and a bunch of failed out-of-school interventions.  And, I certainly have enough humility to know what isn’t known about what affects student achievement and not to hand out dunce hat award on dubious (and fairly debatable) premises.

Out of school factors certainly exist, we’re just still waiting for someone to accurately identify what they are and to establish an intervention that consistently works to ameliorate their effects before we shift resources away from school-based interventions which have been shown to increase student performance.

Is that really too much to ask?

October 15, 2010

And, now we see the violence inherent in the system

It was very sweet to see Dick Schutz defend Nancy Flanagan in the comments of this post.

Though normally ideological foes, they’ve found some common ground: they’re both statists when it comes to how our public schools should be run.  Schools should be run by the state with schools operating as monopolies in geographic based districts.  Competition.  None.

They both claim not to like the status quo and that reform is needed.  Specifically, they both believe that instructional reform is needed.  However, their views on education reform are diametrically opposed.
Dick is a a code lovin’ instructivist.  Nancy is a whole language lovin’ constructivist.

And, unfortunately, in their preferred statist system only one of them gets to run the show. The other gets to complain from the sidelines.

It makes for a good illustration why our present system is incompatible with real reform.  They both want reform, but want to maintain the present system.  This means one of them will have to gain central control of the system and then impose their will on the other.  Things would stop being lovey-dovey real quick.

It would make for a great reality show.

October 14, 2010

Our local school is wonderful; everyone else’s sucks

Bad apple pundit Jerry Bracey is no longer with us.  And if ours is a just and vengeful God, he is right now accounting for his edu-pundit sins by being required to perform the Sisyphean task of teaching kids how to read and do math in an inner city public school using whole language and discovery math for eternity  until they reach proficiency.

In any event since we don’t have Jerry to kick around anymore, someone ought to look at this year’s Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll of Americans' attitudes towards their public schools sans Jerry’s spin.

Parents grade their own school well (77% A or B, split evenly).  I’d call it a about a B+.



They grade their local schools less well (49% A or B, skewed heavily toward Bs). Call it a B-/C+.



And, they grade public schools nationally in the dog house (18%).  Call it a gentleman’s C.



Parents were also asked what was needed to raise the schools to a grade of A.  Overwhelmingly, they think that instruction needs to be improved.



So what’s the explanation for these results?

Jerry would inevitably spin the data and blame media demagoguery for the for the “my school is fine, everyone else’s sucks” results.  But that’s way too simplistic.

First, you have to recognize that with questions like this that ask for people to access their own choices/abilities, i.e., “how do you access the school you chose to send your beloved children to,” people are generally either loathe to admit they made a bad choice and/or have an inflated opinion of their abilities/choices.  You see this most clearly when people are asked to assess their own driving performance: “I drive great, everyone else drives like a jackass.” So, you have to factor that in.

Also, media demagoguery notwithstanding (which goes both ways, of course), people just don’t get their information on the quality of public schools from news sources.  They see on a daily basis the products of the public schools – other people and their children.  That’s plenty of data to form a coherent opinion.  And, the polling data shows that people start having their doubts about public schools pretty quickly—the schools in their own community, not just with some amorphous notion of distant schools somewhere in the nation.

But why else might people be most satisfied with their own schools and less happy with everyone else’s schools?

When people think of public schools generally, they think of education services, the primary service offered by schools. Some might say the primary reason for their existence in the first place.  You can see by question 12 above,people generally believe that schools have plenty of room for improvement in the area of educational services.

However, when parents think of their own public schools, they also think of the educational services, but they also think about day care services, the sports teams, the band, and all the other ancillary non-educational services being offered.

To be fair, public schools generally do a good job providing these non-educational services.  Keeping kids safe, fed, and occupied while mom and dad work isn’t exactly rocket science after all.  And, who cares if the price tag for these services is through the roof; someone else is picking up most of the tab.

When it comes to the education being provided in their own schools, parent’s expectations of their children’s performance will generally meet predictions.  My kid doesn’t do as well as the surgeon’s kids, but does better than the janitor’s kids.  This generally holds regardless of the teacher’s ability or the curriculum.  What basis do parent’s have to judge the absolute educational capabilities of their children?  Exposure to a great curriculum delivered by a super teacher, year in and year out, is not something that most people have ever seen.  Nonetheless, as question 12 indicates, people have their doubts when it comes the instruction be delivered in public schools.

I think all of these factors go into inflating people’s opinion of their own schools and that their lower opinion of other people’s schools is the more honest and accurate assessment.  Confirming this explanation is Nancy Flanagan unwittingly tells us in today’s Answer Sheet post.

A friend who teaches in Kansas confessed recently that she feels a little guilty as bitter education reform battles rage in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Things aren't perfect in her school--they're not perfect anywhere, including the exceptionally rare charter academies that hold lotteries for admission--but she and her colleagues believe they're doing a good job for kids.


When given a choice people vote with their feet.  What is the percentage of charter schools that have to hold a lottery because too many parents are choosing them over their local public school?  I’m pretty certain it’s not the exceptionally rare charter.

All I know is that if I were running a business and my new competitor had to hold a lottery because he couldn’t service all his customers desiring purchase services from him and those customers were my former customers, I’d be a little worried.  Because that’s the best indication that people aren’t happy with me and the services I’m providing.

Setting the bar low, really low

Over at Aunt Crazy’s, Nancy Flanagan tells us why public schools don’t need to be reformed.
Here's a radical idea: Public schools in America are not a catastrophic mess.
That sure is a radical idea.

Imagine if you just purchased a high-priced good or service and the best thing you could say about it was that “well, it wasn’t a catastrophic mess.”  You think you’d purchase that good or service again if you had a choice?

Congratulations, Nancy Flanagan, you’ve set the bar as low as it could possibly go.

October 13, 2010

Expecting Too Much From Walt Gardner

Here’s how Walt starts off a recent blog post:
It's an article of faith among reformers that recruiting teachers from the top tier of their class will assure top performing schools.
Article of faith? Or deduction from research?  You be the judge.
It’s not like Walt has his own article of faith.
There's only one problem with their case. They say absolutely nothing about the role that poverty plays in performance…
I don't believe that even the best teachers can completely overcome the huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development that poor students bring to class through no fault of their own. They can help narrow the gap between these students and those from advantaged backgrounds, but they can't eliminate it. That's a vital distinction given short shrift in today's debate. It's one thing to improve academic performance in absolute terms, but it's quite another to improve performance in relative terms.
Walt’s conceit (and others) is that they simply “know” that poverty CAUSES  “huge deficits in socialization, motivation and intellectual development.”  But maybe, it’s that affluent kids possess traits like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, and cognitive ability that will allow them to stay out of poverty and do well in school.  Maybe Walt has the causation backwards.
If Walt were right, then we’d be able to ameliorate these deficits by reducing the influence by poverty. But, there’s ample evidence, such as all the failed programs aimed at remedying these deficits rattled off in this post, that suggest that reducing poverty doesn’t ameliorate these deficits.  Further, no one has been able to accomplish the things Walt thinks need the be accomplished to eliminate the gap.  And, it’s not for lack of trying.
I assure you that Walt Gardner is well acquainted with articles of faith.

The charlatans are already in charge


The usually sensible Karin Chenoweth is worried that the education charlatans might take over education.

I have some bad news for you Karin.  The charlatans are already in charge.

Because the vast engine of education research has not, for the most part, concerned itself with answering those kinds of practical, everyday problems, teachers and principals cannot rely on a solid base of evidence such as the one that establishes the "standard of care" informing the field of medicine.

That leaves a vacuum of knowledge. Two possibilities exist for filling that vacuum: the carefully built-up craft knowledge that successful educators have developed; and the nostrums of charlatans.

First of all, the vast engine of education research mostly generates non-research opinion-like studies intended to provide research-like support for the kind of things educators already like and wish to practice.  The kind of stuff that Karin wants isn’t being generated because there is no demand for it by education practitioners.  When genuine research is developed, it is often ignored or misapplied.  There’s no real need to achieve results in education, so there is no need to generate research directed at achieving results.  There is no vacuum, the vacuum has already been filled by charlatans.

And as far as the craft knowledge of educators goes, it isn’t.  Educators aren’t professionals or craftsman and certainly don’t act like it.   VIcki Snider has written directly on this point.

Teachers aspire to be professionals, but without a shared scientific body of knowledge they remain bricoleur, a term borrowed from French by anthropologist Levi-Strauss (1966). There is no precise translation for bricoleur in English, but according to the translator's note, they are a “jack of all trades.” Not a handyman exactly, but a professional do-it-yourselfer. They cannot be called craftsmen because they work with whatever tools are at hand to solve whatever problems exist, nor do they have a specialized niche like craftsmen. They must be very intelligent and may, at times, achieve good results, but they are still constrained by their limited and finite assortment of tools and by the extent of their experiences. Contrast the bricoleur to engineers. Engineers have access to a range of tools designed for the specific job that needs to be done. They rely on the cumulative evidence for theoretical and technical knowledge, and use what is known to expand the boundaries of their professional knowledge. They rely on other professionals and specialists to help them do their job and to solve new problems. Engineers specialize--electrical, mechanical, biomedical, chemical, aerospace, naval, civil--and one type of engineer may assist the other, but would never be expected to do his or her job. An engineer is a member of a profession, but a bricoleur is just a clever person. Without a common body of knowledge about best practice, every new bricoleur teacher invents the wheel.

A profession that is guided by myths rather than empirically validated principles and practices maintains its bricoleur status. The teaching occupation will become a profession only when educators replace myth with science and raise their expectations for the success of all students.

This is why educators are so susceptible to various bromides and tonics being peddled by charlatans.

Even if we were to follow Karin’s suggestion

That's why it's so important for the field as a whole to step up and recognize that as complicated as it is to educate children, some people have figured out how to do it. Recognizing those experts' hard-won knowledge and learning from them may be our only real hope.

it won’t transform educators into the professionals we need them to be.  We need them to be empirical and mere recognition is not the same as empiricism.

October 12, 2010

Diane Ravitch really hates the free market

Wildly successful author of books sold in the free market, Diane Ravitch,  really, really hates the free market—so much so that she attacked free-market fast-food restaurants in her post today.
Our political leaders are pushing an agenda that is wrong. The research is clear that fast-food restaurants vary dramatically in their quality. Some are excellent, some are awful, some are run by terrific leaders, some are run by incompetents, some use their resources wisely, some are wasteful and/or greedy.

Those promoting the privatization of government cafeterias are blinded by free-market ideology. They refuse to pay attention to evidence, whether it be research or the accumulating anecdotal evidence of misbehavior, incompetence, fraud, greed, and chicanery that the free market facilitates.
She has a point.  Poorly performing fast food chains never go out of business.  They keep raising their prices in the teeth of a recession.  They offer an inferior product to the standards-based government cafeterias which only sell healthy and nutritious foods. And if it weren’t for stringent government standards, fast-food restaurants would have you eating pet food.  The one thing is noticed on my recent trip to Massachusetts is how much better the food was in the government run or single-contractor rest stop restaurants. Thankfully, government cafeterias are public institutions, so they’ll never go away.

Of course, that was a bizarro world post from Ravitch. She was really railing against the semi-free market charter schools.

Update:  There is no anecdotal evidence of misbehavior, incompetence, fraud, greed, and chicanery on the part of non-charter public schools, so we're safe for the time being at least.

What Should Students Know and be Able to do?

Karl Fisch asks and then unsatisfactorily answers one of education’s most important question.

       What should students know and be able to do?

It gets back to an old argument in education, the argument about which is more important -- content or skills. Like most teachers I've talked with, I think that's a false dichotomy. I want both. I want students to know some content and have the skills to be able to use their knowledge. I don't want them to just "cover" the material, I want them to uncover their own understanding, and to think critically about the content.

That’s a pretty good start.  But then comes the “but.”  There’s always a “but” in education in which the pundit reverses what he just said and lets slip his real opinion.

My bias, however, is that too often in schools we err too much on the side of content.

The tell.  Fisch is confusing what he thinks he’s teaching with what his students are actually learning. I’ll tell you that what they’re not learning is too much content.

Fisch is also confused as to what a skill is.  Skills are mostly procedural knowledge, i.e., more content relating to the performance of a series of actions.  Decoding text is a skill.  Solving a quadratic equation is a skill.  Balancing a chemical equation is a skill. Critically reading a text passage is a skill.

What Fisch really means is that he wants his students to know both content and skills and be able to apply the right content and skills to novel situations.  In short, he wants them to be able to be able to solve problems like an expert.  A noble goal.

Let’s look at what we know about expert problem solving.  In particular, let’s look at:

Nokes T J, Schunn C D and Chi M T H (2010), Problem Solving and Human Expertise. In the International Encyclopedia of Education. volume 5, pp. 265-272.


The first thing we’d like to know is what do we do when we solve problems.  The article provides a helpful breakdown of the process.

Most theories of human problem solving consist of some
formulation of the following seven stages:

  1. problem categorization,
  2. construction of a mental representation of the problem,
  3. search for the appropriate problem-solving operators (e.g., strategies or procedures),
  4. retrieval and application of those operators to the problem,
  5. evaluation of problem-solving progress and solution,
  6. iterating stages 1–4 if not satisfied with progress/solution, and finally
  7. storage of the solution (e.g., Newell and Simon, 1972).

These stages may not be strictly sequential, but may be

And, for you visual learners. (That’s an education joke. Har har.)



Today, let’s focus on the most critical step – categorization of the problem.

Problem categorization is the most critical step because it impacts all subsequent steps, such as determining what knowledge is relevant to solving the problem and what strategies are needed.

For example, after a statistician categorizes a statistics problem as a permutations problem, she or he can proceed by retrieving and applying the appropriate formula to solve it.

So, what do we know about how experts categorize problems. Quite a bit actually.

Much research has shown that experts’ domain knowledge actually influences problem perception. When experts are presented a problem or task relevant to their domain of expertise, they see the problem in terms of prior meaningful patterns of information.

I highlighted the important bits.

Let me translate.  In order to properly categorize a problem, you need to already know and have meaningfully thought about the relevant underlying content knowledge.

For example, novice chess players have about the same memory recall ability as expert chess players when recalling random placements of chess pieces.  However, expert chess players could recall about four times as many chess piece positions from real chess games.  The difference is that the experts were matching the patterns of the chess pieces from their prior knowledge of chess piece patterns; novices have no such prior knowledge.

These results are found across many different domains: architecture
(Akin, 1980), mathematics (Silver, 1979), and naturalistic decision-making (NDM) tasks such as a fireman determining the safety of a room in a burning building (Klein, 1998). Expert doctors are more capable of identifying the correct size and shape of abnormalities from the same lung x-rays than novices.

Experts perceive the problem very differently than novices when presented with the same stimulus.

This was most famously demonstrated in Chi et al.(1981) when it was found that expert physicists were more likely than novice physicists to categorize problems at a deep level of abstraction (or function), whereas novices are more likely to categorize problems based on the surface features.

Experts sorted them according to their underlying physics principles, such as Newton’s second law, whereas novices sorted them based on their surface features such as inclined planes or pulleys.

Similar results have been shown in mathematics

where novices categorized algebra problems on the basis of the problem content (e.g., river problems), whereas more experienced students categorized them based on the underlying equation or principle (Silver, 1979).

and other fields.    Here’s the explanation given by the authors.

These results have typically been explained by the hypothesis that experts’ problem schemas are organized differently than novices. Schemas are hierarchical knowledge structures that include prototypical information about the type of problem, including declarative knowledge of objects, facts, strategies, and constraints, and may also include the procedural operators for solving the problem (Marshall, 1995). Expert schemas are hypothesized to include many principle or structural features of the problem type, whereas novice schemas include few structural features and shallower, surface features.

So when Fisch says he wants his students to “uncover their own understanding, and to think critically about the content,” the research suggests that his students won’t be able to do this very well until they know a lot of content knowledge, and know it well, or they won’t be very good at initially categorizing their problems well—the first step in finding the solution.

In contrast, Fisch, a professional educator, admits his bias is that schools already teach too much content.  Where do you suppose he got a notion like that?  Of course, if Fisch knew the first thing about knowledge and learning, he’d know that the problem isn’t that his students know too much content knowledge, but that they don’t know what they think they know well enough.

Fisch goes on to justify his bias against teaching content knowledge by claiming that we live in “exponential time” with too much knowledge to learn and that it’s already “easily accessible”  via the internet.  Why learn it, when you can Google it seems to be Fisch’s mantra.  Unfortunately, human cognition doesn’t work that way.  If it were the case, you’d be able to easily Google the following simple physics problem:

A ball is kicked from a point X m away from the crossbar, where X is a number between 38 and 39 that you select. The top of the crossbar is 3.05 m high. If the ball leaves the ground with a speed of 20.4 m/s at an angle of 52.2º to the horizontal? (The usual assumptions apply: uniform earth gravity, no drag or wind, the ball is a point)

a. By how much does the ball clear or fall short of clearing the crossbar?

b. What is the vertical velocity of the ball at the time it reaches the crossbar?


Bet you can’t unless you already possess quite a bit of physics and algebra knowledge and skills.

October 11, 2010

Replication, but no Verification

Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is going to be replicated in 21 communities with the help of  $200 million in federal dollars.

The philosophy of the HCZ is simple:  it takes more than a good school to educate poor black kids.  To this end the HCZ steps in loco parenti to offer a panoply of the kind of social services many people believe to have an effect on education outcomes,such as:

  • early childhood programs with parenting classes;
  • academic advisors and afterschool programs for students attending regular public schools;
  • a support system for former HCZ students who have enrolled in college;
  • a fitness program;
  • asthma management;
  • a nutrition program;
  • organizing tenant associations;
  • one-on-one counseling to families;
  • foster care prevention programs;
  • community centers;
  • an employment and technology center that teaches job-related skills to teens and adults.

In a nutshell, the HCZ is an implementation of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education.  Basically, they believe that the link between poverty and student achievement is more than merely correlation; they believe it's causal and fundamental:

More than a half century of research has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement. Weakening that association is the fundamental challenge facing America's education policymakers.
Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.

Bold words from a bold movement.  Let's see if those words survive some scrutiny.

Roland Fryer first looked at the HCA and found:

  • Students attending the HCZ charter school outperformed students who lost the lottery to attend the HCZ charter. That's promising, at least for the school part of the reform.
  • HCZ students who only attended the charter school performed as well as the children who attended the charter school who received the full panoply of social services. 

One could readily conclude from the Fryer study that the HCZ charter school does a good job in raising student achievement, but that the social component of the HCZ isn't having much effect.

Oddly, but not surprisingly, Fryer's conclusion was more ambiguous:

We conclude . . . that high-quality schools or high-quality schools coupled with community investments generate the achievement gains. Community investments alone cannot explain the results.

And a $200 million federal funding stream was born.

Brookings also looked at the HCZ data and found that the HCZ charter school performs about as well as the average charter school in New York City.

None of the charters that perform better than HCZ provide "or depend on community and social services to achieve their academic mission." Brookings concludes:

These findings create a large question mark for the theory of action of the HCZ.  If other charter schools generate outcomes that are superior to those of the HCZ and those charter schools are not embedded in broad neighborhood improvement programs, why should we think that a neighborhood approach is superior to a schools-only approach?  
There is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.  Indeed there is considerable evidence in addition to the results from the present study that questions the return on such investments for academic achievement.  For example, the Moving to Opportunity study, a large scale randomized trial that compared the school outcomes of students from poor families who did or did not receive a voucher to move to a better neighborhood, found no impact of better neighborhoods on student academic achievement.[x]  The Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly regarded program in which experienced nurses visit low-income expectant mothers during their first pregnancy and the first two years of their children’s lives to teach parenting and life skills, does not have an impact on children’s reading and mathematics test scores.[xi] Head Start, the federal early childhood program, differs from other preschool programs in its inclusion of health, nutrition, and family supports.  Children from families enrolled in Head Start do no better academically in early elementary school than similar children whose parents enroll them in preschool programs that do not include these broader services.[xii] Even Start, a federal program that combines early childhood education with educational services for parents on the theory that better educated parents produce better educated kids, generates no measureable impact on the academic achievement of children.[xiii] 

The HCZ, and programs like it, are based on the alluring but mistaken hypothesis that you can get middle-class academic performance from "poor" kids by giving them the things that middle-class families have that the Broader Bolder people think are the cause of middle-class student achievement -- things like what the HCZ is providing: health care, prenatal care, better nutrition, better parenting skills, community centers and the like.  But these things are merely the status markers of the middle class.  They are merely markers for the traits the middle class possess, like self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, cognitive ability that let you enter and stay in the middle class.  Subsidizing the markers doesn't increase student achievement because the markers don't produce (or cause) student achievement; the underlying traits do.  If anything, subsidizing the the markers serves to undermine the traits.

We see this most clearly with respect to the generous benefits provided to the poor in our welfare state.  we've alleviated many of the hardships associated with poverty, but the alleviation of those hardships isn't turning the poor into the middle-class and the poor still don't act like the middle class even though they are far more wealthy than the poor of 100 years ago.

October 5, 2010

The Poverty Meme Elephant in the Room

The biggest distraction in education policy is the poverty meme (or, more accurately – the low socio-economic status meme).  It goes something like this:  Being poor prevents poor kids from succeeding in school; therefore reforming schools is largely a waste of time.

Here’s the queen of the poverty meme:

Then, there it was, the moment when Lauer raised the issue of poverty and the new Census Bureau figures showing that one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty line, defined as an annual income for a family of four of $22,000. That’s one in seven -- and that figure doesn’t include families of four with a $23,000 annual income.

I thought Lauer would make the obvious connection between poverty and student achievement. After all, the most consistent link in education and social science research is between family income and standardized test scores.

Today’s breed of school reformers, however, have ignored this link and adopted a “no excuses” policy, which essentially claims that good teachers can overcome anything, including medical, sociological and psychological problems that children who live in poverty bring into the classroom.

There is an oft-stated claim that three (or four, or five, depending on the source) “effective” teachers in a row can wipe out the effects of poverty. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made this claim today in an interview with Tom Brokaw as part of the network's Education Nation Summit.

There is no valid research to show this…

So the most important issue in school reform was ignored again…

That their discussion ignored the elephant in the room tells you everything you need to know about what is missing from today’s school “reform” efforts and why they are doomed to fail.

She even cites the King, David Berliner, who has teased out the most important poverty-induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that poor children bring to school and which doom all education reform to failure.

These are six out-of-school factors Berliner has identified that are common among the poor and that affect how children learn, but that reformers effectively say can be overcome without attacking them directly: (1) low birth weight and nongenetic prenatal influences; (2) inadequate medical, dental and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.

The conclusion.  Fix poverty and you’ll fix education. Or will you?

Let’s test the hypothesis by looking at how family income and parental education (the main components of socioeconomic status) are “linked” to student educational performance.

Let’s compare how the children of over-educated plutocrats



compared to the children of poverty-stricken, oppressed wage-slaves.



But, before we look at the data, let’s test your knowledge of poverty’s pernicious effects on children.

  • Which kids do you think had better prenatal care?
  • Which kids do you think had better medical, dental and vision care?
  • Which kids do you think were more likely to have medical insurance?
  • Which kids do you think had more food insecurity?
  • Which kids do you think grew up around more environmental pollutants?
  • Which kids do you think had more family stress and worse family relations?
  • Which  kids do you think grew up in better neighborhoods?


Now see if you can predict which kids did better on the SATs.

First, let’s look at how rich black families compare to poor Asian families


Poor Asian children from families making between $10k and $20k performed better than rich privileged black children from families making at least $70k.

Now, let’s look at parental education.


Asian children with parents having only a high school diploma performed better than black children with parents having graduate degrees.

If poverty is such a brutal predictor of academic success, why do the children of educated,privileged blacks and Hispanics perform worse than poor, uneducated whites and Asians?

Can’t be white racism, Asians disprove that hypothesis.

And bear in mind, this data (which holds for almost all measures of student achievement) is no worse than the data the poverty elephants rely on for their poverty hypothesis.

Run this by your favorite poverty edu-pundit.  You’ll hear lots of excuses. None will be coherent. 

And, that’s why its pointless to debate these people on matters of education policy.

HuffPost Education: Condemned to Repeat History One Blog Post at a Time

There’s a new education site in town.
HuffPost Education is designed to be a hub for education news and trends -- and will be home to a spirited, ongoing conversation about what's gone wrong with America's schools, and what needs to be done to fix them. We'll have topical takes from an eclectic mix of stakeholders in the education debate. Among those already lined up to weigh in: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim, Bill and Melinda Gates, John Legend, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Geoffrey Canada, whose inspiring work at the Harlem Children Zone is featured in Waiting for "Superman".
Finally.  A one-stop outlet for every dopey opinion on education.  In the immortal words of Flounder: This is going to be great.
Arianna’s inaugural letter sets the tone:  wall-to-wall nitwittery.
Education has always been the great equalizer in America. The path to success. The springboard to the middle class -- and beyond.
No it hasn’t. Up until the ‘50s, most students exited the education system after a few years and found gainful employment.  That was the springboard to the middle-class.
It was a promise we made to our people. A birthright we bestowed on each generation: the chance to learn, to improve their minds, and, as a result, their lives.
An unfulfilled promise.  One meme you are sure to read over and over at HuffPo Education is how poverty and minority status prevent kids from learning.  Nothing wrong with the schools, the problem lies within in the kids.  This provides a nice segue to the next meme.
But something has gone terribly wrong with our education system, and this failure has profound consequences for our nation's future -- both at home and as we look to compete with the rest of the world in the global economy.
To claim that something has gone terribly wrong implies that something was right at some point—that there was some golden era of education.  Let’s play a game.  Spot when things went “terribly wrong” in education based on reading scores in the past 40 years (and covering 50 years of education).


Don’t worry about raising your hand; just shout it out.

That’s right. There was never a golden era in education.

The only thing that has gone terribly wrong in education was for taxpayers.


Back to Arianna.
Decade after decade, as predictably as a school bell, every election season candidates promise to transform our schools -- and, just as predictably, they fail to do so. And this failure cuts across party lines. Instead of fundamental reform, we get grandstanding and broken promises and reform in name only.
Perhaps it’s time to take control back from the politicians.  It’s not like they were always in control of education.
As a nation, we've slowly grown accustomed to our educational system's persistent failures, content to point out the occasional jewel spotted amid the dung: a marvelous charter school here, a high-performing inner-city academy there. We've allowed that old Washington motto to carry the day: "If it's broke, don't fix it."
What?  I dare anyone to jibe this paragraph with the last.  How can we have slowly grown accustom to persistent failure when every election season politicians feel compelled to promise to transform our schools?
It’s reform after dopey reform.  It’s not that improvement isn’t needed; it’s that the reformers have been educationally naïve.  And what does that say about the status quo lovers?
And when it comes to saving our children -- and our future -- there is not a moment to waste. Our nation's education crisis demands "the fierce urgency of now."
That urgency, and the opportunity presented by America's Education Moment, are what animate HuffPost Education.
Wait a second.  Isn’t this how we go in the mess in the first place.  Isn’t this how the Progressives sold government-run education to us 100 years?  No proven ideas; just the urgency of now.  Right out of the fascist’s playbook.  And, look where that got us.

As philosopher George Santayana put it:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Sadly, it takes a good education to know such things.

October 3, 2010

The Tale of Blockbuster: An Important Lesson for Education

(Update:  Revised post to fix an unconscionable number of grammar mistakes.)

Blockbuster video declared bankruptcy earlier this month.  It didn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Back in the 80's Blockbuster emerged as the dominant player in the new videotape rental market.  Blockbuster successfully drove much of the independent rental shops out of business despite the fact that the independent shops held a big advantage -- they rented porn.  But, Blockbuster had more capital and were able to stock more recent releases, which were in high demand by most consumers.  By 1994 Blockbuster was worth $8.4 billion and blockbuster brick and mortar stores dotted the landscape.  Blockbuster had achieved monopoly power in their industry.

The problem with having monopoly power is that companies often begin acting like a monopolists,begin rent seeking, and offering the product they want to sell as opposed to the product the customer wants to buy.  Blockbuster fell right into this trap by, among other things, adopting strict and onerous late fees policies, skewing their movie selecting to new releases, and drastically limiting the available selection of older movies (the long tail).  They also became content in their position of dominance and sluggish in adopting new technology, such as switching over to dvds and taking advantage of the Internet.

Our public schools are stuck in a Blockbuster world.  Public schools exist to serve themselves, not their customers -- the students, parents, and the public.  I have profoundly different views than some edu-pundits, but the one thing we tend to agree on is that the students, parents, and the the public are not being well served by the public schools, though we disagree on the means and ends of the needed improvement.  Almost no one believes that public schools are using technology effectively, for example.

Blockbuster had settled into a mode of business that was good for Blockbuster and not so good for consumers.  Public Schools have done the same.  The only real difference is that public schools are immune to market forces and can only be dislodged from their heavily entrenched position via political forces.  Good luck with that.

Blockbuster, in contrast, was not so insulated from market forces.  It didn't take long for other providers to enter the market and begin providing the products and services consumers wanted.  Look at what happened.

Netflix and other providers ate Blockbuster's lunch in less than ten years.  Netflix won for the simple reason that they offered a better service.  No late fees. No trudging out to the local store with it's limited selection to return movies. No limited time period for watching the movie you just rented.

That must have been incredibly disruptive to Blockbuster's "stakeholders."  But, did you read any tearful op-eds about how the institution of Blockbuster must be saved to protect the public good of readily available video rentals?  Either did I.

Loser:  Blockbuster

Winner(s):  Consumers and Netflix (as long as they stay ahead of the competition)

Today, Blockbuster is a husk of its former self while Netflix thrives.  And, Netflix can't rest on it's laurels because it is already attracting  fierce competition.

Winner (again):  Consumers.

Do you think this drastic change (which benefited consumers greatly) would have occurred if a)  the government ran Blockbuster or b) Blockbuster was able to get regulations passed granting a monopoly to itself (think phone company) or otherwise limiting competition?

October 1, 2010

Today’s Challenge

Today’s challenge is for all you standards-lovin’ folks who think that standards are capable of effecting an improvement in instruction.

Pennsylvania recently adopted the Common Core Standards.

Now take a look at Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Standards.

I defy anyone to:

1.  read these standards without throwing up a little in their mouth, and

2.  point why 95% of these standards can’t be retained without change when they are harmonized with the Common Core standards.


(And for the love of God, if you think that Universal Preschool is the educational panacea we’ve all been waiting for, please do not look at the recently revised Pre-K standards.)

Added Bonus:  Here goes the helpful curriculum alignment guide for educators wishing to keep using their favorite curriculum.  Now you can say “Yeah, our curriculum is aligned with the Common core standards.”

Added Extra Bonus:  Pennsylvania’s standards are already infecting private schools.  Pennsylvania’s accreditation organization, Keystone Stars, requires the use of the Pennsylvania standards for private schools,  pre-schools, and day care centers desiring to be accredited.

Note to JPG Blog:  Don’t uncork the champagne yet.  Charter schools and other free market reforms don’t work all that well in a toxic regulatory environment.  In fact, this one of the best ways to discredit such reforms.  See the recent financial crisis for ample evidence for this phenomenon.

Take a Little Ownership Will Ya

Jonah Goldberg asks a good question my well-meaning slightly-left-of-center and far-left-of center edu-pundits/edu-reformers friends never seem to ask themselves:

And yet when you listen to these endless seminars and interviews on NBC and its various platforms, I never seem to hear Matt Lauer or David Gregory ask “Isn’t the education crisis a failure of liberalism?” After all, liberals insist all social problems can be reduced to root causes. Well, they’ve been in charge of the roots for generations and look at the mess they’ve made. Look at it.

My only quibble is that I think that lefties are calling themselves progressives again after tarnishing the liberalism brand-name.  All the more appropriate anyway since the progressives got us in this mess in the first place.  They might as well be taking the blame today.

Instead of recognizing that they we have a stinky turd on our hands and scooping it up; they keep trying to polish it-up.



I’m still waiting for someone to present a coherent defense for keeping the present system, rather than blowing it up.  It’s like removing a Band-Aid;  sometimes it’s best just to rip it off and deal with the short-term pain.

(H/T: JPG Blog)