Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Well after more than a year without posting – here goes!  As per my habit, this post is in reference to an article I just read.  And equally as usual it is from the Wall Street Journal – it is from the WSJ’s “random” section on the bottom of the front page.

The article is called, “A Youngster’s Bright Idea Is Something New Under the Sun”, and is about a 13-year old boy named Aidan Dwyer who won a science competition this past summer based on an idea he had about placing solar panels in the same array as leaves on a tree – hypothesizing that maybe there is a benefit to following nature’s design.

Aidan was a winner in the competition, showing that a leaf array of solar panels produced more energy… but what is interesting has been what happened afterward.  A minor uproar came up when it was discovered that Aidan had measured the wrong electrical output from the panels (voltage alone, rather than power which is combo of voltage and current) thus leading to suspicion of his results and the idea in general.

Two things stood out to me in this article.  First, the Journal talks about the response from the internet – “bad science” and “impossible nonsense” were some of the choice quotes the article pointed to.  Scientists – both amateur and professional seem to have a nasty streak .  He is a thirteen after all and just had an idea he was encouraged to explore, but I guess that doesn’t matter to many people.  Get something wrong and you are toast on the interweb.  But Aidan has also been praised for his thinking, and has been invited to speak at numerous conferences, so it hasn’t been all bad.

But the second, and most interesting, thing that piqued me was this quote from assistant professor Jan Kleissl from UCSD about Aidan’s plan for a revised experiment:

I’m certain that he will not find that his arrangement is better.  I think it’s a romantic ideal that nature has many lessons for us, and there are a few cases where this is true, but in the majority of cases we could teach nature, in a way, how to be better, faster.

Wow – how nice of Dr. Kleissl to offer nature the benefit of a “few cases” where it is better than our scientists.  I’d be very curious to hear Kleissl discuss these areas.  Have we improved upon the speed and power of lightning?  Have we developed a self-contained ecosystem on the scale of say… the ocean?   Have we developed a robot with five senses as acute as a human?  Holy shite balls this seems ludicrous.

Is it just me?

P.S.  Feels good to be back.  Sorry for the layoff, and hope I can continue to post from time to time.

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While the character Joseph Cinque wanted his “free” from slavery in the film Amistad… it is interesting to note a separate group that wants its “free” in education.  Not that I am striving to be the European protest announcer, but tempers have stirred again, and the students in London are not happy about University’s charging fees.  To be honest, I don’t know much about the British school system (perhaps Elijah can provide some insight) and so don’t know if all education is entirely free at the University level or what.  But if Harry Potter has taught me anything it is that the O.W.L’s are tough.

Also again I wish to point out that regardless of the merit of either side’s argument, I doubt that breaking windows and throwing fire extinguishers down from rooftops onto the police is a brave act of protest against… oppression??

When you ask for fees in order to f**k, that is called prostitution young lady. And we won't stand for that

I’m sure some will think it is important to add that the 50,000 students that showed up were intent on peaceful disruption, and that it was a gang of hooligans that got things going.  That said, it didn’t appear to take too much of a spark to get that fire going.

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A Profitable School

CAI had a robust discussion on the idea of vouchers a while back, and I kind of missed it, which was unfortunate because I’ve put a great deal of thought into the subject. Actually, what I’ve thought most about how one could make some money in the situation of vouchers.

If the goal of a voucher system is to use profit incentive as a way to improve schools, then I think it’s worth considering the best ways to make a school profitable.

It should be first noted that running a school for profit would be different than many other businesses. For one, you would be selling a service that every client is required by law to purchase. Also, your fee for that service is fixed. Therefore, the way to profit is to attract as many customers as possible and serve their needs with as little money as possible. What this means is first that you don’t need to convince anybody to buy your service, only to buy it from you. Also, you don’t get to adjust your prices to affect your profits or to attract different types of customers.

Now it is possible that the fee wouldn’t be fixed. It depends on how a voucher policy is set up. If a school is allowed to accept a voucher and charge tuition on top of that, then the best way to profit is to take an existing private school and keep the tuition the same as it already is. In this case, you simply increase your revenues by the amount of the voucher. It might seem that such a move would anger the customers, but I would strongly challenge that assumption. Deborah Meier writes about private schools in The Power of Their Ideas and points out that these schools establish their reputations through their exclusivity. In other words, the more students to whom a school can deny admittance, the better the school’s reputation. Parents in these schools want the exclusivity, and that’s one of the main reasons they pay so much money to send their children there.

Of course, that’s not likely to be the case. If a voucher system were ever to pass, I don’t think schools would be allowed to charge tuition over the voucher. In fact, what a voucher system could mean to some exclusive private schools, is that they would receive less money per child since the voucher could be less than some schools’ existing tuition.

So in this case, we’d be starting from scratch. We’d need to build our client base and develop a business plan that’s profitable using only the voucher as revenue. This means that our best hope for profit is to attract the most possible vouchers and spend the least amount possible on each child.

Of course, one could simply hire fewer teachers. The most vouchers per employee equals most profit. Once again, though, it’s a balancing act because the students need to feel they’re receiving a good experience. Also, parents are not likely to send their children to a school with too high a student-to-teacher ratio. We could, however, hire a large amount of teachers in the beginning to get customers in the door, and then once seats are filled, we could slowly reduce workforce in order to increase profits.

This is a model I see very commonly in private enterprise. I helped open a Ruby Tuesday’s in Boulder, and that’s exactly how it went. Corporate brought in their best and brightest from around the country and staffed one waiter for every two tables. This lasted about a month, at which point the best and brightest left to open up new stores and staffing went down to a 4 to 1 ratio. They were also aggressive about releasing wait staff at the first sign of a slow evening, which some times increased the ratio to 8 to 1. (more…)

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A couple things lately have piqued my interest about President Obama.

  1. The government okaying wind-farms off Nantucket… which had been stalled for nine years (mostly, as the story is told, because Ted Kennedy and other hoighty-toighties didn’t want their vacation home views interrupted).  Good work to Obama to forge ahead despite that view held by many democratic supporters… although I wonder if he would have if TK was still alive.
  2. Dept. of Education’s Race to the Top program.  While regular  readers will not be unaware that I am hardly a fan of the DOE or Bush’s humongous enlarging of it with No Child Left Behind… I do want to credit the president for applying rules and language to schools fighting for fed dollars that they must be willing to reform their practices on how they hire and fire teachers.  Language such as:

    reforming and improving teacher preparation; revising teacher evaluation, compensation, and retention policies to encourage and reward effectiveness; and working to ensure that our most talented teachers are placed in the schools and subjects where they are needed the most.

    The White House has made it clear that when it announced Tennessee and Delaware as the first winners, that having union support of reform plans was crucial… basically saying, “unions you need to realize you are going to reform, or else you aren’t getting any money.

Kudos to the president. It may be harder than I would like to find things to agree with our president on, but I think it is appropriate to point out when I do.

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I want you to ask yourself something that you know intuitively… does competition bring more benefit to the customer or the company?  I know, it’s too easy… the customer.  Competition forces organizations to do one of many options: improve their product, become more efficient and lower their costs, decrease profit margin to attract customers, create new and exciting products.  In all these scenarios the customer wins out.  They either get a highly improved and quality product, or they can receive incredible value for their dollar in the form of low prices.

Now I want you to ask yourself… who is the customer and who is the company when thinking about education?  Obviously, the customers are the students – and indirectly, their parents as well.  And one of the easiest and most convenient ways to bring competition to education is through school vouchers.  The amount of money allotted from our government for each child’s education remains the same as it is now, but instead of the public schools getting the money directly from the government, they get it from the students (read: parents) in the form of a voucher.  So now the student has a choice of where they want to go to school, and all schools are competing for their dollar vouchers.

Who do you think will benefit most from this arrangement?  The students and parents, correct?  So who do you think would be most opposed to it?  Public-funded schools and their teachers, correct?  And it’s true, the teachers unions and school districts are the most vocal opponents of the voucher system.  But I don’t get that.  If you claim to be most concerned about students and learning… wouldn’t you support what’s best for them?

But as is typical with union mentality and protectionist measures, the interests of the few are put ahead of the many.  Competition may mean that your job isn’t as secure (how novel an idea!).  Competition may mean that others do things better than you (how novel an idea!).  Competition may mean that you don’t get a pension (how novel an idea!).  Competition may mean that you work more than 9 months a year (how novel an idea!).  Competition may mean working more hours than you previously worked (again… how novel an idea!).

But guess what?  Competition may mean that good teachers actually get paid more (unbelievable!).  Competition may mean that bad teachers are fired (aghast!).  Competition may mean that some schools will close (never!).  Competition may mean that our education system finally gets on track after years and years of a downward spiral brought on by the elimination of innovative and competitive thoughts and actions by a highly centralized bureaucracy (hope AND change!).

In addition to the competitive forces that vouchers would release… it also would seem to me to be the most fair for taxpayers.  No longer would a parent who sends their child to a private school be paying into their education twice.

Just what was running through my head this morning.

I’d love to hear the thoughts against vouchers, because from where I’m coming from I don’t see them.

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Before 2001 I had very few views on anything.  9/11 did not change that… getting out of college and working full-time did.  I was daily interacting with older people, and was working for a very smart and politically-minded writer, who’s legal scripts left me searching for what on earth he was talking about.  It was then that I started paying attention to current events, and reading about economics, business, history, education and so forth.  And the more I read and studied and discussed, the more I started to become opinionated and attached to certain philosophies.  It was then I also realized that, with few extreme exceptions, most political philosophies and theories are never enacted completely and freely to see if they work.  One word stands in their way… bipartisanship.

That hallowed word of camaraderie; working together under forced compromise.  Crossing the aisle.  Meeting in the middle.  Whatever you wished to call it, politics is all about it, and I think it causes is something that is less than it’s combined parts.  Or worse-

Health Care Reform's Ultimate End?

I am not against compromise.  It has strong value and is an incredible trait to be able to exercise… especially with spouses.  But I am more of a fan of ideas, and ideas need to be able to run their course to see if they are good or bad.  We would never have known that pure country music is so bad, except that it was released in it’s original form, instead of the more digestible alt-country format of Wilco, Band of Horses, and others.  All kidding aside, I do think that we stand a better chance of needed change and reform (if it is in fact needed) if we allow ideas to work.  And I’m not for it, just out of boredom.

Washington, D.C. is supposed to house our leaders.  But we have lost our leaders because they are all bent on reelection and must watch lest they try something and it fails.  Better to form a bipartisan coalition and we can all blame the other side if it backfires.  Well guess what?  I am willing to give your idea an unobstructed chance at health care, if you let my idea for social security go untouched.  You can have agriculture if you give me education.  We’ll check back in at the pre-appointed time to see the results.  If your idea has been a success then we all benefit.  If it hasn’t, then we try the other one… and so on, and so forth.  Done!

Problem is that there are still too many ancillary arguments to be made.  “My education idea didn’t work because it needs to be combined with an elimination of social welfare benefits and that’s your area”.  “Your farm subsidies are messing up my commerce plans!”  Plus there is the always relied upon threat of our nation’s demise.  “The Stimulus Bill is going to bankrupt the nation and we’ll never recover!”  “Allowing School Vouchers would immediately disenfranchise children all across the world!!!”  Also, how do we determine what results are considered a success?  That’s a political nightmare in itself.

But the same excuses are made within bipartisanship, so at least here we would have some more information to work with… again, theoretically.  This is all semantic arguing… neither party is likely to let the other run hog-wild with an unfettered agenda.  What if, heaven forbid, it works and voters switch allegiances?  Well, I guess that’s where the rubber meets the road.  If you think your ideas truly are the best, then you need to let them be tested.  And if you think the other guys ideas are the worst, let them be tested to prove it.  It’s what happens in laboratories, writers’ rooms, jam sessions, and anywhere else ideas are floated.  Except it seems in our state and national capitals.

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MARK ADDS: Just read something that could serve as an addendum to this post…. by Charles Winecoff at Big Hollywood.  His take is unique in that he is a gay man that challenges Jennings generally, but more specifically the agenda of progressive gay curricula pushers.  To wit:

Ninety-nine percent of gay kids are the products of straight homes, so why force the issue with a claustrophobic “queer and questioning” curriculum?  Are straight boys and girls encouraged by the state to go to titty bars and hook up with horny MILFs or divorced dads?  Why this outrageous double standard when it comes to gay kids?


A none too pretty picture of Kevin Jennings, the “czar” appointed to run the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools in the US Department of Education.  And by none too pretty, I mean his organization GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), touted to promote tolerance of homosexuality in schools, featured many texts that they offered to schools and students as suggested reading.  A highlight from one (note – sexually explicit):

My sexual exploits with my neighborhood playmates continued. I lived a busy homosexual childhood, somehow managing to avoid venereal disease through all my toddler years. By first grade I was sexually active with many friends. In fact, a small group of us regularly met in the grammar school lavatory to perform fellatio on one another.

Just what I would hope my child is encouraged to read.  And I posted one of the least explicit texts that have been found.  The explicit link above has more clips, but read at your disturbance level as you will be shocked and saddened to think this is considered educational for young people.

I’m sure there will be much spin about Jennings past, and rampant accusations of homophobia among middle America.  But the fact is that this is just another reason why I don’t want government controlling…. anything really.  This is highly inappropriate material to be putting in the hands of children.

To be clear, this is not anything the Department of Education has pushed onto students (to my knowledge), but this is the content that the founder of GLSEN, who is now running a department within the DOE, pushed and pushes from that organization.  So unless he does an about face on all his strategies and values in his former position it would seem naive to think this wouldn’t be something he would have as an agenda in his current one.

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Sounds like an ad on Facebook or something, but it’s actually the theme of a story by the Los Angeles Times about teachers in LA Unified that are “housed” – basically paid to do nothing while charges against them go through the system.

The main portion of the story details disabled teacher Matthew Kim, who gets paid $70,000 a year plus benefits to sit in a room doing crossword puzzles.  How long has this been going on?  Seven years.  Why is he waiting?  Because he has sued the district for firing him, saying it was discrimination because he is disabled.  Why does the district say it is firing him?  Because of his four counts of sexual harassment in one year.  He was only hired by the district after he sued for discrimination when he wasn’t hired by 15 schools.

In the meantime, the district has spent more than $2 million on him in salary and legal costs.

Another disturbing example of unions protecting the bad, along with the good.  But also an example of how bad school districts behave.  Most of Kim’s harassment repots came in his first year, but it wasn’t until he had been there over two years and gained tenure (wow, a whole two years for tenure?) that the district decided to TRY and fire him.

Pathetic on all counts.

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End The War On Drugs?

drugsfinalLast weeks issue of The Economist had a series on the global drug war and the cost/benefits of ending the prohibition of drugs.  Their conclusion, and one that they have held since 1988, is that “the least bad policy is to legalize drugs”.  Take a look at the article and see what you think… also be sure to read the related articles they link to on the right.

I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

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TED is holding their first conference in Long Beach next month after 20 years in Monterey, CA.  I was introduced to TED years ago when I ran across Bjørn Lomborg’s presentation at a conference.  It is an incredible organization designed to bring together innovative thinkers and doers to present their ideas on Technology, Entertainment, and Design.  Their motto is, “Ideas Worth Spreading”.

I encourage you to browse around the website, and listen to the many talks they have posted there.  They only last about 15 minutes each, so presenters are forced to focus their ideas and present well.  It’s filled with inventors, geniuses, scientists, and mathematicians you’ve never heard of, but also has Bono, and J.J. Abrams and other more well known speakers.

I would love to go to a conference, alas it is by invitation only, and also costs $6000 to attend.  Someday?  Anyway, I am pumped that Long Beach is now the home to this group.  Very cool.

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