Why the United States Should Look to Japan for Better Schools

“Faced with lagging test scores and pressure from the federal government, some school officials have embraced the dangerous but all-too-common view that millions of children are incapable of high-level learning.”

Brent Staples writes in the NY Times,

No Child Left Behind was based on the premise that embarrassing test scores and government sanctions would simply force schools to improve educational outcomes for all students. What has become clear, however, is that school systems and colleges of education have no idea how to generate changes in teaching that would allow students to learn more effectively. Indeed, state systems that have typically filled teaching positions by grabbing any warm body they could find are only just beginning to think about the issue at all.

Faced with lagging test scores and pressure from the federal government, some school officials have embraced the dangerous but all-too-common view that millions of children are incapable of high-level learning. This would be seen as heresy in Japan. But it is fundamental to the American system, which was designed in the 19th century to provide rigorous education for only about a fifth of the students, while channeling the rest into farm and factory jobs that no longer exist.

The United States will need a radically different mind set to catch up with high-performing competitors. For starters we will need to focus as never before on the process through which teachers are taught to teach. We will also need to drop the arrogance and xenophobia that have blinded us to successful models developed abroad.

Real Education Reform…in Denver

“The teachers union agreed. Why? Because it was brought into the discussion from the start as a partner.”

Michael Hiltzik blogs over at the LA Times,

While the crack education reformers in Gov. Schwarzenegger’s office have been busy picking fights with teachers, Denver took a step Tuesday toward real reform.

The voters there approved, by a handy 60-40 margin, a $25-million annual property tax increase to fund a new teacher pay system that may actually improve teacher performance. Here’s a curious fact: The teachers union agreed. Why? Because it was brought into the discussion from the start as a partner.

Denver ProComp links teacher pay to performance, but it’s not designed to punish. Rather, it’s a way to involve the teachers in setting their own goals and meeting them. Nor does it encourage them to set fake goals easily met—the system encourages them to be ambitious, and gives them the tools to succeed.

White Sox

My father turned 83 this year. Four years before he was born, the White Sox won their second World Series, against the Giants (they had beaten the Cubs(!) in 1906. The Sox lost to the Reds in 1919.

When I was born in Chicago in 1949 (my Dad, a Minnesota farm boy, was going to school on the GI Bill), the Sox had not appeared in a Series for 30 years, and the drought was still young.

I was ten in 1959, living in Tokyo, when the White Sox made their next Series appearance. I remember getting up before dawn to listen to the games on the US Army’s Far East Network, a crystal radio under my pillow.

1959 had been a year of pitching, stolen bases, and one-run wins for the Sox, but they opened the Series with a bang, beating the Dodgers 11-0. Sadly, they only had another 12 runs in them, and lost in six.

I’ve never been much of a base ball fanatic, but it’s a game that marks our lives anyway.

In the Sox’ last Series win in 1959 (Game 5) they beat Koufax and the Dodgers 1-0. Last night’s game was a nice echo.

Homework considered evil

“Say it flat out: homework is most likely evil.”

Brad Plumer:

But let’s do Waldman one better and say it flat out: homework is most likely evil. Yes, evil. Any educational system that relies on parents at home to help with the “learning process” will only end up perpetuating inequality, as long as some parents can help their kids and some cannot; as long as some parents can speak English and some cannot. And homework, for all its uselessness, is far more likely to put undue stress on family life than anything else. Of course, let’s also be honest, the whole point of public school isn’t to turn students into well-educated citizens but rather to produce good consumers and dutiful worker bees—people with short attention spans who follow authority, care deeply about status, and will attend with all due diligence to humiliatingly pointless tasks. Get used to working overtime, kid, you’ll need it. In that regard, homework is indispensible.

Monbiot: Nuclear energy

“Every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar.”

While the context of George Monbiot’s article on nuclear energy is British politics, it’s directly relevant to the US as well.

Ten cents of investment, he shows, will buy either 1 kilowatt-hour of nuclear electricity; 1.2-1.7 of windpower; 2.2-6.5 of small-scale cogeneration; or up to 10 of energy efficiency. “Its higher cost than competitors, per unit of net CO2 displaced, means that every dollar invested in nuclear expansion will worsen climate change by buying less solution per dollar.” And, because nuclear power stations take so long to build, it would be spent later. “Expanding nuclear power would both reduce and retard the desired decrease in CO2 emissions.”

It’s certainly a good idea, as people like Sir David recommend, to have a “diversified energy portfolio”. But, as Lovins points out, “this does not mean … that every option merits a place in the portfolio purely for the sake of diversity, any more than a financial portfolio should include bad investments just because they’re on the market.” Building new nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom would be a political decision, not a scientific one.


“lies and legends made flesh”

It’s World Series time, enough of a nudge for me to post a note I’ve been procrastinating about for too long.

A while back I listened to Michael Chabon reading his Summerland. Chabon does a wonderful job with the reading, and having browsed a few reviews of the book, I suspect that listening to him might be better than reading the book for yourself (which I have not).

Neil Gaiman gets it right.

Coyote, whenever he appears, which is too seldom, steals scenes with ease and aplomb. He’s Coyote, sure, and he’s Loki and Prometheus and probably Bugs Bunny and the Squire of Gothos as well: a force unto himself, who is having too much fun trying to bring about Ragnarok — delightfully Hobson-Jobsoned by Chabon into “Ragged Rock.”

Standout sequences include a magnificently gory chapter involving some unfortunate werewolves and the queen of the shaggurts — frost giants with “appetites vast and bloody” — and a storyline set within the tall-tale tradition, when Ethan and his team meet the Big Liars of Old Cat Landing, the tall-tale people, all “lies and legends made flesh . . . [who] hung around Old Cat landing, haunting its bars and brothels,” now sadly shrunken by time and disbelief: Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan and John Henry, Annie Christmas and the rest of them. It’s the place where Chabon comes closest to a genuine American mythopoeia, and it is very fine indeed.

Give Summerland a listen.

Drugs, patents and profits

“We recognize that patents are a way to provide incentives for research, but where is the economic research that shows that they are the most efficient way? You won’t find it, because economists have mostly chosen to ignore the issue.”

Dean Baker has a pair of posts (Bird flu, bird brains, and economists and Drug patents v. the free market: where are the economists?) on the subject of the social and economic costs of drug patents, with an endorsement of an approach that might work better.

…to restate the basic case, drug patents are government granted monopolies that impose huge economic and social costs (such as people being denied access to life-saving drugs). Drug patents serve a purpose, they provide incentives to research new drugs, but it is far from clear that patents are the best way to provide such incentives. While economists have researched endlessly the cost of much smaller protectionist barriers (e.g. tariffs and quotas on shoes and pants), the literature examining the relative merits of drug patents and alternative methods of supporting research is extremely thin. It is hard to explain why economists pay so much attention to a relatively unimportant policy and so little to a policy that has huge implications.

We recognize that patents are a way to provide incentives for research, but where is the economic research that shows that they are the most efficient way? You won’t find it, because economists have mostly chosen to ignore the issue.

My favored alternative is direct public funding of approximately $30 billion a year, as would be provided under the Free Market Drug Act (FMDA) introduced by Dennis Kucinch in the last session of Congress. This would effectively double government funding for biomedical research, since it already is spending approximately $30 billion a year through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

One last point on the risk issue: it is important to be clear on who does what. The vast majority of the drug industry’s research is contracted out, mostly to university based researchers. Presumably, this would continue to be the case with the FMDA, so the argument has to be that the results would be far worse if the contracts and the checks came from a government sponsored corporation, rather than the drug industry.

San Diego charter schools

Marsha Sutton, education writer for Voice of San Diego, has a four-part series, Unraveling the Mystery of Charter Schools, that takes an interesting, if somewhat uncritical, look at the role of charters and their recent proliferation.

Part One: Chartering a course for the future
Part Two: San Diego — A Leader in the Charter School Movement
Part Three: ‘Education Is Our Business’ — Charters and Unions
Part Four: Teachers Provide the Key to Improved Learning

Whatever happened to congressional oversight?


One problem in recent years, Aberbach says, is that political control in both chambers has been centralized within the leadership, depleting the authorities of committees. “You have to have realistic expectations of Congress — it’s a political body,” he said. “But if you draw power away from the committees, you lose the expertise that they have, and that’s certainly been a problem recently.”

To illustrate the decline, Aberbach counted oversight hearings in the House and Senate, excluding those by the appropriations committees, for the first six months of 1983 and 1997. He found steep reductions in both chambers: from 782 hearings in the House in 1983 to 287 hearings in 1997, and from 439 hearings in 1983 in the Senate to 175 hearings in 1997.

Public policy and climate change

John Quiggin argues that a dramatic reduction in (carbon-based) fuel use can be accomplished via an accumulation of small reductions through a combination of price responsiveness and public policy.

Adding all of these modest changes together would yield a reduction in fuel use of more than 50 per cent Some of these changes would be imperceptible, others would require marginal adjustments over a couple of decades. Taken all together, they would be barely noticeable relative to the changes in lifestyle that most people experience over such a period.


Jimmie Dale Gilmore

“All Texans do not agree with all Texans”

Jimmie Dale Gilmore played last night at the Palms Playhouse in Winters.

[Digression: this was the first time either I or JDG had been to the new Palms. It’s not bad, and you can get dinner around the corner, but it’s not the old Palms. Sigh.]

Jimmie’s son Colin opened, joined later by Rob Gjersoe, who stuck around for Jimmie’s set.

If you know Gilmore, I don’t have to say much about the concert. A mix of new & old stuff, along with some characteristic digressions. Bertrand Russell on the nature of reality, elliptical political commentary (“All Texans do not agree with all Texans”), Jimmie as a reductionist rationalist, paranoid mystic, west-Texas folk singer. I’m sorry you missed it, but probably no sorrier than you.

If you don’t know Gilmore, you have a treat in store for you if you have the sense to pick up one or three or five of his CDs.

My first exposure to Gilmore was about 14 years ago after the release of After Awhile. I heard an extended review on NPR. I no longer remember which clips they played, but I do remember their quoting Gilmore quoting Ezra Pound: “the poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance.” Ezra Pound meets Lubbock, Texas.

Gilmore’s CDs are individually unique, and I can’t possibly point to a favorite. You can’t go wrong with Spinning Around the Sun, or One Endless Night, or Braver Newer World. His new CD, Come on Back, is his roots album, with covers of pieces by Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Ray Price and others.

On his other CDs, besides his own songs, you’ll find Butch Hancock, Al Strehli, Brecht/Weill, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Garcia, … you get the idea.

Gilmore is an American treasure. He’s a really good songwriter, and an excellent guitarist, but his sensibility and his exquisite instrument of a voice are what shine through. Go listen.

SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors

“It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score.”

A couple of years ago, the College Board added essay writing to the SAT college entrance exams.

…when the new SAT was announced two years ago. College Board officials described it as a tool that could transform American education, forcing schools to better teach writing. A “great social experiment,” Time magazine said.

Cynics say the new essay is window dressing added to placate California officials who in 2001 were calling the old SAT outmoded and were threatening to stop requiring it. In a recent paper, Edward White of the University of Arizona notes, “As long ago as 1999, in College Board Report No. 99-3, a research team pointed out that ‘writing assessments based on a single essay, even those read and scored twice, have extremely low reliability.’ ”

The situation sounds even worse than the cynics might have feared.

IN March, Les Perelman attended a national college writing conference and sat in on a panel on the new SAT writing test. Dr. Perelman is one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did doctoral work on testing and develops writing assessments for entering M.I.T. freshmen. He fears that the new 25-minute SAT essay test that started in March – and will be given for the second time on Saturday – is actually teaching high school students terrible writing habits.

“It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score,” Dr. Perelman said. A man on the panel from the College Board disagreed. “He told me I was jumping to conclusions,” Dr. Perelman said. “Because M.I.T. is a place where everything is backed by data, I went to my hotel room, counted the words in those essays and put them in an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop.”

In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing “anchor” samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.

He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. “I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one,” he said. “If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you’d be right over 90 percent of the time.” The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the “firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862.” (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson, it was “33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.”)

Read the whole NY Times article.

Krugman: A Private Obsession

“Our system is desperately in need of reform.”

Paul Krugman is frustrated by the irrational difficulty of reforming health care in the United States.

Our system is desperately in need of reform. Yet it will be very hard to get useful reform, for two reasons: vested interests and ideology.

I’ll have a lot more to say about vested interests and health care in future columns, but let me emphasize one key point: a lot of big companies are essentially in the business of wasting health care resources.

The most striking inefficiency of our health system is our huge medical bureaucracy, which is mainly occupied in trying to get someone else to pay the bills. A good guess is that two million to three million Americans are employed by insurers and health care providers not to deliver health care, but to pass the buck to other people.

Yet any effort to reduce this waste would hurt powerful, well-organized interests, which have already demonstrated their power to block reform. Remember the “Harry and Louise” ads that doomed the Clinton health plan? The actors may have seemed like regular folks, but the ads were paid for by the Health Insurance Association of America, an industry lobbying group that liked the health care system just the way it was.

But vested interests aren’t the only obstacle to fixing our health care system. We also have a big problem with ideology.

You see, America is ruled by conservatives, and they have a private obsession: they believe that more privatization, not less, is always the answer. And their faith persists even when the evidence clearly points to a private sector gone bad.

Feingold v. Roberts

“I understand your view. I think it’s narrow.”

Josh Eidelson, writing at TPM Cafe, calls our attention to Russ Feingold demolishing the argument that candidate Supremes can’t discuss cases.

FEINGOLD: In Hamdi there were four different opinions…We know where all eight other members of the court stand on these opinions — in their opinions. They either wrote or joined one of them. Yet all eight of them will hear the next case that raises similar issues. No one is suggesting that their independence or impartiality in the next case has been compromised. Mr. Hamdi, of course, has left the country, so the precise facts of his case will never return to the court…Justice Scalia can participate in the next case involving the questions at issue in Hamdi, even though we know exactly what he thinks about that decision..Why shouldn’t the public have some idea of where you stand today on these crucial questions concerning the power of the government to jail them without charge or access to counsel in a time of war? They know a great deal about how each of the other justices approach these issues. Why is your situation different?

ROBERTS: Well, because each of the other eight justices came to their views in those cases through the judicial process…You’re now asking me for my opinion outside of that process: not after hearing the arguments; not after reading the briefs, not after participating with the other judges as part of the collegial process; not after sitting in the conference room and discussing with them their views, being open to their considered views of the case; not after going through the process of writing an opinion which I have found from personal experience and from observation often leads to a change in views…

FEINGOLD: What would be the harm, Judge, if we got your views at this point and then that process caused you to come to a different conclusion, as it appropriately should? What would be the harm?

ROBERTS: Well, the harm would be affecting the appearance of impartiality in the administration of justice…

FEINGOLD: I understand your view. I think it’s narrow. I have the experience of having one of my bills go for the Supreme Court and I know I didn’t have, as we say in Wisconsin, a snowball’s chance with a couple of the justices because of what they had ruled previously. But I didn’t think that made the process in any way tainted.

Corn-fed pork

Ethanol clouds senators’ judgment

James D Hamilton at Econobrowser notes the bipartisan Senate approval of yet another giveaway to ADM and their other pals.

The urge to be seen as doing something about our energy problems is giving rise to legislation that has the potential for more harm than good. The ethanol amendment approved by the Senate yesterday is a case in point.

Whatever the argument in favor of such a measure, it isn’t to provide a new energy source. David Pimental of Cornell concluded that when you take into account the energy required to plant, grow, harvest, and process the corn, 1.7 Btu of energy inputs get used up to produce 1 Btu equivalent in ethanol; Resource Insights and Energy Outlook have more discussion of this.

Which is not to endorse an energy theory of value, as if energy were the only wasted input that we should be concerned about. When you add up the value of the land, labor, and capital also used to produce that 1 Btu of ethanol, the economic loss is really quite considerable. Even the current use of ethanol for fuel would not remotely survive without huge public subsidies already in place.

There are other studies of other processes that yield a more optimistic energy ratio than 1.7:1, but as Hamilton points out, a small energy surplus (and that’s the best case here) is far from enough to justify this barrel of pork.

What is the justification? No real mystery there; the usual suspects are at this trough.

So what is the point of the amendment? Hard to come up with a good answer other than to throw a new benefit to farmers, not to mention Archer Daniels Midland. It looks to me less like an energy plan and more like the usual pork barrel, in this case, corn-fed pork.

The benefit to farmers, at today’s depressed prices, is nugatory. To ADM, priceless (since we pick up the tab…).

Debt relief: cui bono?

The G8’s debt reduction plan is little better than an extortion racket.

We’ve heard a lot of self-congratulatory talk in the media recently about the G8 announcement of some $40B in “debt relief” for third-world countries. You might have wondered about the motivations behind such a move; what’s in it for the creditors?

George Monbiot reads the fine print and writes in the Guardian,

The idea swallowed by most commentators – that the conditions our governments impose help to prevent corruption – is laughable. To qualify for World Bank funding, our model client Uganda was forced to privatise most of its state-owned companies, before it had any means of regulating their sale. A sell-off which should have raised $500m for the Ugandan exchequer instead raised $2m. The rest was nicked by government officials. Unchastened, the World Bank insisted that – to qualify for the debt relief programme the G8 has now extended – the Ugandan government sell off its water supplies, agricultural services and commercial bank, again with minimal regulation.

Paul Wolfowitz, new president of the World Bank, is satisfied. “I’m really delighted … because I think it’s a very important, successful outcome.”

Cui bono? Follow the money.

Just shut it down.

Tom Friedman finds an acorn.

Tom Friedman finds an acorn.

Shut it down. Just shut it down.

I am talking about the war-on-terrorism P.O.W. camp at Guantánamo Bay. Just shut it down and then plow it under. It has become worse than an embarrassment. I am convinced that more Americans are dying and will die if we keep the Gitmo prison open than if we shut it down. So, please, Mr. President, just shut it down.