Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Recession - What's Different This Time?

OK, so President-elect Obama lowered our expectations by declaring that the recession we are in will be worse before it gets better. Now it is official.

So, we tighten our belts for the next twelve months or so, and then everything will be better, like in the previous recessions in the past 50 years, right? Not so fast. This downturn already has swallowed entire industries, with more lining up for government bailout so they won't disappear. Half million jobs disappeared in a month, the most in modern history. Did this happen overnight? Hardly. This witch's brew has been brewing for a couple of decades, and it has several other firsts to its credit, some that are not so obvious.

1. Highest total debt/GDP ratio in history. During the great depression, the total debt/GDP hit 260%. Now it stands at 350%. A healthy ratio is 150% or lower. Which means we have 200% of GDP's worth of debt to pay off (that is about $29 trillions, with a "T". Boils down to about $100,000 per capita, or $400,000 per family of 4).

2. Hollowed out industrial base: Almost every consumer item besides food, drugs and shelter is made somewhere else. Even in rare occasions something is made here, it is designed and engineered somewhere else. During the last depression, the US industrial base was one of the tops in the world.

3. Not enough brainpower left to build the 21st century economy: Jobs of the future need more college graduates, and yet we are going to graduate fewer students out of college. College is out of reach for many middle class families, and is only getting more unaffordable. More striking is the number of engineers coming out of our universities, which has steadily dwindled in the last three decades. The social scientists have defined what "math" and "science" our kids should learn (or not) in our K-12 system. So, many come out of high school unprepared for a technical career.

4. Global competition: The US was pretty much isolated with few other global competitors during the last depression. Trade was a fraction of what it is today, given the lack of jet, container, and surface transportation infrastructure. But since the internet took hold, competition in services became reality, adding salt to the wound, since competition in manufacturing has been lost already.

What about the solutions being talked about? I have heard the new administration proposing a massive public works program like the New Deal of the FDR days. I think the building of highways worked in the 1930s because it was one of the big bottleneck to internal trade. But today's infrastructure, especially in the area of communications, has figuratively flattened the world. That is why I think the traditional '30s style rebuilding won't work this time. Yes, we need to fix our roads, bridges and school buildings. Will it help the rest of the nation to be competitive when the recession ends? I think not. What is sorely needed is focus on unique value added technologies like clean, renewable energy, cleaner transportation technologies, and better wireless communication infrastructure. This will give us something of value that we can trade with the rest of the world in exchange for consumer goods, instead of piling up trade deficits.

But to do this, we need more unique technologies we can all our own, and which have a ready global market. Which means we need more patents. Which means we need more PhDs in Science and Technology, who can invent these technologies and file for those patents. Which means we need more K-12 student candidates who want to be PhD Scientists and Technologists. That will be the house that Jack built. We are missing the bricks for this house that are needed for the first layer of this house, so any talk about building the superstructure is likely to provide only superficial results.

I have not heard talk yet from the administration as to how we will accomplish this.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On 21st Century Jobs

In K-12 education circles, has been fashionable in the past few years to talk about 21st century jobs. Every school district official I met had something to say about how his/her district was preparing students for “21st century jobs”. When I probe a little deeper, however, I get the feeling that the depth of understanding as to the nature of these jobs is very superficial. When asked, I get what sounds like a canned response “jobs involving creativity, critical thinking skills, learning how to learn”, and so on. That got me thinking about how our education system can deliver on the promise of true 21st century jobs.

Let me set the context. Our universities seem to be doing a great job of creating graduates that can compete globally. Others are catching up, but we seem to be still on top. Never mind that we have mostly foreign born science and engineering professors teaching in these universities, to mostly foreign born graduate students. For the moment, we can bask in the glory that we are #1. So, the problem of turning out college graduates for 21st century jobs does not appear to be with our institutes of higher education.

Now let us go a little deeper into the rabbit hole. What about our high school graduates? I have already written a piece about “How To Turn Out World Class High School Graduates” from the perspective of a customer. Clearly, there is a broken link between our K-12 system and its view of 21st century jobs, and our university system and its view of 21st century jobs. I will continue to assert that this is one broken link that we cannot afford to have. If it is not obvious now, it will be obvious a few more years into the greatest economic downturn since the last great depression. To peel this onion, we have to start with what we have been historically good at, and what we have left to chance.

Let us start with all the great ideas that we came up with. In no particular order, I can rattle off at least a dozen history-altering 20th century inventions credited to the US: the transistor, atomic power (for energy generation), a dozen or more computer languages, statistical process control, genetically engineered drugs, wireless technologies, the photocopy machine, the SLR camera, the TV, the VCR, ,the integrated circuit, the computer and the list goes on and on. One funny thing I noticed is that each one of these inventions is keeping hundreds of millions of people gainfully employed in well paying jobs IN OTHER COUNTRIES – in the 21st century. Let me elaborate some that I have listed:

The Transistor: Invented by William Shockley and Pearson in AT&T Bell Labs, (later confirmed by Brattain and Bardeen from the same labs) one of the premier private research labs, in the 1940s, for which they won a Nobel Prize. Attempts to commercialize the transistor in the US were unsuccessful, until Sony of Japan licensed it and perfected large-scale manufacture. Other Japanese companies followed suit, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, there is no large-scale consumer electronics industry in the US to speak of. AT&T Bell Lab itself is no more, having been broken up into parts and sold off to foreign companies.

Nuclear Power for Energy: Peaceful uses of nuclear energy have been a good byproduct of the technology that literally started with a bang. But after 3-Mile Island and Chernobyl, the perception of this as a source of energy has declined. In the meantime, France, Japan, and developing countries like India have accelerated deployment to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The cure for bad technology, according to them, was better technology. Our answer: no technology. Now new nuclear plants have been built here in the last 30 years.

Computer Languages & the Internet Browser: This has been the single largest generator of high paying jobs worldwide. Universities and corporate research labs in the US led the development of almost all the ideas behind the connected world we have today. And yet the job growth in this field has fled this country. Most of the programmers are in other countries. No country has benefited from this than India, where one private university, the National Institute of Information Technology, turns out more programmers per year than the entire nation of the United States. Back in this country, I have not seen any recent math text books with Basic algorithms to solve problems. Instead, there are screen shots of calculators where students just punch buttons. Nor have I met many math teachers who can teach true programming. I wonder whatever happened to critical thinking we talk so much about? If the K-12 system does not create excitement in this field, who will supply the graduates to our university system?

Statistical Process Control: This is a concept that was lost on the US industry for a long time. Championed by US thinkers like Deming and Juran, these ideas never caught on, until Japan Inc. decided to use these techniques to improve their cheap, and shoddy product image. And improve they did. And the Koreans followed suit. Based on a deep understanding of mathematics and statistics, these techniques propelled Japanese car brands to the top of the quality charts. The US auto industry has always trailed in this aspect, and had to rely on laws and truck subsidies to survive. Part of why the “Big Three” are at the verge of bankruptcy is the failure to follow these concepts in the early stages. Waiting in the wings is Tata motors of India, with a car that sells in India for $2500, and gets 50 miles per gallon. They promise plenty of 21st century high paying jobs – in India.

Genetically Engineered Drugs: One other field that was pioneered in the US, and treated with suspicion by the public. While companies like Genentech seem to be doing quite well, the growth has come from other countries. Ranbaxy labs in India grew tremendously in the last few years, and is on the verge of passing global giants in this field. Recently, a Japanese company acquired a large stake in this company, probably since Japan’s aging population will needs a reliable supply of quality drugs.

Wireless Technologies: Spearheaded by the meteoric rise of the cell phone, this field is just getting started. Once the undisputed territory of US companies like Motorola, this industry is now dominated by Finnish and Korean companies. This is one industry that is forecasted to grow, in double digit percentages, well into the 21st century, providing high paying, high tech jobs for their employees. Meanwhile Motorola just announced that they were exiting the cell phone business. The only other US company that makes cell phones, Apple Computer, has only a few percent global market share. Interestingly, Korean and Finnish high school students routinely come in first or second in math and science in worldwide comparisons. Coincidence? I do not think so.

Do we see a trend here? Can we connect the dots? Needless to say the remaining industries such as cameras, the TV, the VCR (or DVD player), computers, and so on, are creating high paying 21st century jobs elsewhere in the world, while our domestic industries are turning into hollow sales and marketing organizations. One common thread in the places where such industries flourish is a razor sharp focus on creating the best mathematical and scientific talent in the world. I will assert that if our focus, especially in the K-12 education system, changes to match or better theirs, we will also create the same high pay, high growth environment in this country. The downside of not doing so will be an economy that we have today. Other than food and shelter, we are forced to buy what other countries make, with money borrowed from them. There will be jobs here too, but with subsistence wages and no benefits to speak of. Our system has been turning out high school graduates, 50% of who cannot pass an 8th grade math test. I will assert that it is a big part of what led to the mess we are in. The time to act was in 1983, when the “Nation at Risk” study came out. We failed to produce results then. The result I think has led to economic bondage of sorts, for our kids and grandkids, and no amount of apologizing is going to make their lives any better. I will maintain that only if we act like our lives depend on rectifying the current sorry state of math and science education can we redeem ourselves. One thing that we appear to be good at, is to come together at a time of crisis and commit to a solution that leads to common good. My hope is that most people who read this can make this connection, and drive changes in their schools and communities.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How to Turn Out World Class High School Graduates - A Customer's Perspective

As I ponder the big question of how to improve the sorry state of education in the State of Washington, my mind conjures up images of the familiar ancient story about five blind men and an elephant. Every person has an opinion about what the problems are, and how to solve them. If you are an educator, you get one version of the problem and proposed solutions. Administrators have their own view, so do the superintendents and the school board members. But all the people above are part of the system. Their view often reflects the immediate problems they see in connection with their jobs. What about the “customer”? We rarely read or hear about the people who are paying for the education that their kids are getting, namely, the taxpayer. In most cases, this person also doubles as the parent of a public school kid. I am a long standing tax payer with hundreds of hours of volunteer hours in public schools, and I have a few views of my own. As a customer of a system that spends $7500 per child on K-12 education (which, by the way, is higher than the per capita GDP of about 65% of this world’s nations), in this election year, I want my voice to be heard too. So, here goes.

As a customer, I want the schools to turn out quality graduates. What I mean by quality is that the graduates meet all the skill and knowledge requirements expected out of a world class graduate. One measure of the quality of graduates, at least in case of those who go on to college, is remediation rates. The goal, of course, is zero remediation rates. Another measure of quality is for graduates to enter a trade or occupation of their choice with very little on-the-job training. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Remediation rates in our community colleges, especially in the gatekeeper skills like math, are running over 50%. Even our most selective college, University of Washington, has over 10% remediation rate, and the math, science and engineering faculty have come out with an open letter saying they have seen a decline in core math skills. The WASL scores bear out an even sadder fact – 65% of our graduates cannot pass an 8th grade level science test either. This is not what I expect out of a quality organization that charges the taxpayer $7500 per student.

Quality of graduates is a direct measure of how well a school system does. There are some indirect measures, ones that lead up to the final goal of turning out quality graduates. These are by no means new - they have been talked about for decades. But I feel, as a customer, it is my job to keep repeating the message until action is taken to remedy the defects in the system. After researching what works worldwide, I have discounted the familiar arguments about more money and smaller class sizes. There are many more zero cost (or, sometimes, cost saving) alternatives we can explore before we blow more money on something that is not working well. But good teachers DO make a difference, so do well designed curricula. So I have decided to focus on these three problem areas – Quality graduates, Good Teachers, Good Curricula. Below each, I have listed several possible solutions, with my take on what the cost would be – both monetary and political.

Problem #1: How to increase the quality of our K-12 graduates

o Solution: Increase the content and rigor of state standards for every subject matter at every grade level, starting with math and science. Today's standards for math, even the revised ones, trail the world class by a year or two. Since math is the language of science, the science standards and performance suffer accordingly. The standards should be made devoid of pedagogical methods, and focused on performance expected out of students. This is the job of OSPI, and they have failed miserably in their primary mission. The legislature must drive OSPI to make Washington standards the unquestioned leader in the world. The opponents of this have been, and will be, the entire establishment, because they are afraid they won't be able to deliver. This is nonsense, because setting standards should not have anything to do with whether we can deliver, and everything to do with setting world class expectations of our graduates. This is a low investment, high return area. The legislature has already done some expectation setting to OSPI on this, but OSPI has been an unwilling participant so far.

o Solution: Measure our graduates with the same ruler as the rest of the nation. WASL test is a custom made test that only OSPI loves and understands. It has wasted over a billion dollars, while providing little information to teachers on how to improve their instruction, and students on how to improve their learning. Lower grade WASL must be replaced with a nationally normed and standardized test such as SAT10 (Stanford Achievement Test, v.10) and the high school exit exams replaced with ACT. The overall cost may be a wash, compared to the cost of administering the WASL. But the students and teachers will gain immensely because of the feedback.

o Solution: Hold schools accountable for competency by raising the bar at every grade level, and do away with social promotions. Social promotions are a product of the self esteem movement which has permeated all aspects of our teaching establishment. But it has taken all accountability away from students, parents, and teachers. If students do not meet minimum grade level performance requirements, they should spend time in summer school until they do. If not, they should repeat the grade, since they were probably not prepared to take it anyway. This will take some investment, and political will to implement, but will pay off handsomely in high school and college, when students actually come in prepared to take higher level classes.

o Solution: Fund full day kindergarten and head start. This will make sure that both low income and high income kids have the same baseline when they enter first grade. Study after study has shown that head start funding and prison funding are inversely correlated. With the US having the highest incarceration rate, at over $25,000 per annum per inmate, we can spend a fraction of that on headstart and avoid most of it. The return justifies the investment.

o Solution: Cut back on big sports expenditures, and fund intellectual curricular and co-curricular activities in math, science, geography, spelling, chess, and lego robotics. Our schools, especially at the high school level, have become like sports camps. Curricular achievement often takes a back seat to sports achievement. There is nothing wrong with pursuing sports, as many of us were involved in them ourselves. But having the two funded from the same bucket of money tends to confound the funding issues. I propose dividing educational districts into two categories - academic districts and athletic districts. This allows the funding to be distributed according to availability, and have the schools focus on what they should - academics. This could actually be a money saver, since it will make obvious the eye popping amount of money we spend on athletics in the name of academics.

Problem #2 - How to get good teachers into classrooms:

o Solution: Pass an emergency teacher certification bill that grants full teaching certificates to retired and unemployed engineers and technicians. This is very low cost, high return area, but you will have to fight the teacher's unions to get it through. But it takes advantage of a large number of retired professionals or those being laid off, and are eager to teach.

o Solution: Mandate that the schools of education raise their admissions standards to at least those earning a basic arts/science degree, increase credit hours required to graduate, increase the credit hours and rigor of advanced math courses for teachers, and tighten the graduation criteria. In the short term, it will decrease the number of graduating teachers, but if you act on the previous solution first, it should compensate for the shortfall. Again, this is a low cost, high return proposal, but you will have to fight the bureaucracy in colleges.

o Solution: Mandate that every teacher get evaluated on the increase in standardized test scores in their classes, and on a 360 degree evaluation by students/parents, peers, and the principal. The good ones should get higher raises, the really bad ones put on probation. If no improvement is seen after probationary period, they need to be let go. Tenure has blurred the difference between stellar performers and poor performers, and has provided a reason for good teachers to leave the profession. Without a periodic review system of review, over time, the entire system degenerates into mediocrity. As we speak, Michelle Rhee is overhauling the Washington DC school system, partly by challenging the teachers to step up or leave. I think this change is one of the most significant we can implement. This is a medium cost area (takes yearly testing to track progress), but can be automated with technology. This is how all professionals get evaluated in most of the world. I expect strong resistance from the unions, but they will be fighting a losing battle in the face of increasing job losses in the economy. This is also a low dollar item, since you are giving the total money you would have normally given for salary increases, and distributing it by performance.

Problem #3 - How to get good curricula into schools

o Solution: Seek out what works worldwide, and implement it in schools. The public schools in the US in general, and in the state of Washington in particular, have been victims of faddish trends in education. Without going into gory details, my research has uncovered that a large portion of poor student performance can be traced to poor curricular choice based on faddish philosophies promoted by the schools of education. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of math education. The K-8 public school math curricula based on these philosophies has dumbed down an entire generation of school kids. Increasing expectations is only part of the story. Without rigorous teaching materials, the goal of turning out world class graduates will still be a dream. My recommendation is to follow the list published by What Works Clearinghouse, and implement only those that have proven to produce results (as in higher test scores). Math keeps coming up as a subject that needs particular attention. Saxon Math and Singapore Math have been proven to work in the K-8 curricula, and I feel they are a great choice for any school district as primary math curricula.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Trouble With Ideology And The Dawn Of The Age Of Reason

There have been countless articles in the papers and op-ed pieces on radio and TV recently on why the country got into such an economic mess almost overnight. Some of them have been suggesting that the free market ideology, or the lax regulation policies on banks and mortgage lenders got us into this mess. Some other articles on educational ideologies that believe in constructivist learning suggest that they could be part of the reason why our schools turn out such poor performers. Then there is the all consuming presidential race which keeps bringing racial and religious ideologies into the forefront, whether they are relevant or not. That got me to think about the fundamental concept of ideology. If a certain ideologies got us into this mess that we are in, then is the solution an opposing ideology? What is the guarantee that an opposing ideology will not get us into another mess sometime later? Could the problem be the fact that we cling to various ideologies to save us at different situations, without really questioning the validity of believing in any ideology at all?

I am of the opinion that all ideologies were conceived to simplify life. Ideologies provide simple explanations and prescribe relatively easy to understand prescriptions in certain situations. Religious ideologies belonging to various religions lay down how life should be led, and the consequences of good or bad deeds in this world or an afterlife. Various political ideologies favor control of the society by a certain class of people, assuming that what is good for the ruling class is good for humanity. But to believe in an ideology, an individual must see value in what it has to offer. It could be positive value in terms of direct rewards for following its prescribed practices, or lack of punishment for doing so. The net result is that if the ideology fails to show value, it fails to appeal to the individual. So, what are the characteristics of a successful ideology which shows value? I have come up with some ideas below:

1. First and foremost, a successful ideology must be simple to understand. Even a flawed ideology sometimes succeeds because it appears to be easy to understand. For example, when Communism was first introduced in Europe, it seemed so simple that it appealed to almost half the population of this planet, and caused the masses to take up arms and overthrow their governments. The flaw in the ideology is painfully obvious now. At best, it took away all the incentives for one to excel, and at worst, it spawned party dictatorships or individual dictatorships because the one party system made it too easy to do so. Even though the success of communism was fleeting, in historical terms, its impact, good or bad, has been so powerful that it will be hard to ignore.

2. Second, a successful ideology provides some reasonable and immediate solutions to a pressing problem . For example, when Buddhism was first introduced in India in 6th century BC, it provided a way out for millions of masses who found the existing religion and the social structure it created to be too oppressive.

3. Third, a successful ideology is self-reinforcing. Its followers create a system that rewards the believers and punishes the non-believers, therefore perpetuating its existence. This can be said about any religion currently in existence, but it can also be extended to social and political beliefs. Ideology, by definition, creates exclusive cliques or groups. The followers of an ideology may think this is great, because of the rewards they receive for being part of a larger group.

So, what then is the trouble with the concept of ideology? Other than some obvious ones that failed, we should be fine with the remaining ones, right?

I beg to disagree. Let me attempt to explain:

The greatest strength of ideologies, their simplicity, is also their greatest weakness. Let us take the example of Communism. The earliest treatise, written by Carl Marx, was during the early stages of the industrial revolution. Big money built huge industrial infrastructure with one sole end in mind – maximum output. Working conditions were abysmal, and the wages were just enough for subsistence living in slums. All the profits went to the capitalists, who hired and fired employees at will , at a time when there was no safety net. What the laborer saw was that the bosses hardly broke a sweat and lived a plush life, while they had to constantly toil without even the guarantee of being able to make the same subsistence wages the next day. The workers were not literate, and were not capable of understanding a deep treatise on economic theory of supply and demand. Communism was just the tonic for many of them. Revolution provided a vent for their pent up rage, and the idea of everyone being equal appealed to them. Heck, everyone they knew was in the same boat. It was not hard to imagine life being a little better for everyone.

But it turned out everything was not hunky dory after the first revolution. Russia quickly industrialized after its bloody revolution, only to find Stalin rise to power and establish a long and painful dictatorship until his demise. China followed suit with Mao Zedong. Other Asian and Latin American countries quickly followed. But then, a funny thing happened. The same ideology that led the rise of these nations also threatened their very solvency. Since there was no incentive to work hard and excel, the entire economy eventually became filled with workers who got by with the bare minimum effort. “Everyone being equal” turned into “everyone being equally mediocre”. This, combined with the zeal of the leaders to build big militaries, drained their already weak economies. When the only choice left was to face bankruptcy, the leadership of Russia invented “glasnost” , a thinly veiled attempt at allowing freedom of expression. This was quickly followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire itself. China was on a different path, but came to the same conclusion after the demise of Mao. Still ruling with an iron fist, the leadership allowed private enterprises, and opened its markets. So, the ideology where “everyone was created equal” did not quite hold water. The conditions that made it a sensible ideology did not exist any more. The ideology had helped create an entirely new condition, wherein a completely opposite ideology started making more sense.

So, in short, the simplicity that successful ideologies deliver also is their greatest liability. The simplicity is analogous to that of a stopped clock. It is exactly right twice in a 24 hour period. But it keeps deviating until it is exactly opposite of the correct time. I assert that every ideology suffers from the same limitation. Why? Because simplicity lulls people to believe in certain simple axioms, regardless of the situation. The world has become a lot more complex and intertwined in the 21st century for any ideology to be correct for everyone 100% of the time. Believers of ideologies make their own lives simpler by shutting down the brain circuits that would have otherwise be open to examining new situations in their own light. I have seen the quip “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts”, which is probably a jab at such mentality. And yet, the world needs more and more people who can look at each situation intelligently, and draw their own conclusions. Ideologies create extreme conditions that a counter ideology will destroy, thereby starting the whole cycle all over. The fact that ideologies help create extreme conditions are illustrated even more clearly by the economic chaos in the US today. We have had the opposite ideology to communism operating in this country since its inception, at least in the private sector. It has been forty years since we landed a man on the moon, which was a symbolic pinnacle of capitalist achievement. And yet, today the wealth disparity in the US is the highest in 40 years, so is poverty rate, illiteracy rate, high school dropout rate, unemployment rate, foreclosure rate, bankruptcy rate…the list goes on and on. Does this mean the citizens of the US need a counter ideology, something of the likes of Socialism?

Hardly. I assert that every society deserves to be freed from the endless cycles of ideologies and counter ideologies butting heads every so many decades. The only way to do that is to wean the public from the idea that there is a simple ideological solution to everything. Problems today are complex. To be solved, they need all the knowledge, and processing ability that every individual can bring to the table. Reason must replace blind belief. Every problem must be identified early in its cycle, and must deserve the best people we can throw at it. But it has to start with creating minds that are predisposed to reason, rather than belief in an ideology. Hence my oxymoronic statement – believe that one should not believe.

The 21st century will create many new winners and losers. My hope is that more enlightened societies will see the wisdom behind not following an ideology blindly. Instead, they will focus on creating more objective thinkers. They will have mastered all the relevant facts and skills that humankind has learned so far, and use that knowledge to build a better tomorrow. That will be the dawn of the age of reason.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Colossal Crises Part 2 - Economics

In the last blog, I was leading up to the topic of how I think economics functions in a democracy. I am not an economist by training, but I have taken enough classes and read enough books on economics to at least understand the basics. The basic tenet that any economics text book teaches is that supply and demand are in balance at a price called the “market price”. When there are many producers of “goods” and “services”, and many buyers for these goods and services, it creates an ideal situation where producers compete for market share, and buyers get the best deals. Free and fair competitive markets ensure that goods and services are delivered at the maximum possible productivity. It The key word here is “productivity”. As producers compete, they figure out how to make more things in less time, and productivity increases with time. Higher productivity should theoretically translate into higher wages. After all, the definition of productivity is how much work gets done in a given amount of time. Let us look at how these ideals have become distorted in some areas.

Let me start with two of the key words I introduced, “goods” and “services”. “Goods” are tangible things produced by workers, often in factories. (The kind that have been disappearing from this land.) Apparently, many Asian countries have managed to produce goods at a lower price and higher quality. The American ideal of free and fair competition has been realized in other countries, which produce low cost, high quality items at a much higher productivity. So, we are used to paying the lowest price for an imported car, sometimes lower than it is sold in its home country. But why are so few car makers left here? Why are more American workers not benefiting from the largest free market for automobiles in the world? Why is Toyota today worth 20 times more than Ford and GM COMBINED? Why are Honda, Toyota, and countless other foreign automakers able to make top quality cars in this country, and provide competitive wages to their workers in American factories, when GM and Ford can not?

I could not find any simple answers, but one thing jumped out at me. Decision making in the management of large corporations were decidedly short sighted and speculative. When there was ample evidence that fuel prices would go up in the long run, Detroit was building large SUV factories to cash in on the short term demand. When oil prices jumped, Detroit got caught with large factories that were useless. Now they are asking for a $50 billion bailout from the government (read – taxpayers). Now, it is not the government’s role to tell GM or Ford to build a certain type of vehicle. But it is also true that our representatives buckled under the automobile lobby and did not enforce fuel efficiency standards despite mounting evidence of global warming, and now, increasing fuel prices.

Similarly, in the stock market of the 90’s, when Greenspan made his “irrational exuberance” speech, stocks were valued much higher than their underlying value. But nothing was done by the regulators to check the speculative options trading, or day trading. In the early 2000’s, when there was ample evidence that home prices were going up at a faster rate than wages, mortgage lenders were making sub prime loans at an ever increasing rate. Speculation started controlling the prices of homes, rather than the true underlying demand. The fundamental economic principle where demand and supply were in balance was distorted by speculation, which by definition is not true demand. It is an aberration in demand, anticipating more demand. Again, the government regulators did nothing to curb the lax lending practices.

On the other hand, “services” are not tangible. An accountant preparing your taxes, a doctor prescribing a medicine, a secretary answering phones, are all services which we cannot touch or feel. But there is a common thread between goods and services. Where services are delivered in a competitive market, there has been improvement in productivity, just as in the production of goods. However, when the competitive aspect is taken away, it becomes non ideal, and mediocrity sets in over time. The best example of non ideal conditions I could find was unions. In principle, unions make worker’s life easier by providing a single body to negotiate with management on work hours, working conditions, wages, etc. But this also means the unions are creating a monopoly over how services are delivered. A monopoly is by itself a non ideal condition for the economic principles to operate. With no competition over how services are delivered, productivity remains stagnant. Over time, the loss of productivity starts to strangle the company, and the company loses competitiveness. The unions are slowly killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak. There are many industries with non-union labor (semiconductors and software, to name a couple), and there are world leading companies still thriving in the US. The difference is that most of these successful companies have dealt with their employees in good faith, at least as much as the circumstances will allow them. I am convinced that the concept of the traditional union, invented during the industrial age, is as obsolete as buggy whips. We need a new paradigm where the distinction between management and labor blurs, and the government needs to be a champion of this change. There are plenty of examples of how this has been done in high tech companies, which evolved in the post industrial era. All that needs to be done is to copy the best practices, and implement them in areas that needs them.

I infer the following common threads from these observations:

1. The economic principles of demand and supply, free and fair markets, are fundamentally sound. Where they have been allowed to operate, these forces have produced the maximum increases in productivity, and higher wages for the workers. Conversely, where they did not exist, the result was market bubbles followed by crashes.

2. The role of the government should be to make sure that the environment within which all goods and services are made adhere to these fundamental principles.

The big question now is, how many of our elected representatives believe in and champion these ideas. I am willing to support all who show me evidence that they do. But from what I have seen, most are happy to be one of the sheep, and line up behind a few manipulative leaders who scare them into action.

Next up - The Environment

The Unified Field Theory Of The Colossal Crises

It has been a while since I posted on this blog. In a previous blog, dated July 25, titled “Instant versus Delayed Gratification”, I had concluded with the sentence “It is going to be a long and bumpy ride....hold on tight!”

What a ride it has been. I was pinned to my computer as bank after bank, institution after institution, fell with breathtaking speed. And I am afraid it is just the beginning. Why was this happening with such rapidity all at once? Those who could not find a few million dollars to save headstart were all of a sudden begging the public to shell out $700 billion dollars to save our financial institutions. Why? How could this happen out of the blue, and catch everyone by surprise? I was struggling for answers. This prompted me to look beyond how I got started with blogging – math education in my school district. I looked into how public education is delivered to kids, how government regulates banks and brokerages, how micro and macro economics works, and finally, how democracy is supposed to work, and why we as a nation have been so ineffective in preventing such large crises. I have also been pondering if there is a common thread behind the reason for all these catastrophes. What I discovered was pretty obvious, yet hard to find these days. It is also too much material to fit on one blog, so I have split it into series of blogs.

I liken this quest to that of a Physicist who started with lessons on the theory of gravity, and along the way picked up the collective knowledge and wisdom on various forces that dictate the properties stars, planets, atoms, quarks, energy are all interrelated. Then they almost all seem to “lap dissolve” into one. This is the Physicist’s holy grail, called the “Unified Field Theory”. It remains unproven, but it has not stopped them from building giant particle accelerators to prove it.

Similarly, what started as a blog on education has now lap dissolved into economics, domestic and international politics, technology, and environment…. They all appear to be part of the same continuum. Have these crises just popped up out of nowhere? Evidence has been all over the place, sometimes for decades, that things have been seriously wrong. Yet, all the actions that were taken were ineffective in preventing the ultimate spectacular crashes – in the stock market of the late ‘90s, the 9-11 attacks of 2001, now the housing crash and the resulting credit crisis. It appears to me that the unifying force behind all these is defined by how uninformed, unskilled and apathetic we collectively are as a democracy. Let me expand on this a bit.

Democracy is neither new, nor is it a novel idea. We can brag America is the oldest democracy, but strictly speaking, it is neither. The oldest democracy in recorded history I could find was the city state of Athens, circa 100 BC. Every citizen with voting rights had the right to vote on any issue that the public considered important. It did not last very long. Democracy is a very fragile and unstable way to maintain order in any nation. But we are not a true democracy either. Even though we do not have a true democracy as the ancient Athenians had, we have a republic, started by ancient Romans, which is a close approximation. Theory goes that the elected “re”presentatives of the “public” are a close enough approximation of the real thing, because the representatives are beholden to the public that elects them. Well, like any theory, when put to practice, it becomes something else. Therein lies the rub. Whenever power concentrates in the hands of a few, other centers of power, like large corporations, unions, think tanks, religious and civic groups, government agencies, etc. try and influence their decision making. When all the time of a politician is taken up by the “sky is falling” message coming from these power centers, precious little is left to cater to the cries of the voters that got them there. When the voters do respond, their voices are often ignored. Take the banking bailout, for example. The vast majority of the emails from citizens have been against the bailout, but our leaders went ahead with it anyway! Did they act because they knew something the public did not? Like they did when “WMDs” were discovered in Bagdad? What happened to the idea of a representative being the spokesperson for the public, and not of another branch of the government? What constitutional remedy is left for a voter to have their voice heard, other than try to vote these people out of office? Only to find the new person falls victim to the same old game?

To be fair, this nation has performed better than the vast majority of the world, when it comes to creating a great place to live. The infrastructure, the universities, the business environment, and the ability to communicate freely are the envy of the world. But underneath it all, I sense there is something very insidious. I see that the public is content when they have a well paying job, a clean and secure living environment, good education for their kids, and some hope for a comfortable retirement. For several decades, these benefits have been taken for granted. They have counted on our elected reps to do what is in the public’s best interest, and maintain these benefits we enjoy. Now, one by one, these seem to be disappearing, often at a breathtaking pace, without a chance for us to respond. Is there a pattern behind each area that has gone or is going wrong? I contend there is. Read my the next blog on “Economics” for more food for thought.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Olympic Sized Diversion

The summer Olympics ended with a bang last weekend. US won the most medals, while China won the most golds. By this time the people in the US olympic committee are probably strategizing as to how to win the most golds in London in 2012. It is natural in a culture that prides itself of athletic prowess. But while the eyes of the world were fixated on the grandest ever Olympic closing ceremony, two seemingly disconnected articles appeared in two separate corners of the world this weekend. One was in the Boston Globe, the other on the Yahoo! India website. Here are the links to both:

First, the Boston Globe editorial by Derrick Jackson, titled Going for Gold in India, an editorial describing the first ever olympic individual gold medal won by an Indian athlete.

The second, titled "India to have fourth of global workforce by 2020: PM", is a report on the announcement by the Prime Minister of India to Quintuple the investment in Education, and create a world class workforce of 500 million people by year 2020.

The Boston Globe editorial chronicles the story of Abhinav Bhindra, a 25 year old from Delhi. The first individual medal won by an Indian was a big deal, and Bhindra became an instant national hero. However, Derrick had a different slant on this victory - "But as every American who ever needed computer support knows, India is the 100-pound weakling laughing all the way to the global awards stand. As China and the United States produce athletes in very different, yet equally obsessive ways - and as we treat college and pro athletes as demigods and allow our children to become enslaved to high school coaches and suburban soccer programs - India is producing brainpower." I could not have said it better myself. As if to rub salt in the wound, the article goes on to say "But it is also interesting that the nation's first individual gold medalist also happens to be the 25-year-old chief executive of a company that makes controllers for computer games. While many half-educated American athletes retire into a fog to find meaning in the rest of their lives, Bindra wins the gold, then mints more gold as our children become zombies playing with his products."

As if by coincidence, the Indian prime minister's speech appeared on the newswires. Here is the first line "India is expected to account for a fourth of the world's total skilled workforce by 2020 and the central government is according top priority to higher education, allocating Rs.275,000 crore (Rs.2.75 trillion) to the sector, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said here Tuesday." and it continues further "'We have significantly increased allocation to the education sector with a five fold increase to an unprecedented Rs.275,000 crore,(Rs.2.75 trillion)' he said while addressing faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Guwahati." Five fold increase? A country that already produces 6 times the number of engineers and 10 times the number of computer programmers as the US to increase the investment in education by 500%? The investment will also be more broad based "Approval had already been granted for eight new IITs, seven Indian Institutes of Management, 16 central universities, 14 world class universities, five Indian Institutes of Science, 10 new National Institutes of Technologie, 20 Information Technology Institutes, and 1,000 polytechnics, he added." Admittedly, much of this newly educated workforce will be needed to support a projected population of 1.5 billion by 2020. At this rate, the proportion of the population engaged in high paying occupations will be way out of proportion compared to the US. Finally, Mr. Singh declared "This big and unique opportunity for India will come from an education revolution that we must undertake as our most important national endeavour.'" Now, we have heard just about every US president declare the same thing for the last 30 years. Billions were spent to rectify the problems found in the 1983 study "A Nation At Risk". The result? Education achievement has been flat to down. Even fewer students graduating with technical degrees. At the same time, the India has gone from a third world apology for an economy, to the second largest technical workforce by 2008, and in the next decade, is poised to be the largest.

How will we deal with this new reality? A country that is already committed to producing $20 computers and $2500 cars that get 50 mpg will be hard to ignore by anyone's standards, especially by the beaten down middle class teetering at the edge of poverty.

In the meantime, will we still continue to focus on winning more Olympic gold medals in 2012? Will parents push their kids harder on the parallel bars, or win more golds in swimming than Michael Phelps? Will the youth of the country focus all their energies on the next olympics? Or will we be mature enough to treat the situation for what it really is - an Olympic sized diversion.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wealth - Create or distribute? You make the call.

I wrote the following as a response to a mail thread from Wheresthemath group. The discussion started out on a commentary on the complacency that is apparent in the public education establishment.

"As a person who has spent over 25 years in high tech private sector, I can vouch with personal experience that there is a dire need for both the industry and education to inform each other. I got involved when a group of administrators toured the Intel facility in the late 1980s, and asked managers like me what they would like to see improved. I recall telling them “build teamwork skills”. I had no idea that they would throw everything else out in the process, or at least it seemed like it. It was not until I started volunteering in class rooms that I really started seeing the difference in mind sets. After watching this unfold over a decade, here is the pattern I see emerging.

If one looks at the economy as a whole, where goods and services are provided and consumed, one can broadly classify them as wealth producing and wealth redistribution. In this economy, most of the wealth producing activities like R&D, Engineering, Science, Technology, are in the private sector. The public sector has the lock on wealth redistribution, with programs like social security, medicare, etc. Public education seems to be in a no man’s land in between. Its charter should be enabling wealth creation, by providing skilled and knowledgeable labor pool to the private sector. Yet, because they are funded from the wealth redistribution side of the economy, that is all it seems to appreciate. Layers upon layers of educrats in the system and the colleges of education seem to reinforce the “mission” that instilling a sense of social justice in the students more important than providing them with world class skills to compete in an increasingly global economy.

I think the only way people will appreciate what is going on is for reality to continuously reinforce that they are on the wrong thought process. A prolonged recession, a depression, unemployed kids moving back in with their fixed income parents, all will go up with time. I just wonder how much worse it has to get before the tide turns."


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doing the Right Thing

Niki Hayes, a former Washington state elementary principal wrote recently about parents who defend the "conceptual math" that is all the rage in Washington and Oregon schools. They, like the education establishment, are clueless when it comes to why kids learn math at all. If they learn what they need to learn, they would find it easy to get into any college in any field, right? Wrong!! Millions of parents in California found the hard way that the UC system, still regarded as world class, does not care much for the conceptual math. The students simply did not have the skills to pass a rudimentary math placement test. But Washington parents, even some who are close to the school establishment, defend it. How can they realize that it is not what it seems to be? That their kids are headed for a life that they may not have envisioned?

Niki wrote - "Usually the only way to change a person's opinion, even passion, is for reality to hit them hard personally." Here is some equivalent political humor, this being an election year and all, - "A Conservative is a Liberal who has been mugged."

In our case, it did hit home early. But the fun part (if you can call it that) was to watch other parents go through their own "Ouch!" moments, when reality finally bit them in the butt.

The occasion was freshman orientation for my son at Oregon State U, year 2004. I went to the 2 day event to relive my own college days. Hundreds of freshmen came to attend the event, one of a dozen or so orientations scheduled throughout the summer. The first thing everyone was asked to do was to take a math placement test. The exceptions were those who had already passed the AP Calculus exam (my son had, so he did not have to take the test). Anyway, the next day, the chief freshman counselor had a big meeting in a large auditorium, and announced that about 60% of those who took the test had placed in the beginning Algebra class, and could expect their "4 year" college diploma to take anywhere from 5 and a half to 6 years. Many placed even below that. Only a few placed into Trig and Calculus. Some parents who sat in my vicinity were visibly shell shocked. They kept repeating that something must be wrong - their son/daughter was a star math student in their school, and got all A's and B's throughout high school. A large crowd gathered around the chief counselor to complain, who was probably jaded after years of such repeated scenes. He basically said "tough luck - welcome to college". Many decided to skip majors requiring higher math altogether, and decided to go into "softer" fields such as English or Psych.

Now, my younger son did some math on a couple of scenarios. Let us take the example of a student who is brave enough to go through the 5.5 to 6 years of college. The extra cost with in-state tuition, in the most optimistic scenario, is as follows:

Direct cost: 1.5 years x $20,000 (in-state tuition plus expenses) = $30,000
Opportunity cost: 1.5 years x $60,000 (what he could have earned if graduated earlier) = $90,000
Total Cost of not placing into Freshman Calculus: $120,000 (low side)

If we take the example of those who chose the softer fields, it gets even worse. Recent data show that those with non technical degrees earn on an average $30,000 less per year. Over their life times, this adds up to over a million dollars. Now, a million dollars would at least buy a few more gallons of gas to fill up those Suburbans, wouldn't they?

When I meet people who have not had these "ouch!" moments, I recall a Winston Churchill quip - "Americans always try to do the right thing - after they have tried everything else".

I think we have tried everything else. Now, it is time to do the right thing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Instant Versus Delayed Gratification

I just read a news item on Yahoo! worldwide news on the economic outlook in Britain. According to a British research report, "Over a third of the people would run out of money in less than a fortnight (2 weeks) if they were unable to work, according to a new research." Here is the link to the story:

Now, isn't it funny that we are also reading similar stories about families in the US? Can there be a common thread to this? Besides speaking the same language, can we also be sharing a common behavior pattern that leads us both to the same predicament?

Remarkably, at about the same time, another story appeared on Yahoo! Finance. It was titled "Instant Gratification Nation: Can We Still Sacrifice for the Future?" Here is the link for this story:

The latter story starts with a study conducted at Stanford University on young children. Here is the first part in quotes: "In the late 1960s and early 1970s, researchers at Stanford University conducted a now-famous experiment using young children enrolled at Stanford's preschool facility. Experimenters sat the students at a table set with assorted objects that children of that age would find desirable (marshmallows, colored plastic poker chips, stick pretzels, and the like). The students were asked which of the objects they preferred.

Once that was determined, each student was offered an explicit choice that tested his or her ability to defer gratification: Get a reward now or a bigger reward later. The experimenter left the room, leaving a bell on the table in front of the student. If the student rang the bell before the experimenter returned, he or she would get a reward, albeit a less preferred one (a single marshmallow instead of two). However, if the student resisted ringing the bell until the experimenter returned (typically after 15 or 20 minutes), he or she would get something even better -- two marshmallows.

The remarkable thing about the study is that a student's ability at age four to defer gratification is correlated with better outcomes much later in life, such as academic and social competence. For example, one follow-up paper found a statistically significant relationship between how long a student waited to ring the bell and -- more than a decade later -- their "ability to cope with frustration and stress in adolescence.""

I have not found a follow up study yet on whether the four year olds got their tendencies through their upbringing or genetics. But once they get it, it appears to stay with them through their lives. Now, it is important to note that these kids are of pre school age. So, schooling apparently did not have anything to do with the outcome.

Now, what could those in each population do that affects our collective behavior? Those who preferred instant gratification, as the study implies, take a path that leads them to shoot for easier goals, spend more, save less, and make more impulsive decisions. Those who defer gratification are likely to sacrifice short term pleasures to shoot for more long term, challenging goals. For example, they may decide to defer social life to take more challenging courses in school. They may decide to work to pay their way through college instead of borrowing. They may spend a little extra time in college to get that graduate degree. And they are more likely to inculcate the same habits in their children at a very young age. A majority of people with the delayed gratification mentality will mean a nation of smart savers, and judicious spenders. When time comes to making a decision, whether in their profession or their personal lives, they will first look towards the long term viability of that decision, rather than the all too often "quick buck" decision making we see in businesses and personal lives of many people.

Contrast this to some other developed countries like Japan. During the 1970s oil crisis, the US Congress passed tough mileage requirements. The story goes that the Japanese auto industry hired 1000 more engineers to implement the change, whereas the Detroit automakers hired 1000 lawyers to fight the change. Today, Ford announced its biggest quarterly loss in History. Both Ford and General Motors today are worth about $17 billion, whereas Toyota is worth $144 billion, more than 8 times the total of both Ford and GM. This is only one case where delayed gratification has paid off. There are countless other examples of such decisions. Japan is not the only country with such practices. Korea, China, India, Singapore, Taiwan and other eastern countries have long observed such practices. India is investing in doubling its technical workforce by a factor of two in the next decade, while a third of its population lives on below subsistence wages. In 2004, there were 200,000 engineering graduates. In 2009, there will be 450,000. In 2014, there will be close to a million. The US numbers for the same professions have been shrinking, and are currently around 60,000 per year. There are no published programs or plans to increase this number significantly, despite all the noise about increasing the focus on math and science in schools. The culture we have in this country treats technical professions with disdain. Unless the culture changes, the outcomes are not likely to change.

So, is this some ethnic/national trait? History would say no. Both Britons and Americans deferred gratification during the two World Wars and the Great Depression. One can argue that there was no choice. There is some merit to this argument, because when times got better, the old behaviors returned. But it also means that if the same Depression era circumstances were to return, the behavior will also return. However, it is a case of the medicine being worse than the disease.

That only leaves the collective wills of people to change voluntarily, before circumstances force the inevitable. I am not betting on it, because in a democracy, the evidence needs to precede the need to change. But when convincing evidence appears, it may take a generation or longer to turn this ship around.

It is going to be a long and bumpy ride....hold on tight!


Saturday, July 19, 2008

What Goes Around, Comes Around

Boy, isn't this a year full of ironies!

What triggered the above reaction is an innocent looking email from a job recruiter, to my newly graduated, college educated son with an MIS degree. In addition to the usual boilerplate, the email mentioned that the employer was a "large Indian corporation" and the chosen candidates were going to be sent to an "8 week intensive training camp in Bangalore, India, before they would be posted to their jobs in various US locations."

Come again?

Wasn't this supposed to be backwards? Like recruiters in Mumbai or Bangalore calling up fresh grads, and selling them a junket to Europe or the US before they got posted to their jobs in India? Whatever happened to the "World Class University System" that cranks out graduates with desirable degrees and enviable skills? Apparently, this company does not think a fresh US graduate from the most prestigious state university is good enough for their entry level job.

So, here I sit, having gone through several years of fighting the public K-12 system. I should have known that the pig will eventually make its way through the python some day. Just to be sure, I had my son go have a chat with a friend who is a software pro, just to see what kind of training he received as an MIS (management information systems) degree holder. His assessment was that the training was bare minimum needed in today's job environment, and he will need a lot of remedial training to make himself an attractive candidate in today's job market.

OK, now it started to make sense. A college diploma is just a necessary evil to get one's foot in the door, but not a guarantee to obtain even an entry level job. I guess the Indian companies have realized this and have their own internal training programs to make up for the deficiencies. I recalled that during the rise of the Japanese auto industry, they too had the same philosophy. All growth came organically (without acquisitions), and all new hires were hired as trainees. The best ones got the plum entry level assignments in the most prestigious divisions.

My opinion is that the Japanese and Indian companies take a longer term view of their business, building a solid technical foundation first, which then allowed them to build solid, high quality products. The US corporations are notoriously short sighted, relying on on-the-job training most of the time. Because the Wall Street ensures that the short sightedness remains as a permanent feature of the US corporation, their decisions come back to haunt them decades later. When Intel lays off 20,000 workers to go from 100,000+ employees to 80,000 employees, Wall Street cheers. At the same time, companies like Infosys in Bangalore quietly hire 10,000 more employees to go from 90,000 to over 100,000 this year. And they have plans to continue to grow organically, well into the future, while companies like Intel will be under pressure to reduce their workforce.

This is in stark contrast to what was happening just 30 years ago, when all the technology jobs were being created in the US, and a fresh graduate from an Indian university had to fly halfway around the world to find a good graduate school, and maybe employment.

So, I guess what goes around, comes around.



Saturday, July 5, 2008

Intellectual sports - why don't we hear about them in the press any more?

Hope you had a happy July 4th.

Here is another example of intellectual accomplishments not being part of the mainstream news in this country. The Philadelphia International Chess Tournament just concluded last weekend. This event gets more press internationally than within the US, since it is one of the most prestigious international chess events held in this country.

Here is a story that appeared on the OnLine edition of the Indian Express, but lost in obscurity in American press. The event was won by a 15 year old Indian chess player from New Delhi, the first time an Indian player has won the event. By comparison, Bobby Fischer had only won his first US title at this age, and had never won an international event. The world championship in chess was claimed by an Indian, Vishwanathan Anand, for the first time ever, last year. He is still the top rated player in the world, according to the World Chess Federation (called with its French acronym FIDE').

Link to the tournament results attached:

But the mainstream media has never picked up on chess as a sport on which to report.

Leave it to the Indian press to pick up what we do not do here.

FYI - I was so disillusioned with the lack of emphasis on intellectual activities in the state I lived in (Oregon), I helped start the non profit Oregon Scholastic Chess Federation ( ) , which sponsors chess clubs in schools, and to date has signed up more than 2000 competing members, and has held three state championships. My younger two have been chess players all their academic lives, and routinely participate in state and national tournaments. The Indian culture, which gave birth to the game of chess, still considers this the ultimate mental challenge. When I visit my hometown of Mangalore, I take my kids to the local chess club, where the top kids are rated internationally. My kids are usually humbled by competition that is several years younger.



Friday, July 4, 2008

My remarks on Ed Week Commentary on "Education Myths" by Iris Rotberg

These are my attempted remarks on an article "Myths That Continue to Confound Us" By Iris C. Rotberg , which appeared on Ed Week on line on June 9, 2008.

My overall assessment of this article is that it is attempting to play down the consistently poor scoring by our students in international tests, and pinning the blame on poverty. Nice try, but I was not swayed by the arguments given. Please read on.

First off, I want to mention some ground rules that I follow when I examine articles like this. I tend to overreact to anything that makes sweeping statements like "myth". It is usually an attempt by the author to summarily dismiss something, so that no further discussion is apparently warranted on that topic. I tend to go a little deeper, and more often than not, you find some hidden truths under the "myths". I also look at comments made by authors in areas that are apparently out of their comfort zones. Fortunately, this author has left most of those in the form of questions, with no answers given. Here are my comments, myth by myth, followed by my attempted answers to some of the questions.

1. Myth - "we can “fix” our schools without addressing the problems of poverty"

I believe this to be partially true. If nothing else changed in our system that delivers education to students, then the only variable that appears to help is resources from well off parents, trying to make up for the deficiencies in the system. What gets swept under the rug with this myth, in my opinion, is that if the system can change, then fixing the schools will take surprisingly little extra money. For example, what if a school district decided to cut their high school football programs to fund headstart? What if every high risk school switched to Saxon math from Everyday Math? What if the extra coaches and TOSAs were assigned to after school homework or help clubs so their parents can work a full day? What if the elementary teachers were allowed to specialize in math and reading? Apparently, all these solutions do not get brought up for discussion. Instead, the author seems to be asking the poor parents to get rich fast (which, as one can see, is a convenient "out of the system" problem that the system is not responsible for). A hard nosed taxpayer should demand that every solution be on the table. Having the discretion to be rich or poor in this economy is pretty much out of an average taxpayer's hands. But let me take a counterexample. The Dominican Republic is by many measures one of the poorest countries in the world. But they produce, per capita, the highest number of major league baseball players in the US. How did they achieve this without fixing the problem of poverty? That is a question that I would like to see answered.

2. Myth - "international test-score comparisons are valid measures of the quality of education"

I am baffled by this statement. At a minimum, the international test scores are the only thing we have to make a comparison. Why shoot the messenger? Again, I think it is symptomatic of a system that is self congratulatory on what it thinks is right, the results be damned. If, as most people in our education establishment would like to believe, we have the best education system in the world, should it matter who gets tested, or which socioeconomic group they come from?

3. Myth - " that international test-score comparisons are valid measures of a country’s ability to compete in the global economy. "

Now, here is something that is showing the author's naivete' on the subject. Quality of education, as measured by the test scores, is widely believed to be a NECESSARY condition, but not a SUFFICIENT condition to compete in the global economy. The two emerging economies, China and India, had excellent education systems for decades. They are only now starting to appear on the global radar. Why? Because it takes a free and competitive marketplace, and favorable conditions for risk taking (like intellectual property protection, bankruptcy protection, easy availability of venture capital etc.). Without these conditions, you would have what we used to call in India "rickshaw drivers who could recite Shakespeare". Well, guess what? Both China and India have gradually incorporated these favorable conditions in their economies over the last couple of decades. And because test scores tend to be some of the leading indicators of what is in store for an economy a few decades down the road, I think we have not even seen the full impact of what is in store for this country as a result of these changes.

The last part where the author starts asking questions - I pretty much agree with the questions. They are being asked by almost every person familiar with the issues. The questions are in quotes and italics, and my attempted answers below each question in normal font:

"I would like to pose a few questions, which I will leave to the reader to answer. Did the United States lose the leather, textile, and steel industries because of its ranking on test-score comparisons? Did General Motors lose sales to Toyota in the U.S. market because of American students’ math performance? And, at a more sophisticated level, are we losing out in high-tech innovation and information technology at Microsoft and Apple because the iPod is manufactured in China?
Even if some of our software and innovation come from other countries, is it because our education system has produced insufficient numbers of high-quality scientists, mathematicians, and engineers? Is there a shortage of U.S. scientists, as some firms have reported, or is there a shortage at the wages the firms would prefer to pay? Are companies outsourcing jobs to China and India because Americans are not qualified for them, or because the firms can pay much lower wages to workers in these countries? Did Italy outsource the production of designer shoes to China because there are no skilled craftsmen left in Italy?
Did the United States lose the leather, textile, and steel industries because of its ranking on test-score comparisons? "

The author has stated the questions in such a way that hey imply a cause-and-effect relationship between test scores and the continuing trend of de-industrialization of the US. Whereas if you look in my response to myth #3, it is likely to be only ONE of the causes. The typical US corporation makes decisions based on a lot of factors, the quality and productivity of labor being only one of them. Typically, however, the typical US public corporation tends to be swayed more by Wall Street than any other single entity. Since Wall Street does not have a very long horizon (typically less than a year) for its vision, the US firm tends to be short sighted as well. Bottom line decisions are made primarily to cut costs. Most of the de-industrialization was brought about due to cheaper labor outside the US. The fact that the labor was also of higher quality came as a bonus, historically speaking. The saving grace, we were told, was that we keep the high paying R&D jobs in this country, and export the low paying manufacturing jobs. But that implies we train enough PhDs in technical fields to keep those R&D jobs. But most technical PhDs are being granted to foreign nationals, who are forced to go back to their home countries due to visa restrictions. The US corporation follows the talent, so they are setting up R&D centers in places like Bangalore and Beijing. So, now, even the high paying R&D jobs are starting to be exported. R&D and the intellectual property it creates is the root of most if not all historic wealth in this country. The net effect is that the entire wealth creating machine is starting to be dismantled and moved off shore. I have no idea what will happen if you drain a country of the very fuel that got it this far.

"Is the underrepresentation of native-born U.S. students in some science, mathematics, and engineering Ph.D. programs the result of a failure of our education system, or of personal decisions made by students to select other fields—perhaps more-lucrative fields like investment banking, law, or business? "

I hope this is a rhetorical question. Because the answer is in the question itself. I do not know how to separate a person making a decision from the prior education he or she has had. If a person received inadequate preparation for scientific and technical fields from the school system, of course the decision will be made to go to the other fields. For example, if someone were told that Everyday Math/CMP/ IMP sequence prepares one to take calculus just as well as traditional math, Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry, and the student believed the system, he or she would be very unlikely to succeed in a technical profession. So, in this case, did the student decide to choose something other than a technical field, or did the system leave the student with no other choice? This scenario has been played out over and over again in many states over the last two decades. This is just unethical, to say the least. Also, the sweeping conclusion on the alternative professions as "more lucrative" is uncalled for. It sounds like a preconceived notion by the author, and I do not believe them to be more lucrative. Investment banking is a notoriously fickle industry, which hires and fires at will. Business is inherently risky. As far as law goes, well, I saw a statistic that said we have 50 lawyers for every PhD scientist in the US. So, by not opting to go into technical fields, the students are putting their future careers at a greater risk, albeit the rewards are higher for a small percentage of the players. If we take this mentality to an extreme, we will be buying lottery tickets to finance our futures.

"Now to my question: Given the complexity of that global context, do you believe that our problems in economic competitiveness would be solved, or even alleviated, if U.S. students answered a few more questions correctly on international assessments?"

The answer from me is a definite yes, and more. I firmly believe in getting what I pay for. The US education spending per student comes within the top 10 nations in the world. So, I expect that the international ranking should be consistently in the top 10 as well. More than that, I would like to see the US appear in the top 5 "bang for the buck" category (which may be measured by something like = test score/$ spent per student). Currently, both these categories are dominated by countries like Singapore, Finland, and S. Korea. Test scores are a leading indicator of what is in store for the economy in a decade to two decades. So, we can still be comfortable today while our students do poorly in these tests. But by the time our students become part of the workforce, it would be too late. What is different this time compared to what the author cites from history? Every time we felt some competition in the past, be it from Japan, Korea, Germany, Russia etc., it was from economies and populations either equal to or smaller than ours. But the workforce in just two of the emerging economies, namely China and India, is roughly 8 times that of the US. To complicate matters, the world has suddenly gone flat, according to Thomas Friedman, due to a sudden explosion in global connectivity. In this flat world, the forces arrayed in competition with our graduates have no precedent in history, so historical comparisons have lost most of their relevance, in my mind. I think our graduates will have a much harder time making a living compared to the current workers, and the only way it can be changed is for them to strive to be the most competitive in the world in a wealth building field. I firmly believe that the education system should reform itself before it is found irrelevant by this global economy, and a large percentage of its products (future graduates) are relegated to the ranks of a permanent underclass, with little relevant knowledge, and few marketable skills.
More on the social ills in a future discourse.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Stone Soup Math

I have been baffled by the recent avalanche of reform math materials making their way through public schools lately. I knew about the concept when my oldest son was in elementary school in California, and I went through California "Math Wars" until in ended in 1999, with a set of standards most scholars agreed were world class. I thought it was the same story in other states. Wrong, my dear Watson! Reform math resurfaced as Connected Math Project(CMP) in Oregon, and then again, in Washington, where I live.

My first introduction to CMP/CMP2 was about 2 years ago, when my daughter was taking it in the International School of Beaverton. I was already alerted to it by others in the Beaverton Math group, but nothing got me like dealing with it on a daily basis. After a few months, I was convinced that it was the modern equivalent of the Aesop's fable about the "stone soup". Let me explain:

* I would start with a chapter on CMP, which was supposed to be strong on explaining concepts, but irony of ironies - I could not find many good explanations of concepts that made sense to my "cursed" logical mind. So I decided to start with the base of Heymath! and had my daughter go through the many excellent animations of concepts. Voila! She would come out with a great intuitive grasp of the concepts. This was especially true for geometric concepts.

* I would look for examples of solved problems in CMP books, so that she can learn standard ways to solve them. Again, no go. So, I added a dash of examples from my old Glencoe California text books, that had worked out examples on the concepts. She had no trouble figuring out how to solve the problems after that. That took care of the examples issue.

* Then I noticed CMP was weak on skill building, since there were too few exercises that honed in a specific concept. So we added a healthy serving of Kumon exercises, and that took care of her skill building.

Pretty soon, we were sold on the concept of discovery based learning. We "discovered" that we could build an excellent math program with right proportions of Heymath, Glencoe, and Kumon, and did not need the CMP2 books at all. So we threw it out of the "stone soup".

We still keep our "recipe" handy for home schooling :-)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Of Social and Economic justice

Social justice keeps coming up as a topic whenever I hear about ed schools. My son's middle school English teacher kept bringing it up as a topic whenever I talked to her. At that time, I was quite naive to what was behind her assertions. Since then, I have read up enough to understand what the ideological underpinnings are. As I understand them, they go all the way back to the early 1900's. A lot has happened since then, and I think those ideas may be as outdated as buggywhips. Let me attempt to explain why I think so:

Social justice cannot exist in a vacuum. For lasting social justice, economic justice must come first. When I was a kid growing up in India, the prime minister, Nehru, was impressed by the quick rise of the Soviet Union, and decided that India should be socialist too. But with a majority of the population under poverty line, there wasn't much that could be done with meagre resources. The running joke at that time was that India could not afford a socialistic system, because the only thing we had plenty enough to share, was poverty. But the government went ahead anyway. Three decades later, rampant corruption and incompetence accelerated the "redistribution of poverty", had only succeeded in making more people poor while the rich got richer. It wasn't until 1991 that government owned enterprises were sold, and free market reforms allowed competition in all areas (including education).

Now the question comes - how does one achieve economic justice? What is economic justice, anyway? Very simply put, economic justice links income to productivity. In other words, if someone works more efficiently, they should earn more. In the US, since the 1970's, this has been going in reverse. All the improvements in technology have made the American worker more productive than ever, but the compensation has gone down in real terms. Why is that? One big component has been the relatively stagnant number of people working in wealth creating professions like engineering, science and mathematics. The only new job creating branch of mathematics to come out in the last century, computer programming, has employed millions in high paying jobs worldwide, but still is viewed as a profession of social outcasts in this country. So, I will assert that there can be no social justice, while the culture actively banishes the professions that create economic justice. If you take this to an extreme, you will see why Prof. Yunus, an Economics Professor from Bangladesh, received his Nobel Peace Prize (and not the Nobel prize for Economics). Yunus, it turns out, created the concept of microfinance. He created a bank that would loan as little as $10 to women who worked at home weaving rugs and baskets. Who in turn would sell their wares at the local market, and pay back the loan. There was no collateral required, just trust. The concept became so wildly successful that other countries in Asia nad Africa are implementing it. In their recognition letter to Dr. Yunus, the Nobel Committee noted :"Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty." In other words, social injustice (leading to conflicts around the globe) cannot be rooted out without removing economic injustice i.e., eradication of poverty.

Monday, June 9, 2008

I received an email from a friend about a kid in Canada, who is writing a play about a company trying to capture all the kid's calculating ability in their calculators, and then sell it back to them for profit. My reaction to that was, "Hey, where have you been? It has been happening in the US for the last two decades, under the name of reform math curricula." A calculator could pretty much automate anything anyone could do mentally since the 1970s, and it did not take very long for them to be sold as a substitute for human's ability to figure, rather than an aid or a tool.

But we have come a long way since then.

Consider this:

When I joined Intel in 1982:
They had just announced the IBM PC with 4.77MHz processor with less than 30,000 transistors
The typical DRAM memory chip density was 64 kbit
No hard disk, but 256 kB floppy drives
Large enough to fit on an average sized desk

When I left Intel in 2006:
A high end laptop had 2 cores running at 2.2 GHz - Almost 1000x (100,000%) of the throughput
The DRAM memory chip was 1Gbit, which is 13,000x (1,300,000%) in density
Typical hard disk size was 100 GB, which is 4,000x (400,000%) in size
All this in a size and weight that was low enough to fit in a backpack.

Never in the history of humankind has there been such an exponential increase in any capability in such a short time. All this started in a small area called the Silicon Valley right here in the US of A.

Now comes the shocker. The ability to take economic advantage of this explosion in the number of transistors has fled this country. What discipline takes advantage of such an exponential rise in the number of transistors? It is the newest branch of mathematics - computer programming. The graduates of computer science make $60,000 right out of school, and easily double their income within a decade. And if we look around and ask if we are preparing enough kids to be excited about these high paying careers in computer programming, the answer comes back negative. The number of computer science graduates has remained flat at around 60,000 per year, or gone down slightly in the last two decades. India now produces 10 times the number of programmers per year, and the number is expected to double in the next decade. Just one institute in India, the NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology) trains 500,000 programmers per year. I am happy that this is helping a lot of Indian people escape poverty, but this is way lopsided in one direction. We could have done better training our kids to take the high paying jobs. But with the jock culture that is pervasive, I get the feeling we are just training our kids to be used car salespeople (like we need more of them).

Next time you go to your friendly neighborhood public school, ask them what computer science courses they offer. If you get blank stares, don't be surprised. I already warned you.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Of soccer, baseball, and chess parents

My family moved to Oregon in the year 2002. My wife and I had 3 kids in tow, one in high school, and two in elementary school. Education and extra curricular activities, of course, were high on our list. We had done our homework, calling the school districts, having phone meetings, from California, the whole works. We even made the decision to buy our home based on the schools, as most parents do. Besides academics, our kids were active in soccer and chess, so we found a school with a chess club close by. The club had many parents who were very involved. As a matter of fact, all chess lessons were taught by parents in the evening. Many parents attended the classes along with their kids, so they could learn. I had not paid much attention to the demographics of the club, but it appeared to me that more and more members were coming from immigrant families. As time went by, one thing led to another, and I led the start up of a new statewide organization in Oregon to promote chess competitions, called the Oregon Scholastic Chess Federation. And again, in our first two state championships, I saw more and more immigrant families bringing their children to the state championships.

In parallel, my wife and I did our duty as soccer parents also. My wife and I signed up as volunteer coaches, and did our duty as soccer parents. Again, there were a disproportionate number of immigrant's kids in our soccer teams, albeit not as lopsided in chess. Then my son, then a fifth grader, expressed an interest in joining a baseball team. I had no clue about baseball, but I had played enough cricket in my life to understand his interest. We signed him up for a team. I had not paid attention earlier in the season, but as time went on, I saw hardly any immigrant's children on the team.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was at the Portland Chess Club, where my kids were playing in their monthly tournament. I bumped into a professor from U of O, who had driven his son all the way from Eugene to play. He and I were killing time, talking about our common experiences. It turns out he was an immigrant from Scandinavia. He brought up the observation that in all the chess events he has been to in Oregon, he sees more and more kids of immigrants. To a lesser extent, in Soccer. In Europe, of course, he was just used to seeing Europeans in both events. He wondered, where all the native born kids were. Surely, there are enough of them in the same economic brackets and similar leisure times. What do they do on the weekends?

His last remark took me back to my son's baseball years, where most kids came from middle to upper middle class families. The coach called his son "A-Rod", and drilled the team like an army drill master. He yelled and screamed at kids who did not perform up to his expectations, but I did not see any parents complain. When I thought he was being a little over the top, I would quietly bring it up with other parents, and they would say something like "oh, the kids need to know it is rough out there. He means well. Besides, it builds character." I thought, all this to make sure someone knows how to handle a fastball? Wouldn't it make more sense for his kid to take up an activity, like chess, that has been proven to build intelligence? After all, it has some immediate benefits like helping them do well in school. In many conversations I would strike with the parents about chess, they would either change the subject, or dismiss it summarily. I felt as though academic and intellectual achievement was either not valued, or was just plain taken for granted.

Back to the present, the professor and I parted with a shared understanding that there are some deep cultural divides that separate first generation immigrants from the rest of the population. When I came home, I saw the day's newspaper. I saw that the top two National Spelling Bee contestants were children of Indian immigrants. I said to myself - yes, the cultural divide is alive and well.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Gift from our Fathers

This is a reprint from a message I sent out to Where'sthemath group. There is a lot being said about the rise of China and India as emerging economic superpowers, but most articles I read appear to me as the modern equivalents of "Five Blind Men and an Elephant" story. I think I can relate to at least the US and Indian cultures, having spent roughly half of my life in each. Here are my observations about the cultural differences.
I recently got a copy of the video "Two Million Minutes" and watched it. I have eight nieces and nephews who go to school in India, and I can get a real time comparison of what they do in school as well. It is funny how often when I call my relatives in India, the "hot news" is what the latest report card is of each one of them. Then they quickly switch to how hard their kids are studying to get into the best colleges. They are not well off, and are strictly middle class. All save one are studying to be engineers. The one who is not is in Accounting and Finance. All require top notch math skills.

Having observed two of the three cultures discussed in this video most of my life, I have arrived at some theories as to why this is the case. Both China and India started with a clean slate almost at the same time. Mao Zedong's communist party came to power in the mid 1940's, about the same time as India became independent. As if by coincidence, about the same time, the US became the sole industrial power left standing after 6 years of WWII. This country received its greatest gift almost by a process of elimination.

Then a funny thing happened. Those who were completely wiped out, namely Germany and Japan, overcame hurdles never before considered conquerable to build the most efficient economies of the world. Several others such as Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, followed suit. The underlying culture was of saving and sacrifice. Families lived on a pittance just so they could make goods that would sell in the rich countries. They saved for everything. Nothing was bought on credit. Even homes. Foreign currency was jealously shielded from consumption oriented goods, and was only used to purchase capital goods. See a pattern here? The same underlying culture prevailed in China and India, but two key elements were lacking - capital creation, and open markets. Finally, when the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union collapsed, the two large economies capitulated and allowed open markets, and the ascent of the Chinese and Indian economies began. The key elements of savings (which leads to internal capital formation) and sacrifice (which allows the next generation to be better than the current one), are both paying off handsomely.

Did the US get to where it is without these values? Look hard enough, and you will find them buried in the economic history of this country. During the great depression, there was so much disenchantment with everything borrowed, that the savings rate soared. The values of thrift, which were forgotten during the roarin' 20's, again came into fashion. However, the real test came when WWII broke out when people were asked to sacrifice a lot more. This time it included human lives. Both men and women joined to build the largest industrial capacity of any nation in the world. I think this great act of sacrifice by this country's elders was a gift that kept on giving. The post war generations have lived better than their forefathers, and the rest of the world, but this gift is now close to being exhausted. If I were to draw an analogy, the depression and the war were like stocking of a pond with so much fish that future generations had to just reel them in. But when the fish are dangerously close to being exhausted, there is hardly anyone left with the perspective and skills needed to restock the pond. It is as if people are wishing it was a bad dream and it would just go away if you waited long enough.

Now my question is (and for which I have not found an answer), how in the heck would this country get notions of savings and sacrifice into peoples psyches again? Will we need another depression? Another global conflict? Or are we collectively smart and wise enough to change without such drastic events? I think there are enough people who can see what is going on, and a need for this change in psyche. When JFK sad "ask not...." he was tapping into this notion. Maybe that is why Obama is so popular, because his message is about "bringing out the best one can give", rather than the current prevailing sentiment of "taking the most one can take".