Thursday, October 18, 2007

Come big or stay at home?

One of my favorite expressions that seems to sum up a Washington Post Story from 12 former Army captains

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

As a side note, this apparently didn't make the op-ed print section, and is only available online. You wouldn't be alone in asking why they ran an op-ed piece on a movie producer but didn't run this one. But you'd still be shy an answer.

So this is a nice bi-partisan slap really (which is always something I prefer), the open hand is delivered to "stay the course" advocates whose one variation is a troop surge (which the captains specifically refer to as a method of getting insurgents to relocate as opposed to just plain getting them, and pissing off local populations in the process), and the back-hand is delivered to the steady withdrawal folks. Thus the come big or stay at home comment--start a conscripted military or send them back home as quickly as possible.

I honestly don't know what to think either way, but I do know that if you're one who claims to listen to commanders on the ground, here's 12 of them talking.

I do know one thing. I remember on 9/11 Tom Nickel (one of our best and brightest doctoral graduates) came into our office and was talking about our history with Osama Bin-Laden, that we trained him and armed him as a fighter in the Afghanistan war against the former Soviet Union. This was all news to me at the time. The reason I bring this up is that this is one of our current strategies in Iraq. Frustrated by the gloves we put on in not wanting to use overwhelming brutal force (acting as insurgents to fight insurgents) we're choosing to wage war by proxy, arming Sunni militias to oust Al-Qaeda operatives. We train them, we arm them and then (at some point) we have to leave. A former ruling minority surrounded by their former oppressed majority. Looking in my crystal ball, I gotta say this can't be a good thing for us.

Monday, October 15, 2007

School Vouchers, Oreos, and Cheesecake

So I can't help but weigh in on this issue, with the vote coming in a few weeks' time. For those of you outside the state of Utah, we're considering a measure to put between $500-$3,000 dollars (per student) into the hands of families who send their children to private schools. The summary bullet points for the pro-voucher folks are some pretty good sound bites. According to the folks at, this is about:

Your Money
Your Child
Your Choice

One of my favorite ads for the voucher program is a couple explaining it with an Oreo analogy. Each child in a class of thirty has an Oreo for every thousand dollars spent on them (7,000 per child), one goes to a private school, taking the maximum 3,000 and the remaining amount stays in the school. The argument is a smaller class size, with more money for the public school--plus the one child gets an opportunity for private school they might not otherwise have.

Here's my problem with it (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). First, the $4k stays in the school district for only 5 years. I'm not clear on where it goes after that, but it goes--presumably to the private schools where it is being spent, more likely back into the general fund that is supporting the voucher program (more on that in a bit). The idea is that natural enrollment increases will replace those dollars--which sounds great as long as our per pupil funding stays the same, and gets adjusted for inflation (note this would just be to support the status quo, we'll talk opportunity costs in a bit too).

So during that first 5 years, where is the money coming from? The state general fund, not the uniform school fund (as is quick to point out). A seemingly fabulous idea, but here's the opportunity cost. What if you took the 9.2 million dollars for vouchers and put it into the poorest of our school districts? Increasing teacher pay/professional development/mentoring/retention, reducing class sizes, increasing access to technology, providing more vocational classes and programs? Yes it's a drop in the bucket in terms of the 3.5 billion dollar uniform school fund, but here's the thing. It isn't one bucket. It's several different buckets and you're dropping it in the one that's already full. What's more, you're doing it with everyone's tax dollars.

Briefly let's talk about another fact that openly discloses:

. . . the state's cost of every child in private school is supplemented by money paid by their parents, since the voucher normally does not cover the entire cost of tuition

This makes a tremendous amount of sense, private schools can get expensive. In fact, according to, the median tuition rate is $3,800 per year. Let's crunch some numbers. Someone in the middle of the low income 2 person household (say a single mom) making $12,210/year qualifies for the full $3,000. She has to make up the $800 difference--which is about 6.5% of her annual income spent towards education. A single mom in the middle of the 2nd highest bracket earns $57,989/year and qualifies for only a $1,000 voucher. She makes up the $2,800 which amounts to 4.8% of her annual income. So it looks like we're helping the low income families, and that's certainly the way school choice is being pitched, but in reality we're helping people who don't need that much help at all. All of this assumes, of course than an equal range of income families participate and that the only costs of private school are tuition. Every additional dollar spent on things like transportation, school uniforms, etc . . . can be subsumed by the wealthier family a lot more easily. My bet, is that this will consist of a series of $500 tax breaks for the wealthiest families who already send their kids to private schools.

The honest sound bite for vouchers is

Your Money (I've got plenty of my own)
My Child
My Choice

We may not be taking Oreos away from public education, but we are adding Oreos to the education pie, just concentrating them into a tiny little slice that goes to the guy who already ate all the cheesecake, and the bon-bons, and a whole box of dove ice cream bars.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The power of large numbers

I just got the following message that gmail somehow failed to flag as spam (I can't possibly be reading my messages faster than other folks--so what gives? I've grown accustomed to certain advantages in not keeping up to the minute with my email).
Dear Friend,
I am Mr.Chi-Lin Huang I work with Bank Sino Pac, formerly known
asInternational Bank of Taipei as Executive Vice President & Deputy Head
of Division,Wealth ManagementI have a deceased client funds in my bank of
$17.3M USD and I need you to front as beneficiary,your benefit is 50% of
the total funds.Ifinterested
contact me with your Name,Address and Phone number,for more information on
Huang Chi-Lin
As much as I hate to decline potentially lucrative business deals (and of course my whole life I've being dying to front as a beneficiary) I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not going to fall into 8.74 million dollars by contacting Huang Chi-Lin. And my guess is that millions of the recipients of this message feel the same way. So why go phishing with such lousy bait? Because even if you only git one nibble in a million, you've come out ahead. You've literally made almost no investment to get started.

What do we have in education that compares to this--a relatively low investment (near negligible) with the potential for high payoff? I got thinking about this after a DRK-12 conference in which there was much discussion of the "next generation" of educational problems. Several of these discussion points were closely related to web 2.0 kinds of issues (flickr was explicitly invoked for example) along with (as you'd expect MMORPGs/environments like 2nd life). While there might be tremendous benefit to seeing someone put together a learning environment in 2nd life and then share it with the world it is not what I would characterize as "almost zero investment" quite the contrary, open education is all about investment--and in some sense the ROI isn't all that grand. To date, the biggest re-use I've seen of my (admittedly quite small) contribution to the community has come from/to myself. Students going through the new CS3 version of the flash class can choose to use the Flash 8 materials if they have an old version of the software--and pull them down from OCW.

I'll grant that this has been tremendously useful. But--this still involved a fair amount of effort to put up (although I'll admit I didn't do much of the heavy lifting). So if open courseware and open education aren't the exciting investment opportunity of the educational domain what is? What comes at a minimal cost with the long odds of a high payoff? I see it in bad ways of course, my kids negotiate everything and I mean everything. Talk literally is cheap, so they've learned to speak up and see what happens--because they know it's a non-zero chance that we'll cave or change our minds. Sounds a lot like some of the behaviorist "pigeon pecking" experiments.

But can't this be a force for good? How about open content spam? You email a Shakespearean sonnet to the in boxes of teeming millions with the hope that a handful will actually read it. You add commentary/critique/discussion opportunities with the hope that 10% of them will continue on after just reading the sonnet.