George Will on Education

Please read this excellent column by George Will, Betting (Again) On an Education Fix.  Here’s the lead-off:

Doubling down on dubious bets is characteristic of compulsive gamblers and federal education policy. The nation was essentially without such policy for grades K through 12, and better off for that, until 1965. In that year of liberals living exuberantly, they produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now yet another president has announced yet another plan to fix education. His aspiration has a discouraging pedigree.

n 1983, three years after Jimmy Carter paid his debt to teachers’ unions by creating the Education Department, a national commission declared America “a nation at risk”: “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” So in 1984, Ronald Reagan decreed improvements.

They did not materialize, so in 1994 Congress decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be “at least” 90 percent and students would be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” Even inflated by “social promotions,” the graduation rate in 2000 was about 75 percent (it peaked at 77.1 in 1969), and among 38 nations surveyed, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, just below Latvians, and 18th in science, just below Bulgarians.

So, eschewing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” in 2001 President George W. Bush undertook the loopy idealism of preposterous expectations. No Child Left Behind decreed that by 2014 there will be universal — yes, 100 percent — “proficiency” in reading and math. That will happen if enough states do what many have done — define proficiency down. NCLB gives states an incentive to report chimerical progress, so, unsurprisingly, state tests almost always indicate much more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.

Thank you George for a very nice summary of the history of increasing Federal government meddling in education.

The standards set by these administrations sound good and legitimate.  Better education.  Who’d be against that?  In fact, that’s the exact conversation blocking tactic often used to prevent an honest discussion of the merits of such policy goals.

Voice any amount of criticism against the government’s goals and supporters reflexively bristle and ask, “So, you’re against education?”  From there, they will not listen to a word you say.  In their mind, you are evil and hate kids.

If they would listen, I would love to tell them:

I want the same results as you – high quality education.  That’s why I am for something that actually works.

I am for an education system that is ever bit as good as any number of other systems that produce phenomenal, life-improving results through the free interactions of individuals.

I am for taking an honest look at the things we’ve done and assessing whether those have produced the intended goals or have moved us further from those goals.

With a short discussion about feedback theory, I can explain to you the mechanics of why centralized, government-controlled education produces such substandard results, if you’re interested.

If you’re not interest, then I would conclude that it is you that is against education.


Feedback Thomas Sowell Style

Thomas Sowell explores a similar thread as Walter Williams yesterday, in his column The Fallacy of “Fairness”: Part III.  Key lines:

Tests and other criteria which convey the realities of their existing capabilities, compared to that of others, can have what is called a “disparate impact,” and are condemned not only in editorial offices but also in courts of law.

But criteria exist precisely to have a disparate impact on those who do not have what these criteria exist to measure. Track meets discriminate against those who are slow afoot. Tests in school discriminate against students who did not study.

Disregarding criteria in the interest of “fairness”– in the sense of outcomes independent of inputs– adds to the handicaps of those who already have other handicaps, by lying to them about the reasons for their situation and the things they need to do to make their situation better.

I’ll repeat that last part, ” adds to the handicaps of those who already have other handicaps, by lying to them about the reasons for their situation and the things they need to do to make their situation better.”

That reminds me of something written by two well respected business leaders – Jack Welch formerly of GE and Howard Schulz, founder of Starbucks.  Both wrote about their thoughts on removing people from jobs that they weren’t very good at it.  Of course, they did this for business reasons, to improve the business.

But, both made an excellent point.  They felt keeping and under performer in a position was more disrespectful to the person than trying to shield them from the truth and may eventually lead to a much colder, harder lesson for those people.

A great example of this are the awful singers who audition for American Idol and are devastated when they hear the judges  tell them the truth.  It should not get to the point where someone who doesn’t remotely have singing talent make it in front of the American Idol judges.

Honest and accurate feedback was either never given to these people or never received.


I listened to some sports talk radio while stuck in a traffic jam this evening.  The topic of discussion was the University of Kansas head football coach Mark Mangino and the complaints from his players about some comments he made.

Disclosure: I have no clue how Mangino treats his players.  I don’t care much.  He might have said some really bad things.  I don’t know.  But, the quotes I’ve heard so far don’t warrant the attention this is getting.

The show hosts were up-in-arms as they repeated the quotes on the air.  One rule of thumb I have is that if the quotes are repeatable under FCC rules, then it might not be terribly offensive.

Two callers in a row agreed with me.  The callers’ advice to the college football players – toughen up and get over it.  The show hosts thought the callers were way off base.  I tend to agree with the callers.   I strive to treat others with respect.  I think it’s a worthwhile goal.  I don’t see the upside to meanness.

However, I’ve also had a lot of rotten things said to me in my life.  My Mom taught me a very valuable lesson.  Sticks and stones.

The toughest part is that many times, buried in those rotten things was some truth.  That’s when it hurts the most, especially if you are not prepared to hear the truth.  But, I needed to hear it.  I benefited from listening.

The point the callers were trying to make is that with all of the attention given to the sensitivity of how someone says something, we forget that what they are saying might be right.   And sometimes, missing that truth in the message can be costly.


Weekly Roundup

First, from Walter Williams, A Minority View: Excused Horrors.

Nazis were responsible for the deaths of 20 million of their own people and those in nations they conquered. Between 1917 and 1983, Stalin and his successors murdered, or were otherwise responsible for the deaths of, 62 million of their own people. Between 1949 and 1987, Mao Tsetung and his successors were responsible for the deaths of 76 million Chinese.

For decades after World War II, people have hunted down and sought punishment for Nazi murderers. How much hunting down and seeking punishment for Stalinist and Maoist murderers?

…the reason why the world’s leftists give the world’s most horrible murderers a pass is because they sympathize with their socioeconomic goals, which include government ownership and/or control over the means of production. In the U.S., the call is for government control, through regulations, as opposed to ownership. Unfortunately, it matters little whether there is a Democratically or Republican-controlled Congress and White House; the march toward greater government control continues. It just happens at a quicker pace with Democrats in charge.

In Worse Than Taxes, John Stossel makes the point that while taxes are bad enough, what’s worse – and gets little attention – is government spending.

[California and New York] would have big surpluses had they just grown their governments in pace with inflation. But of course they didn’t. Now the politicians act like their current deficits are something imposed on them by the recession.

Had the government of New York state grown at the rate of population and inflation over the past 10 years, it would have a $14 billion surplus today. Instead, spending grew at twice the rate of inflation ( So New York has a $3 billion deficit.

Stossel quotes Walter Williams:

It reminds me of Walter Williams’ riff: “Politicians are worse than thieves. At least when thieves take your money, they don’t expect you to thank them for it.”

And Milton Friedman:

The true burden of government, the late Milton Friedman said, is the spending level. Taxation is just one way government gets money. The other ways — borrowing and inflation — are equally burdens on the people. (State governments can’t inflate, but they sure can borrow.)

Bad Socialism Comparison

A writer of a letter to the editor in a local newspaper makes a common mistake in equating our public education system with socialism and with the proposed changes in health care:

While attending parent-teacher conferences for my sons recently, I marveled at the dedication of their professionally trained teachers. I considered all that my kids had learned, amazed at their progress. I thought about how convenient it was to have a bus that picks them up in front of our house to take them to school. I pondered the school lunch program and how it also provides free and reduced-price meals for low-income children.

Having mandated free, quality public education has been key to keeping the United States a major world power. Now I understand that some school districts have had challenges. But most deliver a quality product.

I then thought about the raging health care debate going on today. If public education were just now being proposed, would it also be shouted down in defeat as a “socialist” concept?

How is education a right but health care is not? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

I’ve seen this mistake made numerous times with other services such as fire, police and sewers.  It usually goes something like this letter, “the Police in my area do a good job, socialism isn’t so bad.”

There are several problems with these comparisons.  The main problem is that none of these things – public education, fire, police and sewers – are true socialist models.   It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.P

People putting forth such arguments assume these services are socialist because they are funded through taxes and controlled by a government.  What such people miss is that socialism is the ownership and control through a centralized government, or one government in a country- the Federal government.

That’s not true for these services.  They are owned and controlled by many, many local government-like groups that are checked and balanced by other government groups.

Consider public education.  In my home metro area, we have dozens, if not hundreds, of school districts that provide public education using the property tax-Board of Education model.  Each of these school districts, while considered a governmental body, are separate from other city, county and state governmental bodies.

So what?  Why is this important?  It’s important because this system leaves a considerable amount of important competition and checks and balances in place that a true socialist system would remove.  If I don’t think the school district that I live in is good quality, I can move to a better one.

My parents made that decision when I was in third grade.  They moved primarily to get my me and my brother into what they considered a better district.  When I purchased my home, I chose a community with a good quality school district for my children.  Good school districts attract families, bad school districts repel them.

What would it be like if we didn’t have that choice?  What if all schools were run by the Federal government?  Then, if your local schools weren’t that great, you wouldn’t have much choice.

In addition, controlling school districts bodies separate from other governments brings in another level of check and balance.  Just consider one example.  What if the police and schools were run by the same agency?  Think about the things that might happen.  In fact, we’ve seen this very thing happen on college campuses with campus police forces.  Since the same group of people control the schools and police, some crimes go unreported and unpunished.  Having police and schools controlled by separate entities reduces this risk.

So, not only are there many local school districts which keeps competition in the equation, but there are also a number of other checks and balances that could go away if a true socialist (i.e. centrally run) model were adopted.

That's Messed Up!

Ever catch yourself thinking, “that’s messed up!” Do you ever ask why?

When something is messed up there’s a good chance that something wrong with a feedback mechanism somewhere.  I’m looking for a simpler way to say that.  I haven’t found it yet.

What does that mean?  Consider the example of spoiled teenagers. They live in a bubble of entitlement and self-importance.  Why?  Because they haven’t received good feedback from their parents.  Their parents haven’t held them accountable for their actions.  Teachers haven’t held them accountable.   Ever since they were young authority figures haven’t provided appropriate consequences for their actions.

To see a clear example of this, watch SuperNanny or Nanny 911.  At the beginning of every show the kids are out of control.  SuperNanny then provides much needed feedback to the parents: THE PARENTS ARE THE PROBLEM.  The parents are the problem because they aren’t consistently holding their kids accountable for actions.  That is, giving negative consequences for misbehavior and positive consequences for good behavior. 

So, the next time you see something that you think is messed up, give some thought to what feedback mechanism is broke.  You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get to the heart of problem using this approach.