Benchmark-free Education

January 2, 2016

We judge an education by comparing it to a standard or other educations. Sally, an eighth-grader, met the eighth-grade benchmark at the end of the year. Success for Sally! And her school! More students at her school than the one down the road met the benchmark. There is something wrong down the road. Losers!

But, what if Sally entered the eighth grade already able to meet the benchmark? What was her school’s duty to her in that case, and did it meet that duty? How could anyone tell?

If we evaluate the school by how many eighth graders met eighth-grade standards, then we don’t care whether it taught Sally anything. She began the year already able to meet the standards. So, what was her school’s duty to her?

If you believe in “school equity” you believe the school should neglect students like Sally. Many resources (the teacher’s one-on-one time, for instance) are finite. Investing them in a student who can already meet the benchmark, means withholding  them from a student below benchmark. That will lower the number of benchmark-meeting students, reduce equity, and mark the school as a failure.

We create “equal” distributions by compressing ranges–of wealth, education, etc. Devaluing the further progress of high achievers may (or not) be valid in the case of wealth, but it is offensive to do that to someone’s education.

So, affluent parents of a high-achieving student often send that kid to private school. It’s their duty to their child not to care about equity.

What if schools didn’t have a duty to maximize the number of students that meet a standard based on averaging? Suppose a teacher’s sole purpose were to guide the student to fulfill her own potential, whatever that may be. What would that classroom look like? How would it define “equity”? How would we measure the teacher’s effectiveness?








Waiting for Superman, Teachers’ Unions, Political Donations

August 13, 2012

Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. (SPJ)

Waiting for Superman

Taken together, the two biggest teacher’s unions, the NEA and AFT, are the largest campaign contributors in the country. Over the last 20 years, they’ve given over $55 million to federal candidates and their parties, more than the Teamsters, the NRA or any other individual organization.


“Taken together,” the NEA (National Education Association) and AFT (American Federation of Teachers) are not an individual organization. The comparison is misleading. From 1989-2012, the NEA ranked 5th among political contributions by special interests, behind AFSCME (a conglomeration of local unions), AT&T Corp. and the National Association of Realtors.

The NEA and the AFT are the only organizations representing the interests of teachers. The proper comparison is between organizations serving teachers “taken together” and organizations serving other interests “taken together.” For example, how do the political donations of teachers’ unions compare to those of the banking industry?

Political Donors, 1989 to mid-2012

Education & Banking  
National Education Assn $42 million
Goldman Sachs $39 million
American Federation of Teachers $34 million
Citigroup Inc $30 million
American Bankers Assn $26 million
JPMorgan Chase & Co $25 million
Morgan Stanley $23 million
Bank of America $21 million
UBS AG $18 million
Credit Suisse Group $15 million
Merrill Lynch $14 million
Teachers’ Unions $76 million
Banks & Investment Banks $211 million

“Taken together,” the banking industry is the largest campaign contributor in the country. Its political donations are almost triple those of the teachers’ unions.

The organizations that should be “taken together” are those that share self-interests. The self-interest of the rest of the financial sector overlaps that of the banks (they all want financial deregulation, for example):

Other Interest Groups in Financial Sector  
National Assn of Realtors $44 million
Credit Union National Assn $21 million
Deloitte LLP $20 million
Ernst & Young $20 million
PricewaterhouseCoopers $19 million
AFLAC Inc $17 million
Natl Assn/Insurance & Financial Advisors $17 million
American Institute of CPAs $14 million
American Financial Group $13 million
KPMG LLP $13 million
New York Life Insurance $12 million
Prudential Financial $11 million
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance $11 million
MetLife Inc $11 million
Indep Insurance Agents & Brokers/America $11 million
Other Financial $254 million
Education Sector $76 million
Financial Sector $465 million

“Taken together,” the financial sector gave six times more money to political candidates and parties than the “education sector”.

Some other special interest groups, taken together:

Telecommunication Industry  
AT&T Inc $49 million
Time Warner $22 million
Verizon Communications $22 million
Comcast Corp $15 million
BellSouth Corp $13 million
TOTAL $121 million
*Communications Workers of America $32 million
Military Industry  
Lockheed Martin $22 million
General Electric $22 million
Boeing Co $18 million
Northrop Grumman $15 million
General Dynamics $14 million
Honeywell International $14 million
Raytheon Co $13 million
TOTAL $118 million
*Machinists & Aerospace Workers Union $28 million

* Relevant unions, which I didn’t count in the industry totals, although they have overlapping interests.

Waiting for Superman’s statement that “…the NEA and AFT are the largest campaign contributors in the country” is absurd. It violates the journalist’s pledge to serve the public with honesty.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

July 1, 2012

I was disappointed. It was merely clever. The theme was unoriginal.

Life is something you do, something done to you. It’s an old saw. It’s the main theme of Greek myths. Vonnegut didn’t add much.

He re-surfaced it in an amusing way. The aliens, Tralfamadorians, are the Fates. Maybe politicians are the gods.

Both Homer and Vonnegut take war as the stage for their look at fate. Is there a difference? We don’t accept the inevitability of war (do we?). Vonnegut was sarcastic, Homer sincere.

But sarcasm is never deep.

Obamacare & Individual Mandate

March 29, 2012

I’m libertarian about society, communist about the environment, and intellectually intrigued by the large middle ground. Government-mandated health insurance is not in the middle ground; it has nothing to do with the environment. So, as a matter of principle, I oppose it. Of course, by that same principle, I oppose public education. I wonder why all the protestors denouncing the Affordable Care Act as socialism aren’t also screaming at first-graders attending public school.

To continue this theme of consistency in our society: There is nothing unprecedented about the government forcing people to buy something. Every act of income taxation is an example. Unless people are free to choose not to have income, it is nonsense to argue that taxing income and then buying stuff with it is not forcing people to buy stuff.

So, the Supreme Court’s comparison of the individual mandate to forcing people to buy broccoli is dumb. The government does, in fact, force people to buy broccoli: It forces them to pay taxes on the process of earning a living, and then it spends some of that tax revenue on school and military lunches, some of which undoubtedly include broccoli.

The comparison is also dumb because the government forces hospitals to provide emergency room services, regardless of an ability to pay. It doesn’t force grocery stores to hand out free food, regardless of an ability to pay.

There are certainly ways that the individual mandate fails to make sense. Most of its advocates are prone to saying that healthcare is a fundamental human right. Well, a fundamental right is, by definition, something it’s wrong to make you pay for. You don’t have to pay the government for a speedy trial, or to exercise free speech, or to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. So, if healthcare is a right, why are liberals trying to make us pay for it?

Movie Ratings

January 21, 2011

In the U.S., frequent swearing will cause a movie to be rated R. For example, “The King’s Speech” has no violence, no sexuality, no controversial issues. It’s about learning to overcome a speech impediment. The protagonist doesn’t stutter when he’s angry, which presents a natural starting point for his therapy:

That scene got it an R rating.

In “It’s Complicated,” the main characters smoke a little marijuana, without negative consequence. That also caused it to be rated R:

Meanwhile, in “Speak” the main character is sexually assaulted. It is PG-13):

Is that really safer for 13-year olds without parental guidance than speech-therapy?

The U.S. is the most violent developed country. It has an approach to pop culture that endorses violence as entertainment suitable for children. Sexual assault is more suitable than adults smoking a joint or stutterers who curse. Is it just a coincidence that violence is common in both our society and our entertainment?

Other violent scenes from PG-13 movies:

Lord of the Rings:

“X-Men 2”:

The Colonel’s Lady, by Somerset Maugham

January 5, 2011

What’s it about? A husband who doesn’t understand his wife. His wife’s pursuit of alternatives to passionless marriage, which results in an affair and then a book of poetry about it. Did they have marriage counseling back then? (The story was written in 1946.)

The theme reminds me a little of Flannery O’Connor (in a very different setting). The colonel is too narrow for his own good, but well-intentioned. His assumptions about the world seem mainly intended to please the ego. Like all such assumptions, they can only remain intact by a careful tailoring of circumstance, which he perpetrates until his wife’s book forces a confrontation with some unsettling truths. That’s the gist of the story. His denial of reality never disappears, however, as the ending makes clear. Where O’Connor tends to tell stories about the consequences of inflexibility, this story is more of a study of how ingrained in human nature it is.

It’s sort of feminist, which is interesting. Some of the colonel’s character flaws can be attributed to a patriarchal culture. He is patronizing toward his wife. He assumes all the flaws (that he perceives) with the marriage are his wife’s fault (such as a lack of children). Maybe the feminism is dated, however. I wonder how a contemporary re-telling might differ. It might hold the wife more accountable, or at least explore the topic of her accountability. What did she contribute to the marriage? We know she had an affair. She surreptitiously wrote poems about it, and surreptitiously published them. Neither partner is shown contributing to the marriage. The circumstance of the times, and the slant of the narrative, cast blame on the colonel. What light would modern circumstance, and a balanced narrative, cast on similar events?

Another problem with corporate bailouts

December 28, 2010

The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, says American companies have created 1.4 million jobs overseas this year, compared with less than 1 million in the U.S. ….”There’s a huge difference between what is good for American companies versus what is good for the American economy,”

Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen by Garth Nix

December 20, 2010

Lately, I’ve been reading young-adult literature (YAL) of types that didn’t exist when I was a kid. This has mainly meant stories with female action heroes. I really liked the Sterkharm Handshake (the first 50 pages are a tad slow, but it’s great after that). Sabriel and its successors, officially dubbed The Old Kingdom Series, are good too.

I like fantasy that has a cosmology behind it. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have an explanation of a moral and cosmic order. They are essentially kinds of myth creation, planned for the purposes of young-adult literature. The Harry Potter books lack a cosmological theme.

Sabriel has that. The magic has roots in the creation of the universe; there’s an explanation of how order came from chaos.

A principal theme of The Old Kingdom series is death. It tends to be a principle theme of much modern myth-inventing, but in a simplistic way. Typically, fantasy is based on a struggle betweeen good and evil; good is represented by life and love, while hate and death stand in for evil. These books by Garth Nix are a little different. The protagonist is a necromancer, a sorcerer of the dead. Necromancers are universally evil in literature; Voldemort is a necromancer, for instance.

In Sabriel, necromancers can be evil, but they are also good. They send zombies into death (where they belong). They maintain the order of life by preserving death as a natural part of it. This is a somewhat unusual, and nice, way to treat death in youth literature. Death is not equated with evil, but considered a natural part of life.

How to grade schools

September 22, 2010

The popular methods seem to involve test scores and graduation rate. Test scores are a valid part, but only a part: education is not test prep. Graduation rate shouldn’t be a factor at all, since it isn’t independent of school policies.

A natural approach would be to identify the measurable effects of education. Then, identify the non-school factors influencing those outcomes. Then, predict outcomes based on those factors. Achievement beyond the prediction is probably due to the schools. For example….

Measurable outcomes of schooling probably include SAT scores, college attendance, college success, employment, and crime rate. These are aspects of a post-schooling life influenced by education.

Non-school influences on those outcomes probably include the average (and median) income and educational level of neighborhood families.

So, a given level of income and education in a school’s families should predict a certain level of outcomes (SAT scores, crime rate, etc.) in the school’s students after they finish school. If the school does better than what is predicted, it is a successful school.

Generally, statsitics are relevant to groups. This method wouldn’t work at all in assessing individual teachers. It might be better at assessing districts than schools. All such methods are aproximate. Something is always lost in a statistical snapshot.

Impressions of Beijing

March 6, 2009

* Grey. Air-pollution, anti-trendy (“proletariat”) clothing, monolithic cement buildings.
* Beautiful. The ancient temples and dynastic grounds are magnificent.
* Indifferent. It reminds me more of New York than Seoul.
* Uncommercial (relative to Korea and the West). But, does it count when it’s a product of tyranny?
* Stories. Lots and lots of stories in the faces of the old.
* Libertarian. The free-market distribution of smoking and non-smoking bars is accepted as a just distribution. They’re not Communist like America.
* OK, not really. Amusing (sadly so) factoid: The Lonely Planet Guides for China are banned because China and Taiwan are different colors on the map.


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