Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Junior Year

There are too many stories out there that talk about all the kids who get into Ivy League colleges. We hear about the private tutors, college counselor, and of course the great over achievers. But for the rest of us, we would rather live our lives.

Junior year of high school is the biggest pressure cooker out of all four years. Parents start making you think about college, the experts say the grades you receive are the most important, you're preparing to take the SAT's (plus whatever other standardized test there is that year) while trying to keep your grades up, and of course, you need to do extracurricular activities otherwise you won't stick out on any of the applications you submit. Reading about these issues can only make it worse for students, and their families, who worry about whether they are making the right moves.

But what most newspapers and magazines focus on doesn't actually coincide with reality. According to Research Fellow for education studies at American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Andrew Kelly, these are not the typical stories most students go through. Kelly said most perspective students look at public colleges and universities that are close to home and competitive. According to Kelly
"a lot of times the story about college choice and rankings and stuff, is they just focus so heavily on really high achieving students or helicopter parents who are really on their case about getting into college. And frankly, because of all that attention, sometimes it makes us pay not enough attention to the vast majority of students."

It's always if you don't get into the right pre-school, you won't get into the right kindergarten, then you won't get into the right elementary school which means you have no chance to get into the right middle school. So forget about the top high school that Harvard saves spots for, and before you know it, your life is over. But not really. The dramatized stories distort reality, and worse, means "reporters" aren't actually reporting.

These stories are only highlighted by college rankings such as Barron's and the US News and World Report. But before you take them seriously, consider this. These rankings only take into consideration how selective a school is, not the knowledge students are supposed to get when they graduate. That means they need to get as many people to apply to them as possible so they can also reject as many people as possible. Colleges and universities spend tens of thousands of dollars on private firms to tell them how to get more applicants. By knowing what type of college students are applying they can also expand to other states where students aren't all that far, and also students they would like at the college to expand diversity between states and races.

To make sure these perspective students apply, they make it as simple as possible. It is usually only one or two page application with a fancy title to make it seem more exclusive then it really is. Schools send these type of applications out to thousands of students a year. And of course, the application fee is waived. The student has nothing to lose, so why wouldn't they apply?

A study conducted by Kelly and his colleagues, called What Parents Don't Know about College Graduation Rates Can Hurt, found that when parents know the graduation rates of colleges their son or daughter is looking at, they are more likely to choose the one with the better rate. And if you were wondering, no, US News and World Report does not count graduation rates when assessing their schools. "Do I think the US News count for something, sure, but I think they mainly capture prestige and selectivity. So the problem is that it's not all that helpful necessarily for people who are not the most sort of academically gifted or people who are looking for a moderately selective institution." Kelly also said "And that's partly why we did this in sort of to say most people aren't splitting hairs in deciding where to go to school they are going where it is closest by and they can afford. So the question is if they had better information about those schools would that change their mind?" And it did.

So not only are all the stories written and all the assessments bogus, but they don't even tell people the information they need or want to know.

Junior year of high school is a stressful time for families. The fact is a lot does ride on the university or college you go to. But what it doesn't mean is you can't or won't learn anything less than what other students who go to "more exclusive" places. The system is so screwed up there is no reason to take any of it seriously or personally. Just visit the colleges, and pick the one the feels best for you. In the end, chances are, you're not going to be in the field your degree prepared you for, or it was too broad for you to do anything with it. What does matter is that you take the opportunity to discover what you like and what area you want to be in. Knowing what you want to do when you graduate will make you more prepared than most other graduates out there.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt’s Capability

Friday morning I was completely off the grid. I had a appointment downtown, went on the subway to get back to my place so I wasn't checking my cell phone, Twitter, or Facebook. It was just the like the 90's but better because Destiny's Child wasn't playing in the background. When I got back to my apartment I checked to see what was going on in the world and saw a peaceful revolution coming to a peaceful end, and a new beginning for the people of Egypt. There are no words that can describe what was being shown on television, but the word that can't be used enough is incredible.

When the first round of protests started on January 25th, it seemed to catch many people by surprise. Either people at the CIA don't have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or their efforts were focused on something else. But with all the countries in the middle east, why even worry about Egypt? With Mubarak in charge the country had been stable for 30 years, a peace treaty with Israel that it wasn't breaking, and it's GDP was growing at a higher rate than any other nations in Africa, and 25th in the world. So, what do Egyptians have anything to worry about?

The reasons for Egypt's revolt are complex, there are so many directions a writer can take in describing the events that lead up to January 25th. But what they all have in common is the Egyptians wanted to be free and have a democratic government working for them. I have written in the past about standard economic models and how they are inadequate assessments. The reason: they don't assess what people need or care about. Economists should look at what happened in Egypt and realize if the measurements they use do not change, the whole practice is in danger of becoming obsolete.

Before the recession in 2008 Egypt's GDP grew 7.2%, in 2009 it still grew another 4.6% (when most economies shrunk), and in 2010 it contued upward at 5.3%. Part of the growth was drilled from the oil in the country's vast dessert in the west, but its leading industry is in textiles, which grew at 5.5% just last year. But despite this improvement in production, it did not lead to people's lives being improved. Unemployment was still at 9.7% and over 14 million people were living below the poverty line.

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen developed the Capabilities Theory, an alternative to standard economic models. Instead of focusing on GDP as the primary factor in development, he argues economists should focus on social programs such as education and health care, which enable people to live their lives to the fullest extent possible. An important part of this theory is strong democratic governance where people can make their grievances known and work to expand their freedom. The theory calls for redistributive policies to be enacted through social programs, similar to Social Security and Medicaid, which give people the resources and skills they need.

If economists are going to solve this problem, they have to understand what's important to Egyptians, and people living around the world. There have been tons of stories written about the importance of bread, and all the people who have gone hungry (and I make no apologies for saying mine is the best) because they are not able to afford it. What's also important to the Egyptians is their health. When Mubarak first came into power in the 1980's he expanded health care by building hospitals and providing beds across the country. But despite the fact all Egyptians are eligible for health insurance, the government was refusing to pay for it (sound familiar?). The Ministry of Health owes $270 million dollars to health care providers across the country. But because they don't have the money, hospitals have had to delay or refuse people treatment because they can't afford to take them in.

Much of the talk has been about the smart, young people, who organized the protests through Facebook and Twitter. While this is true, the facts don't speak well for Egypt's education system. In the past, Egypt did have a good education system. But in recent years, as the population grew, more students were attending schools but were not receiving a good education. These children became disenfranchised only to drop out. Most of them tried to get the few jobs that were available, or went to a life in crime. This can lead to future economic stagnation because young Egyptians won't know how, or have the will, to start or run a business. More schools needed to be built and more teachers needed to be hired, both of which would have reduced the unemployment rate and brought brighter prospects for Egypt's future and the people who started the revolution.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study on how hard it was to start a business in Egypt. This only empowered the rich and leaving behind the rest. While money was being given to the growing industries like textiles, this only enabled the rich and the businesses they own. Money wasn't being spent on other areas where the majority of the people needed it. Overall investment by the government was only 18% of GDP. This is despite the fact Egypt's purchasing power grew by $25 billion each year between 2008-2010.

The Capabilities Theory allows economists to focus on the areas of an economy that is most important to people, and their welling being. Providing for areas such as education, health care, housing, and food, provides security and stability allowing people to live their lives and pursue the areas they choose. Egyptians wanted access to better education and health care, among other things, and because they were being ruled instead of governed, they had to take to the streets in order to attain these freedoms.

February 11th 2011 is a day that my generation will ask itself "where were you?" when Egyptians took their country back? Now that it is in their hands, Egyptians will be able to elect officials that can enact policies which will help those desperately in need, and build a better stronger country for future generations.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Teachers Take Tests Too

Last night, Superbowl Sunday, I went to my friends place to watch the game and hang out. I'm thinking we'll order pizza, have a few beers, place a few dollar bets here and there, and hopefully watch Ben Roethlisberger lose. Both of the guys I watched it with are teachers, and as I found out, Sunday nights are work nights. This is the third year my friends are teaching, they started out through the Teach for America program and both of them had family members who were teachers. As it turned out, in your third year of teaching in New York City, teachers have to go through an assessment process to determine if they should be granted tenure or not. So instead of being able to watch football, one of them spent virtually all day yesterday, the weekend, and about three quarters of the game, building a portfolio based on the last two and half years of his teaching.

In all honesty I don't think I've ever seen my friends work so hard. Both of them were the type of students who didn't have to work hard to get an A in class. Yes, I hate those people too, but obviously I've digressed. The portfolio he put together was huge. It had graphs of their student's performance, tests they administered, assessments by their principal, and their own take on the results. It was in a twelve inch three ring binder with barely any room left. What also took me by surprise was that out of the twelve teachers that were up for tenure at my friends school, only two of them were going to get it.

There has been a lot of pressure to change tenure systems in public schools. In New York City, a key administrator from the Department of Education warned that if the New York does not change how tenure is granted, it can be in serious jeopardy of not receiving money from the Race to the Top program, or the No Child Left Behind. States across the country are competing for these grants and any additional funds school districts can get would be a big help. While many states are considering to simply remove tenure for teachers, New York City has taken a different approach.

Before he left, School Chancellor Joel Klein wrote a open letter to the teachers and described the problem as "a loose tenure system isn't good for anyone—it hurts students, it disrespects successful teachers, and it leaves those who are not up to the difficult job to struggle." It makes sense. There is no possible way that all teachers will be as good as we would like for our students, and in most cases, some will be better at one aspect of it then the other. In 2010, New York rated teachers on their effectiveness, and only if they were deemed effective or highly effective would they even be considered for tenure.

I liked the assessment my friend put together for three reasons. First, it didn't just focus on standardized tests. Instead, it looked at the overall picture and took into consideration other important aspects of teaching that standardized tests don't. Those aspects include experience (the amount of years a teacher has been in the classroom), where the teacher was teaching (looked into demographics, what kind of school the teacher is in), and tests delivered in the class room.

Quick Tangent: Standardized tests and tests delivered by teachers are very different. Standardized state tests only gauge what students should know, and only tells us which classes/teachers did better than others. The tests administered by teachers tell us the same information, but also allows for something to be done about it. Standardized tests are given at the end of the year where by that time the students have either learned the information or not. But teachers who give their own tests can give them early on or in the middle of the year to determine which of their students needs help. The teacher tests are also created in conjunction with the principal to make sure they are acceptable.

Second, it keeps teachers on edge. My friend wants tenure, who wouldn't? You don't have to worry about losing your job (unless you do something really bad), in New York you get all the Jewish holidays off(which most school districts in the country don't), your salary usually increases as the years go by, and most importantly, you get out around 2:30pm leaving you the rest of the day to get errands done. Tenure is a great carrot to hold over teachers heads to make sure they don't lose focus and give them something to achieve. Critics always worry about the teachers who are slacking off, but if they know they can get canned when they don't have tenure and are forced to prove they are doing work (work that most teachers want to do), it makes everyone happy.

Third, and I think the most important one, it makes teachers evaluate themselves. Believe it or not, teachers work weekends. My friends get up at five in the morning to get to school on time, and trust me, as a twenty-four year old that's no easy task! They are usually exhausted and don't have the energy to think about the classroom (that is unless you go out to drinks with a bunch of teachers. You will, without question, hear some great stories.). As much as I hate to give my friends more work to do, they should be looking to see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how they can improve.

Even if you have tenure, assessments are always a good thing. There's no reason why anyone shouldn't be looking to improve their work. In the classroom, assessments are the teacher's responsibility. They can't argue someone else is telling them how to do their job, or that the tests are bad. If their own assessments show they're not doing a good job, proper steps can be taken to help them, or it will show they are just not cut out to be a teacher.

These teacher assessments can be combined with programs that are already being designed to help teachers. There are plenty of growing websites and blogs that are working to devise ways that help teachers teach. Combining them with assessments will give all teachers a fair shot for them and their students to succeed.

The debate to determine how to hold teachers accountable won't stop, and it shouldn't. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in this country, and those who do it shouldn't be demeaned. But it is important to know which ones are doing well so we can acknowledge them for it. Standardized testing became popular because it's the easiest way to assess teachers, and the easiest way for states to qualify for federal grants. Students deserve better, and figuring out ways (like self assessments) to make schools better is the least we can do.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Place Your Bets (carefully)!

What probably should have been bigger news than has been reported is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It’s fascinating! Really! Just hear me out. The CPI comes out every month from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is a short term indicator on how strong or weak the economy is. The Federal Government puts out household surveys around America asking them what they bought in the past month, compares it to last month, and sees which prices rose and which ones fell. Economists need this information to determine the inflation rate, and people on Wall Street need it so they know what areas of the economy to bet on.

When the Obama administration enacted a new stimulus package in the form of tax breaks, I wrote a post explaining why stimulative was too strong of a word. The reality was that Americans were going to use the tax breaks on the basic items that they have to pay for like rent/mortgage, health care, and food. Spending is a major part of America’s economy, especially since we are not building as much as we used to. While the tax cuts will help the overall economy because people will be spending money, the important thing is people won’t feel they have to choose between the items they need to live. Last month the CPI rose 0.5 percent, and the three main areas where people put their money was on energy (to heat their homes), food (to put in their stomachs), and health care (so they won’t get the flu).

When stock brokers look to make money, they look to invest in areas of the economy they think people will be spending their money. Some of these areas are obvious. As the weather gets colder people are going to heat their homes. Since the employment rate fell more people could afford to buy health insurance, and while people always bought food, the reason why the amount of money people spent on it went up is because the price of food went up. But sometimes it’s not so obvious, and looking at a short history of the CPI you can see why.

The chart above shows the average change that the CPI occurred every year from 2000-2010. What sticks out to me here is how volatile it is. From 2002 to 2003 there was a full percent increase, and in real monetary terms we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. The highest point, probably not coincidentally, was in 2008, before the financial crisis in 2009, where the CPI turned negative. While the CPI isn’t the only analysis Wall Street looks at, it is an important one. The figures they see here are what give them the confidence to bet with people’s money. But as you can see, because the consumer market is so volatile, it is hard to guess which areas of the economy will be earning money.

Now people may argue the turn of the century is an unfair time to use because the economy wasn’t strong. So let’s take a look back when America turned to Nirvana, the 90’s.



Today, the stock market ended on the highest note in the past two years. That tells me people who look at this data feel confident that the economy is going in the right direction. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so willing to invest so much money, in any area. Markets went up because they saw overall manufacturing go up, which means there is a high demand for products and more people will be spending money. Now, it’s just matter of figuring out where.

What gets me is how some conservatives argue that the better the Wall Street is doing, the better America does. That simply isn’t true. If you are lucky enough to have the money to buy stocks right now, yes, you are doing well. But millions of American’s don’t and are choosing to keep a roof over their families, get their family food, or give them health insurance. Fortunately last month, according to this CPI, most families were able to do all three.

The truth is some people are better than others determining which stocks are worth your money. Anyone who tells you they know exactly what will happen in the future is lying. There were people who knew the financial crisis was coming, but even those people couldn’t say when. As the market has been fluctuating since Washington bailed it out, it is important to remember to learn the game before you play, to do your homework and then place your bets carefully.