Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Media Reporting on International Science and Math Test Gives Wrong Impression

The media periodically hits us will damning reports on how low American students are in international rankings of science and math skills. You are given the impression that there is some global super bowl exam taking place where an accurate sample of our best students is pitted against those from other countries. The media is then filled with quotes from “experts” with vested interests blaming some facet of US life for the poor showing. Recent headlines shouted that “China students were number one”. Previous years had placed Finland as first.

Sweeping conclusions such as this certainly deserve the next level of examination. Especially since there were 258,950 foreign college science students enrolled in the US in 2009 and the number has grown consistently.

They must know something that the test doesn’t show. What criteria were used to establish the number one position? How did other western countries do? What criteria were used to select the students being tested? These are important criteria if we are to understand the meaning of these rankings. To gain a better understanding we went to the web site the *Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is the organization that is responsible for the studies. This site explains the basics of the testing with some comments.

The methodology is complex and only covered at a very high level at the site. PISA has examined the results and provides an overview of the selection of the population taking the tests and expresses concerns that the results are being reported uncritically.

Each country submits 5000 participants to take tests in reading, math and science in a two hour written exam. The questions are said to test the use of a science education to solve problems rather than a rote memory of formula. The completed tests are subject to detailed and complicated analysis. Countries can also submit other national tests they have conducted for inclusion in the analysis. Only a band of ages around 15 year old students in schools are considered. Home schooled students are not eligible.

The mystery was solved when an analysis showed that demographics of the area within the country from which the sample of students is taken can greatly influence the test results. The actual sampling methodology for the US is not explained on the site. To explain the surprising low results for the US PISA made the following important statements.

Critics say that low performance in the United States is closely related to American Poverty. It's also shown that when adjusted for poverty, the richest areas in the US outperform every other country's average scores, especially areas with less than 10% poverty (and even areas with 10% to 25% poverty outperform countries with similar rates)”.

PSIA is also critical about those that selectively and uncritically demagogue the results of the studies for their own special interest. They comment further:

In essence, the criticism isn't so much directly against the Programme for International Student Assessment itself, but against people who use PISA data uncritically to justify measures such as Charter Schools.”

The powerful demographic effect occurs because high poverty areas as a group have low average scores. If the US students chosen are selected to be a representative sample of the entire country of 15 year olds there will be low achievers from the poverty area pulling down the results of the high achievers. Conversely, if the US students are chosen from a low poverty area the resulting group will have a much higher score. Apparently the US contestants had significant representative from low achieving areas and the US results were not representative of the future pool of US engineers and scientists. To be dominant a country only needs a portion of its population to be outstanding in science and engineering. `.

Each country’s published results will be similarly highly influenced by the area from which they pick their participating students. This was apparently left up to the country. In 2009 the headlines shouted that China was now number one in science and math. But the students tested were only from China-Shanghai which is a select group.

The studies that were publicized by the media were not valid as a comparison between countries. Without a consistency of the domains chosen for sampling by each country no conclusions regarding competitive positions can be made.

This is not to say that the studies are not informative. Studies of this type could be valuable for measuring progress of a specific domain over time. However, these specific studies have not yet been conducted long enough to reach conclusions. Determining where we currently stand globally in educating the15 year old students that will eventually make up our pool of active mathematicians and scientists is a more complex problem. With the right selection of exam takers we are likely to be judged number one.

Our problems are not with our advanced education in science and mathematics. It is with the standards of our finance sector

Monday, March 28, 2011

Why Does Our Supposedly Great Economic System Tolerate High Unemployment While There is Work to be Done?

The country has trillions of dollars of infrastructure and other development work desperately needed. There are millions of willing workers unemployed, and the factories which make the materials are running at low capacity. You would think that a country of 300 million people working under an economic system that claims to be innovative would be able to develop a financing scheme that matches up these needs. Our banking leaders can come up with a scam that causes a global recession but seem helpless when given the chance to finance something innovative that would help get the country out of reverse.

One example of innovative financing for a targeted problem was War Bonds. You can read about them here. They raised $185.7 billion for WWII. Another gift of “can do” to us from the Greatest Generation. Their desirable characteristics were:

           They were voluntary investments by the citizens, not a tax or contribution.

 Backed by the US Government

Aimed at the general public (half of total population participated)

From $25 dollars to $10,000. (They had a card for spare quarters until $18.75 was reached and they could be traded for a $25 bond)

Ten years to maternity at face value.

Simple and straightforward, everyone could understand
Lets call a modern version “Recovery Bonds”. They would be targeted at specific national goals (i.e. highway/ bridge/rail/ air control upgrades etc.)The national government would certify the prospectus and participate under same terms as citizens.

The citizens will have an energized attitude toward projects and government. They are voting with their investments.

I am convinced that the only way we will fix the cozy government/special financial interest relationship is to have more direct citizen participation in national projects. This is just an example of one approach. How about some others from our "innovative” financial sector?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Emergency Finance Bills Substitute Dictators for Democracy in Troubled Local Governments

As the lost revenue from the recession hits state treasuries there is a rush by several states for new legislation that makes major changes in who will actually control financially troubled local governments. It is not the citizens but an Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) that is being given unheard of power. The EFM is appointed by the Governor.

The new rules give the EFM the power to overturn negotiated contracts between unions and local units, remove elected officials from office, sell community assets, eliminate the salary and benefits of elected officials and request local millage votes to increase revenue. An EFM could dissolve a school district or local unit of government and merge it with neighboring ones. The EFM can also sell community assets.

More detailed comments on the EFM from the Detroit Free Press can be found here. The system is currently said to be applied only to communities which have repeatedly failed to solve their finance problems. It seems made to be abused. Revenue sharing is being cut drastically in many states and many communities will have problems.

Detroit has run a deficit since 2003 and is a prime target. Can substituting a dictator for a democratic process improve the situation? We will see. The economic cards for Detroit are so dire that it is doubtful. Taking the right to solve their problems through democratic procedures away from the population is a dangerous step which requires very close watching.

A nightmare scenario: Hey, Mr. Mayor, don’t worry; Even though we have drastically cut the state revenue sharing the Governor will assign an EFM to tell you what to do. Well, it’s not really a person; it’s a corporation from New York. They specialize in putting together packages of local government debt into securities that they sell on the market. Everyone is doing it.

Be very careful with the power you give an Emergency Financial Manager

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nation’s Outrage Explodes as the Secondary Effects of the Financial Meltdown Hit a Stressed Middle Class

The turmoil and suffering due to the recession still has a long way to run. We are just reaching the states revenue shortfalls. There are still those millions of bad mortgages that are cleverly hidden in the bank books. Many states have decided that the trouble will be placed on teachers, other public workers and unions. It is ridiculous to assign the burden of the state’s shortfalls to an already stressed middle class while those who caused the problem remain untouched. There is not even a veneer of justice in this approach.

Pass a law which places all of the financial burden on the middle class workers, allows state assets to be sold without competition, cancel essentially all collective bargaining rights for teachers or other state workers , and finally add a number of additional insults to the people who do the states work - and you have Wisconsin. You also have one heck of a state protest which has exploded into a nationwide movement. You can be brought up-to-date on the 4 week struggle here.

The Wisconsin protests that initially shocked so many because of their size were driven by the lack of justice and the obvious attempt at union busting. The newly elected Wisconsin senate and governor were blatant in their disrespect to those whom they were supposed to manage through a difficult year. It was insulting to watch the attempts of the new Wisconsin government to place the burdens for revenue shortfall to the teachers, firemen, and police, and other government workers rather than on the poorly managed national financial institutions where it belongs.

The protests continue to grow. A recent protest on  March 12 in Madison was estimated by the police at 85,00o to 100,000. This is more that the largest Tea Party event.

There is a call for a new party that would correct the current situation. Robert Reich would call it the “Peoples Party”. Another solution that has been brought up has the shortfalls being mitigated by fines on those institutions responsible for the meltdown. Michael Moore calls for stricter measures in that many of those who caused the recession are thieves and should be arrested.

Although so far the protests have been very peaceful, you can sense that the patience is getting thin. Recalls are being prepared for many of the state senators who voted for the bill. As a constantly lied to class there is no confidence in a federal government that cannot pass a basic budget and is living off a two week fiscal extension. The middle class needs to see proof that the cozy government /special interests relationships at both the state and federal level will be either radically changed or replaced by just and honest organizations.

Let’s hope that this assurance will be forthcoming and/or everything is settled at the ballot box in 2012.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Republicans “Jump the Shark” in Wisconsin

Jumping the shark is an expression used to denote when a particular production effort has surpassed its relevance and reached a point of decline in quality that it is incapable of recovering from. (From Wikipedia)

That pretty much describes the Republicans in Wisconsin

Lucky for the Democrats that after winning the election the Republicans approached their opportunity for governing Wisconsin with the finesse of a T Rex on crack. Now we have thousands of unhappy employees and a national confrontation with the unions that is escalating to the complete middle class. And then there are the pending recalls from the voters who feel they were deceived.

Advice to Wisconsin voters -Be more careful when you vote next time!

But the protest was bound to happen sometime. Lies and half truths by ideologues during campaigns have reached outrageous size. People vote not on the issues but based on the TV channel they watch. When the actual implementation is much different than expected you have serious buyer’s remorse.

Truth, transparency, and honest intent could have gone a long way to solving the Wisconsin dispute fairly without conflict. Some truths I would appreciate to see to resolve the truth of negatives put forth against the unions are:

What is the total amount spent by the unions in influencing the federal government compared to that of corporations? Publish it each year.

Why is the education system criticized and cut while the financial sector who brought us the multi-trillion dollar financial meltdown are receiving bailouts?

After cutting the fat couldn’t the states remaining shortfall for critical areas like safety and education be amortized and paid back over time in an improved economy with less the citizens?

Why not publish teachers and government employees compensation compared with financial sectors compensation each year?
For some reason we have had a relatively smooth transition here in Virginia, and with a Republican Governor