Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Me neither

New House Republican plan dead before arrival as default looms

The key parts of the plan would have kept the government open through mid-December and grant the Treasury Department authorization to borrow through February. But the proposal also includes a stipulation that members of Congress, their staff and administration officials — including President Barack Obama — be forced to obtain health insurance coverage through the exchanges established under Obamacare. Unlike most Americans, they also would not be eligible to receive federal subsidies to offset the cost of those plans or seek financial help from their employer. 
Yeah, I wouldn't vote for that either.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to

A while back, I happened on Google Trends and at the time, I thought it might be a pretty useful tool for analyzing trends.  Unfortunately, it seemed like every search I entered had a downward trend, which led me to believe that maybe there was some downward bias.  Something like, as the volume of searches increased, the relative volume of a particular search might decrease simply because people were searching for a wider variety of things.  If that were the case, then an upward trend might be particularly meaningful, while a downward trend might not be meaningful at all.

Anyway, today it popped into my head to see what kind of trend there might be for the phrase "how to feel good."  Here's the graph (you need to have javascript enabled to see it, or go here):


I suppose there are a lot of ways to interpret this, and perhaps I'll delve further into it sometime. I am particularly curious about the big spike around 2005, reaching a level of 69 which the chart doesn't reach again until 2010.  Any thoughts?  Anybody?  Bueller?

Well, I proceeded to try a lot of "how to" searches, and was surprised to see that people are apparently looking more and more for how to do most anything.  So, either we're getting smarter and realizing we don't know everything, or, we actually don't know and can't figure out how to do much of anything on our own.  It's just easier to ask someone else.

Then, it occurred to me to just try "how to" and see what the most popular "how to" searches were.  It was a little depressing.



Again, I suppose there could be a good explanation for these results, but it seems we're most concerned with how to use iTunes, Gmail, MySpace, and Minecraft, rather than how to do anything useful other than entertain ourselves.  Well, okay.  How to kiss and how to draw are, perhaps, useful.  I probably should have known this was true based on the Hot Searches page, which is usually full of sports and entertainment related searches.  We don't really want to know how to do stuff; we just want to know what other people are doing.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reason to celebrate

Which Country Has Won the Most Nobel Prizes? Check This Map

If you're really looking for a great example of how to skew data to "prove" how great the U.S. is, check out that map and the accompanying article.  Then come back here and read the rest of the story.

According to this article, the U.S. has received by far the most Nobel Prizes of any country, 344, compared to number two United Kingdom, with only 119.  The article actually makes the claim that this should make us feel pretty good about "the state of things" in the U.S.

Now, I'm not going to go through the entire list, but I just want to point out a few problems with this data.  The first problem I noticed was that the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was shared by three people, so it's listed as three separate awards.  Then, I noticed something else: none of the three people was born in the U.S.  A little more looking revealed that only one of the three was educated in the U.S.  I'm not exactly sure why this should make me feel good about being American.  There are many more examples of the same bias in the list.

The second thing I realized is that the sheer size of the U.S. population probably also affected the number of prizes being won by U.S. citizens.  On a per capita basis, the U.S. has won fewer Nobel Prizes compared to the U.K.: The U.S. has won 1.09 awards per million population, while the U.K. has won 1.86 per million population.  Notably, one of the previously mentioned award winners for the 2013 Prize in Chemistry was educated in the U.K., but happens to live in the U.S. now.

And of course there are more problems with the list.  For example, Albert Einstein won an award, but again, he wasn't born or educated in the U.S.

Well, it's Friday, so let's all just get drunk and celebrate being American.  We're still pretty okay and as near as we can figure there's nothing to worry about.  Forget all those silly ratings that say our education system is declining.  Forget the fact that we pay more for health care but have lower life expectancy.  At least there is one good thing in all of this: that the supposed best and brightest of the world, born and educated in other countries, still apparently think there is some good reason to move to the U.S., and if that's not something to celebrate, then I don't know what is.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Heck, we're only a little below average!

Here's an article that perhaps does more to explain why the U.S. educational system will just continue to get worse than any argument backed up by facts.  Why?  Because the article, and its commentators, are busy trying to explain how the facts don't mean anything.  Here's an example:
Every year someone conducts a geography test among America's high school students, and every year the results are the same: lots of kids can't find France on a map. Quelle horreur! And every year I have the same reaction: how about if we give this test to adults? I'll bet most of them can't find France on a map either.
 It may or may not be that most adults can't find France on a map.  I can't speak for most people.  As it happens, though, I can find France on a map.  But here's a fact about skills: if you don't use them, you lose them.  If you don't have to remember where France is on a map, then it's quite possible you'll forget where it is.  It doesn't mean you never learned it in the first place.  Just like any other skill, if you don't use it, you'll lose it.  If you're a good guitar player, but you don't practice for years, it's unlikely you'll just pick it up later as if you never stopped.  This is the very point of the television show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader."  I would hope that the fifth graders were more familiar with the subjects that they have just studied than an adult that hasn't given those subjects a thought in years.

In fact, this degradation of skills is also the big reason we should be concerned about high unemployment and underemployment of college graduates.  These people learned skills in college that they aren't using now, and those skills are gradually fading away.  But that's a whole other subject.

There's a widespread myth that America used to be the best educated country in the world and has since slipped into mediocrity, but as near as I can tell it's just a myth.
As near as you can tell?  Take a look at the history of this country, a country that started from next to nothing and over the course of about 200 years became the most powerful nation on Earth.  I have serious doubts that we accomplished that with a mediocre at best educational system.
America's kids have always been fairly middle-of-the-pack.
Yeah, I don't know about that.  But, let's say that statement is true for a moment.  Does that mean that we should be satisfied?  I can remember a time when people strove for better than mediocre, when the ultimate goal was to excel.  Of course, not everyone did.  The key to living a good life was to know and accept your limitations.  Everyone can't be the best at everything, and most can't be the best at anything other than being themselves.  You learn to accept your limitations and move on.  But to say that we've always been mediocre is no reason to not try to be better.
And yet....as you can see in the chart, the difference in literacy levels between countries is fairly small except at the very top and bottom, and the United States is sandwiched right in between Denmark, Germany, and France.
 Okay, and if we assume that these scores are normally distributed then that would make sense, as most of the scores would cluster around the mean.  But I still don't see why we should feel good about being sandwiched somewhere just below the middle simply because we're about the same as France (which we can't find on a map, but maybe they can't find us either) and Germany, et. al.  I don't care how anyone else feels about this, really, I want to be up there with Japan.  And, if you look at some of the other graphics in this report you'll see that the people who wrote the report describe the area of the charts that the U.S. is in as being "significantly below average."

But the more troubling thing about the chart than just our low placement, is the wider than normal disparity in scores here in the U.S.  That's what the longer bar means.  It means that there is a significant difference between the highest and lowest scores here.  As it is put in the original publication:
On average, 152 score points separate the highest and lowest 5% of performers in literacy. A number of countries have comparatively small variations in literacy proficiency among their adults. These include Japan (129 points), the Slovak Republic (131 points), the Czech Republic (133 points) and Korea (136 points). Countries with comparatively large variations in scores include Sweden (163 points), Canada (163 points), the United States (162 points), Finland (162 points), Spain (162 points) and Australia (161 points).
 The author of the article, in defending his apparent position that there's nothing to be alarmed about in our education system puts forth this question:
Does anyone think that Denmark and Germany are educational hellholes doomed to decline and poverty?
No, they are average, but I do think that if they look at these results with the attitude that they are about average, and what's to worry about, then they will become "educational hellholes", and the same goes for us.  If we all just sit back and say "I don't think it's really any worse than it ever was" it will get worse.
As an aside, one odd result in this study is that America does worse in numeracy than in literacy. This is odd because if you look at NAEP test scores over time, it's the math scores that have gotten substantially better. If there's an area where you'd think the United States would be in relatively better shape, it's math.
I don't really see this as odd at all.  The NAEP is a U.S. government administered test.  Unfortunately, the site is down due to the government shutdown so I can't actually link to it now.  But just because the U.S. scores have improved on these tests doesn't mean much of anything.  I know from personal experience that teachers tend to teach what is on these tests, and they teach how to take the tests.  So, I would expect scores on those tests to improve over time, but only because the students have been primed for that test.  The OECD report on the other hand shows that we have lost ground relative to other countries.  Perhaps they're not just pushing to raise test scores like we are.

In short, the reason that I think our educational system here in the U.S. will continue to get progressively worse is because no one really wants to believe that it actually is, and beyond that, people want to think that average is some kind of goal to try to attain.  As I always tell the kids here, average is NOT the goal because if that's where you aim, it's more likely you'll actually hit below average.

There were some interesting comments on the article as well.  Here's a good one:
Part of the reason the United States is average is because it is so big.
Good one!  Being that the U.S. is one of the largest countries in terms of geographic area, we have a built-in excuse to be below average.  Welp, nothing we can do about that!  And here's a reply to that comment:
Also, the diversity.
  I don't know about that.  Diversity is supposed to provide for a more rich educational experience, something that is definitely lacking in our educational system because we're too busy trying to act like we're all the same.  But, that's the subject for another post, perhaps.  But it is true that ethnic diversity seems to have a negative impact on where a country places in the OECD report.  Here's a map showing the relative ethnic diversity of countries.  Follow that link and you'll see that the higher scoring countries generally have lower diversity.  One notable exception is Canada, which placed higher in the report but is also more diverse.
I'm sure this data set is as relevant to national education as Olympic medal counts are to overall physical fitness.
Yeah, when we don't like data, we can always resort to calling it irrelevant.

At any rate, that's my take.  I've never been shy about saying that the education system here in the U.S. needs a major overhaul.  And this attitude that we're okay because we're not that far below average is the reason we'll continue to decline until we're not smart enough to know how far we've fallen.  Although, judging from this article, we may already be there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Whatever happened to Generation X?

I'll make this short.  I'm working on a series of posts about generational differences, and one of the first posts that I happened to look at, Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy, seemed to imply that there never was a Generation X.  I always thought there was, but what do I know?  The post basically says that the Boomers raised the Generation Y.  I thought perhaps it was an oversight by the original author, but then, to my surprise, in the comments I saw that one person claimed to have been born "on the cusp" of the baby boom/Gen Y.  So, being that I don't like to jump to conclusions without knowing at least some facts (see my recent poll of readers), I figured I'd ask my readers what they thought happened to Gen X.  Just leave a comment, and we'll get down to the bottom of this together.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My take on the Obama education plan

Obama Takes on the College Cartel

Congratulations on the catchy headline!  Someday, I'll learn how to write eye-catching headlines like that.  But I digress.  I really want to talk about Obama's education plan.  Everywhere I look, I see the claim that the president has a plan to "make college more affordable."  This sounds an awful lot like Obamacare, which I've already argued will do no such thing.  I think the administration needs to redefine "affordable."  So, here's my response to the plan as outlined in the above-linked article.
“College has never been more expensive,” Obama declared during today's campaign-style speech in Buffalo. “Higher education cannot be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative.”
Okay, so I'm stumped already.  What makes higher education "an economic imperative?"  I guess you can look at historical data and statistics and see that in the past, college grads were less likely to be unemployed and over the course of their working life would make somewhere around a million dollars more.  Sounds good, but in the past, everyone wasn't a college grad.  College grads made more money, and were unemployed less because they have been in short supply.  Making everyone a college graduate removes the shortage and makes having a degree a non-advantage.

Enough about that.  I wanted to talk about the specifics listed in the article, which are:

  • Rank colleges based on performance.
  • Link government-backed financial aid to college performance.
  • Ease the burden on borrowers.
Gee, that all sounds good, doesn't it?  Let's have a look at each of these one at a time.
Rank colleges based on performance. Unlike the “best colleges” rankings published by a number of private organizations, the government’s scorecard would measure things such as affordability, a school’s outreach to disadvantaged students, graduation rates and the real-world earnings of graduates once they enter the job market. Obama wants these rankings to be in place by the time the 2015 school year begins. The Dept. of Education already provides some affordability data on colleges; under the rating system, there would be even more info and it would be easier to compare colleges.
So, the first part of the "solution" is to devise a new ranking system.  Of course, we have to do that so that our rankings will show that we have actually made an improvement on the education system.  But what will we rank schools on?

  1. Affordability.  Seems reasonable, except it doesn't tell us to whom it is affordable.  We can only guess that it means affordable to the students.  Unfortunately, that translates into something that may mean unaffordable to taxpayers, since the money has to come from somewhere, and whatever costs are not paid directly by the students are already subsidized.  How can a school make high marks in the affordability category?  By cutting costs.  Either make classes bigger or pay teachers less.  Neither of these is a great option.  Students can benefit from smaller classes, and I'm willing to bet that cutting teacher salaries won't do a lot to attract high-grade talent.
  2. The school's outreach to disadvantaged students.  By "disadvantaged students" I'm going to assume the meaning is students from poorer backgrounds.  The article doesn't say how we're going to measure the school's outreach efforts.  I have read articles (apologies for not remembering where) that claimed that some disadvantaged students don't go to "better" schools even if offered a scholarship because they don't believe they can really go to an Ivy League college.  I'm not sure that the schools should be held accountable for that.  Otherwise, I don't really have much of a problem with this one.
  3. Graduation rates.  Here's where I really start to have a problem with this whole thing.  How does anyone suppose that schools can increase their graduation rate?  Especially given that the government is going to be funneling less and less academically inclined students to their classrooms.  It's easy, really.  Make the curriculum easier.  Everyone gets a passing grade as long as they show up and hand in the work.  Never mind how good the work is.  If you hand it in, you get at least a "C," end of story.
  4. Real-world earnings of graduates once they enter the job market.  Okay, except that the real-world earnings of graduates are going to be generally higher for students who attend those Ivy League colleges, because through attending that Ivy League college they've gained the connections that will give them an advantage after school.  At least, that's part of it.  Some colleges are located in lower paying areas, so it would seem natural for most graduates from those colleges to go to work at lower pay.  Some majors pay less.  And the amount of pay isn't necessarily the first consideration in accepting a job.  The point is, this is, in my opinion, a pointless rating.
Moving on to the next part of the "plan":
Link government-backed financial aid to college performance. Once the ratings have been established for a few years, Obama wants Pell grants and other types of federal aid to be targeted more toward schools that have a proven record of graduating a high proportion of students who get good jobs.
 This is a terrible idea.  Put together with the first part of the plan, this amounts to the government being able to pick and choose who gets more money.  They rate the colleges according to their own, self-designed rating system, and then dole out the cash according to who rates the highest.  If I were doing the rating, and I were doling out my own cash, that would be fine.  But I'm doing neither.  Instead, the government is doing the rating, which I may or may not agree with, and then doling out my (as well as other taxpayers') money.  In the end, the result is more likely to be that Pell grants will go to those institutions that are in the most expensive areas, and that graduate students with degrees that are more highly paid.  In other words, it will just create a new (or worse, it will just strengthen the existing) "education cartel."
Encourage states to fund public universities and community colleges based on similar performance measures. Some states, such as Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio, are already doing this. A push from Washington could encourage more to do so.
This just makes the previous terrible idea even more terrible.
Create new incentives for “innovative” types of education. Universities that offer accelerated three-year degrees, new types of online learning or other programs that help cut costs and boost return for students will be rewarded with higher ratings, “regulatory flexibility” or perhaps a public shout-out from the president.
I think this comes from the old adage that goes something like this: "Just because that's the way we've always done it is not a reason to keep doing it that way."  The problem is, sometimes the way we've always done it is actually the best way to do it.  The U.S. used to have a good education system.  Then, someone decided it needed to be "innovated."  Now, it's such a mess, it's a wonder anyone can think at all (or perhaps a better phrasing would be it's a wonder if anyone can think at all).  Whatever happened to "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?"  We have "fixed" and "innovated" our way into a rapidly declining education system that just gets more expensive.  We can't afford it.
Ease the burden on borrowers. Obama’s plan would cap payments on student debt at 10% of a worker’s monthly income. Some students who recently took out loans are eligible for this “pay as you earn” program, which Obama wants to extend to everybody carrying student debt.
This may be the only part of the "plan" that I agree with.  Borrowing money for any reason poses a lot of risks, even when the borrower uses those funds for the "right" reasons.  Getting a college education should be a right reason to borrow money.  But the future is always uncertain, which is where the risk comes from.  Making the repayment dependent on future earnings will help alleviate that risk.  But in actuality, I don't really think that students in higher education should be shouldered with massive debt at all.  I think the debt problem is really the result of all the other things that have gone toward increasing the cost of higher education.  We need to realize that not everyone belongs in college, and when we realize that, the cost will begin to decrease.  And that will lead, eventually, to less student debt and better outcomes for graduates.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Email from the White House

Today I received an email from the White House.  Okay, so did a lot of people.  I subscribed to the email list a while back so I could be a good, well-informed citizen.  This particular email was about the soaring cost of college education.  Yes, it is soaring, but I have yet to see any politician take the steps necessary to make the cost of higher education fall.  Instead, yet again, I see the plan is to make it easier for everyone to get government subsidies to pay for a college education, the very thing that has driven the cost of a college education through the roof.

I don't have a lot of time to address this issue at the moment, so let me make this as short and succinct as possible: The American taxpayers cannot afford to pay for everyone to go to college.  Not everyone is cut-out for college.  A college education isn't a right, it's a responsibility, and if a student isn't willing to do the work to at least make average grades, then the taxpayers shouldn't be burdened with the expense of them furthering their education.  And, as far as I'm concerned, taxpayers cannot afford to pay for college degrees in things like Medieval Dance, or similar "awesome and fun" degrees.  Get a real degree, or go to school on your own dime.

The real reason that college is becoming unaffordable for many people is that the government is busy ensuring everyone gets to go.  High demand pushes the price higher.  Stop treating higher education like it is some right that everyone deserves.  When that happens, the quality of education will increase, and the cost will eventually fall.  It's simple, but politically unpopular because no one will want to admit that their kid doesn't belong in college.  But some kids don't belong there.  And some degrees shouldn't be subsidized by the government at all.  Let kids, or their parents, decide to whether a major in an "awesome and fun" degree is truly worth the actual cost.