Uncommon Sense

December 17, 2010

Republicans Caught in a Trap of their Own Making

Filed under: Economics,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 4:48 pm
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The Republican strategy from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency has been to deny him as many accomplishments as they can and to muddle the ones they can’t. So, with the health care debate we were distracted with nonsense like death panels, etc. instead of concentrating on things that could have made that piece of legislation better. Most recently Republicans have sworn to defeat a bill to fund the government for another year because the bill was larded with earmarks, earmarks that they themselves had sponsored! They apparently are willing to even smear themselves to deny a legislative accomplishment to the President.

About the only piece of Republican “philosophy” that they stuck to amongst all of their purely political maneuvers was their claim that the only way to help Americans out of the Great Recession and get us back to work was through tax cuts. Granted, economists have disproved this idea over and over—tax cuts are much less stimulative to an economy than just about anything else you could do, including doing nothing.

The Republicans were so adamant about this point that President Obama, when he was almost obsessed with “bipartisanship,” allowed for almost $300 billion in tax cuts to be part of the “Economic Stimulus” package of 2009. Later the Republicans claimed that the Stimulus Bill created not one single new job. So much for tax cuts helping to raise employment.

Now, at the end of 2010, the Republicans decided to hold everyone hostage to make sure that the wealthiest Americans got bigger tax cuts than anyone else. The President proposed that the Bush era tax cuts be extended, even made permanent, for the first $250,000 that everyone earned. For earnings above that level, the marginal tax rate was to return from the current 35% to the previous 39% (what it was the last time the economy was booming). But the Republicans said “No,” if the wealthy don’t get bigger tax cuts than everyone else, then nobody gets to continue at the current lower rates and nobody would get unemployment insurance payments extended, nor would any other government business get done until they decided it could.

So, the President caved and gave them what they wanted.

And thus the trap created by the Republicans was sprung . . . on them.

The Republican leader of the Senate has as his (and his party’s) highest goal to elect a Republican as president in 2012. But now there is a problem. If the Republicans are right and the tax cuts they insisted on get us onto a path to a healthy recovery, they won’t have a poor economy to campaign on. Who will have been “in charge” when everything got better? Why, Barack Obama and he will get the credit and will probably get re-elected.

If, on the other hand, the economy continues in the doldrums, with unemployment still high by election time in 2012, the Republicans one big idea (Tax Cuts! Tax Cuts! Tax Cuts! Yah!) will have been proven wrong and their policies bankrupt. And they will have been the architect of the recovery strategy and the Democrats can campaign on the Republican’s “failed policies and no new ideas.”

Also, the strategy they employed the win such wonderful victories as they did in the mid-term elections, that of denying Barack Obama any successes at all? How will they then blame the failing economy on Democrats, when they were the ones insisting on what was to be done and made such a fuss demanding it that everyone noticed. So, they have undermined their own successful strategy. If they really wanted the presidency back, they should have encouraged the Democrats to “tax and spend” their way to failure and then just stepped in to pick up the pieces when it failed. So, apparently, they didn’t believe they would fail and they didn’t believe they would succeed either and have now they will be damned if the economy recovers and damned if it doesn’t.

The biggest problem in modern politics is the people involved—they are not very bright.


December 11, 2010

The Missing Pieces of Education, Part 2

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 11:41 am
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As I mentioned in my last post “There are two major problems in our education efforts that get very little play in the media or in public discourse: the problem of management and the lack of R and D.” In that post I addressed the problem of management and in this one I address the “lack of R & D.”

The Missing R&D of Education
If you buy any whiz-bang piece of technology, like an iPhone or iPad, if you wait six months, you will be able to get that thing with more features at a lower price. Ironically economists call that “deflation” and label it “bad” but I digress. How is it that car companies, consumer electronic companies, in fact most companies offer more value for less money as time progresses? That they do is indisputable, a 1950’s washing machine couldn’t hold a candle to a modern one, or last as long, etc. and they cost less (in real dollars, of course) now. How do they do that? They do it with concerted research and development efforts. R and D. If they didn’t, they would be out of business shortly.

Now consider the current state of education and I will focus on higher education as I know more about it but I think this applies as well to the other education endeavors. If you mention the Department of Education on any college or university campus, you will get smirks from most students. They universally regard such departments as intellectual wastelands. Top students are drawn to all sorts of endeavors, but education isn’t one of them. Now, it can be argued that training to be an “educator” is kind of a low wage dead end for an ambitious young person, but I think it goes further than that. Not all people are motivated by wealth. These departments are widely considered to be ineffective and possibly irrelevant.

Is this attitude because there is no good work being done by education departments? Actually, the answer is ‘no.” This is truly ironic. Education researchers, as poorly regarded and funded as they are, have actually made some amazing advances in teaching and learning. But even though these advances work exceedingly well in pilot projects, they almost never get implemented university- or system-wide. So, the obvious question to follow is “Why?” Why do innovations in education flounder in the background?

The Big Shocker
In no college, in no university, in no system of higher education in this country is anyone responsible for the quality of the product (education) produced. There are no generally accepted measures of learning. If you can’t measure it, it is very hard to even say it exists, let alone whether it is getting better or worse. So, the lack of R&D is part of a general lack of responsibility for the quality of the higher education experience.

In one community college district I served in for 17 years there was a time when the chancellor of the district (in an attempt to justify a rather large pay increase) decided that he would take over leadership of the instruction in the three college district. After the memo announcing this new management change, there was not one single communication from that person about any instructional program. So, while quite a few institutions can show an organization chart that identifies someone with the responsibility for the quality of instruction, you will find that no one is actually doing anything about it.

The Solution?
So, why is it that so many consumer products we buy get better and better over time and their real costs keep going down while education becomes costlier and costlier (only health care cost have been outstripping education costs) but the education being delivered is no better and possibly worse than it was twenty years ago?

And please do not be confuse the use of computers and learning laboratories with a “better” education. Technology makes things different, for example, where in my youth a list of homework assignments might have been distributed in the form of a dittoed sheet of paper, now it is distributed by email, ease of distribution of assignments does not in itself constitute a better education.

The real reason is that there is no one or no system in place whose responsibility it is to create a better product and you can learn what is really going on by taking a tour for prospective students at any major university. They will show you the student center (which typically has a well-appointed workout space), they will show you hotel quality dormitory rooms, they will show you athletic facilities, they will show you the trappings of university life. They are marketing education through student lifestyle. They aren’t marketing getting an education, they are marketing getting an “educational experience.”

If they were truly marketing an education, they would emphasize how demanding they were, how hard their students work, and all of the support systems available (you won’t have time for a part-time job, so we provide ample financial aid), etc.

And they would start by putting someone, with real authority, in charge of educational quality. They would have a system of rewards that reflect that focus. If a professor has a half-time research and half-time teacher assignment, they would be evaluated on each equally. If their teaching were lacking, but their research was good, their schedule would be adjusted for less teaching and more research and vice-versa. Currently professors in research institutions are evaluated on their research and teaching but the research is preeminent, the teaching an afterthought.

This cannot continue.

December 3, 2010

The Missing Pieces of Education, Part 1

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 3:50 pm
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Consider a business that pretty much ignores its customers. This business has a high social standing, that is people think what this business produces is “good,” but it has been doing business in pretty much the same way for a very long time and is unlikely to change, no matter how much criticism is thrown its way.

Sounds like pre-recession General Motors, right? Or any number of other companies blundering along on the brink of extinction. But I am talking about America’s education “system.” I have to put the word system in quotes because it is really not a system, any more than all of the home poker games going on right now constitute a gambling system.

What is hurting us educationally is the fact that we have no system.

I remember one particularly ballyhooed “Crisis in Education” that the media whip up from time to time to sell newspapers and magazines, and a question struck me—How is it that grade school education in this country is so disreputable when higher education in this country is the envy of the world? (At the time the community college district I was working in was receiving a delegation from China anxious to learn how we do things.)

There are two major problems in our education efforts that get very little play in the media or in public discourse: the problem of management and the lack of R and D.

The Management of Education

Throughout my teaching career, which included being on teams visiting high schools for accrediting bodies, it was axiomatic that a high school with a quote-unquote Good Principal was bound to do well and a school without one would be severely limited. It goes without saying that the number of Good Principals was always very low because the characteristics needed bordered on being a financial genius, a personal counselor, a cheerleader, and a saint.

I met a number of these “Good Principals” and was in awe of what they could do and also in awe of the fact that they were willing to do it. Their skill set would have made them much, much more money (and recognition, and . . .) in almost any other job. But this is not about those people. This is about the unreasonable expectation that some genius leader will come and lead us out of our mess. It doesn’t happen that often and betting on such happening is the height of foolishness.

Gifted leadership in the form of school or college administrators is not what we need; what we need is good systemic management. We have management but it is neither good, not is it systemic.

As an example, I lead a project for the University of California, The State Universities of California, and the California Community Colleges to define what knowledge, skills, and attitudes in the natural sciences were needed by entering college freshmen. The first thing I did was do a literature search to see what the various school officials all over the country were recommending or demanding. What I came up with was almost exactly noting. Sure there are lots of educational programs sponsored by textbook publishers, but it is a rare school district that knows what it actually wants before it goes shopping for the materials to teach it. The vast majority of the states do not even have state curricula. Many have “state guidelines” but these are not requirements per se. There are no national standards, or curriculum outlines, or anything that even approximates such.

We have, for generations, believed in “local control” when it comes to education. So, we ask our school districts to no only figure out “how” to teach our children, but also “what” to teach our children. And the results have been less than favorable.

Because we all want to be able to go down to our local school board and get “action” when we want to, we demand total control at the local level of the entire education process. We don’t want others telling us what our kids are to be taught! This sounds “independent” in design, but in practice it is far from it. How many parents even bother to learn what their children are being taught? How many parents show up at school board meetings? How many parents actually speak about what their children are learning? The answers: very few; very, very few; and almost none.

And, are not other people actually telling us what our children are learning? Yes, most definitely. Most states have, for example, a “state approved textbook” system (basically you can only use books on the “approved” lists). The late Richard Feynman wrote eloquently about California’s system which he deemed severely flawed. And California in 2009 paid almost $400 million dollars for new school books, so what works for California, often is what gets sold elsewhere. Considering that maybe one quarter of all textbooks lose money for the publisher, it doesn’t seem like they will be lining up to produce unique books for each state.

So, the various states and their Education Codes, and their textbook approval processes are all attempts to control what happens with the large amount of tax revenue used to educate people publically. But the efforts largely avoid the “third rail” of education policy, which is to standardize the curricula, which is “what” is taught. Even to suggest such a thing can get an elected official removed from office.

So, since there isn’t a set curriculum, there are no standards of achievement. I repeat—there are no standards of achievement. How could there be, if we can’t agree on what is being taught, how can there be a standard of how well it is being learned? How can teachers be evaluated when there are no standards for teaching the curriculum well? In order for such to exist, there must be something to be learned, some measure of how well or how many learned it, and some comparison between teachers, students, schools, something.

Well, there are those tests, aren’t there? I have some experience designing and implementing large scale tests. They are very difficult to create, administer, and maintain. And they don’t tell you what you think they do. I can’t go further into this topic or this post will be several pages longer. Trust me on this (or don’t).

So, what kind of support do we supply this effort? Are their national clearing houses for curricula? No. Do professional societies recommend curricula? Kinda sorta, but not in any effective manner. Does the federal Department of Education. . . ? No. Every school district is on its own to work within its state guidelines. Each state provides some support to their school districts, but very little of it has to do with what is taught.

So, how do you manage a system where we don’t know what is to be taught, we have no universal standards of how well that is to be done, and no universal measures of having done it? We do it like we always have, by muddling through.

But the cost of this standard-less “system” is very large. The cost comes in huge drop out rates for students, huge drop out rates for beginning teachers, and cost overruns that are eating us alive. Oh, by the way, all of the states finally have a common definition of what a “drop out” is (at least for federal statistical purposes). Prior to last year, everyone just made up their own definition, and if the numbers didn’t look so good, well the definition just got tweaked a little.

A Solution to the School Management Problem

I am not sure of how this can be done but there are some aspects that any solution must have to be lasting and valuable.

State-, or Better, National-Level Curricula Most people are opposed to this in the vein of “I don’t want ‘outsiders’ telling me what my children are to be taught.” People need to get over this. Somebody is deciding what your children are being taught, and the odds are almost perfect you have never met those people and never will.

A reasonable way to proceed is to set up a standard curriculum that dictates 70-80% of what is to be learned. Everybody learns this material. It becomes the basis for all of the standards and tests. The remaining 20-30% of the curriculum is determined locally, but it must be written down and posted on a national clearinghouse website for such materials, so it can be compared by everyone and anyone involved with what others are doing. (Peer pressure does amazing things!)

Management Based on Intrinsic Motivation As a former teacher’s union official, I can guarantee you that teachers are not primarily motivated by money. If you are someone who believes teachers are motivated primarily by money, answer this question: Why would people motivated by money take a job requiring so much education but paying so little? People who taught my subject (college chemistry) were included in a regular salary survey and it was clear that with equivalent education, a college chemistry teacher earned about half of the salary of a working chemist.

So why, you ask, are teachers always demanding more money? This is somewhat complicated, but there are some core issues. As one example, a California Highway Patrolman receives top salary in his fifth year on the force. This is typical for most jobs. As you learn the ropes, as you acquire the full skill set needed through on-the-job training, you are paid somewhat less, but after just a few years you are doing the same job as anyone else and get paid appropriately the same as all those other s with your same job description. In the two community college districts I worked in it took 17 and 20 years of service to get full salary. This means that virtually every year, you would get a pay increase “on schedule” as long as you passed muster in your evaluations.

Wait, so if everyone got a raise each year for the first 15-20 years, this is a reason for needed pay increases all of the time? No, but it really pisses one off to be denied full pay for no good reason. Once you have 5-6 years under your belt as a teacher, you are doing the same job as someone who has done it for 20 years. So, what is the reason for the delayed full salary? It is to create faux raises, of course. Doesn’t fool anyone.

There are myriad other reasons for disgruntlement. In my area, laboratory science, the State of California paid my college slightly more for an hour of lab instruction than for an hour of lecture instruction. But I had to work 3 hours of lab to make as much as 2 hours of lecture. Huh? My labor makes the school more money, so I get paid less? Some claim that since lab classes have extra expenses, that increases the cost of delivering such classes. This is true, but who decided that the teacher had to make up the difference? Also lab classes had more preparation time needed, more grading associated with them, etc. We didn’t complain about that. But when you are treated irrationally, one tends to behave irrationally. (I tend to believe that since students get fewer credit hours for lab classes, this practice was just extended to the teachers. Generally, the simplest stupid reason is the best stupid reason.)

So, what are teachers motivated by? The motivations are largely intrinsic and any management system needs to be designed around those intrinsic rewards. The “fire the bad teachers” crowd are deluded if they think that this will help. Maybe it will in the short run, but will that practice work better than learning what really motivated teachers and learning to motivate them to do good work and be happy in their jobs? I think not.


Management Needs to Be Based on Function The last educational management restructuring I was personally exposed to involved a few Deans being moved around and a new position being created. I was floored that the effort took so long and seemed to involve such high drama. The reason it was so fraught with danger for the higher ups is that, in large institutions, changing from what is normal is frightening to so many. So, Educational Management 101’s first rule is “Don’t Upset the Apple Cart.” But that is what is really needed. Like the job of High School Principal, most college management jobs are quite impossible to do well. Consider being a community college dean. You can’t just be a Dean, you have to be a Dean of Something, like Dean of Science or Dean of Business. You are then the line manager of all of the faculty in your “division” or “college” and are responsible for managing the faculty, the budget, staff development, the curriculum, the program (schedule of classes, etc.), and are the first level manager of the physical facility (i.e. your building). Who could possibly have this set of skills: to answer calls about burst plumbing, disruptive students, a teacher with sleeping sickness (true story), two classes scheduled into the same room at the same time, and the ever present “we have run out of money to buy paper for the copy machine?”

This management design has been inherited from the past and then slowly modified over the decades since. It is unworkable, it always has been, but the faculty like it because the managers are too busy to bother them and so they pretty much get left alone. Even though I argued frequently that if they “can’t do anything to you” they also “can’t do anything for you,” this largely fell on deaf ears.

It is unnecessary to provide educational leadership to various academic disciples, especially if you are the Dean of Physical Science and Physical Education (true story). Let the teachers lead their own work groups, it is part of what motivates them (having some control over the workplace). Managers need to be available to manage what needs managing: budget, physical plant, curriculum, personnel, schedule of classes, etc. Finding people skilled for such tasks is far easier and it is far easier to evaluate them, motivate them, manage them, and replace them when they leave. And, what if one of the Deans of All Things described above was excellent with regard to five of his/her core duties but miserable at two of them? What do you do? Split the difference and give a grade of C+/B-? Two really important aspects are being done poorly and since we all prefer to do things we do well, will probably be done less and less in the future. managers need to have clear functions and academics need to learn how to work with budget managers, facility managers, etc. They’re smart, they’ll figure it out.

In the continuing post—“Where’s the R&D?” in which I answer the “why the colleges are so much better than the schools” question (and more).


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