My job as an in-class math tutor at a Title I middle school in Austin has come to an end. Some thoughts a week after I finished, some of which I have written about before:

  • There needs to be a new incentive system. Merit pay or bonuses based on performance have their flaws. But something definitely needs to change. Positive incentives for rewarding hard-working teachers need to be present just as much as sanctions for lazy teachers. How to fully evaluate it? I don’t know. But something needs to be done. The lack of accountability for everyone in the entire system seems outrageous.
  • The “schools” can’t be confused with the “education system.” Policy can be changed regarding teacher incentives, administration decisions, and funding. But the fact is that performance in schools reflects society as a whole, for better or for worse. In the case of my school, low-performance comes from things as broad as low English language proficiency, broken down homes, lack of finances, and overarching discipline problems that start way before the kids get to school. The welfare state solution known as the American public school system is not equipped, and frankly shouldn’t be equipped, to solve all of these problems. As such, I now know that comparing American test scores or performance to other developed countries without our cultural and lingual homogeneity or relatively small welfare state is not fair at all. Korean or Danish results cannot be expected to be replicated.
  • Apathy: it consume everyone, even the most well-intentioned. The state of American schools is so dire that even the most highly motivated person can’t help but be defeated. One amazing teacher can change many kids’ lives forever. But even then it takes 16-hour days and often times the satisfaction won’t be seen for years to come. There are so many problems with the kids that come to low-performing schools, especially in terms of behavior, that one cannot help but feel helpless against all the problems. Suddenly, it’s easy to get in the mindset of “there’s only so much I can do” that one gives up on turning the children into well-functioning members of society. Helplessness blues sets in and it’s easier to pass the kids onto the next grade than give the extra mile for the 1% chance that you make a demonstrable difference. This is tough.
  • While I still think the incentive scheme for teachers, administrators, and staff are pretty shoddy, this experience has made me blame the aforementioned personnel a lot less. From a statistical perspective, America spends so much on education and gets so little out of it. It’s easy to blame this on the monopoly of the public school system and teachers unions. There’s still a lot to be said for the detrimental effect of low school competition and the monopsony of teachers unions, but I now realize that comparing America’s performance to other countries is very much an apples and oranges comparison. The schools’ low performance is a reflection of society as a whole and not just the “system.”

NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently exposed one of the strangest yet most important point about college tuition costs today. Although college tuition has increased by gargantuan amounts in the last couple decades, this doesn’t take into account what people are actually paying.

The list price of college has definitely gone up, as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have been talking about in their campaigns. But this doesn’t mean people are actually spending that much on it. The average sticker price of a private college is $28,500 for the current school year. What the average person pays? $12,970. That’s essentially the same as the $12,650 students paid in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2000-2oo1.

The difference between the “sticker price” and the actual cost comes from financial aid, grants, scholarships, etc – usually from the colleges/universities themselves. So what’s the deal? Pretty simple, when you think about it. You go to a store and see two seemingly similar sweaters, both priced at $30 – except one has been marked down from $50. They both look the same so you might as well take the one that was marked down, right? You assume you’re getting a $50 quality sweater for the same price as the other. Similarly, if a college is insanely expensive you think that that price is a signaling of quality of sorts. Further, giving prospective students huge grants or aid after they get in is a sneaky way to “recruit” students by convincing them that they are truly wanted at the institution.

This means that college tuition payment is fairly progressive. Those that can pay $50,000 a year are paying it. And, sometimes, those with very little money are paying close to nothing. The price of college is still a barrier financially for many, but the amount of aid given definitely needs to be taken into consideration.

I still think American colleges feature way too many frills and is too expensive nonetheless, but at least the amount paid isn’t skyrocketing as much as we think it is.

Now that the life-or-death STAAR test is done in the class I work in, less academic matters have taken over the classroom. Right now, we are focusing on nutrition. In addition to keeping a food log, we are watching Super Size Me. While the merits of the movie are a matter for a later debate, watching the movie renewed an apparent contradiction I’ve always noticed with increasing awareness about healthy eating: we are simultaneously telling people (children, mostly) 1) Americans are unhealthy, we need to be more conscious about what we eat, we need to exercise, and 2) Don’t obsess about trying to look like the air-brushed models in those magazines, we are all beautiful, don’t worry too much about body image. I think both points are valid: people should be more concerned about their physical health – which includes nutrition as well as being active by means of walking more or just outright exercise. People also should stop worrying about the two pounds of arguably excess fat on their bodies, the extra hair on whatever, or how they wish they were .00001 shades less pale than they are. I suppose girls tend to be more bombarded with pressure about body image (though don’t think for a second males don’t worry about their appearance) so I don’t totally understand the pressure for a more-perfect body.

But teaching these two lessons walk a fine line. By teaching kids to be more conscious about nutrition, we are implicitly telling them that they don’t look good. In Super Size Me, and most campaigns to raise awareness about healthy eating, the most common image I see is the shock value of showing a morbidly obese person. It makes sense. After all, there is something very convincing about the image of someone that is clearly unhealthy and unattractive in a physical sense. Especially for kids, the idea of being that fat and being prey to the judgmental peers of adolescence is enough to eat fruits and veggies and exercise. Or is it?

Unfortunately what I’m about to say is currently politically incorrect: we should be shamed by people who are five hundred pounds and the image should give us motivation to be healthy. For some reason, as Jacob Sullum of Reason Magazine points out in Super Size Me, obese people can’t yet be criticized in society like we criticize chain smokers or drug addicts. Smoking crack or cigarettes to the point of self-deprecation both produce repulsive images of things we don’t want to be. Lack of will power aside, the vast majority of the population has the ability and means to not be a chain smoker, meth addict, or five hundred pounds.

But pushing this “shame” too much then goes into the other murky waters: you don’t want to be like this; these people are bad; these people are so bad that you need to be super skinny. But then kids get so skinny they don’t eat enough and develop eating disorders. Or they just simply starve themselves (the food logs I see of my students have a disturbingly low amount of calories…that will be tackled in part II of this post).

So pushing the idea that you don’t want to look like these fat people has the negative unintended consequence of people overcompensating and being too skinny, by certainly unhealthy means. And then pushing the idea too far that you shouldn’t be concerned at all about body image gives people the impression that it’s ok to totally neglect your health and it’s fine to have the consequences of bad nutrition and lack of exercise.

I don’t have an answer for how exactly to put across these two messages without getting the negative side-effects of both. My main prescription would be to encourage a more active life-style with exercise. Exercise, after all, increases hunger for healthy foods and just improves everything in your physical health.

Sorry for the long time without posts.  I moved to Bordeaux, France, about a month ago, and I’ve been scrambling around trying to find an apartment and jumping through various administrative hoops in order to comply with French employment and immigration laws.  I don’t have internet set up in my apartment yet, so I haven’t really been able to blog.  As I get settled in I’m hoping to start writing here more regularly.  One of my friends just posted on my Facebook wall inquiring about the lack of posts, so here’s a quick update, with more to come soon.

I’m working here as an English teaching assistant in a public lycée, which means that I’m responsible for running conversational English classes with French high school students.  But ever since I’ve been here, the French public has been protesting/striking in response to a recently passed retirement benefits reform that changes the age of retirement for many French workers from 60 to 62.

The high schoolers that I teach deploy a method of protest that I’ve never encountered before.  Rather than just skipping class and marching around chanting slogans and waving homemade signs, they actually gather as groups in school entryways and form blockades so that even students who want to attend school are unable to do so.  Interestingly, teachers and students who are part of an intensive program preparing them for the ultra-selective French Grandes Ecoles (sort of like the Ivy League of France) are allowed to pass through.  So when I approach the gatekeepers of the blockade and explain that I’m a teacher, they let me by.  But often students who want to go to class but cannot because of the blockade attempt to slip in behind me, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  The absurdity of it all is amplified when I remind myself that all of this excitement is ostensibly about retirement reform, but that’s France for you, I suppose.

Yeah, it’s a sample size of one. But this is a pretty good story of what charter schools can do.

I am well aware of the drawbacks of so-called “merit pay” for teachers. Among the many problems, paying teachers for performance can lead to things like: “teaching to the test”, undervaluing the non-academic aspects of teaching, and/or discourage people from teaching in lower quality schools. Just like any other pay system, merit pay has its problems.

But can you name another profession, especially one as widespread as teaching, where pay is never based on quality but instead purely on experience and how many degrees you have? Not only do teachers’ unions want to block merit pay from becoming the standard by which teachers are paid, though. They are also trying to outlaw bonuses for the best teachers.

If we want to woo in the best and brightest into the teaching profession, do you think a good way to do it is make inept and uninvolved teachers get paid as much as the ones who stay at school until late at night, take an interest in their students’ personal lives, or work hard to raise students’ self-esteem?

Merit pay may be imperfect, but there’s got to be a better way to pay teachers other than number of degrees and seniority – which is what most teachers’ unions push for.

Egalitarians often point to wealth inequality as a sign that society is not doing enough to improve the conditions of the poorest. But inequality and standard of living are completely different and should be treated as two separate issues.

I remember in my AP political science class we were told that psychology tests proved that people – despite what they believed – were more concerned about relative wealth than absolute wealth. In other words, picture these two situations: I get $40 and you get $70 in situation A. In situation B, I get $30 and you get $45. In Situation A, we both have more money. We are both wealthier in absolute terms. In situation B, the inequality of our respective wealths is less, but our absolute wealth is lower; on the other hand, my relative wealth is better in B than in situation A.

I think – or at least I hope – that we all can agree that situation A is a preferred outcome, since both of us have more money which means a better standard of living (in the material sense).

One of the biggest fallacies about economics is that it is a zero-sum game. What I mean by this is that if I become ten dollars richer, I have taken it away from someone else. In other words, Bill Gates having X billions of dollars means that we are X billions of dollars poorer. Au contraire!

Market economies thrive on quite the opposite; the total amount of wealth in society is never a fixed amount. The idea is, at least in theory, that instead of artificially redistributing the “slices of pie,” making “the pie” bigger is a better way to help the worst-off in society (as Rawls himself even admitted). History, I believe, is on my side when comparing capitalism with extreme socialism or communism: the poor in the Soviet Union, East Germany, North Korea, or any African socialist utopia are much worse off than in America. In the last few decades, China and India have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty by embracing market reforms. At the same time, wealth inequality has increased. Shouldn’t that be considered a necessary evil instead of something to combat, at the possible expense of further growth?

In my internship this summer for an education think tank, I remember reading a great piece (though I can’t find it now) arguing that achievement gaps shouldn’t be considered as much as proficiency gaps between races/income groups. In other words, instead of caring about the difference in test scores between rich kids and poor kids, we should just be making sure that every child is proficient in all the necessary areas. Caring about the achievement gap can create a false sense of progress, as Carson noted in a previous post, because if the best-off people actually decrease their well-being the inequality has gone down without actually improving the standard of living for the worst-off.

Ok, so that’s my first point: absolute wealth should be considered over relative wealth. But the measurements by which we look at inequality also need to be reconsidered. Will Wilkinson recently wrote an excellent paper questioning the often-reported rise inequality in the United States, saying that, among other things:

  1. The level of real economic inequality is lower than popular treatments of the issue have led many of us to think.
  2. The level of economic inequality is an unreliable indicator of a society’s justice or injustice.
  3. Inequality distracts us from real injustices that are given too little attention.

Check it out if you’ve got time.

An example of a pie that can represent wealth distribution

An example of a pie that can represent wealth distribution

If there is anyone left who thinks the only problem with education in America is lack of money, I feel sorry for you.

Some aspects of education may be underfunded, but that’s because there’s an institutional problem with how public schools allocate money, not taxpayers being stingy.

In a recent poll by Gallup, more than half of respondents thought charter schools were private, could charge tuition, could have admissions standards, and/or taught some sort of religious values. ALL WRONG! Support for them is increasing, according to the same poll, but the general public’s knowledge of them is shockingly off.

For those who don’t know, charter schools:

  • Cannot charge tuition. They are publicly funded, on average spending 70% of traditional public schools.
  • Have just as much difficulty expelling students as traditional public schools.
  • Have randomized lotteries for admission, so no ability-based admission is permissible.
  • Cannot be religiously affiliated.

Charter schools are public in that they can’t choose whom they admit and use taxpayer dollars. They differ from most public schools because they are run by private organizations that are free from many regulations that hold back public schools. Their teachers are also often not unionized.

The following is an op-ed I wrote for the Koch Fellowship about school choice being the best way to capture the immeasurable aspects of education that bureaucrats, standardized tests, and old men at Harvard can’t objectively figure out. School choice isn’t perfect, I know. But I had a word limit, so bear with me:

Perhaps teachers’ unions are correct to say that standardized tests are poor measures of teachers, schools, and student achievement, but there is a way to hold schools accountable and judge whether a school is delivering on the essential immeasurable areas: school choice. There’s no need for a “standardized” way of assessing schools if parents get to make their own measurements and choose accordingly.

The rationale behind school choice is simple. When given the choice of different options for schools, parents will choose schools that succeed. The schools either satisfy their customers and stay in business or fail to deliver the goods and shut down.

Teachers’ unions and education traditionalists point to studies showing the (allegedly) inconclusive effects on achievement of charter schools and vouchers. Aren’t these the same standardized tests the traditionalists say can’t be used to measure teacher effectiveness? The scores of certain charters and vouchers may be lower than those in nearby public schools, but look at the parents who are sending those kids to the “choice” schools. The popularity of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for the program’s participants shows the popularity that choice brings. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in a study looking at the opinions of minorities towards vouchers, found that “70 percent of blacks earning annual incomes less than $15,000 support vouchers for use at private and religious schools.” No matter what standardized tests say about the success of certain schools, isn’t the popularity of the schools among their respective parents the best way to truly measure their success?

Consider the market for automobiles. There is no measurable way to assess the ‘goodness’ of a car. Some people value fuel efficiency. Others value horsepower, stereo system, leather seats, trunk space, or sheer size. So how do we tell which car is the best? We don’t. Because people value different things, we give them different choices and everyone is happier compared to if we just had one one-size-fits-all automobile. Sure, sometimes cars turn out to be lemons, have a short lifespan, or are unsafe. But after a while, people come to realize the good cars from the bad and the good ones stay in business.

Now compare this to K-12 education. Some parents prioritize raising their kids with an opportunity to play scholastic sports. Others just want their child to be safe, feel welcome in a community, establish curiosity about the world, or be raised with religious values. For this reason, the colleges we can choose from are big and small, religious and secular, liberal arts and vocational, diverse and homogenous, conservative and liberal, party schools and dry schools. Someone at Brigham Young doesn’t care how well Berkeley’s students do on a standardized test because Brigham Young’s students value different aspects of a college. The same subjective valuing applies to K-12 schools. Why should we try to have a one-size-fits-all K-12 education system? Public schools can have corrupt administrators, poorly manage their funds, or have an ineffective curriculum. But because parents often have little choice, unlike the market for automobiles, bad public schools often don’t go out of business. In fact, they frequently get more money.

As long as parents are, on the whole, more satisfied with the charters or voucher schools they send their kids, doesn’t that make them a success? Let’s expand choice and allow the parents to decide what’s best for their children.