Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Is Your Child a Pot Roast?

April 24, 2018

Do you want more choice in where you get your baby potatoes or your baby’s education?

I have a brilliant idea! We should create a system of government-run grocery stores. The government will run them according to majority-approved philosophies of food. Everyone will have to accept what is ruled best practice in food, because that’s how democracy works. We’ll subsidize these government-run grocery stores in order to provide free public nutrition.

Private grocery stores mostly won’t be able to compete with subsidized ones, but there are always niches. Health-food co-ops and splashy gourmet destinations could cater to hippy weirdos or the wealthy.

However, no government “vouchers” should be usable at private grocery stores. That would steal dollars from public nutrition.

Oh wait, my brilliant idea is really dumb.

Yet, the description does apply to a real case of how our society meets a fundamental need. Substitute “schools” and “education” in the proper spots above, and you have our system of public education.

Choice matters when many possibilities exist and your destiny is at stake. The connection between education and destiny requires no explanation. Here’s a sampling of the many possibilities:

• Benchmark-free education
• Assessment-heavy vs. assessment-light
• Lots of student choice vs. highly structured
• Lots of group-work and cooperative learning
• Lots of individual work (hey, there are no group transcripts)
• More philosophy, less literature and social studies (a study by the British Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching philosophy in elementary school improves language and math scores).
• Subjects emphasized according to economic importance, i.e. math, science, reading
• Less emphasis on subjects: described variously as phenomenon-based, interdisciplinary and holistic; aimed at understanding events and phenomena. (Finland has done this for years, and regularly tops international test scores while providing more vacation, more play, and less testing.)
• Subject specialization: arts, performing arts, science, engineering, language-immersion, etc.
Project-based learning
• More–much more–music and language in early childhood, because children learn those subjects best. (The German Socio-Economic Panel finds: “Music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance….[kids who learn an instrument]…have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.”)
• Hands-on vs. abstract
• Skills vs. creativity
• Responsible for the whole child vs. responsible for academics
• Lots of recess and play (recent Harvard study officially discovered the obvious: “Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”)
• Single-sex (some studies report substantial benefits, and others don’t)
• Multi-age classrooms
• Traditional humanities (emphasizes history of ideas, but also political power and heroes — “dead white males” — and most people find it boring).
• So-called “socialist” humanities (lives of women, marginalized groups, and the working class; might use A People’s History of the United States or Lies My Teacher Told Me as a textbook.)
• Direct instruction vs. inquiry-based or constructivist instruction

Some specific implementations include: Montessori, Playworks, Waldorf, Kipp, and other cultures with different philosophies of education and a well-educated public.

Finally, there are different beliefs about the relationship between individual and society, and accordingly different beliefs about the role of the school. In one view, the purpose of education is to preserve a culture:

….to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families, to have the courage to defend those values and the willingness to sacrifice for them.

— Ronald Reagan

But, in another view, the purpose of education is to challenge a culture:

…. to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not… examine society and try to change it and to fight it.”

— James Baldwin

There’s no reason to financially penalize families for choosing any of these educational philosophies. Any reasonable approach to education should be allowed to compete for students as an equal (to suggest otherwise is a wee bit totalitarian). Government should not be picking winners and losers among philosophies of education.

Objections to school choice are rhetorical and narrow.

Standard union propaganda is that vouchers and charter schools “steal” money from public education. That falsely equates public education with government-run schools. The common-sense meaning of “public education” is just the education of the public. A child doesn’t cease to count as a member of the public because she goes to a private school. Public funding is not reduced or “stolen” because it is paid to a private, rather than government, school.

It is true that a voucher system, with no increase in public funding to back it, would decrease the total amount of money spent on education, because it would reduce the amount of private money spent on tuition. Currently, families of private schools pay for public education twice: once in taxes to fund government-run schools, and a second time in tuition for the school they actually want. A voucher system lets them only pay once, thus reducing total spending on education. But, it is merely rhetoric to say that’s stealing. It would make more sense to say that the current system of public education “steals” from families of kids who attend private schools, by taxing them for schools that don’t meet their needs.

Another common criticism is of particular cases, rather than the underlying idea. It may be true that many implementations of school choice are corrupted by politics. But, that’s like arguing all socialist ideas have been refuted, because, you know… Stalin and stuff. Showing that Betsy DeVos is wrong is not the same as showing that school choice is wrong (not that I’m comparing the Trump administration to Stalin, or anything).

School choice is not inherently conservative. Much government-run education in America features portraits of establishment heroes, a flag in every classroom, and regular recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s meager fare for families wanting a school on the James Baldwin model. Since governments represents majorities, reducing government control empowers the margins, source of society’s most interesting thinking. Less government control means more intellectual diversity, which is inherently more educational.

Suppose all so-called “public schools” are abolished. Public education is provided by the free-market and publicly funded. In other words, everybody gets “education stamps”, i.e. vouchers. In Medicaid, families with more expensive needs get more assistance. The same would be true of education, in the case of learning disabilities.

Such a scenario does not reduce government spending on public education, i.e., the education of the public. It’s merely a different model.

How would it be better? A reasonable libertarian position places the burden of proof on authority. Advocates of government monopoly, not their opponents, should have to go first and prove their case. Nonetheless, here are some good reasons to consider a subsidized, free-market approach to public education.

Less government means less politics.

Education is traditionally very political, and that harms it. The aforementioned propaganda is a typical example, and it’s trivial to imagine other ways damage is done when education is politicized.

Suppose you and other families want a type of education not offered by your district, say, more music in early childhood. How would that work traditionally? First, you would take your idea for a music-immersion school to the proper government agency. You would meet with an “education administrator”, an evolutionary descendant of politicians, who would nod politely and understand your feelings.

Since having your feelings understood was not your goal, your fellow parents and you are outraged. Since you are outraged, you make a lot of snarky Facebook posts and gain an audience with the superintendent who nods politely and understands your feelings.

You might try partnering with the teachers’ unions. Good luck! They see school choice as a threat to “public education” (by which they mean, unionized education). You could probably wrangle a meeting with a labor leader who would nod politely and understand your feelings.

Eventually, a reporter nibbles at the cheese of many angry parents, and your issue assumes its place in the natural order as a source of ad revenue for Google.

That’s the traditional account of public education in America. The stereotype always oversimplifies. Often as a result of grassroots activism by parents, school districts nowadays often offer a variety of approaches to education, such as publicly funded Montessori, magnet, and immersion schools. These options are often implemented as charter schools, precisely because parents’ power to choose has forced the institution of public education to adapt in order to stay relevant.

In general, more choice means less bickering about everything. It’s harder to blame the government for the lack of a music-immersion school, if the public can enroll in such a school without financial penalty yet nobody takes the initiative to start one. It’s also harder to complain if somebody does start a music-immersion school, and it can’t maintain sustainable enrollment. That’s true logically, but more importantly (since people hate logic), it is true psychologically. A society that expects the government to solve every problem will tend to have a blaming culture.

We keep hearing that education in America is broken, and international test scores prove it, and the reason it is broken is that it cares too much about test scores. Rather than engage in these illogical and endless arguments over whether “schools” (what schools? some schools? all? most?) emphasize testing too much, too little, or just the right amount, we should simply let parents choose whether they want a test-oriented school, or not.

Of course, maximizing school choice doesn’t mean lowering standards. The food supply is regulated and subject to standards, yet allows a free-market level of choice. You have to spend food stamps on real food, and you should have to spend vouchers on real education. Schools should not be allowed to deny global warming, promote religion, or teach respect for President Trump. The pursuit of truth has a few bare minimums.

More choice means better data for research.

We have farmer’s markets, food co-ops, Walmart, and Whole Foods, as well as organic, conventional, local, and free-range because people have both a) different philosophies about food, and b) the power to choose. Choice is what creates opportunities that the free-market fills, and the opportunities provide information about what people value and what works.

Equal funding for all legitimate philosophies of education means more kinds of schools. It means more tests of hypotheses about education, and that advances the science of education.

Maybe, by offering more choices, we meet more needs, and graduate more students. Maybe maximizing kinds of education maximizes human potential.

The bottom line is that educating is an art, just like raising a child is an art, and there are infinite ways to paint, sculpt or play music.

Monet serves one purpose, and Pollock another. They may serve the same purpose for different people, different purposes for the same person, or the same purpose for the same person at different times, and all the possible combinations in-between.

Usually I shop at my locally owned health-food store. Sometimes I want Safeway. Costco is just Walmart for liberals, and Whole Foods is so pretentious. Nonetheless, they all serve a purpose or they wouldn’t survive, and having a choice of whatever flourishes when everyone has choice is good.

A true free-market in education, actually identical to how we obtain groceries, may prove unworkable. Math is not a banana. (For one thing, kids like bananas.) The thought-experiment aims to sharpen thinking about schools and freedom, and especially to increase awareness of stereotypes and propaganda. Charter and private schools do not “steal” from public education: they educate the public, they are public education. School choice is not religious in principle. It is anti-dogma in principle, valuing the fit between school and student, asserting the validity of many paths. More school choice means less politics: more tests of hypotheses about schools, more science in the exploration of education, and more honesty.

Choice in education is morally equivalent to choice in how to live your life. If your life begins as a blank canvas, then your brushes and box of paints are your education, and everybody deserves a free choice of tools as they paint their masterpiece.


Jazz History, Race History

June 30, 2016

A lot of old jazz videos have entered the public domain, and can be seen on YouTube. This one is a fascinating study in so many ways:


Louis Armstrong nearly single-handedly invented the improvised solo, and thus what we now think of as jazz, with implications for rock as well (so-called “guitar gods” like Hendrix, Clapton, etc….). So, this is American history and music history in the making.

It also reminds me of a Miles Davis comment on Armstrong, acknowledging Armstrong’s legacy, yet adding something to the effect of “But I couldn’t stand all the smiling he did.” There’s some clowning in this video, presumably to please a white audience, seemingly a perfect fit for another Miles Davis observation on race:

White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians — just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race. It goes clear back to the slavery days. That was when Uncle Tomming got started because white people demanded it. Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing. –Miles Davis, 1962

Needless to say, a Miles Davis video roughly 30 years later, shows a very different demeanor:

In high school I was best in music class on the trumpet, but the prizes went to the boys with blue eyes. I made up my mind to outdo anybody white on my horn….

I don’t dig people in clubs who don’t pay the musicians respect. You ever see anybody bugging the classical musicians when they are on the job and trying to work?

Of course, there is nature as well as nurture. Armstrong was, by all accounts, a playful extrovert by nature, and that very playfulness probably led him down the path of increasingly improvised music. Davis was, by all accounts, a surly introvert, smiling so rarely he named one of his albums “Miles Smiles” in reference to his reputation (it’s one of my favorite Miles Davis albums, I might add).



Parental Homophobia

June 18, 2016

I’ve never seen a pride-based logo or meme for being the parent of a gay child. There are plenty of expressions of parental pride, such as “My child is an honor student at…”, and I once saw a bumpersticker proclaiming “My child can kick you honor student’s butt!” (I’m ashamed to say I giggled). And, there are many expressions of gay pride and straight support for the gay community. But, I’ve never seen an expression of specifically parental support.

Why does it matter? It’s widely reported that parental homophobia is very destructive, since it teaches the kids to hate themselves. It’s also a well-known cause of teen homelessness. Articles like these are increasingly common, and back in the late 90’s when I volunteered at an agency for homeless youth, we were told as part of our regular training that gay and lesbian kids being kicked out by their parents was a common cause of homelessness.

On that note, a few sketches of something that could go on a t-shirt, or become a meme in some way….

ppgc The triangle-heart combination seems a bit awkward, as a matter of graphic design. A friend suggested the pink triangle had a negative historical connotation, since it originated with the Nazis, although I think the gay community has completely reappropriated it.

Another style…..

rainbowheart ppgc

Some do-it-yourself design sites are set up to make this easy on a retail basis.

Maybe I’m out to lunch, having no personal experience with the issue. It’s just a thought that popped into my head after working with marginalized teens, reading articles such as the one from Rolling Stone, and then a story on NPR yesterday that the Orlando shooter may have had repressed same-sex interest. Basically, parents who support their LGBT children are good role-models for “at-risk” parents, so why not give them a vehicle to play that role?

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 devote fewer resources to 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 possibly mark the school as “failing.”.

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 wrong 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.

Waiting for Superman


“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.

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.

Seventeen years ago

April 25, 2006

On Dec. 21, 1988 Pan American World Airways Flight 103 exploded during its flight from London to New York. All 259 people on board died, as did 11 in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, where the plane crashed. The newspapers described how a “middle-aged woman…fell to the floor, on her back, screaming ‘Oh my baby! Oh my baby!'” when informed of what happened.

A record cold snap swept down through North America recently. It began in Alaska, where temperatures reached 80 below. Car tires went flat, and airplanes could not fly. Because of isolation, many Alaskans were without new supplies for prolonged periods, but no deaths were reported from the cold.

Interest rates are expected to rise, one of many reasons why most market watchers are uncertain about the direction stocks will take in the coming year. Some feel that the long-term bull-market of the last several years is over, and that a downward cycle in stock prices is about to begin.

Over 100 people cheered, sang, and lit sparklers as Ted Bundy was executed at 7:16 AM, January 24 1989. Bundy’s instruction that “The ashes are to be spread over the Washington Cascade Mountains,” was protested without effect by local residents. One caller asked “Isn’t that like releasing his spirit up there?”

An essay anthologized in The Norton Reader entitled “College Is a Waste of Time and Money” argues that college is not, in strictly financial terms, a sound investment. The essay also discussed a poll in which college professors estimated that no more than 25% of college students were “turned on” by their work. Theoretically, professors were once students; students often try to imagine what this must have been like.

From the picture windows of the Reed College library, it is especially easy to observe the lives of squirrels.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 1, 2006