Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Education, a response to a response

My sister's response. I've excerpted some of her responses.
I believe the inequality in opportunity starts even before the students reach school age. It seems that a huge problem is actually in the home. Many parents don't realize the importance of education, and children, because of their inexperience, don't realize the importance of education until it is too late (in their own mind at least).
This is true. The problem stems from parents who won't or can't help and monitor their kids' homework. Some parents have an adversarial relationship with teachers and schools. They want to protect their children, and feel that fighting the schools is how they can do that. Some parents feel that homework isn't a good use of their children's time, that extracurricular activities of the parent's choosing is more appropriate. Some parents work too much, and just aren't around enough to know what's really going on in their lives.

The problem is that Govertnment can't mandate parent responsibility. They might encourage it, but I don't even know how. (Melinda suggests tax breaks for PTA meeting attendance :).
As far as school and teacher quality, there are programs (see New York Teach and Teach for America) in place that attempt to put recent college grads or successful professionals in cities or schools that normally do not attract quality teachers. I do not know if this is enough.
Looking at Teach for America, they recruit for teacher to teach for two years in the inner city schools. They're trying to create a concerned community, who has experience with the problems in inner city schools. They're not trying to be the solution, but rather create a community which can find the solution. Which sounds like a very good thing. I think their concept is powerful, and could create the group of "experts" which will be needed to really guide the experimentation.
It could be possible that we should be looking towards private organizations and individuals to alleviate problems rather than trying to overhaul the whole educational system.
What kind of authority would you give these private organizations? How would they interact with our schools? Volunteer organizations can help, but I don't think they can make a difference on the scale that is needed. They can help a couple classrooms in each school(being optimistic), but they can't reach every child in every school. There's just not enough volunteers.
In regards to No Child Left Behind, in a recent statement to congress, Bill Gates (in speaking for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's research) stated that the program, though it had its faults, had greatly improved education. So it could be that No Child Left Behind just needs a few tweaks rather than throwing it out.
One of the biggest problems with NCLB is that it puts a lot of power in the Federal Government over education. The other problem is that the NCLB is designed to increase test scores. It does increase test scores. When you look at test scores, education is improving. However, test scores are not the only, or the best measure of education. Other good measures of education is college admission, job placement, where the graduate is 5 years later(income, job security).
By better choice however, I am not thinking about actual 'ranking in school' or test scores, but rather a choice in a variety of specialty schools. If a student is interested in music, they can attend a school that emphasizes music. If the student was interested in machinery, there would be a school that had a better mechanic program.
I really like the way this sounds. It would be important to make sure that there continues to be an emphasis on liberal education. Specialties should be secondary to the primary goal of a good basis in core subjects.
However, even then, I wonder if that would be the result of privatization. Privatization may only further divide schools and students from one another in equality of opportunity.
This is the biggest worry for me. It definitely needs some thought. I was hoping that denying the rich the ability to add to the voucher, we could create a level playing field where each child has the same amount of money. That is based on the assumption (probably false) that every child, in each location, requires the same amount of money to get the same quality of education. If you introduce different levels of allowances for different locations, and different learning disabilities, then you need an agency that makes decisions about which child gets which money. That's dangerous.
Students with low incomes would continually receive a worse education and school would continue to struggle with funding.
Two points. With privatization, schools should become more efficient. Markets drive innovation and streamline the supply of goods. Since vouchers don't actually take any money away from schools--the same amount of tax dollars go to schools, they just go through vouchers--schools should have the same amount of funding, but be more efficient. Even if the gap between poor and rich widens, the poor should get a better education than they do currently. That's if you believe(and I mean that in a religious sense) in Free Markets.

Second, where population is more dense, there is more voucher money. Where there is more voucher money, there is more incentive to build a school. In fact, there is more room in a high-demand market for niche suppliers. In theory, there should be more innovation in the inner city, where there will be more room for it. In theory, inner cities would be the first to benefit from privatization of schools. In practice, it might not work that way. In practice, the whole thing could go kablooey. It's a big step, so not one I would think we should take immediately, but rather work towards, so that if we see pitfalls, we can turn another way.

P.S. If vouchers work for education(a universal resource), could they work for Health Insurance?

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Lots of americans will tell you this is the land of equal opportunity. Everyone gets a fair shot at achieving the american dream, the house, the car and the picket fence. That's mostly true. There's a good chance for almost everyone to get at least a high school education, and at least education for a trade. The fairness and equality of our way of life depends on the equality of opportunity, since we have decided not to go the route of equality of results(and thank goodness for that).

Our education system is the cornerstone of fairness and equality in our society. Many people lament that certain demographic groups are overrepresented in high positions(namely, white males). Certainly there is some prejudice that accounts for the discrepancy. The various areas blamed are hiring, promotion and retention. I believe these to be account for only a small percentage of the discrimination. I think that in the corporate world, a large majority either no longer have, or no longer allow prejudices when making these kinds of decisions. Certainly, there are exceptions, and in particular, women in the workplace have difficulties with fairness in promotion and retention. However, most of the discrimination occurs at the level of preparation for a job. White, middle-class children come out of public schools(or private ones) better prepared for college, or an entry level job, than inner-city kids of any race. Kids in Japan are better prepared than either group here.

With that in mind, our education system needs improvement. It needs a fairer distribution of funds and resources, a more efficient use of those funds and resources, and just plain more money. Any solution to our problems should address all three of those issues.

Many conservatives advocate the application of market principles(through vouchers) to education in order to increase the efficiency of the system. They ignore or are ignorant of the importance of equality in education to the core equality of our society. It is possible that a free market approach to education would increase fairness, but by no means is it guaranteed.

Many conservatives want to use federal oversight to increase teacher accountability(no child left behind). The federal government is the wrong level of government to tackle this problem. Teacher accountability can only be determined in the classroom. It is a state and local problem. However, much of the money for education is federally controlled. This needs to change. In fact, it is a problem not specific to education. Many programs that are state-run, or should be state-run, are federally funded, meaning the federal government pulls the strings. To fix this, states need to raise taxes, and federal taxes need to be lowered. Same amount of money, but different allocation. States are more able to experiment and learn from each other, and as smaller beauracracies, are better equipped to change.

To fix our education system, we need experimentation. For example, there are studies that link effectiveness to class size, with smaller classes being more effective. Yet public schools have not adopted a smaller class size. Two reasons this is so:

1. Lack of money. It costs more to have smaller classes. It means more teachers per student, more classrooms, and possibly new schools.
2. Lack of motivation. Public schools have little motivation for change. Money is tied to test scores(due to no child left behind) and student attendance. Thus, those are the things they try to fix. Ask a teacher, and they'll tell you that getting good test scores means teaching to the test. And teaching to the test does not mean better education. In most cases, it means worse.

The reason conservatives want to apply market principles is that markets are designed to use resources efficiently. A side effect is increased research and experimentation in business models. Using resources more efficiently is one way to increase available money. But it only increases funding to the point that the current system is using the funding inefficiently. There may be need for further increases in funding.

But to preserve/enhance equality, vouchers should not be augmented by personal funds. This limits the ability of the rich to have advantages over the poor. They may still opt out entirely of the voucher system, but still are required to contribute to the taxes that fund vouchers.

That's the beginning of my thoughts on education. What do you think?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Netflix pressure

So, I just added a new stress to my life. I didn't realize what I'd done until my brother pointed it out to me. I now have a queue of movies, a to do list. It's about 100 movies long. The pressure is starting to get to me. If I don't watch this movie soon, the next one will never get here, and if I don't whittle down my queue, I'll never get to the end!

edit: I just found a discussion about this on Slashdot

Netflix has a feature that allows you to watch certain movies on your computer. Since we have our computer hooked up to our tv, that's actually a fantastic way to watch movies. Since signing up for netflix on July 1, I have watched:

Charlie Wilson's War
The Hot Rock
La Vie en Rose
The Way We Were
Seven Years in Tibet
The Candidate
Les Miserables
Empire Records
Mean Girls
Vanity Fair
Noi the Albino
Once upon a time in China
East of Eden
I'm Reed Fish
In the Time of Butterflies

Yes, that is 18 movies in 10 days. You may wonder, how do you watch almost 2 movies a day? Don't you work? don't you eat? don't you have eyes, legs, and a brain? I'm odd. I have trouble working in silence. When it's quiet, I start to fidget. My brain gets uncomfortable, and tries to distract me. So, when I'm working at home(which is every day), I usually try to have some background noise. Music is ok, but conversations are better. I have certain podcasts(from NPR) that I listen to, and I have some shows that I download. When we had television through iProvo, I would have espn sportscenter on in the background, or Law and Order reruns on TNT(they're infinite). Summers have always been a bit more difficult to find content, especially now that we don't have cable. So now netflix takes up the slack. Plus these last two weeks have been really slow at work. Summers are always a slow time for us.